Category Archives: Tikorangi notes

Glitter gardening (may not be quite what you think)

Two weeks and the foundation plants are all in the new Court Garden

“Now you can add the glitter,” Mark said when I proudly announced that I had finished planting the new Court Garden. It has been something of a marathon effort on my part. “What glitter?” I replied defensively, telling him I had put in assorted flowering plants. “Flowers like echinaceas and narcissi,” he said. After all it is to have a prairie look (albeit a prairie on steroids, somewhat styled into waves).

This was food for thought. I rejected the idea of echinacea. The Court Garden is flanked on one side by the twin, herbaceous borders and on the other by the lily border and the unromantically- named caterpillar garden. Over a glass of wine last Friday, Mark declared: “We don’t have garden rooms. We have galleries.” He was taking the mickey, of course. We certainly don’t have garden rooms but I wrote down the galleries because I feared the wine may dull our memories. It seemed a good description of this new garden – a main area with side galleries.

Lots of miscanthus – magical in autumn when back-lit. All our miscanthus descend from a single specimen which used to live in the Iolanthe garden.

In planning the new plantings, one of my ruling principles has been to use different plants in the different areas so they don’t all look the same over time. And echinaceas are a big feature in the twin borders so I didn’t want to repeat them. At this stage, there are only two plants that feature in both the borders and the Court Garden (miscanthus and the giant Albuca nelsonii) and I want to keep it that way. Nor did I plan to plant bulbs through the Court Garden. My vision is big, bold, immersive and generally low maintenance.

My restraint and resolve lasted precisely the two weeks it took to plant the Court Garden. Keeping to about 26 different plants may not seem restrained by some modern landscapers’ standards but it is extremely restrained by ours. In this we are not alone. Mark pointed out that Piet Oudolf’s planting plans can be astonishingly complex when you see his plant lists.

I am figuring that the Court Garden will be looking well furnished by next summer and autumn and starting to hit its peak by the following summer. Having looked at the grass garden at Bury Court, I also expect that over time, the grasses will dominate and crowd out the flowering plants. And I am fine with that. It will be survival of the strongest which means that at least some of the flowering options are short term only. This is not an area for choice treasures that need nurturing and attention to keep them going.

After all, what is lovelier than Lilium formasanum with a backdrop of miscanthus?

But in the interim, I decided that there is no reason why I can’t add plants that will perform and delight even if it is only for a few years. Yesterday, I added some of the autumn flowering Lilium formasanum because it looks so lovely flowering against miscanthus. And a daisy that I am told came from Bev McConnell’s meadow. Now I am wondering about adding dwarf narcissi. We have some trays of bulbs that are already well represented in the wider garden so these surplus are meant to be going down into the park meadow where they may, or may not, thrive.  Maybe they could flesh out the Court Garden in its early years instead. They can be the glitter Mark was envisaging.

I used to feel a bit defensive about loving ornamental plants. First we saw the native purist wave – “I will only plant natives. That is not a native, is it?” (said sniffily). Then there was the edibles wave. “Everything in my garden has to be edible or medicinal.” Or worse – and this is what I actually heard proclaimed by a doomsday prepper in Egmont Village – “In this day and age, anybody who plants a tree that is neither fruit or nut or plants that are not edible is a fool.” Apparently hard times and food wars are coming sooner rather than later. But what about feeding the soul with the beauty of a magnolia in full bloom, I wanted to say.

Now we know that the ornamentals are what feed the bees that we need to pollinate food crops. We understand far more about the need to maintain healthy eco-systems. A row of brassicas and a mandarin tree may feed the stomach but their contribution to the health of the environment is minimal. It is not just aesthetics – although a dwarf apple tree is never likely to ever take your breath away with its beauty.  It is about working with nature, furnishing the environment, feeding not just the birds and the bees but all other lesser appreciated insects and animals of a healthy eco-system. And it is about feeding the soul.

Good gardening is about a whole lot more than just feeding the human body, creating pretty pictures or improving real estate investments. It always has been but it has probably never been more important than it is now.

We have plenty of Macleaya cordata but my best photos of it are from Bury Court. Sadly, we lack oast houses here at Tikorangi.

