Hellebore update

I meant to do a round-up across the different hellebore types we grow here this year but I left my run too late. There is more to hellebores than just the most common H. orientalis types and some of the other species and inter-species crosses are also interesting and fill a different niche in the garden. But I had to make do with mostly H. orientalis and a few hybrids for today’s picking.

Late season flowers, so not an accurate guide to the flower size and colour. Left to right: Anna’s Red, Penny’s Pink, Molly’s White, Ruby Daydream and Sophie’s Delight

We are very impressed by the garden performance of the hybrids from UK breeder, Rodney Davey and sold as his ‘Marbled Group’. So impressed have we been by ‘Anna’s Red’, ‘Penny’s Pink’ and ‘Molly’s White’, that we added ‘Ruby Daydream’ and ‘Sophie’s Delight’ this year. There are more in that range but whether they have come into New Zealand yet, I don’t know. All are characterised by excellent marbled foliage which is most appealing and outward facing flowers that sit above the foliage. The first three named above also appear to be sterile, which is a good thing as far as hellebores go. Many hellebores can be promiscuous seeders. The Davey group are a big improvement on many of the orientalis types. His hellebores are hybrids so have mixed species parentage but I haven’t seen the details of what he has used made public anywhere and we would never criticise him for keeping that information to himself. There are way too many people out there just waiting to copy, as we know to our own cost, and he has put many years of work into getting this new strain of hellebores. If you are in the market for hellebores, buy them.

The same can not be said for hellebores ‘Jacob’ and ‘Josef Lemper’. I bought them both last year because they looked terrific in the garden centre. Josef collapsed and died within weeks so I even bought a second plant because I liked it, despite them both setting frightening amounts of seed. This year – nothing. I know where I planted them but if they flowered again, it was so insignificant that I failed to register it and the plants that I think are them, are but poor specimens now. There is a big difference between having a brilliant looking hellebore in a pot and garden performance. This all makes more sense now that I realise they were H. niger, not H.orientalis  as I had earlier assumed, .

Look at the flower power of Angel Glow in the garden

‘Angel Glow’, bought at the same time, is a beaut. It is another hybrid and it has mass flowered two years in a row. If it keeps on doing as well, I will be delighted. The ever-handy internet tells me it is an H x ericsmithii selection which makes it a three way cross between niger (which gives it the upward facing blooms) and sternii which is itself a cross between argutifolius and lividus. I just give you that information in case you wanted to know. It makes it very different to H. orientalis but it fills a similar niche in the garden as a plant. The pretty H. niger is forever disappointing in our climate (I think it wants it drier and colder) but the hybrid vigour of ‘Angel Glow’ sets it apart from that parent.

The border was looking better this year

I redid our 30 metres of Helleborus orientalis border three years ago. After decades of easy care gardening, it had lost much of its charm. The next two years were a bit ho-hum in performance but it has come into its own this winter. Hellebores can take a little while to establish well. Most of the plants I used were ones Mark has raised in his quest for better garden performance – so with longer stems of sufficient strength to hold the blooms above the foliage and with outward facing flowers.  We have a fair old mix of established shrubs in the border so keeping the underplanting primarily to hellebores gives it a certain unity. But I also added a whole array of odds and sods in bulbs – mixed dwarf narcissi, snowdrops, cyclamen and bluebells in the main but also other strays that would perform in semi shade. It adds another layer of interest through winter and spring and it has been very pretty this year.

The slate shades can look better picked than in the garden…

… but add white and the contrast makes them sing

Mark is not keen on murky pinks, is scathing about most green flowers and doesn’t like pink and green colour mixes so most of his seedlings are either red or white. We had also been given some of the newer slate colours and have a few doubles carried over from when they were the rage. The slates are a really curious shade when you look at them closely but that colour tends to be quite flat and dead in a garden situation unless surrounded by plenty of white. The plants we have all hang their heads, too (downward facing flowers). This is also true of the double hellebores – the weight of the flowers makes them downward facing, which is not so great in a flat border.

There is quite a bit of trial and error on garden performance with H. orientalis. When they are good, they are very, very good. When they are not, they can be disappointing, even more so if you have gone out and paid garden centre prices for a plant that looked great at time of purchase but never as good again. And it is not so much a gap as a gulf between a good hellebore and a very ordinary seedling one.

