Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

Thugs in the garden

I am surprised by how strongly Iris sibirica grows in well cutivated soils and full sun. I have moved the discoloured Xeronema callistemon behind the iris to the right to a more protected position 

Thugs. Not trugs.

We are cautious here. We do not want to unleash plants that threaten to become weeds and therefore become maintenance nightmares. Some plants that set seed rather too freely (like Orlaya grandiflora, Verbena bonariensis and the perennial forget-me-not, Myosotis scorpioides) fall into this category, but they are easy to pull out if they are seeding in the wrong places. Other plants are far more difficult because they wriggle their roots below ground to entwine anything in their way – not unlike couch grass but considerably more decorative. The pretty, blue Salvia uliginosa and Japanese anemones are examples. These are the plants that we are really cautious about placing and controlling.

And then there are the thugs that stand four square and strong and will swamp anything in their way. Thugs need space of their own. Preferably permanent space because some of those thugs can get too large to handle easily in a short space of time. Learning to garden with sunny perennials is teaching me quite a bit about thugs.

Chionochloa rubra, not a thug but seen to best advantage when allowed to stand in its own space

When I planted up the new Court Garden a few weeks ago, I removed such thugs from the herbaceous borders to relocate in the bigger space of the new garden. They are all good plants but way too strong for the congeniality of an herbaceous border. Calamagrostris ‘Karl Foerster’, Elegia capensis and the large growing salvias were the main thugs that I had used extensively. I also relocated all the Chionochloa rubra, not because it is a thug but because it needed more space to allow it to star in its graceful glory. And Stipa gigantea because it was underperforming in the herbaceous borders and I thought it might be better en masse in its own space.

Raiding the borders left some big gaps, and indeed some large holes. No problem, I thought. I had additional top soil to fill the holes and plenty of plant material to fill the spaces and it seemed a good opportunity to tweak a few areas in the borders which I felt were a bit messy – more messy-matrix than dramatic swathes of plants. I figured all I had to do was to consolidate the areas where I had tried to fill in spaces with additional material. A bit of fine-tuning.

I am sure most gardeners will understand that situation where what we think will be a relatively small project escalates into a major operation. This is one of that ilk. For I found the second tier thugs. These plants have only been in two and a half years and for the first two years, I was simply delighted at the quick result achieved in these borders started from scratch. Gardening with sunny perennials was a completely new experience and so rewarding. Yes, well….

Phlomis russeliana to the left, Elegia capensis to the right with Lomandra ‘Tanika’ in the middle

I am now looking in askance at some of the plant selections. Great plants, but they are going to take a bit more work to keep them that way than I had anticipated because, boy, are they strong growers in this situation. Phlomis russeliana – Turkish sage – with its attractive, tiered yellow flower spikes, has quietly flowered away in our woodland without problems for decades. Moved into full sun and well cultivated soil, it has formed massive underground root systems and overgrown tops in a very short space of time. Iris sibirica – wow. Admittedly, I planted large chunks of it in the first place rather than separating the rhizomes and in springtime, it is simply glorious – so much so that I wanted to add new varieties and colours. Hmmm. All that foliage flops over in autumn, smothering nearby plants and it has to be cut back eventually because it doesn’t even pull off easily. I thought it would be a good time to dig and divide them. It took all my strength to get these plants out of the ground and I ended up with mountains of them. I replanted them as individual rhizomes and mulched with compost. In replanting the same area, I ended up scrapping at least two thirds of them as surplus. And each patch of maybe three or four square metres takes about a day and half to do. I have done four blocks, I have two left to do and I got rid of the seventh block entirely. That is a lot of labour input and time to just one plant type.

And the lomandras. These are tidy, Australian evergreen grasses. We only have two different ones and probably started with a single specimen of each because Mark never buys the same plant in multiples. They kicked around the old nursery area for years, unloved, uncared for, waiting for someone to find them a forever home. That should be a clue as to how tough they are.

