Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

Prickly matters

I have, as we say, been ‘doing under the rimus’. “It looks like you have vacuumed it,” said Zach and I was gratified because it is a big job on one of the key areas of the garden. The pressure is on, you understand, with just under five weeks until we open for the Taranaki Garden Festival.

Bilbergia

We have our fingers crossed that Auckland will be out of Level 3 so able to travel (looking good, Aucklanders, on Friday’s figures! The rest of us around the country are holding our collective breath for you. Well, most of us around the country).

Neoregelia

Cleaning up under the rimus is painstaking work but it only needs that level of attention once a year so I generally describe it as low maintenance. I go through and pick over every plant to remove the debris that falls continuously from the trees above and to groom each plant. We are not talking a small area – maybe 100 metres long and varying from 10 to 30 metres wide. The debris is being removed by the wool bale load even though we leave the rimu needles to provide the path surfaces.

Vriesea

It is a complex planting but bromeliads feature large. It is not that we have a choice collection of bromeliads. Our interest lies solely in them as garden plants in a shaded, borderline-sub-tropical situation so that limits the range we can grow. Broms are a huge family and largely from the tropical areas of the Americas. The best-known bromeliad is of course the pineapple. I have something of an aversion to prickly plants and many broms are prickly. Their flowering, while undeniably exotic and interesting, doesn’t make my heart sing like some other plants. So my knowledge of them is limited to caring for the ones we have and I have never felt motivated to get to grips with the whole plant family, botanically speaking.

Another neoreglia, we think

Most of the varieties we have flower and then put out one or two fresh shoots to the side while the flowering centre starts to whiff off and die, sometimes very slowly over a period of two years or more if left alone. Once they start to discolour, I go through and cut them off which stops the clump from looking too crowded.

A particularly prickly aechmea

The very best implement for this is what I now see is named a ‘flax cutter’ – a small curved, serrated blade that is extremely useful for many garden tasks but probably not cutting flax. It is handy for cutting down grasses and faster than secateurs for deadheading perennials that need flowering spikes cut off. I had to go and buy a new one this week. I lost my good one somewhere amongst the bromeliads. I then went and found my old one and promptly lost that too. You would think I might have learned by now to keep better track of garden tools. This one came with a nice ash wood handle but I spray painted it before I even took it out to the garden – blue, because we had a can of blue spray paint on the shelf. I will not lose this one, I have vowed to myself.

Arm puttees and the new flax cutter

The second piece of vital gear is arm puttees. The alternative is that the prickly bromeliad leaves will shred the skin from the top of the garden gloves to the elbow. I speak from experience here. My arm puttees are simply the sleeves cut from an old denim shirt, elasticated at both the wrist and the elbow. They are worth improvising if you are dealing with prickly plants.

DIY garden kneeling pads

While on handy hints, I can highly recommend cutting kneeling pads from the high-density foam mats sometimes used as yoga mats or sleeping mats for trampers. One came into my possession and I can see it will last me for years. I simply cut it to the required size with what we know as a Stanley knife which is just a larger box-cutter. I find the kneeling mats sold in garden supply shops way too small but these I can make in a size that suits me. They cushion the ground and keep my knees dry, as long as I keep to the mat.

Another bilbergia

I had a mental debate with myself as to whether I could post my few photos of those currently in flower in the area where I am working without naming them – by general group if not cultivar. Well, we have long since lost the cultivar names. I have never committed bromeliad groups to memory but I feel I am lowering standards if I don’t name plants here so feel free to correct me on the classifications. We are by no means certain on them.

What we refer to as an FIK. Do tell us if you know the group.
Is it another aechmea? At least it is not prickly at all.

When the detail brings delight, not the devil

Tulipa saxatilis and simple cream freesias in the rockery this week

Bulbs play a major role in our garden. We use a huge range of bulbs, many no longer available commercially. Some never were readily available. Very few of those we grow are the larger, modern hybrids which are generally what are on offer these days. We prefer the simpler style of the species or at least closer to the species.

Added to that, seventy years of intensive gardening across two generations has built up the numbers most satisfyingly. Most of our cultivated gardens have bulbs incorporated in the plantings. Or at least bulbs, corms, tubers or rhizomes to cover the range.

