Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

Why so very grey, New Zealand?

Why so grey, New Zealand? Each time we fly somewhere, Mark looks out the plane window and winces as he sees the sea of grey roofs. It is quite a while since we had to re-roof a house, but I assume roofing is available in other colours? It is not compulsory to roof in grey, is it?

As we drive around the countryside, he groans at the modern new builds which are pretty much grey. Grey walls and grey on the roof with grey paving. Fortunately, we lead such a non-suburban life that he rarely has to enter modern city suburbia or he may despair at the symphony in grey. I would not dare take him looking at carpet but again, the choice in carpet colours in this country these days is about 95% prison grey with a few options in mud.

The Australian version is at least  in shades of warm sandstone

It is a cultural thing, this world of colour. We swung by a new suburban area near Canberra on our last visit. There the houses were all the colour of warm sandstone which seemed preferable to the cold grey of home.

Welcome to Italian suburbia

A day in modern suburban Italy was a revelation. This is Fiumicino near Rome airport. It is still suburbia but it is like an explosion of colour. All those flat planes of rendered plaster are painted. In colours other than grey. These are not even utility paint jobs. There are often different colours used and different paint finishes to add textural variation. It was a revelation to see a society where colour is part of daily life.

A choice of grey or black cars in the UK

Colour, colour everywhere in suburban Fiumicino

Even the cars in Italy were generally coloured. When driving in England, we took to photographing our rental car when we parked, to make sure we could find it again. Because, as Mark said, in the UK you can have any colour of car you like, as long as it is grey or black. We were looking at Tesla electric cars while travelling (because we are planning an electric car purchase at some stage). All Teslas were in grey or black until Mark got positively excited to tell me he saw a white one. I want my next car to be powder yellow.

It is a different world of colour

What is it with colour, I wonder? And I do not know. We live in a place with remarkably high sunshine hours and intense clarity of light. Where we are in Taranaki, there is some debate on exactly how many sunshine hours we get. The rate shot up when the measuring was automated a few years ago and despite having the machine retested and recalibrated, there still seems some anxiety about it. But even if we take a mid figure, we come out around 2400 hours a year. Compare that to London at 1400 hours pa and extremely sunny southern Europe at around 2800 hours pa and there is no doubt that we are on the high side as far as daily sunshine goes. We also have a bright clarity of light that is different to most of the rest of the world (and one of the highest rates of skin cancer as a result). You don’t get SAD (Seasonally Affected Disorder) due to low light and lack of winter sunshine in our neck of the woods.

In New Zealand, this building would likely be in two shades of grey

So why, oh why, do we want to surround ourselves with grey? I can not think that grey ever lifts the spirits, raises a smile or puts a spring into a step. Given that the dominance of grey and colour neutrals is not determined by either raw materials or climate here, it must be driven by cultural factors. We were not always so grey and restrained in this country yet somehow that colour has become synonymous with “good taste” and “contemporary modernity” here. And maintaining resale values. I bet a disproportionately large number of those modern grey houses have neutral *magnolia* walls indoors (aka half way between white and cream) with grey carpets.

I know we were on holiday in Italy and that always makes things appear different, but it is the sheer vibrancy and colour that is a part of daily life throughout much of southern Europe that makes me want to return, time and time again.



This scene reflects experience and resources

Vegeconomists are people who suggest that the poor should be growing their own food at home. I had not heard the word until it came up on social media this week but boy, I have heard the sentiment. Often. Usually in the context of, “What is wrong with these people? Why don’t they just get off their chuffs and plant potatoes and cabbages in the garden to feed themselves?” (Can you tell it is election time in this country and one of the big issues is the rising incidence of poverty and the growing gulf between the rich and the poor?)

There are many, many good reasons to grow your own vegetables but saving money is not usually one of them. And I would bet that the judgemental vegeconomists I have heard on this matter have not actually done it themselves. Or if they have, it was when the world was a very different place forty years ago and they are now speaking with a rosy glow of smug nostalgia.