 

For any readers who like plant lists, below is the initial planting from the Court Garden.

Key grasses and others planted in waves:

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’

Chionochloa rubra

Calamgrostris ‘Karl Foerster’

Stipa gigantea

Elegia capensis

Astelia chathamica

Chionochloa flavicans

Albuca nelsonii

Other foundation plants:

Curculigo recurvata

Doryanthes palmeri

Austroderia fulvida (North Island toe toe – the only plants I needed to buy in)

5 different phormiums in red and black (‘coloured flaxes’ as we call them in NZ) Only two still had labels on them – ‘Black Rage’ (who named that one?) and ‘Pink Delight’ though all will be named forms.

A random large growing reed

Flowering perennials

Not so much glitter as flowering thugs difficult to accommodate elsewhere but worth a place where they can compete on more or less equal terms

Foxgloves in white and pale apricot

Nicotiania (sylvestris, I think it is)

Verbascum creticum

Fennel

Verbena bonariensis

Salvia confertiflora, and two other very large salvias that I have yet to find the correct names for

Macleaya cordata (plume poppy)

A day at the Melbourne Flower Show

Lots of lovely kniphofia featured which may be a reflection of the time of year for the show

I admire the skills it takes to get massed displays of tulips flowering in autumn (which will be to do with times of refrigeration and removal from the cold to controlled growing conditions). But I prefer the kniphofia.

We went to the Melbourne Flower Show last week. Never been before. There are reasons why we have never felt the desire to time one of our UK trips for the Chelsea Show. We are gardeners, first and foremost. Put us in a real-life garden and we are in our element. Flower shows are a whole different genre and it takes some effort to switch focus and orientate oneself to the small, staged gardens that are the centrepiece of such events. Added to that, we are not good shoppers and the retail outlets take up the lion’s share of display space. Clearly, we can’t buy plants in Australia to bring home or we might have taken more notice of the plant stands. But we are adaptable people and had a most pleasant day in the 27 degrees (Celsius) of an early autumn day in Melbourne. Though when the temperature plummeted to about 12 degrees max two days later, we were glad we went on the Thursday and not the Saturday.

We were not above some pride in what I called the Mark Jury Wall of Fame on the outside of the Media Centre. And Mark was sufficiently gratified to pose for my photos. All the plants except the coprosma are his breeding. Admittedly the Media Centre is organised and run by our agents, Anthony Tesselaar Plants, but it did feel a bit like having a prime position at the show. Sometimes, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when we are immersed in our garden at home and New Zealanders rarely like to hail one of their own, lest that person get a swollen head, so it was pretty interesting to find his standing in Australia is greater than at home.

‘When flower shows get judgemental’

Our adult children were with us and I was greatly amused when the eldest shared her photo to Facebook with the caption: ‘When flower shows get judgemental’. These ‘Achievable Gardens’ were largely modest affairs and indeed very achievable, for the most part.

Definitely achievable

I failed to take notes but I am pretty sure this was the winner in the Achievable Gardens section

The show gardens were a mixed bag. It is hard to be genuinely original in a small, tightly constrained space and there were the usual cute cottage gardens, stylish courtyard gardens, outdoor living rooms, a rill (of course a rill), living walls and the like.

We particularly liked this informal, wildflower garden by Ben Hutchinson but the judges did not rate it as highly as we did. Very glaring light conditions so the photograph does not do it justice.

I liked the use of blue festuca grass rather than the more cliched black ophiopogon (mondo grass) between the pavers in this immaculate garden

I have to admit that at the time we didn’t analyse what trends we could pick and it is only reviewing my photos and writing that has had me turn my attention to that. It is a different country, a city with a different climate to ours (much hotter and drier than us in summer), early autumn and we are not particularly familiar with the plants favoured in Australia. Also, these are temporary show gardens so most start from the base of defining the area with hard landscaping.

Look at the lovely detail in the wooden beehive-like construction. I failed to record the designer and the programme did not help me determine that afterwards. 

But overall, I think I could declare that minimalist, hard-edged form and simplistic plantings can be consigned to the dustbin of history. I can’t recall much, if anything of potagers, either. Flowers. Most of the gardens used flowers and colour and a relatively wide plant palette, often with Australian native plants featuring large. Overall, naturalistic plantings which make an ecological contribution. We, of course, are quite happy with this trend. It fits with our own gardening philosophy.

