Category Archives: Tikorangi notes

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.

Tikorangi notes: a week of pests and petals

Magnolia Honey Tulip

Honey Tulip is going from strength to strength as the tree matures

The magnolia joy this week has been ‘Honey Tulip’. Mark is a modest plant breeder and inclined to describe a number of his best plants as a stroke of luck. I know how hard he works to get these so-called lucky breaks and there is not much left to chance. As we looked at a prominent specimen of ‘Honey Tulip’ at our entrance this week, he expressed relief again that it is indeed excellent and that we have not released a dog of a plant on the market. And he mused (again) that out of that particular controlled cross, he only got two yellows amongst the offspring and only one of those was of merit. That is what he calls a lucky break. I don’t think he is happy unless he gets a run of several – or many – very good similar seedlings worth considering but even then he worries into the future whether he picked the best one at the time to name and release! So the annual display that ‘Honey Tulip’ puts on for us is both a relief and a delight as it continues to go from strength to strength.

The battle with the rabbits continues. After the new lily border was decimated last year, it was a priority to try and get them up this year. While the bulbs will likely survive one year with all their growth having been chewed off, two years is stretching it. First, I spent a day erecting a mesh fence along the border. It was more diversionary than rabbit-proof. In an environment filled with tasty edibles, I just hoped they would take the hint and change their route. But the little fockers laughed at me. When the first shoots were chewed back to ground level in a single night, I started putting cut lengths of drainage tubes over the damaged ones. That works but there are literally hundreds of bulbs in that border and Mark didn’t think it was a realistic option for the whole area. He tried the expensive rabbit repellent spray we bought last year but they laughed at his efforts too.

Netting and tubes in an attempt to deter rabbits

Blood and bone works. Mark now does a daily round. He sprays water on the fresh shoots and sprinkles a light application of blood and bone on the wet surface. The moisture makes it adhere which means that he will only have to repeat the application after heavy rain. It requires vigilance and routine. We need to get them above maybe 40cm so the rabbits can’t chew off the top and the shoots can keep growing. It won’t matter then if they chew off the lowest leaves.

Blood and bone lightly sprinkled on damp foliage is the best rabbit deterrent so far

The longer term solution is obviously to reduce the rabbit population. Mark does daily rounds with the gun. The dogs have found the odd burrow of small ones, to their delight, but are pretty useless once they are larger and on the loose. We got desperate enough to buy some rabbit poison but it is also poisonous to dogs so it requires putting out at night and gathering it back up in the morning. On the first morning, not only had the rabbits totally ignored the bait but our Dudley dog ate one bait before Mark’s eyes. It put him off using it again. The option of getting a cat again is still on the table. It is the first time we have ever hoped a stoat may move back onto our territory to do a clean out of the rabbits. Not for the first time, we have muttered curses at the early British settlers in this country who introduced this pest so they could continue their what-ho-jolly-hunting traditions.

A magnolia bud that has been eaten out, usually by possums but we are now wondering if rats are also to blame

While on pests, a possum – or maybe rats – have wrought havoc this year on some of the magnolias in the distant parts of our property. You can see from the photograph how the offender has eaten into the bud and nipped out the centre at the point when the flower buds were forming. Every single bud on this tree was taken out, which is why Mark is wondering about rats as well as possums. It is very discouraging. Mark is the chief pest control officer here and he generally manages to maintain some sort of equilibrium with a combination of ongoing trapping and the gun but this year appears to be particularly bad.

Doryanthes palmeri or the Queensland spear lily

Two months on from when I first mentioned the Doryanthes palmeri coming into flower,  I am coming to the conclusion that it does not open any more than this. I had envisaged that massive stem covered in open blooms but I think it may just gently continue for a long time yet, opening blooms in sequence without that mass display. The bees love it. Every time I pass, I can hear the audible hum and most of the open flowers have a bee foraging within them.

I mentioned it as a nursery relic cast aside. And indeed, I found confirmation of that this week as I was clearing around the plant. Behold, the original black planter bag, still around some of the root system. Some plants are tough and determined. It was not going to stay constricted by a pathetic little PB as we call these nursery bags.

Dainty and fragrant Narcissus jonquilla

Finally, because we love the tiny as much as the large, here are two little scenes from the rockery. Spring is a glorious season here, never more so than when we get over a week without rain to enjoy the blooming. But suddenly we are on the cusp of the point where a long spring no longer beckons but instead we are under pressure to get the new plantings done before it is too late and we are too dry and too warm.

Moraea villosa or the peacock iris

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.

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