Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

A freestyle garden

WisteriaShiro-Kapitan’ with alstromeria, perennial forget-me-nots and aquilegia

A friend came out to help with a garden task this week and she gave some advice that has had me thinking ever since. To be clear, I am fine with receiving advice from friends who have experience. I may or may not follow it.

“Your perennial garden needs structures in it,” she said. ‘To encourage people to go in and view it.” My immediate response was ‘nooooo’ but it has stayed in my mind. She was referring to the Iolanthe garden, a bit of an experiment on my part and the last of our new summer garden series. I pondered the fact that I was really pleased when Mark had said the previous day how much pleasure the Iolanthe garden was giving him and I thought about why I rejected her advice as an immediate response. There are two reasons.

The first is that my friend was still thinking in terms of a garden that is open to the public. That is why people needed to be ‘encouraged’ to leave the driveway and venture into that area. She had a large garden herself that was open to the public until a few years ago when they sold up and retired to a smaller city garden. At that level she is right; structure and focal points draw one in to a space.

At last I have a place for hefty plants like foxgloves – but none of the common dark pink one. White or pastelle, please. With Chionocloa flavicans and an equally hefty, obscure lobelia.

But we live here. It is our garden. We don’t need such aids to draw us in. And I realised that at some point in the seven years since we closed, I stopped gardening for show, for public display when the garden is open. I now garden solely for our pleasure, our delight. That is probably why it has been such a shock to me over the last few months to go back to preparing the garden for opening this week. It is a very different focus. I don’t feel I have been gardening. I have been tidying, titivating, garden grooming – and I really don’t find that fulfilling.

The combination of Mark’s hybrid arisaemas with self-sown parsley, lychnis and bluebells amuses me. In this somewhat chaotic planting. There are also a few trilliums and Paris polyphylla with the rhubarb and Joe Pye weed.

Secondly, I realised that the Iolanthe garden didn’t make sense to her and that was interesting. She saw it as ‘a perennial garden’. No, I said, it is a transitional perennial meadow and she didn’t accept that the place for a meadow – transitional or not – is so close to the cultivated, defined areas near the house. Meadows, I pointed out, don’t have structure and focal points as more formal gardens do. I would never plant a straight perennial garden as I have planted this area.

I must accept that in terms of a garden that is open to the public and therefore needs to have some coherence that is easily understood by a reasonably perceptive garden visitor, the Iolanthe garden falls short. Amongst other things, if we were still open for most of the year, it falls short on design. The paths are so narrow that they are single-file and, at this stage, there is no through path for visitors so they must exit the same way they entered. Plans are underway to move the propagation houses which will allow for more flow and a wide central pathway but that will take another year or two.

This colour combination offends me greatly

But none of this matters because we are no longer open, bar the upcoming ten days. My greatest concern at the moment is the disastrous combination of this dusky pink bulb with the cheerful, if garish, calendulas. I think the bulb is a tritonia – maybe T. squalida, but feel free to correct me if I am wrong. I planted them but the calendulas are volunteers. It will be easier to discourage the calendulas from that particular location than to lift the bulbs.

I am not sure yet whether the combination is going to offend me so much that I cut the flowers off the bulbs for our opening. If you are planning on visiting us next week, you may like to step off the driveway and into the area to see.

It is the first year for this garden so it is still getting established but what I envisage is a casual sea of flowers, heavily populated with bees and butterflies, from spring to autumn.  With some grasses. Straddling the lines of a perennial garden, a cottage garden and a meadow – so a transitional meadow. That makes sense to both Mark and me, at least, even if this freestyle planting confuses others.

Our garden will be open from Friday 31 October until Sunday 8 November from 9am to 5pm daily as part of the Taranaki Garden Festival. We are not open outside these days.

A short story in four photos

Lloyd was trimming the lollipop michelias at our front entrance this week, to have us looking smart for opening the garden on Friday. We only trim them once a year.

At the end of the day I looked and was surprised to see that he hadn’t finished. The only reason I was surprised is because he is very task-oriented and likes to finish whatever he is doing. Mark and I tend to flit all over the place, multi-tasking, so his focus is a good foil in our team. There are six lollipops clipped from Fairy Magnolia Blush and one and a half umbrellas from the unnamed seedling we have by the courtyard entrance.

This morning he explained. He only just noticed Mama Blackbird in time and he didn’t want to destroy her home and kill her babies. This is exactly how both Mark and I would have responded, too. So if you are visiting our garden during the Taranaki Garden Festival, that is why one bush right at the entrance is only half-clipped.

