Category Archives: Tikorangi notes

A somewhat disappointing afternoon. Summer gardens in Auckland – part one.

I started my garden visiting weekend going to Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens. I had been impressed by both their swathes of perennials and their meadow when I visited in the summer of 2015 and I wanted to see how they had developed the concepts in the time since.

Ha! This strip of waving gaura with Pennisetum glaucum immediately in front of the entry was pretty much as good as it got when it came to summer perennials. There are major works underway putting in a new sealed route through the gardens and when I say road, I mean something that resembles a fairly major highway. It is going straight through the area of summer perennials so there was no summer display that I could find. It is the first time that Auckland Bot Gardens have ever let me down and I did feel a mite tetchy that I had driven all the way out to Mangere on a thoroughly disappointing visit.

But look at the lovely seed heads on the pennisetum. I thought I needed this plant until I looked at the foliage. Pennisetums are classified as grasses and many have fine foliage. However, Pennisetum glaucum is actually millet, grown commercially for its grain harvest, though these named cultivars with purple foliage have been selected as decorative garden annuals rather than grain production. The foliage is closer to maize than a grass and while it may be possible to keep it lush and dark in a well cultivated and irrigated garden border, grown in harsher conditions, the foliage didn’t have a whole lot to recommend it. The seed heads did, though, especially in conjunction with the airy, waving gaura. In the interests of accuracy, I should perhaps add that there was a row of red bedding begonias in the front but I carefully framed my photo to cut them out. I am not a bedding begonia fan.

Other than that pretty scene, it was the waiting bridesmaids that most took my fancy. It was a hot afternoon and they must have found their stiletto heels a little taxing for prolonged standing around. I assume they were waiting for the bride but I didn’t quiz them. Now I think about it, I only saw a very large wedding party (there were pretty flower girls, another couple of bridesmaids and a fairly large cluster of well-turned-out young men standing in the shade as well) but no wedding guests. I was more concerned about the missing bride but now I wonder where the guests for this large wedding were hiding out. This will remain a mystery.

 

It’s all in the detail

In the absence of a photo of the Isola Madre steps, I give you Villa d’Este steps even though they are not the same. And they are missing the elegant white peacocks.

In all the gardens I have seen, two sets of steps are etched in my memory. The first is the graceful flight leading down to the original boat landing on Isola Madre in the northern Italian Lago Maggiore.  I do not think I even have a photo of it and I failed to find one on a cursory look on the internet, so you will just have to imagine a long and sweeping set of stone steps, populated these days by oh-so-exquisite pure white peacocks rather than ladies in long gowns.

Lutyens steps at Great Dixter

The second enduring memory is of a style, not a particular set of steps. The circular Lutyens steps from the early twentieth century, seen in many gardens but perhaps best known from Hestercomb and Great Dixter. We wanted some of our own as soon as we saw them. It has taken a decade, but we are into slow gardening here. Finally, we had a location where we needed steps and where we had enough space to consider steps that would be a design feature, rather than utility access. And let me tell you, executing such steps is not as simple as it looks, even when you have had a good close look at them.

One of the lessons I took away from looking at a garden that I wrote about at the time as being the closest to perfection that we have ever seen, was the importance of quality construction. I am not big on what I call ‘veneer gardening’ – somewhat like theatre set design but in a garden context. It may hit with the wow factor but soon becomes tacky and doesn’t last the distance. The same goes for poorly executed constructions and installations. Good design and construction underpin a good garden over time. We wanted to get our steps right.

Fortunately we have Our Lloyd who is a perfectionist with a good eye, backed up with his theodolite, string lines, tape measures and various other accoutrements. Even so, it took three goes and three sets of eyes to get it right. The site does not have a large fall and the two levels are defined by small brick retaining wall. We figured the steps needed to be two metres wide so that is the distance between the two small pillars.  Firstly, Lloyd mocked it up for us to look at. I was slightly disappointed that the mock up did not have the generous look I was hoping for but Mark picked the problem at first glance. Lloyd had laid it out so the widest point was two metres, not starting with the inner circle being that diameter.

