Plant Collector: the good and the bad of nandina

There are not many plants that I actively dislike but the dwarf, coloured nandina is one. You can tell I do not care for it because I gave no loving attention at all to taking this photograph of a plant on a random street frontage in town. Yet this plant is everywhere. One of those bullet-proof, easy-care plants which is alleged to have ‘year-round interest’ with its coloured foliage so a perfect fit for non gardeners who merely want plants to act as low or no-maintenance soft furnishings in the garden.

The taller version – Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ seen here – has sufficient aesthetic merit to justify a place in the garden

Mark was as surprised as I was when I told him I had looked it up and there is only one species of nandina and that this boring little coloured mound which is rarely above knee height is the same species as the far more graceful and attractive Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ that we grow. I can only assume that the common name of heavenly bamboo was initially applied to the more graceful, taller type of selections like ‘Richmond’. I guess, at a pinch, one could claim it has a bamboo look to it, though probably only to those who have never actually looked at the real thing. It is actually a member of the beriberidaceae family (think berberis). Apparently nandinas only berry in warmer climates and ‘Richmond’ is self-fertile so will berry without needing the pollinator that most others do. It is worth growing – easy, reliable and low maintenance yet with a grace and elegance to it, as well as seasonal interest with its berries.

The institutional look of utilitarianism

The dwarf forms lack all of these more desirable attributes except utilitarianism. The more you have, the more utilitarian your garden will look. I have photos of a private garden which has planted a score or more of them but it is too easy to identify the place from my photos and I do not want to upset the owners.  I can, however, offer you this photo of it being used in a public garden. It will not look much different in your garden at home. But it will be easy-care.

The dwarf forms seem to be available under a whole bunch of different cultivar names with some variation in leaf tones and berrying capacity. You can tell it will be a dwarf form by the descriptions of it as clumping, compact or dwarf with projected heights of 60 to 75cm. The red berries, if you get a berrying variety, will never be as showy on a 60cm mound with coloured leaves as they are on their taller sibling with its green leaves and the panicles of berries displayed prominently at eye level or above.

In the interests of disclosure, I will admit that we have one of the dwarf nandina in our garden, though not in a prominent position. Its days are numbered. Probably in single digits since I worked out how much I actively dislike it.


Togs, togs, togs. Undies! A post that is not about gardening.

When I headed across the Tasman two weeks ago, I anticipated a couple of extra degrees of warmth – so late spring rather than our changeable mid-spring. I was wrong. Summer seemed to have arrived already in both Sydney and Canberra and I did not pack sufficient summer clothes. However, it was not yet summery enough to make me think of swimming.

Sydney daughter lives on the fringe of wealthy but staid Bellevue Hill, where it meets the uber-trendiness of turmeric latte Bondi. It could not be more different to Tikorangi and our local town of Waitara so I always find plenty to look at while out walking and I usually carry my camera. However, when confronted by three confident young men wearing only the briefest of swim attire and striding along some distance from the beach, whipping out my camera was truly the last thing I thought of. I was almost flustered by this brazen display of masculinity.

Australia continues to embrace the briefest of brief swim attire for men, usually referred to as budgie smugglers. For recreational wear, New Zealand men long ago moved to the more modest baggy attire of surf shorts. I am fairly sure that only competitive swimmers and the occasional embarrassing older dad wear such brief togs in NZ these days. But then I do not think we have ever had an onion-munching prime minister who took some pride in being photographed publicly in these budgie smuggler togs. If you google Tony Abbott, you will find plenty of evidence and if you are not Australian, it is near incomprehensible.

I was relaying my surprise to my daughter and she found me this You Tube clip. I laughed and laughed.

It is simple, if you can’t see the sea, you are wearing underpants. Or if you are more than 300m from the water’s edge, you have entered the underpants transformation zone. These young gentlemen were certainly wearing revealing undies, in that case.

And even being a buff, gym-fit, Bellevue Hill, private school educated, stockbroker type of young man does not make wearing undies in public acceptable attire

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.

City trees. An asset, not a liability

High density living amongst the trees in Sydney

In the week before I left for Australia, I had seen coverage about the loss of trees in Auckland. The loss of up to one third of all Auckland’s established trees, in fact. That is an astonishing number to have been removed  in the last five years. Too many New Zealanders hate trees.

