Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

The Foetus Tree

The abandoned deep freeze – a harbinger of worse to come

It was the abandoned deep freeze that first alerted us to the potential scale of problems at our rental house across the road when we arrived back from Melbourne. Why, we wondered, was it left there?

The tenant, gone AWOL overseas, had sent a friend (now a former friend for reasons that will become very clear) to move her mountain of belongings. The friend had done a sterling job getting out a fair amount – nowhere near all of it, but a surprisingly large amount. It appears that it may have been the deep freeze that tipped her over the edge. She had looked inside.

The power had been disconnected a few weeks earlier and warm, late summer temperatures had also contributed to the truly, mind-blowingly foul stench once the lid was lifted. But there was worse to come.

The deep freeze contained a dead dog. Now I hasten to add that the dog was small, had been euthanized humanely by the vet and placed in a cardboard box with a plastic flower on top. But it wasn’t in good shape. It fell to poor Mark to deal with the contents which contained not only the dead dog, but also decomposing pork trotters (even more bizarre when you know that the tenant had allegedly converted to Islam and is currently domiciled far, far away with her Islamic husband whom she appears to have met over the internet), fish bait and various other unmentionables. All had to be removed from their plastic wrappings and buried. Mark carried out this task without complaint while Lloyd and I exited the property on account of the all-pervasive stench.

The foetus tree

But a further problem awaited us. Not as gross. More grotesque. The foetus tree. I had emailed photographs to the tenant of the bewildering chaos of her remaining belongings and she replied: “I did not see the tree in any of the pics either that is in the black tub , this was planted by my mother when I was seven and it has my own babies I lost buried in it.” Unfortunately, the tree was still on the property.

What on earth is one meant to do with a tree which contains the decomposed foetuses from well over a decade ago?

The tree we identified as Cedrus deodara, maybe aurea.  We used to grow a few of these commercially and I am sure that the specimen before my eyes is not the 45 years of age the tenant claimed (planted when she was just seven). Given it has had a hard life and been kept in a comparatively small pot, I would guess about 20 years. But apparently containing foetus remains. What sort of a person carts around foetuses? It is not as though she had no live births. There appear to be seven extant offspring.

We didn’t want the responsibility of this tree. Neither, apparently, did the adult children living not that far away. But knowing that it contained human remains, meant not treating it with the contempt we hold for all the other remaining detritus left for us to deal with. I consulted my locked social media account. There was unanimous agreement that we needed to recognise the tapu* nature of the tree. One friend came up with what I thought was a brilliant solution. Relocate it, she suggested, to an unmonitored burial site or cemetery and advise the tenant where it is so that she can arrange its collection. We have such a site just down the road and it is unlikely that anybody will notice the arrival of the foetus tree in its pot, for a while at least.

Removing the foetus tree from the property

As Lloyd and Mark loaded the heavy tree into the back of Lloyd’s ute, my heart lightened. It was a genuine relief to see it disappearing down the driveway. I went down to the cemetery later with my camera, in order to send photographs of its new location to the erstwhile tenant, that she may make arrangements for its collection.

Was she grateful? No. Of course not. She ignored my email but I heard from a third party that she was deeply offended, enraged even. I have no idea what she expected us to do with the tree. I thought we had found an elegant solution. But then the decision to cart the remains of one’s miscarried foetuses around long after their demise is also a huge mystery to us.

Just inside the cemetery gate, for easy collection

 

*tapu – sacred in Maori. Or, to be more precise: “an ancient Māori spiritual and social code that was central to traditional society, is about sanctity and respect for people, natural resources and the environment.” It is only when I am writing for overseas readers that I realise how much we have now incorporated concepts and language from NZ’s indigenous people into common parlance, with a reasonable expectation that other New Zealanders will understand.

Postscript: As Lloyd quipped that he was worried about being caught on CCTV (which is only funny if you understand the nature of very small, rural cemeteries that date back to the nineteenth century and have remained very small to this day), the irony of the sign beside the current resting place of the foetus tree brought a wry smile from Mark.

 

Postcards of Melbourne

Cordyline Burgundy Spire

How handsome is Cordyline ‘Burgundy Spire’, seen here in the trial grounds of Anthony Tesselaar Plants in Sylvan, near Melbourne? It isn’t one of ours, though we would be happy if it was. The breeder is fellow New Zealander, Geoff Jewel. It is just a shame they never look like this in New Zealand, on account of our native moth, Epiphryne verriculata. We always have chewed and holey foliage which is the nature of the plant in its homeland; still handsome and eye-catching but as a garden plant, it would be nice to have cleaner foliage.

