Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

For the love of umbellifers

I am having a love affair with umbelliferous plants. Poppies, daisies and umbellifers. It is the simplicity of form, I think, that appeals to me. And my favourite of these are the umbellifers for their ability to seemingly dance lightly in the space above other weightier plants.

There is a scarily technical, botanical description of what umbelliferous plants are on Wikipedia.  They are mostly herbs – annuals, biennials or perennial, often aromatic. Typically, they have long stems often with very light, feathery foliage (though not always) and the flower heads are held above in flattish or gently mounded formation of a collection of lacy umbels. The flowers are much valued for their contribution to the garden eco-system because they attract beneficial insects. Many set seed very freely and will provide a source of food for seed-eating birds in autumn and winter.

Orlaya with blue cynoglossum at the New Plymouth cemetery

Carrots are umbellifers, as are parsley, coriander, fennel and angelica, amongst many others. The common ornamental ones include the pretty Orlaya grandiflora in flower here now (it cuts well, I have just found, and combines prettily with pastel roses in a vase) and Ammi majus.

I first started noticing the use of umbellifers in English gardens back in 2009 and predicted then that they would become a fashion flower. I can report that they have maintained their popularity in England but have yet to become a hot ticket item in New Zealand, except for the orlaya and ammi.

As seen at RHS Wisley – my lily border does not have a water feature

My new long border of auratum lilies is destined to become my nod to a garden of white umbellifers. At this stage, I am still hoeing off germinating weeds to get it as weed-free as possible before I introduce plants which I expect to seed down season after season. I will use the pretty and wayward Orlaya grandiflora with coriander for the lower growing layer, Ammi majus and maybe  carrot for the middle height and I am still debating about the tallest layer.  Will angelica be too strong a grower, I wonder? The edible angelica. I don’t want plants that will choke out the auratum lilies that are the main stars of the border.

What is referred to as ‘cow parsley’ (botanically Anthriscus sylvestris) is a common wildflower in the UK, often seen on roadsides. So too is Queen Anne’s Lace or Daucus carota, commonly referred to as wild carrot (the version we grow to eat is a form of the same thing – D. carota ssp sativus). The one to fear that comes with frankly alarming warnings is the giant hogweed – Heracleum mantegazzianum. It is a common garden escape in the UK and is apparently in New Zealand though I can’t say I have ever seen it here. The problem lies in the sap which can harm the skin by making it extremely sensitive to sunlight, causing blistering, for long periods after contact – stretching out to years, even. Don’t be tempted by giant hogweed.

Pimpinella major ‘Rosea’ at Beth Chatto’s garden where I thought to photograph the plant label as well as the pretty, airy, dancing pink flower heads

Not all umbellifers are white. Despite it being a roadside weed where we live, I have planted some wild fennel in my new summer borders. I love the way it is so tall and graceful, silhouetted against the summer sky.

Purple flowers from purple carrots at Parham House

We were very taken by the purple carrot flowers we saw in the cutting gardens at Parham House. So taken with it that I looked it up. The heritage purple carrots that have been reintroduced to the seed range (carrots did not start off orange) are the ones that produce the purple flowers.

Angelica gigas – as popular with wasps as bees

Angelica gigas is another purple flowered umbellifer, in this case a biennial which bees adore.

I have just planted a single plant of the yellow achillea, photographed here at Parham House

I had thought, based on flower form and habit, that achilleas were members of the umbellifer family. Botanically, they are not (as far as I can see) but in practical terms, they fulfil a similar garden role. Now that I have a hot, sunny, newly cultivated area, I am trying again with coloured achillea. I find them charming but they are not plants to co-exist in borders where they get overshadowed or lose all day sun.

Common fennel can look wonderful against the summer and autumn skies

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My new weeding friend

The weed growth in this new area under development was scary after a few weeks of spring

I have a new weeding implement and a very good one it is too. Meet my little Wolf-Garten Multi-Star Cultivator Weeder LBM (I wrote the full name down from an internet search). It is my new best friend.

