Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

From the nurseryman’s pen – the yellow pohutukawa

Metrosideros excelsa aurea

The much more common red Metrosideros excelsa

The yellow pohutukawa are flowering in my home town of Waitara. Metrosideros aurea. This is not without a tinge of sadness because the four biggest and best specimens on the bank of the Waitara River were felled – in our opinion unnecessarily – by a stubborn regional council despite a strong community effort to try and save them.

The letter reproduced this year in NZ Gardener

I have written about the yellow pohutukawa before, but my interest was piqued by a 1968 letter reproduced in the September issue of the New Zealand Gardener magazine. The letter writer was Victor Davies, who headed the powerhouse nursery Duncan and Davies and who was responsible for introducing the tree to mainland New Zealand by putting it into commercial production. I think we can take the letter as the most accurate historical record of that process.

It is interesting reading it 50 years later and realising how much times and attitudes have changed. The tone is a bit redolent of the old blankets, beads and muskets method employed by early colonialists to get down on treasures held by indigenous people. That is not a criticism of Sir Victor. It is just the way things were done.

A surviving yellow pohutukawa in Waitara

Sir Victor heard about the tree and was greatly interested because all the known pohutukawa on the mainland were shades of red. He could see the commercial potential of a yellow one so he tried repeatedly to get plant material. He thought he was successful when he managed to get somebody to send him scion wood. When the plants flowered five or six years later, they were all red. This may not be a surprise to many of us. In his own words, “After complaining, the reply I had was that as the tree was tapu they would never get any more material for me.” Personally, I think he was lucky to get a reply but his use of the word ‘tapu’ back in 1968 was interesting because not many Maori words had been incorporated in New Zealand English back then. ‘Tapu’ translates, more or less, to sacred. The yellow pohutukawa were a taonga – a sacred treasure to the original people of the land.

Undeterred, Sir Victor kept trying. Through a third party, a ‘friendly’ Maori was found who supplied material for twelve grafts – six red and six yellow. Allegedly, supplying the mix of red and yellow scions circumvented the tapu restrictions. Hmmm. Pretty dodgy, that.

Sir Victor goes on to say that they raised many thousands of seed and they all flowered true to type without any variation so the yellow form was deduced to be a stable species. I am sure the nursery would have sold thousands of plants too but not a single cent would have been returned to the original owners of the sacred tree.

The red pohutukawa make better landscape trees but the yellow is certainly an interesting variant, plus power lines

Some of those trees were planted in Waitara, the closest town to Duncan and Davies Nursery and the surviving plants are what I photographed yesterday. Victor Davies was renowned for many traits, amongst them his remarkable sales ability. And the 1968 letter is headed “The Golden Pohutukawa” and he describes the flower colour as “dull gold”. There is a marketing ploy. Not gold, pretty lemon yellow. It is certainly lovely viewed close up but it doesn’t show out in the landscape as do the more common red forms, Metrosideros excelsa.

Christmas is coming and the red pohutukawa are widely known as the New Zealand Christmas tree.

Way up high, where the birds fly

There is an entire ornithological condominium in the Queen palm at this time of the year. We know this because it is also the time of year when we retire to our Darby and Joan chairs on the front porch for the pre-dinner drink, As we sit gazing out to the garden, the flurry of feathered activity in that particular location is unmistakeable. There is a lot of coming and going.

The palm is Syagrus romanzoffiana, a fine South American variety.

Syagrus romanzoffiana

The nests are way up high – a good fifteen metres or more. Sadly, when fledglings fall or are pushed out of the nests, they can not survive that drop and we get a few fatalities lying around the base of the tree. But every year, we are surprised by just how many birds are occupying their nest apartments way up high. Mark has better identification skills than me so I will take his word for it that there are miners, starlings and sparrows nesting in amongst the fronds but we have not managed to work out how many of each there are. These are all birds that have been introduced to New Zealand.

The rent collector

But what is the kereru doing there, I asked him as I zoomed the camera in on the unmistakeable figure of our native wood pigeon.  Quick as a flash came the reply: “Collecting rent.”

Our Darby and Joan vantage point

 

Down in the water meadows, the Higo iris bloom

Higo iris float above a sea of dandelions in the Wild North Garden

I really like that the Japanese Higo iris are such a big feature of our December meadows yet they almost certainly descend from the Japanese quest for a perfect, single bloom as a focus for contemplation. It is such a wonderful contradiction – that quiet refinement, simplicity and elegance that the Japanese traditionally bring to flowers generally and the wild abandonment of our Tikorangi meadows.

