Down in the water meadows, the Higo iris bloom

Higo iris float above a sea of dandelions in the Wild North Garden

I really like that the Japanese Higo iris are such a big feature of our December meadows yet they almost certainly descend from the Japanese quest for a perfect, single bloom as a focus for contemplation. It is such a wonderful contradiction – that quiet refinement, simplicity and elegance that the Japanese traditionally bring to flowers generally and the wild abandonment of our Tikorangi meadows.

Smaller flowered, white Higo in the park meadow

Higo are not a separate species of Japanese iris. They are hybrids, bred over 500 years, originating from Iris ensata. There are three groups of iris from these breeding lines – Edo, Higo and Ise but the best known are the Higo. Our Higo were given to us by Auckland plantsman, Terry Hatch of Joy Plants, and apparently originated as wild collected seed. Mark had a discussion with Terry about wanting to try naturalising Higo by the stream but the finely bred, named cultivars were not sufficiently robust to survive in a situation of benign neglect. Terry offered up a tray of about 700 germinated seedlings which seemed a bit of overkill at the time. Now we bless him every year. Not all 700 survived, I hasten to say, but we had plenty to play with.

and a much larger flowered white Higo iris 

The blue is less dominant than the purple shades of Higo 

Because our plants are all seedlings, we have a fairly wide range and some clearly show their I. ensata heritage. Others are pure white, pink, almost pure blue and the whole range of violets, purples and lilac.

More Higo iris

I see the oldest plants are now in their ninth year or so of being planted on the banks by the stream and ponds and they perform reliably every year. Given they have stiff competition and receive absolutely no care or intervention, that makes them very robust plants. I tried some in a mixed border at one stage but they were too strong a grower with leafage that swamped out surrounding plants during summer and autumn so I removed them.

Can we have too many Higo iris?

A few years ago, I planted the last of the neglected pots from the nursery down in the area we call the Wild North Garden and this year, some are starting to bloom. They are much more rewarding than the Louisiana iris we grow where the leaf to bloom ratio is too high.

Seedling variation in the Higo iris

From mid to late November through until Christmas, the flowering of the water iris is such a delight. Like over the top butterflies, they float in the air above a sea of buttercups, dandelions, daisies and wild grasses and they truly make my heart sing.

In the park meadow. The Wachendorfia thyrsiflora with its tall yellow plumes has a death sentence on its head – too free with its seeds to keep it by a waterway 

The Wild North Garden – I am waiting for more Higo iris to bloom

Seven long years to bloom and then it dies – Cardiocrinum giganteum

The giant Himalayan lilies are coming into bloom. Cardiocrinum giganteum. It is the biggest of the lily family, hailing from areas like Tibet, Bhutan, Assam, Myanmar, Nepal and Sikkim.  It feels a bit of a triumph that we now have this bulb naturalised here. We haven’t planted any for many years and just allow them to grow where they pop up from seed.

The largest lily of them all – Cardiocrinum giganteum

These are not lilies for the home gardener on a small urban section. The flower spikes often reach three metres here and have been recorded at up to five metres. Fortunately, the stem is such that they can hold themselves up.

Usually six years of foliage and in the seventh year, it puts up an astounding flower spike

The main obstacle for most gardeners is that the bulb takes about seven years before it flowers and then it dies. Fortunately it makes offshoots around the main bulb as well as setting seed but those offshoots can take another five years minimum before they flower and the seeds take seven years. These are not lilies for the impatient gardener. And, while very fragrant, the flowers are a long way up so unless you have a grove of plants flowering at the same time, you are unlikely to get the benefit of scent. In the intervening years, they just form a clump of large, heavy textured, heart-shaped leaves that are reasonably anonymous.

Typically, these plants need cool, open, woodland conditions with soils which never dry out and are rich in humus. Those are pretty specific conditions.

