Found! Low maintenance gardening (of a sort)

The magnolia and te maunga

Magnolia campbellii, the Quaker Mason form

For me, the start of a new gardening year is marked by the opening of the first magnolia bloom. It is a very personal measure of time. This year, it happened this very week. Magnolia campbellii has opened her first blooms on the tree in our park. So I start a new season series of The Magnolia and Te Maunga – ‘te maunga’ being ‘the mountain’ in Maori. Our magnificent Mount Taranaki is commonly referred to simply as ‘the mountain’ by locals because it stands alone and is part of the very being of anyone who was born or now lives within sight of its presence. It is, by the way, an active volcano. With other volcanoes erupting in the world, Mark was moved to comment last week that we do at least live far enough away to get some warning if we ever need to evacuate. I have ascertained that the distance between our magnolia and the peak is 36km as the crow flies, so it is at the limits of my camera zoom.

Beneath the mighty rimu trees

Earlier in the year, we rashly agreed to open the garden for the annual conference of the NZ Camellia Society. I say rashly, only because the August date is coming closer. We closed our garden to the public coming up to five years ago now. While we maintain it to a standard that we are happy with, opening it to others requires a higher standard of presentation. I am beginning to feel the pressure. This week, I started working my way along the garden we call the rimu avenue. It is an area about 100 metres long and up to 25 metres wide, so large enough to accommodate a fair number of townhouses, were it in a major city. Fortunately, we are in the country, so instead of townhouses we have a backbone of 14 majestic rimu trees, now nearing 150 years old. Rimu are a native podocarp, botanically Dacrydium cupressinum. Mark’s great grandfather planted them back in the 1870s and photos show that they have doubled in size in Mark’s lifetime.

Beneath these rimu, we have what is probably the most complex planting of anywhere in our garden. Oddly, it occurred to me this week that it is the least demanding in terms of regular maintenance. This is not related to the complexity of the planting; it is to do with the fact that it is all in dry shade and also to the plant selection over time. In the last five years, we have gone through it and pulled out fallen branches and a bit of occasional debris but it has not had the loving attention to detail that I am currently giving it.

Over time, this area has become a largely self-maintaining matrix planting, an ecosystem in its own right.  There is a little bit of seeding down, but not too much. The *volunteer plants* that arrive are largely ferns, nikau palms, native collospermum and other astelias. The most common weeds are the occasional germinating Prunus campanulata and the cursed bangalow palms. Most weeds need more light. That in itself is worth knowing. If you hate weeding, go for shade gardening.

Piling the debris onto the meandering paths

All I am doing to jazz it up is going through and removing much of the fallen rimu leaf litter and debris which builds up over time, taking out the spent heads of bromeliads, thinning clumps where necessary, a bit of cutting back of shrubby begonias, zygocactus, thinning the thuggish Monstera deliciosa and Philodendron bipinnatifidum and general tidying up. It looks a great deal better for it.

For those who are wondering what plants we have growing in the rimu avenue, I will tell you that when we first went into the enormous subtropical glasshouse at Kew Gardens in London, we felt right at home. There seemed to be a large number of plants growing under glass that we grow under the rimu, an area that is completely frost free. We have a whole range of shade palms, schefflera, vireya rhododendrons, dendrobium orchids, many clivias red, orange and yellow, species hippeastrum bulbs, Crinum moorei, bromeliads galore, ferns and a whole lot more. Everything is interplanted so it is complex and layered full, interesting year-round, as well as low maintenance.  Mark’s father first starting planting this area in the late 1950s so it has only taken 60 years of active management to reach this state of gardening nirvana.

Laying cut lengths beneath

and spreading the mulched leafy waste – yellow because it was mostly berberis

While I am working ‘up the top’, as we say, Mark and Lloyd have been down in the park doing a tidy up of fallen branches and dead shrubs and trees. Chainsaw and mulcher work, mostly. For those who read these posts looking for handy hints, I photographed their techniques for dealing with the waste on site. While they may have removed the bigger pieces for firewood, the smaller lengths of branch and trunk are chainsawed into short lengths and laid beneath large shrubs or trees. Line the lengths up in the same direction and they look neater and more purposeful than being tossed higgledy piggledy. The leafage and finer material has been mulched on site and raked out over a bed of dormant herbaceous planting. These are not techniques for formal or tightly groomed gardens but we find it an acceptable process in informal and more naturalistic areas. And we like the philosophy of keeping the cycle of growth, death and then decay nourishing further fresh growth in the same location.


10 thoughts on “Found! Low maintenance gardening (of a sort)

  1. sarahnorling2014

    Oh for dry shade! I must have damp shade. Under my garden’s canopy of rhododendrons, camellias, and various trees, I grow hellebores, hostas, podophyllum, asplenium, rengas, Japanese windflowers, astilbe, hydrangeas. I also grow binload after binload of tradescantia. A never-ending pest, not helped by having fresh batches always growing through the fence from the neighbours. And don’t get me started on the unwanted ivy, convolvulus, jasmine, and Pandorea pandorana….

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Goodness. The temptation to have a nuked wasteland along the boundary fence must be strong! You must have good light levels to be able to grow some of those plant options.

      1. sarahnorling2014

        Not quite a nuked wasteland, but I did succumb to temptation and put down weedmat and bark chip mulch at the very back of one border. That’s a couple of square metres of respite anyway.

  2. Tim Dutton

    I well remember your very impressive rimu avenue from our one and only visit to your wonderful garden 10 years ago. I was particularly struck by the Philodendron and Monstera, so much so that I tried putting a rather sad Philodendron that we had been growing indoors out in the garden, nestled in the crook of a large willow. The willow has now gone, apart from its stump, but the Philodendron still clings on to life year after year, currently with a single leaf. Poor thing. Certainly a failed experiment for us. We do turn all our shrub and tree clearing into either firewood or mulch that goes back on the cleared area, as you do, but that size of stick that you are using beneath the trees we would use for firewood as well.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      If the cutting was being done up the top, we would take more for firewood. But there is an access issue for the tractor down in the park.

  3. tonytomeo

    When we grew magnolias, including Magnolia campbelii, back in the 1990s, I really disliked them. They really should be planted while young. They do not want to be confined to cans in nurseries. The bigger trees always had bad root systems that were not only confined, but stuck to the bottoms of the cans. They seemed so desperate to get out that they ignored the upper half of their media. I like magnolias much more now that I am not growing them on the farm, but instead working with a few in landscapes. They really are pretty once they get growing like they want to.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Tony, I can tell you with some authority that this is a grower/production problem, not an issue with the genus. Speaking as one whose surname is pretty much synonymous with magnolias these days. 😀

  4. tonytomeo

    Well, as a grower/production type grower and producer of such horticultural commodities, I can concur with some authority that this is a grower/production problem for those of us who grow and produce them.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      We’ll I ain’t gonna argue it with you Tony. Or parade our credentials when it comes to both field and container production of deciduous magnolias. At least you like them these days!

      1. tonytomeo

        They are pretty sweet in other people’s gardens! One of my colleagues has what I believe to be a Magnolia X soulangeana ‘Lennei’ that might have come from there. I am only guessing because it was originally what seemed to be a Magnolia X soulangeana ‘Lennei Alba’, but got broken off at the ground by a fallen tan oak, and regenerated from the rootstock with the same branch structure, but pink flowers. That is what happened to ours that died back on the farm. In fact, I would guess that my colleague’s tree came from the farm, which originally came from there back in the 1990s. I actually prefer the white, but they are both really pretty.

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