Category Archives: Tikorangi notes

Invasive plants

I don’t know its name. I am guessing it is a species.

Remember this pretty aster I showed in March? I loved its profusion and lightness. So did the bees and butterflies love it. But I was worried that it was too large and too dominant immediately by the path so set out to reduce its bulk and spread. That was illuminating. The initial divisions that I had planted were now so dense I had to cut them into squares to get them out but that was fine. What worried me was how far and how fast it was s p r e a d I n g. It had probably colonised its way out about a metre all around by sending out long runners below ground. The runners will put up a small rosette of leaves maybe every 20cm but they keep running and they are certainly aren’t going to let the roots of other plants deter them. Nor indeed were the stone edging or compacted path a deterrent.

That is about two years of growth in the pink tub and on the path and just from one patch.

By the time I came to the second clump, I decided on total elimination and that turned into quite a major operation. The first clump, I just tried to reduce and thin somewhat but I am pretty sure I may have to carry out more drastic action next year.

I am trying some in a confined drum and will see how that works. It is such a lovely plant in leaf and flower that I want to keep some of it but I really don’t want it invading large areas. Come to think of it, it may be the same aster that took over the Missouri Meadow at Wisley, choking out most of the other plants.

We inherited several old tanks with holes in the bottom that I am now using to contain plants that look dangerous

We are extremely cautious about invasive plants in our garden. Make that our country, not just our own garden, because garden escapes of invasive plants are a major problem in the wild. I like to shock overseas gardeners by telling them that it is actually illegal to grow the giant gunnera where we are in Taranaki. It became a noxious weed on the coastal cliff tops near Opunake where eradication was such a huge issue it was banned altogether. Our soft, warm-temperate climate makes plants which may be called ‘vigorous’ or ‘strong growing’ in harsher climates downright invasive pests here. And it is not just gunneras. Agapanthus, flag iris, campanulata cherries, the bangalow palm (Archontophenix cunninghamiana) , erigeron daisy, pampas grass, perennial sweet peas, Fuchsia boliviana  – our country is littered with plants that are a great deal more prized overseas but either discouraged, banned from sale or banned entirely in some areas here.

My gardening friend from Christchurch, Robyn Kilty recommended Calamgrostis ‘Overdam’ as a possible alternative to C. ‘Karl Foerster’ which had become dangerously strong growing here. I looked it up and found I can indeed buy it but the description from one producer included the terrifying words ‘may be invasive’. Make that ‘will be invasive’ in our conditions. Where Robyn gardens in Christchurch, such plants are not a problem with their cold winters and hot dry summers which restrict growth. There is no such brake on their growth here.

Some plants invade by seeding too freely. To some extent, that can be controlled by dead heading if the plants are lower growers. We dead head most of our agapanthus here and I dead head the likes of crocosmias. Or choosing sterile varieties can eliminate the seeding problems, especially when it comes to trees.

This white daisy – name unknown – is vigorous without being invasive. If cut back hard, it flowers a second and even third time which is very obliging of it.

Some plants invade by putting out runners along the ground which then make roots. Wisteria are a prime example of this and believe me, you do not want to plant wisteria unless you are willing to restrict them and prune them at least once a year. Somebody once told me that the largest plant in the world is a wisteria which has layered its way along. I have no idea if that is true but I wouldn’t be surprised.

And some plants, like the aster (and indeed the calamgrostis) invade by determinedly spreading their roots below the ground. They are way more problematic though you can resort to spraying with herbicide if you use it. The underground spreaders tend to be very strong indeed, choking out the competition and getting their roots intertwined with anything in their way.

I have kept six plants of Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ to see if I can contain them by root pruning them once a year with a sharp spade. I think I discarded 18 of them and digging those out was a major effort, I tell you, after only one year in the ground. I had to barrow in quite a few loads of soil to fill the holes that were left.

Mark is going to try some of the aster down in the park meadow where the competition from other plants is greater and the area is mown twice a year so that may curb the rampant growth. If it doesn’t, he will have to reach for the herbicide.

