Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

Rhododendron season – two generations of breeding

Mark’s ‘Floral Sun’ is a great performer for in our conditions

Rhododendrons have long been a part of our lives. The first ornamental plants we bought in our twenties for our first home in Dunedin were three rhododendrons, chosen with great care from a local specialist grower. They were ‘Mayday’, ‘Princess Alice’ and, obscurely, R. oreotrephes.

Mark is not exaggerating when he says he started the nursery here from one wheelbarrow up. We will give credit to his parents, Felix and Mimosa, for many things but starting the nursery was not one of them and attempts by others to credit Felix as a nurseryman never fail to irritate. The first mail order list we ever posted out in 1982 comprised fifteen rhododendrons and Magnolia Iolanthe. Five of those fifteen were first releases from his father’s breeding and the others were mostly species, including the rare R.bachii. Rhododendrons remained a key part of our mail order offering for the next 22 years, with a wide range of both species and hybrids.

Mark gathered up all the new hybrids he could find which meant a fair swag of material out of USA, very little of which thrived in our conditions. In our time, we grew all those popular varieties of their day – ‘Lems Monarch’, ‘Lems Cameo’, ‘Ostbo’s Low Yellow’, ‘Markeeta’s Prize’ and ‘Percy Wiseman’ amongst many, probably scores, of others. Very few of them are in the garden now. Most needed a colder winter and somewhat drier conditions than we could give them. They were particularly vulnerable to thrip, giving them silver leaves and weakening the plant over time because we were not prepared to routinely spray plants in the garden.

Felix’s maddeni hybrid ‘Barbara Jury’ 

Just another unnamed seedling from Felix’s breeding but it wasn’t that easy to sell these types of rhododendrons to customers who expected tight, ball trusses

Felix had dabbled in breeding for years and his interest in the maddeniis was because of their excellent foliage, high health performance and fragrance. He named about twelve which we released onto the market but they were always a bit of a hard item to sell because they didn’t have the full truss that most people associate with rhododendrons. No matter that they put up a wall – or maybe curtain – of gorgeous blooms, often well scented, and kept healthy foliage all year round, it took a more sophisticated gardener to appreciate their charm.

Mark’s ‘Floral Gift’ is proving to be a bit of a star over time in local gardens at least

In his turn, Mark took his paintbrush to the task of pollinating rhododendrons. He has only named four so far, three from the maddeni group and one, ‘Meadow Lemon’, with a full truss. There are more, quite a few more here but the rhododendron lost its elevated social status in the New Zealand garden. Sales declined and the earlier abundance of specialist rhododendron nurseries either changed tack or closed down. A highly competitive market became instead one of very limited supply and little specialist knowledge.

The row of latest hybrids ‘across the road’, as we say

A fair number of readers will know Our Mark. He has never let the changing market deter him and he has continued to potter away breeding rhododendrons, albeit without the sense of urgency because we don’t see any immediate commercial potential in them. He does it very quietly so when he asked me if I had seen the rhododendrons across the road (we have another block of land that is more Mark’s domain than mine), I knew he must be pleased. These were the latest lot of crosses that had hung about the nursery for a while and were finally planted out – a ragtag collection that had not received any tender, loving care and were put out into full sun in the field a year ago. They have never been sprayed or had added fertiliser so it is a regime which separates the good performers from the strugglers.

Just a few of the promising seedlings

I was impressed. I admit that I am not a huge fan of the full trusses. They are not my personal preference. But I could see the commercial appeal of these, were they presented in their pots in the garden centre, tidy little mounds in full bud and bloom. What impressed me most was the foliage. We are too well acquainted with grungy rhododendron foliage and, as our winters have become milder, the issue with thrip infestation is getting ever worse. I photographed a fine specimen at the cemetery last week – so badly thrip damaged that it was silver all over. Not a green leaf in sight. But it wasn’t a good enough photo to use.

We know plenty about grungy foliage

Look past the flower – that foliage! Grown in hard conditions and never sprayed. That foliage is a breakthrough.

