Gardening as a treasure hunt

I just love bureaucrats. They are such a wonderful source of ridicule. Farming readers will be busy jumping through the same hoops as nursery people and even section maintenance operators – undergoing mandatory courses in agrichemicals in preparation for the January deadline after which one won’t be able to buy many basic chemicals unless one has the magic certificate.

Mark obediently trotted off and did his course last year (if only I could remember where I filed the certificate….). In principle you can’t argue with the logic of attempting to educate people in the safe use of chemicals. There are dangers and pitfalls in their usage and countless tales of abuse and bad effects. So while Mark prides himself on being a relatively safe operator, he didn’t really complain.

But the Farmsafe newsletter was too much for me. “Since 2003, 20 000 farmers throughout New Zealand have attended one or more local Farmsafe programmes. …John Wallart … describes this figure as “awesome” saying that it shows there is significant need … for this type of programme…” Excuse me? The agrichemical one, which probably accounts for the largest uptake, is compulsory. But wait, there is more: “Importantly, FarmSafe programmes focus on changing hearts and minds – they are not just about legal compliance.” Really? George Bush’s jingoism and hyperbole has a lot to answer for in publicity blurb out of government departments. I regret to own up that it was not changed heart and mind that had my Mark going to his course. He just needed his certificate.

A bitterly cold spell here recently had me thinking that maybe I would be better to return to knitting and sewing. My only comfort was the oft repeated saying from my late mother: “When the weather is bad here, it is always worse somewhere else.” Mind you, she spent most of her time living in Dunedin so I am not sure that she was right, but certainly the west coast of the North Island seems to have had the better of the weather lately. And as it was bitter and miserable with a wind chill factor thrown in here, it would have been wretched elsewhere. I was not above smiling when I heard on the radio that the wind chill factor had brought Auckland down to 3 degrees on Friday last week! If Aucklanders were more tactful and stopped assuming that we get covered in snow every year (“How can you grow such tender material in your cold climate?”), I might not have been so mean spirited.

That said, the garden is showing cold and frost damage. Nothing devastating, fortunately, but some of the more tender material is looking translucent and turning a little slimy. I use a plant called a manfreda as a bedding plant in a couple of borders and it gets hit by frost each year but springs into growth again as soon as the weather warms up. This manfreda had been kicking around the nursery for nigh on a decade before I started using it and Mark didn’t know anything about it except who gave it to him. It is a low growing plant with fleshy biggish leaves with interesting dark red spots and markings on them. In summer it puts up a sturdy and spectacular flowering spike topped with singularly unspectacular flowers. I say the spike is impressive because it suddenly shoots up well over a metre and seems to be remarkably wind tolerant for something that size but the flowers on the end are dullish, greenish, whitish affairs of no great note.

As manfredas did not appear in any of our usual reference books, I had to resort to Google (what a wonderful tool that is) only to discover that it is most likely to be manfreda maculosa, hailing from Southern Texas and Mexico. This may explain why it doesn’t like the frosts. Google helpfully told me it is referred to as the Texas tuberose or the Spice Lily (closely related to agaves and therefore a member of the botanical family of lilies). But the most interesting fact was that the flowers are attractive to humming birds. Now I may have bemoaned the fact recently that amongst all the birds introduced by our British forbears, we missed out on Robin Redbreast, but for curiosity value, I wish we had been bequeathed some humming birds instead of the humble sparrows. I shall look at the manfreda flowers next summer with new respect. In the meantime, I shall be looking at the manfreda leaves disintegrating before my eyes in response to the cold.

Similarly, the leaves on the blue lachenalias and the urceolinas are looking rather burned. This too is a common occurrence in winter but they seem to bravely battle on and put up their flowers. Lachenalias are a surprisingly large family of South African bulbs. Our yellow forms have opened their first flowers (mostly reflexa hybrids for those in the know). The common orange and yellow form has not yet started (aloides, formerly incorrectly known as pearsonii), but it is the choice and rare blue forms which are most coveted. There is a whole range of different blue forms, from true blues to lilac blues through to bluish whites. Alas these ones tend to be more vulnerable to cold and difficult to grow. Ain’t that just the way? The choicer a plant is, the more difficult it is to grow well.

Our urceolinas are charming spring flowering bulbs from Peru. In mild climates they are evergreen but we often seem to lose the foliage to winter cold. In three months time, they will pop up a tallish stem topped with charming coral orange bells.

Much of what makes gardening interesting is the little pictures, the detail. Anyone can look and see the big picture (the grand view or the first look at the whole) and, if you are lucky, say “oh wow”. But to look again and then to keep looking again and again, it is the detail that is needed. Gardening is really allied to an adult treasure hunt, when you think about it.