A profusion of aster that looked as though it had the potential to turn into a takeover by aster

To dead head or not to dead head, that is the question

Phlomis and Stipa tenuissima in the morning light of autumn

I have never done so much dead heading in my life before. Not that I mind it, you understand, more that I am surprised to find it becoming part of my routine. The need was not anticipated. But neither have we ever had extensive areas of summer perennials before. This week, I achieved what was a milestone for me – the completion of the revamped Iolanthe Garden as a perennial meadow (I use the word ‘meadow’ loosely, here.) That gives us close to an acre (0.4 hectare) of new summer gardens finished.

It has been heavily influenced by the New Perennials movement, led by its uncrowned monarch, Dutch designer, plantsman and gardener, Piet Oudolf. Anything and everything you read about this modern approach to perennial gardening will refer to its lower maintenance requirements and leaving the plants and all the seed heads to stand well into winter, that there is beauty in that black and brown decay of autumn and winter until everything is cut down to the ground – usually in February, so very late northern winter. Besides, all those seed heads feed the birds and save them from starving when food supplies are desperately short. Oudolf has coined the term ‘fifth season’ to describe that period in late autumn when low light levels, frost, dew and sometimes snow light the blackened tips of plants to make them sparkle. There are many beautiful photographs on line capturing this phenomenon.

You can have too much of a good thing – Verbena bonariensis and fennel

It is different in New Zealand. Boy is it different. Only the coldest parts of the country have that winter hiatus. Most of us have flowers and seasonal interest all year round. A large proportion of the plants we use are evergreen so never die down to ground level. There is food for the birds all year round and they are not in danger of starving. Besides, most of those seed and grain eating birds are the introduced ones (sparrows!). Our native birds tend to favour fruit or partaking of nectar. Our light levels don’t drop in winter. A midwinter’s day can be as clear and bright as midsummer.

And we have a problem with garden escapes becoming weeds. That is the big issue that has me out there dead heading. Much and all as I love Verbena bonariensis, I don’t want mountains of it everywhere. The same goes for crocosmia be it yellow, orange or red, kniphofia (red hot pokers), some of the asters, tigridia (jockey caps), eryngium, dietes, fennel, nicotiana, verbascums and quite a few other plants we are growing. Even Gloriosa superba sets so much seed it is threatening to become a weed. There is nothing for it but to get out there with my snips and bucket to reduce the seed heads.

Amaranthus caudatus – not unwelcome in this situation but a surprise arrival in the compost

There is a slight problem with disposing of the seed heads. Even though we make hot compost, too many seeds come out the other end of the process and live to germinate and grow another day in another place around the garden. This unexpected display of amaranthus arrived in the compost I spread in this area. I have learned my lesson. Now I stow the seed heads in deep shade on the wilder margins of the property where few will germinate because they don’t see the sun.

A sampling of seeds that need removing. I contemplating setting it up as one of those quizzes for bored readers to identify but I would rather be out gardening. Top left tigridia and fennel, bottom left nicotiana, eryngium and dietes, centre crocosmia, top left aster, bottom right Lilium formasanu,. kniphofia and Verbena bonariensis.

The skills come in knowing which plants need total removal of seed heads (kniphofia and tigridias, for example), which plants need the removal of most seed heads to restrict their self-seeding (such as eryngiums, fennel, crocosmia, verbascums and Verbena bonariensis) and which plants don’t need to be dead headed because they are either welcome to seed down (I am not sure than I will ever have too many echinaceas) or because they don’t seem to cause a seeding problem (phlomis and the grasses). Then there are a few plants that I will dead head because that encourages them to flower again (roses, though I don’t grow many of those these days, and some of the daisies).

There is no substitution for observation and experience. We can not just take gardening practices from other climates and assume it will be the same here. If I have another 20 years, I may be able to come up with plant lists that are specifically designed for our conditions. For anyone thinking that maybe it would be better to concentrate on using our native plants, consider the fact that most of our sunny perennials are alpine. In our lowland conditions, native perennials are shade loving foliage plants with a heavy emphasis on ferns.

