Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

I have measured out my year in flowers, not my life in coffee spoons (as did J Alfred Prufrock)

As 2018 draws to a close, I decided that I do not have anything to say on new year gardening resolutions that I have not said before. At a personal level, I am resolved to finally complete the two gardening books that have been percolating in my head for several years. This is the first time I have stated that intention publicly. One is at the point of being ready to hand over to an external editor, the other is still in progress. More on them, I hope, as they near publication.

Then the latest posts from a Canadian gardener, Pat Webster, landed in my inbox, charting her garden through the year. I was a bit gobsmacked at four months of snow on the ground. It snowed here once. That is once in recorded history.  I am not sure what I would do in a climate with months of snow. I guess one switches to indoor pursuits.

It is different here where we garden all year round and can expect flowers every day of the year. I have thousands of photographs so finding 12 different garden scenes representing a month each took a bit of effort. It would have been much easier had I just gone for flower close-ups but some readers may like to see the different contexts. Best viewed on a larger screen, of course…

Firstly, January is for lilies. We like our lilies, a whole range of different types, but none more so than the golden Aurelians opening now, to be followed by the OTT auratums which we have in abundance. The new lily border should be a show-stopper this year after our concerted efforts to outwit Peter Rabbit and his extended family, but in the meantime, I give you the auratums in the woodland – planted maybe two decades ago and left entirely to their own devices in the time since.

February is peak summer here, when we get the most settled and warmest weather. And the Scadoxus multiflorus ssp katherinae are just astounding in the same woodland area as the previous photo.  We never planted anywhere near this number. Over the years, they have just gently seeded down and taken over an entire area, so happy are they in our conditions. There aren’t too many people around this country who have scadoxus naturalised in their garden.

March is still summer here although the day length is shortening and the nights noticeably cooler. It used to be a very green time for us, because we have so much woodland garden and there is not a whole lot of high impact flowering in later summer woodland. We went to England three times to look at summer gardens and it is the sunny perennials that flower into this time. It has been really exciting putting in a large summer garden in full sun. I am extremely impressed by the echinaceas which flower from December to April and I have a very soft spot for the blue eryngium, even if I often need to put a stake in to hold them upright.

By April, we can no longer pretend that summer will go on forever. The flowering of the Nerine sarniensis hybrids, the Cyclamen hederafolium and other autumn bulbs in the rockery tell us that time waits for no gardener and early autumn is upon us. We have long spring and autumn seasons in our part of the country.

May brings us the early camellias in bloom, in this case Camellia sasanqua ‘Crimson King’ at the mill wheel bird bath just out from the back door. So too do the months right through to early October bring us camellias, but with advent of camellia petal blight, it is the early flowers that are the showiest, most abundant and the most charming now, which mostly means the sasanquas and quite a few of the species.

June is early winter here. Definitely winter. I could have chosen Mark’s Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’ which flowers on and on through the winter months, but instead I picked Vireya Rhododendron macgregoriae.  This particular plant has a special history for us and, unusually for a vireya, it flowers like clockwork every June and July. Most of this plant genus are less predictable in their flowering times, despite their trigger being day length, not temperature. As a result, we have vireyas flowering twelve months of the year, though we do have to place them in frost-free locations on account of them being subtropical.

July is our bleakest, coldest month. But there is light ahead. July brings us snowdrops and by the end of the month, we have the earliest blooms opening on both the deciduous magnolias and the early michelias. Nothing shouts spring more than the earliest spring blooms. Mark would like some galanthus varieties that flowered later in the season as well and he has tried all that are available, but none of them compete with Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’ for showy and reliable performance and the ability to naturalise in his bulb meadows that are a long-term project.

August – yes there is a lot of snow on our Mount Taranaki. All the better to frame our Magnolia campbellii. There is well over 30km between the maunga (as we call the mountain) and our tree but each year I get out with my camera to close up the gap, as viewed from the path down to the park.

I gave September to the prunus, the flowering cherries. It is probably the campanulatas that are the showiest and they flower in August and I had already allocated that month to magnolias. But we grow quite a range of flowering cherries and this one is down in our wild North Garden, an area that we find particularly charming at this time of the year.