It was interesting to hit Sydney and Canberrra where temperatures were rising rapidly for summer and to hold conversations with people who value trees a great deal more. I was told more than once that good tree cover in the city can lower the temperature in summer by as much as two or three degrees, making the leafy suburbs much more liveable. And the whole term “leafy suburbs” is used to describe the affluent areas. Sadly, the more down market the area, the more barren and treeless it tends to be.

I photographed this sign in Canberra but ringing in my ears were the cries I often hear in our local city of New Plymouth to fell trees where the roots are starting to lift the seal. It is a curious fact that as soon as this occurs, legions of people suddenly speak up for the welfare of the elderly who, in our local area at least, are allegedly incapable of coping with an uneven surface. Having travelled in Asia, Australia, Europe and the UK, I can assure you that a bit of lifting or cracking of seal is NOT seen as a reason for removing trees in those places.

Privacy on the third floor balcony

My second daughter gave me food for thought. She bought a third floor apartment with a good sized balcony overlooking a very busy road. In a densely populated area of Sydney, there are only about three apartments out of many (but I failed to count how many), that can see onto her balcony. It is amazingly private and that is due to the trees, both the street trees and the elongated Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’ that are on the apartment property.

The street trees are huge. It is a ficus outside her place. And yes, the roots do get into the drains. Just before she bought her apartment, there had been a major repair required on the building’s main sewer pipe. If this happened in New Zealand, the resulting cries for the removal of the offending tree would be deafening.

“Would I have bought this apartment if the trees weren’t here?” Daughter commented. “No. Not a chance. It is the trees that make the busy road and being overlooked bearable. Maybe repairing the underground pipes from time to time is a price I have to pay for living here.” That is NOT a New Zealand sentiment!

Yes trees can cause a lot of damage in storms and when the roots penetrate pipes and crack sealed areas. But never before has it been so important to keep our big trees in urban areas and cutting them down to replace them with shrubs or small, suburban trees which are never going to get much above three metres is not an adequate substitute. Trees generate the very oxygen we breathe as well as contributing to ecosystems and the environment.

Elder daughter drove me round new Canberra suburbs. With typical over-sized freestanding houses on small sections, there is no room for big trees to be planted on these private properties. That is where town planning to allow for plantings in public spaces becomes so very important. If big trees are not established on road verges and in neighbourhood parks, such subdivisions will forever be barren wastelands of concrete and brick. As well as up to three degrees hotter on scorching summer days.

The established – and higher priced – leafy suburbs of Canberra

The established, older areas of Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne all have B I G street trees and how lovely that is to see. It is time for Auckland to rise to the challenge of planting more trees rather than felling them in ever increasing numbers. Planning is critical to create sufficient space for trees to be able to reach maturity. And time for all New Zealanders to cast aside the pioneer mentality that trees merely exist for humans to fell them.

If you don’t have trees, then you don’t get to experience the opening of the first flowers on the jacaranda. In Sydney. In October. Ours at home won’t bloom until February.

I just don’t get it.

With the interest that we have in meadows, I had to stop the car and photograph what appeared to be a natural road verge meadow in a new Canberra suburb. The simple combination of a soft brown  grass and gazanias was eye-catching. The South African gazanias were gently spreading along the verge in a manner which Canberra daughter observed was bordering on weedy. Harmlessly weedy, though, in these fairly harsh, exposed conditions, as opposed to rampantly invasive.

The union of Australia and South Africa?

What really shocked me as I looked more closely was the sheer volume of litter on this road verge. I was hard pushed to get photographs without too much in them because there were cans, plastic bottles and bags, tinfoil wrapping, cardboard, cellophane and all the accoutrements of modern packaging at about 20cm spacings all through it. Many months’ worth. Apparently, no locals feel inclined to keep it clean and those who walk by either don’t see it, don’t care or think it is somebody else’s problem. Were it kept reasonably free of litter, it would be a charming naturalistic planting which contributes more than mown grass while being genuinely easy-care.

