Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

Redoing the auratum lily border

Also known as the golden-rayed lily of Japan

The lily border is a great delight from mid-January on when the enormous blooms put on an entirely OTT display and the scent hangs heavy in the air. I planted it four years ago and looked at it this summer, thinking it needed a bit of attention. There were two or three areas which looked a bit sparse and others with a multitude of smaller bulbs starting to compete in the crowd. I shall lift and divide, I thought. I knew it would be a big job and thought maybe a solid week or ten days would do it.

Some thirty lineal metres of lilies

More fool me. The lily border is about 30 metres long and up to 2 metres wide. A few days in and I worked out I could achieve about 1.5 lineal metres a day. I had a lot of time to do the maths, you understand, and the time stretched out on account of my two trips to Tauranga and a week off with cataract surgery. It became a very boring exercise and it was through gritted teeth that I persevered until I reached the end this week.

What was moderately interesting was analysing the bulbs I lifted. I planted them all as single bulbs at about 20 centimetre spacings coming up to four years ago. That meant a lot of bulbs. Say 50 square metres all up at 25 bulbs per square metre – up to 1250 bulbs. Even if it is only 40 square metres of actual area in bulbs, that is a 1000. I didn’t buy them. Mark did some controlled crosses, picking good parents, raised the seed and put them in his vegetable patch for future use.

Ready to split down the middle, with two stems that flowered

Some bulbs had not increased much and were just setting babies on their stems. Some had clearly grown from seed in the first year or two before I started deadheading the border to reduce seeding.  Others were large bulbs with two flowering stems last summer and clearly ready to be split apart.

A full cluster of bulbs formed over just four years
You can see some of the small bulbs which would have developed into another ball of congested bulbs

Others had become clusters of bulbs sticking together like a soccer ball, yielding 12 to 15 bulbs from medium small through to large. They were remarkably impressive for just four years. Mark tells me this is the end result of those bulbs that set lots of babies down their stem, usually just below the level of the soil down to where the flower stem emerges from the bulb.

I split all the multiplying bulbs apart, replanting just the flowering sized ones into the freshly dug bed, each covered with a generous scoop of compost before returning the soil and then the aged mulch that I had raked to one side before digging. I aimed to get the bulbs fairly deep – up to 20cm down because if they are planted deeply, they are better at holding themselves up without staking. There is no way I am going to be staking 1000 lily stems. We retain the spent seasonal foliage on site to replenish the soil so I stripped any remaining leaves and cut most of the stems into short lengths about 5cm long so that they will rot down quickly. We finished it off with a tidy top layer of wood chip.

The smallest bulbs were discarded. The smallish ones that will take another year or two to flower, I gave away until I could find no more takers. Zach planted the rest of the littlies back in Mark’s vegetable area for me. It is my emergency supply, I told him and he laughed. Having just planted five rows – fairly short rows, I admit – he felt I should have plenty for any contingency.

Very bare, but done and tidy, in anticipation of next summer

We were served Lilium brownii in China when we were there in 2016 but I had not realised until Mark asked me to do a net search that all true lilies are edible and L. auratum is a traditional food in both Japan and China. With so many auratum bulbs here, we tried one. I broke the bulb apart into its component scales,  washed them thoroughly, tossed them in olive oil and roasted them. They are perfectly edible, texturally similar to chestnuts and with a flavour best described as inoffensive. They might be more exciting in a stir fry, preferably with added garlic but they are not sufficiently tasty for me to want to add them to our diet on a regular basis.

In fact, all parts of the lily are edible but I will not be harvesting the fresh shoots as an early summer green and eating the massive flowers seems a bit daunting. But should we get hit by famine, it is comforting to know that we have a generous additional food source here we can harvest at will.

I am a bit unconvinced at the thought of eating the flowers

A road trip: from Tikorangi to Tauranga and back. Twice.

Destination Tauranga

Family matters have necessitating me driving to Tauranga twice in the past couple of weeks and on each of those four road trips, I have been struck by how interesting our northern entrance (and exit) is in terms of landscape. The same can not be said for the road to the south, unless you are a keen dairy farmer, but that northern access will never get boring for me. Sure, the roads are not streamlined highways but I don’t mind the twists and turns because a lower driving speed gives more opportunity to take in the surroundings.

For those who are geographically ignorant of this area, Tauranga is about four and half hours drive time and takes me from the farthest reaches of the west coast northwards and right across the island to the east coast.