Tikorangi notes: a week of pests and petals

Magnolia Honey Tulip

Honey Tulip is going from strength to strength as the tree matures

The magnolia joy this week has been ‘Honey Tulip’. Mark is a modest plant breeder and inclined to describe a number of his best plants as a stroke of luck. I know how hard he works to get these so-called lucky breaks and there is not much left to chance. As we looked at a prominent specimen of ‘Honey Tulip’ at our entrance this week, he expressed relief again that it is indeed excellent and that we have not released a dog of a plant on the market. And he mused (again) that out of that particular controlled cross, he only got two yellows amongst the offspring and only one of those was of merit. That is what he calls a lucky break. I don’t think he is happy unless he gets a run of several – or many – very good similar seedlings worth considering but even then he worries into the future whether he picked the best one at the time to name and release! So the annual display that ‘Honey Tulip’ puts on for us is both a relief and a delight as it continues to go from strength to strength.

The battle with the rabbits continues. After the new lily border was decimated last year, it was a priority to try and get them up this year. While the bulbs will likely survive one year with all their growth having been chewed off, two years is stretching it. First, I spent a day erecting a mesh fence along the border. It was more diversionary than rabbit-proof. In an environment filled with tasty edibles, I just hoped they would take the hint and change their route. But the little fockers laughed at me. When the first shoots were chewed back to ground level in a single night, I started putting cut lengths of drainage tubes over the damaged ones. That works but there are literally hundreds of bulbs in that border and Mark didn’t think it was a realistic option for the whole area. He tried the expensive rabbit repellent spray we bought last year but they laughed at his efforts too.

Netting and tubes in an attempt to deter rabbits

Blood and bone works. Mark now does a daily round. He sprays water on the fresh shoots and sprinkles a light application of blood and bone on the wet surface. The moisture makes it adhere which means that he will only have to repeat the application after heavy rain. It requires vigilance and routine. We need to get them above maybe 40cm so the rabbits can’t chew off the top and the shoots can keep growing. It won’t matter then if they chew off the lowest leaves.

Blood and bone lightly sprinkled on damp foliage is the best rabbit deterrent so far

The longer term solution is obviously to reduce the rabbit population. Mark does daily rounds with the gun. The dogs have found the odd burrow of small ones, to their delight, but are pretty useless once they are larger and on the loose. We got desperate enough to buy some rabbit poison but it is also poisonous to dogs so it requires putting out at night and gathering it back up in the morning. On the first morning, not only had the rabbits totally ignored the bait but our Dudley dog ate one bait before Mark’s eyes. It put him off using it again. The option of getting a cat again is still on the table. It is the first time we have ever hoped a stoat may move back onto our territory to do a clean out of the rabbits. Not for the first time, we have muttered curses at the early British settlers in this country who introduced this pest so they could continue their what-ho-jolly-hunting traditions.

A magnolia bud that has been eaten out, usually by possums but we are now wondering if rats are also to blame

While on pests, a possum – or maybe rats – have wrought havoc this year on some of the magnolias in the distant parts of our property. You can see from the photograph how the offender has eaten into the bud and nipped out the centre at the point when the flower buds were forming. Every single bud on this tree was taken out, which is why Mark is wondering about rats as well as possums. It is very discouraging. Mark is the chief pest control officer here and he generally manages to maintain some sort of equilibrium with a combination of ongoing trapping and the gun but this year appears to be particularly bad.

Doryanthes palmeri or the Queensland spear lily

Two months on from when I first mentioned the Doryanthes palmeri coming into flower,  I am coming to the conclusion that it does not open any more than this. I had envisaged that massive stem covered in open blooms but I think it may just gently continue for a long time yet, opening blooms in sequence without that mass display. The bees love it. Every time I pass, I can hear the audible hum and most of the open flowers have a bee foraging within them.

I mentioned it as a nursery relic cast aside. And indeed, I found confirmation of that this week as I was clearing around the plant. Behold, the original black planter bag, still around some of the root system. Some plants are tough and determined. It was not going to stay constricted by a pathetic little PB as we call these nursery bags.

Dainty and fragrant Narcissus jonquilla

Finally, because we love the tiny as much as the large, here are two little scenes from the rockery. Spring is a glorious season here, never more so than when we get over a week without rain to enjoy the blooming. But suddenly we are on the cusp of the point where a long spring no longer beckons but instead we are under pressure to get the new plantings done before it is too late and we are too dry and too warm.

Moraea villosa or the peacock iris

Felix’s magnolias on a glorious spring morn

After posting my piece on petal carpets this morning, it was such a gorgeous spring day I headed down to the park with camera in hand. And today, it was Felix’s magnolias that were at peak glory. It’s often an odd feeling living on a family property steeped with the history of earlier generations. Not ghosts, more like an enduring presence. And I wanted to pay tribute to Felix’s little collection.

