Category Archives: Garden lore

Wisdom and hints

Garden lore: protecting arms

Puttees. But for lower arms. We have large swathes of bromeliads that need an occasional clean out of accumulated debris and dead foliage. Many bromeliads have finely prickled edges that can rip arms to shreds and will find the small gap between glove and long sleeves. These are my DIY solution and are equally useful for reaching into many prickly or scratchy plants.

They are just the sleeves from a denim shirt cut to size and elasticised top and bottom and I keep them to hand in my gardening basket. While I find my shredded arms heal remarkably quickly (the reddening and discomfort will disappear overnight if I coat them in that potent  liniment still made by Rawleighs and sold as antiseptic salve), I am mindful that as we age and skin thins, it may be wiser to try and avoid tempting fate. Gardens host all sorts of fungi and bacteria which may not be good on broken skin. I have heard horror stories over the years about bad infections from wounds caused by rose thorns.

The colour match between my puttees and the pair of gardening gloves was mere serendipity.

Look at all those little hooks on the margins of the bromeliad leaves

When a handle is a thing of beauty

Behold a simple thing of great beauty. At least that is what I thought when I saw it leaning against the side of the porch. This is Mark’s designated spade for the digging out of trees and large shrubs. It is not that he is seven feet tall, but that he likes a long handle to avoid having to bend his back. He is a man who has learned the hard way to be seriously protective of his back.

The handle is yew, harvested from a dead tree in the park, hand whittled to size and required smoothness, oiled with linseed applied in repeated thin coats. You can’t feel it in the photograph, but I can assure you it is wondrously smooth and tactile, for nobody wants to get splinters from a spade handle.

Mark has always been a fan of yew as a timber. Back in the days when he was a woodturner, the favourite timber of most was, and probably still is, NZ kauri. That is because it is so easy to work with – in Mark’s words, it cuts like butter. It doesn’t have a particularly interesting grain like other woods, including heart rimu. Yew is not native but it also cuts like butter, so to speak, and has a beautiful grain. It was the traditional timber for longbows, presumably because it is both long lasting and stable. It does not warp and bend out of shape as readily as many other timbers. Just perfect for a long handled spade. I see another long handle being prepared for the drainage fork we use to clear out water weeds.

These examples of yew treen date back a few decades to when Mark was a craftsman woodturner, before his nurseryman, plant breeder days but post his university days.

Yew – commonly Taxus baccata, although there are other yew species.
NZ kauri – Agathis australis
NZ rimu – Dacrydium cupressinum

Garden lore: don’t do this at home

img_3822Well lookee here. When I was submitting three new articles a week to the Waikato Times – that was in the days before syndicated features and the resulting copy that became the newspaper equivalent of elevator muzak – I used to be on constant alert for subject matter. Old habits die hard and I reached for my camera to bring you this example of what not to do, photographed on a street in Auckland’s upmarket Mount Eden.

Don’t. Just don’t do this at home. The homeowner is disposing of lawn clippings by building a small grass mountain around the street tree on the road verge outside. It is not good for the tree and may even kill it over time. Building that mound can cause a condition called ‘collar rot’ – opening up the tree to fungi that attack the bark around the base of the tree. Bark needs to breathe, not be suffocated. Grass heaps also heat up as they start to decompose and that heat is bad for the tree, potentially killing the bark. Then the grass compacts down to an anaerobic sludge which can suffocate the surface roots. All this just so the homeowner doesn’t have to put their grass clippings out in the green waste or to find ways to compost it on his or her own property? Tidiness is not everything in the world of gardening and nature.

Garden Lore – when renga renga lilies go bad.

img_3017Our native renga renga lilies are an immensely handy, low maintenance plant for semi shade. However Arthropodium, most commonly A. cirratum, can run into problems. This is particularly evident this spring which may have something to do with the dreary, cool and wet conditions. I saw it out and about while garden visiting around the region last week, most commonly in well established clumps. The unsightly spotting and markings on the foliage looks as if it is a rust but apparently it is not.

I repeat the advice given back in 2010 from a most reliable source, though regrettably these days, it should refer to “the late George Fuller”.