October is mid spring. And for October, I chose the clivias yellow, orange and red, seen here with Hippeastrum papilio and dendrobium orchids in the Rimu Avenue. As I selected photos, I realised I was leaning to what we might call our backbone flowering plants – the ones we have a-plenty. Not all of them. I had to skip the azaleas, the michelias, the campanulatas and the hydrangeas owing to my self-imposed restrictions of one per month.

November brings us peak nuttallii and maddenii rhododendrons. The rhododendrons start in August, sometimes the first blooms as early as July, and flower well into December. But the beautiful nuttallis and maddeniis peak in November and are a source of great delight.

Finally, December is marked by the Higo iris down in the meadow in our park. What prettier way to end the calendar year? And gardening being what gardening is, we start the cycle again with a new year. Best wishes to all readers for a happy and rewarding 2019.

The New Zealand Christmas Tree (but not all are equal)

The story of a New Zealand Christmas is inextricably bound up with the annual blooming of our native pohutukawa trees – Metrosideros excelsa. Truth be told, they only occur naturally as far south as northern Taranaki where we live and Gisborne across the island, (but not in the middle where it is too cold for them). Fortunately, most of the country is happy to go with descriptor of the New Zealand Christmas tree.

The Legacy of the the Lazy Nurseryman. The flowers are more brown than red.

But not all pohutukawa are born equal. No sirree. As we drove to town a few days ago, Mark looked at the trees planted by a local farmer along the roadside and dubbed them the legacy of a lazy nurseryman. They were planted well and are growing well and the farmer has taken care of them, fencing them off from grazing stock and keeping them an attractive shape. The pity is that he (or she) was supplied with plants that flower more brown than red so they will never mature to the glory that could have been. The problem, Mark explains, is that some nurserymen are just too careless about where they gather seed and fail to select the best performing plants with the showiest colour.

Some flower abundantly but without great colour and some just don’t flower at all

Our local town of Waitara is like Pohutukawa Central – there are many (many, many) trees planted, at least in part because there aren’t a lot of options for trees that will grow in windy, exposed coastal conditions and be fairly bullet-proof (vandal-proof, really) as unprotected street trees. But not all those trees flower well. Some don’t flower at all, really, and some that do are patchy with undistinguished colours. It is called seedling variation. When you come across a tree that is covered in bloom and a clear red in colour, it just leaps out at you, visually speaking.

The vibrant tones of this specimen stood out from a considerable distance away

I felt I was channelling my late parents-in-law as I drove around Waitara yesterday, looking at different trees. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they systematically evaluated many of the trees around the river bank and surrounding streets, noting which were the best bloomers year after year and the best colours. At least three went on to be introduced commercially by Duncan and Davies Nursery. Somewhere in the family archives, I have some of Mark’s mother’s diary notes of those observations. They read something along the lines of: “Good bright red to the left of Mrs Markham’s house, 18 xxxxx Street”.  I am not sure if they also measured the length of the flowering season though they did record which ones flowered well every year, rather than every second or random years.  There are so many handsome trees in the wider area here that it had not really occurred to me until very recently that the flowering season is but short – probably only ten days at peak. Ephemeral, I saw it described as recently. It is just that those ten days are in the lead-up to Christmas and a good tree is a show-stopper for that time. Not unlike the Japanese cherries, when you think about it. They too have a very brief peak season but an entire festival celebration has evolved around those days.

I took this photo out of the car window (Mark was driving) as we went through a busy intersection in New Plymouth. It is clearly a named selection and superior from the start

The lesson to all this is that if you are only going to buy one or a few pohutukawa, buy named varieties which will have been produced by cuttings so they will be identical to the parent. If you are going to buy quite a few, at least select a reputable nursery who can tell you what the seed source was. If they can’t tell you that, forget it. If you are going to raise your own from seed, start with the best flowering specimens. Pohutukawa don’t grow true from seed so you will get seedling variation in the offspring but if you start with the best parent, the proportion of good offspring you raise will be much higher.

If you are wondering about raising your own plants from cuttings, it isn’t at all easy to get them to root unless you start with juvenile material (from a young tree or one that has been kept pruned hard, not big old established specimens with lots of woody growth). If you are going to go down the route of raising your own material, get out and record now which trees have flowered all over the plant and in a good, clear red shade. It takes a commitment of time and effort to raise your own plants and it just seems a waste if you end up with murky, brownish flowers or worse, one that doesn’t flower at all.