Mark Jury and Cordyline Red Fountain

However, I can add to the occasional series of Mark Posing Beside Jury Plants Around the World – this time Cordyline Red Fountain at Melbourne Botanic Gardens. This plant was a joint effort between Mark and his father Felix, and was the first highly successful commercial plant that generated an actual income back to the breeders. Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’ still continues to be grown widely around the world but Felix never received a single cent for that one. Ditto Mark’s Camellia ‘Fairy Blush’. While it is awfully nice to be told by Australian, French and Belgian growers what a wonderful plant that camellia is and how many they sell each year, it would have been nicer had they been paying a royalty.

Muehlenbeckia complexa

While at the aforementioned Botanic Gardens, we were somewhat charmed by these free-form animal figures created in Muehlenbeckia complexa, another New Zealand native. As the plant is generally a scrambling groundcover, I am guessing they must have trained it up over wire frames. I have forgotten the name of the fern that is used as groundcover. We have it in our garden and usually refer to it as the asparagus fern but I think the common asparagus fern that can be distinctly weedy is something entirely different. This one is rather too slow growing to threaten weed status.

Plant supports from metal

I photographed these permanent metal plant supports to add to my ideas file. In this case, ideas to keep Our Lloyd busy, should he ever run out of work to do here. This scenario seems unlikely, but there are times when some durable, attractive plant supports would be very helpful. I like gently rusting metal because it melds harmoniously with plants. I have always wanted to live in a house with Gothic arched windows. This seems an entirely unlikely event on account of Gothic arched windows never really catching on in New Zealand wooden villas and bungalows of yore and the fact that we have no plans to move house if we can possibly avoid it. But my ambition now is to have some Gothic arched plant supports, at least. As I have become more interested in managing summer perennials, the need for plant supports is becoming more pressing.

Golden bougainvillea

I would be tempted to buy a golden bougainvillea if I ever came across one for sale, though they are such monster plants, with fierce thorns, that they are very difficult to place in the garden. I first saw this colour on the Greek island of Kalymnos many years ago and I can’t recall seeing one since. Purple a-plenty, magenta, pure red, even white but the yellow and orange shades are nowhere near as ubiquitous. I was charmed to find one just down the road from where we were staying in Carlton North.

I interpreted these two scenes as what happens when city dwellers plant their Christmas trees on the road verge, although the right hand photo is not a conifer but more likely an Australian native. They amused me, though they have that look of potential vegetable time bombs.

Ziziphus jujuba

Chinese red dates! Botanically Ziziphus jujuba. I have only ever tried these dried and packaged before, and that was many years ago, but our daughter found these at the Sunday markets. They are about the size of a large crabapple and taste like a date-y apple but without the crispness of the latter fruit. I have never seen them sold fresh in New Zealand.

Bicycle friendly

Melbourne is not a city I know, having only been there twice before on brief visits. But we were very taken with the focus on infrastructure and design to make it bicycle friendly. Our son lives there and does not have a car so we were relieved to see that he is living in a city which prioritises safe cycling, even when it may inconvenience car drivers. Our apartment looked out over a protected cycleway and we were amazed at how many people moved along quickly on two wheels. Imagine the alternative of each of those cyclists sitting in a car – often just the one per car. In NZ, cyclists are fighting hard for some rights and accommodation in cities but too often car drivers see them as moving targets and act aggressively towards them on a point of principle. And god forbid that we should put in urban cycleways at the expense of a few carparks. Let alone give cyclists priority at intersections to make it safer for them.  In  our country with sprawling cities, low population density and poor to non-existent public transport, the private car rules supreme and even there, New Zealanders favour big sports utility vehicles (urban tractors, as they are sometimes called) and people movers with four wheel drive, even when they will never leave the sealed roads. We have much to learn and there are better ways of doing things than forever listening to the howling demands of incensed vehicle owners.

From the start, Melbourne was built with reasonably high density housing and sufficient money to add ornamentation in abundance to its domestic housing. It is very charming that so much of this has been retained. But – and it is a big but – what is with the graffiti, Melbourne? Graffiti everywhere. The only place we have ever seen graffiti to rival it is alongside the rail lines as we left Paris. Our son suggested it is part of the edgy urban feel Melbourne cultivates but we were not convinced.

A visit to Cloudehill Gardens

A touch of whimsy to welcome at the entrance – yes or no? 