From a book – the circle of steps is fully contained in the gap of the small retaining wall.

It is the same mistake, I think, that is found in this set of steps photographed in a book we had. To be fair, that may have been how they wanted their steps, but it wasn’t how we wanted ours. We only have sufficient fall to get three wide, shallow steps – one set back into the top level and two opening out to the area that is destined to be planted as the Court Garden this autumn. The second glitch came when we realised after the initial construction, that the outward facing bricks to the central circle needed to be set lower than the bricks on the top half circle. On the top, those bricks are the riser, on the lower side, they are the retaining edging and the riser to the next step down so they are set at a lower level. It is surprisingly complicated.

Mock up number two (I did not photograph the first one) – the inner circle is now the width of the opening but the top step set into the terrace has yet to evolve so it is a flat circle 

The next mistake was not to drop the half circle on the left during construction

Getting there.

The thing about circles is that when you expand the diameter, the circumference increases hugely. The final width at the lowest point is about three metres. I think I am going to really like these when they are completed. At this stage, the plan is to fill the centres with compacted hoggin (golden, crushed limestone). We don’t do fully bricked steps in our climate. With our high humidity and rainfall, they get mossy and dangerously slippery very quickly. I like the colour of the hoggin, it is said to compact down to a very hard layer, is durable and cheap and cheerful. I am hoping to use it for the paths through this area although Mark has flagged a concern that, being limestone, it will leach into our acid soils and alter the pH so we are still pondering this matter.

Lime chip to the left, lime fines, more soft golden yellow than white, in the middle. 

At the other end of this large space, we need another set of steps but in this case, the low brick retaining wall is straight, not curved so we will do straight steps.

But, here is food for thought. My landscaper friend, Tony, looked and said, “You will set the steps back into the top terrace and not build them outwards into the lower space, won’t you?” And I admit it had never even occurred to me that this was a decision that needed to be made. I had just assumed we would build them outwards into the open space. But the visual effect is going to be very different, depending on the design decision made. Because the top terrace is not so wide, we may go half and half – perhaps the top step set back, the middle step set between the small end pillars that will define the space and the lower step set leading into the large, open area.

It took a while, but I think we are right now and they will be graceful, wide, shallow steps

No-one will ever look at these steps as closely again, bar the occasional professional, perhaps. But that is as it should be. The hard landscaping plays a key support role to a garden but it is not the star, at least not in our style of gardening. If it is right from the start, it will define the area and play a key role in how the garden is seen and experienced. If it is wrong or badly executed, it becomes an ongoing irritant, maybe just a nagging regret or sometimes an ongoing issue.

An earlier photo sequence I did of different styles of steps – from back in the days when I wrote for the Waikato Times – can be found here.

Seasons Greetings

May your Christmas season be happy and festive, filled with lots of love and laughter and your new year bring a satisfying experience of gardening filled with flowers, foliage, produce and most of all, pleasure.

The photo at the top was inspired by the gentle winter Christmas scene on Dan Pearson’s site – a beautiful composition in greys, creams and white.  A New Zealand Christmas is different and filled with flowers in many hues. I made my little arrangement and Mark walked in declaring, “Oh, a pixie has been here.”

Truth be told, Christmas here is perhaps better encapsulated by a scene that is somewhat bolder, less subtle and obviously from the summer season. Like this: 

Abbie and Mark Jury, Tikorangi 

Novice gardening

In a city far, far away. Well. four hours’ drive away, to be precise

“The horror! The horror!”

Kurtz’s final words in Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.

I use these words flippantly and facetiously. I studied the works of Joseph Conrad back – way, way back – when I did Honours in English Literature and the topic of my dissertation was three of his works, including Heart of Darkness. But I found myself muttering ‘the horror! The horror!’ when I beheld this exercise in section maintenance this week.

