Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

Elegia capenis

Elegia capensis in the new Court Garden

I lost count of the number of times we were asked about Elegia capensis during our recent open days. I have used it extensively with the grasses in the new Court Garden and it is looking rather splendid.

Its common name is the horsetail restio and the entire restionaceae plant family hails from South Africa. There are plenty of them but E. capensis  is the most common in ornamental gardens. It is not too fussy on conditions as long as it never dries out entirely and is not subjected to very cold winters.

Most visitors described it as looking like a bamboo but with feathery growth, which is apt. The new shoots come up in spring like narrow bamboo shoots, first developing brownish sheaths at points up the stem before growing the fine foliage in tiers. The stems last about three years before dying off.

When you look at the seed head, it is just as well that seed is not viable here

Our plants have never set viable seed. Whether that is because they are all one clone and they need other clones to set seed or whether it is the lack of smoke from bushfires, we are not sure. They may even be fully dioecious – needing both male and female plants to set viable seed. These are plants that have evolved to deal with frequent fires (they sprout afresh from underground rhizomes). PlantzAfrica says: “The seeds react well to treatment with smoke or with the ‘Instant Smoke Plus’ seed primer. Without this treatment the germination rate is poor.” I have never even heard of Instant Smoke Plus before.

We used to produce a few to sell in the nursery but the death rate in production was high. I have only just discovered why. We assumed that they would be similar to other plants like hostas and rodgersias that grow from rhizomes. In other words, we would lift the plants in winter, separate the rhizomes and repot them ready for spring growth. Then I read somewhere that they should be divided in February – late summer – so we tried that and it was not particularly successful either. What I have since discovered is that their roots are very sensitive, making the plants difficult to propagate by division. They are evergreen and not overly hardy so they are in growth all the time, unlike plants like the aforementioned hostas which have a dormant period. Commercially, they are more commonly raised from seed.

Where we have been successful in dividing this elegia, it has not been by taking apart the rhizomes but by cutting off large chunks of the original plant and putting the entire chunk into the new location. When I say cutting off large chunks, this requires a strong person, a very sharp spade and sometimes an axe, to take off blocks that are about 20 cm across which need to be replanted straight away. Brute strength, not high-level skill.

I see BBC Gardeners’ World describe this plant as invasive, which I think is wrong. It doesn’t seed readily – or at all here. Nor does it run below the soil surface so it is not invading. It is, however, strong growing and can make a large clump in the right conditions and that large clump is not easy to reduce or eliminate because of the solid nature of the rhizomes.

The maceaya is the poppy foliage amongst the elegia

What is setting out to be genuinely invasive is the Macleaya cordata, commonly known as the Plume Poppy which is interplanted with the elegia. We have it in a shade garden where it certainly ‘ran’ below the soil surface but not in a particularly problematic manner. In full sun in the Court Garden, it is not so much running as sprinting – in every direction including into the pristine new paths. Attractive it may be, but it is a worry. I may just have to leave it in the shade garden and find a less determined plant option for the sunny, grass garden.

Terry’s restio, as we refer to it here.

We have another restio that I picked up from Terry Hatch at Joy Plants in Drury but I am not sure where – or if – I kept its species name. It is not as vigorous as the elegia so better suited to the perennial borders where I have it planted but lacks the immediate visual charm of the deep green colour and tiers of feathery foliage up the stem. There is no such thing as a perfect plant for all situations.

Apparently, almost everybody loves a meadow

“Wow! Moved to tears at the beauty around the river, couldn’t drink it in fast enough! Well done! ❤️” (Thanks, Amanda and Tim.)

I can admit now that the aspect that worried me most about opening the garden after seven years was how people would react to the meadow we are developing where it was formerly all neatly mown parkland. Would others like it as much as we do or would some visitors criticise it for being ‘full of weeds’?