Erythroniums

We have a fair few that are fleeting seasonal wonders in our climate but we just adjust our expectations. The cute erythroniums – dog’s tooth violets – are maybe a 10 day delight and can be taken out by untimely storms but that is just the way things are.

Meet Beryl. Narcissis ‘Beryl’ with cyclamen, nerines and even a Satyrium coriifolium in the bottom left corner

I don’t grow any in containers now although the same can not be said of Mark. His bulb collection is currently sitting in limbo for us all to see the scale as his inner sanctum – his Nova house – is currently being relocated. He hasn’t taken good care of them in recent times but he is determined to keep some of the rarer, touchier varieties alive. It is possible to maintain a more comprehensive bulb collection if you are willing to faff around with growing them in containers in controlled conditions. I am not so dedicated. My interest wanes if we can not grow them in garden conditions.

Gladiolus tristis popping up unexpectedly in our parking area

It is the random bulbs beyond the gardens that are currently bringing me pleasure. Some of these have been planted. Some have popped up from our nursery days. When trays of bulbs were being repotted, Mark had a strict rule that fresh potting mix was to be used (granulated bark was our chosen medium). Hygiene, he would explain. The old potting mix was spread around the place and at times it had seed or tiny bulbs within it. I am guessing this is how the Gladiolus tristis, a species gladiolus, came to be at the base of a cherry tree. I certainly don’t remember planting it there and I can’t recall it flowering before.

Ipheions at the base of an orange tree

When we plant bulbs beyond the cultivated garden areas, we try and select spots where they can establish in fairly undisturbed conditions. At the base of trees is good, as long as there is plenty of light. Around old tree stumps, on margins that don’t get mown often, or in little spots where we can walk past and be surprised to see them in bloom.

Trillium red with bluebells down in the park meadow
And trillium white with Lachenalia aloides tricolor and snowdrops to the right on the margins by a stump

We have rather too many bluebells now, to the point where I often dig out clumps to reduce overcrowding. The Spanish bluebells or the ones that are crosses between the vigorous Spanish and the more refined English species are definitely rampant, bordering on weeds. That sea of blue is very charming in their flowering season but sometimes it is the one seedling escape flowering bravely on its own that makes me smile as I pass.

The simplicity of a self-sown bluebell
Common old Lachenalia aloides where a tree stump used to be

It is both the transient nature and the detail that makes bulbs so interesting in a garden context. Far from simplifying our own garden as we age, the more we garden, the more we like to add fine detail. That is what keeps it interesting for us.

Bluebells and narcissi at the base of gum tree
Narcissus bulbocodium with bluebells

Staying local in my neighbourhood

More about the bridge further down the page

Our world has shrunk again to a very small, very local area. Mark left the property this week for the first time since the Delta Covid outbreak started on August 17. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how he would cope with this new era of compulsory mask-wearing and scanning but he managed just fine. And if my Mark can cope with masks and scanning, so can everybody else. I know the rest of the world has been masked for the better part of the last 20 months but it is very new here, though I had our range of reusable, pretty masks at the ready.

On my weekly shopping trips (I am not just the designated shopper here, I am and always have been pretty much the only shopper), I have been amazed at the exceptional levels of compliance in our local areas. Everybody is not only masked, scanning and maintaining physical distancing, they are doing it with patience and good grace. Melbourne son keeps saying to me that New Zealanders are compliant people. I was surprised when he first said this because I do not think that we have a particularly compliant culture. Upon reflection, I don’t think what is happening here is unquestioning obedience. I think it is more about a shared vision and a strong sense of community and for that, we can thank the very clear messaging and communications from our government.  

Fingers crossed that this Delta incursion over our border can be eliminated in good time so that our garden festival can go ahead in just over seven weeks. I am hoping we can do it without needing to mask but, if necessary, we will mask and not complain.

In the meantime, special thanks and acknowledgement to Aucklanders. Yet again, Auckland is bearing the brunt of lockdown measures to keep the rest of the country safe and free from Covid and it is really hard. The rest of us need to be very grateful to them. The alternative of having Covid running through our country is grim, indeed.