To see plants growing in what are not coddled and managed conditions with perfect foliage is a joy to a gardener’s eyes. For readers with a technical interest, these are highly complex hybrids. Mark started many years ago with the red R. arboreum, ‘Sir Charles Lemon’ (for its indumentum), ‘Pink Delight’ and ‘Helene Schiffner’ and he introduced other genes from good coloured rhododendrons that did not thrive in our conditions. Because he has kept breeding with each generation of seedlings, the finer details of the genetic make-up of this latest lot is largely a mystery, even to him.

We have no plans to release any of these. Mark will no doubt carry out some propagation trials to narrow the selections down to those that root easily from cutting. Over time, we will replace some of the under-performing rhododendrons in the garden with better selections. The hybrids may just be a little legacy that he leaves to whichever child of ours eventually comes home – a collection of market-ready, high health, proven performers with commercial potential. By that stage, the rhododendron may have returned to popularity in good gardens again.  And who knows? His next generation of seedlings may be better yet.

The gorgeous nuttalliis are a favourite of mine though not a commercial viability 

The big full trusses are not so much to my taste, even when it is R. macabeanum to the left. The giant pink is another unnamed seedling of Felix’s

 

A graveyard and memories of miniature gardens and sand saucers

The yellow ixia flowers pick up the colour of the lichen

I was feeling a little discombobulated this week so I dropped in to the Te Henui cemetery to restore some energy and good humour. I have lauded this place before and it did not let me down. I was chatting to a couple of the volunteers who garden the place and mentioned that I saw it as the grown-up version of miniature gardens.

The spires of echium

The thought of miniature gardens brings back memories from our children’s primary school years and Volunteer Mary mentioned sand saucers in the same nostalgic tone. I was an urban child and the sand saucer and miniature garden competition experiences passed me by. They are an integral part of the rural school experience, formerly known as Calf Day but more often Show Day now, albeit playing about third fiddle. First violin was played by the calves, for this is a dairy farming area. The best and biggest silver cups went to such things as best leading calf (walking amenably beside the child on a rope), best groomed and best of breed. Second fiddle was played by the lambs – harder to lead and over time it became a disqualifiable matter to launder your lamb in Persil to get it fluffy white. The Greedy Guzzler award went to the first lamb to drink its bottle at speed. When you think about it, that award was always going to be taken out by the biggest lamb.

I am not a great fan of tulips but the effect of this multi coloured display was very painterly

Third fiddle: goats and activities for children without animals. While we flirted with the occasional lamb or baby goat, our children were particularly skilled at the sand saucer and miniature garden categories. I used to feel a bit guilty about them winning because they had an unfair advantage with access to a far superior range of plant material and appropriate flowers. But then I looked at the animal cups and clearly the kids who came from farming families with superior breeding lines were similarly advantaged.

I don’t have any photos of sand saucers but if you Google images, you will find a resurgence on Pinterest. Where else? For anyone with a deprived childhood, it involves filling a saucer with wet sand and sticking the flowers into that to anchor them. The scope for imagination is limited. One memorable year, a junior teacher at the school our children attended – a woman who was not one for expending unnecessary effort – decided sand saucers were ‘messy’ so they decreed Vaseline saucers instead. For this, the saucer is used face down and coated in Vaseline with flowers stuck to it. This was a travesty of an idea, I tell you. Not the same at all.

Miniature gardens were constructed in a tray with sides and most children used flowers and stems of foliage. Our children had access to suitable trays, potting mix and interesting small plants of a suitable scale, including miniature bulbs in flower. They often won.

Calendulas and bluebells – not an obvious combination but so irrepressibly cheerful

When I describe the cemetery gardens as the grown-ups version of these childhood activities, I mean that it is managed as a vast canvas of small, stand-alone gardens as opposed to a landscaped whole. This is how they manage to keep flowers all year round. As one grave space passes its best, another nearby is starting to bloom. It is a large part of the charm of the area. And the volunteers make a real effort to get harmonious colour and plant combinations. I would guess that this is a large part of the fun for them.