Smaller flowered, white Higo in the park meadow

Higo are not a separate species of Japanese iris. They are hybrids, bred over 500 years, originating from Iris ensata. There are three groups of iris from these breeding lines – Edo, Higo and Ise but the best known are the Higo. Our Higo were given to us by Auckland plantsman, Terry Hatch of Joy Plants, and apparently originated as wild collected seed. Mark had a discussion with Terry about wanting to try naturalising Higo by the stream but the finely bred, named cultivars were not sufficiently robust to survive in a situation of benign neglect. Terry offered up a tray of about 700 germinated seedlings which seemed a bit of overkill at the time. Now we bless him every year. Not all 700 survived, I hasten to say, but we had plenty to play with.

and a much larger flowered white Higo iris 

The blue is less dominant than the purple shades of Higo 

Because our plants are all seedlings, we have a fairly wide range and some clearly show their I. ensata heritage. Others are pure white, pink, almost pure blue and the whole range of violets, purples and lilac.

More Higo iris

I see the oldest plants are now in their ninth year or so of being planted on the banks by the stream and ponds and they perform reliably every year. Given they have stiff competition and receive absolutely no care or intervention, that makes them very robust plants. I tried some in a mixed border at one stage but they were too strong a grower with leafage that swamped out surrounding plants during summer and autumn so I removed them.

Can we have too many Higo iris?

A few years ago, I planted the last of the neglected pots from the nursery down in the area we call the Wild North Garden and this year, some are starting to bloom. They are much more rewarding than the Louisiana iris we grow where the leaf to bloom ratio is too high.

Seedling variation in the Higo iris

From mid to late November through until Christmas, the flowering of the water iris is such a delight. Like over the top butterflies, they float in the air above a sea of buttercups, dandelions, daisies and wild grasses and they truly make my heart sing.

In the park meadow. The Wachendorfia thyrsiflora with its tall yellow plumes has a death sentence on its head – too free with its seeds to keep it by a waterway 

The Wild North Garden – I am waiting for more Higo iris to bloom

Seven long years to bloom and then it dies – Cardiocrinum giganteum

The giant Himalayan lilies are coming into bloom. Cardiocrinum giganteum. It is the biggest of the lily family, hailing from areas like Tibet, Bhutan, Assam, Myanmar, Nepal and Sikkim.  It feels a bit of a triumph that we now have this bulb naturalised here. We haven’t planted any for many years and just allow them to grow where they pop up from seed.

The largest lily of them all – Cardiocrinum giganteum

These are not lilies for the home gardener on a small urban section. The flower spikes often reach three metres here and have been recorded at up to five metres. Fortunately, the stem is such that they can hold themselves up.

Usually six years of foliage and in the seventh year, it puts up an astounding flower spike

The main obstacle for most gardeners is that the bulb takes about seven years before it flowers and then it dies. Fortunately it makes offshoots around the main bulb as well as setting seed but those offshoots can take another five years minimum before they flower and the seeds take seven years. These are not lilies for the impatient gardener. And, while very fragrant, the flowers are a long way up so unless you have a grove of plants flowering at the same time, you are unlikely to get the benefit of scent. In the intervening years, they just form a clump of large, heavy textured, heart-shaped leaves that are reasonably anonymous.

Typically, these plants need cool, open, woodland conditions with soils which never dry out and are rich in humus. Those are pretty specific conditions.

The top photo is one of those really, seriously peculiar plant combinations that are a characteristic of many New Zealand gardens – a self sown Cardiocrium giganteum from the Himalayas, flanked on the right by Pseudowintera colorata (commonly known here as the mountain horopita or pepper tree) with Dracophyllum latifolium behind (both NZ natives) and then what we know as Aloe bainseii but is now, apparently, Aloidendron barberae – the tree aloe from southern Africa. It is a veritable United Nations of plants here.

Tikorangi Notes: underplanting, gardening with perennials and the magnificent nuttalliis

Pretty Rhododendron Yvonne Scott (nuttallii x lindleyi x dalhousiae) with a named clematis but I have lost its name – relevant to the last para on this post and a prettier photo to lead with than the mishmash of a garden bed below 

Not good at all. The addition of roses was a particularly ill-considered decision

I spent a good four or maybe five days taking this unsuccessful garden bed apart. It was first planted about 14 years ago and the original idea was that it continue the theme of the driveway border – mixed shrubs with predominantly hellebores as underplanting. It has never thrived and over the years, its treatment has followed a pattern that many will recognise – random attempts to spark it up that have made it messier and more disjointed.

