The grass report

I feel sufficiently confident to give an interim report on the grasses I have used in the new Court Garden although it will take another few years before I can give a definitive verdict. These are bigger growing grasses because we had the space and I wanted an immersive effect that wraps around when we walk through the area.

The site is the hottest area in our garden but, being lowered, it can also be frosty in winter. Cold air flows down to lower levels to settle. The ground is typical free-draining, Taranaki volcanic soils that do not become water-logged and never dry out entirely. We haven’t added any fertiliser and once planted, we never water. The area is mulched with wood chip.

Chionochloa rubra – commonly known as red tussock but this form is only brownish red in winter

Chionochloa rubra – NZ native so evergreen. It takes first prize for graceful form because it fountains out from a narrow base and that form makes it a real star in the winter garden. Its flowering is relatively insignificant but I don’t have to groom the plants to remove dead sections. We started with just one plant and I kept dividing it, which it does easily. I have never lost a plant. It needs space to be able to appreciate the graceful form and the best plants are now 120cm high with a spread up to 2 metres.

Chionochloa flavicans, sometimes sold as ‘miniature toetoe’ though it is a different family

Chionochloa flavicans – also a native, sometimes referred to as ‘miniature toetoe’, so evergreen. At its best in spring but holds its showy flowers right through until autumn. Rabbit fodder when young. Has the reputation of ‘whiffing off’ unpredictably and it certainly doesn’t appreciate being crowded by other plants. Again, we started with a single plant and kept dividing. I have overplanted it so will lift the lot shortly and split the plants, replanting fewer and at wider spacings. I am hoping that by dividing, it will stimulate more growth and delay any inclination to ‘whiff off’. Plants are now about 75cm high and up to 140cm wide.

Anemanthele lessoniana or NZ wind grass, sometimes gossamer grass (you can see the ethereal flowers in pink tones) in the borders before I moved it over to the Court Garden
Anemanthele after moving – it turns golden under stress and it was still hot weather when I moved these plants but I expect them to recover

Anemanthele lessoniana – another native – so evergreen – with a vase shaped habit of growth and more colour variation in the foliage. Lovely in bloom with a cloud of fine flower heads. I had this in the twin borders but the plants were getting too large so I have now moved them to the Court Garden. When stressed (and my plants have often been stressed as I have lifted and divided them to increase the number from the original three), it turns an attractive gold but I will need to groom the foliage to remove dead thatch when the plants make fresh growth. It has reached about 90cm high and up to 140cm wide.

The tall plumes are the austroderia – NZ toetoe and a better choice than Argentinian pampas

Austroderia fulvida – toetoe so another evergreen native.  Very large growing and too early for me to comment on its longer term performance. I bought three small plants through Trade Me and they have already reached 1.7m high and 2.4 metres wide.

Stipa gigantea I have referenced countless times. It, too, is evergreen in our conditions and I  give it the occasional groom (by hand or with a leaf rake) to remove dead foliage. Excluding the tall flower spikes, it is about 80cm high and 160 cm wide as it matures. It divides and increases easily so just start with a single plant but you do need a certain critical mass to have sufficient to share with the sparrows. We found the pesky birds stripped the blooms in the first season and the whole reason for growing this grass is for its showy, long-lived flower spikes so that was disappointing. This year we have had plenty to share with the birds. The foliage has a glaucous tint which is a contrast.

Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ to the left with the plumes still looking good after four months

Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster‘ – I have written about this before. It is such a strong grower, spreading at an alarming speed, that I reduced it down to just six plants which I am hoping I can keep in check by root pruning on an annual basis. By root pruning, I mean getting a very sharp spade and cutting back the size of the clump without digging it all out. That way, I can get the spreading fresh growth off it. This works because it makes its new growths on the outside of the clump. It is evergreen in our climate but the foliage looks pretty scruffy by the end of season. I am pretty sure I cut it back hard last winter so the spring growth was all fresh and lush. It is one of the first grasses to flower in spring and those lovely plumes hold all summer and into autumn. It is all about the plumes because the foliage and form are nothing remarkable.

That is what I think is ‘Overdam’ in the front right, Stipa gigantea behind

Calamagrostis ‘Overdam‘. At least, I think it is Overdam. It was given to me. It is strong growing too, but not as threatening as Karl. It has the same lovely plumes but the bonus of clean, variegated foliage which stays looking fresh through the season, somewhat like a lower growing variegated miscanthus, though it spreads sideways rather than up. It will likely need root pruning, too.

