The start of a new gardening year

Australian based daughter had been home this week and burst out laughing when the TV weather here started talking about the lack of rain. “Oh no,” she cried, “no rain since February the sixth.” Where she lives in Canberra, there is no grass left, no lawns. Residents have given up even the pretence of a lawn and front yard after yard is being laid in bark chip. Unfortunately the bark chip comes in a wide palette of colours. Maybe the green dyed bark is meant to look like lush lawn from the air? But I am not sure about the red bark. We asked her if the dyes ran or were colour fast. She pointed out that it doesn’t rain so she doesn’t know the answer. Mature European trees and wattles are dying and even half grown eucalyptus have succumbed to the dry.

Daughter says she is surprised that the Canberra locals are not adapting their style of gardening to better suit their climate. Instead of the pursuit of the green lawn edged with mixed borders in the English style, she felt they should be looking to the Mediterranean for inspiration. The very hot dry summers and the cold dry winters of the Med are a more appropriate role model than lusher climes. We wondered about the prairie gardens of the American mid west, too. Alternatively, she felt front yards could be planted in swathes of kangaroo paws – anigozanthus. These are an Aussie native and the range of flowers has been extended greatly in jewel colours which rather match the rosella parrots. We see some of these new colours coming into New Zealand garden centres and they are well worth a place in the garden if you have hot, dry conditions with sharp drainage. They certainly make a change from succulents which like similar conditions. In my experience, the jewel colours are not as robust as the common old red and yellow forms, but they seem to manage to battle on in our rockery.

Colleagues in the nursery trade in Australia tell me times are really tough as the drought remains unbroken. Water is becoming a hot potato politically as the federal government moves to nationalise supplies and to control the draw off from ever dwindling rivers. We do not always appreciate how lucky we are here with a climate that is blessed.

That said, as a summer fan, I feel a slightly forlorn sense at the early harbingers of autumn. I love the miniature cyclamen but I would wish that they could delay their first flowers a few more weeks. And the belladonnas and colchicums (the original naked ladies) are starting to flower. The nerines are moving into growth and the first flowers are not far away. The gentle drift from summer into autumn has begun.

But autumn in our climate could fairly be described as the start of the new gardening year. In colder climates, spring is the awakening time after the garden has been dormant and put to sleep through winter. Here, it is only for a few weeks in high summer that most gardening activity ceases. As soon as we cool a few degrees, the sun loses a little intensity and the autumn rains come, it can be a hive of activity in the garden.

Autumn is by far the best planting time for trees and shrubs, especially in coastal areas and around South Taranaki and Wanganui where land dries out quickly in summer. Plants then have all of winter to settle in, followed by a growth spurt in spring and are better established when it comes to withstanding summer. The custom of spring being the main planting season owes more historically to the nursery trade than to good gardening practice. Until the eighties almost all plants were field grown – in other words planted in the ground. Field grown plants can’t be lifted and bagged until autumn and winter so garden centres took delivery of new season’s stock during winter for sale in spring.

These days many plants are container grown from start to finish so are available for autumn planting. And field nurseries will often lift and pot a certain percentage of their crop in spring to carry over through summer for autumn supply. So garden centres commonly start to take delivery of new season’s stock of woody trees and shrubs in April. This is ideal for planting.

So if you do little else in the garden during March, at least look at areas which you may want to renovate or replant. If a tree or shrub is looking really tatty at this time of the year, odds on you could replace it with a better specimen. Yukky thrip infested and defoliated rhododendrons might be better replaced with higher health varieties. The same goes for nasty yellow leafed camellias. Most plants should still be looking lush and healthy if they are growing well. New hedges will also do better if planted in autumn.

‘Tis the time also of remainder bins where garden centres and nurseries quit last season’s stock which is losing condition. It is fine to be a bargain hunter, but you do need to take a bit more care of stressed, hungry and rootbound plants. Many may not have been fed as required and, if subjected to drought, may have gone into an early deciduous phase of dropping their leaves. Beware of evergreen plants which have defoliated – they may be on the way out.

You can’t buy stressed plants and expect them to be as good as a fine healthy specimen from the start. It is often best to ensure the root ball is thoroughly saturated by plunging it in a bucket of water until the bubbles stop rising and the plant sinks to the bottom rather than floating, and then to tuck it in to well cultivated soil in the vegetable garden. Experienced gardeners know the advantage of having a bit of plant hospital space. . In those soft, friable and hopefully fertile conditions, the plant has a chance to recover and you can then move it in winter to its permanent location. By that point, you should be able to see fresh white roots forming. If you can’t, don’t waste your time and garden space by planting it out. Not all cheap remainders will prove to be bargains.