The top photo is one of those really, seriously peculiar plant combinations that are a characteristic of many New Zealand gardens – a self sown Cardiocrium giganteum from the Himalayas, flanked on the right by Pseudowintera colorata (commonly known here as the mountain horopita or pepper tree) with Dracophyllum latifolium behind (both NZ natives) and then what we know as Aloe bainseii but is now, apparently, Aloidendron barberae – the tree aloe from southern Africa. It is a veritable United Nations of plants here.

Tikorangi Notes: underplanting, gardening with perennials and the magnificent nuttalliis

Pretty Rhododendron Yvonne Scott (nuttallii x lindleyi x dalhousiae) with a named clematis but I have lost its name – relevant to the last para on this post and a prettier photo to lead with than the mishmash of a garden bed below 

Not good at all. The addition of roses was a particularly ill-considered decision

I spent a good four or maybe five days taking this unsuccessful garden bed apart. It was first planted about 14 years ago and the original idea was that it continue the theme of the driveway border – mixed shrubs with predominantly hellebores as underplanting. It has never thrived and over the years, its treatment has followed a pattern that many will recognise – random attempts to spark it up that have made it messier and more disjointed.

I lifted everything except the Queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana), an attractive Viburnum sargentii ‘Onondaga’ and Camellia minutiflora. The location is too sunny for the hellebores and they were not thriving, so I planted them elsewhere. And I found why the plants at one end had never thrived. I could only get the spade half way in before I hit what might as well be bedrock. It was the old driveway with very heavily compacted road metal. I recalled that Mark had got the nursery staff to plant that bed when it first went in. Now, our nursery staff were whizzybang at speed-potting plants and doing the hard graft of keeping a production nursery going but gardeners, they were not. I am guessing they chiselled holes just large enough to fit the plants in. No wonder so many failed to thrive. There was nowhere for them to get their roots down.

The aim is to have a carpet of harmonious under planting by the end of summer

I took out any larger stones and rocks I could get out, dug the soil and incorporated compost at a rate of a small barrow-load per square metre. There is still not a great depth of soil but what is there should be better and I won’t try growing any more deeper-rooted plants at that end. When it came to choosing what to replant, I fell back on my mixed border philosophy. When there is a mixture of shrubs in the upper layer, it is better to choose some uniformity in the ground cover layer. The opposite is also true: where there is uniformity in the upper layer of shrubs and trees, it is more interesting to use a mixture of plants at the ground level. It may be a sweeping statement (well, it is) to say that only landscapers, non-gardeners and novices go for regimented simplicity of matching upper layer plants and a single choice ground cover – tidy, visually effective in the immediate stage but essentially dull.

A totally reliable stoeksia that is particularly amenable to being divided and transplanted

Given the feature shrubs and palm are interesting in their own right and the presence of assorted seasonal bulbs, I chose to replant at ground level with the reliable, long flowering blue stokesia which thrives with us, a ground-hugging blue campanula and two forms of our native brown carex grass.  The upright form is Carex buchananii , I think, but I am not sure what the fountaining version of it is called. They are to form the carpet. I like the combination of blue and the mid-brown carex. Then I mulched it all. Now all it has to do is to grow.

May 2019

November 2019

It is quite gratifying to see how much the grass garden has grown since I planted it at the end of May. I am hoping that it will have closed up quite a bit by the time autumn comes. There have only been a small number of deaths amongst the plants – all were  Astelia chathamica and fortunately, I have more plants to hand that I can move to the gaps. The advice from colder climates is not to move perennials in winter because they are not growing and the risk is that the roots will rot out over winter. With our mild winters, this advice does not generally apply here but that may be the case with the astelia. The divisions all had roots when they went in but it may be that some did indeed just rot out before they came back into growth in spring.

My main task in this new garden is staying on top of the weeds. Considering it is new ground, there is not a big weed problem at all and I am determined to keep it that way as it gets established. Weeds getting a hold amongst the fibrous roots systems of perennials and grasses can be a maintenance nightmare. It is better by far to keep them out from the start, as far as humanly possible. Because it is all ground that has been freshly dug this year, it is easy to hand pull those pesky weeds that do try and make an appearance.