Miscanthus is a lovely grass from spring onwards but the glow of those white plumes in the low winter sun is nothing short of amazing

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’. Look, we started with one plant in the garden years ago that just sat, grew annually and fell apart because it needed dividing. As soon as I started dividing it (done variously with a sharp spade, an old handsaw or a small axe), it responded by growing with huge enthusiasm. I overplanted badly and need to take out at least half of the plants but as it is all about the plumes in late autumn and early winter when they glow white in the low sun angles, I will wait. The plants are around 1.7 to 1.8 metres high with flower spikes on top of that so it is very tall. If it is divided often enough, it will stay together – falling apart from the middle is a sign it needs dividing. It is fully deciduous, fine leaved and variegated. Mark is sure that the old foliage has potential for thatching but he has yet to test this theory. This is the only grass that I have spotted seeding down so far but the seedlings are easy to pull out when small.

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ on the right, giant miscanthus on the left

Miscanthus whatever whatever – may be just a larger growing form of sinensis with a wider leaf but it should be called Miscanthus giganteus variegatus. The leaves are wider and with a most attractive, clean variegation but the vigour and size is daunting. We ended up digging out three massive plants because I couldn’t hold them together and, as they fell apart, they blocked the path entirely. This is a triffid of a grass. Gardening friend, Susan, suggested that maybe the way forward is to do the Chelsea chop on them – cut them back to ground after the first big flush. I think she is right and I will be cutting them back to ground level about mid November. The second flush of growth should be more compact and shorter. If I can’t keep them under control this way, they will have to go. The plants are too big for me to lift alone and I don’t want to commit to plants that need lifting and dividing annually.

Just too big – they grew even larger and floppier after I took this photo

Lomandra We had a named variety in the garden but I found a better option to replace it with. I rate lomandra as one of the world’s more boring plants and I suggest you leave lomandras to supermarket carparks and roading roundabouts. We have more interesting and attractive native grasses without having to resort to this utility Aussie in NZ gardens.   

Here endeth the interim grass report. Except to say that I am moving and dividing some now because we still have at least six to eight weeks of the growing season left before temperatures drop and growth slows or stops over winter. That said, I have done this in winter and we can get away with it but it is not recommended in less benign conditions where the plants may just sit and decompose in sodden, cold soils.

The Court Garden after its second summer

August 2018

I am turning my attention back to refining the new Court Garden. How did we manage before digital cameras? They make it so easy to track change. This was where we started with a blank canvas.

August 2019

A year later and I had done most of the planting and the steps were in place. If you look carefully, you may see some little spots of yellow. I drifted many dwarf narcissi through to add early spring interest. This winter will be my last chance to locate them and remove them before they are forever swamped in the grasslands.

October 2020

This is how it looked when we opened for the garden festival last spring, when we had completed the paths. It was the first viewing by members of the public and most visitors loved it.

March 2021

This is the same view, four months later. The growth has been well in excess of what we expected. This is the result of planting into fresh ground although the soils would not have been particularly fertile after being under nursery weedmat for three decades. We have not fertilised anything. Nor did I use compost to enrich the soil. We did, however, cultivate the ground before planting and mulch afterwards. While planting, I squished a gazillion grass grubs that I unearthed as I went.

Chionochloa rubra

Despite my best effort to get the spacings right as I planted. the mistakes are now clear, mostly because I underestimated how large the plants would get. You can see from the markings on the path, how far out the grass stems are sweeping. I am fine with a bit of softening overhang but I also want to be able to walk through without getting wet legs. I need to move the right hand chionochloa back half a metre. Fine tuning, I call it.

Stipa gigantea and ox-eye daisy at the beginning of November

Again, thanks to digital photography, it is easy to track plant combinations through the seasons. I have been surprised that some have held for a good four months. This is just a simple combination of Stipa gigantea (golden oat grass) and ox-eye daisies as it looked when we opened the garden at the beginning of November.

Stipa gigantea and oxeye daisies in mid December

The same view in December. Aren’t those simple daisies simply glorious? As this mass display passed over, I cut them back to the rosettes at ground level.

This is the same spot in February. The daisies are having a second flush and i think if I get my timings right, it may be possible to get a third flush each year. The stipa has also held onto its sterile flowers and I did not expect these to hold for over four months.

Stipa gigantea and Verbena bonariensis in mid December

Back in mid December, I was delighted by the chance combination of a Verbena bonariensis that chose to seed in this spot by Stipa gigantea. I even took a short video of the gentle movement which was everything I aimed for in this garden but my tech skills let me down sometimes and I can’t work out how to upload it to this platform.

Same plants in late February

This is the same scene, two and a half months later. Still pretty, albeit past its fresh flush.