I want some eryngiums to self seed but not all of them

Two footnotes: the acclaimed film about Piet Oudolf, called ‘Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf’ is available free to stream this weekend only. We plan on watching it this evening, as long as I can work out again how to get Chromecast working. Where is a teenager or young person when you need one? It is being streamed from https://www.hauserwirth.com/?fbclid=IwAR2YXqr5-VDT2TwThnzWxVF2lzS4HXMVCV-l9166HQsVlTqqktF-QYsMTm4

And we are opening the garden and unveiling the new summer gardens for ten days this spring during the annual Taranaki Garden Festival, October 30 to November 8. As part of that, I am considering offering workshops on new directions with sunny perennials and managing meadows in our climate. Numbers will be strictly limited so look for details when the programme comes out.

May your lockdowns go well, or at least harmoniously. The end is in sight for us in NZ, with the strong possibility that we can eliminate the virus and return to some sort of Covid-free normality – as long as our border stays closed. Just don’t try injecting, drinking or otherwise consuming disinfectant – you may then be Covid-free but actual scientists tell us you will also be dead.

Farewell poor Felix. We knew thee well.

The Prunus campanulata, that is. We farewelled the person – Mark’s Dad – back in 1997. The magnolia named by Mark for him continues to thrive here and we have several specimens planted around the property, including the original plant. The prunus – we have just the one and it may not pull through.

A definite lean. In fact it has fallen over, though the root system is still in the ground.

I noticed two days ago that the tree had a major lean. On closer inspection, it became clear that only the brick wall was holding it up and I was a bit worried about whether it could bring down the wall. Mark set about removing the weight that was pulling it to one side. He will cut the tree back hard and we will look at putting a prop in place but we doubt it will survive.

Prunus ‘Felix Jury’ is the reddest campanulata that we know of

Prunus campanulata ‘Felix Jury’ was named by the nursery Duncan and Davies for Felix, because he was the originator of this selection. It is simply not done to name a plant after oneself. It is still the deepest carmine red bloom on the NZ market and is much beloved by our native tui. Being a smaller growing, upright form, it has been popular as a garden plant. Unfortunately, it is not sterile so it sets seed which makes it problematic in areas where campanulata has become a noxious weed. We do a lot of weeding out of seedling cherries here because the birds spread the seed far and wide.

We will try and keep a plant going as part of the Jury collection. Hopefully this tree will stay alive until late spring so Mark can take some cuttings off it. The optimum time for taking cuttings from deciduous plants in our conditions is December.

Native tui feeding from a campanulata cherry but it looks too pink to be ‘Felix Jury”

I do not think I have ever told the story of the naming of Camellia ‘Julie Felix’. It would have been very poor form for Felix to name it for himself but he really liked it. Enter Julie Felix, the American-born folk singer who made her name in Britain in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was touring NZ and doing a concert in New Plymouth. Felix thought that naming the camellia Julie Felix was a subtle play on names that would suit his purposes. Besides, though he took no interest in music, he liked her songs.

“You can’t do that without her permission,” protested his wife, Mimosa. She was a great woman for the telephone was Mimosa, so she tracked down that Julie Felix was staying at the Devon Hotel in New Plymouth and tried to call her. Whoever took the call – almost certainly the Devon receptionist – wouldn’t put her through to the singer’s phone so Mimosa explained (no doubt at great length) that she was trying to contact her for permission to name a camellia after her. “I am sure that will be fine,” said the person at the other end, very kindly.

So there we are. Permission was sought for this name and consent was give – by the receptionist at the Devon Hotel. I doubt that the singer ever knew there was a camellia bearing her name although it never was named for her. In a typically convoluted fashion, Felix was naming it for himself.

Ironically, I can’t even find a photograph of it, even though we have a big plant close to the house. I must set that right this winter when it comes into bloom again. It never achieved the status of his better known camellia cultivars like ‘Water Lily’ and ‘Dreamboat’ and ‘Mimosa Jury’. But Felix clearly rated it highly.

The weeks that come may very well be worse than the week that was but there are always flowers

Our mounga is unchanged

I doubt that anybody really thought through how much our world could turn upside down in such a short space of time. It is different in every country. In New Zealand, at this stage it is an exercise in how long we can stave off widespread community transmission, how we can get travelling NZ residents home when air flights around the world are ceasing with little or no warning (up to 110 000 NZ travellers stranded around the world is the latest estimate I have seen) and how we can best protect the Pacific Island nations to whom we have a duty of care and who are extremely vulnerable to an outbreak.

