Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

“The ulmus must go!” Vegetative time bombs

Growing well but just too large for this location – Umus ‘Jacqueline Hillier’

It’s no good. The ulmus must go. Ulmus ‘Jacqueline Hillier’ to be precise. I feel a little sad about this because it is a fine plant. I love it with its detailed bare tracery in winter. I love it with its fresh, bright green growth in spring and its lush summer appearance. I love its elegant and interesting form. It is a good plant in the wrong place.

It was I who planted it at the front of the rockery. At the time, we were still in full nursery production and it was one of the product lines. I see we described it at the time as reaching two metres by two metres, which I assume are the dimensions that were given to us when we first acquired it. That is why I thought it would be fine in the rockery where we could prune as required. It is now around four metres high and more than that in width of canopy and that is despite several major pruning efforts to restrict it over the past decade. The root system is extensive and suckers are popping up many metres away. It is just too big for where it is planted and is now so strong that it is increasingly difficult to grow anything beneath it and it is only a matter of time before the roots fracture the rockery structure.

It will require a chainsaw and we will get some firewood out of it but killing off the extensive root system is going to take poison, something we prefer to avoid.

Abies procera ‘Glauca’ – handsome but too close to the house

We are not unfamiliar with vegetative time bombs. We have a few, none more so than our very handsome Abies procera ‘Glauca’.

Oh look, here is a little photo taken earlier. Best guess is that it is early 1960s, when Felix planted it in the rockery. I am reassured that he, too, could plant without doing adequate research on ultimate size. Or maybe he thought it was a dwarf conifer at the time. At least he moved it out of the rockery while he could but it would have been helpful had he moved it more than 8 metres from the house. It is now over 20 metres tall, though not very wide, and we are psyching ourselves up for its removal. Should it fall (and it did have an issue with rot at its base, though that appears to have healed over time), it is likely to take out a good part of the house, starting with our bedroom. It is one of those major and expensive jobs that we know is coming up sooner, rather than later. Beautiful tree. Wrong location.

Spring growth on the left, 30 minutes trimming on the right

Some plants are more amenable to being kept in check. This little green maple (species long forgotten) is easy to keep at a controlled size. Once a year, I spend about half an hour trimming off all the long whippy growths and thinning the crown if needed and bob’s your uncle, an attractive vase-shaped plant. If I didn’t trim off the whippy growths, next year the new growth would be made at the tops of those so the plant would become considerably taller and more open over time.

A noxious weed: Commelina “Sleeping Beauty’ does not sleep

And as for vegetative time bombs that should be banned altogether, I give you Commelina coelstris ‘Sleeping Beauty’. I wrote about its bad habits five years ago and still it continues to reappear in the rockery, despite the fact that we are vigilant weeders and nowhere more so than in the rockery. It is worse than the weedy tradescantia.  Not only does it seed, but any piece of root left behind grows again. I nominate it for the banned list but one of our premier seed suppliers continues to sell this noxious weed. Shun it, is my advice.

Along the verges – midsummer on North Taranaki roadsides

Blue hydrangeas – a common roadside plant

We are very blue along our Taranaki roadsides in midsummer. I meant to get out with my camera a few weeks ago to record the roadside hydrangeas flowering in our area. Many are now passing over so I had to make do with the verge planted by our neighbour across the road. It has been bringing me pleasure for many weeks now.

Basically, hydrangeas are blue in Taranaki. This is to do with available aluminium in our acid soils.  In our warm, temperate climate with adequate summer rain, they can just be planted and left. The many, many roadside hydrangeas will have been planted originally (seeding is minimal) and then left to their own devices. I don’t think anyone ever prunes them. This means that they are generally smothered with smaller flower heads. Pruning controls the size of the shrub and increases the flower size but lessens the number of blooms. Plants can survive quite happily with no pruning at all.

Weed or common wildflower? Agapanthus

It is the season of agapanthus. They are EVERYWHERE in this area, although they generally start from a deliberate planting and they are most often seen as amenity, road verge plantings rather than garden plants. They are controversial here on account of their seeding ways and the fact that they are resistant to the most common weed killer. But our roadsides would be so much the poorer without them.