Having been away to Australia, then coming home somewhat unwell followed by other demands on my time, the weeds in my newly planted borders were threatening to get away on me. With my trusty weeding armoury, I made short work of quite large areas. It was the little cultivator on the long handle that covered the area quickly and efficiently. Unlike a hoe, it does not cut the plant off and being very narrow, it can get in close to plants without damage. It is only 7cm at its widest point.

My new Wolf-Garten cultivator, the modest Wonder Weeder and my short handled hoeing implement deal to most weeding situations

One weeding tool does not suit all situations. This cultivator makes short work of scuffing up the surface and dislodging the weeds where soil is friable or there is mulch. It is no good on compacted soil. It also needs to be used before the weeds have set seed and is best on a sunny day so the dislodged weeds shrivel and dry in the sun. As long as they haven’t reached the seeding stage, the weeds do not need to be removed. It is so easy to use, saving bending and stretching, that weeding is not something to dread. A quick follow-up the next day despatched the few weeds that had escaped the first round. If you have similar conditions, buy one is my advice.

Where the plants are closer together (these were newly planted areas that I was speeding around with my cultivator), I resort to the hooked wires known in this country as Wonder Weeders (cheap as chips at under $5 when I bought another three at the garden centre last week). In the case of compacted ground with club moss, liverwort or clover, I use the short-handled implement that looks like a small Dutch hoe. You can get long handled versions of the Dutch hoe to avoid having to bend or kneel, but I am fine with the precision of my short version.

 

The new baby cultivator and its full-sized companion on the left and the trusty old Planet Junior to the right

Mark is a push hoe man (the Dutch hoe is pulled towards the user whereas the push hoe is pushed away from the user) but it takes some skill to be a reliable operator and it is all too easy to accidentally sever desirable plants from their roots.  Where there is more space to move, such as in his vegetable patches (known here as Mark’s allotment), he will reach for his trusty old Planet Junior that makes quick work of surface cultivation or the big granddaddy cultivator relative of my new, small version.

What about weed sprays? Mark follows the international debate and research on glyphosate (the active ingredient of Round Up) with reasonably keen interest. When Round Up hit the outdoor maintenance world in 1974, it was seen as saving the equivalent of a labour unit and it changed attitudes to weeds in the garden. Being seen to be weed-free became mandatory for “good” gardening. Mark has used a fair amount of it over the years to maintain our gardens and wider property. With the huge volume of glyphosate that has been used throughout the world over 43 years, if it was the worst thing since Paraquat, DDT and the likes, we would expect there to be more compelling evidence but it is not an open and shut case. That said, caution is always advisable and I worry about its use as a desiccant on commercial food crops.  Certainly, Mark has hugely reduced how much he uses it, which has seen us returning to some older, tried and true methods of cultivation.

I would comment that with the amount of conflicting evidence on the safety of glyphosate, we are a little concerned about what is mixed with it to give the near instant knockdown capabilities of the over the counter, ready to use spray dispensers that are widely sold. Glyphosate used to take up to three weeks in cooler weather to kill weeds and there are various plants that are resistant to it. Those ready-mixed spray cans can kill within hours. When I used to write for the newspapers, I was sent samples of two different such sprays called “Weed Weapon” with ‘breakthrough technology’. I rarely use them but they are both scarily easy to use and efficient at killing plants, even ones that I would not expect them to knock out. The combined effects of glyphosate and saflufenacil are much greater than glyphosate alone.

Compacted soil, the result of years of no surface cultivation and likely use of weed spraying for maintenance – not our garden.

In terms of garden maintenance, repeated use of weed sprays as routine control leads to soil compaction and the growth of liverwort which we find unsightly. We are guilty of judging open gardens on their visible use of weed sprays for maintenance. But then we are subscribers to the school of soil cultivation and mulching when it comes to gardening.

With the growing antipathy to chemical controls for weeds, we may need to revise the aesthetic value placed on weed-free gardens. Even my new-found cultivator friend has its limitations. But weeding a little often is probably the best way to go for most keen gardeners.