Just one section of Mark’s various vegetable patches

It is not impossible to save money growing your own veg but it takes experience, timing, the right conditions, planning and a fair amount of good fortune. And good land. I dispute that you can save money on a square metre of garden and a few pots. Mark is of the view that it is possible to save money on winter salads. We eat salad every day, fresh from his garden, and the daily fresh greens and other raw ingredients would indeed command a premium in the off season at the supermarket or greengrocer. Mark has been vegetable gardening since we moved out to a country cottage the first year we got married so he brings over four decades of experience to the edible garden. These days, with more time and a lifetime of resources, – including things like moveable cloche frames, a propagation house, bird netting and plenty of posts and poles to hold the netting up, a fully functioning compost heap plus a small tractor to cart the compost if more than a few barrow loads are needed, along with plenty of good land with good shelter – yes, these days his vegetable gardening is very productive.

Sorting the apples for winter storage (in the second fridge)

We have also learned which vegetables and fruit store well and how to eat with the seasons. And that involves a deep freeze and a second fridge. We ate the last apple from autumn this week, the last frozen asparagus from November 2016 and I think there is only one packet of frozen broad beans left though there is still plenty of frozen corn. We are eating soy beans instead of borlottis this year because the borlotti bean crop failed but the soy bean crop was remarkably good. There is still an open verdict on the success or otherwise of the surplus brussel sprout crop which is fermenting into sauerkraut at this very moment.

So, please spare me from glib pronouncements that people can solve their poverty related issues by planting silver beet and taties. I have a great deal more respect for those experienced growers who get out there and work with community gardens to foster a love for growing your own, or with schools to encourage children to appreciate that fresh is indeed much nicer. But the economies of mass production mean that in dollar terms, it will almost certainly be cheaper for most people to buy vegetables than to grow their own.

All this was eclipsed, I must say, by the gentleman from down south somewhere who took it one step further on social media. There was, he asserted, no reason for hunger in New Zealand when people could grow their own food and head out to the country to kill a wild goat for meat. I do not think he meant a tethered goat like this handsome fellow from up the road. I also suspect he did not get out much and maybe thought it was still 1950 when jolly practical young fellows could head out with the gun and shoot a rabbit or goat for the pot, all the while speaking with a fridge and freezer full of meat already paid for, packaged and ready for his wife to cook for dinner that night. Bah humbug.

Just for clarity’s sake – growing your own fruit and vegetables can be enormously pleasurable, tasty, convenient and healthy along with bringing better flavour and often a higher nutrition level. Just don’t expect it to save you a whole lot of money as well. And maybe stop judging the poor as lazy because vegetable gardening is just too difficult for them and planting fruit trees is not practical in an unstable housing situation.

FAQs, as they are called. Magnolia questions answered.

Just an unnamed seedling but glory, glory glory.

Is there a lovelier plant than a magnolia in full bloom? Maybe that is too extreme, but at this time of the year the absolute glory of magnolias all around me truly makes my heart sing. I will be talking about them with Tony Murrell on Radio Live tomorrow morning – tune in at about 7.45am these days.

Herewith, my answers to frequently asked questions.

A stomach full of red magnolia buds

  • If your magnolia looks as if it still has furry buds (the outer casing of the flower bud that our children used to describe as sleeping bags for mice) but they fail to open to blooms or only show a splash of damaged petal, the culprit is almost certainly a possum. If you examine a bud, you will see where it has eaten its way in to take out the tasty centre. A single possum is capable of destroying most of the buds even on very large trees. Mark has been shooting possums most of his life and has carried out autopsies on the stomach contents of literally thousands of them over the years. This is because he wants to know what they are eating and it is part of the process of skinning them and jointing the carcass to feed the dogs. Old habits die hard and it seem a waste to discard both the fur – which can be sold – and the meat. At this time of the year, he can find a few possums wreaking havoc with stomach contents entirely comprised of magnolia buds. Red buds from early varieties on this one in the photo.

    A kereru eating early blooms on Magnolia Vulcan

  • Once the flowers are open, we have seen kereru eating the petals, particularly of the early varieties. But they don’t destroy an entire tree and we are willing to accept the damage. We have heard of the Eastern rosella parrots stripping trees up north but we have not seen it here, even though we have some of this Australian import here.
  • This is your annual advice NOT to spray your lawn from here on. Without fail, every year, we get enquiries about magnolias opening with distorted foliage and without fail, when we enquire, the person has used lawn spray nearby in early spring Most lawn sprays are hormone-based and will cause damage to a number of crops including tomato plants, kiwi fruit and grapes. Magnolias are particularly vulnerable at the point when they are about to break into fresh leaf and because they are often used as specimen plants in or close to the lawn, they cop the spray drift. If you must spray your lawn, at least wait now until later in spring when the trees have put on their new foliage.

