Lockdown day 9: ennui, rats and the Old Masters

Canberra daughter posted a few days ago: “Garden Australia just legit suggested encouraging carpet pythons to live in your garden as a means of controlling rats.” We are New Zealanders. We don’t do snakes. At all. Ever. I looked up carpet pythons and all I can say is that you maybe don’t want to encourage them if you have a domestic cat or small dog.

The visiting kitchen rat finally succumbed to the temptation of peanut butter on Mark’s homemade bread

Mark quite liked the idea of a biological control for rats. At this time of the year, he is doing daily trapping rounds to try and reduce the population. In a household where we try and relocate house spiders outdoors rather than sucking them up the vacuum cleaner, we don’t get sentimental about rats. That said, even vermin deserve to be despatched quickly, efficiently and without undue suffering. Mark uses cage traps from preference. He carries the trap out to an open space and opens the door for a waiting Dudley. Despite being a town-bred dog, Duds is a whizz at instant rat killing and the victim rarely hits the ground before it is dead. Man and dog  then leave the carcase out in the open for the resident hawk who has taken to doing daily rounds looking for such carrion. This is another reason to prefer cages and a quick death over slow-acting poison.

The inspiration, back when Tecomanthe venusta was in bloom

I have an entire photo file devoted to rats and rat catching, both alive and dead. I find this slightly bizarre but it indicates the role rat incursions play in our life here on the land. It was the poignant mummified rat in a blackbird’s nest that sent me down a different track. We pick up spent nests when we find them, mostly to admire the craft. I assume this rat had climbed into an empty nest and died there because it is such a snug fit. And there was something haunting about it. One day, I thought, I may try and stage a scene inspired by the Dutch and Flemish old masters and their sombre still lives.

That day came a little sooner rather than later when a combination of self-isolation and forced inactivity coincided (the inactivity related to my dodgy back deciding to make its presence felt). The backdrop is just the mantlepiece in our dining room but I expect you at least to admire the detail of the mouldy oranges. Designed to channel the spirit of the old masters. I very rarely use filters on photos but I admit I indulged in a few here. In the spirit of the topic, you understand.

When I had done with the dining room setting, I walked into our drawing room and thought well, the stage is already set for Rattus in the art deco revival fireplace that we never use on account of the chimney not drawing the air very well. No additional staging required here.

Ned Kelly Rattus

The bleak humour of the Ned Kelly rat may elude some of you. But if you find it quirky and you have not yet met Henri, le Chat Noir, may I point you in his direction? It has very little to do with rats – just a brief walk-on appearance by one – but instead the struggle of the tuxedo cat to cope with existential issues and extreme ennui. Ned Kelly Rattus, by the way, was found like that. Mummified in a stack of plastic nursery pots where he became trapped despite his best efforts. There is a metaphor there somewhere but I do not think it would be uplifting at this time.

From earlier times – Spike the dog in his younger days, wearing his Julian Clary coat, attempting to climb the shed walls after an escaped rat

Another little carcase from another time

 

Lock down day 7 – about personal space

The face of privilege today – a personal space of about 10 hectares or 25 acres

Never have I felt more blessed to be living in a big personal space. As Mark and I live this new life where we are keeping to our own little bubble* of two, there is no shortage of things to do. We breakfast together and then disappear into our own spaces, coming together for coffee at 10am – a pattern that we repeat all day.

Personal space in Hong Kong is extremely small but at least these apartment dwellers get to look out over some greenery

I feel embarrassed by our privileged position. It was perhaps relief I felt when I read English designer and gardener Dan Pearson’s latest blog  and he was working through exactly the same issues and thoughts that we are here, albeit from 20 000 km away.

New Zealand has been built on the idea that land is not in short supply, although that has changed in our largest urban areas now. With a land mass which is a similar size to the United Kingdom and a population still under five million, the norm until recently was to build suburbs with detached houses sitting on their own quarter acre (1000 square metres). Not without reason were we known as the quarter acre pavlova paradise (the pavlova – or meringue cake – having been first created here, not Australia). It is only recently that urban sections have reduced in size but there is still little appetite for semi detached housing, let alone terrace housing or even apartments.

Never has there been a more stark illustration of the need to retain public, green spaces in cities. Maybe not subsidised, private golf courses but every public space possible.