 

 

 

The modest tea harvest

Camellia sinensis, the tea camellia, flowering at the end of March

With just one sizeable bush of the tea camellia, C. sinensis, the harvest was never going to be huge but after fiddly-faddling with a few minor efforts in recent years, I was determined to get as much as I could this year. I now have considerable respect for the tea-pickers of Sri Lanka and India but I assume one gets faster with practice. Mark tells me he has another three plants ready to be put out into the garden so we should, with more attention, be able to increase the harvest, though we are unlikely to achieve self sufficiency.

The first, small pick of tender tea tips

Harvesting is picking just the top two or sometimes three leaves from each growing tip, just as they are unfurling and still very soft and young.

The tea bag has a lot to answer for in terms of reducing the drinking of tea to the most convenient but mundane and utility level of activity. Where is the romance? Let alone the quality? Even worse are the gourmet tea bags which appear to be packaged in individual nylon bags and are therefore non-biodegradable, whatever the packet says. As our lives have become more leisured here at Tikorangi, we reinstated the old ways of making good loose-leaf tea in a teapot for the afternoon cup. Sometimes I bring T2 loose leaf tea back with me from Australia but we also have a New Zealand mailorder supplier at Tea Total and I have come to conclusion I prefer their teas. It is not as cheap as supermarket tea but for the afternoon ritual, we think the better quality and flavour is worth every cent.

Spreading on a flat tray to lightly oxidise and dry

My home-grown tea is free. Because we like aromatic teas, I have flavoured three batches differently. The first is lemon scented – I added some of the young leaves of the lemon myrtle – Backhousia citriodora. The second batch I dried with orange blossom (proper orange, not the mock orange philadelphus) and a few fine peelings of the outer rind of an orange and rose petals. The third was lime (lime blossoms and few young leaves) with mint and rose petals.

The yield from a tray is not large once it has dried – but fresh and aromatic

We tried making straight green tea in the past, first from fresh leaves straight into the pot and the then with leaves just wilted and left overnight. The taste was perhaps just a little too subtle for our palates. Now I do a process somewhere between green and black tea – bruising the leaves and leaving them covered overnight (which starts the oxidation process). Then I sun dry them on flat tray – which can take from one to three days, depending on the strength of the sun. And voila! Fresh tea ready for the pot. With no packaging and no carbon footprint.

In answer to the question as to whether there are different camellias for different teas, I quote Wikipedia: “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.

Our form of sinensis is pink flowered which is unusual. But I think I strategically placed additional flowers to make this photo showier than it is in real life.

Clipping the michelias

Starting on the left – the annual clip

This is what it will like when done – freezing the size of the plants in time with an annual clip

We have a row of lollipop michelias at our entranceway and it is time for their annual clip. Yes, one annual clip is all they get and we are maybe three weeks late on doing them this year. I did not intend to start yesterday, having other things planned. Besides, clipping the michelias feels like a Big Job. Well, it does involve a ladder for the taller ones.

I timed myself yesterday. It takes me 30 minutes a plant to clip with secateurs and to rake up the clippings. That is not long for annual maintenance on what are significant feature plants. You could do it faster with a powered hedge trimmer or even hand clippers but you lose the precision. Besides, I don’t like using the hand clippers because each time they snap shut it jars my wrists and the residual carpel tunnel syndrome I nurse in those joints.

Aesthetically speaking, cutting with secateurs means there is no leaf damage whereas the speedier clippers or hedge trimmer will cut almost every external leaf which will then discolour on the damaged edges. It is also easy to reach in at the time and remove dead wood and do a clean-up of the interior of the ball using secateurs and the finished result is less… brutally shorn, shall I say?

Most michelias can be clipped hard, especially these hybrids of Mark’s. The two smaller ones here are an unnamed hybrid from his breeding programme while the taller ones are Fairy Magnolia Blush. I have planted two Fairy Magnolia Cream in the vehicle entranceway to the left which will, over the next few years, be trained to lollipop standards.

