Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

Elevating herbs

I have been elevating the herbs. Literally.

New dog Ralph is no respecter of gardens and one recent morn, I looked out the window to see him standing in the middle of my self-sown patch of parsley having a pee. Now I can never use that parsley again. Mark suggested washing it well might suffice but I think not.

New dog Ralph. That is a prostrate thyme at ground level that the bees love when in flower but I don’t pick because it has almost no aroma at all so I assume the flavour content is also lacking.

Then I found something even worse in the mat of marjoram. I have no idea if that was Ralph, Dudley or Thor who likes to visit from next door, but enough is enough.

I am no expert on herbs but I like to use them fresh. None of those dusty packets of dried leaves for me, thank you. I don’t even like buying pre-stuffed chook or herby-coated chicken in the supermarket because all I can smell are those dried herbs.

I keep the herbs I use all the time close to the back door so I can get to pick them without having to put on shoes. Oregano, marjoram, tarragon and rosemary are in the dry, hot border beside the house. Parsley, mint, chives and thyme are in the parallel border just across the drive. I have to walk a little further to get the bay leaves, the self-sown coriander, the second area of self-sown parsley and the less-favoured sage whereas the fennel I harvest and store the seeds. Sometimes Mark will grow basil in the summer vegetable garden. There are many more herbs that can be used but those are the staple herbs we favour.

I have only written about herbs once before that I can remember and that was back in 2009. At the time, I advised never to plant herbs on the corners of garden beds because that is where dogs will pee and cats will spray to mark territory. As far as I know, that has worked for us in the past when we favoured smaller dogs. But Ralph is larger and more energetic.

In that 2009 article, I also queried the merit of the designated herb garden which was pretty fashionable back in those days. Different herbs need different growing conditions. In the days of yore, the medieval herb gardens were much more extensive and more focused on medicinal herbs than culinary options. Scaling it down to a small modern garden is not likely to be successful in providing the different conditions needed to grow them well. Besides, while some herbs are pretty enough on their day, as a group of plants they are utility more than ornamental.

Concrete laundry tubs recycled to elevate herbs

Fortunately, we are an establishment rich in stored resources so elevating my back door herbs was not such a major exercise and cost no money. Tucked out behind the grapehouse were the old twin concrete tubs which we discarded when we renovated the laundry 20 years ago. We elevated them further using concrete pavers and blocks and I think they are high enough. They now hold mint, thyme, chives and some small parsley plants that need to grow before I can harvest them.  

Two concrete troughs and an old concrete planter repurposed in the pursuit of herb cleanliness

The oregano and marjoram need hotter, drier conditions to build up flavour. These are still in the dry house border but now elevated in smaller concrete troughs that Mark’s dad Felix made back in the 1950s in the days before you could pop along to the shop to buy such things (though mostly in plastic these days).

The narcissi in the apple border behind the trough, now minus the parsley plants – all Peeping Tom at this time of the year, although a ground hugging blue campanula and yellow daisy Doronicum orientale will take over later in the season.

I protected the drainage holes with broken pieces of terracotta pots and put in a thick layer of gravel at the base of all the tubs because drainage is everything for herbs generally (mint is the exception). I then used a 50/50 mix of top soil and homemade compost for the plants to grow in. They may need the occasional water in dry times but there is a nearby tap.

Mark has just come in and commented that Thor-from-next-door paid a visit and was lurking around the area out from the back door, peeing everywhere, including against the container holding the herbs which, fortunately, are now safely out of the way. So this new configuration has at least passed that test.

Finally, because my elevated herb planters are not very exciting visually, a few photos from yesterday morning. Spring has sprung here.

Magnolia x soulangeana ‘Alexandrina’ and Rhododendron protistum var. giganteum ‘Pukeiti’
Prunus campanulata is controversial in NZ because of its seeding ways but our trees are so full of nectar-feeding tui that we are constantly in danger of being taken out by low flying tui heading from tree to tree.
Narcissus cyclamineus seedlings growing in the park meadow agains the peeling bark of what may or may not be Acer griseum
Our garden apprentice, Zach, has created an orchid garden in the barricades and was stoked to see the first plant in bloom this week.

