Category Archives: Seasonal garden guides

Weekly garden guide, In the garden this week, In the Taranaki garden

In the garden this fortnight: Thursday 29 March, 2012

A fortnightly series first published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

The little known Rhodophiala bifida

The little known Rhodophiala bifida

We keep talking about sustainable gardening here. For us, sustainable garden is twofold – both managing the maintenance of a large garden with a small labour input (wouldn’t we love legions of skilled gardening staff?) but also following garden practices which are not damaging to the environment. To this end we make our own compost, mulch heavily, use a mulcher mower, eradicate or control plants that threaten to become invasive, shun chemical fertilisers and hardly use sprays at all to keep plants healthy. We have a few plants of exceptional note that warrant a touch of insecticide, but generally, if a plant can’t grow well in good conditions, we will not persist with it. A few more roses are destined for the incinerator as I cull further. We do use glyphosate for weed control and Mark lives in fear that it may one day be ruled environmentally unacceptable because we would find it very hard to maintain standards without it.

The enormously useful leaf blower

The enormously useful leaf blower

But our biggest environmental footprint here is the internal combustion engine – the lawnmower, weed eater, mulcher, chainsaw, water blaster and motor blower (leaf blower). We console ourselves with the thought that we are only a one car household and that car often has only one outing a week so maybe that compensates for CO2 emissions. The motor blower is a huge timesaver for a big garden. We started with a cheap handheld one but progressed to a backpack model. It is possible to sweep and groom one’s way right around the garden at walking speed. That is an awful lot faster than doing it with a leaf rake, broom and barrow. As we hurtle at alarming speed from deeply disappointing summer into premature autumn, the blower comes into its own. Fine debris gets dispersed (it does generate dust) while larger leaves can be hustled into discreet areas to break down and rot.

The autumn bulbs are starting. At the moment the little known Rhodophiala bifida is looking terrific as are the red paintbrush blooms of Haemanthus coccineus (the plant many readers may know better as elephant ears). The lovely blue Moraea polystachya is coming into bloom, along with Cyclamen hederafolium and the early nerines are open. These seasonal delights offer some compensation for a summer which never really got going.

Top tasks:

1) As perennials pass over and many fall over, we need to do a tidy up round of the garden borders. Because our temperatures are mild here and we have soils which never stay waterlogged, we can and do lift and divide perennials most of the year. There is still time for plants to re-establish before winter temperatures stop growth.

2) Where repeated use of the blower has led to too much of a build up of debris (mostly in our hellebore border), I need to get through and rake off the surplus for the compost heap before we add this season’s leaf drop.

The music of Mongolia

Anda Union in the garden

Anda Union in the garden

The unusual experience, highly likely to be unique in New Zealand, of hosting Anda Union, playing the bygone music of ancient Mongolian tribes in the garden at Tikorangi. For more on this event, please go to our Tikorangi Diary.

In the garden this fortnight: Thursday 23 February, 2012

The natural look can take a surprising amount of effort and intervention

The natural look can take a surprising amount of effort and intervention

We have been making a major, combined effort to return our natural stream closer to something resembling pristine condition. I say natural stream because it is entirely natural where it enters and leaves our property but in between we manipulate it quite a bit. We have ponds, we play with the levels to create little rapids so we have the sound of water running and we have total control over what happens with flood water when we get torrential rain – achieved by a simple weir, flood channel and stopbanks. What we don’t have control of is the build up of silt and invasive water weeds.

What started as a pleasant summer activity reducing the water weeds (Cape Pondweed, oxygen weed and blanket weed are the worst), has grown to be something more major. We have hand pulled and raked most of the weed out. The clumps of streamside planting (mostly irises but also bog primulas, pontederia and a few others) are all in the process of being dramatically reduced in size. We hadn’t noticed quite how large they had grown in the years since they were first planted. The build up of silt in the water channel – up to my knees in places – is being stirred up and then flushed through to settle in the ponds. To flush it through requires holding the water back and then releasing it in one swoosh. To do it properly requires the building of a second, simple weir. Once all the silt is in the ponds, we will hire a sludge pump to clear it. Trying to stay on top of water weeds (none of which we introduced ourselves) is an ongoing task. We are thinking a bit more regular maintenance may keep the silt under control. Our access makes getting a digger in very difficult and the mess afterwards is such that we prefer to do things by hand.