Personally, we are not convinced by the Kermadec pohutukawa (Metrosideros kermadecensis). It is a different species and rather smaller growing and often sold as more desirable because of that compact habit and its extended flowering season. Yes, you will get flowers over months, but you only get a few flowers at any one time and the whole thing about the pohutukawa is that beautiful mass of bloom around Christmas. Ditto the yellow forms of M. excelsa. Yes, they are really pretty and they have an interesting botanical history of their own but they won’t give you the wham-bang mass display of the New Zealand Christmas tree.

Just choose good ones if you plan to plant any.

The meadow, as we enter its sixth year

We are now entering our sixth year of managing our park as a meadow. Note the word ‘managing’. This is not just leaving it to its own devices but a much lighter touch than the previous mowing and weed control we used to practice. And in December, as in previous Decembers, my heart just fills with joy at the sight of the Higo iris in bloom. I love all times of the year in the garden – there is always something that delights me – but never more so than the iris meadow in the lead up to Christmas.

We have learned a lot in the five years past and I am sure we will continue learning. I was disconcerted to see cleavers moving in to a couple of areas. I just looked up its botanical name –  Galium aparine, which I have never even heard of before so I assume everybody knows them as cleavers. At least they are an annual weed that can be pulled out.

The tradescantia, pretty enough in flower, but arguably the worst weed of all

More alarming is the incidence of Tradescantia fluminiensis, better known as Wandering Jew. Mark has spent countless hours getting rid of this weed down the years. When we bought the property across the road 25 years ago, we acquired a stand of native tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa for overseas botanists) which was completely carpeted in tradescantia. It was a proud day when Mark announced  he had beaten it with a programme of determined eradication. Alas, he may have beaten it on our properties but every time we get a flood, more washes down from further upstream and every, wretched little bit grows. When we kept the grass short, it was easy to spot and remove immediately but in long grass, it damn well hides until we suddenly find another patch that escaped our notice. This will be an ongoing battle.

Having a stream flowing through brings responsibilities and these are weighing somewhat upon us. We worry that we are likely to be blamed for every escaped ornamental plant that establishes downstream, even if at least some are washed down from further upstream. The shiny leafed angelica, Angelica pachycarpa, somewhat more prized in overseas gardens but seen more as a weed here, has introduced itself from an upstream property.  Don’t believe the website that declares: “This is a bizarre and wonderful species of Angelica from New Zealand, and still fairly new to North American gardens”. It hails from Portugal.

I removed all the flag iris from by the water when I found out what a dangerous weed it is here, capable of forming solid islands of floating vegetation, blocking streams and estuaries.

To be honest, we figure that if the beautiful Higo irises establish themselves downstream, that may not matter. They are no risk that we can see. We worry about the Primula helodoxa, which are enormously rewarding as flowering plants but set prolific amounts of seed. We try and dead head them but there are so many that it is a hit and miss process. We are now thinking we should pull out the ones growing in the stream banks and contain it further back on dry land so the potential to seed down in the water is reduced. I am not getting too obsessed about them though. We have them near where the stream enters our place and while there are a few plants appearing further down (still on our place) it is not such a thick carpet as to shriek ‘noxious weed’. Besides, above our helodoxas, we can see we have seedlings that can only have come down from upstream neighbours.

Wachendorfia thyrsiflora – a triffid

We are, however, worried about the weed potential of Wachendorfia thyrsiflora.  It is very handsome, statuesque, even. There is no doubt about that. But it sets prolific amounts of seed and if you dig the plants out and leave them lying on the ground, they do not die. I discovered this. It is one we think we need to get back from the water. It is one thing managing a triffid of a plant on our place, it is another letting the seed fall into flowing water and potentially establish all the way down to the ocean.

Past experience has taught us that we can not get away with the traditional annual mowing of the meadow, just once a year in autumn. Our grass growth is so rampant that we have to do it twice and it seems that late January (so, mid-summer) and around June (mid-winter) are the optimal times.