“Esteemed colleague, George Fuller, tells us that it is not a rust that causes orange blotching on renga renga lilies (arthropodium) but in fact a nematode (or wire worm). These critters can build up in a patch over time so if it worries you, it may be necessary to resort to using a systemic insecticide. A systemic insecticide is one that the plant absorbs as opposed to contact insecticides which only kill with a direct hit. The nematode is actually in the plant and it is the same one that attacks chrysanthemums and black currants, answering to the name of afelenchoides ritzemabosi.”

I did a quick net search to see if this is still current advice but after looking a plethora of sites that declare renga rengas to be largely free of pests and diseases, I figured that they hadn’t seen the afflicted plants in Taranaki this year.

Updating for 2016, we are hesitant these days to recommend the routine application of heavy duty systemic insecticide. We don’t know whether a one-off spray will clean up the plants in a single hit or whether repeat applications, maybe even on an ongoing basis, are required. The alternative courses of action are never quite as straightforward of course.

img_6240Because the nematode apparently lives in the leaf, not the soil, it seems unlikely that badly infested plants will grow out of it on their own accord. Firstly, look at the infected plants and note whether they are the oldest, best established clumps in your garden. Also take stock of any plants showing clean foliage or very little damage. Our course would be dig out and dump the worst affected plants. Clean up and dig over the ground and either replant with clean renga renga lilies or an alternative. If you have clean plants in your garden, these can be lifted and divided. It may be that they are not showing damage because they have developed some resistance. Given optimum growing conditions and increased air movement, the plants are likely to respond with vigorous new growth. If you only have a few affected leaves, then cut them off but you can only compost them if you make compost that is hot enough to kill bugs and diseases. Otherwise, you are going to have to remove the foliage well away from the site to prevent re-infecting your new plants.

Whether you take the quick and dirty course of using a spray or the longer and more environmentally friendly course is entirely your choice. If you have a bad infestation, it is likely you will want to do one or the other because the plants can look pretty awful as they are.

Garden Lore – slugs, snails and baits

“Not all slugs cause damage to your garden. The great grey slug is relatively harmless to your precious vegetables and flowers because it generally eats fungi and rotted vegetable matter and even its other, less welcome cousins. The European black slug has as many as 25,000 teeth. Although it will eat your prized plants, it serves a more welcoming purpose by devouring dog and cat poo and turning it into fertilizer.”

The Curious Gardener’s Almanac by Niall Edworthy (2006).

I do not know if we have the great grey slug in New Zealand, maybe not – though it sounds similar to the large tiger slug that we have a-plenty.

Slug bait is not fertiliser

Slug bait is not fertiliser

While out and about garden visiting this week, I came across this little scene. I photographed it for Mark in the first instance because he has long railed against the practice of using slug bait like fertiliser. But it is a good example and time to remind readers again – slug baits have an attractant in them so you do not need to lay entire carpets of bait in the hope that slugs and snails will trip over one.

It is a poison and will find its way into the food chain so do not be lulled into a false sense of security when the packet tells you it is safe for animals and birds. It also needs to be reapplied after rain. Rather than shaking the box to scatter pellets, keep a pair of disposable gloves with the slug bait box. Tip some pellets in one hand and place 2 or 3 pellets by affected plants (Mark would tell you that a single bait is all you need). Cheaper, more environmentally friendly, better for the birds and more pleasing aesthetically.

Or try little bait stations in badly affected areas – a milk bottle lid filled with a few baits and a cover to keep it dry. We use old paua shells. Note: just three baits to this bait station.

019-copy

Garden lore: chainsaw pruning

“There appears to be a large element of tree worship in us Americans, and anything remotely connected with a tree is approached with a numinous awe. People who are slothful by nature and who never get around to cutting down the peony and lily stalks in November (though this is well worth the labor) and who never divide irises on time, or plant the daffodil bulbs before Thanksgiving, or prune the climbing roses – such persons nevertheless leap into action when leaves fall, as if the fate of the garden depended on raking them immediately. I do not intend to comment on that situation, on the grounds that fiddling with leaves is no more harmful than cocktail parties, marijuana, stock car racing, and other little bees that people get in their bonnets.”

