“Oh,” said Mark as he went to empty the food scraps into the black compost bin. “A tea maiden.” I was picking the finest, youngest leaves off the tea camellia. At least I know to pick only the tender leaves. I may have learned this from advertisements long ago, claiming superior status for some brands on account of only picking the youngest, most tender leaves. I am guessing the cheaper, dustier teas are from the tougher leaves further down the stem.
Preparing the tea is still a learning process here. Last year’s harvest was a bit bland, to be honest, so was mostly used up making kombucha because it didn’t rival our preferred French Earl Grey tea. I shall try fermenting this batch a little longer than just overnight to see if that deepens the flavour. Maybe two or three days before I start the drying process.
And I am upping the additional flavourings component because we like aromatic teas. It will be citrus and rose scented – using tender leaves of the lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora), orange blossom (the orange trees are still in flower here), the grated zest of an orange and the most scented rose petals I could find.
I planted out three more tea camellias (Camellia sinensis) this year but they are still small. It takes a whole lot of leaves to get any volume of dried tea so I doubt we will ever reach self sufficiency in tea but it is fun to try, in a homestead-y sort of fun way. You do need one of the proper tea camellia varieties, not just any old camellia and I have no idea how readily available they are on the market these days.
I quote again the Wikipedia article in answer to the question as to whether there are different camellias for different teas: “Camellia sinensis and its subspecies, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, are two major varieties grown today. White tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh tea and black tea are all harvested from one or the other, but are processed differently to attain varying levels of oxidation.” There are different selections of the species and some will have different characteristics, but the vast majority of tea sold in the world is indeed from Camellia sinensis.
When we made our treks across the world to look at summer gardens, there were three plants that were standout performers we were keen to try here – Stipa gigantea, thalictrum and veronicastrum. Oh, and the giant blue-purple alliums but we are not going to pay the big dollars per bulb they command here. The reason they are so common in English and European gardens is because they can buy the bulbs very cheaply from Dutch growers.
We have a pink thalictrum that is doing fairly well, though it has only achieved waist-high altitude and does not look as though it is going to get much beyond that. The sole veronicastrum – the only success after three attempts with the finest seed Mark has had to deal with (he had to get the magnifying glass out to check that he wasn’t just sowing dust) – is growing slowly and seems to be a plant for the long haul rather than a quick result. But the Stipa gigantea….
A friend in Christchurch sent me a few divisions. I have no idea how long it has been in NZ or who brought it in but it is not widely available commercially. That may just be a matter of time and demand. The few divisions grew, and grew and grew until we had many. I started with them in the perennial borders but after the first two years, realised they were going to be too large there so moved them into the new Court Garden where the focus is on big grasses. I knew I was overplanting them for quick effect 18 months ago so I removed over half of them last autumn to give the remaining plants space to stand alone. Each plant needs well over a metre of area.
The foliage is blueish-green in colour and evergreen, forming a soft fountaining mound about knee-high. But the long-lived, towering, golden flower spikes are the reason to grow it and give it the common name of ‘golden oats’. Last year was something of a disappointment because the sparrows stripped the flowers. Apparently, we can out-sparrow the Brits who introduced that little bird to this country. If we were not going to get the flowers, I wasn’t sure I would persist with the plants.
What a difference a year makes. This season, they are magnificent – a major feature in the new Court Garden. It remains to be seen how long they hold with our bird population but I can live with that because they make a big visual statement in late spring before the miscanthus flower. The ethereal golden heads towering above are so light, they appear to dance against the sky.
As far as we can make out, Stipa gigantea (syn Celtica gigantea) is sterile here, which is helpful. We should be able to confirm this later this season. It is also evergreen. A member of the poa family of grasses, it comes from southern Europe. Given its vigorous growth, it is a good thing it is shallow rooted so easy to lift and divide, often falling apart into divisions in the process. A visitor to the garden told me she was trying to buy one but there was a waiting list and each plant was priced at $40 which made me gulp. I briefly caught myself thinking that I could have easily potted up 40 of them sold them at $20 each during our recent garden festival. But we are over selling plants; we do not want to go back there again.
If you really want to have it in your garden, you could contact Janica at Woodleigh Nursery. I see they are saying sold out at this stage but she tells me she has more which will be ready in autumn. She doesn’t price them at $40 either. You only need one plant and a bit of patience. Within two years, you will have all you need. Just give it plenty of space to star.