There is no doubt that the meadow harbours many plants that are generally regarded as weeds. Buttercups, dandelions and daisies abound, along with Herb Robert, the interloper Mark refers to as ‘stinking billygoat weed’ and Yorkshire fog grass. We try and keep in check the common, weedy crocosmia (orange montbretia) that washes down to us from upstream every flood. I dig out flowering docks and pull out cleavers and Mark will resort to spray to get the onion weed out before it gets too widespread – it too has washed into our place from upstream. We have a zero tolerance policy on tradescantia. But there are a lot of common weeds in amongst the long grass.

The streambanks were cut back with the weedeater this week. We have learned we need to do this more frequently to stop the grass from invading the stream bed.

Maybe New Zealand is moving on from its dedication to gardens as an exercise in total control. At its worst, this may be seen in scalping lawns (cutting with the lawnmower set on the lowest level possible), spraying along all path edges with glyphosate and a scorched earth approach. Equally, it may be seen in gardens laid out in straight lines with rows of tidy edging plants or low hedges defining the end of paved areas or mown grass and the start of all garden beds. Certainly, visitors who have looked at the UK, European and American traditions of meadows and long grass could relate to what we are doing, but would New Zealanders understand it, I wondered.

The lovely Higo iris are coming into bloom

The answer was a resounding yes. The comments we received in person were all very positive and it was the area of the garden that attracted most comment overall. The language in the visitor book kept using words like tranquil, inspiring, magical, relaxing and restful. It may be that anybody who didn’t like the meadow was too polite to say anything but we were only aware of one dissatisfied visitor. An older lady, she asked three of us in turn where the meadow was and insisted that somewhere there was a flat field of flowers. I am sorry we disappointed her but I am also surprised and reassured that there weren’t more people like her.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides

Maybe the reason our meadow works is in part because the rest of the garden is as close to free of weeds as humanly possible so it doesn’t look as if we are weedy everywhere. We love the softness of it, the more natural feel that comes with keeping a much lighter hand on its maintenance and management. It has certainly reduced the maintenance burden and is more environmentally friendly than keeping it as mown park. But it is the feeling of romance that comes with that softer approach that delights us. The plants that have naturalised within it are seasonal pleasures – from the common yellow primulas and bluebells to the irises, the lysichitons, Mark’s unexpected trilliums, even the white ox-eye daisy that is now settling in. We keep adding a bit more as we find plants that we think will fit the environment without becoming a pest.

It was affirming to have so many visitors who found our meadow just as charming as we do. I hope some will be inspired to find ways to implement this gentler style in their own home spaces. Also, given how wet the ten day festival was, it was reassuring to find that even in such conditions, the meadow can still be a delight and not just acres of unappealing, sodden, rank, long grass. That was a good test for it to pass.

More cottage garden than anything else. But with a few unlikely plants like the nuttallii rhododendrons as well as feijoas and flowers.

One visitor solved a different problem for me. I was struggling to explain the bee and butterfly garden we refer to as the Iolanthe Garden a few weeks ago, landing eventually on the descriptor of it being a form of  freestyle, transitional meadow. “I am English,” this visitor said. “So my favourite part of the whole place was the cottage garden.” It had not occurred to me that what I was planting was a cottage garden but I looked afresh. She was right. The Iolanthe Garden is a cottage garden. I shall describe it as such from now on. It makes simpler sense.  

Time for tea

“Oh,” said Mark as he went to empty the food scraps into the black compost bin. “A tea maiden.” I was picking the finest, youngest leaves off the tea camellia. At least I know to pick only the tender leaves. I may have learned this from advertisements long ago, claiming superior status for some brands on account of only picking the youngest, most tender leaves. I am guessing the cheaper, dustier teas are from the tougher leaves further down the stem.

The leaves will be left to oxidise and lightly ferment for a couple of days before drying

Preparing the tea is still a learning process here. Last year’s harvest was a bit bland, to be honest, so was mostly used up making kombucha because it didn’t rival our preferred French Earl Grey tea. I shall try fermenting this batch a little longer than just overnight to see if that deepens the flavour. Maybe two or three days before I start the drying process.

The ratio of aromatics to tea may be a little high but I will see when they have dried.

And I am upping the additional flavourings component because we like aromatic teas. It will be citrus and rose scented – using tender leaves of the lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora), orange blossom (the orange trees are still in flower here), the grated zest of an orange and the most scented rose petals I could find.