I only share it with readers because I took these photos in a city four hours drive from here and do not think the people responsible will ever read my gardening pages on line. I would not want to hurt their feelings because they have at least tried. Occasionally, a sight such as this reminds me of just how much I have learned about gardens and design in my life.

Starting with the public frontage (or maybe sideage), we have the sight of weed mat. I am sure I have railed against weed mat in domestic situations before. It is a commercial product for a commercial application – plant nurseries – and it has zero aesthetic appeal. All that can be said for it is that it is marginally better than the earlier habit of laying heavy duty black plastic which soured the soil over time. Weed mat is permeable so it allows moisture through. The soil beneath will compact over time, but it won’t become dead soil, bereft of all microbial and insect activity. It possibly has some application to use as a weed barrier that is then covered (entirely, please, entirely so that none is in view) with some pebble or lime chip but that means it can only be used on a flat surface. What could they have done? It was a rough slope so unsuitable for grass. I would be wanting to stain the fence dark and maybe plant the area solidly in something like mondo grass, perhaps with some marguerite daisies to bring pleasure to passers-by.

It was the borders inside that made me smile. They were recently planted and into heavy soil. One of this and one of that, randomly distributed. A lavender, a gerbera, a bromeliad, a patio rose, a cineraria, a kale, a paper daisy, a polyanthus and much, much more. In singles, bar the five clivias. I immediately conjured up the mental vision of this couple heading to the garden centre, determined to plant up the beds. They must have wheeled at least two trolleys around, loading up with one of everything which had flowers on it on the day. There were a lot of plants and I don’t imagine it was cheap at all. A garden centre owner’s delight. This is, by the way, a rental property and let me at least give credit that the enthusiastic landlords were attempting to make the outdoors attractive.

If I still had a paid gig writing for the print media, I would be heading out with my camera to find some of the best examples of low maintenance, outdoor planting and design for non-gardeners that I could find. But I don’t, so that idea was short-lived.

At least the bees and butterflies will enjoy these garden beds for the short time that they will bloom, before they become a mess. And it would be worse if the beds were all covered in visible weed mat.

Just another week in the Garden of Jury – late spring, umbrellas and bird’s nest or two

Umbrellas are a part of our lives here. We own quite a few of them and use them often to move around the property. That is because it rains quite a bit and the rain can often be torrential. We get 150cm a year (60 inches). I try and keep the respectable brollies that are in good condition tucked away for when visitors need them, confining us to the somewhat derelict ones. When I say we own quite a few, I mean getting up towards 20 of them and I don’t want to end up with 20 old, crusty brollies. Here I am, drying out some of the better ones to put away again after a garden tour last Sunday.

The tour was a small group of British and American gardeners, led by a tour host whom we particularly like, which is why we agreed to their visit when the garden is otherwise closed. It is a very different dynamic to host tours with a knowledgeable leader and plenty of time for a leisurely walk around followed by morning tea. We really enjoy their company and that has not always been true for garden tours down the years. The more you get, the less personal the experience and, I am sure, less rewarding for the visitor too. The rain didn’t even matter much and it stopped soon after it started.

The English visitors felt right at home as soon as we reached the park and they saw the meadow although one of them marvelled, looking back and seeing our native tree ferns growing amongst the trees – they are self-sown here but very highly valued in the UK. Though truth be told, the most common tree fern grown overseas is the Tasmanian species, Dicksoniana antarctica.

Iris sibirica, Stipa tenuissima and common fennel in the morning light

I showed them the progress on the new garden area and those from colder climates were simply amazed at the growth rates we get here, it being a mere sixteen months since I started planting this area. The other side to that coin, of course, is that while we get a quick result we have to start thinning and managing the growth much earlier. The Iris sibirica are looking particularly good this week and stand well above waist height. We only have three different forms of this iris – the deep ‘Caesar’s Brother’, a white form and the one above which may or may not be ‘Blue Moon’. If I see other colours being offered, I would be tempted to buy more having found how spectacular they can look when massed as single colours.