    Just more pretty skypaper

  • As far as we are concerned, it is a myth from England that magnolias cannot be moved. We have moved large trees but do it in late autumn or winter, not spring.
  • If your coloured magnolia is flowering for the first time and the colour is not what you expected, take a look at the flower form. Some magnolias will put up pale blooms to start with. If the flower shape is more or less correct, then be patient. With a bit more maturity, the colour should deepen. This is particularly true of the deeper coloured reds and purples.
  • If your magnolia has two totally different flowers on it, it is most likely that the root stock has escaped and is growing too. Most magnolias are budded onto a strong growing root stock. Over time, a root stock that has put out shoots will out-compete the chosen variety budded onto it, so it really does need to be removed. Examine the base of the trunk. Budding is done just above the soil level so you will find the rogue growth on the lowest branching level. Anything below the bud (or graft) is rootstock, above is the chosen variety. The sooner the escaped root stock is removed, the better.

Finally, I posted the two photos below on our Facebook garden page but I wanted to include them here too. This is the sight I see when I look out of the window every morning – upstairs, looking across to one of our boundaries. That stand-out magnolia is Mark’s Felix Jury, named for his father. The white adjacent to it is Manchu Fan, the pinks are all unnamed seedlings. It is an absolute stand-out magnolia and I can boast because Mark won’t.

Rubbish in the magnolias

This particular view of our place is one enjoyed by the neighbour’s cows

I headed out this morning to photograph the view the dairy cows that surround us get at this time of the year. Very pretty, it was too. Our property is in dairy heartland, for those of you who do not know this area, so largely a green landscape of rye grass.

Tied neatly in a bag

But why, of why, do people think it is “tidy” to tie their rubbish into a neat plastic bundle to throw on the road verge for somebody else to pick up? This is not a rare event around here. Do these people not realise that the plastic that they discard will not decompose? Either somebody else has to pick it up or it will lie there, breaking into smaller bits, until a flood comes through to sweep it downstream out to sea where it will kill turtles, fish and seabirds instead.

A preponderance of high energy drinks and snacks. Some are even gluten free.

A forensic analysis of the contents shows a disproportionately large number of high energy foods and drinks which suggests that, in this case, it may have been recreational cyclists that discarded this bundle. There is a cycle trail that runs along that road. In which case, shame! Shame! Shame! You get out on your bike to enjoy the beautiful countryside which you proceed to despoil. Cyclists do not have this unlovely attribute to themselves, however. It is more commonly thrown from cars. It appears that we live about the distance from the city that it takes to completely eat a takeaway meal from MacDonalds, Burger King or KFC. We know this because we often pick up the waste from our road verges.

What is wrong with these people? Could they not just open their eyes, smile at the flowers, sniff the scent-laden air and take their rubbish home with them?

The view of the other end of the property

A cardboard tower and memories of cartons

In the fading light of late afternoon, a one-day cardboard tower on the cricket field at Pukekura Park (with bubbles)

The photo is of The People’s Tower, built yesterday in New Plymouth in cold, wet and miserable conditions under the direction of visual artist Olivier Grossetête. Today it will be demolished for it was only ever to be a temporary installation. Today is the last day of our Arts Festival, you understand.

I admit Mark and I only turned up on our way to an early evening show. We did not assist with the construction in trying conditions during the day. The reason I wanted to record the magnificent sight is because of cartons. Believe it or not, cartons and carton closure tape have played a significant role in our lives. Indeed, we are probably alone in being aghast at 1500 custom-sized cartons (in two different sizes) and 264 rolls each of 100 metres of tape being used in this handsome structure.

When Mark first set up the nursery here in the early 1980s, he started by selling plants mailorder. It was a major part of our lives for the next two decades. It takes a lot of cardboard to mailorder plants, especially large grade trees and shrubs. Mark would gather as much as he could from recycling bins, particularly out the back of the supermarkets.  Needs must and there was no place for faux dignity when it came to gathering cardboard. He was a whizz at constructing cartons to protect plants – it took several biscuit cartons, for example, to construct a sturdy protective cage for a single magnolia. We still have the industrial strength staple guns and hand-held dispensers for the tape.