Thumbs down to woolly nightshade

My definition of a noxious weed is a plant that invades and displaces more desirable native plants and I don’t think the roadside agapanthus are displacing anything more desirable. The seed is not spread by birds and generally falls close to the parent plant so is localised. I would be far more worried about woolly nightshade – Solanum mauritianum – than about agapanthus. It has no redeeming features and is highly invasive. Curiously, by this plant, I saw a small plant of Verbena bonariensis on the verge. As it is at least two kilometres from my garden where it is flowering, I don’t think I am responsible for this plant making its way to the wild. Most of our wildflowers start as garden escapes and this verbena is so light and airy in form, while being popular with bees and butterflies, that I am not convinced that it is going to be a problem in the comparative wasteland of road verges.

Chicory – not as common as I would like it to be

Chicory is another pretty blue that I wouldn’t mind making its home around here. It is a member of the dandelion family and is also used as stock food overseas so I can’t think it would do much harm here. I found this one growing on railway land when I stopped to photograph the red hot pokers.

Kniphofia in Lepperton

Like the hydrangeas, kniphofia generally start from a deliberate planting. Though some forms seed more freely than others in a garden situation, I have never seen them as a weed when on road verges. I once wrote about them – if you want to know why Father was a red hot poker and Mother was a blushing violet. I liked this scene of kniphofia and an old gateway between the state highway and the railway line in Lepperton this week.

Crocosmia – commonly referred to as montbretia

I wrote about crocosmia in my earlier post today. If we are not blue, we are carpets of red around here – or sometimes blue and red. They are just too happy in our conditions though they do look very pretty interspersed with the long grasses on some road verges.

Common fennel

Into the yellows, we have fennel, fennel and more fennel all around the district. I really like it, so much so that I have used it in the summer borders. I like the airy grace of those yellow umbellifers and the fine, ferny foliage. The insects like them too. There is a bronze form more commonly used as an ornamental but I am not willing to spend money buying a fennel and nobody has given it to me yet.

Evening primrose

I am also fond of the wild evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) which is common enough here and certainly common in wilder areas of our property. It doesn’t seem to do any harm and the bees like it.

Thumbs down, also, to convolvulus

Not all of our wild flowers are desirable. Mark keeps out the convolvulus, be it pink or white, though there is so much of it around, I can only conclude that others are less vigilant. It is a smothering plant, hellishly difficult to eradicate once it gets a foothold. This one is climbing up the Bertram Road swing bridge over the Waitara River but will very soon dominate the whole bank and bridge if not kept under control or taken out.

The wasteland of the sprayed road verge

Not all of our wildflowers are noxious weeds. But neither are all of the weeds wildflowers worth tolerating. On the other hand, is there anything much worse than this sprayed wasteland of a road verge? A practice that remains common around here.

Agapanthus a-plenty 

And sometimes agapanthus and crocosmia – one starting from a deliberate planting, the other entirely self-introduced

Summer flowers – tigridias and crocosmias

I started by thinking I would do a comparison of tigridias. And then crocosmias. It was too hot to be out in the garden and I couldn’t go down to the shaded areas of the stream in the park to clear weeds on the banks and free up the water from some of the choking weeds on account of having stuffed my dodgy wrist doing this heavy work the day before.

But really, it is that I like making flower boards. If I had my life again, maybe I would consider textile design as a career. I could do lovely floral confections, taking inspiration from flowers from my garden.

I have spent some time separating the tigridias by colour into separate blocks in two different garden borders. There are many more colours out there but I am not so keen as to want to collect them all. A fair number of them seem to be leaning towards brown hues. This is probably what happens when the pinks cross with the yellows. I am okay with white, all the hues of palest pink through to deepest pink, pure red and bright yellow.

What I would like is forms of the yellow and the red without spots – or freckles as they are often called. It appears that the dominant freckled forms can throw the occasional seedling that lacks them entirely. I have separated off the pure white and mid to dark pinks that hatched sans freckles and last year I found a single bulb with palest pink, freckle-free status. It hasn’t yet flowered this year so I couldn’t include it and, to be honest, it is a bit insipid. But it adds a link to the chain. Over time, I would prefer to mass the freckle-free ones and just add some spotties for variation. I do not know why we have never had a red or a yellow without the spots, but I will continue to watch.