Signs of spring

First published in Woman magazine, July 2022 edition and reprinted here with additional photographs.

Magnolia campbellii is always the first to open a flower bud, seen here framed against the distant peak of Mount Taranaki.

I am a Jury. Ergo, I love deciduous magnolias. Why does one follow the other, you may wonder. My very late father-in-law, Felix Jury, was the creator of such varieties as Magnolia ‘Vulcan’, ‘Iolanthe’ and others and we still have the original plants here in the garden at Tikorangi. I am married to the man who created ‘Black Tulip’, ‘Felix Jury’, ‘Honey Tulip’ and ‘Burgundy Star’ with more to come soon.

I have long declared that the first blooms on the magnolias herald the start of a new gardening year. The first one to open for us is always the pink Magnolia campbellii in our park. It is one of the earliest harbingers of spring and we usually get the first flower a few days after the winter solstice which is around June 21. 

Enter Matariki which we celebrated as a nation on June 24 this year. While we accept the Gregorian calendar dating back to 1582, that only determines the elements of time which are derived from Earth’s position in the solar system – such as the length of individual months, equinoxes and solstices. The assignment of certain dates to celebrations is an arbitrary human decision. The determination that January 1 is the start of a new year is based entirely on northern hemisphere tradition and it happens to come 9 or 10 days after the winter solstice. What I find fascinating is that Maori arrived at the same conclusion, give or take a few days. It may be six months out of step as far as the calendar goes but it is synchronised with the seasons.

Matariki is determined by the rising in the sky of the star formation generally known as the Pleiades and the start of the new lunar year. It just so happens that Matariki occurs within a few days of the winter solstice in New Zealand. It seems perfectly logical to me and of much greater relevance to my gardening year than the January 1 date.

Our pink Magnolia campbellii is not quite as predictable as the solstice dates and it doesn’t hit its peak display until well into July, but that first bloom bravely opens around the time of Matariki and is a significant seasonal marker for me. Each year, I don my woolly gloves on fine frosty mornings and head out to capture the one beautiful line of sight we have with the blooms on the bare tree and the snowy slopes of te mounga – Mount Taranaki – behind. I am using a zoom lens – te mounga is somewhere over 35km distant.

Over time, most magnolias grow into trees. From left to right are an unnamed pink seedling, Magnolia ‘Felix Jury’ and Magnolia ‘Manchu Fan’.

That magnolia was first sold in New Zealand in the latter half of the nineteenth century by a Lower Hutt nurseryman commonly referred to as Quaker Mason on account of him being a Quaker. It was also the first magnolia planted in our garden by my father-in-law, Felix Jury in the early 1950s. This pink M. campbellii is probably the most recognisable form in the country. Interestingly, that is unusual internationally. In the wild, most campbelliis are white. The pink ones are largely limited to a small area around Darjeeling in India and we should count ourselves lucky that Quaker Mason just happened to get a particularly good form of the unusual pink one to popularise here.

Looking up into the floral skyspaper of Magnolia sargentiana robusta

The magnolia flowering season from late June to September is a special time of year for us. We have many magnolias, both named varieties and species and unnamed hybrids from the breeding programme. This is a plant family where the larger the plants get, the bigger show they make.

For me, the deciduous magnolias hold pride of place. That display of bare blooms on a tree with no foliage can take my breath away. Because we have large trees, I am often looking up from below and I describe it as floral skypaper.

The purple petals of Magnolia campbellii var mollicomata ‘Lanarth’ forming a carpet beneath.

When I look down, I see the petal carpets on the ground and I have a great fondness for petal carpets. However, I will concede that they are not great on paths, driveways and sealed areas where the carpet can soon turn to slippery brown sludge. We will use a leaf rake or leaf blower on sealed areas but leave the petals on grass or garden.

And looking up to ‘Lanarth’ against a grey wintry sky

Most of the deciduous magnolias are Asiatic in origin – particularly areas of China, northern India and Nepal. The exception is the one truly yellow deciduous species – Magnolia acuminata – which is from North America. It is one of the parents of all the yellow hybrids that have become available in the last 25 years.