NZ toetoe and Chionochloa flavicans at the start of November

Who still declares that our native plants are boring? Mark said we must have our native toetoe in what is essentially a grass garden. I bought three plants on TradeMe (our equivalent of Ebay) and from memory, I think they are Austroderia fulvida. We have five species native to this country. The smaller plants are Chionochloa flavida, often sold as ‘dwarf toetoe’ although they are a different plant family.

Four months on

Four months later, the flower plumes are still holding, albeit a little tired as we go into autumn. This is not unreasonable on their part.

I think I am ready to give an interim report card on the key plants used in this garden but that will have to wait for another post. It will take another few years before I feel confident to recommend based on longer term performance but some trends are already clear. Pretty much all the plants used are readily available in this country.

From a tsunami threat and Covid to calliandra and Mark’s low meadow

I would like to suggest that Dudley is asking NZers not to be grumpy moaners but really he was wondering whether it would be worth the effort to follow me down to the Wild North Garden. Not one for wasting energy, he decided it wasn’t.

It has been a discombobulating week. Not at a personal level, but nationwide. The tsunami threat on Friday rather capped it off. In a country where the majority of people live within a few kilometres of the coast, the potential catastrophe of a tsunami on the scale of the 2004 Boxing Day one in the Indian Ocean is very real. Three large earthquakes to the north of us were seen as having the potential to create such waves.

For overseas readers, this resulted in major evacuations across wide areas (“get to higher ground or head inland”), a general warning to coastal residents around the rest of the country and wall to wall coverage on all major media for several hours. Fortunately, the threat passed with no tsunami –  just some unusual wave and current activity – and we all learned that our Civil Defence protection is efficient and effective in the face of real threats. That, at least, is reassuring.

Calliandra flowering this week with ox-eye daisies and Stipa gigantea in the Court Garden

As we are coming up to the first anniversary of Covid in NZ, Auckland is just coming out of another week of Level 3 lockdown. This is comparable to the general level of lockdown in many other countries but somewhat short of the Level 4 lockdown of last year when we managed to get the country Covid-free. It was also for one week only, to isolate the latest community cluster which has been kept to just nine people – against all odds given that it is the highly contagious UK strain. The thing about lockdowns is that they bring out the best in many people and the worst in a strident few and that makes them even more wearing.

Honestly, NZers whinging about being ‘sick of lockdowns’, ‘suffering from Covid fatigue’, and bleating that ‘we can not keep yo-yoing in and out of lockdowns’ are so selfish when you look at the rest of the world, most of which has been in some form of lockdown for the better part of the last year. The whole world is ‘sick of Covid’ but it is not going to end any time soon and we NZers have had more freedom than almost every other country. But there is a price to pay for the freedoms we take for granted and that price is doing what is required to keep Covid out of our communities.

Just please, stop complaining, grit your teeth and keep your eyes on the goal of a return to those freedoms of activity and movement over the next week or so. And keep watching what is happening in the rest of the world and be grateful for where we are.

When everything looks to be going to hell in a handbasket there are still flowers – the pink candyfloss calliandra

I was delighted to see the calliandra in flower this week. I wasn’t sure how it would perform in a garden situation here, given that it is native to Arizona, Texas and Mexico and that it was a very neglected specimen when I planted it. Now I feel I should go and retrieve the remaining neglected specimens languishing in an unloved state in the former nursery area. Maybe I could revive them and have more of these starburst wonders in the hot Court Garden.

We have a large front lawn, now Mark’s low meadow

Mark was almost chortling in delight – except that he is not generally a chortler- at the candyfloss piece about letting your lawns grow on TV’s Seven Sharp show this week. Mark asked Lloyd to stop mowing our large front lawn after Christmas. Lloyd is too discreet to express an opinion on this matter but I suspect it galls him to look at it as he mows the other lawns. Mark was curious to see what would happen if we let it grow and he is quite delighted by what he calls his ‘low meadow’. The quail, who enjoy the clover, are equally pleased. There are areas carpeted in white clover flowers and yellow from the lotus major but more patches than carpets of blue from the self-heal (Prunella vulgaris). I was hoping for more blue.

Equal parts lotus major, clover and lawn grass with some self heal
It would have photographed better had the grass on the mown paths and edges been caught rather than left to lie

After a few weeks, I asked Lloyd to mow a strip around the edges and paths through the middle and that gave it a more acceptable definition – more meadow than neglected, rank grass. There is still an open verdict here on the merits. It is certainly more environmentally friendly. As far back as 2006, I have been writing about the environmental travesty that is our obsession with ‘perfect’ lawns. We will mow again when the flowering finishes and the first cut may be more like making hay. In the meantime, it is not a look that will appeal to everybody but we are interested in experimenting with gentler ways to garden. And at least we are in good company with this concern.