The end result is that we will have a natural looking stream again. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to achieve and maintain a natural look in a garden.

Top tasks:

1) Continue reducing mossy cover and lichen on rocks and paths in the rockery. In our humid climate, we have continual moss growth and while some of it softens hard lines and adds a certain look, too much of it obliterates lines altogether and makes the place look unloved. I use a wire brush and I know I will probably have to continue doing it for the rest of my gardening life here.

2) And on the theme of having too much of something, no matter how good, I need to finish my radical thinning of the black mondo grass (ophiopogon) and the cyclamen hederafolium which seem determined to try to choke each other out. The mondo grass goes on the compost heap. The large cyclamen corms I am laying as ground cover in an area where I have given up on both Rubus pentalobus (orangeberry) and violets which both proved to be too strong growing.

A fortnightly series first written for the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

In the garden this fortnight: Thursday February 9, 2012

A fortnightly series first published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

The only justification for growing seeding campanulata cherries - feeding the scores of tui in late winter

The only justification for growing seeding campanulata cherries - feeding the scores of tui in late winter


A rash of germinating campanulata cherries

A rash of germinating campanulata cherries

We are very cautious about invasive plants here. I know there is an old cliché that says a weed is just a plant in the wrong place but in a large garden, we can’t afford to have out of control triffids. If a plant starts to look dangerous, it probably is. If it is a prolific seeder and the seed is dispersed by birds, it is even more problematic. The campanulata cherries fall into this category and if it weren’t for the scores of tui they attract to the garden each spring, we would do away with them. The seeding bangalow palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) is also a source of angst. The same goes for the Himalayan Daphne bholua which doesn’t just seed. It also suckers below ground. If we lived near a national park or adjacent to a native reserve, we would feel morally obliged to review our hospitality to these ornamental plants.

We are nowhere near as tolerant of wayward perennials and annuals. Forget-me-not may be pretty but it is aptly named. We have been weeding it out for years here and still it stages a comeback. The orangeberry (Rubus pentalobus) had to go when it formed an impenetrable mat after just one year then started climbing and leaping to extend its territory – but never fruited. Some of the ornamental tradescantias (wandering willies) are also invasive. We have a very pretty blue flowered form but it sets prodigious quantities of seed and is popping up in thickets many metres away. The remains of the arum lily Green Goddess still require regular attention to get rid of the last remnants of tiny rhizomes out of the ground.

Where we have plants which set miles too much seed, like the granny bonnets (aquilegias) and the sweet williams (dianthus), we try and deadhead straight into a bucket. From there, they either go to the bottom of a hot compost heap, out with the rubbish or on the burning heap. Composting alone does not kill seeds unless you manage your compost in a way that generates considerable heat. While we don’t mind a certain amount of seeding down of pretty plants, we like to keep them confined to particular areas and don’t want to spread them everywhere when we use the compost as mulch.

I am very fond of eryngiums

I am very fond of eryngiums

Top tasks:
1) Persuade Mark to head out with the chainsaw and cut down some of the self seeded pongas. We don’t regard these as weeds because they are native, but we end up with too many of them. We have them as raised beds in the rimu avenue, where some are now 50 years old. I want to extend the constructions along further and feature more bromeliads. I have never learned to use a chainsaw and am terrified of them. Mark is equally worried by what I could do with one if I became confident so has never encouraged me to learn.
2) Mark has been raising perennials from seed in the nursery and I need to get onto planting these out. I was particularly pleased to see a tray of eryngiums – blue sea holly. It is a little bit prickly but so very pretty. Blue flowers are my absolute favourite. It would have been better had we got onto planting these out earlier but they are perennial so should grow on to star next summer.