USA is also the homeland of the most popular evergreen magnolias which are widely grown here. These are characterised by heavy, leathery leaves and large, white flowers. I am not a fan of the evergreen grandiflora types; the ratio of flower to foliage is not high enough for my liking. I prefer the 100% flower to 0% foliage of most deciduous varieties.

Michelias, on the other hand, are all Asian in origin with many also being found in tropical areas, so into Southern China, Vietnam and Thailand. These are also evergreen but with softer, smaller leaves than the American leathery ones, a higher ratio of flowers and they are smaller growing overall. Botanically, they are magnolias but they look very different to the deciduous magnolias and they fill a different role in the garden.   

Magnolia Iolanthe in pink
Magnolia Apollo in purple
Magnolia Black Tulip in red
Magnolia Lotus in white
  • Deciduous magnolias come in shades of pink, purple, red, white and yellow.
  • Magnolias are ancient, evolving before bees emerged. It is thought that they were originally pollinated by beetles. Now they provide a food source for bees at a time of short supply in late winter.  
  • We get deeper, richer colouring in magnolias in New Zealand. It is likely to be related to our soils, climate and the clarity of light here. The same plant can look very different with the colour washing out, particularly in Northern Europe and the UK where winters are longer and colder and light levels lower.
  • New Zealand is recognised internationally as leading the way on breeding red magnolia hybrids, initiated by Felix Jury with ‘Vulcan’ and continued by Mark Jury, Vance Hooper and Ian Baldick.
  • No, you can not get very large blooms on a deciduous magnolia that will stay a small plant under two metres. Smaller growing varieties will have smaller blooms and the vast majority of deciduous magnolias are trees, not shrubs.
  • If you have a magnolia where the buds either drop off or fail to open properly, it is a sign  either of frost damage or pest damage by rats or possums.
  • When deciduous magnolias have new leaves that are clearly distorted on opening, it is an indication of spray drift. Lawn spray is the main culprit. If you feel you must spray your lawn, don’t do it in early spring when the leaf buds on magnolias are about to break into growth.
  • The limited range of species that were all that was available in the past could take 15 to 20 years before they set flower buds. Nowadays, you can expect magnolias to bloom within a couple of years of planting and some will even be sold with flower buds.
Magnolia Honey Tulip in yellow

Disentangling citrus

Citrus fruit have been much on my mind in this week of winter rain. That is because I have been setting myself a target of gathering a bucket of fallen fruit a day to squeeze for juice. I freeze the juice and mostly use it to make fresh jelly. I never left my childhood love of jelly behind, although these days I only make it from scratch with fresh juice and a bare minimum of sugar.

Too many windfalls on the heavily cropping Jaffa orange

We have about 25 citrus trees, many of which date back to the 1940s and 50s when Mark’s parents decided to try them in the garden as plants that are ornamental as well productive. Not for the first time, I wondered to myself whether the standard medical advice to avoid grapefruit if you are taking certain medications applied in NZ where the plants we grow as grapefruit are not actually grapefruit at all. That sent me down a very complicated path, trying to understand the citrus family.

Mandarins at the top, sweet oranges, tangerine or tangelo, lemons and limes in the middle, Wheeny grapefruit and Poorman’s orange or NZ grapefruit at the bottom

When I say a very complicated path, there doesn’t even seem to be common agreement on how many citrus species there are, let alone some very loose usage of the word species. Add in groups and related plants along with new terms to describe crosses between two species which are then given their own name and shown in species format – with or without an x in front showing it is a hybrid – and it is very confusing.

And the cut version (I will squeeze these for juice now)

Then there is the long – very long – history of distribution around the world and the evolution of unique citrus species even in New Guinea and Australia (yes, Australia has native citrus). While they originated in central and south eastern Asia, it seems that archaeological discoveries of seeds on Cyprus date its arrival to the Middle East and southern Europe back as far as 1200BC – or 1200BCE as now seems to be accepted usage – but it took another couple of thousand years before the more desirable forms reached that part of the world. The scale of time is as difficult to comprehend as the taxonomy is complicated.