The compact dark green lomandra (with freshly divided phlomis to the left). It will be a named clone; it is just that we lost the name

The compact, forest green variety (name has been lost in the mists of time) is very good. And very well behaved. The very dark green colour contrasts well with everything, really. I wouldn’t mind it growing a little taller in this situation – it is only knee high – but it is very tidy. Not a wow sort of plant but excellent in the chorus line of back up vocals.

Too much Lomandra ‘Tanika’

The other one we have is Lomandra ‘Tanika’ which is widely marketed in this country. It is larger growing, sort of anonymous mid-green and what is called a reliable performer. It is one of those bullet-proof plants where you start, as we did, with one, put it in good conditions and next thing you know, you have eleventy thousand of it if you want to divide it. Enough to fill a traffic island or a motorway siding, even. It looks attractive in form for the first couple of years but if you don’t lift and divide it, it threatens to become an overgrown, overblown thug.

The autumn hues of our native Anemanthele lessoniana – also evergreen

I can’t get too excited about the lomandras. While they can be tidy plants, they lack the flower power of showier grasses and they are bit, well, utility. Space fillers. Evergreen and they stay looking the same all year round, which, I admit, some people see as a desirable trait. I am scaling back ‘Tanika’ – composting about 80% of it. It has another two years to win me over but at this stage, I think I would prefer to replace it with our native Anemanthele lessoniana which fills a similar niche but with more foliar interest and lower maintenance requirements.

What I thought would take maybe four or five days’ work – filling the gaps in the herbaceous borders created by my earlier raid – has turned into several weeks. I am quite happy doing this because it is an active learning exercise but I don’t think I want to be doing it as routine maintenance.

The lesson is that there is no substitute for trialling plants in situ and making some major calls when it comes to swapping some selections out for others.  It is why other people’s plant lists are a guide, not a manual, especially if they are overseas recommendations. There is fine line between plants that are sufficiently strong growing to hold their own in herbaceous plantings and plants that are too strong to grow in happy congeniality.

Oh, and give plant thugs the space they need or don’t use them at all. Otherwise they will swamp out other plants of a more refined disposition.

At least the Iris sibirica star in spring, even if they are going to take ongoing work to keep them from smothering their neighbours

The early camellias

49 different cultivars in bloom at this early time of the season

It was a bit bleak outdoors today and I could not find the motivation to grub around in the soil so I entertained myself looking at the camellias in bloom. It is very early in the season for us and most are still in tight bud but I found 49 different ones with open flowers.

A collection of sasanquas

The early sasanquas are past their peak now but still very pretty. All the above are different named cultivars and typical, with their rather loose form and a readiness to shatter when they fall. This is helpful because it means the mass of fallen blooms break down quickly. Sasanquas used to be somewhat spurned as lacking flower form, useful mostly for hedges and sunny positions but fashions change. They are not afflicted by petal blight here which is a huge plus and these days, we find we prefer those looser flowers which have a pretty charm of their own.

Show Girl!

I didn’t add Show Girl to the sasanqua flower ring because it is so out of scale. It is a most unusual cross between a sasanqua and a reticulata and it comes into full flower early, with the sasanquas. The individual blooms are nothing special but it is lovely both on the tree or falling to a carpet of petals beneath.

The earliest flowering species

We have gathered up a reasonable collection of camellia species over the years – most of what has been available in this country. But it appears that this early in the season, you can have any colour you like as long as it is white. Or the one, minuscule pink C. puniceiflora. In the centre is C. yunnanensis already showing its unfortunate trait of the stamens turning black with age. Camellias where the stamens stay yellow are far more desirable.

Three different species or all variants of the one?

These three species came to us under the names of C. brevistyla (left), C. microphylla (right) and C. puniceiflora (top). Australian camellia expert, Bob Cherry, advanced the theory to Mark that they are all just different forms of the same species and Mark has come to the conclusion that he is probably right after several seasons of examining them with his hand lens. Species in the wild can vary considerably. In time, DNA testing will prove it either way. Of these three camellias, the form of C. microphylla that we have is easily the best as a garden plant.