Commonly referred to as montbretia, the weedy crocosmia growing wild all round North Taranaki roadsides

And crocosmias. They turned out to be more interesting than I thought, though we only have four different ones. Crocosmia are better known as montbretia when they are a roadside weed. Or maybe now a wildflower rather than a weed. A weed suggests they can be eliminated but this east African corm has made itself so much at home now that we literally have carpets of them on the road verges around here. We try and keep it out of our park but every time we get heavy rains that cause flooding, more wash down from upstream. They are at least pretty in flower.

Left to right: the roadside weed, a selected yellow form of same, ‘Severn Sunrise’ and ‘Lucifer’

There are about nine species of crocosmia in the wild. The common roadside one is C. crocosmia x C. crocosmiiflora and it increases both from the bulb and from seed. The most common garden form is the larger-flowered, red ‘Lucifer’  which, it turns out, is a different line altogether, being  C. masoniorum × C. paniculata. I deadhead it because it sets prodigious amounts of seed and there is a limit to how many I want in the garden.

The pretty yellow form is simply a variation on the wild roadside one that Mark dug up and moved into the garden because it caught his eye. It has stayed true and also has the advantage of being either sterile or not setting much seed at all. I must take closer note this year, now that I have it well established in the new borders, and see if it is truly sterile. It is a worthwhile addition if it is.

Mark actually bought Crocosmia ‘Severn Sunrise’ from a well-known perennial nursery. All we can say is that it is either not true to the original or it performs much better in the UK, where it has been given an Award of Garden Merit from the RHS. It is so disappointing here that I plan to dig it up and dump it (but not on the roadside). Its foliage is not a good colour, the flowers are small and not displayed well AND it sets seed. I could make better selections from the wild ones along our frontage. I failed to find the species description for ‘Severn Sunrise’ but I wasn’t that interested, to be honest. Some plants just don’t justify their place even if they come with impeccable pedigrees.

The transient pleasure of a colour toned flower board to finish

 

Lily time in the Garden of Jury

Auratum lily time is a delight, a joy even. Showy, over the top, flamboyant but glorious. And we are just entering these weeks of glory.

We grow lilies in the better lit areas of woodland. They can get somewhat stretched reaching for the light so need more staking when not in full sun. I am rounding them up to limit the areas where we have them growing in order to make that seasonal staking task easier. But they certainly light up the woodland margins.

The new lily border has just opened its earliest flowers. These are the result of a determined and sustained effort to beat the pesky rabbits in spring.  Last year, it was about even stevens with the rabbits taking close to half of them. This year, we are almost at 100% reaching for the sky. Blood and bone works as a deterrent. So much promise of lilies to open in the next week. You will just have to imagine the glory of a border getting on towards fifty square metres of auratum lilies. The fragrance matches the blooms – strong, sweet and almost overpowering. None of this would have been possible or affordable were it not for Mark who is skilled both in pollinating good parent plants and then raising the seed to planting-out grade. Nor indeed were it not for my efforts in getting the planting out done on this new border. Being full sun, there is not much staking required in this area.

Almost all of ours are unnamed hybrids raised by father and son – first Felix and now Mark. Felix named a few that we used to sell but they are pretty mixed in the garden now. All are outward facing, not upward facing. That was one of the breeding aims. Upward facing lilies act as leaf and debris catchers and weather-mark badly.

Of them all, I think these soft, marshmallow pink ones of Mark’s raising may be my favourite. Or it could be another one in a few days’ time.

Finally, just in case there are any lily experts reading this: I assumed these trumpet lilies elsewhere in the garden are an unusual, honey-coloured L. regale.  Mark assumed they were Aurelians, based on their finer foliage.  Neither of us know where they came from so at this stage, we are assuming they are chance seedlings. They are very beautiful and I will move them to a prime spot in full sun but if anybody has more knowledge about lilies than we have, please tell us your theory on their likely classification.

Not 5+ a day any longer, 25 different per week

Mood photos from my archives, though this is our kitchen

As I was driving into town, I caught a small snippet on the car radio about food. And the interviewee declared that a balanced diet is more important than worrying about the pros and cons of one particular food (could diabetics eat sweetcorn, was the question that led to this statement) and that we should (wait for it) all be aiming to eat twenty-five different fruits and vegetables a week.