Big, country gardens used to be common. Back in the early days of our garden festival, we were just one of many. I dug out my old programmes to see what the ratio was of large to small gardens. My definition of a large garden is anything larger than an acre (0.4ha) but, reader, my dedication to accuracy soon waned. Best guess, without accurate analysis, is that it was probably 40% large gardens back in the early 1980s. Most have gone. We are great one generation gardeners in NZ.

We remain a historical relic here at Tikorangi – a legacy from different times when large, country gardens were not the preserve of the wealthy. But when I think of people locked down in tiny apartments, I feel a little as though my privilege is an affront.

Many cultures usually enjoy a lifestyle where individual space may be small but much of life is led in the community of the streets – the passieggata in Cefalu, Sicily

I looked through some of my overseas photos to find examples of high density living and all I found were a few images that perhaps convey the difference of lifestyles where people spend much of their time living in the streets, which is all very charming and exotic to us when we travel. Not so great in lock down situations.

Foshan in China – not as grim as the Paris ghettos but it would hardly lift the spirits to be confined indoors in this situation

Seared into both Mark’s and my memories are the grim, ghetto-like apartment blocks that border the railway lines where the trains leave Gare du Nord in Paris. At the time, they struck us as the epitome of misery. Anyone who has travelled on the Eurostar will have seen them. So too, some of the old tower blocks in London. I can’t even imagine what lock down in India must be like.

From our bubble to your bubble, may you be in better personal situations than those. Humour, kindness, forbearance and vicarious pleasures are what may get us through this bizarre new world we all share at a distance.

Dense living on water in Hue, Vietnam. Not a recent photo but it is interesting to see how people develop different styles of life in more populous areas

*** About ‘bubbles’ for overseas readers: this is the approved NZ government term to describe the closed group of people living together in lock down. Some are in a bubble of just one. I had to adjust my old brain to accommodate the virtual ‘date’ to meet a real friend in his solitary bubble for a pre-dinner drink yesterday, where we chatted for an hour by Messenger video link while drinking gin. Usually I meet him in town for lunch. I laughed when I saw someone on Twitter asking if it was permissible to expel somebody from your bubble.  Mind you, our bubble includes our two dogs but I was wondering about expelling Dudley from the bubble when he was inflicting the most appalling farts on us all the other day. He had clearly not been staying close to home and found something revolting to eat. He doesn’t understand bubbles.

Dudley, dicing with possible expulsion from our bubble

Lock down day 5 and the first camellia blooms of the season

Left to right: Camellias brevistyla white and pink, puniceiflora and microphylla

Autumn has arrived. The wind has a chill element that was absent just a few weeks ago and I have packed away the summeriest of my summer clothing. Well, bathing suits, sarong and sleeveless tops so far. The very earliest camellias are opening their first flowers.

It is not the sasanquas that bloom first. It is obscure species that we rushed to buy when NZ’s camellia specialist, Neville Haydon, announced his retirement. These are hardly spectacular but they have a simple charm on a small and detailed scale. I had to pick them because my camera skills are not up to doing them justice on the bush.

Camellia brevistyla

Starting with Camellia brevistyla, we have used this extensively for hedging in the caterpillar garden. Its flowering season is the shortest of all but it can be clipped to a tidy hedge around 60cm high and it becomes a mass of pretty white blossom for not much longer than about 10 days.

The one rogue pink brevistyla

Mark raised all the hedging brevistyla plants from seed and one – just the one – is flowering pink. I wondered if I should be replacing it in the quest for perfect uniformity in the hedges but no. The odd imperfection is delightful in its own way and it is only for a brief period that it is visibly different to all its seedling siblings.

Camellia puniceiflora

Next may be the tiniest of all we grow– little Camellia puniceiflora. Fully open, it measures about 2cm across and the blooms resemble tiny daisies on the bush. Though when I think of it, Camellia trichoclada is so small that even though it is planted in a prominent spot that we walk past many times a day, even we can fail to register it in bloom. it is not a camellia you grow for is floral display.

Camellia microphylla with ripe seed pods from last season

Finally, we have Camellia microphylla with its seed. The flower does not look so very different to brevistyla. Maybe ever so slightly larger and a botanical analysis with a magnifying glass will pick other differences. Because we grow them both, I can observe that the bush C. microphylla grows taller and the flowering season is longer – maybe 20 days in full flight instead of just 10. I think its foliage is a better forest green but that may just be because it is growing in shadier conditions.

These species won’t be widely available for sale in NZ but can be raised from seed with relative ease. The botanic gardens around the country usually establish collection so find the person in charge of camellias if you want to try and find seed to grow. We also get seedlings germinating beneath them all, rather too many of little brevistyla.