Felix Jury in 1985, photo by Fiona Clark

I have recorded the history often enough here  so today is just the pleasure of the sight of so much in bloom. Sure, some have been superseded over time but these were ground breaking hybrids in the 1960s and created a special place for New Zealand in the world of magnolias. They also provided the platform for Mark to build on with his next generation hybrids.

The purity of ‘Lotus’, Felix’s best white, is hard to beat on its day.

‘Apollo’ was Felix’s best purple. This and the other magnolia photos were taken this morning. Did I mention what a glorious spring day it has been?

This one was never named and is the only unnamed seedling I am including today because at its peak, it is so very pretty. We just refer to it as “Apollo’s sister” because it is from same cross and batch of seed.

Magnolia ‘Athene’. There was a certain classical theme running through the naming of some of these cultivars.

Magnolia ‘Atlas’, which appears to perform better overseas than it does here. The flowers are huge and very pretty but it weather marks badly in our rains and wind.

‘Milky Way’ and I am not sure what inspired Felix to use that as its name bar the fact it is predominantly white.

‘Iolanthe’ which remains one of our flagship varieties and a superb performer year in and year out.

Magnolia ‘Mark Jury’ – not one of Felix’s own hybrids but a seedling that arrived here from Hilliers that was meant to flower as ‘Lanarth’. It was the secret weapon that Felix used in the majority of his new hybrids and he named it for his youngest son.

The only two not in bloom today are Magnolia ‘Serene’ which has yet to open and ‘Vulcan’ which has finished already for this season. But here is a photo I prepared earlier of the latter at its peak three weeks ago.

Felix died in 1997, but his spirit and his presence remains very much part of our lives here, never more so than at peak magnolia season.

In praise of petal carpets

Magnolia Lanarth, down by the big pond

I love me a good petal carpet. I have an entire folder in my photo files, dedicated to petal carpets. There is another one for floral skypaper but that is for another day. While we can get petal carpets pretty much all year round, this is peak time with magnolias, prunus and camellias dropping petals. The best carpets form beneath trees or large shrubs which drop their spent blooms in petal form, rather than the complete flower. Transient these may be, but on their day, they are a delight. 

The petal drop from the original Magnolia Iolanthe beside the drive is prodigious. We will rake or blow them off the drive when they turn to unattractive sludge but leave the ones on the garden to break down at their own rate. It is just part of the cycle of growth and decay.

We have many white michelias from Mark’s breeding programme and they make splendid snowy carpets, sometimes even retaining some of their scent. This magical white pathway is beside a whole row of a cross that Mark refers to as his Snow Flurry series.

I had to include at least one photo of a photo-bombing dog. So many of my photos have a dog within them.This one is my late and much beloved, loyal companion, Zephyr, beneath a Prunus campanulata. Zephs was a quiet dog but the most photo-bomby of all photo-bombers, making frequent appearances on the pages of the Waikato Times, for whom I was lead garden writer at the time. The prunus is still there, laying its carpet of blooms every year but Zephyr has been returned to the earth.

Prunus Awanui

I once read a profile of a garden that was opening for our annual garden festival. Clearly the owner prided himself on immaculate presentation because he proudly declared that he went out every morning to rake up the fallen petals beneath his Prunus Awanui. And I thought why? This is our Awanui. It may be a little larger than his tree was but the blossom is comprised of lacy single flowers without bulky substance to the petal. This means they will fall like gentle snow and decompose on the ground so quickly that there is no sludgy period. Why would anybody think it necessary to rake them up daily?

Sasanqua camellia blooms generally shatter into petals as they fall, unlike the japonicas and reticulatas which more commonly fall as complete blooms. This pink sasanqua fell below to carpet the Helleborus foetidus.

Solandra longiflora

For a change in colour, I give you Solandra longiflora in January. These fall as entire trumpets so they do turn brown and sludgy on the ground as they decay, but on their day, they are a lovely sight.

And the yellow kowhai blooms, our native Sophora tetraptera. This tree is much beloved by our native tui and kereru so many people find the floral display is greatly diminished but we figure we have plenty to share.

The fallen red blooms of a rhododendron make a transient, plush pile carpet for a few days each spring.

I felt sure I should have at least a few blue petal carpets but all I found was this slightly sparse carpet of jacaranda petals down our avenue garden. There aren’t many blue flowered trees when you think about it – the jacaranda, iochroma and paulownia but what else?