Planning colours and textures for a small area

Volunteer Susan took me over to see a space she had planted which she thought should work well when she held the flowers and foliage in her hand but has not translated on the ground. What did I think? It wasn’t the colour combination that was the problem, it was the arrangement of the plants on the site, I suggested. Too regimented and in equal quantities whereas one plant could be lifted and divided to fill the space and be a unifying factor. That is the charm of the grown-up miniature garden – dealing with a self-contained space in isolation without having to consider a multitude of other factors in the surrounding area.

The meadow look

And areas that are more landscaped in appearance than meadow

Besides the goal of having flowers all year round, these little gardens have to be low maintenance. The area is large and the team of volunteers, though dedicated and skilled, is small in number. There is a gentle abandon feel of wildflower meadows in some small areas, vibrant, concentrated colour in others and a delightful seasonality to how the place is managed. Gardening visitors may like to look at some of the plant combinations – they are working with a very large range of different plant material – and colour combinations. They are all there in small pictures amongst the whole.

Ajuga and bluebells softening the austerity of large blocks of unadorned concrete

I was amused when I read the description in in the garden festival programme*. It uses words like “lost oved ones”, “peace and tranquillity”, “serenity”, “lovingly tended” and “respectful”. This is proof that you can find what you want in some places. I would use words like joyous, a celebration of life and flowers amongst the headstones, sometimes witty and full of vibrant energy. It makes me smile and that is no mean feat for a graveyard. Some may find solace in quiet contemplation amongst the graves while others, like me, may in fact recharge their batteries by delighting in the whole ambience and contrast.

I quite like watching English real estate programmes (Kirstie and Phil assisting escapes to the country come to mind). They have many more little country churches complete with old graveyards surplus to requirements than we have. It is too late for me – and the wrong country – but the idea of creating a home within a traditionally sombre setting and a garden with all the hard landscaping features already in situ sounds appealing. These places may be there to remember the dead, but it does not mean that they must be sombre, morbid and gloomy. Death and taxes may be two of life’s certainties, but there can be life and colour wrapping around death and softening its raw finality, even if the same can not be said for taxes.

The one remaining mystery for me is why some families prefer to adorn their graves with fake flowers. It is a timely reminder, however, that some of these graves are intensely personal memorials with living descendants who choose to maintain the connection and to personalise the grave in their own way. It is just as well the volunteers are there to tend to the vast majority which would otherwise be largely forgotten and uncared for.

* Powerco Taranaki Garden Festival, to give the annual event its full name, runs from 26 October to 4 November this year. The Te Henui cemetery is included as one of the gardens to visit this year.

The later flowering lachenalias

Left to right, probably arbuthnotiae, aloides tricolor, aloides vanzyliae, glaucina x 2, mutabilis, what came to us as carnosa but probably a hybrid, don’t know (or can’t remember) and contaminata – a round up of some currently in flower this morning 

Back in August 2015, I wrote what I called part one about lachenalias, covering the early bloomers.  It has taken me three years but I return with part two on the late bloomers. Back in our days of putting out a mail order catalogue, we used to offer a range of over a dozen different lachenalias, all but one or two being species, and we gathered up every different one we could find for the garden. By the way, our last mail order catalogue went out in 2003 (yes! 2003!) so we have long since stopped supplying plants. If you are in New Zealand, try Trade Me which is one of the last places you can source some of these less common bulbs.

In the years since, some have proven themselves in the garden and others have faded away. The early season varieties in that first post are all easy and reliable as garden plants (L. bulbifera, L. aloides quadricolor, L. aloides var. aloides and Mark’s L. reflexa hybrid). Others are best kept in pots if you want to ensure their continued survival.