Mown paths through the meadow. The clean bark on the right is a crepe myrtle

We have not done much yet to enrich the meadow mix. We are still waiting and watching to see what establishes itself. But Mark mentioned Verbena bonariensis as meadow option. It has light airy growth which would fit the meadow look, flowers for many months and is much loved by the bees. And it is an enthusiastic seeder though it remains to be seen whether it will self-seed in such a competitive environment. And I want more big, white daisies. I am trialling one in another area of the garden to see if it will make a good meadow candidate. I wouldn’t mind if pretty Orlaya grandiflora could get itself established.

Currently, I can be found in the afternoons down by the water, digging out the weedy carex and docks that are shooting up into flower, thinning the primulas and battling the wachendorfias. It is heavy work, sometimes muddy, but the setting is one to gladden my heart.

I have taken to describing our approach to gardening as similar to slow cooking – slow gardening. It is just that we measure it in years, not in hours or overnight.

Fashion vs style

I was shocked. Really shocked. There I was in the supermarket and I picked up a gardening magazine I had no intention of buying. But as I skimmed it, I came across an article that told us to rip out all our grasses. The ‘Oudolf prairies’ and the entire New Perennials movement were out. Shrubberies are back.

The writer qualified this statement by saying that she was just joking but the damage was done. There are my new borders just coming into their own with their heavy dependence on grasses and perennials, much influenced by what we have seen in the UK and Europe. And while this whole naturalistic gardening movement has been a major force in Europe and to some extent the USA for over 15 years, it hasn’t really reached New Zealand gardens yet, but is already, allegedly, passé.

It did at least get me thinking on the difference between fashion in gardening and major gardening movements.

Fashion or trends are driven by marketing, as much in gardening as in clothing or décor. And that is all about selling commercial product. If you can convince customers that they need this hot new item to be on trend, that makes money for everyone on the supply chain from producer to retailer. Even better if you can convince them to replace a whole garden in order to be up with the play, at the forefront of fashion.

Gardening movements, styles or genres are different, though it can be hard to tell apart at the time. It takes hindsight to get the bigger picture. Until early last century, ornamental gardening was largely the preserve of the rich and powerful. Ornamental, domestic gardening at the individual level didn’t really take off until after WW1. But we can look back and see several significant gardening movements, or styles.

The idea of garden rooms has its most recent roots at Hidcote and then Sissinghurst. It made design – in this case, the design of a series of linked but separate spaces – applicable to the home gardener. Many people are still working to the garden rooms principles today.

Cottage gardening, as exemplified by Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor, is a separate gardening movement that remains popular nearly eight decades later. It is very relevant and applicable to a domestic scale of gardening which became popular as the grand estates declined.

I think the classic rose beds probably warrant the status of genre rather than transient fashion, though they have certainly fallen from favour now and look very unsophisticated and barren by today’s standards. Those are the island beds of just roses, hybrid teas mostly, planted with little regard for colour and standing in splendid isolation with good air movement and bereft of underplanting. There are many practical reasons for growing roses in this manner and it is only in more recent times that most of us have decided the aesthetic deficiencies outweigh any practical consideration.

Treating the garden as an extension of the indoor living space (all that indoor-outdoor flow) is often attributed to the English designer, John Brookes in the latter half of the twentieth century. That is here to stay, though taken to ridiculous lengths by OTT Australian luxury design with their outdoor kitchens and living areas.

Crystal ball gazing, I would suggest that the contemporary tropical garden in more northerly areas of this country – the Balinese hotel style, as I have sniffily dubbed it, may turn out to be more movement than transient fashion. It fits the climate, the lifestyle, the aesthetic and the maintenance regime of many gardeners, particularly in Auckland city. Not so good down south, though, so it is quite localised.

Then there are the fashion gardens, more driven by magazines and other media then anything else. Remember the dreaded dwarf conifer gardens with their scoria mulch laid on black plastic?  No. I don’t want to remember them too much, either. The same goes for the short-lived reign of the ghastly minimalist gardens at the start of the new millennium. Three large rocks, a yucca, a sanseveria and some scleranthus surrounded by an ocean of lime chip, fine gravel or – if the budget ran to it – prettier coloured pebbles. Or, horror beyond horror, a mass of tumbled, coloured glass pebbles if you were of a certain demographic. Aqua coloured glass shards were much favoured as I recall. Minimalist gardens may have drawn on the subtle and spare refinement of the traditional Japanese garden but they lacked any cultural context or complexity in their trendy manifestation and died very soon after being born.