Native tree ferns and nikau palms in the regenerating bush

From the Uruti Valley just up the road from us and Mount Messenger (more hill with windy road than actual mountain), we enter ponga – native tree fern – territory but I didn’t stop to photograph them until I reached Tongaporutu. There, the regenerating native bush has a heady mix of nikau palms and pongas which are distinctively New Zealand in flavour.

Tongaporutu and the typical black sands of Taranaki

The view of the Tongaporutu tidal estuary is one that is near and dear to my heart. Mark’s parents built a bach there back in the late 1950s which we took over for a number of years. A bach, you may ask? A bach is the North Island term for what is called a crib in the South Island – modest precursors to what is now known as the more upmarket holiday house. This is an area that I know well. You may notice the black sand – iron sands are a feature of the Taranaki coastline. The sand gets so hot in summer that all locals know to wear footwear and – I am not exaggerating – if you take your dog to the beach with you, you have to carry the poor dog over the dry sand to avoid burning the pads on their feet! On sunny days.

The folded hills of Rapanui, just north of Tongaporutu

I love the folded hills just north of Tongaporutu and never more so than in the early morning or late afternoon light.

The Awakino River. The little hut by the riverside is a whitebait stand. You can see the spread of pampas grass across the river flats.
It should be our native toetoe, not Argentinian pampas, seeding down with the native tree ferns.

Let’s talk about Argentinian pampas grass. Again. I saw them flowering all the way from Taranaki to Tauranga and there is no doubt that those fluffy duster blooms are gloriously eyecatching at this time of the year. But goodness, it is a dangerously invasive weed. From memory, I think the Taranaki Regional Council had an eradication policy on it several years ago – as in, it was illegal to even have it growing. But it seems they gave up on that as an unrealistic goal and these days it is just banned from propagation and sale, as opposed to requiring compulsory removal. You can certainly see the effects across the countryside, nowhere more so than on the hillside immediately south of the Mokau bridge. It is rampant.

Rampant pampas just south of the Mokau bridge
Pampas has taken hold even on cliff faces

One popped up in my twin borders here and I have no idea where it came from because there are certainly none of the cream form growing anywhere near us. Presumably the seed blew in from quite some distance away or it may have come in with another plant. I dug it out as soon as it became clear what it was. While we grow some ornamental plants that environmental purists raise their eyebrows at (campanulata cherries, agapanthus, Stipa tenuissima, Lilium formasanum, for starters), they are all plants that we can and do control from spreading. Pampas grass is in a different league altogether. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is in flower and seed head, we don’t want such a dangerously invasive plant in our garden.

Once through the Awakino Gorge, we leave the coastal forest and sea behind to head inland and the countryside changes dramatically. This photo doesn’t do justice to what suddenly appears as big country, called the King Country – sparsely populated hillsides receding into the distance as far as the eye can see. It is a grand landscape in its own style.

The papa rock, or blue grey mudstone, of coastal Taranaki changes to the limestone rock of Waitomo. I have never heard the name of this limestone valley with its distinctive cliff faces and rock formations just north of Mahoenui, but I always look forward to it. In another life, I would love to have bought a tract of land here simply to plant and landscape an appropriate garden around those strong rocky features. That might have been a fun project.

The railway cottages of Te Kuiti

Next up is Te Kuiti, a small country town where I always stop for a coffee at Bosco’s. It being a two hour drive from here, it seems the right time to break the journey. Besides the coffee, it is the line of original railway cottages that grab my attention. It started as a railway town and these cottages were built up and down the country by NZ Rail, in its heyday.  

These days, Te Kuiti prefers other branding removed from its railway history. From the north, it declares itself as the shearing capital of the world which is a fair indication that its farming history lies in sheep, not cattle. From the south, however, it lauds its most famous son – Colin Meads. He was one of our most revered rugby players. I always notice this sign and finally, in the interests of research, I turned off the bypass to go and find the statue. It was a little… smaller than I expected. But I am not a follower of rugby.

Rugby legend, Colin Meads
The giant pukeko has a much smaller sign pointing in its direction and is not signposted from the main road

To be honest, I like the giant pukeko in Otorohanga, the next town up the line, more though I didn’t get the angle quite right to show the scale. You have to go on the heavy traffic bypass to find this unexpected sight. The pukeko is an Australian swamphen. It is uncertain whether it introduced itself to these isles or whether it was brought here by the first Maori who arrived in canoes but its arrival dates back many hundreds of years. Today it is equally admired for its gawky character and remarkable survival skills and loathed for the destruction it can cause in gardens and in agricultural situations. We have a little pukeko colony in the North Garden and I like them for both their character and the fact that they live in the ornithological equivalent of a village and raise their young in creches where responsibility is shared amongst the adult birds.