Eighteen months to fill in seems a quick result

Even more rewarding is to see the caterpillar garden hitting its stride – nicely filled out, floriferous already, weed-free and colour-toned as I want it. It has taken about eighteen months to get it to this stage. Gardening with perennials is very different to gardening with trees and shrubs. As long as you have plenty of divisions and the ground is well-prepared, the plants can rocket away and fill spaces quickly.

Species selection of R. sino nuttallii, singled out for its unusual pink flush

However, no perennial can compete with the sheer magnificence and stature of the nuttallii rhododendrons that flower for us at this time of the year. These are not often commercially available – at least not the sino nuttallii species. You may sometimes find some of the hybrids around that are nuttallii crossed with lindleyi, sometimes with the addition of dalhousiae. If you find ‘White Waves’ on offer in New Zealand, it is proving to be one of the best of the hybrids we grow – reliable and a good survivor as well as very showy indeed. “Mi Amor’ is also available for sale. The hybrids have smaller leaves than the nuttallii species and are not all as strongly scented  but you may just have to take what you can find if you want to try growing these choice rhododendrons.

Rhododendron nuttallii x sino nuttallii – so the Tibetan form crossed with the showier Chinese form

 

 

 

Farewell Noble Fir

Abies procera glauca – a handsome tree in the wrong place

Farewell Blue Noble Fir. The Abies procera glauca is no more. This was not a decision we reached lightly. The tree was almost as old as our house, planted in the early 1950s. It started life here as a pleasingly pyramidal tree in the rockery but when it soon showed that it was not going to remain suitably compact, Felix moved it to a new location beside the driveway. It was placed so it did not block any sun from the house, though it did cast shade over the washing line. And it grew and grew.

Abies procera cones – several barrow loads fell every year

Abies procera is native to USA, particularly north west California and Oregon and it can grow to 70 metres high, some recorded even at 90m. I do not think Felix checked its potential height when he planted it or he would have put it down in the park. In its 65 years here, it reached maybe 25 metres and it was not stopping growing. Mark began to express anxiety about it several years ago. It took me a while to come around to the idea of removing such a handsome specimen. As it grew taller, its spread also increased and Mark was getting worried that the enormous cones – up to 20cm in size – would soon start falling on our fragile roof tiles. They would crack every tile they hit. We have never had either person or vehicle hit by a falling cone but that is more by good luck than good management, given its prime location.

Oh look! There it is in the rockery in the 1960s before being moved further (but not far enough) from the house

More worryingly, the weight of the tree was on the side closest to the house which meant that if it came down, it would fall on the house. It would, in all likelihood, demolish much of the house. With growing experience of falling trees here and mindful of the high probability of increasingly severe and frequent weather events, it just wasn’t a risk we were comfortable taking any longer. We have many trees, some very large, but this was the only tree that threatened the house.

This was a job for a specialist Because of its sheer size, its location close to the house, surrounded by some rather special plants we wanted to save, stone walls, pond, septic tank and other considerations, it was going to need to be dismantled and taken down branch by branch. We discovered we had an arborist up the road and asked for a quote. The price came in at considerably less than I had feared and we crossed our fingers that he knew what he was doing. He did.

The location and flat grown meant a cherry picker could be used, for the lower 17.5 metres at least

The operation took two days. On the first day, he used a cherry picker with a reach up to 17.5 metres to remove almost all the side branches and foliage. Goodness, the cherry picker makes an arborist’s job much easier, faster and presumably safer. We watched in admiration as he was able to control dropping branches in the few, available clear spaces before he had to move onto roping and then lowering larger pieces by winch. It was only the top eight metres he had to do by climbing into the tree.

On day two, he dropped the last length of stripped trunk in one piece. He and his assistant – on this occasion, his wife – cleaned up as they went, chipping the branches and foliage so that we now have two truckloads of fresh garden mulch. When he left at the end of day two, everything was cleaned up except the wood that is to be split for firewood. All the mess had been raked up and the paved areas cleaned with a leaf blower. The total damage was limited to holes in the lawn where heavy branches had hit and one camellia that is a little smaller than at the start. Given the tight space he was working in, we were super impressed.