While the home production of fruit and vegetables seems destined to continue no matter what, the current craze for *food forests* is, I suggest, more fashion than movement. It won’t be long before people realise that so-called food forests in temperate climates don’t actually produce much food at all – at least nowhere near as much as more utilitarian vegetable gardens, berry enclosures and orchards can provide. You wouldn’t want to be aiming at self-sufficiency with a food forest but you can at least claim to be on trend at the moment.

Which brings me to the ‘Oudolf prairies’ (he has done many things but never prairies) and the current fashion for plantings incorporating a fair swag of grasses. Movement, not fashion, I say. These are but one part of a major swing in gardening style towards a more naturalistic and sustainable approach. It is part of a whole spectrum which takes in meadows, even prairies if you have the right climate, the Sheffield School, environmentally friendly and sustainable gardening as practiced by a large swag of British, European and American designers and leading gardeners. It is soft-edged, should be lower maintenance, sitting comfortably with Nature as opposed to being imposed upon it, sustaining a healthy eco-system and a harmonious balance between the natural world and the aesthetic many humans crave. Enhanced nature, romantic gardening, naturalistic gardening – call it what you will. It is a movement, not a transient fashion because it is underpinned by a philosophy that goes well beyond the marketing of plants and landscaping accoutrements.

I won’t be ripping out my grasses and perennials to replace them with dwarf shrubs from the garden centre. Style trumps transient fashion every time.

What a difference a year makes (flowering through 12 months)

November 2017

When I first started writing about our new sunny borders last year, a reader commented that she would be interested to see how we managed year-round interest in them. Because, in colder climates, and particularly the UK where we drew inspiration for this project, gardens are not expected to perform all twelve months of the year and most of the herbaceous material is fully deciduous. Most gardeners in cold climates put their gardens to bed for the coldest months and retire indoors to their very warm homes, or at least to the shelter of the garden shed if they are determined. Expansive herbaceous plantings leave huge gaps in winter and nobody expects them to bloom all year round.

Early December 2017, still very new

It is different here. So much of the plant material we use is evergreen and we expect to be wowed by something every week of the year. I tried to make sure that I photographed this new area each month to track the performance and today I went through and organised the photos by date so I could see the sequence. February is missing! What happened in February? I am hoping I just miss-filed February’s photos because I am sure there was plenty going on in the gardens, it being full summer.

March 2018

It is also interesting to track the growth as the borders filled out. Planting was mostly done in late winter and spring last year – so July to November.  I had to stop over summer because the hose doesn’t reach that far so I could only plant after rain. From memory, we had a particularly wet spring followed by an unusually hot, dry summer extending well into autumn.

April 2018

Rather than list what is in bloom each month – plant lists can get very dull – I would comment that even I am surprised at how much bulb material I have added to get that seasonal spread and I shouldn’t be surprised because it is me who has planted every single one of them. Ixia, babiana, sparaxia, narcissi, snowdrops, crocosmia, moraea, albuca, Aurelian lilies, ipheion and more have all found their home here but in clumps, not drifts or dots.  Even the somewhat coarse blue Dutch iris and a pure yellow gladiolus that looked crass in the more refined rockery look right at home in this bigger and bolder planting.

The stand-out plants for length of blooming season are the echinaceas (from December to May) and the kniphofias (from October to April). Verbena bonariensis, alstromeria and hemerocallis also give extended blooming to justify their places.

May 2018

So what happens in the quietest months of the year? In the late autumn of May, the grass plumes are beautiful. The echinacea, salvias and plectranthus are the major providers of colour. Finally I have a place for those giant, thuggish salvias that can reach well over two metres tall and they certainly come into their own in April and May.

June 2018

June is the quietest month and the grass plumes of the miscanthus are particularly beautiful with the lower light angles. But already the new season is starting. We have a backbone of pretty Camellia yuhsienensis with its michelia-like blooms and it starts flowering in June.

