Category Archives: Stop press

Reopening the garden after seven years

The Rimu Avenue

It’s official, more or less. We are reopening the garden later this year but just for the ten days of the Taranaki Garden Festival.  If you have been hoping to visit, those dates are October 30 to November 8. After seven years of being closed, it feels the right time to open again but for strictly limited periods of time.

The old garden remains more or less as visitors from past times may recall – the Rimu Avenue, sunken garden, rockery, avenue gardens and other house gardens.

No longer mown park, now a meadow

The park has been transformed to a meadow over the past seven years.

Opening the new summer gardens for public viewing

The new summer gardens are ready to be seen. We refer to these individually as the borders, the court garden, the caterpillar garden, the Iolanthe garden and the lily border (although the lily border will just be lily shoots in November). Collectively, these are close to an acre of sunny gardens planted predominantly in perennials.

We will offer a series of garden tours and workshops to be scheduled at that time – details to follow.

There will be no plant sales – we are well and truly over that and no longer produce any plants except for our own use or as part of Mark’s plant breeding programme.

We are hoping to be really busy for those ten day and it will be a pleasure to meet some of the regular readers of this site.

Mark’s story

* as told to The NZ Rhododendron, the annual journal of NZRA Council and Pukeiti Trust Boad. December 2017. Photos are mine. 

Mark could perhaps be described as having chlorophyll running in his veins. He was the afterthought child in his family, quite a bit younger than his brothers. He remembers tagging along with his parents and visitors, listening in as they discussed plants around the Tikorangi garden in North Taranaki. “It was quite a lonely and isolated life in the country and I really wanted the social contact, even if it was with older people. It was only later that I realised what I learned in those early years.”

Mark was determined to head off to university, the first in his farming family to do so. It was not an easy path but he graduated with Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences, majoring in Psychology. He enrolled in a post-graduate diploma in guidance and counselling but withdrew half way through the year. “I was the youngest on the course and all the others were teachers with regrets. One would have liked to be a potter, another dreamed of running a country pub. I didn’t want to get to my late 40s and look back with regret. By that stage, Abbie and I had already been married a couple of years and I went home and told her I wanted to withdraw from the course and follow some dreams.”

From there, he taught himself to draw from a book by John Ruskin, taught himself to turn wood to a high quality and then set out to learn how to propagate and, from there, to build a nursery.

“When I started here, there was no nursery. Dad was a just a farmer and a gardener who liked to breed plants. He had taught himself the rudiments of propagation. I started to build the nursery from one wheelbarrow up and I set out to learn how to propagate and to grow plants commercially. It was a case of learning through trial and error. It has always surprised me how successful the nursery was.” Mark credits the access to his father’s plant hybrids for giving him new material to mark out his nursery as different to the rest. “Dad had pretty much stopped hybridising by then. It was only ever a hobby for him. I started more systematically to see how far I could push plant breeding. And as the plant breeding grew in range and scale, I had the nursery to cope with growing on the material.” He started with saturation coverage of a large plant of Camellia pitardii in a Urenui garden.

From an early stage, Felix made it clear that the garden he and his wife Mimosa had built would pass to Mark and his family. Mark and Abbie are demonstrably aware of what it means to be on a family property that is already on its fourth generation.

Arisaema seedlings are for the garden at Tikorangi, not commercial release

Mark is clear in his mind about the hybridising he does which has commercial potential and that which is solely to try and get better plants for their own garden. He is currently working with galanthus, aiming for later flowering cultivars which perform as well in Tikorangi conditions as Galanthus nivalus ‘S. Arnott’. He is continuing the efforts of his late father with cyclamineus narcissi, looking for sterile selections that bloom from every bulb, as Felix Jury’s ‘Twilight’ does. In the hellebores, improving garden performance and getting cultivars which hold their blooms above the foliage are the aims, as well as looking for sterility if possible. In the arisaemas, he wanted to extend the colour range and the season and to get some hybrid vigour into A. sikokianum types. He is often to be found out and about with his magnifying glass and paintbrush.

The garden is always the star in Mark’s mind. “This is a poor man’s garden,” he says. “It was never made with a big budget and if we had to buy in all the plants we want, we could never afford to keep it going, let alone expand as we are. To get masses of snowdrops to the point where they naturalise themselves to or to get a new 40 metre of border of auratum lilies, we have to raise our own from seed. And when raising from seed, I often like to start with controlled crosses to see if I can get better outcomes, rather than just using open pollinated material.”

The garden is a treasure trove of plant material, some of which may or may not go into commercial production at some stage in the future but which currently has no market. “We have some thrip-resistant rhododendrons with full trusses if that plant genus comes back into fashion. At the moment, the market is so small that there is no commercial advantage in releasing them.” The same is true of coloured and variegated cordylines and a range of camellias.

Magnolia Felix Jury

The creation of new cultivars with international potential has been a major focus. In the deciduous magnolias, Mark has named and released four out of many hundreds that he has raised. But he says he has the next three possibles under trial. Of those released, the magnolia that he named for his father is his greatest pride. “It is what Felix was trying to get to – good colour in a large cup and saucer bloom, so I called it ‘Felix Jury’. This one is doing really well internationally which is particularly pleasing. It has already been given an award of garden merit from the RHS.”