As the nursery became more profitable, we took to buying in the largest size cartons. Because these were custom made to our specifications, we had to order them in quite large quantities. It worked out just over $5 a carton and this was back in the 1990s. The bill for a batch of cartons seemed eye-wateringly large at the time and, as the bill-payer, I have never forgotten my anxiety at the cost of cardboard. In the same manner, it took many years for Mark’s eyes to stop zeroing in on potential sources of recyclable cartons. So we did marvel at the wanton display of extravagance in the cardboard and tape People’s Tower, magnificent though it is.

Funnily enough, I checked this week on the date of our last ever mailorder catalogue. It was 2003. We must have had one helluva reputation because even today, I field enquiries pretty much every week from people wanting to mailorder plants from us. Dear Peoples, we do not sell plants at all these days. And we have not sent plants to your door for the past 14 years. Cardboard cartons and carton closure tape are well in our past.

Mark is casting an experienced eye over the cartons and the tape….

The changing face of Kings Cross – the London one.

On our last day in London, we headed off to see the urban renewal project in Kings Cross. Our second daughter had lived in the area for some of her four year London sojourn so I had visited her there, in an ex-council flat. Inner city, gritty urban is how I would have described it a decade ago and I am sure large tracts of it still are. But the greening of Kings Cross has transformed the area to give it a people-friendly heart.

We have no expertise at all in urban landscape architecture and precious little in public horticulture so I make no pretence at doing anything other than trying to convey impressions of the humanising of a former industrial area.

A sandpit in Handyside Gardens

Upon entering a small precinct named Handyside Gardens, what did we see? A sandpit! A sandpit designed to be used by children. I asked the dad’s permission before photographing him with his little boy in the sand. Sure it is surrounded by tall buildings so shade must be an issue, but that is the nature of inner city living. This was an area that had been designed to give a series of intimate spaces with lots of different seating areas. Leading out from the sandpit was a rill or small canal of flowing water which looked clean and inviting for children to play in. Indeed some of the sand had made its way into the rill. “Wait til you see the fountain,” said the father in the sandpit.

And a rill, or canal

We wandered our way along, noting all the different seating areas and planting that was not out of the usual School Of Bedding Plants and Floral Clocks. These plantings are the work of Dan Pearson whom I have mentioned before although his involvement in the entire project goes well beyond just the planting plans. It is therefore no surprise that there was a mix of material which shows that pretty seasonal plantings are possible even when the brief includes functionalism and practicality. There were plenty of scented plants though a high mortality rate on recently planted trachelospermum jasminoides suggested that somebody may have planted out a whole lot of nursery stock that had been grown under cover and not hardened off.

As we walked along, we saw a few sodden children in their togs (bathing suits) and towels walking towards us. We rounded the corner and there, truly, was an amazing sight. The fountain in Granary Square. It was large and safe for playing. The seating around was occupied by parents watching their children as the water danced in sequences, sometimes stopping altogether for a brief moment, sometimes shooting high and then in waves across the area. It was magnificent. And safe fun. An urban beach, of sorts. Our kids would have stripped off and been in that water like a shot when they were young. It wasn’t exactly tropical on the day we were there but clearly kids still love water play. At night it lights up – 1000 different points of water and light.

The fountain installation in Granary Square was fantastic

A lull in the water


The skip garden. Look at that magnificent glasshouse made form recycled window frames on the right.

Further on we found the skip garden, a movable community garden supported by students at the Bartlett School of Architecture. Unfortunately the skip garden café was closed on the day so we couldn’t try the locally produced fare.

From there we wended our way round to the Gasholder Park, a major redevelopment utilising the old gas tanks for upmarket canal-side apartments and green space and gardens open to all. There is serious money going into this redevelopment around Kings Cross and plenty more information on line if you wish to look it up. The somewhat remarkable impression is that it is not just serious money to cater to the wealthy; it is serious planning to provide an enhanced living environment for all which seems unexpectedly inclusive in this day and age.