Mandarins but named cultivars. Easy peel to the left, not so easy peel but possibly more delicious to the right

Pared down to bare essentials, it seems that most of our modern citrus in commercial production come from just three species in the wild: the pomelo (syn pummelo or shaddock, botanically Citrus maxima), the mandarin (Citrus reticulata) and the citron (Citrus medica).

Citron, courtesy of Wiki Commons. Mostly pith with little flesh.

The outliers in relatively common usage are the kumquat which is C. japonica, the kaffir or makrut lime which is C. hystrix and the fashionable Yuzu lemon which is not a lemon but has very obscure species in its parentage, possibly with sour mandarin.

Pomelo photo from Wiki Commons

When it comes to the mainstream citrus, we don’t have a citron here although if we were growing the curious ‘Buddha’s hand’, I could have picked that because it is one example. Nor do we have a pomelo. They are very large, by citrus standards, and paler in colour. I looked in town this week to see if I could find a pomelo to add to my board but there were none for sale at this time of year – a niche item, I suspect. Mandarins we have a-plenty although these are selected and named cultivars and the ones in the wild may well have looked different.

Sweet oranges, Jaffa at the top and a navel orange below

Oranges we also have in abundance here and no matter whether they are sweet table oranges or bitter marmalade oranges (Seville), they are a hybrid between pomelo and mandarin.

I remembered tangerines from my childhood and wondered what happened to them because it is many years since I have seen them. They are easy-peel and sweeter than an orange, originating from Tangiers in Morocco. It seems they are largely mandarin (C. reticulata) with a touch of pomelo.

Tangelo, photo from Wiki Commons, showing the characteristic nipple at the top

I see the newer tangelo originated in Barbados which is why it is often called the Jamaican tangelo, originally marketed as Ugli fruit. I vaguely remember when the tangelo became available and I think it was regarded as an improvement. In fact, it is a tangerine (so mostly mandarin) crossed with a pomelo which would then result in a majority of pomelo genes – hence the ‘tangelo’ name. This will be why it is not as sweet.

What we have as a tangelo but I am now wondering if our trees are tangerines instead

It was also a revelation for me to read the botanic descriptions and see the photos because I am now pretty damn sure that the two trees we have as tangelos are in fact tangerines. Mark thinks they were almost certainly sold under the tangelo name which makes me wonder whether New Zealanders are largely growing tangerines, not tangelos.

We have forgotten the proper name but it is a proper lemon, probably Lisbon or Yen Ben

Lemons get complicated. They are thought to have originated from a citron crossing with a bitter orange (so originally mandarin but already splitting into sub groups). In NZ, the Lisbon lemon (first found in Australia from seed imported from Portugal – hence Lisbon) and Yen Ben, which is a Lisbon lemon selection, are the main commercial varieties of true lemon that are grown.

And then there is the Meyer lemon which is probably the main home garden variety and is not a true lemon. It is less acidic and hardier, making it more successful in our cooler climate which is extremely marginal for the more tropical citrus. Again, it is a citron crossed with a mandarin/pomelo hybrid but not the bitter orange version, rather one with more mandarin genes than pomelo. Meyer is known for the fact that it doesn’t give the same pectin content for setting jams but for general culinary use, it functions as a lemon.

Tahitian lime

Limes get more complicated because they have a genetic line to the lesser known species that gave the key lime along with the lemon genes of citron and mandarin. We tree ripen ours and pick them when yellow rather than at the hard green stage they are usually sold as in the shops.

Wheeny grapefruit

The true grapefruit is the newest addition to the commercial range of citrus and is thought to have originated from a pomelo crossed with sweet orange (making pomelo the dominant genes with the addition of mandarin) in Barbados back in the early 1800s. It is one of the citrus most sensitive to colder conditions so what we call grapefruit in this country and what is generally commercially grown here are the Wheeny grapefruit and Poorman’s Orange. The Wheeny is thin-skinned and very juicy and is a chance seedling from Wheeny Creek in NSW in Australia. It is a pomelo hybrid, maybe crossed with bitter orange.