My eyes have been focused locally on my once-a-week trip out to get essential supplies. Somebody had been clipping hard but with great precision on this driveway sited on the crest of small hill across the river from here. I don’t even know what those trees are. I didn’t get close enough to inspect but they certainly make a sharp statement. Are they incongruous in their rural setting or a really interesting contrast? I lean to the latter.

Rhododendron Kaponga

I spotted this red rhododendron last week and went back to have another look yesterday because I regretted not stopping at the time. Last week it was glowing brightly in the light, not quite so much yesterday but still bold and vibrant. It is a local selection of R. arboreum which is named ‘Kaponga’, renowned for its high health. When it comes to rhododendrons, those big ball trusses are not my personal favourite, but I couldn’t fault this handsome plant. The fact the property owners stained their fence dark rather than leaving it in its tanalised state helps show off all the plants to advantage.

In my local town, I stopped to photograph this handsome pair of red cordylines (cabbage trees) which look very sculptural in front of a fairly plain house. There are a number of named red forms available, but they are generally just selections of our native C. australis ‘Purpurea’. True, close up the foliage looks as chewed as all other NZ cordylines but that is because it is a native moth whose caterpillar munches on the leaves.

Almost opposite was a new garden which was really quite amazing. I think we could describe it as largely Italianate with a touch of pre-Raphaelite. I will say no more except to note that it has been constructed and furnished with much care and attention to detail and is clearly a source of pride to its owners.    

You do need to line up carefully. There is not a lot of room to spare.

Finally, back to the bridge at the top. It is the historic Bertram Road bridge, not far from us. I have a bit of a thing for bollards so I was delighted to find @WorldBollard on Twitter. It is the official account of the World Bollard Association (who knew?) and clearly over 30 000 other people have an interest in bollards, too.

There are eight bollards standing guard and all of them look something like this. Oh, the stories they could tell.

Bollards play an important role on this bridge. When it was restored and reopened to vehicle traffic, maybe back in the 2000s, the bollards were not quite as resolute as these current ones. But a stupid driver of a heavy transport truck thought he would ignore the warning signs and take a short cut over the bridge, demolishing the sides and a fair amount of the decking. Personally, I think he was lucky to get the truck off the bridge without it collapsing into the river because he far exceeded the allowable weight.

When the bridge was reinstated, the bollards were moved in to narrow the space further. Judging by the state of them, they have inflicted quite a lot of damage in the last few years as people have found their vehicles – particularly the modern twin cab utes – are too wide to fit. They are renowned too, I am told, for taking out wing mirrors.

It is just a question of lining the car up to stay very close on the driver’s side, keeping very straight and taking it slowly. Personally, I have never even brushed one of those bollards. Our Sydney daughter declared she would not be risking it herself when I took her over the new narrowed version on her last trip home.

From our neighbourhood to yours, stay safe. Fingers crossed for positive progress this week on dropping Covid case numbers down to low single figures.

Magnolia Milky Way – a Felix Jury hybrid – out the front of Pat’s place on the drive home
  • For overseas readers: we had one Covid incursion that escaped our border quarantine and that one single incident has so far produced 902 community cases. We know they all came from that one single infection because all cases are genomically sequenced in NZ. New daily infections had dropped to just 11 on Friday so Saturday’s 23 cases were a disappointment. That is over the entire country but we want it back to zero again. We are playing the long game here, playing for time to get the population vaccinated and also to see how Covid is going to pan out internationally before we risk opening the border without the current tight quarantine. ‘Learning to live with Covid’ still looks pretty undesirable when we have been so successful in learning to live without it.
Milky Way again

Pickled magnolias

Manchu Fan and Felix Jury

Who knew that magnolia petals are edible and, when pickled, make a pretty fair substitute for that pink pickled ginger (gari) often served with sushi? I didn’t, until it came down my social media a few days ago but plenty of other people did. I found this out when I googled ‘pickled magnolia petals’. Even Jamie Oliver has a recipe for them on line.

The recipes seem to be fairly uniform and not at all complicated.

