Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

A Wayne in a Manger

The Bakelite Holy Family

Ours is a secular household. This is not unusual in New Zealand which has a determinedly secular government and state. But I do love a nativity set. This may be because we lacked a nativity set entirely in the box of Christmas decorations when I was a child. At some point, Mark and I inherited his mother’s set – referred to now as the Bakelite Holy Family. I am guessing it dates back to the 1940s because bakelite was dropping from common usage at the end of that time. For those too young to remember the bakelite light switches of earlier times, it was one of the early precursors to the plastics of today.

Joseph used to have a tiny lantern that hung from his left hand. To my shame, I vacuumed that up at least 35 years ago. Had I known its absence would bother me down the decades, I would have been more determined in the search through the dustbag of the vacuum cleaner at the time.

Who knew that minimalist nativity scenes have become a thing? Were it not for social media, this new fashion would have escaped my notice entirely. If you type it in to Google, you will find plenty of examples. Some made me laugh out loud.

I do like the stylish glass version, though not enough to buy it. Besides, our house is more maximumist than minimalist so it would not look the same.

This wooden block one reminded me of The Emperor’s New Clothes. An over-priced utilitarian approach with no craftsmanship, masquerading as cutting-edge style. But it made me laugh with its brazen approach.

Minimalist but with some primitive art charm, I felt

There are many nicer wooden ones on offer, I see.

This one pushes minimalism about as far as it can go but it has design flair and style. Artistic, even.

But as I entertained myself trawling through photos of minimalist nativity sets, it struck me that it is the composition that is most important. No matter whether coloured balls, cylinders or blocks are used, the central grouping of three is Mary (often in blue), Joseph and Baby Jesus. To the right are the three Magi (being so secular, I had to google whether they were kings or wise men – pretty much interchangeable, it seems, so I settled on the more archaic Magi). To the left there is usually a donkey and a sheep and sometimes there is an angel on the central manger. Unless you are American, in which case you may put the Magi on the left and the animals on the right.

A temporary installation

Could I, I wondered, re-create an ephemeral nativity scene using flowers? Mark immediately offered the pineapple offshoots from the Ananas sagenaria for the three Magi. Okay, it is not my finest work but yes, you can re-create the nativity scene in flowers and natural materials and it is still identifiable. Composition and some relativity in scale is all it takes. If any readers feel the desire to re-create their version in flowers, please send me photos to share. I may try again before Christmas to see I can get flowery AND minimalist smart.

I bought a beautifully crafted nativity scene for equally secular Second Daughter who lives in Sydney. Made by a retired toymaker, each figure is whittled from different NZ native timbers. Amusingly, she has a domestic debate with her French partner every year. He is adamant that Baby Jesus cannot be placed until Christmas morning. I have no idea if this is a French custom or whether it is just a tradition from his family but Mark, ever the pedant, pointed out the same logic would apply to the three Magi.

I am not generally one for cute kiddie anecdotes but I did like the story a friend told me of a mother showing a nativity scene to her very small son. He insisted it was not Jesus in the crib, it was Wayne. Why Wayne, you may wonder. “A Wayne in a manger, no crib for a bed… “

Baby Wayne may be slight improvement on Baby Cheesus, do we think?

Finally, I cannot find a high-resolution image of the nativity created from disposable face masks but you get the picture. On Pinterest (where else), you can find the directions for creating rather charming angels for the Christmas tree from face masks. I am not sure how I feel about this manifestation of the times we now live in. Resigned amusement, maybe?

When good plants go rogue

I liked how the cutwork foliage provided a contrast to the dominant grassy foliage

It is no good. The plume poppy had to go from the sunny Court Garden. While I liked the foliage contrast, it is just waaaay too invasive to leave in place.

That is the full extent of the flowers. Pinky beige, perhaps?

The plume poppy is Macleaya cordata, native to China and Japan. It has an attractive blue-grey leaf that looks a bit like the plant version of cut-work embroidery. In spring and summer it shoots up stems to maybe two metres before flowering. True, the flowers are not exciting. More brown than gold, they look like seed heads even when they are in full bloom but they have a certain feathery charm while playing second fiddle to the more striking foliage. The problem is that it runs below ground, more like sprinting than running in some situations.