Hybrids, seedlings and a few japonicas

These are a mix, some named cultivars and some seedlings. Mark has used camellias extensively for hedging and shelter around the perimeters of the garden, on our roadside and separating different areas. You can see how desirable it is for the stamens to stay yellow as they age. Generally, it is the ones with visible stamens that provide an important source of food for the birds and the bees through winter. The fully double, frilly blooms are purely ornamental. The majority of the japonicas and all the reticulatas are still just at bud stage and, alas, will be hit by camellia petal blight when they do come into bloom.

There is a whole lot more to choosing a camellia than just a pretty flower. The habit of growth, ultimate size, length of time in flower, how the blooms age and fall, colour of the foliage, reliability and more come in to play as well.  Sometimes everything else is so good that a pretty ordinary flower is still acceptable. One of the red singles above is worth its place simply because it feeds our native tui (birds) – a sight that brings us pleasure every year.

We have literally hundreds, if not into the thousands camellias all over the property. Some are named, many more are just seedlings from the breeding programme. But they are almost all just one-off plants. I can think of only four that we have planted in quantity. The three bottom ones above, we have used as hedging. From left to right, they are Mark’s first named cultivar, ‘Fairy Blush’, C. transnokoensis and C. minutiflora. All three have small leaves that respond well to clipping, good foliage colour, dense growth and masses of dainty flowers.

The flower in the top centre is C. yuhsienensis – not a hedging camellia but one we like so much that we have chosen to feature it repeatedly in two different areas of the garden. In bloom, at its best, it resembles a pretty michelia but with bullate (heavy textured) foliage.

Mark says he found the first incidence of camellia petal blight today. This is later than usual, which we put down to a drier than usual autumn. I admit I lose enthusiasm for camellias as the season progresses and blight hits badly but these early season bloomers gladden my heart on a winter’s day.

Treemageddon. Again.

The snapped trunk measures about shoulder height on me

Trees have a finite life span. It is just that not many of them get to see out their allotted life span without being felled earlier in the process. This one just fell, completely rotten at the base. We didn’t hear it come down which is surprising in itself because it is H U G E. We assume it must have happened in the middle of Friday night’s storm which had very high winds and we were probably tucked up in bed behind our double glazing. It took me until Saturday afternoon to notice that there seemed to be a lot more light at the top of the hill behind the house.

A natural throne remains

It is a tawa, a native tree, botanically Beilschmiedia tawa, a member of the lauraceae or laurel family. What makes it special is that this tree almost certainly pre-dated European settlement. This area was predominantly tawa forest but had already been largely clear felled by the time Mark’s great grandfather bought the land around 1870. The earliest European settlement in this area took place around 1850. This is one of a just a few remaining tawa trees sitting on a steep bank, now part of the garden.

Epiphytes galore, from February last year

I photographed it earlier because of the prodigious quantity of epiphytes that had built up over the years. In our mild, humid climate, epiphytes thrive. Much of this lot was Collospermum hastatum but these long-established epiphytic colonies are an entire matrix of naturally occurring plants. The problem is that there is a huge weight in them that eventually brings down the branch, and sometimes the whole tree in the process. It is just part of the cycle of nature.

This cycle of nature has done quite a bit of damage but only to the understorey plants. While tawa is another of our native hard woods, we can’t get the timber out because of where it is. It will be the usual process of clearing the debris, getting out what firewood we can and stowing all the vegetative waste neatly in situ. The main trunk will remain where it is, embedded on legs formed by its own branches driven deep into the earth and it will outlast us. We will have to re-route a garden track so that it passes beneath the tree.

Given that these clean-ups fall mostly on our man, Lloyd, Mark quipped that maybe we should be building him a little shelter down there and send him out each morning with a thermos. We may not see him for several weeks.

Over morning tea, we remembered that philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Now there is a very humancentric question. We, the closest humans, may not have heard this tree fall but we are by no means the only living creatures with the capacity to hear sound. I am sure the sleeping birds, probably rats, mice, possums, lizards and smaller creatures of nature heard it and felt the impact when it fell.

As it fell, It uprooted and sent various tall ponga (tree ferns) spinning in the air, to land some distance away

 

Suddenly it is winter

The first blast of winter arrived yesterday. Camellia sasanqua ‘Crimson King’ in the foreground.

