Category Archives: Tikorangi notes

The autumn camellias

Camellia sasanqua Crimson King in prime position

When Mark returned home to Tikorangi in 1980 bringing me and our first baby bump, the name Jury was synonymous with camellias. These days Jury = magnolias, but not back then. There is a whole chapter in the family history that is headed ‘Camellias’ but it is largely in the past now. Changing fashion, changing focus and the dreaded camellia petal blight has seen to that.

But every autumn, as the sasanquas come into flower we both derive huge delight, particularly from the Camellia Crimson King by the old mill wheel, which is just out from our back door beside the driveway. It is a picture of grace and charm.

Crimson King rests more on its merits of form and position than the beauty of individual blooms

Sasanquas are the unsung heroes of the camellia family, seen mostly as hedging plants, so utility rather than glorious. But if they are allowed to mature as specimens and gently shaped down the years, they stand on their own merits. Mark declared yesterday that it is the autumn flowering camellias that interest him now, not the late winter and spring varieties. For these autumn ones do not get petal blight whereas the later varieties are now a mere shadow of their former selves, faced by the extreme ravages wrought upon their blooms by blight. Our camellia trip to China in 2016 had us concluding that our mild, humid climate with high rainfall means that we suffer worse from petal blight in Taranaki than pretty much anywhere else, really. It is nowhere near as bad in dry climates.

The history of camellias from the middle of last century onwards has some parallels to the history of tulips – all about show and showy blooms. So it was predicated on the quest for the new – extending the boundaries of flower form, size and colour, prizing breakthroughs even when the results were more novelty than meritorious. Camellia societies had enormous flower shows where the staging of individual show blooms was the focus. It didn’t have much, if anything, to do with garden performance let alone longevity as garden plants. Sasanquas didn’t fit this show bench mould. They flowered too early in the season, individual blooms are often quite small, lacking rigid, defined form and falling apart when picked.

But fashions and conditions change and these days it is the softer look of the Japanese camellia family member, the sasanquas, that makes us stop and take notice more than the later flowering japonicas and hybrids on which the earlier family reputation was forged. The light airiness and grace of the sasanquas fits our style of gardening far better than the solid, chunkiness of many of the later varieties and the autumn flowers serve as another marker of the change of season.

The earliest of the sasanquas here – all named varieties

I did a walk around to see how many different blooms I could pick but it is still a little early in the season and some have yet to open. Some plants we leave entirely to their own devices, some we will clean up the canopy from time to time -to take out dead wood and create an umbrella effect, two we clip tightly once a year to a cloud pruned form. With their small leaves, the sasanquas clip well. It just pays to do it soon after they have made their new growth after flowering. Leave it until late spring and you will be clipping off all the flower buds set for next autumn.

Camellia Mine No Yuki

It takes a few decades of growth to get sufficient size to shape as we shape ‘Elfin Rose’ and ‘Mine No Yuki’ but these specimens now function as distinctive shapes within the garden all year round, rather than melding into the background as most camellias do when not in bloom.

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The latest casualty in the ongoing saga of treemageddon

Alas poor schima, we knew you well. In early spring you would drop all your leaves in one big whoosh (and there were A LOT of leaves because you were a large tree) and startle us for a few weeks with remarkable lime green fresh growth. You were a way finder for garden visitors. We could point you out – “see the lime green tree – you will find the sunken garden in front of that”. In early summer you covered yourself with small white blooms but no more. True, we had noticed that you were not looking too healthy on one side but now you are gone. Awkwardly – getting you down is a challenge because you are resting against other standing trees but our gratitude that you fell the way you did is great. Had you fallen the other way, you would have brought down the power lines to our house and that would have been A Major Repair.

A root ball close to 2 metres across

The catalyst for the fall was ex-Cyclone Gita – the ex is because it was no longer of the same force that hit the Pacific, particularly Tonga. Pity poor Tonga. It must have been simply terrifying and the damage to that island is vast. Cyclones usually peter out before they reach New Zealand but this one kept barrelling on, though losing its intensity. It was still fierce enough, as bad as we have known when it comes to wind here. We are grateful that the damage is just the one big tree and a bit of smaller stuff down. And grateful that our electricity is back on after a 19 hour power cut, unlike about 5000 homes still waiting to be reconnected after two nights and more than a day without power. We are even more grateful that we have our own deep water bore as half the district on town supply has now run out of water – their taps are the merest trickle or totally dry and water tankers are trucking in supplies. It is harder to manage without running water than electricity. That is one thing I learned. It is a sobering reminder of how dependent most of us are on infrastructure which is not always as robust as we might think.