People can be so CARELESS about the environment. While in Melbourne, I went to the botanic gardens and clearly people feel it is appropriate to graffiti plants. Why would anybody think it is okay to carve names and messages into this beautiful silver agave? And in the stand of giant bamboo, I could not see any stems that had not been claimed by autographs and marks. It is a form of territory marking, like dogs, but this is not their territory to mark. I just don’t get it. I really don’t.

Tulips from Floriade (as opposed to Amsterdam)

I have just returned from ten days across the Tasman. A mother’s tour of three state capitals, I describe it. Mark and I have three children all of whom are now living in different Australian cities. So to visit them involves a tour from Sydney to Canberra to Melbourne.

While in Canberra, Elder Daughter took me to the final day of Floriade. This is a major community and tourist event for the area with an emphasis on the tulip, backed up by annuals and the Dutch iris in support roles. It is a living flower show and is open for a whole month. The ever-handy internet tells me it involves the planting of more than a million bulbs and annuals across 8000 square metres. It is free entry which is pretty remarkable. There are a whole lot of ancillary activities – performances, cultural celebrations, traders, workshops and the like but beyond buying an icecream each, we took little notice of these.

I admit I am not the world’s greatest fan of the tulip, let alone massed displays of them. They are just a little … stiff, maybe overbred for my personal taste. But I am quite happy to acknowledge that I am a minority in this opinion and that others have great fondness for the genus. Or at least for the OTT displays often created using massed bulbs of the genus. And it would take a churlish disposition to find fault with this very pretty pink and white display.

It didn’t take me long to work out that Floriade has nothing to do with gardening. It is high level, very competent horticulture. Keeping a display going for a full month requires good skills, especially given a climate which can move from a very cold winter with late frosts to temperatures that we would regard as high summer at home, all in the space of those thirty days. There are many reasons to visit, but gleaning inspiration for the home garden is not one.

However, it is a great place to see colour theory in action – how hues of similar tones create a visual carpet of colour while certain combinations will make the colour pop. I was particularly taken by the blue bed and realised how much I respond to those shades.

I liked the occasional incident of a colour rogue – a plant that is quite clearly the wrong colour. I liked even more that these rogues had not been rooted out for ‘spoiling’ the display. My late mother used to make large rugs by hand. She was not a perfectionist but would often say that any errors were following tradition – that perfection was seen as a challenge to either the gods or God, and that the traditional rug-makers always put at least one deliberate mistake into their work. I have no idea now whether this is true let alone which religion she was referencing – possibly Islam, given the geographic location of rug-makers? The rogue pink ranunculus made me smile and think of her.

I took this photo to try and convey the flat, anticlimactic nature of black (or very dark) flowers. Mark has always been offhand about black or indeed green flowers which he sees as novelty blooms sold on the strength of individual flowers when viewed close up, not on visual impact in the garden. And he is right. All these very, very dark flowers just looked lifeless and dull en masse. They are black pansies and dark to black tulips.

Elder Daughter is clearly our offspring. She was considering the disappointing waste of wrapping up the show when the beds are all stripped out and the bulbs and plants presumably become compost. She felt that if they could delay the exercise of reinstating this inner city parkland for a further six weeks or so, then they could sell tickets for $10 each and allow locals to come and dig up the bulbs to take home. She felt she would be photographing the bulbs she really liked so she could locate them when they were starting to go dormant. At least the flowers are all picked at the end of the show, to be delivered to hospitals and care homes around the area, I was told.

Again, I posted an album of additional Floriade photos to Facebook. For anyone who, like a Dutch friend of mine, still thinks tulips originated in the Netherlands, I wrote this piece earlier. Short version: they didn’t.

For the devotees of white

Meadow, meadow. Three meadow styles.

It was like an Impressionist painting but in real life – a pictorial meadow at Trentham

It is compulsory that every garden in Britain have a meadow. Well, not quite law, perhaps, but certainly lore. We have watched the rise and rise of the meadow on our trips over the past decade. The trend is also evident in many European and North American gardens though it is not a style we have embraced in New Zealand yet. For years, I thought it would not work in our fertile and lush growing conditions. It has taken several visits looking at northern gardens to better understand meadow gardening.

