Behind the scenes – winter works

We get a tad defensive about our weather here. That has a lot to do with summers that are a little cooler than areas that boast better summer holiday climates and we take longer to warm up in spring. So forgive me for boasting our autumn sunshine hours being the highest in the country for the three months just passed – 1207 hours to be precise. There is a lot to recommend sunny days in autumn and winter.

There are places in NZ that only get 1600 hours a year. We are usually above 2200 hours, sometimes even 2400 but even so we seem to be getting more than our share of sunshine this year. And goodness, we are achieving a lot in the garden.

It takes a surprising amount of work behind the scenes to manage this pretty spring scene of overhead azaleas and Tulipa saxatilis – a speces tulip from Crete – in the foreground

Mark and I have spent the better part of a week tackling the azaleas. Many of these are venerable old plants, mostly Kurume azaleas which are most often seen as low, tight buns smothered in flowers. Years ago, Mark made the call to limb up and thin, rather than to cut down and shape to tidy mounds. Our approach takes more work and we like the grace of the twisted stems which are white with lichen and the overhead carpet look. But, and it is a big but, that canopy needs ongoing work thinning and cleaning or it becomes a tangle of dead twiglets festooned in hugely excessive amounts of lichen. We had left this patch too long and it has been a major task to get it back. It is, Mark observed wryly after a day spent up the ladder carrying out microsurgery, one of those jobs nobody else will notice we have done. But we will notice and it will bring us renewed pleasure.

You can see the ladder nestling in the midst of these very tall evergreen azaleas
This is the spring look of an overhead carpet of colour we are working to regain

Lichen is apparently a sign of clean air. We could spray it out but we choose not to spray as a part of routine garden maintenance. Being azaleas, we could also cut down hard and let the plants ‘come again’, as is said, but we don’t want to cut down 70 years of growth and clipped mounds of azaleas are a bit suburban in style for our garden.

Adding the lower rail for safety reasons

“Have you any idea what Lloyd is doing?” Mark asked me on Friday as he noticed Lloyd cutting timber and heading down to the park. Yes, I did know. He was adding a lower rail to the high bridge and a very tidy job he made of it, too. He had become aware of the lack of protection for small people when he took his young granddaughter around the garden last spring. While it is certainly not childproof now, at least none will fall off if they take a step backwards. With the height of the bridge and rocky rapids below, it seemed a minor safety measure we could make with relative ease.

Zach has been solving a couple of longstanding issues down in the park. While the Primula helodoxa puts on a wonderful display in spring, Mark was concerned at the weed potential downstream and wanted the plants removed from the banks and the immediate flood zone so the seed from our plants did not colonise the Waiau Stream from here to the ocean. I had been worrying about two cold, sloping beds with very heavy soil that Mark had put in nearby. While they looked splendid when he first planted them, over the years they had gone back badly and we didn’t really know what to do with them. They were a step too far for us to give them the attention they needed to keep the complexity of suitable plantings and to keep them free of weeds. Last year, when we reopened for the first time in seven years, I took the temporary step of doing a quick tidy-up and getting Lloyd to carpet them in wood chip. That at least made them look cared for but didn’t solve the issues.

A pretty expanse of yellow but that is a huge amount of seed, much of which will potentially wash down stream
The primulas have largely gone from beside the water to the lower slopes of the hillside above the flood zone

I wanted to incorporate the beds into the meadow we now manage in the park. Zach, bless his energy, enthusiasm and ability to pick up on ideas quickly, has taken on board the concept of blurring the lines between cultivated areas and wilder areas. Sharp demarcations in the garden belong in the most intensively maintained areas. I mean tightly defined edgings, of course. In the more naturalistic spaces, we find a softer transition pleasing to our eyes. The survivors of the original plantings are still there – some very good hostas, trilliums and interesting arisaemas in the main – but now they are interplanted with a hillside of yellow primulas relocated above the flood zone. More meadow than garden and much of the informal ponga edging (lengths of tree fern trunks) has been removed so the meadow grass and buttercups can invade, as it will anyway. I am looking forward to spring to see how seamless it will appear.

Too much miscanthus

Next week, Zach and I will tackle the miscanthus in the grass garden. Normally, I would leave it standing longer into winter but it needs Major Thinning. I am anticipating culling somewhere between 50 and 70% of it, which can be done without it being apparent to anybody else that anything has changed. It does involve digging every plant, dividing some of them and replacing fewer at wider spaces. It needs doing. I badly overplanted them and underestimated how much they would grow. But I learn from every mistake I make along the way. When they are planted too closely and the clumps get large, they fall apart. With smaller clumps and more space, they will hold themselves upright well into winter. I am hoping we can then get away with root pruning them in situ every second year and maybe avoid having to dig and divide for at least another five years. That is the plan.

May our sunny days of early winter continue for another week at least.

7 thoughts on “Behind the scenes – winter works

  1. Lisa P

    All so beautiful and fabulous… Does the Tulipa Saxatilis need to be refrigerated? Would it grow in Auckland? Abbie please forgive me for my ignorance but do you need to refrigerate your regular tulips in Taranaki? Are you going to try anything new along your streambank?

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      No, being from Crete, it doesn’t need refrigeration and it just keeps reappearing year after year. I am not a big fan of the common, hybrid tulips that do not perform well after the first year. We have left the Higo and Siberian irises along the stream bank and various other plants that will grow on the stream margins without becoming a weed. Removed the flag iris and wakendorfia though.

  2. robynkiltygardensnz

    Your winter is like our spring! Fancy having those pretty yellow Primulas flowering now! Hard work but fun to sculpt and shape those twisty Azalea branches giving them such an oriental feel – you might hope?

  3. Tim Dutton

    Certainly always plenty to do in the garden at this time of year, planning for next year. I love the look of the 70 year old Azalea canopy, a job well worth doing I’d say.

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