We first visited Cloudehill Gardens about 20 years ago when it was still very much one man’s garden. Jeremy Francis took over the property in 1992 so it would still have been very new when we saw it. While there were plants and established trees from its earlier time as a nursery, there was no garden when he started. In the time since, it has matured to one of the flagship gardens of the Dandenong area, about an hour out of Melbourne. It is a large garden, created in the Arts and Crafts style with, the publicity tells me, twenty different garden rooms.

Very arts and craftsy in style 

The design may be very Hidcote/Sissinghurst, but the perennial plantings reflect the fashions of the new millenium 

While it appears that the originator, Jeremy Francis, is still on the scene, day to day management has transferred to The Diggers’ Club, which is a membership organisation unique to Australia. The upshot of this is that there is a now a retail outlet and a good café/restaurant (though the wasp infestation drove us indoors to eat), a focus on events and attractions and ‘adding interest’ to the garden. This means it has facilities and infrastructure but the trade-off is that the deeply personal touch of a single owner is no longer as evident. I found some of the novelty sculptures and touches were a little jarring in a garden where the underpinning hard landscaping is of exceptional quality. But a garden being run as a commercial entity has to strive to be all things to all people. It is now branded with the ubiquitous but rarely accurate strap-line of “a garden for all seasons’.

Not, I think, Cloudehill’s finest moment but it is hard for a garden to be all things to all people

Colour-toned belladonnas and Japanese anemones for an early autumn welcome

I have never seen a garden that can peak for twelve months of the year and at the end of a long, hot, dry Australian summer, it was not at its peak but there was still plenty of interest along the way. When I review my photographs, I see that I kept focusing on the high quality of most of the garden structures. Attention to detail, again and again. I really appreciate that. There is a timelessness to good structure that carries a garden well through the years, even though the plantings may change with the times.

I liked the cobbles set in the path, as an example of understated detail, though I am guessing the fill has washed away, leaving them as something of a trip hazard. It was the only maintenance flaw that I recall in a garden where the overall management was of a very high calibre.

Attention to detail – look at the staging of this feature pot 

The hand-crafted wrought iron fence that separated gardens took my fancy as a personalised, modern take on an old craft.

Detail again – look at the beautiful end to this balustrade. And unless I am mistaken, that is a Marlborough rock daisy from New Zealand, Pachystegia insignis, nestled into an Australian garden that is modelled on English design.

I blog. I do not instagram. This may be the reason why I forgot to photograph my lunch but as far as I recall, it was very pleasant. What I did photograph was an installation of figures created by sculptor, Graeme Foote. These I really did like, especially in their setting here. I could find a home for some of these figures. While the individual price seems very reasonable at a mere $400 each, the trouble is that we would need at least 10 to make a statement.  Plus packing and freight across the Tasman. Sometimes we have to be content with memories and photographs.

Haute couture on a cold and wet Saturday in Melbourne

After two hot days in Melbourne last week, the temperature plummeted from 27 degrees to about 10 (Celsius). Fortunately, I had looked at the weather forecast and packed extra layers but I did wonder if I was going to have to buy myself gloves as my poor arthritic fingers complained. It was a day for indoor activities so we went to Melbourne Art Gallery instead.

It was the final day for the Escher exhibition and the queues were enormous so we avoided that and went instead to the Krystyna Campbell-Pretty collection of haute couture and Parisian fashion from 1890 to the current day. Now, haute couture does not feature in my life, I admit that. But staging exhibitions has been on my radar from earlier in my life when I worked in an art gallery for close to five years. With over 150 outfits on display, the first rooms were simply staged to feature the gowns.

These are Christian Lacroix 

By Cristobal Balenciaga

I was pretty surprised to find that the fake fur coat dates back to 1955. I did not know that synthetic fabrics were being used that early but clearly Cristobal Balenciaga was right up with the new materials.

Over 150 gowns is a large number and I guess when I started photographing the models’ heads, my attention was already slipping. But then I noticed another aspect entirely. My guess is that the first gallery rooms were staged initially but then the exhibition designer and hanging assistants also found their attention straying and decided to step everything up several notches.

First it became somewhat theatrical in the staging.

Then we came across examples where the models and gowns were clearly matched to the paintings on the walls. They were witty but it does mean that one’s eyes naturally focus on the whole scene, rather than on the individual gowns. Which is fine, after 100 or so gowns.

The gallery of the little black dress was Something Else. In the centre of the room, the models were staged with a collection of 3 or 4 smaller, nude men in bronze which was pretty humorous.

But around the walls, the gowns were arrayed on a series of rising platforms on the wall, and as they rose, the models became not only elevated, but also headless.