Lachenalia glaucina flowers, nestled in amongst the foliage of narcissi which have already finished blooming. The lachenalia’s foliage is much sparser and close to the ground

In the blues the absolute stand-out is Lachenalia glaucina, or at least the good forms of it. It can throw a lot of seedling variation. It was difficult as a nursery plant, partly because it was frost tender and we were growing the bulbs in open conditions, not under cover. Over the years, it has become one of most successful varieties in the garden – in an understated sort of way. I used to encourage less experienced gardeners to choose L. mutabilis instead because it was much easier and more reliable, while still a good blue. Now I can tell you that it was easier in a pot.  I am not even sure that we still have it growing in the garden. I rounded up one somewhat moth-eaten flower from a bulb that is struggling on in the heap where we dump our used bark potting mix. The other blues we used to grow like unicolor, mediana, and ‘Te Puke Blue’ have not thrived in garden conditions and the only plants we have left are in Mark’s covered house, where only he ever gets to see them. The same with the beautiful cream lachenalia with the terrible name of L pustulata (on account of its warty leaves).

Lachenalia aloides tricolor and aloides var. vanzyliae

Lachenalia aloides is an interesting species. It gives us the most common of all lachenalias in New Zealand – the strong growing orange and yellow one that looks as if it should be sold amongst the fake flowers at The Warehouse. That form has finished flowering for the season, as has its four-coloured variant, quadricolor. But look at these two late flowering forms of same species. L. aloides tricolor is a combination of green, yellow and red, finer in form than the usual aloides. It is easy to grow and reliable. And then there is L. aloides var. vanzyliae – surely the most desirable of them all and also the most unreliable. Ain’t that just the way? Who wouldn’t want a big patch of this little charmer in pristine white with highlights of aqua blue and lime green? It is at least still growing for us but I would hardly describe it as flourishing.

The other two from the top line-up that have proven to be easy and reliable here as garden plants are creamy L. contaminata (it has naturalising potential) and the pink one that came to us L carnosa but Mark thinks is a hybrid.

As always, it is the detail that gives us delight in our garden, not just the big pictures.

Glorious glaucina – the best performing blue lachenalia in our garden

Postscript: rather than rewriting the same information, I copy below the general info I wrote earlier about the genus of lachenalias:

Lachenalias are South African bulbs, mostly from the Cape Province. Some are very easy to grow, others less so. Naturally the very choice varieties are the ones that are less amenable but that is always the way. Some are desert plants and we struggle with those, but the ones that grow in areas of winter rainfall are generally easy and reliable in our conditions. A few, like L. glaucina, are particularly frost tender. Lachenalias last very well as a cut flower and will out-bloom most other late winter and spring bulbs in the garden. L. bulbifera is already in bloom by the beginning of July while the white L. contaminata flowers through November. A family of easy-care bulbs which gives us a full five months of blooming across the colour spectrum – what is not to like?

Notes from the Garden of Jury, September 30, 2018

The early spring bulbs are over and we are now into mid-season. We garden with many, many bulbs and probably find them a great deal more fascinating than most who are less enthusiastic. I could wow a few readers with the Phaedranassa cinerea or maybe the Cyrtanthus falcatus in bloom now, but to the casual eye, a simple planting of bluebells and Narcissus bulbocodium naturalised around the base of an old eucalyptus tree is likely to be far more charming. That eucalyptus dates back to around the 1870s when Mark’s great grandfather planted several around the property. They are messy trees because they shed bark and small twiggy growth all year but look at that interesting twist in the trunk that some varieties develop with age.

Camellia minutiflora – a charming and graceful species

The flowers are delightful and abundant but small – C. minutiflora again

I do a lot of flower and garden photography although I would only describe myself as a gardener and writer who takes photographs, not a photographer as such. And some flowers are really difficult to photograph. I feel I have got to grips with magnolia images but making a series of flower shots of some genus can be particularly challenging. It is mighty hard to make a whole lot of full trussed rhododendrons, japonica camellias or hybrid tea roses look interesting rather than a series of blobs. More on rhododendrons later in the season. But so too is it difficult to capture some of the smaller flowered shrubs, conveying their charm. I have taken many photographs of the dainty camellia species, C. minutiflora, and they remain a dismal failure in capturing the simple visual delight to the naked eye. It is such a delightful plant that we have used it in a number of places through the garden. In the end, I decided I just had to pick a few sprays and lay them on a plain background to try and show just how sweet this little camellia is when you can see the detail.

