Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns


Edited: after information received yesterday, I realised I had a senior moment and some of the information in the original post was incorrect.

I don’t have a big collection of alstromerias and the tall ones can be bothersome as garden plants but I do quite like them. When I gathered them up, I seem to have about ten different ones, all ‘acquired’ as I say. This is not a plant family I have felt the need to go out and buy.

Why bothersome? They have a tendency to spread if left to their own devices. Some may call them invasive. They are difficult to eradicate because any parts of the fleshy tubers left behind will grow again. But the big problem is that the tall ones that I favour need staking. The stems are rarely strong enough to hold them up on their own.

I don’t like the murky pink with yellow thrid from the left but the remaining ones are all pretty

Alstromerias are much favoured as a cut flower, but I don’t often cut flowers to bring indoors. Every window in our house looks out onto gardens so it seems a bit unnecessary to bring flowers indoors to die. We don’t feel the need of house plants either. Alstros are sometimes called Peruvian lilies and the family tree does trace back to the lily group but their homeland is not limited to Peru. There are many different species found widely throughout South and Central America. The ever-handy Wikipedia tells me that most of our garden plants are hybrids between winter-growing species from Chile and summer-growing species from Brazil. They certainly have a long flowering season.

Some years ago, the ‘Princess lilies’ group hit the shelves in plant shops here and I sniffily dismissed them as part of the dwarfing down of fine big plants to make something like traffic island bedding plants. I never even bothered to look at them. Then I was given a white form and my dismissive attitude continued but I divided it up and planted it out. For the next two years, they still looked like tidy, traffic island, bedding plants to me. I didn’t like them and I still don’t. *Dot plants*, to coin a phrase from early Alan Titchmarsh.

Intermediate-sized ‘Summer Sky’ at the back, a ‘Princess lily’ at the front

Until yesterday, I thought my intermediate-sized white alstros that were delighting me this summer were that Princess series dot plant putting itself on steroids. In self-defence, plants that are dwarf in different climates can surprise us in our benign conditions and romp away well beyond their predicted size. But it was a senior moment on my part. I had forgotten entirely that a gardening friend gave these to me last year. It turns out there is a whole other alstromeria series that has been released internationally – including NZ – and these are from the Paradise Summer series. This one is, apparently, ‘Summer Sky’.  They are an intermediate size and generally strong enough to hold themselves up.

‘Summer Sky’ from the Paradise Summer range

I looked up both the ‘Princess lily’ and  ‘Paradise Summer’ series and both seem to have come from Dutch breeders. No surprises there. The Dutch do a lot of plant breeding and especially in the area of flowers for floristry or mass plantings.

Probably ‘Indian Summer’ from the Paradise Summer range

Two gardening friends have waxed eloquent about the merits of an orange flowered one with burgundy foliage. I think it is probably ‘Indian Summer’ and likely the same as this one I photographed at RHS Wisley some years ago. I can see it is an excellent performer but I think it is a bit garish, a bit ‘look at me! Look at me!’ for my taste. But maybe I could use it in the sunny borders. It is from the Paradise Summer series too. I may have to take a closer look at the other selections available in this group because there is a whole range of colours now available.

Finally, two bits of advice about alstromerias. Firstly, they benefit from being deadheaded. As long as your plant is well rooted in the ground, the advice from the professionals is to grab the spent flowering stem and tug the whole thing out of the ground rather than cutting it. The same goes for picking them. It is easier than cutting each stem and it leaves a cleaner plant.

Secondly, plant the tall varieties in groups, not drifts. I managed to get around all my clumps in the twin borders this year with stakes (forked pieces of dead yew branches in this case which become invisible, unlike bamboo stakes) and that has largely worked well to keep the flowers up. Where I planted them in drifts in the Iolanthe garden they are chaotic. Zach asked me recently if I had any advice on how to stake them and I didn’t. As soon as it rains, we will dig them and consolidate them into clumps that can be staked.