Other countries are facing different challenges and the impact is more extreme at this stage. The message from our Prime Minister is clear – be kind, be considerate, be caring, be careful.

I am pleased to report that there is no shortage of toilet paper at the Waitara supermarket. The shelves were full on Friday with plenty out the back. Amusingly, most of it is manufactured in NZ so there are no supply chain issues.

The world as we know it has changed, if not overnight, then certainly in the last fortnight. Nobody has a crystal ball so there is no way of predicting what will happen into the future. All we can do is make our personal worlds smaller, to be the best person we can at an individual level and, for many of us, to take refuge in black humour.

Just a butterfly on a dahlia

But there is always the garden and the cycle of the seasons. There is a correlation between greater interest in gardening and hard times. At the moment it is panic buying vegetable seedlings but as most people adjust to a more confined life at home, their horizons are likely to expand beyond survival vegetables to the pleasures of ornamental plants and gardens as well. Food for the body and food for the soul.

If you are alarmed at not being able to buy vegetable seedlings at this time, here is a guide to raising plants from seed that I published earlier. Online seed catalogues will tell you what you can sow at this time of the year.

We drive a Corona!

We are feeling blessed to live in a situation where we have huge personal space, where maintaining physical distancing is no problem at all and where we can largely control our personal level of exposure to risk. But our children living in Australia have never felt so far away. We are resigned to the realisation that our trip to look at wildflowers in the Pindos Mountains of Greece and then looking at summer gardens in the UK will not happen and we can’t even console ourselves with a family meet-up in Australia. These limitations seem but minor disappointments in this new situation.

All I can offer readers are pretty flowers, a reminder that whatever else is going wrong in the lives of us all, the seasons will continue to change.

Amaranthus caudatus

The amaranthus has been a surprise volunteer in a garden I replanted earlier this year. It came in with the compost I spread and is perhaps a good example of what happens when I am not careful enough on what goes onto the compost heap. At this stage it makes me smile as I pass that garden bed but I will need to consider whether I want it established as an annual in that area.

Rhodophiala bifida

I posted this photo of rhodophiala to Facebook earlier this week – a lesser known bulb that is a fleeting seasonal delight. Whether you are willing to give garden space to a plant that is a 10 day wonder is entirely up to you but we like the variety and depth such plants give to our garden. The pink form does not appear to be as vigorous but is also very pretty.

Rhodophiala bifida pink

Colchicum autumnale

To be honest, the flowering season on the autumn flowering colchicum is also pretty brief but undeniably delightful. Their foliage comes quite a bit later and stays fresh all winter but does take rather a long time to die off – untidily – in spring.

Haemanthus coccineus

Haemanthus coccineus is even briefer in bloom – days not weeks – but justifies its place because of its rather remarkable foliage. The pair of huge leaves on each bulb resemble big, fleshy elephant ears. But in green, not grey.

Cyclamen hederifolium

The autumn cyclamen are a different kettle of fish altogether. They really are a well behaved plant, flowering for months from mid to late summer through til late autumn and then putting out charming, marbled foliage. They seed down gently without becoming a menace and just get better as the years go by.

The rockery has two peaks, in early to mid spring and again in autumn. We are just entering the autumn phase when the nerines (the first ones out are the red blobs in the upper right), cyclamen, colchicums and many other autumn bulbs bloom.

Interlopers on our driveway! The neighbours’ free range turkeys. Should the food supply chains fail in the face of Covid19, we will not starve here.

Batten down the hatches, one and all, and may you stay as safe as possible in these times.

A last resort – getting in a digger

I have commented before that water in the garden can involve quite a bit of work, be it still water, treated water or running water. And water has had us busy this week.

The mill wheel bird bath can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes in summer

We have treated water – a swimming pool. Once that is up and running for the season, it doesn’t take much to keep it clean because we have a salt filter on a timer. We have still water – two pond features with goldfish and an historic mill wheel which serves as a bird bath. The problem with the mill wheel is that, without fish in it, the mosquitoes breed up within about three days so we have to drain it and replace the water often over summer. True, mosquitoes breed up anywhere there is still water, even in the bromeliads (and we have quite a few of those). But the mill wheel is close to our bedroom window so I blame that for the incursions of nasty, blood sucking critters in the night.