I planted out three more tea camellias (Camellia sinensis) this year but they are still small. It takes a whole lot of leaves to get any volume of dried tea so I doubt we will ever reach self sufficiency in tea but it is fun to try, in a homestead-y sort of fun way. You do need one of the proper tea camellia varieties, not just any old camellia and I have no idea how readily available they are on the market these days.

That is the one large tea bush outlined in red. The foliage is different to most camellias.

I quote again the Wikipedia article in answer to the question as to whether there are different camellias for different teas: “Camellia sinensis and its subspecies, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, are two major varieties grown today. White tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh tea and black tea are all harvested from one or the other, but are processed differently to attain varying levels of oxidation.” There are different selections of the species and some will have different characteristics, but the vast majority of tea sold in the world is indeed from Camellia sinensis.

Stipa gigantea

Stipa gigantea towering against the sky

When we made our treks across the world to look at summer gardens, there were three plants that were standout performers we were keen to try here – Stipa gigantea, thalictrum and veronicastrum. Oh, and the giant blue-purple alliums but we are not going to pay the big dollars per bulb they command here. The reason they are so common in English and European gardens is because they can buy the bulbs very cheaply from Dutch growers.

We have a pink thalictrum that is doing fairly well, though it has only achieved waist-high altitude and does not look as though it is going to get much beyond that. The sole veronicastrum – the only success after three attempts with the finest seed Mark has had to deal with (he had to get the magnifying glass out to check that he wasn’t just sowing dust) – is growing slowly and seems to be a plant for the long haul rather than a quick result. But the Stipa gigantea….

A friend in Christchurch sent me a few divisions. I have no idea how long it has been in NZ or who brought it in but it is not widely available commercially. That may just be a matter of time and demand. The few divisions grew, and grew and grew until we had many. I started with them in the perennial borders but after the first two years, realised they were going to be too large there so moved them into the new Court Garden where the focus is on big grasses. I knew I was overplanting them for quick effect 18 months ago so I removed over half of them last autumn to give the remaining plants space to stand alone. Each plant needs well over a metre of area.

I like the combination of Stipa gigantea with the ox-eye daisy

The foliage is blueish-green in colour and evergreen, forming a soft fountaining mound about knee-high. But the long-lived, towering, golden flower spikes are the reason to grow it and give it the common name of ‘golden oats’. Last year was something of a disappointment because the sparrows stripped the flowers. Apparently, we can out-sparrow the Brits who introduced that little bird to this country. If we were not going to get the flowers, I wasn’t sure I would persist with the plants.

What a difference a year makes. This season, they are magnificent – a major feature in the new Court Garden. It remains to be seen how long they hold with our bird population but I can live with that because they make a big visual statement in late spring before the miscanthus flower. The ethereal golden heads towering above are so light, they appear to dance against the sky.

I also like the stipa with the dark foliaged phormium coming into flower

As far as we can make out, Stipa gigantea (syn Celtica gigantea) is sterile here, which is helpful. We should be able to confirm this later this season. It is also evergreen. A member of the poa family of grasses, it comes from southern Europe. Given its vigorous growth, it is a good thing it is shallow rooted so easy to lift and divide, often falling apart into divisions in the process. A visitor to the garden told me she was trying to buy one but there was a waiting list and each plant was priced at $40 which made me gulp. I briefly caught myself thinking that I could have easily potted up 40 of them sold them at $20 each during our recent garden festival. But we are over selling plants; we do not want to go back there again.

If you really want to have it in your garden, you could contact Janica at Woodleigh Nursery. I see they are saying sold out at this stage but she tells me she has more which will be ready in autumn. She doesn’t price them at $40 either. You only need one plant and a bit of patience. Within two years, you will have all you need. Just give it plenty of space to star.

The other stipa we grow is Stipa tenuissima (syn Nassella tenuissima) which is very lovely and fluffy but comes with a warning. It seeds down so is on the Weedbusters list though not banned, as far as I know. Avoid it if you are anywhere near native bush or indeed farmland. We don’t need more weed pests invading pastoral land. We are keeping it because it is not a problem in a controlled garden situation and does not seed so badly that we have found it to be a pest.