And finally from this selection, when the weather is calm, the soft pink petals of  Fairy Magnolia Blush can form pretty circles beneath each plant.

Learning from experience: gardening with bigger grasses in NZ conditions

Late March, so autumn of the first year.

We know quite a bit about many aspects of gardening, particularly shade gardening, but gardening in full sun with big, bold perennials is a whole new ball game here and a steep learning curve. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I planned to lift and divide the larger growing grasses that I have used in the new borders.  Of course I am only half way through it. These jobs always take longer than I plan, even factoring in other distractions. But it is interesting to stocktake the performance of these bigger grasses one year on from planting.

Stipa gigantea falls apart into divisions when lifted

Stipa gigantea – the giant feather grass or golden oats. Yes it grows quickly and enthusiastically but is very easy to dig out (not strong-rooted) and pretty much falls apart into divisions when lifted. So it is easy to manage. The flower heads are the feature but while ours bloomed, the sparrows laid waste to them so we did not get the full glory last summer. As far as we can make out, it is sterile so seeding and invasion are not an issue.

It is hard to beat the miscanthus at any time of the year

Miscanthus – I think it is ‘Morning Light’ we have. It required a little more effort to dig it out and an old handsaw and small axe to separate it into pieces but was not particularly difficult. I would not want to leave it too long though, before digging or it would get beyond my physical limits to dig and divide without assistance. It has been a standout. The clumps stand tidily like sentinels and it is brilliant at all stages – the foliage and the plumes. It is the only fully deciduous large grass I am growing and even the pillars of dried foliage have been attractive all winter. It is also close to sterile, setting almost no seed.

Is it Chionocloa rubra? Someone will know but it is a native tussock at least.

Chionocloa rubra – there is a bit of a question mark over the name of this one but a couple of visitors have suggested this identification. A native tussock grass that is performing brilliantly so far in attractive vase-shaped clumps. It is easy enough to dig and divide (more hacking apart with saw and small axe than dividing, to be honest) though I only divided this year to get more plants. It won’t need as much active management as most of the other grasses.

Anemanthele lessoniana is another native grass. It was a little underwhelming in its first year but I am told flowers attractively once established. I started with just three plants so I have divided them after their first year to get more.

The native toetoe (now an austroderia though formerly a cortaderia – our environmentally friendly version of the invasive Argentinian pampas grass) was one I planted a little anxiously, worried about its potential size. I need not have worried. The resident rabbits love it so much that the poor little things have failed to make any headway. I shall have to construct little cages over them if I want them to get any larger. I see we have five different austroderia species native to NZ though which one this is, I am not sure yet.

It appears I failed to photograph the calamgrostris at is peak but it is the third one up on the left in this May scene of late autumn.

Calamagrostris ‘Karl Foerster’. Yes well, this one may be on borrowed time. It is scary. I bought several – I can’t remember if it was 5 or 10 because I divided a couple of clumps mid-season when it was clearly growing strongly (about now, alarm bells should be ringing for experienced gardeners). It is a stock grass for the contemporary perennial gardens we have been looking at, mostly in the UK. Our Canberra daughter also said it was the stand-out grass in her little prairie-style patch. And it was most attractive all summer and autumn. Not so in winter where it has been a messy mix of green and brown. It is deciduous in colder climates but not so here. But that is not the main issue.

Added bucket for scale but I also measured and the root systems reached 45cm across in one year. As a quick aside, my kneeling pad of the day is a piece of rubber carpet underlay cut to size. It doesn’t last that long but it comes from waste destined for landfill anyway and while it lasts, it is good. 

The plants I bought came in 2.5 litre pots so larger than a liner but not big. Under one year is all it took for each plant to e x p a n d from about 12 or 14m across to somewhere closer to 45cm across. It took every ounce of my determination and strength to dig out the clumps for they were going deep as well as wide. The root ball is solid and dense and that is when I went to find the axe to chop it apart. I raised my eyebrows and started replanting just a few smaller – much smaller – clumps and these reduced in number the further I went. Most are piled to compost. The clumps I replanted are on trial for one more year but in my bones, I know they are on borrowed time. In our conditions, it is just way too vigorous though I am guessing that in harder conditions with dry summers and cold winters, it may just be deemed a ‘strong’ grower. I don’t know if it seeds but I am not seeing seedlings pop up so far. I would say that it may be quite useful if you want to retain an eroding precipice quickly but as a garden plant, try it before getting too carried away. I think I will decide that its powerful growth outweighs the charm of its flowering plumes.