Henry Mitchell, The Essential Earthman (1981).

Camellias severed to bare stumps 6 months ago

Camellias severed to bare stumps 6 months ago

Times have certainly changed since Mitchell wrote the above para. The modest rake is more likely to be a noisy leaf blower these days. Loosely related, I thought some readers may be interested to see the after effects of extreme winter pruning.

Both the michelias and camellias were four to five metres high, stretched and thin as they reached for the light. Because we are making a new garden and have opened the area to the light, we wanted a hedge effect, not a straggly, willowy shelter belt. In winter last year, these plants were taken to with a chainsaw. They were cut off at about a metre in height, in many cases leaving no foliage at all.

Well established michelia hybrids respond to hard pruning with abundant fresh growth

Well established michelia hybrids respond to hard pruning with abundant fresh growth

After about six months and a spring flush, the new growth is phenomenal. We won’t get any flowers this year but we will have a bushy, well established hedge sooner, rather than later.

This extreme action does not work with all shrubs but it can be done with camellias and michelias. It may not work in harsher climates, either, but in our mild, temperate conditions it is fine. The timing is relatively important. It needs to be done well before the spring flush and we find early winter is the best season. It is a hedging technique. The trade off is that you lose the shape of the plant but gain bushy growth instead.

Garden lore – three hedging ideas for 2015

“My garden sweet, enclosed with walles strong,

Embanked with benches to sytt and take my rest:

The knots so enknotted, it cannot be exprest,

With arbors and alyes so pleasant and so dulce.”

George Cavendish (1499 – 1561).

IMG_4441

How to punctuate the end of hedge with panache and style in 2015.

I was taken to see the gardens at The Kelliher Estate on Puketutu Island in Auckland last week. When we say island, it is connected by a causeway. No ferry crossings were required. The gardens have been undergoing a major renovation in the last few years. There is a difference between a restoration and a renovation. The former attempts to recreate the gardens as they were in their glory days. In our climate with rampant growth and a heavy dependence of woody trees and shrubs, restorations are somewhat ill-conceived, in my opinion.

Renovations are a reinterpretation of a garden and in public gardens can range from pedestrian to insensitive, from ego-driven (the modern gardener determined to ‘make his or her mark’) to compromise by committee. Occasionally they are carried out with genuinely creative flair and there were indubitably elements of this showing in the gardens at the Kelliher Estate.

IMG_4438

I was simply delighted by the reworking of the formerly overgrown lilly pilly hedge at the entrance – cloud pruned. With panache. I am no expert on lilly pilly. In fact it is more akin a yawning gap in my knowledge, especially as there are a number of plants which carry this common name. But I am guessing that this particular lilly pilly was the Australian myrtle also known as Syzygium smithii syn Acmena smithii (see footnote). If you are going to try something like this at home, take your time. You can’t rush the process of finding the natural shape of each individual plant. And trim flush to the stem. Nothing looks worse than nubbly elbows poking out all over the place where you have lopped off branches.

IMG_4467

Finally the wave hedging is a device I have seen in UK and Europe but not in this country before. It echoes the natural shapes of the landscape but gives some form without the regimented and straitjacketed predictability of the usual flat topped, formal hedge.

The one key element to remember if you decide to get more adventurous with your own hedges is to ensure that they will tolerate hard pruning and resprout from bare wood if you are going to reshape. Not all hedging plants do and conifers can be particularly touchy.

Postscript: Social media can be very helpful. The following more knowledgeable comment on lilly pillies was made on the garden Facebook page by Andrew from Twining Valley Nurseries
“You’re not wrong with the naming of Lilly Pilly. I’ve been to garden centres and seen the same plant labeled with three different names!
The correct taxonomic names for the 3 most commonly grown Lilly Pilly’s in NZ are-

Waterhousia floribunda (Old name: Eugenia ventenatti or Syzygium floribundum) Common name: weeping Lilly Pilly
Syzygium australe (Old name: Eugenia australis) Common name: brush cherry or Australian rose apple and is the most common.
Acmena smithii (Old name: Eugenia smithii) Common name: Lilly Pilly (or weed!)”

Thanks Andrew.