I lifted everything except the Queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana), an attractive Viburnum sargentii ‘Onondaga’ and Camellia minutiflora. The location is too sunny for the hellebores and they were not thriving, so I planted them elsewhere. And I found why the plants at one end had never thrived. I could only get the spade half way in before I hit what might as well be bedrock. It was the old driveway with very heavily compacted road metal. I recalled that Mark had got the nursery staff to plant that bed when it first went in. Now, our nursery staff were whizzybang at speed-potting plants and doing the hard graft of keeping a production nursery going but gardeners, they were not. I am guessing they chiselled holes just large enough to fit the plants in. No wonder so many failed to thrive. There was nowhere for them to get their roots down.

The aim is to have a carpet of harmonious under planting by the end of summer

I took out any larger stones and rocks I could get out, dug the soil and incorporated compost at a rate of a small barrow-load per square metre. There is still not a great depth of soil but what is there should be better and I won’t try growing any more deeper-rooted plants at that end. When it came to choosing what to replant, I fell back on my mixed border philosophy. When there is a mixture of shrubs in the upper layer, it is better to choose some uniformity in the ground cover layer. The opposite is also true: where there is uniformity in the upper layer of shrubs and trees, it is more interesting to use a mixture of plants at the ground level. It may be a sweeping statement (well, it is) to say that only landscapers, non-gardeners and novices go for regimented simplicity of matching upper layer plants and a single choice ground cover – tidy, visually effective in the immediate stage but essentially dull.

A totally reliable stoeksia that is particularly amenable to being divided and transplanted

Given the feature shrubs and palm are interesting in their own right and the presence of assorted seasonal bulbs, I chose to replant at ground level with the reliable, long flowering blue stokesia which thrives with us, a ground-hugging blue campanula and two forms of our native brown carex grass.  The upright form is Carex buchananii , I think, but I am not sure what the fountaining version of it is called. They are to form the carpet. I like the combination of blue and the mid-brown carex. Then I mulched it all. Now all it has to do is to grow.

May 2019

November 2019

It is quite gratifying to see how much the grass garden has grown since I planted it at the end of May. I am hoping that it will have closed up quite a bit by the time autumn comes. There have only been a small number of deaths amongst the plants – all were  Astelia chathamica and fortunately, I have more plants to hand that I can move to the gaps. The advice from colder climates is not to move perennials in winter because they are not growing and the risk is that the roots will rot out over winter. With our mild winters, this advice does not generally apply here but that may be the case with the astelia. The divisions all had roots when they went in but it may be that some did indeed just rot out before they came back into growth in spring.

My main task in this new garden is staying on top of the weeds. Considering it is new ground, there is not a big weed problem at all and I am determined to keep it that way as it gets established. Weeds getting a hold amongst the fibrous roots systems of perennials and grasses can be a maintenance nightmare. It is better by far to keep them out from the start, as far as humanly possible. Because it is all ground that has been freshly dug this year, it is easy to hand pull those pesky weeds that do try and make an appearance.

Eighteen months to fill in seems a quick result

Even more rewarding is to see the caterpillar garden hitting its stride – nicely filled out, floriferous already, weed-free and colour-toned as I want it. It has taken about eighteen months to get it to this stage. Gardening with perennials is very different to gardening with trees and shrubs. As long as you have plenty of divisions and the ground is well-prepared, the plants can rocket away and fill spaces quickly.

Species selection of R. sino nuttallii, singled out for its unusual pink flush

However, no perennial can compete with the sheer magnificence and stature of the nuttallii rhododendrons that flower for us at this time of the year. These are not often commercially available – at least not the sino nuttallii species. You may sometimes find some of the hybrids around that are nuttallii crossed with lindleyi, sometimes with the addition of dalhousiae. If you find ‘White Waves’ on offer in New Zealand, it is proving to be one of the best of the hybrids we grow – reliable and a good survivor as well as very showy indeed. “Mi Amor’ is also available for sale. The hybrids have smaller leaves than the nuttallii species and are not all as strongly scented  but you may just have to take what you can find if you want to try growing these choice rhododendrons.

Rhododendron nuttallii x sino nuttallii – so the Tibetan form crossed with the showier Chinese form

 

 

 

Six years on: meadow update

It is six years to the very day since we closed the garden to the public. And that means it is six years since we started to experiment with turning the park into a meadow. Up until that point, we mowed it all year – no easy task because it is undulating terrain across about four acres filled with specimen trees and shrubs and a stream. The areas that could not be mown – the stream banks and steepest gradients – were kept short with what we call a weedeater in New Zealand but many others know as a strimmer. It seemed important to maintain a similar level of control to that seen in public parks, even though this is a private garden.

Iris sibirica, Primula helodoxa and loads of buttercups

Six years on, how do we feel? We love it. It often makes my heart sing in ways in which the previous tight control of grass growth did not. It is a different mind-set altogether.