I haven’t tackled the Elegia capensis yet but it can stay untouched for another year. It is a restio so not one of the grasses, though its growth habit and bamboo-like appearance mean it fits a similar niche in the garden. I know from experience that this is one we can contain if required by cutting around with a sharp spade to reduce its spread.

The smaller grasses can wait but the standout smaller variety so far has been a very dark green form of the Australian lomandra. We have several named forms and I am hoping I will unearth the labels when I lift the clumps again (I hate looking at visible plant labels so I tend to push my labels in so deep that I can’t find them again) and the dark forest green one is by far the pick of the bunch. The rest are a bit… utility, shall I say?

The takeaway lesson from all this is we need to trial plants here. That key plants used widely overseas perform differently in our conditions. It is why we buy garden books that cover design, history, philosophy and contemporary trends but never books written by overseas authors which focus on recommended plants and planting schemes. There is no substitute for local experience.

Postscript: I have finally found a home for the Dutch irises. They always looked a bit crass and coarse in the rockery and other areas where we concentrate on species and dwarf bulbs. But they are perfect with the big grasses, Just the right scale. And they bring in colour now in early September when there is not much else happening in that area.


An unexpected consequence

At the end of March this year, I wrote about gutting the old rose garden and making the sunken garden more of a feature in a simplified scheme. Reader, as the grass has grown I have been meaning to update with a suitably flattering photo of the new configuration. I have been delighted with how effective it is, despite Mark commenting that he liked the previous borders. He didn’t garden them, I replied tartly.

Sometimes there are unforeseen consequences. And we did not forsee this one. Clearly, the cultivated garden borders that were there before soaked up a lot of water. As soon as we cleared them and levelled the ground, the sunken garden started flooding. It is the lack of vegetation, we thought. When we get heavy rain, it is turning the soil to a smooth surfaced, muddy area that sheds the water immediately rather than absorbing it. When the grass grows, it will be better. But no.

We get heavy rains here, torrential at times. I usually observe that in a climate with relatively high sunshine hours and a relatively high rainfall of 150cm, it means that the rain tends to be heavy and then the skies clear and the sun comes out. We also have excellent drainage; surface water is absorbed within twenty minutes of the rain stopping. But this does not solve the sunken garden problem. The pond is filling with mud, the goldfish are unhappy and the little raised gardens which are in the sunken area are full of treasures that are threatened by the sodden soil.

What to do? For technical reasons (mostly to do with the roots of our enormous rimu trees), we can not recontour the lawn to shed the water in the opposite direction. We debated installing drains but the water still has to go somewhere and it would mean creating a sump nearby. Should we make a low barrier to stop the flow of water over the sides but how would that look and would we then be channelling the excess water down the steps? We are still thinking.

While I really like the look of the top edging being on the same level as the lawn – the status quo – that is not an option. At this stage, we are thinking that creating a whole new top edging sitting just 2.5cm above the level of the lawn will be the solution. I considered doing it in pavers but concrete will give a crisper, cleaner line.  That is a summer job because it will involve boxing up and pouring concrete. It is not an easy option because the top edging has a small lip that gives a better finish rather than keeping it flush with the walls. Our Lloyd, who does all the concreting, can’t quite work out how Felix did it in the first place (the slabs were clearly poured in situ) but he is thinking through how best to redo it 60 years later.

Fresh concrete is very stark and white and sticks out like a sore thumb in an old garden. Fortunately Lloyd is equal to this. He adds some black colouring to the mix to get a more aged grey tone and after it has been poured and levelled, he sprinkles sugar on top of the smooth surface, hosing it off when nearly set. This takes off the fine top layer so what we finish with is exposed aggregate in darker grey shades. He has done it elsewhere here and the new melds very quickly with the old.

It is a lot of attention to detail but this new look garden needs that attention to make it appear a seamless blending of original with new. Or perhaps I should say, we strive to make the new appear old from the start

Vireya rhododendron himantodes is charming, different and a comparatively rare species, not easy to propagate and grow but thriving in the sunken garden. We do not want to lose it to wet feet, as we call sodden root systems.

For reader Pat, who commented on this technique – this is the exposed aggregate look which, when combined with some dye in the concrete, makes new concrete look aged from the start rather than the glaring white of freshly laid concrete.

Conference garden tours, then and now

We hosted the Camellia Society conference tour last Monday, the first big group we have allowed in to the garden since we closed five years ago. There is a long-standing connection between the Jurys and the Camellia Society, even though neither Mark nor I are active members, so we wanted to honour that history. It takes quite a lot of work to host a large group and we were somewhat out of practice but it all comes back again.