I cleaned out the excessive growth of the aquatic plants in the sunken garden this week. Goldfish stop this from being infested with mosquito larvae.

The goldfish ponds are relatively easy care. I go thorough a couple of times a year to scoop out the build-up of rotting detritus and to restrict the growth of the aquatic plants and we have to top them up with water in dry spells. The pond at the bottom of the sunken garden is too shallow so it evaporates quickly and we often get algae spreading that needs scooping out with a sieve but it is all pretty straightforward.

A last resort – Lloyd on the digger. You can see the mat of grass that had established on the choking silt.

Running water – the stream in the park – is nowhere near as simple to maintain. This week, we admitted defeat and hired a digger. We haven’t put a digger through the stream for about 25 years and it is an absolute last resort because it destroys the entire eco-system. Generally, we can get away with going through with a long-handled rake and drainage fork every couple of years to haul out the excessive growth of choking weeds – back breaking work but kinder to the environment. This time it was beyond that and the issue was the excessive build up of silt. We were at the point where the stream was turning into a swamp with little water movement.

There were four reasons for this state of affairs and only one of those was caused by our management. The water that flows looks clean enough to the naked eye. As Mark observed, it is a good example of how a visual assessment is not an accurate guide to water quality. Because it flows through farmland upstream, the silt loading is high. It runs dirty every time it rains and and over the years, the silt dumped on our stretch had built up. It also carries a very high nutrient loading from farm runoff and that means we are battling water weeds all the time. Then when the culvert at the corner was replaced last summer, it involved earth works on our place and the soil was not compacted so there was a major collapse during a flood. That reduced the water flow through the park by at least 50% with the water going over the weir and down the flood channel instead. Digging out that silt bank blocking the stream was too big a job to do by hand.

Neither Mark nor I were game to try driving the digger but fortunately Lloyd is not afraid of machinery though cautious by nature.

The fourth problem was of our making. When we decided to manage the park as a meadow and reduce mowing to just twice a year, we also stopped strimming the banks of the stream. With the build-up of silt and the greatly reduced water flow, the grass had invaded the river and formed a mat that was too heavy to dig out by hand. Hence the digger. We can’t get a big digger in because of access restrictions and the placement of many trees and shrubs so Lloyd spent two days quietly and cautiously working his way round the areas that could be accessed safely from the cab of the little digger. Its reach is not long enough to scoop the two ponds we have so they remain an unresolved issue at this stage. We are thinking we want to create a channel for the water and turn the ponds into bog gardens but the details of how we manage that transition are not quite clear yet. Natural ponds are even harder to maintain than the stream and we think it is time to draw the line beneath having those.

Mark will probably plant trees to shade more of the stream. When water is shaded, it stops the rampant growth of choking water weeds and it is much easier to stand on the bank and rake out what is there.

This was just a small eel that appeared a little disoriented at finding itself on dry land. I helped it find the water again.

I have a vested interest in this. I have found that it is easier to weed the stream by dropping the level (which we can do with the weir and the flood channel) and getting in the water to clear it. It is a very muddy procedure but easier on my back than doing it from the bank. I started doing this last week before we decided to get the digger. I cleared one stretch of several metres but I can never get in that water again. The next day, I was back again, this time raking from the bank just down from that area I had cleared. And lo, there was a very large eel undulating through the shallow water. I am always aware of my tendency to hyperbole so I didn’t want to exaggerate its size but Lloyd spotted it sunning itself the next day and estimated it to be about 80cm or more in length with a girth behind its head of close to 50cm in circumference. I knew we had eels. I had to head one in the right direction to get back in the stream and I have seen many small ones. But that is too large an eel for me and there may well be more than one of them that size. I am scared of eels.

The aim is to manage the stream without needing to resort to a digger again – at least in our lifetime.

Summer thoughts

“I thought I saw you bent over, working in the garden,” Mark said. “And then I realised I was talking to a pink bucket.”

I went looking for the pink jacket made from Nana’s old bedspread and I found a whole lot of pink  clothes that the elder daughter does not wish to part with so has left here. Most i sewed for her 20 to 25 years ago and most are recycled from fabric Nana had used or stored, although I can not take credit for the pink prom dress on the right!