There is always room for improvement in gardening.

The pink is an alstromeria and when viewed close up, it is a sprawling mess that defeats any staking, let alone invisible staking

Focusing on the detail – Glenys is back

For the past eleven years, the gecko we call Glenys has made regular summer appearances

Glenys is back. When she first appeared in 2011, Mark initially named it Elvis (“In the Ghetto”, gecko, geddit?). A kind enthusiast from the herpetological society advised us that it was almost certainly a pregnant female, hence the name change. He also identified her as Hoplodactylus pacificus and was as excited as we were by our observations of a breeding female here.

Overseas readers may be baffled by our excitement at having resident geckos but they are rarely spotted here, not unlike our two species of rare bats that nobody I know has ever seen. We only have three native reptiles – skinks are common enough, everybody knows about tuataras but the geckos are shy, retiring and not seen widely at all.

I assume we have several resident geckos, or at least three. For Glenys to be pregnant, there must be a Mr Glenys around and a couple of years ago we had two sunning themselves on the dead pine tree. We think the second, smaller one must have been Glenys’s daughter.

Hoplodactylus pacificus but we call her Glenys

This is a summer sight. NZ geckos are most unusual in that they give birth to live young – usually just two and apparently they look like matchsticks on legs. The pregnant females use the warmth of the sun to incubate the young which is why we only see Glenys in summer, out in her discreet sunbathing spot. Geckos have a long life span – anything from 20 to 50 years but I guess it is hard to measure the life span of geckos in the wild. Glenys may be with us for a while yet. If she lives to 50, she will out-live us.

I skipped my usual Sunday post. I didn’t think many would notice (thanks, Jane in Australia). I just couldn’t think of anything to say around the start of a new year. We all hope 2022 will be better than 2021 and 2020 but the signs are not good. In New Zealand, it is like living with the sword of Damocles poised above us. We are on track to achieve the impossible – the elimination of Delta (just 14 cases of community transmission across the whole country yesterday although the number yo-yos up to the 40s some days) but Omicron is hovering in the wings, looking for its chance to unleash itself. We know that but the longer we can stave it off, the better prepared we will be. These are not easy times we are living in, even less so for those in Australia, France, UK, USA and other countries near paralysed by this latest wave. I find thinking small, looking at detail and the natural world keeps me focused and reduces the catastrophising.

All I have to offer is the detail, in this case of Glenys. We have to be sharp-eyed and quiet to spot her; she can disappear back into her hidey-hole beneath the bark in a flash at sudden movements or loud noises.  

That is Glenys, pretending to be a bit of bark on her tree. We tread quietly around this area.

Toasting the end of 2021 with wild hibiscus flowers

Like so many others, we had a quiet new year at home. To be honest, we tend to favour quiet new years at home so I can not claim this is due to keeping ourselves safe in these Covid times. Neither can I be trumpeting the usual happy new year greetings. With Omicron knocking on our border doors, I feel all we can do is hope that 2022 will be better for us all than 2021. To those of you with Omicron already swirling all around you, may you stay safe and well – or at least recover quickly and completely if it catches you. This is a year of modest hopes and expectations.

If you look closely, you will notice the red flowers in our glasses of bubbly. These came in a small jar, labelled ‘Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup’, part of a Christmas package of goodies from our Sydney daughter. These are new to us although, looking on the internet, I am guessing more urban readers who lead sophisticated lives which involve cocktail bars and upmarket restaurants may have met them before. My local supermarket – Waitara New World – does not run to stocking wild hibiscus flowers in syrup, being more utility in character.