Fallen leaves and a leaden sky

While our climate is generally benign, the first serious winter chill arrived, appropriately enough, on the first calendar day of winter in New Zealand – June 1. The winter fronts come straight up from the Antarctic. Our mellow, extended autumn with calm, sunny weather and temperatures sitting around 18 or 19 degrees Celsius disappeared overnight.

This too will pass. Generally the worst of our winter weather hits after the winter solstice – June 22nd to be precise – and today, June 2, has dawned fine and sunny, albeit with a chilly temperature. Mark is taking heed of this sudden drop. Today’s task, he declared, is to cover the bananas. You can see the semi-permanent bamboo frame in the photo. He needs the extension ladder these days to get the windbreak sheltering cover in place for the bananas have grown to a substantial size. At least we get a crop from them these days but we wouldn’t if he didn’t spend a day shrouding them for winter. That is as far as battening down the hatches goes here. We don’t wrap anything else up for winter.

Camellia sasanqua ‘Elfin Rose’

with Nerine bowdenii at its feet

Winter it may now be, but this does not mean bare branches bereft of leaves and an absence of flowers. The sasanqua camellias are at their peak, many of the species camellias are opening along with the first flowers on the early japonicas and hybrids. ‘Elfin Rose’ has been a particular delight this week, with the colour-toned Nerine bowdenii below. We cloud prune ‘Elfin Rose’ into stacked layers, both to restrict its growth and to make it a feature shape all year round. This annual clipping takes place as it makes its new growth after flowering – so some time between mid winter and mid spring. Clipping later would remove next season’s flower buds and we want both the form and the flowers.

It is perhaps a good indication of our generally mild conditions that vireya rhododendrons also feature large in late autumn and early winter. These are, of course, frost tender. Many are very frost tender – especially the big, scented cultivars with heavy, felted foliage. The one above, where we have a bank of maybe five of them beneath the mandarin tree, is ‘Jiminy Cricket’. It was bred by the late Os Blumhardt and is a full sister seedling to the more widely marketed ‘Saxon Glow’ and ‘Saxon Blush’ (not marketed by us). In our opinion, it is also superior to those two but all of them show more hardiness than most vireyas on account of having the relatively hardy species R. saxifragoides as one breeder parent

Vireya rhododendron ‘Sweet Vanilla’ with ‘Golden Charm’ in the background

We place the more tender vireyas with greater care, on the margins where they get plenty of light but adjacent overhead cover will give them protection from most frost damage. This is one of Mark’s breeding  which we released as “Sweet Vanilla”. Big flowers and exotic fragrance to delight, even on the coldest days. We have no idea if it is still in production and commercially available – it is not a plant we kept under our management with intellectual property rights so anybody can produce it if they wish – but I hope it is because it has stood the test of time as a garden plant.

Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’

Also hitting its stride is Mark’s Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’, aka Mark’s Retirement Fund. It was opening its first flowers at the end of March but they were just a teaser. As we enter winter, it will bloom through until early spring and bring us scented pleasure all that time. It is not big and showy like most of his deciduous magnolias, but it is a cracker of a plant in the smaller world of daphnes.

A seedling clematis at our entrance way having a late season revival this week

While we are not expecting the full onslaught of winter until June 22 – give or take a few warning episodes prior to that – by late July, the first of the magnolias will be opening along with the snowdrops. Temperatures will start to rise in August. Our winters are not as long and bleak as experienced in many other places but human nature being what it is, we probably moan just as much about the cold and winter storms.

 

About climate change

I am not usually one for sharing social media memes but today, I make an exception. They say far more succinctly than I can what needs to be said about climate change.

Thank you Joel Pett. Mark is of the view that it matters not one whit whether people believe in climate change or not because only an idiot could think that we can continue trashing the planet as we are and not suffer catastrophic consequences. We MUST change our ways. Urgently.

And for those of you who find it all too much, thank you Olga Evans.