Fairly typical Waikato

And so to the Waikato where the landscape becomes quite tame and managed again (dairy and equestrian country) and the autumn colours are beautiful at this time of year. Being inland, they get cooler nights and the sharp drop in temperatures which triggers deciduous trees to change colour. The roads are straighter, wider and better formed as befits the sharp increase in traffic density. From here, I concentrate more on safely negotiating the heavy traffic than in observing the passing countryside.  

On the return journey, I breathe again and relax as I turn off the busy roads to head down the more interesting roads home.

Daphne in white

Daphne Perfume Princess White

A new release! It has been a while since the last new Jury plant hit the garden centres (though there are more in the pipeline) but the latest one is here, albeit only in New Zealand at this stage. What is it? A pure white daphne – the white form of Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’.

Our new white daphne – ‘Perfume Princess White’

Had it been me naming this new daphne, I would have called it Daphne Snow Princess but it wasn’t which is why it is Daphne ‘Perfume Princess White’ which is at least descriptive. And it is true that it is like ‘Perfume Princess’ except in colour so it has the very long flowering season, the ability to flower down the stem, larger individual blooms, fragrance, vigour and health of its older twin sibling.

The original Daphne Perfume Princess, showing the typical colouring of D. odora

New Zealand gardeners love their white flowers but the rest of the world tends to prefer colour, especially those who live in areas which are under snow in winter.

I am told it will be available in Australia towards the end of the year and other countries will follow as stock is built up.

Just a reminder that this is a non-commercial site and if you want this plant, you will need to go to your local garden centres. We stopped mailorder in 2003 and stopped selling any plants at all in 2010. As we are removed now (retired) from production and distribution, I can’t even tell you which garden centres near you currently have it in stock (yes, I do get asked this sort of question on a frequent basis). All I can say is that if you are keen to get a plant, you are more likely to find it in one of the mainstream garden centres, rather than smaller specialist ones or nurseries. And supply will be limited in this first year of release. It is worth having, though. I can say that, at least.

Postscript: Sorry to sound grumpy. It is true, I do get a bit grumpy answering emails and phone calls from people who assume that because I write about a plant, they should be able to order it from us or, failing that, I can advise them where they can source it. Even from overseas, at times! What is it, I wonder, about my site that makes people think I am trying to sell them stuff?

From vintage menu cards to prole drift

I was recently gifted a set of four menu cards from the S.S. Monterey in 1938. That faux Gauguin look may not appeal to some. Indeed, the whole mention of Gauguin is a minefield with what we know now. I like the colour and vibrancy of these, even while understanding it is a sentimental take on South Pacific maidens. I think the insight into days gone by is fascinating, even more so when you consider that these items were retrieved from the Luggate dump.

Luggate is a very small settlement in Central Otago which has recently undergone a period of rapid growth to reach a population of 648. There wasn’t a whole lot of information about Luggate on line but I did find this delightful, though irrelevant quote, from the Otago Daily Times:

”I think one of the biggest changes was when the cricket club took over the domain [in the mid-1970s] because it used to get cut once a year and was used to make hay,” Mrs Anderson laughed.

Anyway, that is where these menu cards were found, presumably in the days when it had an old-fashioned dump. I had to take one of the cards out of its frame because it had slipped and the inside revealed the date and the cruise liner. There was a lot more information about the S.S. Monterey on line than there was about Luggate. It was a luxury ocean liner first launched in 1931 and built to promote travel from USA to the South Pacific, including New Zealand. It was repurposed as a speedy troop carrier during World War 2 before returning to its cruise ship role, although it took over a decade for the refit from troop ship back to ocean liner.

I have never been on a cruise and frankly, the prospect of choosing to holiday on a modern behemoth makes me shudder. Plague ships, a friend of mine calls them and that was before Covid and the Ruby Princess and Diamond Princess. Besides, Mark suffers from seasickness to the extent that even short ferry rides can be problematic. But I am guessing a modern cruise does not resemble the privileged luxury of this earlier ocean liner.

The abbreviated wine list (‘Complete Wine List Available on Request’) is sourced from France – only French champagne, darls – Germany, Australia and just Chianti from Italy.