 

The Best in Show was beautifully executed with a lot going on and every detail attended to with care and skill. I could see why it won. My photos don’t do justice to the exquisite management of colour.  The light was very harsh. It was also a big budget installation, but in the end, that is what these flower shows are all about.

Overall winner – and deservedly so

Framing views

We only passed through the Great Hall but I went back to photograph the ikebana. I am not into floral art at all and have never taken any interest in the refined skills, balance and allusions of ikebana. But visually, I appreciated the simplicity of the large examples on display.

As regular readers will know, we are not big on garden ornamentation and decoration, but these bark birds of prey were striking, if natural styling is your preference.

More from Melbourne to come. A visit to the Dandenongs and Cloudehill Gardens, the Melbourne Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens.

 

Saving my best for last – Auckland Heroic gardens part 2.

We visited a Mellons Bay garden which had a location and view to die for. It is still very much in development and the owners are making the most of creating a garden space that maximises its remarkable location. It was there that I encountered a grass I had not seen before.

Vetiver grass, not miscanthus

At first I thought it must be a mass planting of miscanthus but no, it is vetiver grass from India, botanically Chrysopogon zizanioides. I learned this from my friend and tour host for the day, the effervescent garden designer, Tony Murrell. Vetiver is apparently being widely promoted in Auckland for its erosion control capability. I looked it up. It puts its roots down four metres in the first year alone and is hardy to drought, prolonged flooding, fire, some frost and grazing. The roots can go down as far as six metres. By this stage, my eyebrows were pretty much reaching my hairline but it is apparently sterile and non-invasive so it doesn’t spread. And if you change your mind about it, you can use herbicides on it, though I can’t imagine digging it out without heavy machinery.

Personally, I wouldn’t be rushing to plant something that grows quite so strongly but we don’t suffer from erosion or land that slips so we don’t need something quite as drastic. If you prefer to use native plants, there are many references on-line that will give various options, such as here.

The view from the deck in city suburbia

From there, it was to see four smaller, city gardens. I had seen all of them before but not for several years. When you live in a densely populated city, sometimes with long thin sections that are not a great deal wider than your house, this sort of vista is pretty amazing. It is in Glendowie and the owners of the two open gardens had the wisdom to buy properties that looked outwards to reserve so there is a seamless visual flow. Added to that, the row of houses have maximised what was once more or less wasteland that runs along the base of the properties. You wouldn’t want to go swimming or paddling in this water (I am guessing most of it is stormwater, supplemented by springs), but it is a delightful, sheltered common space at the end of the gardens.

The light was too bright and the shadows too deep to do justice to this cluster of bromeliads but I particularly noted it because it was a counterpoint to the vibrant and bright use of bromeliads mentioned in the first post of these two. This was restrained and understated but maybe more charming for that.

From there it was to a garden I have written about before – industrial chic I called it then and I did not change my mind on a second visit. Quirky, detailed and full of energy. I don’t want to own it but it makes me laugh. It is also on the market, should you feel such admiration that you want to own it. Although it is such a personal creation that the future owners may feel imposter’s syndrome until they make it their own. I would have taken more photos, but there wasn’t much room to move with so many people and rather a lot of accoutrements.

The box-shaped plant in the centre of the photo is the purple loropetalum.

Finally a gem of a garden, to which I returned as a private visitor the next day so I could have a closer look with the owners, Geoffrey Marshall and John Hayward (who also happen to be the Heroic Festival organisers). They are friends who will read this, so I don’t want to seem as if I am fawning, but if my lot in life was to be a tiny town section, this would be my personal choice. Despite its small size, good architectural design has given it total privacy and a good garden design has given it a sense of containment without being cramped. The level of refinement and detail is exquisite. The foliage is layer upon layer of detail without looking cluttered and the level of plant interest is extremely high. Wherever I looked, there was more fine detail to be uncovered with just the right amount of exotica. It takes a skilled eye and sure hand to be able to achieve that level of detail without it looking confused.

It seems a good place to finish my weekend of looking at the gardens of Auckland.

 

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.