As we exited, I saw this display which had me come home and Google when bras were invented. These three gowns came from around 1890 to 1905 and the first and third gown presumably indicated the use of binding that pre-dated bras. The middle one, it appears from the shape, was for the bra-less – a 1905 afternoon gown from Marie Callot Gerber. And in case you are dying to know when bras appeared, the first models were around this time but they did not come into widespread usage until the 1930s.

If haute couture is not your thing, may I offer you this shiny motor cycle exhibit instead? It is by Indian artist Subodh Gupta, from 2001 and predominantly cast in bronze with aluminium and stainless steel.

From scratch – the caterpillar garden

The caterpillar garden has been bringing me much delight this summer.

Starting to lay the area out in 2016 and marking the basket fungus shape

It is a flat area. Mark had to get up the ladder to get a view

Basket fungi

We refer to it as ‘the caterpillar garden’ but we really need to come up with a better name. It is the caterpillar garden because of an episode of BBC Gardeners’ World we watched several years ago. English designer, Tom Stuart-Smith, went into Carol Klein’s garden and clipped her buxus hedge into his trademark, undulating, wavy caterpillar style. That was the starting point for Mark’s vision for this particular area – a central backbone in clipped, undulating caterpillar-style but planted in a small leafed Camellia microphylla rather than utility buxus. He laid it out in pentagon shapes and I wondered about calling it ‘the pentagon garden’ but I would need to wait for a new president of America to go with anything that carried such strong, albeit irrelevant, connotations. Now Mark is wondering about ‘the basket garden’ on account of the basket fungus that guided his layout but that is a bit obscure.

May 2018, a few months after planting. The Podocarpus henkelii in the centre is such a handsome tree that we are keeping it and working around it. The little white flowers are Camellia microphylla in bloom in early autumn.

We both laughed when a Facebook page of Broughton Grange’s parterres came through on Facebook this week. Lo, there was Tom Stuart Smith’s undulating caterpillar hedging, filled with a tapestry of plants. Same, same but different. I think his shapes are hexagons, not pentagons and he has closed each shape rather than opening bays to the side paths as we have. He has gone for a different colour palette too – bright reds and yellows rather than our softer hues of blues, whites and lilac. And he has put the taller plants in a separate border to the side of the parterre rather than having them rising out of the central enclosures as we have. But we feel we are in excellent company with our caterpillar garden. We were a bit surprised that a small snippet of inspiration could see us end up at a similar destination several years later.

Very late spring 2018 – white iberis and Brodiaea ‘Queen Fabiola’ with the blue perennial forget-me-not (Myosotis) in the background

I wondered about appending a plant list to this post at the end, just in case any reader wanted to see what we have used but these things are never that simple. Even mass planting for impact and restricting the selection for each separate enclosure to between one and three different plants, I have kept adding to the plant palette to try and extend the seasonal interest and a quick count came to about fifty different plants so far. So I won’t be listing them. I can tell you that it gets us through three seasons with different plants being a focus but it is never going to be a great mid-winter garden. I would also comment that we could not afford to garden on this scale if we relied on buying the plant material. It takes many (many, indeed) plants to fill such an area of around 200 square metres. We have drawn on plants we already had in the garden, plants we have been given and trialled in Mark’s vegetable and meadow areas and plants we have raised. In fact, while it has taken plenty of time and effort and a lot of thought, the dollar expenditure currently sits at zero. We are quite happy to pay for special plants or ones we need to get us started, but this is not a garden for special plants. We are after mass effects and colour blocks.

The Salvia uliginosa is too floppy to be in an outside bed

This is now a garden filled with life, particularly butterflies and bees

This has been its second summer. It was patchy last year with big gaps. Some of the plants are smaller growing and more compact so take longer to spread and cover the area. This summer, I have felt it is coming together as we hoped. I have just completed the first – and most major –  reworking that is often necessary when the reality doesn’t match the vision. The pink shades had to go. Too pink and detracting from the spectrum of blues and whites. Salvia uliginosa is too tall where I had it and needs to be moved – but placed with care because it does have dangerous, invasive instincts. I am quite happy doing the fine tuning. For me, it is worth the effort.

I love the white Japanese anemones and blue asters currently in bloom

I have high hopes for next year when I think it will all come together as we envisage it. And we may have the paths laid and quite possibly some garden edging to emphasise the curves. I was going to avoid edgings if I could but I think this is a case for gently rusting Corten steel edging defining the lines and keeping the mulch from the paths. Not tanalised timber ply, not in our garden.