If anybody local wants a skilled (and cheerful) arborist, contact me. We are happy to recommend him.

For those of you curious about the firewood: yes, there is plenty of it but it is really just like soft pine so fine for burning but not top quality.

Picea omorika is the narrow tree in the centre. It, too, will have to be felled before it falls of its own accord

The Picea omorika still has to be dropped. Again, we hesitated but it will fall too, and probably sooner rather than later. It is a good example of a tree that was not kept to a single leader in its infancy. It grew with three trunks. Two have split out in storms in recent years, which is why we think the remaining trunk will also go. If we get it dropped, the damage can be controlled and I can still keep the essential bottom two metres to which the washing line is tied.

Alas poor kereru

We certainly felt sad to fell a mighty Noble Fir. We felt even sadder when on day two of the process, a kereru (our lovely native wood pigeon which is regarded as vulnerable, though not endangered) flew straight into an upstairs window and died. We had wondered why birds did not hit those windows when they hit the other upstairs windows, but now realise that it must have been the proximity of the tree that slowed their flight. I went to town the next day and bought a curtain rail and sheer curtains to screen the windows. While we would prefer not to have screened windows, the threat to birds from our double-glazed windows which turn into mirrors on the outside, outweighs our personal indoor preference. Bird strike is not a problem when windows are open because of the change in angles, so we hang screening curtains on curtain hooks and rail (as opposed to curtain wire) so they can easily be pulled to one side when the windows are open.

Maybe the key point of our late Abies procera, is that when planting trees, it pays to look to the future – not 20 years but 50 or more. A miscalculation by the previous generation can leave a vegetable time bomb for the next.

Trees – some for removal, some that should never have been removed and one that is not going to be removed

Abies procera – sadly, reluctantly for the chop. I took this photo from our bedroom window – imagine the impact of this tree crashing into the house.

Trees have been much on my mind this week. Tomorrow an arborist team is due in to take down the Abies procera close to our back door, limb by limb. I shall take photographs and report on progress next week. It is a large and handsome tree but the risk of it falling so close to the house is now just too high. It could potentially take out most of the house.

The good burghers of Mount Albert in Auckland have whipped themselves into a frenzy this week over the planned removal of 345 exotic trees from the recreational area that they know as Mount Albert but more correctly referred to as Ōwairaka. I had a look at the list of trees marked for removal and while there are a few that may be of merit, most are banksias, eucalypts, cherries (likely seedlings of P. campanulata), willows and olives. All have their place, but they are probably not worth getting too upset about. The plan is to replant with natives to extend the native trees already growing on the site.

Talk of removing exotics to replant with native species is enough to wind up some sectors of the populace with talk of ‘PC gone mad’. And indeed, I felt a little defensive myself. I am, after all, a Jury and our defining tree is the exotic magnolia. But then I read this piece on The Spinoff and I decided that I did not need to have an opinion on this matter. Those iconic landscape markers referred to as ‘mountains’ in Auckland – defunct volcanic cones that are definitely small hills now as opposed to proper mountains – are privately owned by iwi of Tāmaki Makaurau and they generously allow continued public access to this land. They are not public reserves. These maunga have spiritual and sacred significance for Maori and if they want to clothe their land in purely native trees and re-create the pre-European landscape for these landmarks, that is their right and that should be respected.

I can not help but suspect that some of the loudest voices may come from people who would happily fell a tree on their own land because it casts shade, breaks up concrete or drops acorns that are, allegedly, dangerous. That last link leads to a story of another application in Auckland to remove a protected oak tree that was clearly growing for many, many decades before the current house was built so the owners must have known the protected tree was there when they purchased the place. They want to remove it and are offering to replace it with… (drum roll, please) a feijoa which is more a shrub than a tree. Personally, I would have thought that fallen feijoas would be more hazardous than fallen acorns.