The other stipa we grow is Stipa tenuissima (syn Nassella tenuissima) which is very lovely and fluffy but comes with a warning. It seeds down so is on the Weedbusters list though not banned, as far as I know. Avoid it if you are anywhere near native bush or indeed farmland. We don’t need more weed pests invading pastoral land. We are keeping it because it is not a problem in a controlled garden situation and does not seed so badly that we have found it to be a pest.
Actually ten days, but ‘those were the ten days that were’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
About day five, Mark commented that this may be both the wettest and the most successful Taranaki garden festival in the long history of the event. The numbers were huge – three times what we expected in our garden. Apparently over one million of us travel overseas every year and with that coming to an abrupt halt, there are huge numbers of people suffering from cabin fever so getting out and about in our own country. Added to that, we were opening for the first time in seven years.
I was delighted to meet so many people who follow this site and on social media. So often people recognised things I have written about and commented on seeing them in real life. Some had more retentive memories than I have.
But it rained. Almost every day and many nights. Not constantly but enough to have us awash at times. The carparking was challenging in the extreme. I used to think we could park 27 cars in our parking area if we managed it carefully but Brian – Carpark Volunteer Extraordinaire – achieved heady new heights when he managed to stack in 54 vehicles at the same time, all with access to an exit. That was before the rain rendered parts of the overflow grassed area unusable.
We were barrowing out wood chip to muddy tracks and redirecting the routes in the park meadow, to close off tracks that had become mud baths.
I had thought that with friends volunteering in the carpark and at the entry, Mark and I might get to swan around like lord and lady of the manor. Ha! Wishful thinking. My life is all glamour – or not. On Monday the septic tank that services our visitor toilets cried ‘enough’ and backed up and overflowed. This is not what anybody needs on a day with hundreds of visitors in the garden including a large coachload. All credit to the company that sent a man with a truck, a pump and hose out within a few hours. I decided this event was best described as a poocalypse. The operator was a tad surprised at my enthusiastic response, commenting that it was a warmer welcome than he gets from his wife. I hasten to add that it was all smiles and words; I did not embrace this man, despite my relief at his appearance.
Dudley came to us an adult dog – an SPCA rehome – five years ago after we had closed the garden, so this was his first festival. He took to it like a duck to water. He is very food-focused, our Duds. Despite being a well-upholstered dog, he suffers permanent anxiety about where his next meal might come from so he was delighted to find that most garden visitors who have food will share it with him. As he took to checking all car boots when they were opened, we couldn’t decide whether to confer the new title of Carpark Liaison Officer on him, or perhaps Biosecurity Manager.
Geriatric Spike is an old hand at such events but now past the role of greeting visitors. He would lurch out to make a guest appearance from time to time but being stone deaf, somewhat unsteady and with acute dementia, he caused us great anxiety each time he found himself in the busy carparking area. I lost count of how many times I carried him back to his beds in the house. We can’t shut him in because he needs the door open at all times to carry out frequent bodily functions. And because he came to us as a chained dog (another rescue dog), we have never tied him up again so that was not an option.
Come the final Sunday evening, we were people-d out and talked out. Monday passed in a zombie-like state. Only today are we coming back to life. Now we have almost dismantled the accoutrements that were needed for the festival and we can bask in the euphoria of all the positive comments we received. Clearly we have been doing something right in the last seven years.
Will we open again next year? Ask us in a few months’ time.
Dudley is wondering why the excitement has ended and where all the people who fed him have gone.
Day one of the garden festival opened not with a whimper, but with a hiss and a roar. The cars started rolling in just before 9am and by 9.10am the main lines of our modest but usually adequate carpark were full. I had gaily told our volunteers that we wouldn’t need them before 9.45 or 10.00 but I was wrong. We were scrambling from the start and didn’t draw breath til the lunchtime lull.
Numbers are not a problem in the garden. We actively garden and open about seven acres and we can sink a lot of people into that area without it feeling crowded. It is the carparking that can be a problem because we have to get vehicles off the road so we manage it carefully. We were directing cars into our second and third parking lines which was fine until one visitor managed to get their vehicle marooned on a large tree stump. This is a feat that nobody else has achieved since Mark’s mother did the same thing on the same stump in the 1970s. It completely blocked the exit for half the vehicles.
Lloyd to the rescue, though even the normally unflappable Lloyd was a little stressed by this situation. He didn’t want to pull it off with the tractor because that would have pulled the whole front bumper off the car so, ever resourceful, he sent the owner around the garden while he carefully and laboriously jacked up the car using timber bracing until he had it sufficiently clear to enable him to back it off, with no visible damage to the car. I think the visitor was grateful.