That got me thinking. Do we eat twenty-five different fruit and veg week in and week out? The recommended daily intake of five plus is no issue, but that is servings of fruit and veg, not different types. We are large consumers of fresh fruit and vegetables but do we reach twenty-five different ones? When I say we eat a lot, we are maybe 90% vegetarian these days. Mark starts his day with avocado on toast, I have fresh fruit and muesli. Lunch is always a fresh fruit salad with five or six different fruits and Greek yoghurt. Dinner includes a fresh salad, a cooked green vegetable and a vegetable and carbs-based dish that contains protein. We can eat like this because we produce most of our own food, though I use the word ‘we’ in the royal sense. Mark grows the food crops. Were we buying all our food, I can’t imagine that the range of fruit and veg we eat would be anything near its current level. I blench at the thought of traversing the supermarket fresh produce section for the weekly shop and trying to select twenty-five different options. I mean, how many more of those resusable mesh produce bags would I need? (Answer: another nineteen).

Sorry, the dried fruit in the Christmas cake does not count

So could we get to twenty-five in a sample week? What could be counted and what couldn’t? I had no idea, I hadn’t been listening that closely to the interview but I surmised that frozen veg count, if in their natural state. Not that this is relevant for us as it is mid-summer here and we don’t eat frozen veg in summer (and not a lot in winter, thanks to Mark discovering the benefits of the cloche). So frozen is in, tinned – I don’t know. I have my doubts. Dried, no. This ruled out all the dried legumes we eat unless they are reconstituted as bean sprouts. (You can see we were getting right into this). It also, alas, rules out dried fruits so the Christmas cake can not be counted. There was an open verdict on olives.

Not sure whether olives qualify or not

I did get to twenty-five this week. About eight different fruits – half homegrown, half purchased. And the balance in vegetables of which only four were purchased. Though, I admit, the number was inflated by the lull in summer lettuce forcing Mark to go for summer salad greens that are more reminiscent of herbal ley than anything else (mustard, dandelion, chickweed, rocket and onion greens, he tells me, in last night’s salad).

We have no problems with the new planetary diet that hit the headlines this week  from the Eat-Lancet Commission. It is close to how we are eating now. But twenty-five different fruit and vegetables a week (which was entirely unrelated advice from another source)? I think that may be more aspirational than practical for most of the population. 

Found! Our summer garden.

Gardening is usually a gentle activity in emotional terms. We may feel irritation, pleasure, satisfaction, disappointment or similar feelings. The feeling of sheer panic is probably largely limited to those gardening to deadlines with either an opening date for the public or a garden-based event. Occasionally, I feel real joy. I wrote about the feeling of joy in December 2016, down in our meadow. By joy, I mean the rare times when my heart sings.

It was back in 2009 when I wrote about our quest to get to grips with summer gardens. We do very good spring gardens throughout New Zealand but by summer, most people’s thoughts turn to beaches and barbeques. With a predominantly woodland garden here, our garden in summer was certainly lush, green and restful but not exactly vibrant.

A decade on and I looked at my herbaceous borders this week, and my heart sang. “Yessss!” I thought. “We do actually have a summer garden at last.” A colleague and friend visited this week and was suitably gobsmacked. “When you said you wanted to do herbaceous borders,” he said, “I thought …” I can’t remember what he said he thought but it was along the ‘yeah nah. Unlikely. They’ll learn. It’ll never happen,’ sort of thing. It was very affirming to impress a professional colleague of similar experience level to us. These borders are now at what I call the ‘tweaking stage’. Altering the bits that don’t quite work. Were I more high-falutin’, I would describe this as ‘editing’ (the current term) or maybe fine tuning. But every day, these borders bring me great personal pleasure.