Daphne genkwa – the blue daphne

Daphne genkwa with its corylopis backdrop

So too with the less common blue daphne, D. genkwa. I photograph it every year and then delete almost all the photos as not doing justice to the plant at all. This may be because it is not a shrub with much to distinguish it other than its remarkable lilac blue flowers. And so too the corylopsis, often referred to as witch hazels. I think we only have two different forms of corylopsis. One flowers earlier and makes a charming haze of creamy yellow behind a Daphne genkwa. The other is flowering now and may be a form of C. pauciflora but we have never taken much interest in unravelling the family. They just occupy a space and remain relatively anonymous for most of year except for their splash of dainty blooms in the two weeks or so when it is their turn to shine. Colder, drier climates appear to get a more extended flowering season on a number of these deciduous shrubs whereas, in our mild conditions, they are more of a fleeting delight. But on their days, what a delight they are.

Corylopsis

And the corylopsis in situ with Rhododendron spinuliferum to the right front and and the burgundy loropetalum behind

It was garden writer, Neil Ross, whom I first heard likening a garden to musical theatre. Don’t plan a garden full of stars only, he said. Those stars need the chorus to make them shine so don’t forget those plants filling the role of the chorus. That is how I see these plants which have a short season – chorus cast with a brief solo in the spotlight.

Just look at the lily border. It never looked like this last year when the rabbits won the battle on the emerging shoots. Mark is getting bored with his daily round of vigilance and looking forward to the time when the stems get tall enough to be out of the reach of the rabbits. But spraying the plant with water and sprinkling just a part teaspoon of blood and bone on each plant is working. The reason for doing it one by one is because it has to be reapplied after rain and we don’t want to be over fertilising the whole border by broadcasting the blood and bone freely and often. Besides, I was a bit shocked at the price last time we bought some. It would be easier to manage if we bought some liquid blood and bone so it could just be applied with one action but we will use up what we have first.

The price to pay for a lily display is clearly ongoing vigilance.

Yes, yes I know the advice is always given not to drive over hoses. Based on experience, it appears that you can get away with it when the hose is still relatively new but there comes a point in the age of the hose when one incident of driving over it can render it a very leaky hose. This of course means that over the course of the next weeks, any user of said hose gets wet legs until the right stage of being fed up is reached and the hose replaced. We haven’t quite got to this point but it is imminent. And I will try not to drive over the next hose length.

Starting with a paper plan

Mark has been laughing at me and calling me Gertrude. This is a reference to Gertrude Jekyll so I will take it as a compliment. It is all on account of my working on a planting plan. On graph paper, with coloured pencils.

The Oudolf rivers at RHS Wisley in the UK

This is a new exercise for me, but then so is planning out the plantings for a new garden that is currently a blank canvas. Added to that, the style of planting is different for us too and I need to know how many plants I am going to have to source from elsewhere if I want to get it planted up next autumn. This is the court garden where we eventually – and reluctantly – ruled out initial plans for a meadow-style garden. Practical considerations headed us instead to the idea of an immersive experience of walking through tall grasses with just a few tall flowers. Rivers of grasses, I said. In my mind’s eye, I saw the Oudolf rivers of planting in his twin borders at Wisley – a planting that we have loved and that has proven remarkably stable without huge maintenance demands for over fifteen years now, I think. But with taller plants, many more grasses, with wandering paths not a wide central path and of course we are working on flat ground without the view from above that Wisley has. So not at all like the Oudolf borders in fact, bar the idea of rivers of plants flowing diagonally across the whole space.