I baked cakes. Quite a few cakes but only of three different types. I calculated that each cake could be cut into twelve pieces so that each piece was large enough to appear generous without being overwhelming. Ninety people so I baked eleven cakes, to allow for anybody who might take two pieces. I tell you, it was a mathematical exercise. And I found we still own sixty coffee cups which seems an awful lot for a household of two.

The conference attendees were extremely considerate at the casual, morning tea station

On the day, we were praying that the weather forecast would be wrong and the rains would stay away for the morning at least. And they did, which was just as well. The rains that came in the afternoon were simply torrential and we were awash and flooded. We can fit maybe 60 people under cover but over 90? Probably not.

Conferences are smaller these days and in the end, we really enjoyed the experience and so did the attendees. It is very affirming to have so many people appreciate one’s gardening efforts and hospitality. Maybe we will open the garden again in the not too distant future. There were just two coaches and a few cars which was quite manageable in terms of parking logistics.

Lloyd and Mark erected our small marquee for the occasion to provide additional cover. Look at the blue sky the day before the visit.

I remembered with some nostalgia a tour from the American Camellia Society. Mark’s mother was still alive so it must have been the early 1980s. The touring Americans were greater in number than they are these days and always charming, courteous and enthusiastic guests – somewhat different to our perception of Trump’s America today. But the image that stays in my mind is how we waved goodbye to them on the coach and walked back to the house for a cup of tea. And there, on the doorstep, was the cane washing basket with Mark’s mother’s pink, nylon bloomers draped over it to dry. She had forgotten to take them in and every visitor must have seen them displayed in all their glory. She was mortified, I recall, but had the grace to laugh at herself.

Back in the day, as we say, NZ conferences used to be much larger. That is the 1980s when the Camellia Society annual conference comprised five large coaches and a contingent of cars. Goodness knows where we parked them but I assume I can’t remember because we just didn’t worry about it. Times were simpler and we had flat(ish) road verges rather than the steep, inhospitable sides we now have. Nowadays, we have to get all vehicles off the road and we could never hope to park five full-sized coaches.

Rhododendron Floral Dance

The Rhododendron Association conferences were a little smaller – more like four coaches and the accompanying cars. But it was a rhodo conference that sticks in my mind. I am pretty sure it must have been 1986 because it was the year we first released Rhododendron Floral Dance. It was our fifth year of mail-order sales and the ‘catalogue’ was just four sides of A4 paper. We had no retail sales and the nursery was entirely Mark’s domain so only he understood which plant was which. The first hint we had that we may be totally unprepared was when Mark’s sister-in-law arrived, announcing that she had come to help because we would need it. The group had visited her garden in the morning.

Mark’s father was stationed in the garden, Mark in the nursery and I stood at the ready to welcome people and head them round the garden first. Picture me, flapping my hands ineffectually, trying to split the group as they poured off the coaches and out of the cars, determined to get to the nursery first. We were inundated. For the next hour or so, Mark ran from side of the nursery to the other, frantically hand writing labels. Older NZ readers will know Bill Robinson from Tikitere Nursery who graciously circulated, recommending plants left, right and centre. At the same time a new gardener who shall remain nameless (he went on to establish a large garden that made up in scope what it lacked in detail), whose bank balance was considerably larger than his knowledge, strutted around in very large chequered trousers  cut from the same cloth as the finish flag at a race track, big-noting in his determination to buy what everybody else was buying but in multiples. Mark’s sister-in-law and I took the money in a single plastic icecream container. It was the days before eftpos so it was all cash and cheques.

It was a feeding frenzy. At the end of 75 minutes, the icecream container was overflowing and the small nursery was stripped bare. Remember, this was 1986. We took $4500 in that time, when the rhododendrons were priced between $11 and $13 each (or a massive $20 for Floral Dance). We were like stunned mullets. As the coaches left, we waved goodbye and walked back to the house. The conference organisers were dismantling the trestle table laden with wine (cardboard casks of wine, it being the 1980s) which they had been serving on the back lawn. Mark told me that wine was a feature of the rhododendron conferences at that time. I have no idea how many went straight from plant sales to the wine without taking in the garden in-between. A few, I would guess. Whatever, it was an experience that we have never forgotten and neither was it ever repeated.

Conference tours in this day and age are a great deal more sedate and from the point of view of a garden owner, a great deal more enjoyable for that.

The rains, when they came in the afternoon left us awash