I remembered this happening before, when I took this photo in the same plant, and in other years. Because the photo is dated back to 2012, I googled the life expectancy of a blackbird. I wondered if they lived long enough for it to be the same bird returning to her favourite position. FIFTEEN YEARS. Blackbirds can last 15 years, presumably if not predated by a cat or anything else. So it may indeed be the same Mama Blackbird raising another clutch. We can accommodate her in relative safety here.

The 2020 election in flowers. Mostly.

 

Red, of course for the Labour Party and Jacinda Ardern with a resounding vote of confidence that exceeded the hopes of even their own supporters. That is Rhododendron ‘Noyo Chief’.

(Red – centre left)

Green for the Green Party. I put the giant red pepper mill that our son bequeathed to us before he headed overseas (and a very good pepper mill it is, too) beside it yesterday. It was not a premonition, more serendipity but today it stands for the resurgent Māori Party who won a seat against the odds.

(Green – left wing with a strong focus on the environment and social justice. Red – but a darker shade than Labour red and with black – for the only party whose prime focus is on Māori affairs)

The yellow Doronicum orientale daisy is for the Act Party – one star and now nine additional members of parliament, some of whom must be as surprised as the rest of us to see themselves there.

(Yellow – our most right wing, libertarian party)

Bluebells, wilting, past their prime and going to seed for the National Party. But, like bluebells, they will rise again, refreshed, at some stage in the future.

(Blue – centre right but leaning more right than centre lately).

And the black ashes of defeat for the demise of New Zealand First. No matter one’s personal opinion of its leader, Winston Peters, it seems sad to witness the demise of such a characterful and long-serving MP in such an inglorious manner.

For overseas readers, we have proportional representation in NZ and a history of very stable coalition governments. This is the first time since we opted for this system that a single party has received such an overwhelming mandate that they can govern alone without needing the support of other parties. It remains to be seen whether the Labour government will choose to govern alone or whether they will opt for a cooperative approach which would see them bring the Greens and probably the Maori Party onto the government benches.

 

And that is a wrap from what seemed like an interminable election campaign in this year of Covid.

Generally unenthused by green flowers and other garden observations

Mark has never been a fan of green flowers. I asked him why and he replied with utter simplicity, “because I like colour”. As I have observed before, green is colour neutral in a garden situation. Maybe Hippeastrum papilio passes muster because it has quite a bit of red in it and has some hefty flower-wow-power but his preference lies with the glowing red of H. aulicum.

Hippeastrum papilio

I am pleased with H. papilio. We started with a single bulb and now have two good sized patches of it with a profusion of flower spikes this year – at least a dozen on the point of opening in one area alone. It is just patience, time and lifting and dividing that gets a single expensive bulb to a significant block – or an extravagant budget if you want a quicker response. We grow our hippeastrums in woodland conditions because the narcissi fly stay out in the sun so the bulbs don’t get burrowed out by narcissi fly larvae.

We have plenty of green hellebores – Helleborus ‘Sternii’, H. argutifolius and H. foetidus feature heavily in the woodland Avenue Garden – some green arisaemas and a single green orchid but generally I see Mark eyes glaze over with disinterest when green flowers are praised by others. He will go as far as white fading to green or white with streaks of green – but predominantly white, thank you.

Helleborus sternii
I think I was having difficulty getting a good photo in the garden of Helleborus foetidus and, to be honest, it looks more exciting staged
Just the one green orchid but it has a certain grace and style
Yellow clivias, we have a few. Quite a few really.

Some readers may remember when the first yellow clivias became available here, retailing for up to $50 a plant, as I recall. I think about this as I pull out the self-sown seedlings and discard them as surplus to requirements. If you want to raise plants from seed, if the seed is yellow, the plant will flower yellow. Red seed gives orange or red flowered plants. Now the fashion appears to be for the new green flowered varieties, but not here, for reasons already stated. I wouldn’t mind some richer yellow ones but I have only seen one in another garden. The pale yellows can be a bit insipid en masse but really sing when combined with orange and red clivias. Pretty peach clivias would also be a nice addition and are now available but haven’t come our way yet.

The trimming of the Podocarpus parlatorei in the summer gardens

Our focus is entirely on getting the garden ready for opening. Mark is trimming the Podocarpus parlatorei to pillar shapes and he is welcome to this job. It has to be done with secateurs and loppers more than clippers to get the main shape formed. Hopefully it can be done with electric clippers in the future once the shape is defined and the plants have bushed out so it is foliage that needs to be trimmed and not woody branches. The top knots are because he wants to stretch them over to form an archway in time. There are six of them and as the chief shaper is currently incapacitated by a bad shoulder and a cracked rib, it is taking him some time. Notice the old shade cloth spread beneath to capture the mess. Lloyd does the same when he is trimming hedges. It only takes a moment to spread a drop sheet (old sheets or curtains do the same job) yet it makes the clean-up so much faster.