Learning from the mistakes of version one

Take one was to draw it up on graph paper and put in the central paths, which I did as a two metre wide figure of eight. I then laid out some squares of colour in diagonal lines running across the space. And I could see immediately that I was instinctively drawing a plan that was gardening in stripes. Child-like design.

Mark has a better eye than I have when it comes to design. He pointed out three things. The first was that Oudolf’s rivers were wide bands, each containing about five different plants, not single rows in stripes. It seemed so obvious when he said that. Next, he commented that he envisaged waves not rivers and he thought the paths should also be informal and meandering, not a formal shape. I knew he was right.

Thirdly and most importantly, he observed that designing a garden on graph paper gives a bird’s eye view, not the ground level view that is what will be experienced. That is the critical take away point from this and, I think, the reason why amateurs (and even some professionals) get it wrong and end up with a garden that, well, always looks like a graph paper garden, best viewed from above. There is a part of the process that requires the ability to translate the bird’s eye view on paper to the actual experience at human eye level on the ground. I assume professional training teaches you how to do this but it is not always achieved. We watched coverage of a major new garden on UK television where the glory of the design could only be shown by putting a drone up and getting the aerial view. It is what I think is wrong with the new garden installation at Pukeiti which they call Misty Knoll but that is referred to by others as the twin bomb craters. I am sure it looked better on paper than in real life.

Posted without comment. The Misty Knoll garden installation at Pukeiti Gardens

We went outside to look at the court garden space yet again, and I started afresh. Waves, not rivers. Waves to create an immersive experience. I measured the space with a tape measure, not by pacing it out. I also measured the area each plant needs in order to stand in its own space when mature because we don’t want the herbaceous border look where the plants knit together. Neither do we want spacings that are so wide that it looks as if we were too mean to buy enough plants to fill it. Each 5×5 square on the paper represents a square metre.

We are not going to be planting until autumn, but at least I will know this week how many plants I need to locate. We have most of them here already to work with, but I will need to buy some extras in. The foundation plantings are to be in six or seven grasses. The uniformity of filling the whole space in just one cultivar is not for us.

Looking down from above on the rockery in front of our house

Because there is so little to show so far on that new garden, I give you the bird’s eye view and the ground level view of our rockery yesterday. Because we have a two storied house, we get an elevated view of some areas of the garden. And looking down on the rockery from above shows the pure 1950s design of this garden feature. Shapes and design, not detail so it is the big picture look.

At ground level, the construction of the island rockery beds varies from ankle height to knee height to thigh height – sometimes all in the same island bed. The paths have also been lowered which accentuates the garden elevations. Truth be told, the lowering of the paths was probably in part to get soil to fill the raised beds but it is a detail that is less obvious from above.

I get enormous pleasure from the rockery because it is a highly detailed space immediately in front of the house and there are always pockets of seasonal interest within it. Because so much of the planting is bulbs, there is always dying foliage too, but that is just part of the nature of this style.

Yesterday, on a grey day, I looked at some of the views within the rockery and was delighted that it was like an Impressionist meadow, albeit in miniature.

Hellebore update

I meant to do a round-up across the different hellebore types we grow here this year but I left my run too late. There is more to hellebores than just the most common H. orientalis types and some of the other species and inter-species crosses are also interesting and fill a different niche in the garden. But I had to make do with mostly H. orientalis and a few hybrids for today’s picking.

Late season flowers, so not an accurate guide to the flower size and colour. Left to right: Anna’s Red, Penny’s Pink, Molly’s White, Ruby Daydream and Sophie’s Delight

We are very impressed by the garden performance of the hybrids from UK breeder, Rodney Davey and sold as his ‘Marbled Group’. So impressed have we been by ‘Anna’s Red’, ‘Penny’s Pink’ and ‘Molly’s White’, that we added ‘Ruby Daydream’ and ‘Sophie’s Delight’ this year. There are more in that range but whether they have come into New Zealand yet, I don’t know. All are characterised by excellent marbled foliage which is most appealing and outward facing flowers that sit above the foliage. The first three named above also appear to be sterile, which is a good thing as far as hellebores go. Many hellebores can be promiscuous seeders. The Davey group are a big improvement on many of the orientalis types. His hellebores are hybrids so have mixed species parentage but I haven’t seen the details of what he has used made public anywhere and we would never criticise him for keeping that information to himself. There are way too many people out there just waiting to copy, as we know to our own cost, and he has put many years of work into getting this new strain of hellebores. If you are in the market for hellebores, buy them.