Our entranceway, after the camellias had been given their October prune. Camellia sasanqua Elfin Rose behind the palm, C. puniceiflora clipped as a three tier cake stand, C. trichoclada is the low flat plinth at the front, C. gauchowensis as the column. All shapes have evolved from accentuating the natural form of each plant.

I have been trying to discipline myself to get back into daily writing but my scattered brain has me also trying to sort through and file the last six months of photographs. So it was I found these photos of camellias straight after clipping. The date on the photos is November 1 so obviously Lloyd was doing the clipping round in October. We only clip once a year. The timing isn’t critical – any time after flowering and after the plants have made their first flush of new growth – but if you leave it any later, you will be cutting off next season’s flower buds.

The same scene five months after clipping

I took the second photo of the same scene yesterday to show it after five months. There is a slight blurring of the sharp edges now but overall, they have remained fairly crisp. That is why we can get away with a once a year clip. They won’t make more growth until after flowering.

I have written often about the scourge of camellia petal blight and the devastating effect on the japonicas. We have a fair number of big old japonicas dating back to Mark’s father’s days of collecting and breeding them, along with a collection of reticulatas. These days they are very messy in flowering season as the blighted buds and blooms drop prematurely and lie around looking ugly and brown. We need to do a major review plant by plant right around the garden but, even blighted and with a messy season, many of them serve a function as a green backdrop and as shelter in our windy climate. These bigger leaved varieties do not clip in the same way as the smaller foliaged species, hybrids and sasanquas.

We don’t want to clip all our camellias. Heavens above, we have quite enough to do here without making more work for ourselves. But clipping key plants gives an interesting punctuation point in the garden. They do look very sharp immediately after their annual haircut and the older the plant, the more characterful it can be made to look.

Camellia sasanqua Mine No Yuki

 

 

 

Day 3 of lock down and a minor mystery is solved

As we adjust to lock down and our personal worlds become so much smaller, I did at least solve a small mystery yesterday. I saw a lovely combination of vibrant pinks when we visited Cloudehill Gardens in the Dandenongs outside Melbourne last year. I can repeat that in my new perennial meadow, I thought.

Nerine bowdenii flowering in late May here 

My perennial meadow planting with hidden N. bowdenii

In my mind, I had it as a combination of the deep pink Japanese anemone and Nerine bowdenii. As the anemone came into flower, I found myself wondering where the nerine was before realising that of course it flowers much later here. I considered the possibility that Cloudehill had a selection that flowered much earlier in the season and kicked myself for not checking the flowering times here – easily done in these days of digital photo files that give dates. There seemed to be a story in there about not assuming that combinations seen in different climates will also work at home. I found my photos.

Belladonnas at Cloudehill! Of course. Not N. bowdenii. But then the Japanese anemone actually comes from China. The world is looking more confusing by the day.

Eagle-eyed readers will have already spotted my mistake. It was my memory. Not Nerine bowdenii at all. Those are belladonnas. That explains it. I am not sure that I want to bring big, thuggish belladonnas into the garden. We have them in abundance on the roadside and on our margins but they aren’t the best garden candidates. In fact we already have both on our roadside and all I need to do is shuffle some of the right pink tones closer to the anemone there.

I just need to relocate some pink belladonnas in the right tones on our roadside and I will have that combination.

As Mark and I had a leisured start to our morning on day two of lock down, he quipped that half the houses around the nation were currently undergoing paint jobs. Lloyd, our garden staffer, had gone in to a Mitre10 Mega on Tuesday and reported that everybody else was in there buying paint and they had sold out entirely of his preferred brand.

We are in the garden so there is no major change for us, except the absence of Lloyd during the week. I have found, however, that my focus and concentration are scattered all over the place. I am telling myself that there is plenty of time – a whole month at least – and it is fine to allow myself a few days to mentally settle into the peculiar new reality we are all facing. Friends have noted the same phenomenon. It doesn’t matter if major tasks get left for a little while.

Fiddly faddling on the Magnolia laevifolia. But where is Lloyd when I need him? He is always most obliging about dealing to my piles of prunings.

This is why I spent yesterday entirely distracted by a very small garden with an untidy Magnolia laevifolia draping itself over the garage roof, leading to a build-up of leaf litter composting on the corrugated iron roof. It is a smaller, defined project that I can complete before my scattered brain gets distracted elsewhere. Fiddly-faddling, I call it. Mark describes it as montying – a reference anybody who watches BBC Gardeners’ World will understand. May you all fiddly-faddle or monty in tranquil safety wherever you are.

