Gnomes, spring planting and Old Money

By ABBIE JURY

I try to be very selective about issues on which I express an opinion publicly beyond my gardening columns, but I was sorely tempted when I read a letter to the August issue of the New Zealand Gardener magazine. Written by New Plymouth’s foremost member of the Gnome Garden Brigade, the writer claimed that the heavily ornamented gardens being promoted in the Fringe Festival now on here were “unique to Taranaki” and that they provided a “cultural experience”.

My pen itched to reply. All I wanted to say was: “I hope not. How embarrassing.”

The Fringe Festival (dubbed the Cringe Festival here) is running alongside our well established Garden and Rhododendron Festival which finishes tomorrow. It grew out of gardens which were declined by the established event and tended to attract those who favour ornaments over plants. In the case of the letter to the Gardener, discretion ruled and I kept silent (until now). But it did spawn many running gags here. We were a bit concerned about the rumours of the conversion to radical Islam and the establishment of sleeper cells of gnomes waiting to be activated by Al Qaeda. Foreign Affairs, we hypothesized, might put out a warning to garden visitors asking them to be their eyes and ears this year. But should any visitor encounter gnomes wearing backpacks or heavy anoraks, they were under no circumstances to approach either the gnome or the garden owner. The advice would surely be to exit immediately and call the counter terrorism unit.

After seeing the sudden explosion of sleeping Mexicans in the Big Red Barns (favoured by those who think they complement gardens of succulents and spiky things), we were concerned that Al Qaeda would next be targeting these apparently innocent members of the garden population.

By which you may deduce what our opinion is of gnomes, sleeping Mexicans, fairies or other beasties as garden ornaments. Only in the hands of the most gifted can this tack achieve the status of folk art. Mostly it remains tack. One such garden was described to me as being infested with “entire platoons of concrete ornaments, more ornaments than plants”. Each to their own, but good gardens show skill with plants.

October and November tend to be the peak season for garden visiting and garden displays, through until the Ellerslie Flower Show. That is because we do spring gardens best in this country and we all like to show our gardens off at their best. It also means that many visitors get inspired to buy plants at this time but it is not necessarily the best planting time. A combination of i ncreasing heat in the sun and dry periods can stress fresh plantings, especially of trees and shrubs. Readers who have sandy soils on coastal areas will know what I mean.

If you are not ready to plant immediately or you are worried about the summer, you can heel in trees and shrubs to well cultivated soil (vegetable gardens are usually ideal for this purpose) and transplant them to their final site when the weather cools off in autumn. Another alternative is to plunge the whole pot in the ground to keep the roots cool and reduce moisture loss.

We continue to plant in the garden here through until the end of November, however. But Mark is willing to cart water occasionally if required. Whatever you do, first sink the whole plant, bag and all, into a bucket of water. And hold it down or leave it in the bucket until air bubbles stop rising. This ensures that the whole root ball is wet. Most plants these days are grown in granulated bark in nurseries and while this is a wonderful medium, if it dries out too much, water just flows straight through without soaking in. Often plants sold at this time of the year can be getting a bit root bound and you want the whole bundle wet through before planting.

Even with root bound plants, we don’t advocate trying to tease out the roots. Most people do more damage than good with this exercise. But we do strongly recommend putting them into well cultivated soil and using lots of friable compost. If planted well, even root bound plants will reach out to the good soil around them. The only exception to this rule is where there are strong roots going round and round the pot. In this case, running a sharp knife down to cut the circling root will encourage the plant to develop new roots.

If the root system looks very weak or small in comparison to the top of the plant, pruning the top will reduce stress and encourage the plant into new growth. And when you have planted, water and mulch. Being compost fiends here, we mulch with compost. Leaf litter, bark, pea straw or any of a multitude of other mulches will suffice. Mulching retains the moisture in the ground and in some cases provides extra nourishment.

And to close, my two anecdotes from Festival visitors (neither of them from people in the readership area of the Chronicle – I would be more circumspect if this column was published locally!). A couple came in wanting to buy rhododendrons. They had a landscape plan done by a local landscaper and it included a swathe of camellias in front of a swathe of rhododendrons, but no suggestions as to which cultivars may be appropriate. Turns out they had insisted on the rhododendrons and camellias. The landscaper was very sniffy – described them as “Granny plants”. I guess they weren’t spiky, “architectural” or pittosporums. On behalf of all the lovers of these Granny plants, I report that I was shocked by such a blanket dismissal of two major genus.

Then there was the visitor who said ingenuously: “You are much more friendly than I expected. I have met Old Money before in Nelson and locally and they are not usually so friendly.” Old Money???? You could have knocked me down with a feather. There is Mark from a background best described as Rural Frugal. And me from a background as poor as church mice and not long removed from Blue Collar working class. To my shame, dear Reader, I have to admit I was flattered. I had never even thought of us as Old Money before. Apparently upward social mobility is possible at lightening speed in the heady world of gardening..

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