Prickly matters

I have, as we say, been ‘doing under the rimus’. “It looks like you have vacuumed it,” said Zach and I was gratified because it is a big job on one of the key areas of the garden. The pressure is on, you understand, with just under five weeks until we open for the Taranaki Garden Festival.

Not, as we thought, a billbergia but Aechmea coelestris var albomarginata

We have our fingers crossed that Auckland will be out of Level 3 so able to travel (looking good, Aucklanders, on Friday’s figures! The rest of us around the country are holding our collective breath for you. Well, most of us around the country).


Cleaning up under the rimus is painstaking work but it only needs that level of attention once a year so I generally describe it as low maintenance. I go through and pick over every plant to remove the debris that falls continuously from the trees above and to groom each plant. We are not talking a small area – maybe 100 metres long and varying from 10 to 30 metres wide. The debris is being removed by the wool bale load even though we leave the rimu needles to provide the path surfaces.


It is a complex planting but bromeliads feature large. It is not that we have a choice collection of bromeliads. Our interest lies solely in them as garden plants in a shaded, borderline-sub-tropical situation so that limits the range we can grow. Broms are a huge family and largely from the tropical areas of the Americas. The best-known bromeliad is of course the pineapple. I have something of an aversion to prickly plants and many broms are prickly. Their flowering, while undeniably exotic and interesting, doesn’t make my heart sing like some other plants. So my knowledge of them is limited to caring for the ones we have and I have never felt motivated to get to grips with the whole plant family, botanically speaking.

Nidularium probably procerum, I am told by one who knows more about these than I do

Most of the varieties we have flower and then put out one or two fresh shoots to the side while the flowering centre starts to whiff off and die, sometimes very slowly over a period of two years or more if left alone. Once they start to discolour, I go through and cut them off which stops the clump from looking too crowded.

A particularly prickly aechmea

The very best implement for this is what I now see is named a ‘flax cutter’ – a small curved, serrated blade that is extremely useful for many garden tasks but probably not cutting flax. It is handy for cutting down grasses and faster than secateurs for deadheading perennials that need flowering spikes cut off. I had to go and buy a new one this week. I lost my good one somewhere amongst the bromeliads. I then went and found my old one and promptly lost that too. You would think I might have learned by now to keep better track of garden tools. This one came with a nice ash wood handle but I spray painted it before I even took it out to the garden – blue, because we had a can of blue spray paint on the shelf. I will not lose this one, I have vowed to myself.

Arm puttees and the new flax cutter

The second piece of vital gear is arm puttees. The alternative is that the prickly bromeliad leaves will shred the skin from the top of the garden gloves to the elbow. I speak from experience here. My arm puttees are simply the sleeves cut from an old denim shirt, elasticated at both the wrist and the elbow. They are worth improvising if you are dealing with prickly plants.

DIY garden kneeling pads

While on handy hints, I can highly recommend cutting kneeling pads from the high-density foam mats sometimes used as yoga mats or sleeping mats for trampers. One came into my possession and I can see it will last me for years. I simply cut it to the required size with what we know as a Stanley knife which is just a larger box-cutter. I find the kneeling mats sold in garden supply shops way too small but these I can make in a size that suits me. They cushion the ground and keep my knees dry, as long as I keep to the mat.

A billbergia

I had a mental debate with myself as to whether I could post my few photos of those currently in flower in the area where I am working without naming them – by general group if not cultivar. Well, we have long since lost the cultivar names. I have never committed bromeliad groups to memory but I feel I am lowering standards if I don’t name plants here so feel free to correct me on the classifications. We are by no means certain on them. Postscript: I have done a round of corrections on the photo caps after receiving advice from a reader who knows a whole lot more about bromeliad botany and nomenclature than we do.

What we refer to as an FIK but I am now told is Aechmea pineliana
No prickles! Aechmea gamosepala X ‘Cappuchino’

11 thoughts on “Prickly matters

  1. Paddy Tobin

    That’s a wonderful selection of plants; plants that would never survive outside with us in Ireland. That knife you use – we were on holidays on Madeira and noticed gardeners using a similar knife, though with a short handle. I managed to buy one in a hardware shop there got it back through the airports without any bother. It is the best thing for cutting down any plant which has a multitude of soft stems, far faster and easier than using a secateurs. Like you, Mary is forever losing her tools and I regularly have to check the material for the compost bin to search for her fork/trowel/secateurs/whatever!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      The closest thing I have ever seen to our garden under the rimus is the covered house at Kew. We felt right at home there – so many plants we can grow outdoors in a garden situation here.
      Go Mary! I can add sunglasses to that list. Lost two pairs recently. Because of both laser and cataract surgery, I often need sunglasses outside and they flick off the top of my head. Devilishly difficult to find again.

  2. Cath

    Those flax knives, sometimes sold as ‘garden shark’ or ‘herbaceous sickle’ are the best tools for pulling out kikuyu grass from around plants. (And so many other things) I sometimes use mine under the surface of the soul to pull out the roots – probably not so good for it but saves my arm and shoulder. I’m hoping we may get to visit your garden again this year. :)

  3. Tim Dutton

    We had a good laugh, because I’ve lost count of how many tools we’ve lost while gardening. Mostly secateurs and trowels, but Mel managed to lose her spade once and it didn’t turn up until a year later, none the worse for wear after a year under some shrubs, and I once lost my pickaxe and that turned up months later propped up in the garage, hidden behind a piece of plywood that I had obviously leant against it! We have yet to lose a wheelbarrow though…
    The flax cutter tool (ours is a Niwashi) is fabulous: we bought one with a longer handle recently and it does a superb job on any flax leaves that I need to trim.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      It was a Niwashi I lost. Shopping in a hurry to replace it, I only had a choice of a cheaper brand so I grabbed that. Hopefully, the Niwashi may reappear… You have just inspired me to find my photos from ages ago of the missing hedgeclippers and rake. But I have yet to lose my spade!

  4. Marin Longden

    There is a very knowledgeable group called Bromeliads in Brazil on Facebook, in case you need some ID they may be able to help.

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