The food menu is likely to have been table service but not cooked to order, looking at its contents. It certainly looks extensive and impressive, ranging from Hawaiian Frog Legs to Apple Cream Pie, but I think our ideas of gourmet food have evolved in the last 80 years. The appetizers contain such delights as Canape of Bloater Paste, Sardines in Oil, Smoked Liver Sausage and Emrelettes. I had to Google Emrelettes – a trademarked brand of tinned grapes that have been peeled and de-seeded, tinted green and flavoured with Crème de menthe. So now you know, too, in case it ever comes up in a quiz.

I am cooped up at the moment, having just had cataract surgery. So I am not allowed to garden or to bend or lift anything heavy for a full week, leaving me with time on my hands. The insight into a luxury cruise of privilege had me looking online for photos of early commercial passenger airflights. We may laugh at the rattan chairs (chosen because they are lightweight?) but oh to have flown in the days of s p a c e and table service. I couldn’t find the photo that I have seen previously of the hot carvery being wheeled down the aisle that fresh meat may be sliced individually as required. It is all such a far cry from the utility economy class – cattle class – that most of us fly these days – or did, until the beginning of last year. Flying has certainly lost its glamour down the years.

Why have flying and, cruising lost their glamour? It is simple: because they have become accessible to the hoi polloi, the plebs, the common people. It is the process of democratisation – ‘the action of making something accessible to everyone’. It is clear in many aspects of the modern world we live in: leisure, flying, fashion… even gardening.

I have written often enough about the desire by many New Zealand gardeners to emulate the garden styles of the rich and powerful, usually historical English gardens but with forays into other European styles from the past. I still like this piece I wrote on prole drift and I am not at all sure that a whole lot has changed in the ten years since I published it. But who am I to complain, being a direct beneficiary of the process of the democratisation of gardening?

The three stages of feijoa season: from anticipation to desperation.

The teaspoon is there for scale. These are good-sized fruit.

We had lunch with friends last week and she of that household was determined to rehome surplus feijoas with us. In vain did I assure her that we have a more than bountiful supply at home, the moment we admired the generous sized fruit from one of her trees, she was loading them into a bag for us. As we left, she spotted more fruit that had fallen and was busily gathering them. “She left no feijoa uncollected” would be an apt epitaph, I decided.

Feijoa sellowiana is native to temperate South America but is probably the home fruit tree most universally grown in this country – sometimes described as either the most democratic or most socialist fruit. This is because once the fruit starts falling, it comes in bucket loads. At the start of the season, enterprising children often bag them and leave them out in an honesty box for passers-by. This is the seasonal phase of feijoa anticipation.

Soon the anticipation morphs into phase two of feijoa abundance. The fruit has a short shelf life and is not suited to transportation so efforts to grow it commercially have generally been less than successful but this rarely matters because it crops so heavily and is so widely grown that there is only a market for the first fruit of the season. During the abundance phase, busy little Squirrel Nutkins around the country are freezing stewed fruit, dehydrating it, baking feijoa muffins and loaves and making feijoa chutney. Newspapers and social media are full of recipes to use up the surplus.

All too soon, a condition best described as feijoa desperation takes hold as our nation reaches the point where you can’t even give the fruit away. This is certainly true in the North Island and the upper South Island. I am not sure how widely grown they are further south but they have a wide climatic range and will grow in most temperate areas.

For those wondering what to do with some feijoas, I can recommend the following recipe which came down my Facebook feed. I failed to note whose recipe it is but I am pretty sure it came from a leading yoghurt supplier – maybe Anchor?

Frozen feijoa yoghurt

1 ½ cups frozen feijoas

2 frozen bananas

1 cup yoghurt

½ tablespoon maple syrup.

Whizz it all up in a food processor or blender.

That is it. That is all you need to do. Eaten straight away, it is like a delicious soft-serve icecream but without the high fat and sugar content. Frozen for two hours, it is more like a firmer icecream. Frozen for longer and it sets rock solid so you need to take it out of the freezer to soften. My advice is to free flow the fruit on a tray, not, as I initially did, freeze them stuck together in a container. It is easier on the food processor.

At least, in our act of culinary appropriation, we have not renamed the feijoa. This is not true of the tamarillo, also from South America, (Solanum betaceum), the kiwifruit from China (actinidia) and the ‘New Zealand cranberry’ which has no relationship at all to actual cranberries but may instead be Myrtus ugni syn Ugni molinae or Psidium littorale – both from South America.

For overseas readers who have not encountered our fruit of NZ socialism, I am not sure how to describe the taste of feijoas. How would you describe the taste of an apple or a pear? A feijoa tastes, fruitily, like a feijoa.