We have made major changes in our own lives here, to reduce our carbon footprint and consumption. The issue that worries me at a personal level is air travel, exacerbated by being a New Zealander. For us it is four hours and two flights to get over to our children in Australia (all our three children live in different east coast Australian cities), about twenty five hours in the air to get to the UK or Europe (and another twenty five hours to get home again). That is one where I am pinning my hopes on new technologies to reduce the impact of flying.

In the meantime, I am listening to the young people who are mobilising on this matter. I would much rather listen to them than to older folks (mostly, but not all, old men) who last studied science back in their high school years fifty or sixty years ago but who have found some dodgy website that backs up their complacent world view, no matter what the majority of the world’s scientists are saying.

Change is coming. Massive change. The planet does not care whether you or I believe in climate change. The longer we insist on continuing the status quo, the more shocking that change will be.

 

 

A week of determined gardening

The first half is now all planted

I have not been shilly-shallying around. The first half of the new court garden is planted and I have started on the second half. This is not light work. Mark has rotary hoed and I follow up with raking the area out and getting clods of roots out, as well as squishing the abundance of grass grubs. It has only just occurred to me that had I transferred all those grubs to a jar instead, we should have had enough for a meal of alternative protein. Whether grass grubs are delicious when tossed in garlic butter in a hot pan will likely remain mystery, however. I am not that intrepid.

Starting on the other half – the pressure is on to get it planted before winter sets in 

I describe this as romantic chat between two wheelbarrows (me being a two barrow gardener)

The rush is on because our soils are still warm and temperatures are mild, despite it being late autumn. I am hoping for a few more weeks of grace so the plants can start forming new roots. You would not want to be doing it this late in the season in colder climates or places with heavy soil where the plants would languish in wet, compacting ground. With our excellent drainage and friable, volcanic soils, we have much more leeway.

My plantings are neither complex nor detailed. This is a novel experience here. Most of our garden is highly detailed so going with sweeping plantings of large growing perennials is very different and way easier to put in. Because I am digging and dividing from other areas to get the plant material, it is heavy work but it means I am able to put in sizeable clumps at finished spacings. Had I bought the plants, it would be different. When you are starting with nursery-grown plants in small 10 cm pots, it is really difficult to envisage their mature size and the instinct, always, is to over-plant to get a quicker effect. That of course makes for more work in the future because that over-planting will need thinning sooner, rather than later.

B I G salvias for autumn colour, though I am having to cut back early because of transplanting them

I planted the waves of foundation plants first, using just seven different plant varieties (5 grasses, Astelia chathamica and Elegia capensis), added the blocks of a few additional plants I wanted to use (two black flaxes or phormium, a block of rushes that I have lost the name of already, the giant Albuca nelsonii and a plant of Carmichaelia williamsii which has had a hard life but I hope will survive and thrive) . Finally, I added the flowers. At this stage just the giant inula (likely Inula magnifica), big salvias for autumn flowering, pale foxgloves and Verbascum creticum. I hope I have at last found the right spot for these botanical thugs. The plant selection is fairly typical of the way we garden in that it will end up around 25% native plants integrated with exotics. We have never gone for the deliberate “native garden” but instead select native plants that will work in a mixed situation.

The discards of earlier generations to the left, our plastic generation to the right

There are times when working in the garden here takes on the flavour of an archaeological dig. This used to be a farm and farmers were not exactly renowned for taking their rubbish to the dump. It then became an outlying area of the garden in Mark’s father time, before becoming nursery in our time. I always gather up all the non-biodegradable rubbish as I garden and this haul interested me. Given that our nursery years coincided with the widespread switch to plastics, I was surprised that the volume of modern plastics and synthetics (on the right) was not greater. We must have been tidier than I thought. On the left is the older rubbish. Metal, glass, broken china and some pieces of clay pots, basically. There is quite a lot of broken horticultural glass there. Felix was doing his home propagation back in the days of terracotta pots and wooden seed trays covered with sheets of glass. While the broken glass would have been hazardous in the beginning, time has dulled the edges. Unlike modern plastics, I don’t think there is evidence that glass and shards of pottery enter the food chain and pollute the oceans. In this time when there is growing concern at plastics in the environment, we are relieved to be out of the nursery industry – a business that is now built on extensive use of plastics, some of which may be reused but precious little of it will ever be recycled.