All I can say is that Urenui has changed a little since we lived there. The hair house used to be a craft shop and the Ngati Mutunga offices were the local convenience store.

Our eldest child came home for a visit this week, bringing our only grandchild with her. He is only three so we had several days out and about, combining adult and small person interests. A fish and chip lunch at a nearby seaside settlement named Urenui was on the agenda. This was for purely sentimental reasons. We used to live in Urenui and it is where our children spent their early and middle childhood years so it is a place full of memories.

The grandson’s enthusiasm for swimming waned somewhat in the face of light rain and a chill wind but we looked across to the riverside reserve that bounded our old property. It is eroding. Of course it is. Much of New Zealand’s coastline is eroding and even 25 years ago when we left, the erosion potential was fully understood.

It was for precisely that reason that Mark planted pohutukawa trees at generous spacings along the river reserve. He did it properly – first getting permission from the Council and then involving local residents in the planting in order to establish some sense of community ownership of the trees. And he selected cultivars with different flower colours – albeit all shades of orange and red – to give variety and interest. The wide spacings were so that they would not block residents’ water views. Mark’s plan was that the trees would act both as markers for the eroding bank and also provide some stabilising against that very issue. Pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) are particularly well adapted to growing right on the coast with massive root systems which can stabilise crumbling banks.

Mark’s pohutukawa forming a buttress against the erosion caused by tidal rise and fall

It must be at least 15 years ago that Council decided, in their wisdom, to remove some of the trees and relocate them to Waitara. The official story was they were *saving* the trees from falling into the river but we knew that was a nonsense. It is far more likely that a local or two complained that they were starting to block their views because the removals were randomly spaced.

I distinctly remember that a tree was removed from this spot and oh, look. It has eroded so badly now that it needed a rock retaining structure installed to protect the road

One or two trees were removed from this stretch

and more erosion further along the bank.

Ironically, as we ate our fish and chips across the river, we could see the surviving trees that Mark planted and it is clear how well they are retaining the banks around them. Where the rock retaining wall has now been put in on the corner is the exact spot where one of the trees was removed. I remember this well because Mark and I went out to have a look at the time and the tree removal had already damaged the bank and it was visibly crumbling. If they had left the tree in place, it might well have saved the need to install a rock retaining wall instead.

Prunus Pearly Shadows a week ago

and the petal carpet beneath two days ago.

Finally, I give you the delight of falling pink snow – the petals of Prunus Pearly Shadows this week. The flowering has been a little later this year but the charm does not fade with familiarity. It is on the edge of our visitor carpark. Even though no fewer than three cars have reversed into this tree over the years, we have no plans to remove it. It is extremely visible and in a large space so we put the unfortunate incidents down to driver inattention.

Six years on: meadow update

It is six years to the very day since we closed the garden to the public. And that means it is six years since we started to experiment with turning the park into a meadow. Up until that point, we mowed it all year – no easy task because it is undulating terrain across about four acres filled with specimen trees and shrubs and a stream. The areas that could not be mown – the stream banks and steepest gradients – were kept short with what we call a weedeater in New Zealand but many others know as a strimmer. It seemed important to maintain a similar level of control to that seen in public parks, even though this is a private garden.

Iris sibirica, Primula helodoxa and loads of buttercups

Six years on, how do we feel? We love it. It often makes my heart sing in ways in which the previous tight control of grass growth did not. It is a different mind-set altogether.

How it was, all mown, trimmed and tidy up until six years ago 

and how it looks today

We weren’t at all sure how it was going to work out. This is good dairying country which means we have verdant grass growth all year round, unchecked by summer droughts and winter cold. We have to mow grass twelve months of the year to keep it under control. And decades of gardening predicated on very tight weed control is hard to overcome. The love of meadows is inextricably linked to a higher tolerance for what are commonly called weeds. Buttercups, daisies, dandelions and Yorkshire fog, we have in abundance.