The same can not be said for hellebores ‘Jacob’ and ‘Josef Lemper’. I bought them both last year because they looked terrific in the garden centre. Josef collapsed and died within weeks so I even bought a second plant because I liked it, despite them both setting frightening amounts of seed. This year – nothing. I know where I planted them but if they flowered again, it was so insignificant that I failed to register it and the plants that I think are them, are but poor specimens now. There is a big difference between having a brilliant looking hellebore in a pot and garden performance. This all makes more sense now that I realise they were H. niger, not H.orientalis  as I had earlier assumed, .

Look at the flower power of Angel Glow in the garden

‘Angel Glow’, bought at the same time, is a beaut. It is another hybrid and it has mass flowered two years in a row. If it keeps on doing as well, I will be delighted. The ever-handy internet tells me it is an H x ericsmithii selection which makes it a three way cross between niger (which gives it the upward facing blooms) and sternii which is itself a cross between argutifolius and lividus. I just give you that information in case you wanted to know. It makes it very different to H. orientalis but it fills a similar niche in the garden as a plant. The pretty H. niger is forever disappointing in our climate (I think it wants it drier and colder) but the hybrid vigour of ‘Angel Glow’ sets it apart from that parent.

The border was looking better this year

I redid our 30 metres of Helleborus orientalis border three years ago. After decades of easy care gardening, it had lost much of its charm. The next two years were a bit ho-hum in performance but it has come into its own this winter. Hellebores can take a little while to establish well. Most of the plants I used were ones Mark has raised in his quest for better garden performance – so with longer stems of sufficient strength to hold the blooms above the foliage and with outward facing flowers.  We have a fair old mix of established shrubs in the border so keeping the underplanting primarily to hellebores gives it a certain unity. But I also added a whole array of odds and sods in bulbs – mixed dwarf narcissi, snowdrops, cyclamen and bluebells in the main but also other strays that would perform in semi shade. It adds another layer of interest through winter and spring and it has been very pretty this year.

The slate shades can look better picked than in the garden…

… but add white and the contrast makes them sing

Mark is not keen on murky pinks, is scathing about most green flowers and doesn’t like pink and green colour mixes so most of his seedlings are either red or white. We had also been given some of the newer slate colours and have a few doubles carried over from when they were the rage. The slates are a really curious shade when you look at them closely but that colour tends to be quite flat and dead in a garden situation unless surrounded by plenty of white. The plants we have all hang their heads, too (downward facing flowers). This is also true of the double hellebores – the weight of the flowers makes them downward facing, which is not so great in a flat border.

There is quite a bit of trial and error on garden performance with H. orientalis. When they are good, they are very, very good. When they are not, they can be disappointing, even more so if you have gone out and paid garden centre prices for a plant that looked great at time of purchase but never as good again. And it is not so much a gap as a gulf between a good hellebore and a very ordinary seedling one.

Tikorangi notes: a week of pests and petals

Magnolia Honey Tulip

Honey Tulip is going from strength to strength as the tree matures

The magnolia joy this week has been ‘Honey Tulip’. Mark is a modest plant breeder and inclined to describe a number of his best plants as a stroke of luck. I know how hard he works to get these so-called lucky breaks and there is not much left to chance. As we looked at a prominent specimen of ‘Honey Tulip’ at our entrance this week, he expressed relief again that it is indeed excellent and that we have not released a dog of a plant on the market. And he mused (again) that out of that particular controlled cross, he only got two yellows amongst the offspring and only one of those was of merit. That is what he calls a lucky break. I don’t think he is happy unless he gets a run of several – or many – very good similar seedlings worth considering but even then he worries into the future whether he picked the best one at the time to name and release! So the annual display that ‘Honey Tulip’ puts on for us is both a relief and a delight as it continues to go from strength to strength.