The simple charm of a grey warbler nest

Behold a grey warbler nest. These are exquisite, small creations that hang from branches but this one had broken off in the recent winds. The migratory shining cuckoo is entirely dependent on the grey warbler for its continued survival because it pressgangs in the warbler into fostering its egg and then the hatchling. I asked Mark how the cuckoo, a larger bird, managed to get its egg into the nest. He is fount of considerable knowledge on these matters and he tells me the cuckoo enters through the hole, lays its egg and then forces its way out the side. The little warbler then repairs the nest and hatches out the cuckoo’s single egg with its own eggs but the larger cuckoo hatchling pushes the baby warblers or warbler eggs out of the nest. Before you worry too much about the warblers, it is the second clutch of eggs they raise that can be supplanted by the cuckoo in the nest and the warbler population is not under any threat at all.

I have a collection of birds’ nests and have been wondering how to display them. I have at last found a suitable tree skeleton that I think can be severed and brought under cover so I can tie the nests to the bare branches. Whether I can do it without it looking terribly naff remains to be seen.

Gardening is a wonderfully cyclic affair. Is there anybody as finely tuned to the seasons as the keen gardener? Yesterday was the first pick of the roses for the season. All but two of these have such scoury foliage that they have been banished to Mark’s vegetable garden (a large area that he refers to as his allotment) so the only reason they still survive is for the cutting of the blooms. Not only is gardening cyclic, it can also be distinctly ephemeral. But often those ephemeral pleasures can be the most charming on the days when they are at their best.

The roses used to grow in borders surrounding the sunken garden before I cut my losses on their awful foliage and stripped out the area for a more sculptural simplicity 

I think it looks better now for the simpler appearance

To deadhead or not to deadhead, that is the question

“Felix’s legacy”, as we say

I asked Mark what the name of this very pink, frothy rhododendron was and he replied, “Felix’s legacy”. Lower case on legacy because it was never named or released. What is interesting about it, aside from its close resemblance to what we call candy floss in this country (fairy floss in many countries – spun sugar), is that if you look at it closely, it has no stamens and it appears to be fully sterile. This means that it does not set seed and the blooms die off more gracefully, while the display looks very clean when in bloom. A plant showing this type of sterility is often described as a mule.

This raises the question about deadheading. The common wisdom amongst keen gardeners is that all rhododendrons need deadheading. In fact, they don’t. They just look a whole lot better for it. Because we have so many, we have only ever targeted the most critical plants to deadhead, which means the ones that set copious amounts of seed. Excessive seed setting can affect future flowering because it takes a lot of energy for plants to set seed.

Nuttallii seed from a plant we missed deadheading last year

Some of the nuttallii types particularly benefit from deadheading. Over time, they are inclined to die back or even die off as a result of their seed setting because it can weaken the plant. When the plant sets a whole lot of seed, it usually inhibits new growth on that branch. It takes a lot of energy for plants to set seed.

Lems Cameo

I mentioned last week about all the cold climate, American hybrids we tried out that didn’t like our conditions. In its day, ‘Lems Cameo’ was the most desired hybrid of all – but difficult to produce commercially because it needed to be grafted to grow strongly. I was surprised to come across it still alive in our park. My, I thought, doesn’t it display its flowers well when it has next to no foliage left at all!!! It is not a plant of great beauty when not in bloom.

Finally, this exhumed pile of wire and netting is a salutary comment on the longevity of synthetics. I found it when I was digging a hole in a bank to plant clivias. The netting must have been buried over four decades. It pre-dates Mark’s return to the property in 1980. His father did not believe in taking anything to the dump. While it can be ripped now, it is not decomposing. We are now trying to lead a life shunning as many plastics and synthetics as we can but there are decades of waste clocked up by pretty much each and every one of us, already NOT breaking down in the environment.