My free garden tour at 11am attracted rather too many people for me to manage it as well as I can with smaller numbers. Mark has always been in awe of my ability to take a tour around the garden and to emerge an hour later with more or less the same numbers with which I started. The group this time was too large so I did lose some along the way but it is not compulsory to stay to the end.
Gloria and Pat are mostly managing the gate and we are proud of the 100% cooperation rate with scanning or signing in. Dr Ashley would be proud of us, we feel. It seems that people will forget or neglect to scan unless reminded but everybody agrees that we want to keep NZ free from Covid so they are happy to scan the QA code when specifically requested. For overseas readers, this is the tracing app the government is encouraging so that in the event of a new case, everybody who may have been exposed can be contacted immediately.
Day one saw numbers that were four times higher than our ten year average for the same day but that was eclipsed this morning. Since then, torrential rain set in so it remains to be seen how the day pans out but the hardy and determined are still out and about and the forecast is much improved for tomorrow. I am hoping that will be the case because we need at least fine-ish weather for the gentle and melodic guitar music by Dominique Blatti from 1pm onwards.
What is affirming is the overwhelmingly positive response from visitors. We were nervous about the meadow – would people relate to it or would New Zealanders see it as full of weeds? Fortunately the reactions have been the former and if anybody at all has thought the latter, they have been too polite to tell us. Ditto the new summer gardens – would people see them as part of the interconnected whole of the garden or would they see them as disconnected, too jarringly different in character? The former option triumphs. This is all music to our ears.
Eight more days until we close the gates again to visitors.
A friend came out to help with a garden task this week and she gave some advice that has had me thinking ever since. To be clear, I am fine with receiving advice from friends who have experience. I may or may not follow it.
“Your perennial garden needs structures in it,” she said. ‘To encourage people to go in and view it.” My immediate response was ‘nooooo’ but it has stayed in my mind. She was referring to the Iolanthe garden, a bit of an experiment on my part and the last of our new summer garden series. I pondered the fact that I was really pleased when Mark had said the previous day how much pleasure the Iolanthe garden was giving him and I thought about why I rejected her advice as an immediate response. There are two reasons.
The first is that my friend was still thinking in terms of a garden that is open to the public. That is why people needed to be ‘encouraged’ to leave the driveway and venture into that area. She had a large garden herself that was open to the public until a few years ago when they sold up and retired to a smaller city garden. At that level she is right; structure and focal points draw one in to a space.
But we live here. It is our garden. We don’t need such aids to draw us in. And I realised that at some point in the seven years since we closed, I stopped gardening for show, for public display when the garden is open. I now garden solely for our pleasure, our delight. That is probably why it has been such a shock to me over the last few months to go back to preparing the garden for opening this week. It is a very different focus. I don’t feel I have been gardening. I have been tidying, titivating, garden grooming – and I really don’t find that fulfilling.
Secondly, I realised that the Iolanthe garden didn’t make sense to her and that was interesting. She saw it as ‘a perennial garden’. No, I said, it is a transitional perennial meadow and she didn’t accept that the place for a meadow – transitional or not – is so close to the cultivated, defined areas near the house. Meadows, I pointed out, don’t have structure and focal points as more formal gardens do. I would never plant a straight perennial garden as I have planted this area.
I must accept that in terms of a garden that is open to the public and therefore needs to have some coherence that is easily understood by a reasonably perceptive garden visitor, the Iolanthe garden falls short. Amongst other things, if we were still open for most of the year, it falls short on design. The paths are so narrow that they are single-file and, at this stage, there is no through path for visitors so they must exit the same way they entered. Plans are underway to move the propagation houses which will allow for more flow and a wide central pathway but that will take another year or two.
But none of this matters because we are no longer open, bar the upcoming ten days. My greatest concern at the moment is the disastrous combination of this dusky pink bulb with the cheerful, if garish, calendulas. I think the bulb is a tritonia – maybe T. squalida, but feel free to correct me if I am wrong. I planted them but the calendulas are volunteers. It will be easier to discourage the calendulas from that particular location than to lift the bulbs.
I am not sure yet whether the combination is going to offend me so much that I cut the flowers off the bulbs for our opening. If you are planning on visiting us next week, you may like to step off the driveway and into the area to see.
It is the first year for this garden so it is still getting established but what I envisage is a casual sea of flowers, heavily populated with bees and butterflies, from spring to autumn. With some grasses. Straddling the lines of a perennial garden, a cottage garden and a meadow – so a transitional meadow. That makes sense to both Mark and me, at least, even if this freestyle planting confuses others.
Our garden will be open from Friday 31 October until Sunday 8 November from 9am to 5pm daily as part of the Taranaki Garden Festival. We are not open outside these days.