At least Mark has a spare Schima wallichii ssp noronhae that he can plant out. The fallen specimen was coming up to 60 years old and that root ball is close to 2 metres across. It will leave a big hole to be filled.

Before the fall

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

Tikorangi Notes: Things that go crash in the night, recommended hostas and our pretty meadow

It was not Dudley crashing in the night but he did look somewhat noble down in the meadow yesterday

Things that go crash in the night. On a dead calm night, both of us heard the unmistakeable noise of a large branch falling to the ground. I was pretty sure it was not an entire tree because there was no whump as it hit the ground so it clearly did not bounce, as large trees usually do. Morning light revealed that it was as expected – a branch from one of our old man pine trees. In this case it must have fallen 30 or 40 metres to the ground and it appears to have taken out the two camellias that had more or less staged a revival from being clipped by the last two falling trees.

The damage from a falling branch

As usual, we will gather all the pine cones and get out what firewood we can but it appears that there is some surrounding damage this time.  We are philosophical. It is just part of gardening beneath huge trees that are now up to 145 years old. The fallen epiphytic collospermum may be a clue as to why the branch fell. There will be a big weight in just that chunk of vegetation sitting on the branch. The birds spread the seeds and they can germinate, grow and hang on for grim death up high.

It may have been this massive epiphtye that caused the branch to break

Blue hostas raised from seed

After last week’s post on Hosta Jade Cascade (which is settling in just as well in other parts of the garden where I planted it out), I have been looking anew at the varieties that are thriving on zero maintenance. Some of the enormous clumps will have been in 20 or more years now and just keep reappearing a little larger each season. A lot of our big blue clumps are unnamed, raised from seed – some of them from Hosta seiboldiana.

Hosta undulata variegata is getting smaller, I think, over the years

In a big garden, we need big clumps of plants to have an effect. In this area, the stand out gold is Goldrush, raised and named by Felix Jury. It is a terrific performer and puts up a good floral display of purple flowers. The blue is a seedling. Neither of us can name the variegated hosta which is not the showiest of varieties but it has done well and that is not to be sniffed at. There aren’t many variegated hostas that we have planted that have thrived in garden conditions under a regime of benign neglect. Too many, like this poor little specimen of H. undulata variegata have reduced in size over the years, rather than grown larger.

In the smaller growers, variegated Golden Tiara is again not particularly exciting but a very good garden plant. The blue green, little Flora Dora has increased freely and gold Blonde Elf has also surprised me with how well it has established for a very small grower. On the other hand, I haven’t seen dwarf Kabitan for a while so I wonder if it has shrunk away altogether, which would be a pity.

It looks like Guacamole to me and I am not making up that name

Of the variegated types, this one which I think is Guacamole from memory, is doing very well. It is a reverse variegation sport of Hosta Fragrant Bouquet. I will have planted out large specimens of the latter at a similar time as Guacamole but I have yet to find them in the garden, which means they are not growing as strongly at all.

Sum and Substance

Add Blue Boy as a good, reliable garden plant. We stopped growing it commercially towards the end of our time because there were other, showier, bluer cultivars that sold more readily but while they are not starring in the garden, Blue Boy is a strong survivor. That is my short list of top performers as garden plants that have caught my eye this week and that have proven themselves over several years. Oh, Add Sum and Substance which is surprising me by its willingness to grow suitably large in the spot where I planted it.

As a postscript to the hostas, these are grown with no slug bait or slug and snail control. We now have such a rich bird life that they enable us to grow these plants without having to protect them. Well, I assume it is the birds carrying out this task because there is no reason at all for us to have any fewer slugs and snails to start with than anybody else gardening in similar conditions.

The meadow! The meadow!

At the risk of repeating myself – but we all know that gardening is a seasonal activity that is, by definition, repetitive – the meadow below is bringing me great joy as the Higo irises all come into bloom, interspersed with the Primula helodoxa that has been at its peak for a full month now. What more can I say?

 

Dudley and the new season’s avocado crop

Behold our handsome Dudley. Or Dudders, to give him his cricketing name. I wrote about Dudley’s penchant for self-serve avocados two years ago in The Avocado Thief.

Last year the avocado pickings were very lean, bordering on non-existent, really. This year, we have a terrific crop of Fuerte avocados coming in right now and there is nothing wrong with Dudley’s memory. In the centre of a large area which we are developing into a new garden, I found his stash this morning. At this point the revolting lambs’ tails retrieved from the neighbours just across the fence outnumber the avocado stones but Dudley is working on that. Apparently he has designated this area as his outdoor dining space – not to be confused with his breakfast nook by the house where he receives his morning rations.