NZ grapefruit or Poorman’s Orange

The Poorman’s Orange  is often referred to internationally as the NZ grapefruit because it is grown widely here but not generally elsewhere. However, it originated in Asia, was taken to Australia and brought to NZ by Governor Grey to grow in his Kawau Island garden. It is thought to be pomelo x tangelo (so more pomelo than mandarin) and has much brighter flesh than a true grapefruit. If you have ever eaten grapefruit overseas and they were not the same as here, that is why. We don’t grow true grapefruit here.

It seems that citrus in the wild cross-pollinate readily. While many named cultivars will be the result of deliberate hybridising efforts down the centuries, it is likely they were starting with plants which had already done some mixing and mingling of their own accord. The history indicates that a fair number of types are simply selections of found plants, including hybrids and mutations.  

Back to my starting point of grapefruit interfering with some medications. I am no scientist but my understanding is that the problematic compound is furanocoumarin which is usually concentrated more in the peel than in the flesh and juice. Pomelos, citrons and the lesser-used papeda group have very high levels of this whereas the mandarins have very low levels. It seems that the rule of thumb might be that the sweeter citrus are less problematic.

The only reason I can see for singling out the grapefruit on medical advisories is that it is that it is the only one of that more bitter range that is consumed undiluted in quantity as a drink.

With the dominance of pomelo genes in the two varieties we grow as grapefruit in NZ, yes that advisory would apply equally to our fruit. Maybe keep to orange juice if you have been advised against consuming grapefruit.

Finally, three of my favourite photos. Fortunately we have plenty of fruit to share.

Kaka are a native parrot. They are not generally resident here but from time to time, one will stop by for a few weeks. This one ate quite a few mandarins but we were so thrilled to see it here that we were glad to share.
The tui are always in residence here in large numbers. Being nectar eaters, they will tuck into mandarins in winter.

The summer gardens in midwinter

It is midwinter and I have just completed the winter clean-up round on the areas we call the summer gardens. These newest gardens have been a major project over the last decade and were inspired by the realisation that we were very green and lacking in summer flowers. In fact, we are more flowery in midwinter than we used to be in summer. The early magnolias are in bloom, including the michelias, the Prunus campanulata are opening, we have plenty of camellias and gordonias flowering along with snowdrops, snowflakes, Cyclamen coum, early narcissi, lachenalias, Hippeastrum aulicum, daphnes, hellebores, luculias, early azaleas, cymbidium orchids and more. Midwinter is not without its charms here.

Midsummer, however, used to be green, green and more green with blue and white hydrangeas but not a whole lot more. I know we are lucky to be green in midsummer as opposed to dry, brown and crispy but we are flower lovers here. Hence the summer garden project.

What do the summer gardens look like in midwinter after they have been cut down and cleaned up? Here we are.

Midwinter in the borders
Summer in the borders
We wanted summer flowers and we got them

The borders are unexciting but not bare because many of the plants we use are evergreen rather than deciduous. There are just a few strelitzia, kniphofia and snowdrops in flower so far and the scene is carried by the repetition of Camellia yuhsienensis and Mark’s Fairy Magnolia White down one side. Within a few weeks, the Dutch iris should be coming into bloom and it will be onward and upward from there.

The lily border to the left and the Wave Garden in midwinter
The same scene in midsummer (but before we laid the path surface)
From the other end in midwinter
and in early summer

The lily border is bare but for the same camellia and michelia. The Wave Garden is all about the form of the hedges and nothing much of interest at this time of the year. I am battling the rabbits who live near the boundary of that area and lightly sprinkling blood and bone after each rain to deter them from their favoured digging spots. It works but high velocity lead from the man with the gun works better, although new dog Ralph is doing his frantic best to locate the culprits.

The Iolanthe Garden in midwinter with my alstromeria supports
Holding back the riot of foliage and flowers that I know will take over in summer
All the summer growth fills the area
There is a lot of deciduous plant material in the semi-controlled riot of summer

The Iolanthe Garden is probably the least appealing at this time of the year even though the leucojums, citrus trees, hellebores and a few shrubs give colour. I have been constructing supports for the alstromerias and for areas where the summer perennials flop onto the narrow paths. I hope the lengths of yew branch will last longer than bamboo stakes while the cross supports are loosely woven stems of Elegia capensis. My aim was to get structures which will work without being obvious when the plants grow and look suitably rustic.