Michelias are magnolias, just a grouping within that wider family. That is why Michelia yunnanensis has been renamed Magnolia laevifolia by the experts. Our position of continuing to refer to them as michelias is on shaky ground botanically but we find it a useful differentiation in common parlance. It is a handy point of difference to the big leather-leafed Magnolia grandiflora types which are what most people think of when evergreen magnolias are mentioned. Our agents chose to brand Mark’s hybrids as “fairy magnolias” to mark out that difference.

Magnolia laevifolia  (aka Michelia yunnanensis) defoliating in wet, cold climate

The aforementioned species, Magnolia laevifolia, is a lovely plant in bloom but not always the best garden plant. It has a tendency to defoliate in a wet spring and we have certainly had that this year. This plant is not in our garden. I photographed it at Pukeiti. It is neither dead nor dying. Nor is it deciduous. It has defoliated in the wet and that is a characteristic of this particular species that is not to its credit. Not far along the same track is a fine specimen of Mark’s Fairy Magnolia ‘Blush’ which, we were pleased to see, shows no tendency whatever to defoliate, even in the hard growing conditions of Pukeiti Gardens.

This is what Magnolia laevifolia looks like at its best, seen here in my friend Lorri’s garden 

As a piece of advice for local gardeners, if you into clipping camellias – and we clip a few now as feature plants as well as camellia hedging – the time to do it is right now. If you leave it much longer, you will be cutting off all next year’s flower buds.

We have renamed the area of our garden we used to refer to as “the park’. It is now The Meadow

Finally, for a spot of colour, may I give you a host of golden primulas (not daffodils) in our meadow garden by the stream. It is just common old Primula helodoxa but so very pretty in its season.

Togs, togs, togs. Undies! A post that is not about gardening.

When I headed across the Tasman two weeks ago, I anticipated a couple of extra degrees of warmth – so late spring rather than our changeable mid-spring. I was wrong. Summer seemed to have arrived already in both Sydney and Canberra and I did not pack sufficient summer clothes. However, it was not yet summery enough to make me think of swimming.

Sydney daughter lives on the fringe of wealthy but staid Bellevue Hill, where it meets the uber-trendiness of turmeric latte Bondi. It could not be more different to Tikorangi and our local town of Waitara so I always find plenty to look at while out walking and I usually carry my camera. However, when confronted by three confident young men wearing only the briefest of swim attire and striding along some distance from the beach, whipping out my camera was truly the last thing I thought of. I was almost flustered by this brazen display of masculinity.

Australia continues to embrace the briefest of brief swim attire for men, usually referred to as budgie smugglers. For recreational wear, New Zealand men long ago moved to the more modest baggy attire of surf shorts. I am fairly sure that only competitive swimmers and the occasional embarrassing older dad wear such brief togs in NZ these days. But then I do not think we have ever had an onion-munching prime minister who took some pride in being photographed publicly in these budgie smuggler togs. If you google Tony Abbott, you will find plenty of evidence and if you are not Australian, it is near incomprehensible.

I was relaying my surprise to my daughter and she found me this You Tube clip. I laughed and laughed.

It is simple, if you can’t see the sea, you are wearing underpants. Or if you are more than 300m from the water’s edge, you have entered the underpants transformation zone. These young gentlemen were certainly wearing revealing undies, in that case.

And even being a buff, gym-fit, Bellevue Hill, private school educated, stockbroker type of young man does not make wearing undies in public acceptable attire

City trees. An asset, not a liability

High density living amongst the trees in Sydney

In the week before I left for Australia, I had seen coverage about the loss of trees in Auckland. The loss of up to one third of all Auckland’s established trees, in fact. That is an astonishing number to have been removed  in the last five years. Too many New Zealanders hate trees.

It was interesting to hit Sydney and Canberrra where temperatures were rising rapidly for summer and to hold conversations with people who value trees a great deal more. I was told more than once that good tree cover in the city can lower the temperature in summer by as much as two or three degrees, making the leafy suburbs much more liveable. And the whole term “leafy suburbs” is used to describe the affluent areas. Sadly, the more down market the area, the more barren and treeless it tends to be.