Being a gardener, I had to look up these wild hibiscus. Hibiscus sabdariffa, common name roselle, is native to West Africa but now widely distributed across the tropical and subtropical world. It was popular in the West Indies by the 1500s and in Asia by the 1600s. It is the calyx of the flower – in other words, the cup part that holds the petals of the flower – that is gracing our drinks but its early popularity will have nothing to do with drinking bubbly or cocktails. It is one of those enormously versatile plants. The calyxes are eaten both fresh and preserved in sweet and savoury dishes, the stems and leaves used as vegetables and seasoning, both cooked and raw, in Africa the oily seeds are also consumed while in Asia, the plant is harvested commercially for the fibre that is extracted from the stems. But wait there is more. It is a traditional herbal remedy that contains anti-oxidants, used to treat many ailments from cancer to heart problems.

In the wild
Not in our garden, but Mark is now wondering if the seeds are available in NZ

When the petals are still attached to the calyx, the plant looks just like a typical hibiscus with the darker centre containing the stamens, surrounded by a single set of petals, mostly white, flushed pink or pink but there are red forms.

I do not think our eleven calyxes in a jar of syrup are going to cure any of our ailments but they are deliciously fruity to eat after consuming the drink.

On another topic, I usually photograph the towering Trichocereus pachanoi against a blue sky. But as the evening draws in, the flowers open fully and the scent hangs heavy in the air even several metres from the plant. Night-scented flowers are usually an indicator that the plant is pollinated by moths.

Trichocereus pachanoi towering in the evening light

Go well. Stay safe.

Seasons Greetings

What can I say about Christmas 2021? May you find peace, happiness and tranquillity wherever you are in these difficult times. And may you and those around you stay safe and well.

All the best,

Abbie and Mark

Not, I admit, a Christmas scene. It is in fact June 2017 in Sermoneta, a hilltop village in Italy and it feels like another world now. But I like the photo.

Crazy paving

When life gives you broken concrete, crazy pave.

Zach broke up the two concrete paths I mentioned last week. This was a bit of a mission because it turned out they had been laid to a depth that was considerably in excess of what the situation required but it is done now. I had been wondering about using the pieces in a crazy paved pathway linking the separate areas and when we looked at the spaces and the concrete pieces, I could see it would work.

Not being trained garden designers, we think visually on our feet – not on paper. We do a lot of looking before we make a move. Fortunately, Lloyd is equal to many tasks and it turns out that crazy paving is one of those. Mark and I may visualise the end result but it is Lloyd who thinks his way through the process and addresses it with precision and care. I have learned about laying crazy paving this week by watching him.

First he dug out the area, removing excess soil. Then he levelled it all, constantly checking the depth in order to achieve a flat surface that will end up on the same level as the surrounding ground and avoiding potential trip hazards that broken concrete can create. I failed to photograph the dirt stage but I did at least record the next step.

Laying a base course and making sure everything is level and at the right depth

Next he laid a bed of gravel, screeding that to get it level and making sure again that the depth was correct. Fortunately, we had the gravel here, stored in a small mountain from previous use. It is very handy having resources on site, though if bringing in materials from outside, sand may have been an easier option to form the base layer. We just lack a handy mountain of sand on site so we use what we have.  

Only then did he place the concrete slabs, constantly checking to make sure the level throughout was consistent.  

I can’t show the finished result yet but he has broken the back of the job. It is a wide path leading from the summer borders through to my tussock walkway and Zach asked me if we would lay a few informal pieces of concrete to blend the crazy paving to the new area. I hadn’t thought of that but he is right that it would stop the hard edge of the end of that particular stretch of path and make it more of seamless transition. I think of it as melting the path into the informality of the woodchip and tussock area.

The trench is unrelated to the path. We are needing to lay electric cables. But you can see the visual context where we will blend the path into the new area.

It is a minor project by our standards, but a good example of getting the foundations right from the start so that the finished result will be visually pleasing, practical, permanent and safe.

The blue of Cordyline stricta

Two flower photos to finish, because broken concrete is not pretty. While social media shows me it is jacaranda time in Sydney, we are not good jacaranda territory here (and ours won’t flower until February). At least we have the blue-flowered Cordyline stricta in full bloom at this time and how pretty is that?  

A single red dahlia, tall white daisies and Verbena bonariensis in the summer borders