Ponga (tree fern) trunks, used to make raised beds andwhich have lasted for five decades already

Ponga (tree fern) trunks, used to make raised beds andwhich have lasted for five decades already


In the Garden this Fortnight: January 26, 2012

A fortnightly series first published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

The dreaded Onehunga weed needs active management

The dreaded Onehunga weed needs active management

Onehunga weed is that innocent looking but prickly interloper to the lawn which makes walking in bare feet a misery. It is an annual weed and the prickles are part of its seed setting cycle. We had an invasion of it in some areas and rather than spraying, we tried scalping the lawn just before Christmas. By scalping, I mean cutting on a very low level and removing all the clippings to the compost heap. We normally mulch the clippings back in to the lawn. The lawn looked patchy for the next few weeks but the Onehunga weed was gone – including the new crop of seed heads. There is a risk element to this approach. Had we then struck a prolonged period of high temperatures and sun, we would have had to have started watering the lawn or watched a dust bowl develop. Scalping a lawn in early to mid summer is not usually recommended. As it happened, we had plenty of torrential rain to green up the lawn again.

You can spray for Onehunga weed (though you need to do it earlier in the season before the plants flower and set prickles) but we are increasingly reluctant to use lawn sprays, leaning to the view that maintaining one’s lawn chemically is getting close to environmental vandalism. Recent research from Massey has found a new strain of Onehunga weed which is resistant to the usual lawn sprays -another warning, perhaps, about gardening strategies that depend on chemical intervention. The weed generally germinates in autumn and grows through winter to flower and die in summer. If you have a lush, healthy lawn, it will find it harder to get going in competition with established grasses. Lifting the mower a notch or two higher can help keep a lawn in better condition (a scalped or shaved lawn is never a healthy lawn) and we are big advocates of using a mulcher mower, thereby avoiding having to feed the lawn. Where we need to over sow or renovate areas, we use homemade compost rather than proprietary fertiliser. Our lawns don’t look like bowling greens but they are generally healthy and green.

Onehunga weed is shallow rooted so if you only have a small area of grass, you can hand weed it. It is always better to get in early before it spreads – which it will do at alarming speed if you ignore it.

This one is auratum Flossie - all the lilies are opening now
This one is auratum Flossie – all the lilies are opening now

Top tasks:
1) An emergency staking round on some of the top heavy auratum lilies. We grow a lot of these for summer fragrance and blooms. Because they are garden plants and not show blooms, we support the flower heads on neighbouring plants where possible, but some just have to be staked. Home harvested, fresh green bamboo stakes are less visually intrusive than bought bamboos stakes. We shun plastic stakes but will use rusty old steel on occasion.

2) The rose garden is looking tired. I have major plans for a renovation of this area in winter but will start by lifting and dividing some of the stronger perennials, potting them to planter bags and keeping them out of sight and under irrigation while they recover. It takes many more plants than anyone ever expects to furnish a garden which has been gutted out. I need to start now to have sufficient plants to do a major rework and replant in winter.

In the Garden: January 5, 2012

A fortnightly series first published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

I am very selective about container plants these days

I am very selective about container plants these days

As summer takes hold, I am grateful that I have dramatically reduced the number of plants I grow in containers. I am not particularly reliable at hand watering and there is nothing worse than feature plants in pots, troughs or containers that stand out because they are gasping for water, drooping and defoliating badly. It is also very difficult to get water into potting mixes which have dried out completely because the water just flows straight through. A squirt of detergent can act as a surfactant and help water absorption. Because I only grow bulbs, the odd large bonsai or choice shrubs in pots, I never add water retention crystals. With our high rainfall, these products keep the potting mix too wet, rotting out the roots and the bulbs. This is particularly so in winter when plants don’t want to live with their roots sogging in cold, wet conditions. The only time I have used water retention crystals was in my hanging basket phase (it passed quickly) and when I tried seasonal pots of annuals – which also passed quickly. We went on holiday leaving lovely big pots of blooming pink petunias and blue ageratum and came back to pots of withered, dead plants. The water retention crystals were not enough. I decided then and there that I preferred a more permanent and sustainable style of gardening.