My goal today is to finish down in the park. It is all about tidying in that area, but selective tidying because we like a looser, more natural look in that area. Then it is back up to the top gardens for the final round with fingers crossed that we get no major storms between now and October 30.

Down in the park tidying up so I get to enjoy the wisteria, bluebells and rhododendrons
Rhododendron ‘College Pink’ is both very large and very pink
Following the pink theme, ixias in the new borders
Finally, the bird bath – well used, particularly by tui. It is the outer mill wheel from a grain mill. I used to worry that it wasn’t level until Mark pointed out that is to that small birds can also use it without fear.

Counting down to Festival – 25 days to go

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Admiring the scale of the Monstera delicoosa climbing a massive rimu tree

We had a film crew in this week, complete with *actors*. The garden was just a venue – the filming is for a major community funding trust but it was more fun than I expected. I was impressed by the gusto shown by the willing participants, if somewhat amused to hear one admiring the ‘snowdrops’ as he walked past a pretty clump of white Dendrobium (orchid) ‘Bardo-Rose’.

In the sunken garden they whipped out their phones because, as they declared, that is what garden visitors do nowadays and how right they are. I don’t do Instagram because it is geared to mobile phones and we lack phone reception here so I continue to use a camera, not a phone. But here we have the videographer filming the visitor photographing the other visitors photographing the blue Moraea villosa.

I was riveted by the drone and hope we may get to see the drone footage at some stage. Now I know who to get in to do some drone footage next year when the magnolias are in full bloom – a time when I am guessing we would be looking our most dramatic and colourful from above.

What was particularly affirming was the wildly enthusiastic response to the new summer gardens where we finished the paths this week. I look at this area and I see gardens filled with plants that I hope will do a whole lot of growing before we open in a month. They looked at the whole and went ‘wow’. One of the crew declared that it reminded him of Hamilton Gardens. This was a compliment. I do not doubt that for a moment. I was just a bit taken aback because I had not thought we were emulating the themed gardens that are enormously popular public gardens in the city of Hamilton. We are a private, domestic garden. This has been achieved on a shoestring budget by three people, albeit with a lot of experience.

Trilliums in meadow conditions

Sometimes I feel as though I am living with a pixie. In this case, a pixie who has been out planting trilliums in the meadow. It is of course Mark who has both raised the plants and then planted them. Last year I spotted a couple. As I tidy up the park in preparation for opening, I must have come across about 20 of them this week.

We have trilliums in the garden. Growing them in long grass is an experiment but so far it is working and they are continuing to get a little larger each year, rather than fading away.

There is a lesson in this. If you want to experiment with choice plants in a meadow, it helps to raise them yourself. You wouldn’t want to be buying a score – or more – of them to experiment with.

Oh look! How very 2020. My 1950s washing line (a single wire held up with a bamboo prop) with washable facemasks hanging like bunting and two linen tea towels that were sold as a fundraiser in aid of the Australian bushfires last summer. It is not that we are wearing masks at this time, but that our scientist daughter has crafted masks for her parents in two styles with added, optional, washable filters. I was washing them before putting them safely to one side – prepared, just in case.

For overseas readers, NZ has reachieved its status of no community transmission, with any Covid cases caught in quarantine at the border – so most of the country is free from all restrictions on movement and crowd sizes again. We have our fingers crossed that we remain free from any Covid cases in the community for the garden festival at the end of the month and hopefully well beyond. If one is going to be confined to one’s home country with no overseas travel, New Zealand seems to be one of the best places to be at this difficult time. May you all stay safe, wherever in the world you are.

Finally a few photos of the season. I struggle to get good photographs of the swathes of bluebells here. We are just past peak bluebell and they are so pretty even if the Spanish bluebells and hybrids are inclined to be so enthusiastic that they border on being problematic in some areas.

I finally got down to tie in the wisteria to the high bridge. They are quite a bit reduced in size this year as a result of the work we undertook on the bridge but still very pretty. I use black twine because, of all the ties I have tried over the years, synthetic black twine lasts the longest and is the least distracting the eye.

Rhododendron Noyo Chief

We flower rhododendrons more or less from August to the end of November. This is Noyo Chief. It is an undeniably handsome red, even if big reds are not my personal favourite. It is certainly a good performer on a healthy bush and what more can one ask?