Lily border to the left, caterpillar garden metamorphosing to the right

On the other side of this area (with the yet to be planted Court Garden in between) is what Mark calls the caterpillar garden. That is because he drew inspiration from a piece on BBC Gardeners’ World where leading UK designer, Tom Stuart Smith, was clipping established buxus plants into his trademark undulating forms redolent of a caterpillar. We don’t do buxus here, so Mark planted out the basic structure in the dwarf camellia species C. minutiflora. For the shape, he drew inspiration from the basket fungus which is based on five-sided shapes. So what we have are eight enclosed pentagons with bays to the side, making 23 different garden sections. Mark’s vision was of tall plants billowing out of the enclosed centres with lower plants filling all the side sections – all in shades of blues, whites and lilacs. It fell to me to fill in all the blank spaces. It is coming together. Most of the planting was done by last summer but because the camellias giving the basic form were poor, hungry specimens kept too long in the nursery (I have no idea how many – well over 100 of them?) they are taking time to recover and flourish. And the perennials with which I am painting are smaller growers than those I used in the new summer borders so it is taking longer for them to fill in the spaces. It is block planting – generally only one or two different plants per section – so a whole lot depends on the selections made at the start.

Today, I will strip out the deep pink phlox in one section – too pink. It was a mistake. Fortunately, Mark raised some perovskia seed – Russian sage with blue flowers and grey foliage. It is unproven in our conditions but will be ideal if it works and way more harmonious than the pink phlox.

A stokesia! We were both wrong.

An American visitor this week set us right on the plant that I was sure was a scabious but Mark kept referring to as a centaurea. It is in fact a stokesia and is a wildflower where he lives so we defer to his superior knowledge on this matter. He said he didn’t know which stokesia it is but as we know it dates back to Mark’s mother, it is almost certainly one that was sold in the 1960s. It has stood the test of time, I can tell you that.

Many of us covet those gorgeous big blue-lilac alliums that are seen widely in UK gardens. I was a bit shocked to find they usually treat them like tulips – disposable, one-season wonders. But then I looked at some bulb catalogues there and they are cheap as chips to buy. If we are paying anything up to $15 a bulb here, we are not going to be treating them as annuals. I decided this spring that the easy to grow blue brodiaeas – particularly Brodiaea ‘Queen Fabiola’ (also known as a tritelia) are not bad substitutes for we poor, colonial gardeners. I am drifting these bulbs along one side and very pretty they looked in spring with the white iberis. And they are perennial, not one-season wonders.

I am looking forward to autumn to start planting the central court area. I am mentally prepared for this large planting project. I have most of the plants needed at hand, not all, but most. It will be a quick turnaround, immersive grass garden – big grasses at shoulder height or taller, mostly. A prairie on steroids, perhaps?

I think it bears repeating: if you want a summer garden it needs to be close to all-day sun and start with the perennials, not trees and shrubs. Think of it like painting with flowers because it is those which give the seasonality. Form and foliage are important but they are not the foremost defining factor for a summer garden. 

 

I cannae do cannas, myself

I am really not a fan of canna lilies. We only have one in our garden, which I assume is Canna Tropicana but I don’t love it enough to give it a prized position in order to star. I find them a bit coarse, lacking any element of refinement. And they don’t die down gracefully at the end of the season. There are many other plants we prefer that we can use for the tropical look in our climate.

But the fact that I don’t want to grow them myself does not stop me from seeing their merits elsewhere. Down the road, so to speak – as in maybe 5km and a couple of road changes down the road – is a fine patch of red cannas that I admired all last summer each time I passed. They are very… bold. And undeniably cheerful. When passing in a car, they are bright enough to catch my eye every time and they do appear to have a long season in flower. Pat, who owns these, offered me some when I stopped to photograph them yesterday, but I declined. I get my pleasure from looking at them in her garden.

If you are going to grow them, my advice would be to plant them in blocks of a single colour for maximum effect. I did not realise until I looked them up to get their species name that they are edible. My cursory study of them indicated that it is the tubers you eat, not the flowers. They are Canna indica, not lilies at all, but that is probably no surprise. Their widespread natural habitat takes in large parts of South and Central America, stretching up into the southern states of USA.

Cannas are a mainstay of the summer plantings at the Te Henui cemetery. Mercifully, Cemetery Sue who leads the team of volunteers who tend those gardens, has kept the colours separate.

Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens also uses big plantings of cannas in their summer herbaceous displays. Some of these are better than others. The symphony in pink was, I thought, charming on the day. The garish stripes in primary colours, not so much.