That is a floating nest and the background is green canal water

London has a major network of canals and Mark was shocked every time at the water quality and the rubbish. According to our London friends, ‘wild swimming’ is the rage. That is swimming in ponds, lakes, rivers and canals. We have plenty of issues with water quality in New Zealand, but all I can say is you would be a brave or drunk fool to want to swim in London canals. And you would not be wanting to enter those cesspools with any open wounds or even scratches. Maybe there will come a day when  the city canals get cleaned up and no longer used as a receptacle for rubbish. Then the birds may not line their nests with plastic waste.

There was lots more to see around the Kings Cross area but it was time for the flights home. For those who have never done it, this involves around 25 hours flying to New Zealand. It is usually done as two long haul legs of a bit over 12 hours each via Asia (or the USA if you are unlucky) or 7 hours and 18 hours via Dubai or one of the other Arabic emirates. It is not fun.

There is an album of additional photos posed on our garden Facebook page for those who may wish to see more.

Bluebells in a New Zealand springtime

There is something wildly romantic about a proper bluebell wood. I have never forgotten being entranced by the haze of blue through woodlands near Castle Douglas in Scotland and that was more than two decades ago. Those particular bluebells and woodland trees are native to the area but this does not stop many of us trying to replicate the effect at home.

Bluebells are best suited to the meadow look, in our experience. They grow too vigorously to tuck tidily into garden borders but their charms become obvious in a less constricted, wilder setting. The whole woodland style is dependent on having deciduous trees fairly widely spaced because the bulbs need light to bloom. In this country, we tend to have a mix of deciduous and evergreen in our gardens and lean more to “bush” or even “forest” than open “woodland”. On top of that, the time at which the bluebells are in growth, coincides with the spring flush of grass so mowing becomes problematic. As with most bulbs, it is best to let them die down naturally because that leafy stage is replenishing the strength of the bulb for next season’s flowering.

We solved this problem by planting bluebells in our wilder areas that we do not mow and on the margins of plantings in the park where we used to mow the wider area regularly. That way, we had defined swathes of blue in bloom and then swathes of long foliage until they went dormant. Now that we have stopped the regular mowing, it will be interesting to see if they spread naturally to give us expansive carpets rather than swathes. They set seed so freely that we try and remove at least some of the spent flower spikes.

It took UK writer Ken Thompson to demystify bluebell differences for me. The English Hyacinthoides  non-scripta has sweetly scented, deep blue flowers on a droopy spike which means most hang to one side. Individual flowers are narrow tubes with reflexed tips. The Spanish H. hispanica is much stronger growing with an upright spike and flowers radiating all round. There is a greater range of colour from pale to dark blues and lilacs along with the pinks and whites. Individual flowers are bell-shaped and while the tips of the blooms flare out, they don’t reflex. They have little scent.

But to add to the mix, there are the natural hybrids. The English and Spanish forms cross freely and the hybrids fall somewhat in the middle with characteristics from both parents.  I had previously tried to unravel the species and headed out looking for the cream anthers that define the English one as compared to the blue anthers of the Spanish form, ending up totally confused. Of course I did. I wasn’t factoring in hybrids. If Ken Thompson is right in his interesting book ‘The Sceptical Gardener’ – and I am willing to accept that he is correct given that he is an academic plant ecologist – and the majority of bluebells growing in UK gardens now are either the Spanish version or hybrids, then it seems likely that almost all of what we see in this country will be the same.

I stopped down the road to examine some bluebell patches on the site of one of the first settler houses built in Tikorangi. If we had any proper English bluebells around here, Mark hypothesized, that seemed a likely site. No, they were either Spanish or hybrids. Ditto with the bluebells here which date back to his great grandmother’s days and have now mixed with all the others we have.  I can’t see any point in nursing ideals of species purity when it comes to bluebells in New Zealand.

A word about white or pink bluebells. While the English bluebell can occasionally throw a white mutant, given the rarity of H. non-scripta in this country, it seems likely that all colour variants we have are either Spanish or hybrids. The whites and pinks are charming mixed with the predominant blues, making a pretty scene. Isolate them out by colour on their own, and they become a novelty plant. Bluebells, by definition, should be mostly blue. A display of only pink bells would look awfully contrived for this simple flower while a mass of white bells might as well be onion weed, really. That is my opinion.

First published in the September issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.