The battle with the rabbits continues. After the new lily border was decimated last year, it was a priority to try and get them up this year. While the bulbs will likely survive one year with all their growth having been chewed off, two years is stretching it. First, I spent a day erecting a mesh fence along the border. It was more diversionary than rabbit-proof. In an environment filled with tasty edibles, I just hoped they would take the hint and change their route. But the little fockers laughed at me. When the first shoots were chewed back to ground level in a single night, I started putting cut lengths of drainage tubes over the damaged ones. That works but there are literally hundreds of bulbs in that border and Mark didn’t think it was a realistic option for the whole area. He tried the expensive rabbit repellent spray we bought last year but they laughed at his efforts too.

Netting and tubes in an attempt to deter rabbits

Blood and bone works. Mark now does a daily round. He sprays water on the fresh shoots and sprinkles a light application of blood and bone on the wet surface. The moisture makes it adhere which means that he will only have to repeat the application after heavy rain. It requires vigilance and routine. We need to get them above maybe 40cm so the rabbits can’t chew off the top and the shoots can keep growing. It won’t matter then if they chew off the lowest leaves.

Blood and bone lightly sprinkled on damp foliage is the best rabbit deterrent so far

The longer term solution is obviously to reduce the rabbit population. Mark does daily rounds with the gun. The dogs have found the odd burrow of small ones, to their delight, but are pretty useless once they are larger and on the loose. We got desperate enough to buy some rabbit poison but it is also poisonous to dogs so it requires putting out at night and gathering it back up in the morning. On the first morning, not only had the rabbits totally ignored the bait but our Dudley dog ate one bait before Mark’s eyes. It put him off using it again. The option of getting a cat again is still on the table. It is the first time we have ever hoped a stoat may move back onto our territory to do a clean out of the rabbits. Not for the first time, we have muttered curses at the early British settlers in this country who introduced this pest so they could continue their what-ho-jolly-hunting traditions.

A magnolia bud that has been eaten out, usually by possums but we are now wondering if rats are also to blame

While on pests, a possum – or maybe rats – have wrought havoc this year on some of the magnolias in the distant parts of our property. You can see from the photograph how the offender has eaten into the bud and nipped out the centre at the point when the flower buds were forming. Every single bud on this tree was taken out, which is why Mark is wondering about rats as well as possums. It is very discouraging. Mark is the chief pest control officer here and he generally manages to maintain some sort of equilibrium with a combination of ongoing trapping and the gun but this year appears to be particularly bad.

Doryanthes palmeri or the Queensland spear lily

Two months on from when I first mentioned the Doryanthes palmeri coming into flower,  I am coming to the conclusion that it does not open any more than this. I had envisaged that massive stem covered in open blooms but I think it may just gently continue for a long time yet, opening blooms in sequence without that mass display. The bees love it. Every time I pass, I can hear the audible hum and most of the open flowers have a bee foraging within them.

I mentioned it as a nursery relic cast aside. And indeed, I found confirmation of that this week as I was clearing around the plant. Behold, the original black planter bag, still around some of the root system. Some plants are tough and determined. It was not going to stay constricted by a pathetic little PB as we call these nursery bags.

Dainty and fragrant Narcissus jonquilla

Finally, because we love the tiny as much as the large, here are two little scenes from the rockery. Spring is a glorious season here, never more so than when we get over a week without rain to enjoy the blooming. But suddenly we are on the cusp of the point where a long spring no longer beckons but instead we are under pressure to get the new plantings done before it is too late and we are too dry and too warm.

Moraea villosa or the peacock iris