Comfortable in a cold climate


At this time of the year I find myself driving over to Ruapehu on relatively frequent occasions.

No, dear Reader, do not even start trying to visualise yours truly on skis. I am what is described as a cafe mother, indulging Last Child At Home’s love affair with his snowboard. But as he sleeps on the way over (we leave alarmingly early in the morning) and on the way back (he is tired after a day on the mountain), I survey the countryside.

And I felt somewhat embarrassed last week to be reminded of just how harsh the climate is for a fair number of readers, a fact I probably overlook too often. We live a few kilometres from the coast and what few frosts we get are only a degree or two at the most. Black ice is unknown. Last week I noticed that despite a glorious sunny day with spring-like conditions, the frost hadn’t even melted in the shaded areas inland. So I apologise to those readers who must skim past my references to subtropical and tropical plants. They are just so far out of your growing conditions as to be meaningless.

But the plants I have been dealing with this week are applicable to those who live with colder winters. Roses and azaleas. Indeed, you may well do roses and deciduous azaleas a great deal better than those of us in humid, mild climates. These plants appreciate a winter chill and the cold conditions will kill off some of the bugs and diseases that afflict roses.

I took delivery this week of about 25 new roses, chosen personally for me by One in the Know, as his recommendation of varieties more likely to perform well in laissez faire conditions. Which is to say that Mark refuses to spray roses and Yours Truly has never sprayed anything in her life.

Today I started pulling out some of my poor performers to replace with what I hope are better options. It always amazes me how much I prune off the roses in winter. Their growth rates are phenomenal each season and I have learned to be more ruthless with the winter prune. I was surprised today by the small root systems of even well-established plants that have been growing in good conditions for several years. We may not spray but we feed and mulch with compost regularly. Clearly roses were never destined to have the root systems of the shrubs I am accustomed to growing commercially.

We get away with early pruning of roses in our climate, but it is recommended to wait until the bad frosts are over in colder areas. Pruning triggers the plant to put out new shoots and these are vulnerable to frost.

At the same time as I prune, I leaf-rake the garden beds to remove fallen rose leaves. These can harbour disease and it pays to avoid a buildup of spent leaves below the rose bushes.

I shall watch the performance of these recommended roses and see if they will stay healthier. My list of good-performing roses to date is a little light – only the Mary Rose (one of David Austen’s early cultivars and a really good performer with a lovely rich, pink flower), Blanc Double de Coubert (a rugosa rose with scented white flowers like crumpled tissue paper), and the Flower Carpet roses (utility in flower form but very reliable). Maybe I will be able to add another dozen to the list next year.

And I have spent the better part of the week pruning the azaleas, in this case the evergreen varieties, not deciduous.

The evergreen azaleas are from various areas of Asia and are really only evergreen in mild climates. The colder you are the more deciduous they become. Usually they have smallish leaves and smallish flowers that form a carpet across the top of the shrub in winter to early spring. The flower range is in the whites, pinks, purples and reds. They are easy to propagate so they are often sold quite cheaply in front of the supermarket. But it takes a while for them to get much size.

We have a number of the Japanese Kurume types, which have the smallest leaves and flowers and they are now grand-daddy azaleas, being of some stature. They are quite an amazing plant in that they are one of the relatively few shrubs that will still perform well in poor, dry conditions, or in shade. Ours are inclined to get infested with lichen, which we don’t mind when it turns the trunks white but is a bit of a pain in the flowering branches.

The quick way of pruning is to cut back to ground level, where they will reshoot and start again. The very time-consuming way of pruning is to take out the lower growth, exposing the trunks and stems, and to build the leaves and flowering branches in layers. It makes the most of the maturity of the plant and gives an attractive canopy to the carpet of miniature cyclamen we have below them, but it takes a lot of patience (several days of it, in fact).

Deciduous azaleas are somewhat different beasts. Most have much larger flowers, closer to the classic rhododendron, with large trusses and often in extremely loud, vibrant colours. Some are strongly scented. Being more difficult to propagate, they are nowhere near as widely available or as cheap as their evergreen cousins. Nor does one look at a deciduous azalea out of flowering season and say, “My, that is a handsome plant”. They are, in fact, inclined to be scruffy and twiggy, without exciting foliage (often gets mildewed in warm, humid climates). But in flower – wow. They are wonderful. They mass flower in mid-spring on bare wood before the leaves appear. And even if orange is not your favourite colour, a mass-flowering bright orange plant is a bit of a stunner. Or deep red, bright yellow or tangerine – not colours and flower size that are readily available in other plant types.

Not all deciduous azaleas are so strident and brash. They are available in more muted pastels and my personal favourite is a grand-daddy one we have beside our driveway, sweetly scented and in apricot buff tones. Adjacent to our one good-performing, long-lived, borer-infested huge, leggy old lilac bush, it makes a combination that pleases me every spring.

It has been a case of Revenge of the Killer Blackbirds around here. Mark’s father used to wage a constant war on these birds, making them feel most unwelcome. Besides abusing each one he saw, he waged an ongoing war of trapping and poisoning them. So successful was his poisoning exercise that he even managed to poison two adult sons on different occasions – Mark with a poisoned birdpecked plum and his brother with a poisoned raspberry. I was forced to ask him to desist from this practice when our children started to frequent the garden and eat the fruit on a regular basis, pointing out that poisoning his grandchildren would not go down well.

When staff member Dan started to complain a couple of days ago about a blackbird scratching his car, none of us exactly leapt into action. Dan is proud of his immaculate, shiny dark car and we thought he might be a bit of a fusspot about it. When he raised the matter again, Mark suggested that he must be parked right on the edge of the territory of a bird and it was defending its boundary line. When Dan moved his car out of the carpark and off the property, we began to take more notice. And the birds moved on to the next car. Yes, they were damaging the cars. Fighting for territory, but lacking great brain power, individual blackbirds would wage war with their reflection in the wing mirrors and on dark reflective areas (in Dan’s case, on his entire car) and, yes, they were wreaking havoc with the paintwork.

Mark headed out with the gun, to a few jokes about staff driving home with bullet holes through the fuselage. He only needs to shoot another 23 before we can make a pie. *

*Abbie and Mark Jury have a garden and nursery at Otaraoa Rd, Tikorangi.