A range of michelia seedling blooms

Fairy Magnolia White, with bonus kereru

The michelias are a source of frequent disappointment to Mark. “We have raised so many of them now and have a good range of new colours. But it is so difficult to get everything in one plant – clean colour, good size of bloom and plenty of them over an extended period, compact, bushy growth, easy to propagate and scented. Keeping the scent is the most elusive attribute of all.” Mark has named three so far, marketed under the ‘Fairy Magnolia’ brand, but there is a long way to go yet and he keeps persevering, often with several hundred new seedlings a year.

Camellia Fairy Blush, Rhododendron Floral Sun and Magnolia Honey Tulip

Amongst the camellias, Mark names his selection of ‘Fairy Blush’ as his personal favourite. He and Abbie have chosen to use it extensively for clipped hedging in their garden because of its long flowering season and its good habit of growth. ‘Floral Sun’ remains his pick amongst the rhododendrons.

Daphne Perfume Princess

Ironically, it is a daphne, a one-off plant from a speculative breeding effort, that may prove to be the most lucrative cultivar internationally. ‘Perfume Princess’ basically looks like an odora although it often flowers down the stem like bholua. It is the size of the flower, the vigour of the plant and the length of the flowering season that sets this plant apart from other daphnes. “It is just a brilliant plant to grow and a terrific nursery plant to produce,” Mark says. “That is not true of most daphnes which can be very difficult to produce in containers.” Both the local and international markets for a daphne eclipse the market for magnolias, even if the plant itself is less spectacular.

“We stopped doing mailorder in 2003, stopped wholesale in 2008 and phased out retail after that. The phone calls and emails in search of plants haven’t stopped in the time since but we were really glad to shut all that down. Abbie always described nursery work as being like factory work but in better surroundings. There was no fun in it but it enabled us to get to where we are today.” Mark is quietly proud of the fact that royalties on plant sales, particularly overseas, are what enabled them to retire from the nursery trade and pursue their interests in the garden.

The garden is still expanding. They closed to the public 3 years ago and have been enjoying the freedom to experiment.  “We’ll open again at some stage, maybe 2019. For the annual garden festival, at least. Though we are unlikely to ever open again for extended periods during the year.”

Mark and the Magnolia Felix Jury tree at Wisley on the left. Mark with a collection of blooms from different seedlings at home in Tikorangi

Seasons greetings

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An antipodean Christmas is different – a blend of southern summer with northern traditions, which gives it a flavour all of its own.

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I wish all readers and subscribers a merry and festive time and good gardening wishes for 2016.

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“The Holy Grail of horticulture”

Daphne Perfume Princess

Daphne Perfume Princess

As a people, we New Zealanders tend to be a little more reserved than our Australian neighbours across the Tasman. So I post this link to their prime time Channel 9 last night with a slight sense of unseemly boasting. But to have somebody of the stature of Don Burke declaring Mark’s Daphne Perfume Princess to be the Holy Grail of horticulture and the best new plant to be released in Australia in the last 50 years is high praise indeed.

This knight...

This knight…

We knew the story was going to air. We had been sent photos – Don donning a knight’s costume in a theatrical take on the search for the Holy Grail. Indeed, we had raised our eyebrows at Channel 9 wardrobe department’s selection of a knight’s costume owing to the fact that we think it was King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table who were in search of the Holy Grail, not so much the Templar Knights of the Christian crusades…. But no matter, Don carried it off with panache.

Mark’s comment is that the ultimate challenge for a plant breeder is to take a really well known, common plant and to make it better. We hope he has achieved this with Daphne Perfume Princess. Others certainly think so.

 

 

Introducing (drum roll please) Daphne Perfume Princess

Mark's Daphne Perfume Princess

Mark’s Daphne Perfume Princess

By the time a new plant bred by Mark finally gets released onto the market, it has been a part of our lives for so many years that it no longer feels new or exciting to us. Mark has long since moved on to the next generation of plants. But we remain excited by this daphne, named Perfume Princess.

Perfume Princess to the left, centre is a large flowered D. odora 'Grace Stewart', right is a normal sized Daphne odora

Perfume Princess to the left, centre is a large flowered D. odora ‘Grace Stewart’, right is a normal sized Daphne odora

It is “just a daphne”, as Mark is wont to say, but what a daphne. For starters, the flower is significantly larger than comparable odora types. The flowering season is also a great deal longer. This is both the first and the last daphne to bloom each year in our garden. The plant itself is noticeably more robust than other odoras. It looks like a particularly healthy odora – and many gardeners will know that the common daphne is not remarkable for vigour, health or indeed longevity so any improvement in that area is welcome. It smells like a daphne and is that not why we grow them?

But it also has the capacity to flower down the stem when growing strongly. I describe it as the eucomis look. This characteristic adds a great deal to its flower power. So yes, even we are still excited by this new daphne.
046The eucomis look

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back around 1996, Mark was taken to meet UK breeder, Robin White. Some readers will know him for his Daphne Eternal Fragrance although back then, it was his work on the Party Dress series of double hellebores that fascinated Mark more. However, that visit inspired Mark to renew his efforts with daphnes after he had been disappointed with initial efforts. It was not to be as straightforward as other plant genera he works with. The progeny were few. Poor Perfume Princess was nearly lost before she ever got to show her strengths and that, we think, would have been pity.

Please, admire my restraint in not using a naff heading such as “Birth of a Princess”. Any coincidence with the arrival of the British royal baby was just that – coincidence.

Perfume Princess was released in New Zealand last weekend, launched in Australia at the Melbourne Flower Show and is available in UK and Europe. It has yet to be released in North America. It is managed on our behalf by Anthony Tesselaar Plants. We do not handle the production or distribution so any enquiries regarding availability need to be directed to them.