Belladonnas we have a-plenty in a variety of hues but their flowering season is brief and their season is full, smothering leaf is very long

 

Day one of lock down

This is just to say

I have eaten
the 48 cans of baked beans
that were in
the pantry

and also 72 packets of after dinner mints
you were probably
saving
for the

pandemic

forgive me
it’s my first day
working from home

so many hours
and no one
here

                                                                            David Slack (reprinted here with his kind permission).

What a lot can change in a week. This came through Twitter just last Thursday as many people were still at the stage of setting up working from home. Now, a week later, we are in full lock down as a country, probably for a full month at minimum. We are, as our Prime Minister says, going early and going hard with Covid19. With very few cases of community transmission (passing the virus on to non-family members), locking down is the only way to attempt containment. Existing cases should become obvious in the next two weeks and while we can’t expect to remain Covid-free longer term, careful management may mean our health services can cope.

Sometimes there are advantages to being a country of isolated islands that can cut off physical contact with the rest of the world. Our borders are closed and almost all passenger flights have ceased.

Ugni molinae, Myrtus ugni or the NZ cranberry

The cranberries are fruiting. Well, what we know as the cranberry in NZ which is actually Ugni molinae and nothing whatever to do with proper cranberries. Feijoa season has started up north and the grape season is underway. By the end of a month, the cranberries will be a distant memory, we will have eaten all the grapes and the feijoa season will be past its peak. Only then will we know the extent to which this drastic action of lock down has worked.

In the current situation, it is is already clear that it will bring out the best in most people and the worst in a few. Best to be one of the majority in this situation. Stay safe. Be kind. Stay home. At least we are still allowed outside to garden.

Despite an extensive photo library, I lacked any photos of cans of beans or packets of After Dinner Mints. So please, have a random, delicate fungi instead.

 

The weeks that come may very well be worse than the week that was but there are always flowers

Our mounga is unchanged

I doubt that anybody really thought through how much our world could turn upside down in such a short space of time. It is different in every country. In New Zealand, at this stage it is an exercise in how long we can stave off widespread community transmission, how we can get travelling NZ residents home when air flights around the world are ceasing with little or no warning (up to 110 000 NZ travellers stranded around the world is the latest estimate I have seen) and how we can best protect the Pacific Island nations to whom we have a duty of care and who are extremely vulnerable to an outbreak.

Other countries are facing different challenges and the impact is more extreme at this stage. The message from our Prime Minister is clear – be kind, be considerate, be caring, be careful.

I am pleased to report that there is no shortage of toilet paper at the Waitara supermarket. The shelves were full on Friday with plenty out the back. Amusingly, most of it is manufactured in NZ so there are no supply chain issues.

The world as we know it has changed, if not overnight, then certainly in the last fortnight. Nobody has a crystal ball so there is no way of predicting what will happen into the future. All we can do is make our personal worlds smaller, to be the best person we can at an individual level and, for many of us, to take refuge in black humour.

Just a butterfly on a dahlia

But there is always the garden and the cycle of the seasons. There is a correlation between greater interest in gardening and hard times. At the moment it is panic buying vegetable seedlings but as most people adjust to a more confined life at home, their horizons are likely to expand beyond survival vegetables to the pleasures of ornamental plants and gardens as well. Food for the body and food for the soul.

If you are alarmed at not being able to buy vegetable seedlings at this time, here is a guide to raising plants from seed that I published earlier. Online seed catalogues will tell you what you can sow at this time of the year.

We drive a Corona!

We are feeling blessed to live in a situation where we have huge personal space, where maintaining physical distancing is no problem at all and where we can largely control our personal level of exposure to risk. But our children living in Australia have never felt so far away. We are resigned to the realisation that our trip to look at wildflowers in the Pindos Mountains of Greece and then looking at summer gardens in the UK will not happen and we can’t even console ourselves with a family meet-up in Australia. These limitations seem but minor disappointments in this new situation.

All I can offer readers are pretty flowers, a reminder that whatever else is going wrong in the lives of us all, the seasons will continue to change.

Amaranthus caudatus

The amaranthus has been a surprise volunteer in a garden I replanted earlier this year. It came in with the compost I spread and is perhaps a good example of what happens when I am not careful enough on what goes onto the compost heap. At this stage it makes me smile as I pass that garden bed but I will need to consider whether I want it established as an annual in that area.

