Category Archives: Garden lore

Wisdom and hints

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).


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.


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.


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.

Garden Lore: “Touch the earth lightly”

“Touch the earth lightly, Use the earth gently
Nourish the life of the world in our care
Gift of great wonder, ours to surrender
Trust for the children tomorrow will bear.”

Verse 1 from the hymn “Touch the Earth Lightly” by Colin Gibson and Shirley Erena Murray (1991).
Photo0084 - Copy
Photo0072 - CopyReally it is the first line I like – “touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently” but I added the rest of the verse to give it context.

We went to a funeral this week which we do not often do, I admit. But in this case we both wanted to honour the late George Fuller. George was probably best known in this area as long standing curator of our main central city gardens, Pukekura Park, and as a defender of trees. In this role, he was more successful than we have been recently. His personal passion and his international reputation was in the field of orchids – hence the orchid display at his funeral.

To die at the age of 86, surrounded by a large, loving family and to leave behind a worthwhile legacy is to be celebrated. The selection of the hymn seemed particularly apt for such a gentle, humble man.

What a wonderful epitaph, or indeed a principle to live by – touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently.

Garden lore: another use for gingko leaves

Ginkgo leaves

Ginkgo leaves

Bay leaves – from the culinary bay tree or Laurus nobilis – are so widely recommended as a means of discouraging pantry moth that I assume this lore has been tested by time. I have to admit to not having tried it myself but I think the idea is that you strew bay leaves in your pantry. Given that pantry moth can cost quite a bit in spoiled food, it may be worth a try if you are dogged by these pervasive critters.

I had to burn books. so badly infested were they

I had to burn books. so badly infested were they

What I did not know until I read this month’s NZ Gardener magazine is that gingko leaves are reputed to repel silver fish and whatever moth it is that likes to lay its eggs in books. I shall be trying this but I imagine it will take a year or two before I can comment on its veracity. We are in the process of building a designated library area and this has involved removing every book in the house into stacks. I was a bit shocked to find three titles amongst the teen fiction in our son’s bedroom which were disintegrating due to insect infestation. Poor Philip Pullman and Robert Jordan – such an ignominious end to be burned but inspection ascertained that nobody would ever want to read these books again. I shall be placing ginkgo leaves inside the books that were adjacent to these titles and particularly inside one which is only lightly damaged.

Now I guess the question to be asked is whether gingko leaves will also repel pantry moth.

It was only last year when I was still writing for the Waikato Times, that I featured the fascinating gingko trees.

A brief diversionary activity for moments of extreme boredom

Monet-ish or Monet-esque. Perhaps.

Monet-ish or Monet-esque. Perhaps.

Should you need a minor diversion in your life, may I introduce you to the brief amusement of the DIY Monet site offered by our national museum, Te Papa? The site is quite old and no longer appears to be fully functioning so I had to call upon the skills of a more technically-inclined friend to save my image. He did it by a screen capture and then cropping in, in case you want to save your DIY Monetesque photograph.

Our bridge is weathered timber, not the synthetic green shade favoured in Monet’s own garden at Giverny so far less distinctive as a landscape feature. But no matter, we like it in real life. We made the pilgrimage to Monet’s garden in Giverny last year.

The Monet bridge - one of two at Giverny

The Monet bridge – one of two at Giverny

Our own bridge, pre- Monet-ising

Our own bridge, pre- Monet-ising

Garden lore – the autumn trim of the hellebores

???????????????????????????????I am cutting all the old foliage off the Helleborus orientalis and I am pleased I have my timing right. Few plants are putting out their new foliage yet. We never used to do this. Indeed, for decades, the main hellebore border (about 30 metres long) was just left to its own devices. Then I read about NZ hellebore expert, Terry Hatch, cutting off all the foliage – even putting a lawnmower through them, though you would have to get your timing absolutely right to carry out this approach.

I tried it and the hellebore display was hugely more charming in winter because the flowers were visible and the fresh foliage was light and bright. It also gave more light to bulbs beneath the plants and cleared out the aphid infestations we can get in the foliage. While about it, I weed out the multitudes of seedlings we get beneath. We do not need yet more hellebores in this area which is already quite congested.

Last year, Mark demurred. He wondered if cutting off all the foliage from evergreen plants would weaken them over time. Fortunately, when we headed over to England on our summer garden trip, we stayed with a new friend. Diana is one of those wonderful English gardeners – an amateur enthusiast but with a specific technical knowledge allied to practical experience which exceeds that of many professionals. We were happy to accept her opinion and indeed she does clean off all the old foliage.

I get dirty knees and do it all with grape snips. One year we tried putting the strimmer or weedeater over the bed. While it was speedy, I didn’t like the chewed stems it left and it didn’t do the weeding either. The trick is all in the timing. Leave it much later and it takes much longer because it involves trimming carefully around fresh new growth. The rewards will come in a few weeks because I can see fresh growth and flower stems starting to push through. We used to follow up with a compost mulch but the soil is now so rich in humus that this is no longer necessary.

I only carry out this extreme trimming on H. orientalis. The other species we grow just need an occasional trim of spent stems.

Garden Lore: Another tree falls

Poor old Picea omorika

Poor old Picea omorika

Behold, a fine example of why most trees are best kept to a single leader. A short, fierce storm 10 days ago brought down part of our Picea omorika. This tree is several decades old – five or six maybe  – and is over twelve metres tall.

It reached about four metres before it forked into three trunks so it would have needed a good ladder to deal with the issue then but it is one of those jobs that nobody ever got around to doing. The first trunk was broke out a couple of years ago, having been exposed to wind after damage to a nearby tree. The second trunk has just fallen. Fortunately, while tall and dead straight, the only damage caused was to the flashing on the side of the shed roof. The third trunk is still in place but precariously swaying. It is highly likely it will snap off at some point in the future though we have ascertained the direction it will likely fall and it won’t be too problematic. The loss of the other two trunks leaves it one-sided, exposed and vulnerable.

Some trees have the shrubby habit of branching from the base and putting up multiple leaders. Magnolias Leonard Messell and Apollo are examples of this. Trying to keep these to a single leader is fighting nature. But most trees grow up on a single leader for maximum strength. In terms of long-lived garden specimens, they are stronger structurally and look better if the trunks are not allowed to fork low down. It is a great deal easier to do this when the plants are young than to clean up at the other end of several decades of growth.

The folly of allowing trees to develop multi leaders

The folly of allowing trees to develop multi leaders