As it was before 

and as it is now. The orange azalea died and we removed the yellow flag irises on the grounds that they are a noxious weed by waterways

We were inspired to experiment with a softer edged, more romantic approach to gardening by our trips to the UK in particular, allied to growing concern that our approach to gardening carried a carbon input that was closer to a heavy hoof-print than a foot-print. We haven’t set about systematically measuring any increase in wildlife but we like to think that the changed approach is far kinder to nature. And as we age, we are also considering the labour input to the garden, given the fact that we have no plans to move off the property to a more suitable retirement home. We’d rather spend our energies on more constructive gardening activities than endlessly beating grass into obedient submission.

It is not a gardening style that will appeal to everybody. It is not neat and tidy. It does not show off man – and woman’s – ability to control nature to make it conform to the tight standards of suburban gardening. Some may look at it and think that it is uncontrolled, allowing the place to ‘go back’, although that is far from the truth. Meadows in the garden need management. It is not a question of just stepping back and letting it go. We still take out certain weeds, we mow paths, we manage the growth by mowing twice a year (in January and July), plant to enhance the richness of the meadow mix, we keep certain plants free from the rampant growth – so we keep an eye on it but with a much lighter hand.

As it was all mown (and scalped in places) with our much loved dog of the day, Zephyr

There is a problem with the frequent floods bringing unwanted weeds down from upstream which can then get established in the long grass before we have even spotted them. The war against wandering jew (Tradescantia fluminensis) and montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora) will be without end unless upstream residents eliminate them. I am not keen on the docks and there is a nasty carex I dig out. But that is a smaller price to pay than trying to control every plant escape except paddock grass.

Just two years ago, our son cleared both big ponds of water weeds 

and already, they are back with a vengeance. Time to stop fighting them?

The next issue for us is to decide what to do with the two big ponds Mark put in back in the early 1990s. Our son raked them out last time he was home a couple of years ago but they are now congested with water weeds again. I have gone through every few years and raked the weeds out of the stream but it is heavy work and my back no longer appreciates it. All three of us here nurse our backs and wrists these days. I am now thinking that we live with what nature gives us. The stream flows well all year round so maybe we should just let it determine its own path and allow the ponds to silt up and return to bog or swamp. The irises, lysichitons and primulas are happy in bog conditions so maybe we are better to just concentrate of enriching the natural bog gardens rather than trying to keep a larger body of water visible. The stream is high in nutrients from dairy farm run-off (we can tell this by the particularly bright green shades of the weeds growing beneath the surface, as a water ecologist pointed out to us) so the water weeds will continue to thrive.

In another six years time, we may well have mega bog gardens but time will tell.

Rhododendron Barbara Jury 

Rhododendron nuttallii x sino nuttallii in the park meadow

Knitted smallgoods!

Away from gardening for this post. Our local town of Waitara never fails to surprise me. Over the last four decades or so, Waitara has suffered the fate of many small towns with a decline in retail outlets. Most of the main street retailers seem to be either takeaway food outlets or charity shops now with a fair representation of empty premises. So it was that  I had failed to notice the window display in the disused butcher’s shop. Knitted meats!

Red saveloys, larger brown salamis and strings of sausages – pink for uncooked, appropriately beige for pre-cooked barbecue ones

I may have laughed out loud. Here is whimsical folk art on the main street. The windows were pretty dirty and the light conditions were less than ideal, but I offer the best of my photos for your amusement. I think it was the strings of sausages (both raw and precooked and labelled as such), saveloys and salamis that amused me most.

Others may be more impressed by the mince. Or maybe the bacon or chops. All presented on clear plastic trays and covered in cling film as the real produce usually is. It all just seemed like an idea off the square to fill an empty display window but with a debt to historical context. Waitara grew to be more than just a coastal cluster of houses because it had a huge freezing works (meat killing and processing plant). First started in 1881, the permanent closure of the works in 1997 dealt a body blow to the town which took well over a decade to recover from the shock and disruption.

The window on the other side of the locked door contains an eclectic mix of seaside accoutrements plus penguins. A knitted diorama, no less. This may appeal more to children but it was the unexpected cultural and historical context of the knitted meats that took my fancy.