 

Notes from the Garden of Jury, September 30, 2018

The early spring bulbs are over and we are now into mid-season. We garden with many, many bulbs and probably find them a great deal more fascinating than most who are less enthusiastic. I could wow a few readers with the Phaedranassa cinerea or maybe the Cyrtanthus falcatus in bloom now, but to the casual eye, a simple planting of bluebells and Narcissus bulbocodium naturalised around the base of an old eucalyptus tree is likely to be far more charming. That eucalyptus dates back to around the 1870s when Mark’s great grandfather planted several around the property. They are messy trees because they shed bark and small twiggy growth all year but look at that interesting twist in the trunk that some varieties develop with age.

Camellia minutiflora – a charming and graceful species

The flowers are delightful and abundant but small – C. minutiflora again

I do a lot of flower and garden photography although I would only describe myself as a gardener and writer who takes photographs, not a photographer as such. And some flowers are really difficult to photograph. I feel I have got to grips with magnolia images but making a series of flower shots of some genus can be particularly challenging. It is mighty hard to make a whole lot of full trussed rhododendrons, japonica camellias or hybrid tea roses look interesting rather than a series of blobs. More on rhododendrons later in the season. But so too is it difficult to capture some of the smaller flowered shrubs, conveying their charm. I have taken many photographs of the dainty camellia species, C. minutiflora, and they remain a dismal failure in capturing the simple visual delight to the naked eye. It is such a delightful plant that we have used it in a number of places through the garden. In the end, I decided I just had to pick a few sprays and lay them on a plain background to try and show just how sweet this little camellia is when you can see the detail.

Daphne genkwa – the blue daphne

Daphne genkwa with its corylopis backdrop

So too with the less common blue daphne, D. genkwa. I photograph it every year and then delete almost all the photos as not doing justice to the plant at all. This may be because it is not a shrub with much to distinguish it other than its remarkable lilac blue flowers. And so too the corylopsis, often referred to as witch hazels. I think we only have two different forms of corylopsis. One flowers earlier and makes a charming haze of creamy yellow behind a Daphne genkwa. The other is flowering now and may be a form of C. pauciflora but we have never taken much interest in unravelling the family. They just occupy a space and remain relatively anonymous for most of year except for their splash of dainty blooms in the two weeks or so when it is their turn to shine. Colder, drier climates appear to get a more extended flowering season on a number of these deciduous shrubs whereas, in our mild conditions, they are more of a fleeting delight. But on their days, what a delight they are.

Corylopsis

And the corylopsis in situ with Rhododendron spinuliferum to the right front and and the burgundy loropetalum behind

It was garden writer, Neil Ross, whom I first heard likening a garden to musical theatre. Don’t plan a garden full of stars only, he said. Those stars need the chorus to make them shine so don’t forget those plants filling the role of the chorus. That is how I see these plants which have a short season – chorus cast with a brief solo in the spotlight.

Just look at the lily border. It never looked like this last year when the rabbits won the battle on the emerging shoots. Mark is getting bored with his daily round of vigilance and looking forward to the time when the stems get tall enough to be out of the reach of the rabbits. But spraying the plant with water and sprinkling just a part teaspoon of blood and bone on each plant is working. The reason for doing it one by one is because it has to be reapplied after rain and we don’t want to be over fertilising the whole border by broadcasting the blood and bone freely and often. Besides, I was a bit shocked at the price last time we bought some. It would be easier to manage if we bought some liquid blood and bone so it could just be applied with one action but we will use up what we have first.

The price to pay for a lily display is clearly ongoing vigilance.

Yes, yes I know the advice is always given not to drive over hoses. Based on experience, it appears that you can get away with it when the hose is still relatively new but there comes a point in the age of the hose when one incident of driving over it can render it a very leaky hose. This of course means that over the course of the next weeks, any user of said hose gets wet legs until the right stage of being fed up is reached and the hose replaced. We haven’t quite got to this point but it is imminent. And I will try not to drive over the next hose length.