I photographed this sign in Canberra but ringing in my ears were the cries I often hear in our local city of New Plymouth to fell trees where the roots are starting to lift the seal. It is a curious fact that as soon as this occurs, legions of people suddenly speak up for the welfare of the elderly who, in our local area at least, are allegedly incapable of coping with an uneven surface. Having travelled in Asia, Australia, Europe and the UK, I can assure you that a bit of lifting or cracking of seal is NOT seen as a reason for removing trees in those places.

Privacy on the third floor balcony

My second daughter gave me food for thought. She bought a third floor apartment with a good sized balcony overlooking a very busy road. In a densely populated area of Sydney, there are only about three apartments out of many (but I failed to count how many), that can see onto her balcony. It is amazingly private and that is due to the trees, both the street trees and the elongated Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’ that are on the apartment property.

The street trees are huge. It is a ficus outside her place. And yes, the roots do get into the drains. Just before she bought her apartment, there had been a major repair required on the building’s main sewer pipe. If this happened in New Zealand, the resulting cries for the removal of the offending tree would be deafening.

“Would I have bought this apartment if the trees weren’t here?” Daughter commented. “No. Not a chance. It is the trees that make the busy road and being overlooked bearable. Maybe repairing the underground pipes from time to time is a price I have to pay for living here.” That is NOT a New Zealand sentiment!

Yes trees can cause a lot of damage in storms and when the roots penetrate pipes and crack sealed areas. But never before has it been so important to keep our big trees in urban areas and cutting them down to replace them with shrubs or small, suburban trees which are never going to get much above three metres is not an adequate substitute. Trees generate the very oxygen we breathe as well as contributing to ecosystems and the environment.

Elder daughter drove me round new Canberra suburbs. With typical over-sized freestanding houses on small sections, there is no room for big trees to be planted on these private properties. That is where town planning to allow for plantings in public spaces becomes so very important. If big trees are not established on road verges and in neighbourhood parks, such subdivisions will forever be barren wastelands of concrete and brick. As well as up to three degrees hotter on scorching summer days.

The established – and higher priced – leafy suburbs of Canberra

The established, older areas of Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne all have B I G street trees and how lovely that is to see. It is time for Auckland to rise to the challenge of planting more trees rather than felling them in ever increasing numbers. Planning is critical to create sufficient space for trees to be able to reach maturity. And time for all New Zealanders to cast aside the pioneer mentality that trees merely exist for humans to fell them.

If you don’t have trees, then you don’t get to experience the opening of the first flowers on the jacaranda. In Sydney. In October. Ours at home won’t bloom until February.

I just don’t get it.

With the interest that we have in meadows, I had to stop the car and photograph what appeared to be a natural road verge meadow in a new Canberra suburb. The simple combination of a soft brown  grass and gazanias was eye-catching. The South African gazanias were gently spreading along the verge in a manner which Canberra daughter observed was bordering on weedy. Harmlessly weedy, though, in these fairly harsh, exposed conditions, as opposed to rampantly invasive.

The union of Australia and South Africa?

What really shocked me as I looked more closely was the sheer volume of litter on this road verge. I was hard pushed to get photographs without too much in them because there were cans, plastic bottles and bags, tinfoil wrapping, cardboard, cellophane and all the accoutrements of modern packaging at about 20cm spacings all through it. Many months’ worth. Apparently, no locals feel inclined to keep it clean and those who walk by either don’t see it, don’t care or think it is somebody else’s problem. Were it kept reasonably free of litter, it would be a charming naturalistic planting which contributes more than mown grass while being genuinely easy-care.

People can be so CARELESS about the environment. While in Melbourne, I went to the botanic gardens and clearly people feel it is appropriate to graffiti plants. Why would anybody think it is okay to carve names and messages into this beautiful silver agave? And in the stand of giant bamboo, I could not see any stems that had not been claimed by autographs and marks. It is a form of territory marking, like dogs, but this is not their territory to mark. I just don’t get it. I really don’t.