Here a fortnight ago, gone today on the grounds of bad behaviour

We have grown it for years in the high shade of the Avenue Gardens where it has not been problematic. The running tendency slows in shade – more a walking pace  – and in the thinner, dry soils it is easy to pull out wayward shoots and keep it to an area. I was not prepared for what it would do in cultivated soils in full sun. Not only did the runners bed down to a greater depth but they headed off with gusto in every direction, popping up metres away from the original plant.

Making a break for it

Really, it was the determination to colonise the paths that sealed the fate of this plant. Look at these runners appearing in the terrace. Not only have the shoots struck out enthusiastically on every side, this terrace is 30 cm higher than the garden bed, separated by a brick wall. I just don’t need a plant that can make such determined efforts to colonise. It was already growing through other perennials in the garden beds and leaping beyond.

It is going to take me a few years to completely eradicate it because roots that remain below ground will continue to push up growing shoots but I removed all that was visible two weeks ago and will just keep on its case until it finally disappears.

Macleaya cordata can remain quietly co-existing in the high shade of the Avenue Gardens

It can stay in the shade of the Avenue Gardens but I can’t be having invasive thugs in the Summer Gardens.

Phlomis russeliana flowering now in the shady Avenue Gardens where it will probably be fine left to its own devices for another decade or so.

Another plant that has surprised me with its vigour is Phlomis russeliana or Jersualem sage. While described as a perennial for sunny spots, we have long used it as a low maintenance, obliging bedding plant in the high shade of the Avenue Gardens. It has never needed any attention there, bar cutting the tall growth and spent seed heads back to the ground at some stage in winter. The only time I have ever done any work on lifting and dividing it was when I raided the patch to get plants for the new, herbaceous borders.

In the sunshine, the phlomis romps away and needs major attention every two years at least.

Introduced to the bright light of full sun and well-cultivated soils, the phlomis has become something of a triffid. The growth is lusher and much stronger. The twin borders are only entering their fifth summer but the blocks of phlomis have already been lifted and divided twice, discarding probably half of them in the process. I think I can get away with a total dig, divide and replant every second year if I alternate it with picking and thinning them from the top in the year between. It is a bit more work than I had anticipated for a cheerful but utility plant.  While it seeds a bit more in sunny conditions, at least it doesn’t spread below ground like the plume poppy.

The lines between a strong grower, a thug and an invasive weed are sometimes finer than we expect. Generally, we will cope with the first and get rid of those in the second two classes.

The exotica of water lilies

If I believed in woo-woo (or, at least, that plants can sense what humans are saying), I might think that the appearance of this charming, little lemon water lily flower was because of my threats made over the past few months. The plant came into our possession about ten years ago and it has lived in a vintage pot ever since without flowering. Maybe three years ago, I took it out, reduced some bulk, raised it higher in the pot and gave it some new compost mix. Nothing happened. It just put up its usual leaves. I declared this year – probably in its hearing – that this was its last year. If it didn’t flower, I would cast it out and find something more obliging to grow instead.

And lo, this flower appeared and it has won a reprieve. It is a very pretty little flower. Water lilies do have lovely blooms with a pristine purity of form.

The vintage water pump is, I admit, merely ornamental in this situation.

We have water lilies in assorted bodies of water. The purest white one in a round pond on the side law is the best, I think. A white waterlily is the national flower of Bangladesh but looking at the photos, while similar, I think it is a more tropical form than this one.

The setting
The one in the goldfish pond at the bottom of the sunken garden is a bit murky in colour

I don’t find them the world’s most exciting bloom but they have an exotic beauty to them. I looked them up to see where their homelands are and I see they are broadly spread across the globe ‘in temperate and tropical climates’ which is pretty sweeping. They are a bit more complex than I expected though, if I am honest, I would admit I have not given them a lot of thought. Their plant family is Nymphaeaceae and I will never remember how to spell that with all it’s ‘a’s and ‘e’s. There are about 5 genera in that family and maybe 70 different species which don’t all look the same as the ones we grow. That is quite a lot of different species. As far as I can see, the ones we see here are from the nymphaea group.