In self-defence, he would like it known that he was some distance away at the time. And I would like it known that I would not be seen dead wearing skirts, shorts or trousers in that shade we refer to as highlighter pink – on account of highlighter pens. Mark’s late mother had a penchant for that hue in both clothing and, occasionally, soft furnishings. When we moved in to the homestead, we found one such relic – a nylon quilted and frilled bedspread in bright pink. Our elder daughter was 16 at the time and took a liking to the colour so I made it into a quilted jacket for her, to be worn with a rather small pink brocade skirt also made from some repurposed fabric left behind by her Nana. Amusingly, she has kept onto it and it hangs in the wardrobe of her old bedroom here with other favoured clothes from her youth. It is like a trip down memory lane every time I look in there.

Vireya rhododendron Pink Jazz

It was this passion for pink – bright pink – that led Mark to name a bright pink and yellow vireya rhododendron for her. He prefers descriptive names for his plant selections and rarely names them for people (the notable exception being the magnolia he named for his father, Felix Jury). When he does, it is by allusion. So, our JJ’s vireya was named ‘Pink Jazz’ – Jazz being the name her friends called her. Each time it flowers in the garden, I smile at the memories. (And, to pre-empt enquiries, we have no idea if it is still in commercial production. It is not one we kept any control over so other nurseries can produce it – or not- as they choose.)

I had been admiring the crop of figs that was coming along nicely. Our fig tree carries two crops – the first ripens in mid-summer and the later crop only ripens in autumn if we get a good season. But when I thought the first ones may be ripe, I looked closely and the crop was greatly reduced. The birds are not as fussy as we humans when it comes to savouring the delights of a fully tree-ripened crop.

Bagging figs so they can ripen on the tree before the birds get them

Now I am bagging the individual fruits. In a nod to growing concerns, I have shunned the white plastic bags with the bottom cut off and freezer ties we have used in the past. This year, the fruit are individually bagged in paper (no need to cut the bottoms off with paper, Mark told me after I had done the first few) and jute string so fully degradable if any land on the ground. It takes a bit of effort but the rewards of tree-ripened fruit warmed by the sun make it worthwhile. I must put some good camembert or brie on the shopping list. Is there anything more delicious than a platter of ripe figs, soft brie, my fresh grapefruit jelly made this week, walnuts and homemade oat crackers?

It is high summer here and Lloyd has started to mow the meadow. We have learned from our experience that in our verdant conditions, we must mow twice a year – once in high summer and then again in late autumn. The grass loading is just too great to deal with if we only cut it down once a year, as is recommended practice from places where conditions are harder and grass growth is a great deal less.

Fennel, not a ‘yellow lace-cap hydrangea’

The roadsides in our area are full of flowers at this time of the year – crocosmia, hydrangeas, agapanthus and fennel in particular. Whether you see these as weeds or wildflowers is entirely a matter of personal opinion – it is a bit like the glass half-full or half-empty scenario. I stopped to photograph the wild fennel and agapanthus because it reminded me of the English summer visitors that arrived one year. I have told this story before so apologies to long-term readers who may have read it earlier. These visitors wanted to know what the ‘yellow lace-cap hydrangeas’ and ‘giant bluebells’ were that they were seeing everywhere. I managed to identify the former as fennel but could not for the life of me think what the giant bluebells were – until I drove out our gateway and it dawned on me that they were the lowly agapanthus that is so happy in local conditions that it has naturalised itself. Agapanthus is not generally favoured as a garden plant in most of NZ – too common, more often seen as a weed. But in midsummer, our roadsides are glorious when they bloom.

The maligned roadside agapanthus

 

Tikorangi Notes: underplanting, gardening with perennials and the magnificent nuttalliis

Pretty Rhododendron Yvonne Scott (nuttallii x lindleyi x dalhousiae) with a named clematis but I have lost its name – relevant to the last para on this post and a prettier photo to lead with than the mishmash of a garden bed below 

Not good at all. The addition of roses was a particularly ill-considered decision

I spent a good four or maybe five days taking this unsuccessful garden bed apart. It was first planted about 14 years ago and the original idea was that it continue the theme of the driveway border – mixed shrubs with predominantly hellebores as underplanting. It has never thrived and over the years, its treatment has followed a pattern that many will recognise – random attempts to spark it up that have made it messier and more disjointed.