Dahlia imperialis towers some 3 to 4 metres high against the autumn sky

Finally, because I read a brave comment in a southern blog this week boldly declaring, “Even though it’s May, that most dire of months for gardens in the southern hemisphere…” (waving to my friend, Robyn Kilty) , I offer you three flowering plants this week. All are big, rangy, brittle, frost tender and come into their own just as the autumn storms hit. But are they not lovely?

This evergreen tree hydrangea is even larger. Now, I understand classified as a form of H. aspera

And the luculia season has started, bring us sweet scent. Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Cloud’.

 

 

 

 

The ornamental oxalis

The white form of Oxalis purpurea – the best of them all

Back in our nursery days, we had a large range of ornamental oxalis. I see in our old mailorder catalogues that we offered over 20 different varieties that we had in production at the time and I wrote extolling their autumn merits for several publications.

Twenty years on and the oxalis collection has refined itself down. It is the difference between gardening in containers and gardening in the soil. Some of those varieties were so delicate and touchy that we have lost them. Others needed to be kept confined because of their invasive proclivities. Some flowered prettily enough but their season was so short that it was hard to justify their place in the garden. I decided years ago that I was not going to fluff around with plants in containers. We have quite enough garden with many different micro-climates. If plants couldn’t perform in the garden, I didn’t have the time or inclination to nurture them in controlled conditions in containers.

These days, the oxalis we still have are the stand-out performers (and a few of the nasty weed ones that most of us battle – particularly the creeping weed which I think is Oxalis corniculata). The star has always been and still is the beautiful, well-behaved Oxalis purpurea alba. Large white flowers in abundance over a long period of time and not invasive. At this time of the year, I am more than happy to use it as ground cover in sunny positions. Oxalis flowers don’t open without the sun so they need to be in open conditions.

Oxalis purpurea nigrescens

O. purpurea is a variable species. The striking red-leafed form (O. purpurea nigrescens) with pink flowers comes a bit later and is invasive so needs to be kept confined. We also have a strong-growing (somewhat invasive) green-leafed form with very large pink flowers which is worth keeping and also has a long flowering season. Back in the days, I recall more than one person telling me that there was a red leafed form with the large white flowers but I have never seen it so I rather doubt its existence.

Oxalis luteola as runner-up in my best garden oxalis list

The standout yellow is Oxalis luteola. It, too, is well behaved and forms a gentle, non-invasive mat that flowers for a long time in mid- autumn, combining well without competing with other bulbs like the dwarf narcissi that are in growth but won’t flower until late winter and early spring. It leaves the rabbit-ear Oxalis fabaefolia in the dust for length of flowering time. Both have large, showy yellow flowers but the latter’s flowering time can be measured in days rather than weeks.

Oxalis massoniana

I am very fond of little Oxalis massoniana with its dainty apricot and yellow blooms but it needs a bit of nurturing to keep it going. The popular old candy-stripe O. versicolour is happy left to its own devices in the rockery but will not come into its season for a few weeks yet. It is the only one I know that looks more interesting when its flowers aren’t open because the striped buds disappear into a fairly ordinary white flower on sunny days.

I have hung onto the strong-growing O.eckloniana for its large lilac blooms but I keep it confined to a shallow pot sunk into the rockery. I could rustle up a few of the others from around the garden, like O.hirta in both lavender and pink, O. bowiei, O, lobata, the unusual double form of O. peduncularis  and O.polyphylla but they are not the star performers that luteola  and purpurea alba both are.

If you are into container gardening, a collection of different ornamental oxalis species give interest on a sunny terrace or door step from autumn to mid-winter. I saw somebody listing a whole range of different oxalis on Trade Me at one stage. In fact, it looked like somebody had bought our full collection all those years ago and kept it going so they are still around. If somebody offers you O. purpurea alba or O. luteola, don’t reject them just because they are oxalis. They are worth having.

Oh look! Here is a little display board I prepared earlier of under half of the oxalis that we used to grow