We are in good company – the best in fact. RHS Rosemoor Garden in Devon where they have stopped mowing all the grass all of the time.

The Lost Gardens of Tikorangi

Sometimes in life, you just have to wait for the right person to turn up. So it was with our Wild North Garden.

This area of about 16000 square metres (or 4 acres for oldies and Americans) used to be called the cow paddock, on account of it being the paddock where Mark’s dad Felix kept his house cow for many years. Around 1990 – goodness that is thirty years ago – Mark started on the area. First, he milled the old pine trees planted there by his great grandfather 100 years previously, most of which were dead or dying. The purpose was to get timber to build the very large shed we continue to refer to as ‘the packing shed’ because the purpose at the time was to accommodate our mailorder nursery. While there was heavy machinery on site, Mark had them dig out ponds and waterways which are supplied by springs at the lowest point and a not-quite-stream that flows from the neighbours.

Some pretty spring scenes have evolved but the area has become increasingly difficult to navigate

He started planting, mostly trees and shrubs. Most of the plant material is unnamed seedlings from his breeding programme so there are quite a few magnolias, michelias and rhododendrons. He also added specimens of the woody trees and shrubs we were selling through the nursery, just to make sure we had them represented somewhere in the garden. The result is an eclectic mix. There is also a beautiful, if wayward grove of giant bamboo.

Over the intervening years, the trees and shrubs have grown and the plans to develop the area have been put on hold year by year. We were just too busy with the rest of the garden and with earning a living. From time to time we would add a bit more. Mark planted the Louisiana iris while I added the Higo iris.

The area had minimal maintenance only – a bit of seasonal mowing in grassy areas and Mark would battle his way in to deal with seedling prunus and other invasive weeds. Come spring, we would venture down to enjoy the ambience of pretty, if wild, spring scenes but it was becoming something resembling Sleeping Beauty’s forest.

Enter Zach, the newest member of our team – the right person to bring fresh energies to this wild area, to tame and shape it to a wild garden rather than an overgrown wilderness. He turned up as a garden visitor last November and happened to have both the right skill set and the ability to share our vision of how the area could look. Sometimes gardening can be positively exciting and it really is a thrill to see this area being brought into shape. It is like the final frontier. This is the last major addition to the garden. The boundary fences with the neighbours mean there is no more room for expansion.

I wrote a few weeks ago that “There is a fine line between a wild garden and an unkempt wilderness”. Canadian gardener, Pat Webster commented on that post: “Wild gardens take an enormous level of skill and attention to detail. I visited one in England some years ago that was designed with ‘wild’ in mind. In its heyday, it may have been superb but when I saw it, the balance had tipped and it was simply too overgrown for me.” This is a new learning curve for us but we have come to grips with meadows and summer perennials over the last decade; we can get our heads around wild gardening.

Opening up. The misty light is smoke from the fire. We take out any lengths suitable for firewood and what remains is either stacked to the side to rot down in its own time or burned if it is too far to haul it to the sides.

At this point, the focus is on opening the area up, finding space and light, preserving the plant framework that is already well established while culling the unwanted incursions and removing wayward branches and dead plants. “It has become a woodland,” declared Mark as we stood and looked at the newfound space. Note, dear reader, forests and jungles are dark and dense, vegetated from top to bottom. Woodlands are open and airy with some high canopy but enough light getting through to allow woodland plants below to establish and flower.

Lesson number one on wild gardens has already been determined: never, ever, ever plant climbers like wisteria and honeysuckle, even when it is a very good honeysuckle with much larger flowers that was given to us by the then-curator at Eastwoodhill Arboretum. Rampant climbers need to be in tended, cultivated garden areas. In wild gardens, they simply rampage far and wide and cause no end of problems.

Natural clumps of cutty grass but which one?

The clumps of what we call cutty grass in this country have been kept as sculptural features. With more light they will fill out further. Is it Carex germinata? Or maybe Gahnia lacera? This is not our area of expertise at all. It is one of our native grasses commonly referred to as cutty grass because it will cut all the skin on your hands if you make the mistake of grabbing it with bare skin. It gave me the idea that I could relocate my surplus plants of the festooning Carex comans ‘Red’ which is more honey brown than red and which just arrived here of its own accord – red tussock. I really like it but it has settled in so happily in the two places I have used it that I need to remove half the plants to allow the others room to let their natural form star. I think I will have enough to feature on the sunny side of the margins in the North Garden.