I lifted everything except the Queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana), an attractive Viburnum sargentii ‘Onondaga’ and Camellia minutiflora. The location is too sunny for the hellebores and they were not thriving, so I planted them elsewhere. And I found why the plants at one end had never thrived. I could only get the spade half way in before I hit what might as well be bedrock. It was the old driveway with very heavily compacted road metal. I recalled that Mark had got the nursery staff to plant that bed when it first went in. Now, our nursery staff were whizzybang at speed-potting plants and doing the hard graft of keeping a production nursery going but gardeners, they were not. I am guessing they chiselled holes just large enough to fit the plants in. No wonder so many failed to thrive. There was nowhere for them to get their roots down.

The aim is to have a carpet of harmonious under planting by the end of summer

I took out any larger stones and rocks I could get out, dug the soil and incorporated compost at a rate of a small barrow-load per square metre. There is still not a great depth of soil but what is there should be better and I won’t try growing any more deeper-rooted plants at that end. When it came to choosing what to replant, I fell back on my mixed border philosophy. When there is a mixture of shrubs in the upper layer, it is better to choose some uniformity in the ground cover layer. The opposite is also true: where there is uniformity in the upper layer of shrubs and trees, it is more interesting to use a mixture of plants at the ground level. It may be a sweeping statement (well, it is) to say that only landscapers, non-gardeners and novices go for regimented simplicity of matching upper layer plants and a single choice ground cover – tidy, visually effective in the immediate stage but essentially dull.

A totally reliable stoeksia that is particularly amenable to being divided and transplanted

Given the feature shrubs and palm are interesting in their own right and the presence of assorted seasonal bulbs, I chose to replant at ground level with the reliable, long flowering blue stokesia which thrives with us, a ground-hugging blue campanula and two forms of our native brown carex grass.  The upright form is Carex buchananii , I think, but I am not sure what the fountaining version of it is called. They are to form the carpet. I like the combination of blue and the mid-brown carex. Then I mulched it all. Now all it has to do is to grow.

May 2019

November 2019

It is quite gratifying to see how much the grass garden has grown since I planted it at the end of May. I am hoping that it will have closed up quite a bit by the time autumn comes. There have only been a small number of deaths amongst the plants – all were  Astelia chathamica and fortunately, I have more plants to hand that I can move to the gaps. The advice from colder climates is not to move perennials in winter because they are not growing and the risk is that the roots will rot out over winter. With our mild winters, this advice does not generally apply here but that may be the case with the astelia. The divisions all had roots when they went in but it may be that some did indeed just rot out before they came back into growth in spring.

My main task in this new garden is staying on top of the weeds. Considering it is new ground, there is not a big weed problem at all and I am determined to keep it that way as it gets established. Weeds getting a hold amongst the fibrous roots systems of perennials and grasses can be a maintenance nightmare. It is better by far to keep them out from the start, as far as humanly possible. Because it is all ground that has been freshly dug this year, it is easy to hand pull those pesky weeds that do try and make an appearance.

Eighteen months to fill in seems a quick result

Even more rewarding is to see the caterpillar garden hitting its stride – nicely filled out, floriferous already, weed-free and colour-toned as I want it. It has taken about eighteen months to get it to this stage. Gardening with perennials is very different to gardening with trees and shrubs. As long as you have plenty of divisions and the ground is well-prepared, the plants can rocket away and fill spaces quickly.

Species selection of R. sino nuttallii, singled out for its unusual pink flush

However, no perennial can compete with the sheer magnificence and stature of the nuttallii rhododendrons that flower for us at this time of the year. These are not often commercially available – at least not the sino nuttallii species. You may sometimes find some of the hybrids around that are nuttallii crossed with lindleyi, sometimes with the addition of dalhousiae. If you find ‘White Waves’ on offer in New Zealand, it is proving to be one of the best of the hybrids we grow – reliable and a good survivor as well as very showy indeed. “Mi Amor’ is also available for sale. The hybrids have smaller leaves than the nuttallii species and are not all as strongly scented  but you may just have to take what you can find if you want to try growing these choice rhododendrons.

Rhododendron nuttallii x sino nuttallii – so the Tibetan form crossed with the showier Chinese form