In issue 323 of the Weekend Gardener, I wrote about plunging pots to reduce watering requirements while still keeping individual plants featured. It only works if the pots are porous (I keep to terracotta) and they still need the occasional water but they are much easier to maintain over summer. I have found I need to keep an eye out for slug infestations around the plunged pots. They like the damp, dark conditions and can take up residence on the outside surfaces of the pots. I found an entire slug convention on one pot recently but at least it encourages them into one area for easy eradication.

The peaceful, neverending task of hoicking out flat weeds

The peaceful, neverending task of hoicking out flat weeds

Top tasks:
1) Weeding is never ending. At this time of year, some of it can be done quickly by push hoe. If any weeds get away on us and set seed heads, we try and remove them from the area but the aim is always to get them before that stage so they can be left to wither and die in the summer sun.
2) The autumn bulbs will be starting to move very soon, putting out fresh roots. I need to thin the Cyclamen hederafolium, Colchicum autumnale (the autumn crocus) and check over the clumps of nerines (mostly sarniensis hybrids) before they are growing.
3) When I feel the need to do something quiet and mindless, I head out with the lawn tool to dig out flat weeds in the grassy areas of our park. It is a bit like King Canute holding back the sea but it makes me feel more virtuous than spraying and it is a soothing summer occupation.

In the Garden: Friday December 16

A fortnightly series first published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

The antique stone mill wheels are fine as garden decoration

The antique stone mill wheels are fine as garden decoration

Ours is a garden that is very light on ornamentation and we prefer it that way. The last thing I want for Christmas is a garden ornament or colourful display pot. The three stone antique millwheels are fine, but generally we like to feature glimpsed views or plants as focal points rather than statuary or any type of installation. We are lucky that we garden on a sufficiently large scale to be able to use the glimpsed view, even the odd borrowed vista. It is a bit more problematic in a tiny, town garden with a view of next door’s washing line. But using plants as a feature point is possible no matter what size the garden.

Before....

Before....

One of the delights of having a mature garden with old plants is that there is plenty of raw material for clipping and shaping. We don’t want to follow the Italian example and clip and shape everything, but the occasional large, cloud pruned specimen can be as strong as any man-made focal point. Camellias are wonderful for clipping and shaping because they will sprout again if you make a mistake and they grow densely if you clip every year. Some of the michelias also clip well when they are well established, as does loropetalum and the classic yews. The skill is in making

... and immediately after

... and immediately after

sure that not everything is turned into a lollipop (the easiest shape to clip), or a cake stand (which is just a vertical stack of lollipops). Mark favours the flatter topped mushroom shape or layers of clouds. We had four standard lollipops flanking our sunken garden but they had become too dense and rounded. Some radical cutting has seen them become much lighter mushrooms instead, giving a visual accent rather than completely dominating the area. He doesn’t rely on doing it all by eye, instead using lengths of bamboo to measure height and width. We don’t mind a bit of variation – these are living plants not artificial structures that can be like identical soldiers – but we want a sense of overall unity.

Top tasks:

1) Summer prune the wisterias. Turn your back for a moment and they can make a bid for world domination, or so it seems. I just tidy up the long, wayward tendrils at this time of the year and do a structural and shaping prune in winter.

2) Continue deadheading and light summer pruning of the roses. Because we never spray our roses here, I prune frequently to encourage fresh growth. They get a traditional winter prune so the summer effort is more like a nip and tuck. I rely on keeping the roses growing strongly and pushing out fresh leaf buds to keep enough foliage coming to replace what succumbs to black spot. I try and remove all spent blooms and damaged foliage to the wheelie bin, to avoid them harbouring pests and diseases on the ground at the base of the roses.

A large cloud pruned specimen of Camellia sasanqua Mine No Yuki

A large cloud pruned specimen of Camellia sasanqua Mine No Yuki