How it was, all mown, trimmed and tidy up until six years ago 

and how it looks today

We weren’t at all sure how it was going to work out. This is good dairying country which means we have verdant grass growth all year round, unchecked by summer droughts and winter cold. We have to mow grass twelve months of the year to keep it under control. And decades of gardening predicated on very tight weed control is hard to overcome. The love of meadows is inextricably linked to a higher tolerance for what are commonly called weeds. Buttercups, daisies, dandelions and Yorkshire fog, we have in abundance.

As it was before 

and as it is now. The orange azalea died and we removed the yellow flag irises on the grounds that they are a noxious weed by waterways

We were inspired to experiment with a softer edged, more romantic approach to gardening by our trips to the UK in particular, allied to growing concern that our approach to gardening carried a carbon input that was closer to a heavy hoof-print than a foot-print. We haven’t set about systematically measuring any increase in wildlife but we like to think that the changed approach is far kinder to nature. And as we age, we are also considering the labour input to the garden, given the fact that we have no plans to move off the property to a more suitable retirement home. We’d rather spend our energies on more constructive gardening activities than endlessly beating grass into obedient submission.

It is not a gardening style that will appeal to everybody. It is not neat and tidy. It does not show off man – and woman’s – ability to control nature to make it conform to the tight standards of suburban gardening. Some may look at it and think that it is uncontrolled, allowing the place to ‘go back’, although that is far from the truth. Meadows in the garden need management. It is not a question of just stepping back and letting it go. We still take out certain weeds, we mow paths, we manage the growth by mowing twice a year (in January and July), plant to enhance the richness of the meadow mix, we keep certain plants free from the rampant growth – so we keep an eye on it but with a much lighter hand.

As it was all mown (and scalped in places) with our much loved dog of the day, Zephyr

There is a problem with the frequent floods bringing unwanted weeds down from upstream which can then get established in the long grass before we have even spotted them. The war against wandering jew (Tradescantia fluminensis) and montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora) will be without end unless upstream residents eliminate them. I am not keen on the docks and there is a nasty carex I dig out. But that is a smaller price to pay than trying to control every plant escape except paddock grass.

Just two years ago, our son cleared both big ponds of water weeds 

and already, they are back with a vengeance. Time to stop fighting them?

The next issue for us is to decide what to do with the two big ponds Mark put in back in the early 1990s. Our son raked them out last time he was home a couple of years ago but they are now congested with water weeds again. I have gone through every few years and raked the weeds out of the stream but it is heavy work and my back no longer appreciates it. All three of us here nurse our backs and wrists these days. I am now thinking that we live with what nature gives us. The stream flows well all year round so maybe we should just let it determine its own path and allow the ponds to silt up and return to bog or swamp. The irises, lysichitons and primulas are happy in bog conditions so maybe we are better to just concentrate of enriching the natural bog gardens rather than trying to keep a larger body of water visible. The stream is high in nutrients from dairy farm run-off (we can tell this by the particularly bright green shades of the weeds growing beneath the surface, as a water ecologist pointed out to us) so the water weeds will continue to thrive.

In another six years time, we may well have mega bog gardens but time will tell.

Rhododendron Barbara Jury 

Rhododendron nuttallii x sino nuttallii in the park meadow

Knitted smallgoods!

Away from gardening for this post. Our local town of Waitara never fails to surprise me. Over the last four decades or so, Waitara has suffered the fate of many small towns with a decline in retail outlets. Most of the main street retailers seem to be either takeaway food outlets or charity shops now with a fair representation of empty premises. So it was that  I had failed to notice the window display in the disused butcher’s shop. Knitted meats!

Red saveloys, larger brown salamis and strings of sausages – pink for uncooked, appropriately beige for pre-cooked barbecue ones

I may have laughed out loud. Here is whimsical folk art on the main street. The windows were pretty dirty and the light conditions were less than ideal, but I offer the best of my photos for your amusement. I think it was the strings of sausages (both raw and precooked and labelled as such), saveloys and salamis that amused me most.

Others may be more impressed by the mince. Or maybe the bacon or chops. All presented on clear plastic trays and covered in cling film as the real produce usually is. It all just seemed like an idea off the square to fill an empty display window but with a debt to historical context. Waitara grew to be more than just a coastal cluster of houses because it had a huge freezing works (meat killing and processing plant). First started in 1881, the permanent closure of the works in 1997 dealt a body blow to the town which took well over a decade to recover from the shock and disruption.

The window on the other side of the locked door contains an eclectic mix of seaside accoutrements plus penguins. A knitted diorama, no less. This may appeal more to children but it was the unexpected cultural and historical context of the knitted meats that took my fancy.