In this country, we do not appear to have progressed past the point where we see ‘meadows’ as dense sowings of annual flowers loosely described as ‘wildflowers’. That is plants like the red corn poppies, cornflowers and cosmos, though they are certainly not wildflowers of New Zealand. But there are different approaches to establishing a meadow.

A perennial meadow, the work of  Professor Nigel Dunnett at Trentham Gardens near Stoke on Trent

If you want to see flowery meads at their prettiest, type in ‘Pictorial Meadows’ on Google or Facebook and prepare to be blown away by the beauty. This is the commercial arm of the work that has been done though the landscape department of the University of Sheffield, spearheaded by Professors Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough. It is a whole subsection of the naturalistic gardening movement that is so dominant in Britain and elsewhere today, to the extent that it is now referred to as the ‘Sheffield School’. It has layers of complexity and sophistication that take it way beyond the scattering of a few random seed mixes, predicated instead on sustainable eco systems with a whole swag or research going into their seed selection.

We were delighted by the perennial meadows which were the work of Dunnett at Trentham Gardens near Stoke on Trent, just as we were entranced by the Hitchmough Missouri Meadow at Wisley in its early days. This is wildflower gardening taken to new heights altogether. Their annual meadows are glorious but it is the long term meadows that are environmentally significant. The maturing plantings around Olympic Park in London are an example of those.

Molinia meadow at Bury Court with pink Trifolium incarnatum (Italian clover)

At the other end of the scale are tightly managed meadow gardens. The pre-eminent Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf does some these creations. Beautifully refined meadows of shimmering molinia grass with restrained use of flowering plants. Interestingly, the owner of one of these Oudolf meadows, John Coke of Bury Court, told me that it was the highest maintenance area of his garden, to keep it looking that good. There is a lesson in there somewhere but it looked charmingly simple.

A natural orchard meadow in a private garden in the Cotswolds, designed by leading UK landscaper, Dan Pearson

Maximum brownie points are earned by those folk who encourage natural meadows in their garden. In other words, they stop regular mowing of the grass or cultivating the area and let plants naturalise.  The Royal Horticultural Society does this in large areas now. We particularly noted it at RHS Rosemoor but also in private gardens, often in an orchard area. Over time, there will be an increase in plant diversity in these meadows that evolve with minimal management. It is also the style of meadow that New Zealanders will find most problematic. For we are more likely to judge it as weedy, with rank, overgrown grass.

The problem is that the wildflowers in a natural meadow – be they daisies, dandelions, buttercup or clover in the initial stages – are deemed weeds here whereas they are genuine wild flowers in their home environments. We tend to apply different standards to long grass and wild areas than we apply to gardened areas and ‘proper lawn’, where imported plants are absolutely fine.

Natural meadows have been encouraged in areas which appeared to have been previously mown grass at Rosemoor

What all these meadows have in common is a concern with bio-diversity and ecologically friendly gardening, providing habitat for all manner of living organisms, insects and animals, while looking attractive at the same time. All these meadows are alive with insect life – buzzing with bees and attracting many butterflies along with a wide range of other insects.  The RHS has taken a lead in educating people on the environmental benefits of meadows. Generally, plants as close to their natural form as possible are used (so species rather than overbred hybrids).

A meadow garden is simulating the wild but modifying it to a garden setting. It has some history in English gardening and was espoused by the late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter. Fertility is kept low to reduce competition from overly vigorous grasses and it is usual to incorporate yellow rattle, a parasitic plant that weakens the roots of grasses. In autumn, the meadow is mown and left to lie for about ten days, allowing the seed to fall. The area is then raked to keep fertility low and left to come again in spring. There is minimal cultivation, no spraying and extremely low intervention.

Our meadow at home is progressing. In autumn, the long grass was cut with our sickle-bar mower and we had some debate about whether we could just leave the long grass in situ. But there was so much that it resembled hay and, in the end, we raked most of it up once it had dried. It may take effort at the time, but not mowing the area every few weeks certainly reduces the carbon footprint and allows greater diversity in that environment. And we love the look.


This is the article that led to my resignation from The New Zealand Gardener magazine – irreconcilable differences when it came to photo selection. The article will not, therefore, be published in the November issue. 

Trentham Gardens again