It feels as though this garden has taken longer to get to fruition, but what is a few short years in the greater scheme of things?

This was back in 2012 when we emptied out the capillary beds (which had been built around the Podocarpus henkelii 20 years earlier).

In 2014, we cleared and re-contoured the area. Same tree in the centre. Spike, the dog at the front is still with us but distinctly elderly and very deaf these days,

And this week. Filling in colour blocks with plants.

 

New Zealand in shock

I do not think I have a gardening post in me this weekend. Ours is a country in shock but none more so than our Muslim communities and the people of Christchurch. How could this happen in New Zealand? But happen it did and the soul searching going on now reveals that it should not, perhaps, have come as such a shock. The signs were there but nobody took much notice of them. Nobody, that is, except the Muslim communities and other marginalised groups and individuals who face the rising tide of hate in their everyday lives, even in our peaceful land of the long white cloud.

Sometimes I feel the ghost of my mother at my shoulder. She died nearly 20 years ago but I recall her talking of living in London in the lead-up to WW2 and how she and my father were horrified to witness the rising tide of fascism and the inevitability of major war, even as others around them ignored all the signs. It was perhaps more clear-cut then, with those fascist energies predominantly concentrated and unified in the Nazis.  But as I watch the rise and rise and the alt-right, the defence of hate speech (“But… free speech!”), Islamophobia, the extreme ugliness in many quarters enabled by social media, the political dog whistling at such people as potential voters and other political games and strategies that have merely served to strengthen and affirm such outlier views – yes, I feel my mother at my shoulder. Pandora’s box has been opened again and hatred, ignorance and blind prejudice have been unleashed, nowhere more so yesterday than in the Christchurch mosques.

It is not enough to say that this is the not the country we want. In the coming days, weeks, months and years, as the initial shock and horror fades, we must all hold the line that has now been drawn between those motivated by ugliness, hatred, fear and prejudice and those of us who want a kinder, more caring and tolerant world. I stand with our Prime Minister who epitomises kindness and compassion every day, but especially so in the last 24 hours.

It may seem trite, but if people who feel moved to leave flowers in remembrance around the country could remove the plastic wrappings and ribbons on such bouquets, it would mean their flowers could wither and return to the soil rather than having to be picked up and taken to landfill. I remember the tributes to Princess Diana – a sea of plastic and cellophane wrapped flowers and I am now seeing photos of similar floral tributes around our country. Just leave flowers in such situations, without the wrapping accoutrements. Please.

Back from a near death experience – an obscure fig

 

Very curious fruit on Ficus antiarus

The most asked about plant in our garden was Ficus antiarus. I say was because the small tree became collateral damage when a massive pine tree fell over last April. We feared for its long-term survival as all that remained in the ground were some of the longest roots.

Brought down by an enormous falling pine last April. That is the root system, uprooted. 

It took a couple of weeks to clear the area sufficiently to have room to move and then Mark and Lloyd levered up what remained and installed a prop to hold it more or less upright. Mark took a chainsaw to it to remove most of the canopy and the broken branches. He pruned to keep the shape while reducing the stress on the tree by reducing the smaller branches and much of the foliage. Too much leafy growth would mean increased loss of moisture and we hoped it would put its energy into re-establishing the root system over winter. We crossed our fingers.

levered more or less upright, pruned by chainsaw and propped in place last April

Behold the fresh leafy growth now. It is a sight to behold. It set no fruit this year but we didn’t expect it to after such a shock. It appears that it will live on for another few decades. I asked Mark how long the prop would need to remain in place and all he said was that he had no idea so I guess he hasn’t thought about that yet.

Ten months later and we are delighted by all the fresh growth

Mark’s father Felix brought Ficus antiarus back from his one and only intrepid plant-hunting trip – to the highlands of New Guinea in 1957. He thought that in the cooler temperatures of the areas with altitude that he might find interesting plants that would survive back here. He didn’t bring a big haul back but the ficus, Schefflera septulosa and Vireya rhododendron macgregoriae have all stood the test of time.

The ficus has mid to dark green leaves with an interesting rasping texture – not unlike green sandpaper. It is evergreen, unlike most eating figs. What is most remarkable about it is the generous set of tiny figs growing out of bare wood. They start out cream, ageing through orange to red. Birds don’t strip the tree so the fruit must not be very inviting to them. I have nibbled the odd red fruit and they have a faint figgy flavour but not enough to make them an addition to the diet. We just like it as a curiosity at the end of the Avenue Garden.

Before it was knocked down – we are now optimistic it will return to this state.