The evidence! Left: his stash of ageing lambs’ tails adjacent to his avocado stones on the right

Sometimes I read that one should not feed avocado to dogs as it is allegedly toxic. Dudley is a dog of many talents but he has failed to read these warnings and he has never shown any ill effects from an excess of avocado. The same cannot be said for an excess of lambs’ tails which can, at times, clog up in his gut though this does not appear to deter him for long. An excess of avocado flesh merely gives him a glossy coat. This was a townie dog that has adapted rather too well to life in the country.

Dudley’s outdoor dining area is in the middle of an area under development – loosely referred to here as the court garden because it currently resembles a tennis court in dimensions. The two year plan is for a wildflower garden. 

Canberra’s candyfloss cornus

The cornus or dogwoods were simply amazing in Canberra last week. I have never seen anything quite like them. They do not flower like that here. These trees were a mass of bloom and you could clearly get them in shades of sugar pink to apple blossom pink and or simple white. Viewed close up, they were like stylised paintings in their simplicity. Lovely bark, too.

The blooming season is not long, I was told – measured more in days than weeks of peak bloom. But the sight is so glorious that I did not hear anybody complaining about the short season.

As far as I could make out, they were generally C. florida – or maybe some were hybrids in which case likely crossed with C. nuttallii in order to get bigger flowers. ‘Florida’ means full of flowers, not that it comes from the state of Florida. In fact, it hails from the more north eastern areas.

The cornus or dogwood family is quite large. There seems some debate over how many species, but probably in excess of 50. If you take a swathe across the temperate northern hemisphere areas from China, Korea and Japan over to North America, you take in most of the areas of natural habitat.

Why do we not see cornus looking magnificent here? Too wet. Too mild (lacking a winter chill and summer heat). Too windy. And our native puriri moth appears to wreak havoc on the cornus family. We can grow many things really well here. It is just that cornus is not amongst them.

Cornus kousa flowering in June (so early summer) in England

Cornus kousa from China and Japan appears to be more adaptable than the American species. Our specimen finally succumbed to root rot – we literally pushed it over – but on our June visits to the UK, I have often photographed C. kousa in flower and there are a number of selections that have been named along with hybrids between it and C. florida.

Cornus controversa variegata

It was another cornus – C. controversa or the layered ‘wedding cake tree’ which became a fashion plant in this country in the 1990s. It is likely we can attribute this popularity to one person. The wonderful Irish gardener, Helen Dillon did a lecture tour through the country around that time showing slides of her garden (I am pretty sure we are pre-dating power point here) and she had a terrific specimen of Cornus controversa variegata. Everybody wanted one and even we produced some plants commercially though we never planted one out here. The trouble is that it needs to be in the open and full sun in order to develop the characteristic tiered growth habit but with a white variegation, it can often look a little burned and crispy in our bright, unfiltered sunlight. The light is much softer in southern Ireland.

The sweet beet conundrum

Not parsnips. Sugar beet, albeit planted a little late so the tubers are smaller than commercially grown crops

The row of sugar beet may not be a gourmet delight. Mark likes to try different vegetables and I felt obliged to give this new crop a fair trial in the kitchen. The relatively low number of recipes on the internet was a bit of a giveaway. Along with a Canadian friend who described the crop as stock feed. Indeed a fair proportion of the recipes on line were for using the green tops, not the white root.

The first sugar beet root that he brought into the house, we tried raw and grated but it had a bit of an aftertaste. I used the rest of that one in a vegetable stock. Reaching for the internet,  the only recipe I could find that appealed was for sugar beet latkes. I am not sure if there is any fundamental difference between latkes, rosti, hash browns or plain old potato pancakes but the sugar beet version required grating and then salting. During this process, it turned greyish so that by the time I added the other ingredients, it bore a distinct visual resemblance to the New Zealand treat of whitebait. It did not, however taste of whitebait (a very small grey fish with noticeable black eyes, for overseas readers). Following the recipe, I added grated fresh ginger and a pinch of cardamom.

Looking more like the NZ fishy delicacy of whitebait – sugar beet latkes

When it came to frying the latkes, they browned much faster than the potato latkes cooked alongside. That will be the high sugar content. They tasted fine when cooked. Perhaps rather sweet for our taste, gingery with a hint of cardamom. But not good enough to convince me we should make it a dietary staple.

I might try just boiling a couple of beets in water to get a sugar syrup. But as we don’t eat stewed fruit, I can’t really think we need sugar water. The sugar beet crop may be a one-off crop.