Seven days from the winter solstice – Tikorangi this week


The white form of Dahlia imperialis

The last tree dahlia of the season is in bloom. Dahlia imperialis alba plena is the towering giant of them all, way up in the sky, not blooming until well into winter so particularly vulnerable to frosts and winter gales. I took this photo yesterday to show those in other climates the intensity of winter light that we get here on sunny days. It is different to those who garden where the winter sun hangs lower in the sky. We are not tropical; I don’t want to mislead. It is almost mid-winter and can be quite chilly. However, it is a lot less depressing to the spirits when you live somewhere with this clarity of bright light, even on the shortest days of the year.


Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ shimmering in the late afternoon light

IMG_7040We are now well into what Piet Oudolf refers to as the ‘fifth season’ and the new Court Garden brings me much pleasure, especially in the late afternoon when the sun is dropping lower and shines through the miscanthus grasses. I have used a lot of miscanthus running through the garden in waves and the plumes shine in the light and wave gently in any breeze.

IMG_7031IMG_7039I have finally found a place where this large yellow salvia can grow with sufficient space and it is a late autumn – early winter highlight. We have never had a name on this variety so if any readers can identify it for me, I would be grateful. It stands a good two metres tall so it is a large plant to accommodate. *** Now identified as Salvia madrensis, thanks readers.

Tips and techniques for the week:


Stipa gigantea after a major thinning exercise

  • I took a before photo of this block of Stipa gigantea in the new Court Garden but I appear to have deleted it when I was filing photos. It looked fine at the end of its first year but I knew it wouldn’t stay looking fine and it was already too congested to allow the plants to fountain out and show their natural form. Last week, I took out well over half the plants and gave them away. I did have to lift some of the remaining plants to centre them to their own space but I am much happier with it now so it was worth the effort. I haven’t grown this stipa before and hadn’t realised how much space each plant needs. I am hoping this can now be left alone for a few years at least. It has a white field daisy growing between which I have learned I can get two, maybe three successive flowerings from spring to autumn if I cut it back to the base rosette at the right time.


    Layering up the prunings at the back, more or less out of sight

  • Out of the ‘I thought it would be a straightforward job that would only take a day and a half at the most but actually took four full days and still isn’t quite finished’ school of thought, I spent this week clearing the wilderness of boundary plantings that separate the caterpillar garden from the boundary with the neighbours’ wool shed and yards. People with big gardens will understand that you have areas which get planted and then mostly left to their own devices. It is one of those jobs you finally tackle when preparing to open the garden to the public again. Nobody will notice I have done it, but they may well have noticed had I not. Over the years, it had become largely impenetrable with self-sown camellias, layered hydrangeas, native seedlings, especially kawakawa and various mounds of vegetation where I had emptied the wheelbarrow of prunings that I didn’t want in the compost heap. It amazes me how far I can get with a sharp pruning saw. Because there was so much of it, I dragged all the debris to the back and layered it by the boundary fence. At some points, it is quite a bit higher than in this photo. It can gently rot down there, adding humus and carbon to the soil and is a lot lighter on labour than carting it all away to compost and mulch. It is a technique we are using quite extensively now and is a tidy, unobtrusive way of dealing with excessive amounts of garden waste. That said, it is a big garden technique, rather than one for small town gardens.


    On track to be an undulating, curvy hedge like a moving caterpillar

  • I have started a major clipping round on the hedges in what we call the Caterpillar Garden. The hedge is Camellia microphylla, already nearing the end of its flowering season. The plants were pretty neglected -raised from seed and cuttings many years ago and then left to kick around the old nursery until we were ready to use them. We planted them two years ago and the hedges, laid out in the shape of the basket fungus, are still a bit patchy. Mark’s plan is to clip these hedges into mounded, free-form shapes like an undulating caterpillar in the style we associate strongly with UK designer, Tom Stuart Smith. I am doing the first clip this season and have told Mark it is his job to come through and do the final clip of the top to get the mounding shapes he wants.
    OCcamellias 014

    The straight-edged, hard clipped approach

    Most of our clipped hedges here are very straight sided with the top meeting at right angles. Lloyd does them with a string line to keep the lines straight and the hedges a uniform width. He has a good eye for these things. But after spending a fair number of hours clipping and shaping the caterpillar hedge, I can tell you that it is a great deal easier and more pleasurable to work with a more organic shape and form than that military regimentation of the sharper-edged hedges. Informality is much more forgiving than formality.

11 thoughts on “Seven days from the winter solstice – Tikorangi this week

  1. tonytomeo

    Dahlia imperialis, or something like it, was very popular in Santa Cruz for a few years. When I saw it in nurseries, it was labeled only as ‘tree dahlia’, but without a species name. There was only one cultivar, with cheery pink bloom. I got one with double white bloom. It looked like ‘Alba Plena’, but had another funnier name. A tenant dug and discarded it while I was away. Just as suddenly as they appeared, tree dahlia disappeared. For a perennial, they certainly did not last long. It was as if they all died on the same day.

  2. Paddy Tobin

    Those tree dahlias no longer frustrate me – I have just given up on them ever flowering here. Our season is simply not long enough. Camellia as a hedging plant is unheard of here in Ireland; it seems to be very successful with you.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Camellias are one of the most common hedging plants here. Disease free (except for petal blight in japonicas and reticulatas), sprout from bare wood so can be cut back hard, evergreen, wind tolerant, not going to become forest giants, grow in sun and some shade, hardy throughout NZ – very useful. We prefer the small leafed cultivars for clipped hedges.

  3. Tim Dutton

    We managed to buy a tree dahlia, just labelled as ‘white’, from a local church fair last spring. It wasn’t a very big tuber and I’ve grown it on in a pot in our courtyard for protection over the summer. No flowers, but it is still growing and still in leaf. Getting it to flowering size is a project for the future I think.
    Our Camellia hedges are in flower now. Mark’s ‘Fairy Blush’ is starting to thicken up nicely and the flowers go on and on for months, but C. sasanqua ‘Setsugekka’ breaks flowering stems too often from ravages by the chorus cicada every summer and has been a bit disappointing as a result. Anyone who does NOT get these cicadas is very lucky: they are the only garden pest we have that has caused us to remove entire trees due to the extensive annual damage they have caused resulting in branches breaking at the weak points (a golden elm and a Liriodendron).
    We have a Teucrium fruticans hedge clipped caterpillar fashion. I have to clip it 4 times a year, but it is a lovely way to grow a hedge and well worth the effort. I agree that clipping a free form undulating shape is very satisfying.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      We would love to visit your garden one day, Tim. It sounds as though much of it is in line with our approach to gardening.

      1. Tim Dutton

        We’d love to host you on a garden tour too, if you are ever down our way (near Upper Hutt). We do have a lot in common in how we garden, but I think we must be a lot wetter and certainly colder than you, which has its challenges.

  4. Carol Gurney

    What happy memories we retain from our wonderful visit with the IDS in I think 2009.
    Carol and Elizabeth Gurney

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Dear Carol and Elizabeth, how lovely to hear from you. Is it really 10 years ago that visit took place? Goodness. We were most disappointed to have to cancel our trip this year – was to be summer wildflowers in the Pindos Mountains and then some time back looking at UK summer gardens. We were to leave in 10 days. With our borders now closed for an indeterminate time, we may not get over again. I assume Gill N is still with us? Please give her our warmest best wishes. Hope you are keeping very well and staying safe. Best regards, Abbie and Mark

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