Rhodophiala bifida

I posted this photo of rhodophiala to Facebook earlier this week – a lesser known bulb that is a fleeting seasonal delight. Whether you are willing to give garden space to a plant that is a 10 day wonder is entirely up to you but we like the variety and depth such plants give to our garden. The pink form does not appear to be as vigorous but is also very pretty.

Rhodophiala bifida pink

Colchicum autumnale

To be honest, the flowering season on the autumn flowering colchicum is also pretty brief but undeniably delightful. Their foliage comes quite a bit later and stays fresh all winter but does take rather a long time to die off – untidily – in spring.

Haemanthus coccineus

Haemanthus coccineus is even briefer in bloom – days not weeks – but justifies its place because of its rather remarkable foliage. The pair of huge leaves on each bulb resemble big, fleshy elephant ears. But in green, not grey.

Cyclamen hederifolium

The autumn cyclamen are a different kettle of fish altogether. They really are a well behaved plant, flowering for months from mid to late summer through til late autumn and then putting out charming, marbled foliage. They seed down gently without becoming a menace and just get better as the years go by.

The rockery has two peaks, in early to mid spring and again in autumn. We are just entering the autumn phase when the nerines (the first ones out are the red blobs in the upper right), cyclamen, colchicums and many other autumn bulbs bloom.

Interlopers on our driveway! The neighbours’ free range turkeys. Should the food supply chains fail in the face of Covid19, we will not starve here.

Batten down the hatches, one and all, and may you stay as safe as possible in these times.

Theatre set design in the garden

Not Duquette’s garden. Just a photo from a NZ garden I have in my files.

Mark and I were sitting watching Monty Don’s series on American gardens when he came to the garden of the late Tony Duquette. Think Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s, a flamboyant set decorator, costumier and interior designer with extreme, international magpie tendencies who crammed much of what he collected into his own, quirky garden. Google him if you want to know more. Monty Don referred to some of it as being cobbled together with ‘cardboard and string’.

Not The Laskett, either. Just another example from a NZ garden

It started me thinking about those who approach their gardens as a theatre set. We have never been to The Laskett, the much-acclaimed UK garden of Sir Roy Strong and his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman. It too, comes out of the land of theatre design, I understand. It is not a garden style that we feel an affinity with so we tend to seek out other gardens when we travel.

A much loved local garden that belongs to Sue

But it is a style that some people enjoy. At its best, it may be described as quirky, eclectic, imaginative, flamboyant. At its worst, tacky, veneer gardening. I shall try not to be judgemental. It is just that at times, I wonder how very different set design in acclaimed gardens is from the folk art that abounds in some of the more loved gardens in my local town. They seem to me to be on the same continuum, at times distinguished as much by social prestige, acreage and financial resources as by flair. Some people just really like heavily decorated gardens.

The D.I.Y trompe l’oeil, constructed from trellis timber

I think what worries me at times is when this theatrical approach to garden design and ornamentation brings rather too much of the two-dimensional, temporary nature of the theatre into the garden. I prefer gardens where features are well made, substantial and underpinned by quality. The 10cm deep pond lined in plastic is never going to delight me like a well thought-out pond, constructed from permanent materials where consideration is given to its longevity and sustainability. More substance, less illusion. Preferably not constructed out of tanalised plywood, either, and three dimensional as befits its outdoor setting.

Not for the faint-hearted, the Dawson garden 

The orchid theatre, based on the auricula theatre and it certainly was… theatrical

That said, the one theatrical garden that did surprise me and make me laugh out loud is in Auckland. Or it may be ‘was’, in the past tense now. When I last saw it, it was on the market and it was such a very personal garden that it is hard to imagine new owners coming in and leaving it in the same state. The first time I saw it, it was a private visit with its creator, Grahame Dawson. The second time I visited as part of a busy garden festival. The place was jam-packed with visitors and the two owners were leaping around, hosting with the most. It was indeed like watching energetic producers directing a cast of many in a theatre scene.

The theatre curtain in tillandsia 

There was such a crush on the second visit that this was the only photo I took

What set the Dawson into a different class for me was the underpinning quality. Yes it was quirky and individualistic. But it was executed with attention to detail. It was solid and three dimensional, a garden designed to be lived in and enjoyed by the owners and their friends, not done for show. To me that matters but others may be perfectly comfortable with the ephemeral nature of theatre set design in a garden.

Sometimes, theatrical touches can fall short. NOT from the Dawson garden.