July 2018

July is our bleakest, coldest month but already there are the camellias in full bloom (we have five of them scattered along one side) and the extensive avenues and surrounding hedges of michelias (particularly ‘Fairy Magnolia White’) are coming into flower. This is also the month when our most successful snowdrop – Galanthus S Arnott – flowers. I planted just a few in one patch but I now think I might bulk up one section with it because it would give a winter white garden with no other flower colours in evidence.

August 2018

By August, we are warming up. The early narcissi are in flower; my trial patches of ‘Peeping Tom’ made me smile each time I saw them. Many plants are already springing into growth and by September, we are in full swing again.

Dutch iris and moraeas in September

The garden is still in its early stages, just a year down the track. We have yet to do the paths which I want covered in soft honey coloured hoggin, which I discovered is crushed limestone. Mark still wants to move the propagation houses often seen to the side of the photos and that may take another year or three. But the garden borders, they are getting to where I want them. I am at the tweaking stage now, the foundations are all in place.

October 2018 The propagation sheds to the left are planned for removal

None of this would be possible had I kept to a very restricted plant palette. It is the range of material we can grow that makes these borders work all year round. What knits it together visually are the repeated large blocks of key plants like the Iris sibirica, yellow Phlomis russelliana, Dietes grandiflora and Albuca nelsonii and the rhythm of a limited range of large grasses threaded throughout. Within this solid framework, other plants are in defined clumps, not scattered cottage-garden style.

There is no hard landscaping and next to no ornamentation in these borders and I have no plans to add any. The plants can carry the day here. Every day.

November 2018 

And just a year ago – November 2017

Not just from Siberia – the sibirican irises

“I think I prefer the sibiricans now to the bearded irises. Much easier care.” So spake a friend who will, for unrelated reasons, always be known as Cemetery Sue here, as we stood looking at my swathes of Iris sibirica in the new borders. In the second year since planting, their display has been fantastic.

I only had three different varieties and they are just one of those good performing, utility plants that I took for granted before. Sue has since brought me a fourth one sourced from the inimitable Bill Robinson (yes, he and Anne are still gardening and growing plants in Tikitere, near Rotorua). Now I wouldn’t mind a few more.

Probably a species selection, rather than a controlled hybrid

Iris sibirica, or the Siberian iris, is very hardy, undemanding – so low maintenance – and fully deciduous which means that it emerges afresh each spring. I had assumed it came from Siberia, and it does grow there but its natural distribution is from northern and central Europe right across to Central Asia (which includes Siberia). In the wild, it is a damp woodland plant, preferring full sun to part shade. Presumably, woodlands in that part of the world are largely deciduous. The received wisdom here has always been that they grow well in heavy soils and are ideal beside ponds and waterways, though they do not grow IN the water but BESIDE it. In Taranaki open gardens, they are usually combined with the bright yellow Primula helodoxa because both grow in similar conditions and flower at the same time, conveniently at the peak garden visitor period.

Caesar’s Brother, of course

I wasn’t sure how they would go en masse in my new sunny borders which don’t have particularly heavy soils, though we get spring and summer rains during their growing season. The answer is that they are sensational, growing larger and stronger than I anticipated in the freshly cultivated soil. The erect foliage is between waist and chest height and the flowers held above that. They have taken my breath away. Even the white and yellow form with tissue paper thin petals (it may or may not be ‘White Swirl’ or ‘Snow Queen’) which I had thought a little insipid where I had it planted previously, was terrific in early spring. We have the dark ‘Caesar’s Brother’ (who doesn’t?) but it was the other blue that is the real showstopper with its much larger flower, longer season and free flowering ways. I wondered if I could put a name on it and that took me down a rabbit hole on the internet. I had no idea there was so much passion for the sibiricans.

A sibirican hybrid?

It turns out that this iris has been crossed extensively – very extensively – with others in the iris series Sibiricae – which is one step up the iris family tree from the species I. sibirica. You can tell by the cultivar names that the breeders of this genus are passionate about their subject matter and quite possibly American. I say that because after looking at the photos on line, I wonder if our large blue variety is ‘Blue Moon’ or maybe (wait for it) ‘Over in Gloryland’. Mark is hoping for the latter.

The big blue and the new yellow – these will be named clones. We just don’t know the names.