The bigger growing forms we have in ponds in the Wild North Garden are lovely but they need occasional intervention to reduce their spread or we would have no visible water remaining

Water lilies grow from rhizomes rooted in soil so they only grow in fairly shallow water. Many years ago, we went to visit two ‘water gardens’. In fact, they were water lily gardens. I can’t recall other aquatic plants. That is where I learned that some varieties can be such strong growers that they will entirely cover the water surface if they are not restricted. A mass of water lilies without visible water reflecting, shimmering and rippling to frame the plant is not actually that aesthetically pleasing or exciting to see.

The loveliest water lilies I have seen were in the Xishuangbanna botanical gardens in southern China. They were held up above the water on longer stems and I think this makes them a different genera to the common nymphaea types we grow here. “They’re tropical,” Mark said, but he may have been generalising from the fact that it was hot and many of the plants we were looking at there were very tropical. I have no idea if that type is even in NZ.

This week at least, I am happy that the pretty lemon one has flowered after a very long wait.

A lucky escape

There was a clue from the back doorsteps but neither of us noticed it immediately

Mark is an under-stated man who never gets carried away by the drama of a situation. As we sat down for our early evening conversation before dinner yesterday (a glass of wine may have been involved), he let me tell him about something that had distracted me during the afternoon before starting to tell his news. “I was wondering,” he said, “when I planted rimu trees to take over from the old pines, why I placed one so close to one of the younger pines which had good foliage.”

I didn’t even realise he had done this long-term sequential planning for replacement trees under the old pines. Some of these trees are now coming up to 150 years old. When he referred to a ‘newer’ one, he was referring to those planted by his very late Uncle Les when he still lived with his parents here, rather than those planted by his great grandfather – so ‘newer, younger’ in this context means maybe 100 years old.

Then came the kicker comment: “It seems I didn’t have to worry about that.” I have lived with Mark long enough to know what he meant – the pine tree had come down. This would not have been anything more than inconvenience and a big clean-up job were it not for the timing. When we had a tearing gale during the garden festival ten days ago, we closed off the Avenue Gardens as a safety measure and changed the route for visitors to walk up the very path the tree has fallen across and blocked entirely.

We closed off this path as being too risky during the gale force winds ten days ago …
… and redirected to this route
Now it looks like this. At least it didn’t happen during the recent garden festival

The mystery to us is when it fell because neither of us heard it. I walked up that path mid afternoon on Friday. Mark found the fallen tree late afternoon on Saturday. So there is a 25 hour time frame and in that period, there was rain but no wind. There would have been a loud crack, the sound of breaking branches and then a loud whoomp when it hit the ground. But we heard and felt nothing. Mark thinks it must have happened at night when we were both in deep sleep but I am sure we would have woken because it is not that far from the house. I think it must have happened when I was out shopping on Saturday morning and Mark was working in the shed with the radio on. He is adamant he would have heard it and felt the vibration. Maybe it thought nobody was here to hear it so it did not make a sound? (*Philosophy joke.)

Ah well. A whole lot of firewood has arrived, more than enough for us so we will be sharing it. And we have learned yet another lesson about the unpredictability of when and which way trees may fall when they come down.

It looks smaller in the photograph than it does in real life. I had neither person nor dog to pose for scale. It is about 100 years old.

Rhododendron season

My favourite rhododendron – R. sino nuttallii

Occasionally, Mark and I torture ourselves remembering our years retailing plants. Do not get me wrong. The nursery served us well and enabled us to put our children through university and to retire early. We met many lovely people and to this day, former customers will tell us what they bought from us. Sadly, it is the obnoxious ones that stick most clearly in our memories. There can’t have been that many of them because, between us, we can come up with individual details and sometimes even names. I doubt that any read my posts.