Four cups of petals ready to be blanched
Bringing the pot back to boil for 30 seconds
  1. Pick four cups, loosely packed, of fresh magnolia petals (see my notes below on petal selection).
  2. Blanch the petals in boiling water for 30 seconds then drain, cool quickly and dry. I laid them out on paper towels.
  3. Boil 1 cup of apple cider vinegar, ½ cup of sugar, 1tsp salt and a 2cm knob of peeled ginger.
  4. Pack the petals in a clean jar and pour over the boiling liquid. Mine filled a Roses marmalade jar.
  5. Seal and leave for 24 hours. Once opened, store in the refrigerator.

Surprisingly, they do taste and handle remarkably like the pink pickled ginger.

Magnolia petals are edible fresh and can be used in salads – but I can not describe them as delicious. The outside petals can get a slightly bitter after taste. Maybe take a few bites to sample when picking to pickle and you will soon get a feel for which ones will pickle the best.

I picked a mix of colours – red, pink, yellow and white. It is too early for me to advise whether some colours taste better than others. Others declare that different varieties of magnolias have different flavours but I wanted to post this before magnolia season finished so maybe we can crowd source reader opinion on this?

Four cups fresh petals to one jar pickled

Next time, I will keep to younger flowers. It is easier to handle petals that are on the smaller side so the cup-shaped magnolias (often soulangeanas) are perfect candidates and bruise less than the large cup and saucer blooms with huge petals. I wouldn’t cut the petals as one recipe advised because they instantly turn brown which is not a good look.

My pickle is still very fresh but it is certainly tasty with cheese on a cracker. I plan to do a second jar to keep sealed until summer when I make sushi again but I can see it will be handy to use as a fresh pickle in many contexts, not just limited to Asian inspired dishes. It is certainly cheap and fast to make.

Happy pickling.

Time for it to go

It is all about the silhouette

It is just a common old silver birch – Betula pendula. It is not even one of the more highly prized white barked or named forms. There is nothing special about it botanically speaking. It is not well suited to our conditions because it prefers a drier climate and it is hardy to cold winters. It is really messy, dropping fine twiggy lengths all year round which get caught in the lower canopy plants and it defoliates by late summer because rust attacks the leaves. Of late, it has been dropping not just twiggy sprays but also smaller, dead branches.

Nevertheless, I felt a distinct sadness when I looked at it yesterday and thought ‘No, it is time for you to go. The decision can not be delayed much longer. Tree euthanasia’.

That is a big scar on its side

It is one of the original trees that Felix planted back in the early 1950s when he started the garden. A large branch dropped out in the early 1980s and Felix suggested then to Mark that he could cut the whole thing out. But Mark decided not to and just did a clean-up. Now it appears that the tree is rotting from the scar of that episode but at least we have had an additional 40 years of pleasure from it.

I was a bit surprised by this 2005 photo. It made me realise how much smaller the tree had become in the intervening years. That is it between the two queen palms

Why do I like it? I love the graceful bare form silhouetted against the sky. It has always been part of our view from our favoured seating spot in the front porch where we often sit together for a coffee, tea or wine. I have photographed it countless times, simply because of that silhouette. Given its propensity for early defoliation, we get the silhouette unimpeded by foliage for at least seven months of the year now, maybe eight. When I look at older photos, it certainly used to have a lot more foliage and branches than it has now.

A convention of Mark’s tumbler pigeons
Kereru in the birch

The birds love it. It is a favoured staging post, whether for Mark’s tumbler pigeons, our native woodpigeons – the kereru – rosellas, common old sparrows, tui and the rest. It has birds resting in it, surveying the lie of the land, almost all the time. It is not a feed source, it just gives a good view. There are plenty of other trees around and I am sure the birds will adapt quickly but I will miss the sight of them pausing there on their busy rounds.

Australian rosellas – so gaudy compared to our native birds

It will be a job for our arborist. While access is easy and it is not a difficult tree to remove, it has a lot of rot in it and it stands maybe 15 metres high. But really, the concern is for the low stone wall that separates the driveway. Felix built the wall back in the early 1950s and it is a patchwork of wafer-thin split stone. We don’t fancy having to rebuild a section of it if we dropped a big branch on it. Our arborist is very good and he will manage to avoid such damage. But it can wait until our garden festival is over in November.

The low stone wall is now more important than the tree