The new yellow that Sue brought me from Bill Robinson still had a flower on it and is very pretty. Bill had lost the name but, like the other three, it will be a named clone. I wonder if it is ‘Butter and Sugar’ or ‘Dreaming Yellow’. My guess is that ‘Caesar’s Brother’ and the white one I have are both species selections, so pure Iris sibirica while the larger flowered mid blue and new yellow are named hybrids from a breeding programme. It appears that the sibirican hybrids are not unlike the so—called Dutch irises and indeed the Japanese Higo irises in their complex breeding lines which have mixed up the genetics so much that the debt to the original species is quite distant. Before any readers get all purist, yes it is important to keep the world’s gene reserves going and not to lose the original species, but the hybrid vigour that comes from mixing up the original genes is often what gives us better performing, more reliable garden plants.

Our Higo iris season is just starting and that is a time of special delight.

 

 

Blurred lines

One of the access paths linking the park to the avenue gardens

When you garden on a town section, boundaries are usually clearly defined, most often by fences or hedges. Some lucky gardeners are in a situation where they can visually *borrow* a wider view of the neighbours or maybe some bush or landscape to draw the eye out from the rigidly confined boundary. More often, the situation imposes limitations that mean the garden has to be inward looking and confined to its allotted space. Some people like that sense of a contained space, accentuating it further with tall fences. Whether you see that as security and privacy or self-imprisonment depends on the individual.

It is different when you garden in the country and that clear definition of an end point is arbitrarily imposed on a larger landscape. Or not, as the case may be.

Scadoxus to the right, calanthe orchids to the left along with self-sown ferns and tree ferns – subtropical woodland, I guess

I had never really thought about what Mark was doing in one area where our avenue gardens meet the area we call the park. I had vaguely noticed that he was drifting down the hill with some plantings of pretty choice material like some of the interesting arisaemas, calanthe orchids and scadoxus, but in a casual, naturalistic manner. We were in that area together recently when he commented that he was attempting to blur the line between highly cultivated garden and wilder areas, to transition seamlessly. It was like a penny dropping for me. Of course that is what he was doing.

Arisaema dahaiense!

This inspired me to get into that area where I have never done anything  before, bar the occasional quick tidy-up. It was a perfect place for a few clivia plants. I am trying to rehome the last of the clivias red, orange and yellow that had been potted up by the last of our nursery staff and that must have been back in 2011. They are amazingly resilient plants. Some were in very small planter bags and all that has happened in the intervening years is that the pots have been moved out of the former nursery area and beneath trees. They have not been fed, let alone nurtured and loved but still they are green (some more greenish than dark green), many are flowering and seeding. Enough is enough, I thought. These need to planted out.

Having seen the occasional garden that suffers from the ABC syndrome (another bloody clivia, mass planted), I have been trying to drift them through the shaded areas, mostly areas that are loosely maintained at best. It takes longer to plan a drift than a mass planting and drifting a couple of hundred clivia plants without making them a mass takes a while.

Yellow seeds from last year’s flowering, visible here, will flower yellow.

Not for us all the yellows in one area, oranges in another and reds elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with that. I have seen it done and it is what I describe as the ‘landscaper look’, usually done with plants that have been purchased and are identically matched, being the same clone. It is just not our style. We prefer a looser look, using seedling raised plants so there is subtle variation,  the mix of colours being more suggestive of the gentle hand of Nature enabling plants to seed down in situ. Which they will do over time – we have clivia seedlings popping up around the garden but to leave it all to Nature will take longer than we have left. We are just hurrying the process along by a decade or two when we use established plants.

If you are going to raise your own seed, it pays to start off with the best parents. This means selecting the ones that flower well every year and have the best flower heads of the type you want. For showy garden plants, we want ones with fuller heads rather than too many with the hanging bells. The red clivia seed will eventually bloom orange and red; yellow clivias come from yellow seeds. True. I am not sure what colour seeds the peach ones have (we only have a few in the new peach shades) and we don’t have any of the green and white clivias in the garden yet.

When I think about it, blurring the lines are the tool we use to get to a seamless transition between different garden spaces. The soft transitions within the garden are all part of refining our thinking about how important it has become to us, personally, that we garden confidently with a strong sense of place, as referenced in this piece I wrote in March last year.