The classic rhododendron look with ball trusses – left to right ‘Norrie King’, a red whose name neither of us could pull out of the memory banks and ‘Derrell’ King
One of Felix’s yakushimanum crosses – this type of rhododendron does not spark joy for me, personally speaking.

Mark built the nursery on rhododendrons in the first years and indeed, the garden here was primarily seen as a rhododendron garden. They were a hot ticket item and well over 100 000 were produced in Taranaki alone every year. Quite early on, Mark analysed the fact that many of our mailorder customers came from the upper half of the North Island and decided that if he was going to sell them rhododendrons, he would pick the varieties most likely to perform well in warmer climes. Most of the big, showy American hybrids that were flooding into NZ at the time – the likes of ‘Puget Sound’, ‘Lems Cameo’, ‘Anna Rose Whitney’ and so many more – needed colder winters and less humid summers than we can provide. We have lost many of those American and European hybrids in the garden here now and I am sure they never did well in Auckland.

One of Felix Jury’s cultivars – Rhododendron ‘Barbara Jury’ showing the tupical maddenii form

He targeted a range within the maddenii group which were usually characterised by looser trusses of bell-shaped flowers, fragrance, mostly paler colours and, most importantly, healthy foliage in warmer climates. Many were from his father, Felix’s breeding efforts and Mark added to them.

‘Moon Orchid’ – a sister seedling to Barbara above

This week when the R. sino nuttalliis are looking so glorious they can take my breath away and many of the maddeni hybrids are flowering, I thought back to those retailing days. It was a constant uphill battle to convince customers that these were splendid plants much better suited to their conditions when their mental image was entirely focused on the classic rhododendron look of big ball trusses sitting atop the foliage. In the 1990s, if they were male customers, they not only had to be big ball trusses, they had to be RED. It became a joke here that every time a nursery plant opened a big truss of red flowers, a man would buy it on the spot. If women bought a red rhododendron, it was almost always for their husband.  Maybe times have changed in the decades since.

One of the loderis – we think it is ‘Venus’. It is a bit of a ratty plant all year except when in bloom when it is glorious

A rhododendron friend who went around the garden last week commented on how lovely it was to see mature rhododendrons in a garden setting. I had forgotten that huge gulf between tidy, little nursery plants standing maybe 50cm high in their pot and the large specimens we have in the garden. I don’t miss those days of nursery production and sales one bit.

Just a random row in the trial area
Look at how clean the foliage is, given the total absence of any attention and very open conditions

Ironically, as rhododendrons fell from favour in the market, Mark started to get the breakthrough of big, ball trusses on plants that kept good foliage (not turning silver from thrips and getting crispy brown edges to the leaves). We have a long row of them quietly growing in full sun and open conditions in the trial grounds. They are not my favourite; big ball trusses are less appealing to me and they have no scent. Mark is a bit underwhelmed by the flower colours – he doesn’t see any colour breakthroughs in them. But what sets them apart is that growing over the years with no care, no spraying, no fertiliser, no pruning and in full sun, many of them have kept excellent, clean foliage and they cover themselves in blooms every year. That is the breeding step that he managed.

More seedlings but it is the foliage we are admiring

They were bred specifically for our conditions but the commercial market for rhododendrons in NZ is so small now that there is no incentive at all to release them. He just reached that breeding goal too late for our nursery days and for when rhododendrons were an elite and fashionable line. Such is the life of a plant breeder. They can just sit over in the trial grounds. We have the space and they are not doing any harm there.

Is there anything lovelier than a sino nuttallii?

I have long said that if I could only grow one rhododendron, it would be a R. sino nuttallii. I doubt that they are available commercially here these days when specialist growers have all but gone, although some of the nuttallii or madennii hybrids are still around. Most of you will just have to enjoy them vicariously and take my word for their bold beauty and delightful fragrance.

An unnamed seedling in the maddenii range
Another unnamed seedling which is a full sister to ‘Barbara Jury’ and ‘Moon Orchid’.