The Court Garden in midwinter
And midsummer in the same area. It is just fuller with a few more flowers in summer and autumn,

It is the Court Garden with its focus on grasses and plants with grassy or spear-like foliage that is most effective twelve months of the year. Most of the plants are evergreen which is one advantage of my decision to look to some of our handsome native grasses as backbone plants. There aren’t many flowers, but the form is strong. I am not displeased with it.

The fluffy duster effect of Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’

If we weren’t opening the garden in spring for the Centuria Taranaki Garden Festival, I would probably leave all the Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ standing longer. Cutting it down now encourages the new growth which we want for the start of November.  Look at the fluffy duster effect of the one plant I still haven’t cut down. It is lovely, especially with the low winter light.

The Court Garden again, after its winter clean-up

Given the extremes of weather being experienced elsewhere – unprecedented heat waves in the northern hemisphere and extreme rain in the southern parts of this country, I am yet again grateful to be gardening in a temperate climate. We seem to have had the best of the weather on offer this week.

Counting down to Festival 2022.

The programme for this year’s garden festival was launched this week. It is huge. Not only are there 43 gardens around the province open for the main attraction, now named the Centuria Taranaki Garden Festival, but there are a whole lot of related garden-themed events. And wait there is more. Running alongside that are the 30 gardens opening for the Sustainable Backyards Trail and in addition to that, the Taranaki Arts Trail is also affiliated and there are 79 artists who are opening their studios at this time.

It is going to be a busy 10 days from Friday, October 28 to Sunday, November 10. The full programme is available on line here or you can request or pick up a paper copy.

Naturally, it is our little corner of the programme that interests us most. It is the only time of the year we open our garden to the public these days. Fortunately, given the scale of the programme this year, we are very easy to find, being right at the front as garden number one. The numbering starts from the north and we are lucky to be the northernmost garden.

Jennifer Duval-Smith

I am not offering workshops this year, just a few scheduled garden tours. But we are delighted to have Jennifer Duval-Smith joining us as artist in residence this year. Jennifer is an Auckland botanical artist and she is offering workshops here on Nature Journaling. How to explain Nature Journaling? The full details on her workshops are here but my description of it would be that it is more immediate and therefore probably more rewarding for the beginner than the esoteric rigour required for botanical art. It is certainly less technical and more about combining observation skills with the confidence to capture the delight quickly in colour and form on paper.

Nature journaling

Jennifer is offering four workshops on different topics:

* Meadow and Wildflowers of the Wild North Garden

* Flowers and Plants of the Woodlands

* Rhododendron – the Grandeur and the Glory 

* Flowers of the Early Summer Garden

Jennifer’s own website is here for more information about her approach and her own work. Bookings need to be made through the festival website and with numbers limited to eight per workshop, it may be advisable not to procrastinate too long if you are interested.

La Mer

On an entirely different topic, we are equally delighted to be the venue for a Music in the Garden event on our main lawn on the first Sunday of festival. La Mer is a four-piece group playing music which is a blend of gypsy swing and French Café-style jazz. I can’t post video on this site but for a sample of the music, click through to my Facebook page. It is perfect garden music and we have our fingers crossed for a fine afternoon with people lounging – physically distanced as is the way these days – across our front lawn enjoying the ambience and sound.

Alas, this event is weather dependent. We can’t move indoors for this one. I will be terribly disappointed if the weather gods fail to cooperate. There is no need to book for this event and there is no additional charge other than entry to the garden.

We have a large main lawn. I mention this for the Covid-cautious. Social distancing should not be a problem. Goodness knows what the state of Covid will be in three months’ time but we fall very much into the Covid-cautious camp here and we will be doing everything we can to keep ourselves and our visitors safe.

The front lawn in autumn – plenty of space for the Covid-cautious

We are now at the point of the year where everything here is geared towards opening for the festival. I will admit there are times when we have doubts about continuing to open but it is a terrific event for our province and very affirming to have visitors who enjoy the fruits of our labour.

In a world dominated by the ongoing impact of Covid, the garden festival this year shines like a bright light of cheer in a relatively safe environment and there is a lot to be said for that.

The summer gardens in late springtime
The meadow in the park during spring