Mark has bigger plans. His mind is ticking over that now there may be space to explore a large, free-form Oudolf-inspired meadow. Maybe. At least starting with the surplus Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ I must cull from the new Court Garden – there should be enough to plant close to a few hundred square metres. That might pack some visual oomph.

Whatever happens, we must keep this area as low maintenance and distinctly different to any other area of the garden. It will walk on the wild side and be free from most hard landscaping. There are just a few bridges to build and we are waiting for Lloyd to come back from holiday to start on those.

Garden styles

It is a long time since I published a piece on the folly of allowing garden openers to write their own descriptions. Even then, discretion won out and I only published it on a UK gardening site I was contributing to at the time. This explains why I couldn’t find it on my own site when I went looking for it. A not-unrelated situation arose this week when we were asked to describe the style of our garden in a single word. Apparently, this helps garden visitors.

As a seasoned garden visitor myself, I am as wary of garden owners getting to declare their own ‘style’ as I am of getting them to write their own descriptions. But just in case you need some assistance in interpreting garden style, I offer the following explanations. Some, but not all of these ‘styles’ were offered as a suggestion to help us in defining our own garden category.

Japanese – three rocks, some raked gravel and a recently planted dwarf red maple.

English style, as seen through NZ eyes

English – buxus hedging, garden rooms, a Japanese cherry tree and pretty flowers because in NZ, the English garden style begins and ends with the Arts and Crafts movement seen by so many at Sissinghurst and Hidcote.

The real McCoy – Villa d’Este in Tivoli

Italian – more likely ‘Italianate’, similar to the connection between a ‘dinette’ and a banqueting hall, or a ‘kitchenette’ and a caterer’s kitchen. Terracotta pots, a clipped bay tree and hard landscaping carried out in concrete and ponga* logs or tanalised timber on account of a dearth of skilled Italian stonemasons here.

This really was a designer garden, designed by Dan Pearson

Designer – in theory a garden created by a name designer and executed with attention to detail and a big budget but more likely to be a recent garden designed and planted by the owner, a younger woman in her 30s or early 40s who is a magazine subscriber and who bought some graph paper, large paving slabs and black mondo grass.

Tropical – a naive gardener who does not realise that nobody has a tropical garden in Taranaki owing to us not having anything like a tropical climate. More likely to be three palms, either hardy or half hardy, and ten bromeliads. 

East Lambrook Manor set the standard for cottage gardens

Cottage – If you are expecting something like Margery Fish’s iconic cottage garden at East Lambrook Manor, you may be disappointed. More likely to be packets of wild flower seeds scattered on bare soil, struggling to germinate, let alone flower. And a clipped camellia and maybe some common purple foxgloves.

Plantsman’s – this is a difficult one. To those in the know about open gardens, it is often used as code for a garden lacking in design, prettiness or charm that may appeal to those who take a magnifying glass with them when they go garden visiting in order to view the close-up of an obscure native orchid in bloom. Occasionally, this is a descriptor adopted by an ambitious gardener with over 30 different plants in their garden who is unaware that in the rarefied atmosphere of upper-level horticulture and botany, the term ‘plantsperson’ is an honour bestowed by peers and colleagues, not self-awarded.

Courtyard – 80% paved or decked with a very expensive outdoor dining suite, sofa with all weather cushions, lighting, a very (very) small water feature and a narrow border or two on the periphery planted with clivias and a Kentia palm.

A splendid crop of broad beans

Vegetable – featuring a splendid broad bean crop in spring, some small tomato plants and a worm farm.

Sustainable vegetable – as above but mulched in cardboard or old woollen carpet.

Insect hotels are very on trend.

Potager – another vegetable garden but this time with rainbow chard and fancy lettuces corseted in clipped buxus hedging and featuring a fancy insect hotel.

Welford Park. Photo credit Chris Wood via Wiki Commons

Woodland – you may be envisaging an open scene of deciduous trees, perhaps white barked birches – with a sea of snowdrops beneath. More likely to be over-planted trees which need thinning and limbing up, underplanted with a few hostas and clivias that are struggling with root competition and too much shade.

Coastal – windy. Trees growing at a 45° angle, ice plants, gazanias, some wind burnt succulents and a defoliated copper beech.

A friend who has extensive experience in plant sales contributed the ‘Low Maintenance Garden’ – griselinia hedges, yuccas and Agave attenuata for structural focus, with Coprosma ‘Hawera’ groundcover, all surrounded by black stained bark chips.

The idea of defining our garden by a single style defeated me entirely.

*Ponga – NZ tree fern trunks which are widely available, relatively long lasting and usually inexpensive or even free.