Fluffy mounds of Stipa tenuissima shining in the light with yellow Phlomis russeliana and Iris sibirica ‘Blue Moon’
Plenty of stipa flowers to share with the sparrows this year. Mark says it is the pollen they are after.

That was the week that was.

Actually ten days, but ‘those were the ten days that were’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

About day five, Mark commented that this may be both the wettest and the most successful Taranaki garden festival in the long history of the event. The numbers were huge – three times what we expected in our garden. Apparently over one million of us travel overseas every year and with that coming to an abrupt halt, there are huge numbers of people suffering from cabin fever so getting out and about in our own country. Added to that, we were opening for the first time in seven years.

I was delighted to meet so many people who follow this site and on social media. So often people recognised things I have written about and commented on seeing them in real life. Some had more retentive memories than I have.

Sodden overflow carparking

But it rained. Almost every day and many nights. Not constantly but enough to have us awash at times. The carparking was challenging in the extreme. I used to think we could park 27 cars in our parking area if we managed it carefully but Brian – Carpark Volunteer Extraordinaire – achieved heady new heights when he managed to stack in 54 vehicles at the same time, all with access to an exit. That was before the rain rendered parts of the overflow grassed area unusable.

An aggressive tree stump biding its time – as it was a few weeks ago
The same stump after it snared its prey

Yet another large tree stump leapt out to trap an unsuspecting vehicle. Lloyd had to get the chainsaw out to free the car this time (he jacked up the previous car that stranded itself on a different tree stump earlier) so it is now a shadow of its previous self.

Blocking off some paths because of mud baths and opening others

We were barrowing out wood chip to muddy tracks and redirecting the routes in the park meadow, to close off tracks that had become mud baths.

Look at the number plate!
Rarely has a specialised tradesman been such a welcome sight

I had thought that with friends volunteering in the carpark and at the entry, Mark and I might get to swan around like lord and lady of the manor. Ha! Wishful thinking. My life is all glamour – or not. On Monday the septic tank that services our visitor toilets cried ‘enough’ and backed up and overflowed. This is not what anybody needs on a day with hundreds of visitors in the garden including a large coachload. All credit to the company that sent a man with a truck, a pump and hose out within a few hours. I decided this event was best described as a poocalypse. The operator was a tad surprised at my enthusiastic response, commenting that it was a warmer welcome than he gets from his wife. I hasten to add that it was all smiles and words; I did not embrace this man, despite my relief at his appearance.

Dudley, settling into his new role at the garden entrance

Dudley came to us an adult dog – an SPCA rehome – five years ago after we had closed the garden, so this was his first festival. He took to it like a duck to water. He is very food-focused, our Duds. Despite being a well-upholstered dog, he suffers permanent anxiety about where his next meal might come from so he was delighted to find that most garden visitors who have food will share it with him. As he took to checking all car boots when they were opened, we couldn’t decide whether to confer the new title of Carpark Liaison Officer on him, or perhaps Biosecurity Manager.

Dudley in his element

Geriatric Spike is an old hand at such events but now past the role of greeting visitors. He would lurch out to make a guest appearance from time to time but being stone deaf, somewhat unsteady and with acute dementia, he caused us great anxiety each time he found himself in the busy carparking area. I lost count of how many times I carried him back to his beds in the house. We can’t shut him in because he needs the door open at all times to carry out frequent bodily functions. And because he came to us as a chained dog (another rescue dog), we have never tied him up again so that was not an option.

Come the final Sunday evening, we were people-d out and talked out. Monday passed in a zombie-like state. Only today are we coming back to life. Now we have almost dismantled the accoutrements that were needed for the festival and we can bask in the euphoria of all the positive comments we received. Clearly we have been doing something right in the last seven years.

Will we open again next year? Ask us in a few months’ time.

Dudley is wondering why the excitement has ended and where all the people who fed him have gone.

The sight on Monday morning when it was all over