Treemageddon. Again.

The snapped trunk measures about shoulder height on me

Trees have a finite life span. It is just that not many of them get to see out their allotted life span without being felled earlier in the process. This one just fell, completely rotten at the base. We didn’t hear it come down which is surprising in itself because it is H U G E. We assume it must have happened in the middle of Friday night’s storm which had very high winds and we were probably tucked up in bed behind our double glazing. It took me until Saturday afternoon to notice that there seemed to be a lot more light at the top of the hill behind the house.

A natural throne remains

It is a tawa, a native tree, botanically Beilschmiedia tawa, a member of the lauraceae or laurel family. What makes it special is that this tree almost certainly pre-dated European settlement. This area was predominantly tawa forest but had already been largely clear felled by the time Mark’s great grandfather bought the land around 1870. The earliest European settlement in this area took place around 1850. This is one of a just a few remaining tawa trees sitting on a steep bank, now part of the garden.

Epiphytes galore, from February last year

I photographed it earlier because of the prodigious quantity of epiphytes that had built up over the years. In our mild, humid climate, epiphytes thrive. Much of this lot was Collospermum hastatum but these long-established epiphytic colonies are an entire matrix of naturally occurring plants. The problem is that there is a huge weight in them that eventually brings down the branch, and sometimes the whole tree in the process. It is just part of the cycle of nature.

This cycle of nature has done quite a bit of damage but only to the understorey plants. While tawa is another of our native hard woods, we can’t get the timber out because of where it is. It will be the usual process of clearing the debris, getting out what firewood we can and stowing all the vegetative waste neatly in situ. The main trunk will remain where it is, embedded on legs formed by its own branches driven deep into the earth and it will outlast us. We will have to re-route a garden track so that it passes beneath the tree.

Given that these clean-ups fall mostly on our man, Lloyd, Mark quipped that maybe we should be building him a little shelter down there and send him out each morning with a thermos. We may not see him for several weeks.

Over morning tea, we remembered that philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Now there is a very humancentric question. We, the closest humans, may not have heard this tree fall but we are by no means the only living creatures with the capacity to hear sound. I am sure the sleeping birds, probably rats, mice, possums, lizards and smaller creatures of nature heard it and felt the impact when it fell.

As it fell, It uprooted and sent various tall ponga (tree ferns) spinning in the air, to land some distance away

 

Suddenly it is winter

The first blast of winter arrived yesterday. Camellia sasanqua ‘Crimson King’ in the foreground.

Fallen leaves and a leaden sky

While our climate is generally benign, the first serious winter chill arrived, appropriately enough, on the first calendar day of winter in New Zealand – June 1. The winter fronts come straight up from the Antarctic. Our mellow, extended autumn with calm, sunny weather and temperatures sitting around 18 or 19 degrees Celsius disappeared overnight.

This too will pass. Generally the worst of our winter weather hits after the winter solstice – June 22nd to be precise – and today, June 2, has dawned fine and sunny, albeit with a chilly temperature. Mark is taking heed of this sudden drop. Today’s task, he declared, is to cover the bananas. You can see the semi-permanent bamboo frame in the photo. He needs the extension ladder these days to get the windbreak sheltering cover in place for the bananas have grown to a substantial size. At least we get a crop from them these days but we wouldn’t if he didn’t spend a day shrouding them for winter. That is as far as battening down the hatches goes here. We don’t wrap anything else up for winter.

Camellia sasanqua ‘Elfin Rose’

with Nerine bowdenii at its feet

Winter it may now be, but this does not mean bare branches bereft of leaves and an absence of flowers. The sasanqua camellias are at their peak, many of the species camellias are opening along with the first flowers on the early japonicas and hybrids. ‘Elfin Rose’ has been a particular delight this week, with the colour-toned Nerine bowdenii below. We cloud prune ‘Elfin Rose’ into stacked layers, both to restrict its growth and to make it a feature shape all year round. This annual clipping takes place as it makes its new growth after flowering – so some time between mid winter and mid spring. Clipping later would remove next season’s flower buds and we want both the form and the flowers.

It is perhaps a good indication of our generally mild conditions that vireya rhododendrons also feature large in late autumn and early winter. These are, of course, frost tender. Many are very frost tender – especially the big, scented cultivars with heavy, felted foliage. The one above, where we have a bank of maybe five of them beneath the mandarin tree, is ‘Jiminy Cricket’. It was bred by the late Os Blumhardt and is a full sister seedling to the more widely marketed ‘Saxon Glow’ and ‘Saxon Blush’ (not marketed by us). In our opinion, it is also superior to those two but all of them show more hardiness than most vireyas on account of having the relatively hardy species R. saxifragoides as one breeder parent

Vireya rhododendron ‘Sweet Vanilla’ with ‘Golden Charm’ in the background

We place the more tender vireyas with greater care, on the margins where they get plenty of light but adjacent overhead cover will give them protection from most frost damage. This is one of Mark’s breeding  which we released as “Sweet Vanilla”. Big flowers and exotic fragrance to delight, even on the coldest days. We have no idea if it is still in production and commercially available – it is not a plant we kept under our management with intellectual property rights so anybody can produce it if they wish – but I hope it is because it has stood the test of time as a garden plant.

Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’

Also hitting its stride is Mark’s Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’, aka Mark’s Retirement Fund. It was opening its first flowers at the end of March but they were just a teaser. As we enter winter, it will bloom through until early spring and bring us scented pleasure all that time. It is not big and showy like most of his deciduous magnolias, but it is a cracker of a plant in the smaller world of daphnes.

A seedling clematis at our entrance way having a late season revival this week

While we are not expecting the full onslaught of winter until June 22 – give or take a few warning episodes prior to that – by late July, the first of the magnolias will be opening along with the snowdrops. Temperatures will start to rise in August. Our winters are not as long and bleak as experienced in many other places but human nature being what it is, we probably moan just as much about the cold and winter storms.

 

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)

About climate change

I am not usually one for sharing social media memes but today, I make an exception. They say far more succinctly than I can what needs to be said about climate change.

Thank you Joel Pett. Mark is of the view that it matters not one whit whether people believe in climate change or not because only an idiot could think that we can continue trashing the planet as we are and not suffer catastrophic consequences. We MUST change our ways. Urgently.

And for those of you who find it all too much, thank you Olga Evans.

We have made major changes in our own lives here, to reduce our carbon footprint and consumption. The issue that worries me at a personal level is air travel, exacerbated by being a New Zealander. For us it is four hours and two flights to get over to our children in Australia (all our three children live in different east coast Australian cities), about twenty five hours in the air to get to the UK or Europe (and another twenty five hours to get home again). That is one where I am pinning my hopes on new technologies to reduce the impact of flying.

In the meantime, I am listening to the young people who are mobilising on this matter. I would much rather listen to them than to older folks (mostly, but not all, old men) who last studied science back in their high school years fifty or sixty years ago but who have found some dodgy website that backs up their complacent world view, no matter what the majority of the world’s scientists are saying.

Change is coming. Massive change. The planet does not care whether you or I believe in climate change. The longer we insist on continuing the status quo, the more shocking that change will be.

 

 

A week of determined gardening

The first half is now all planted

I have not been shilly-shallying around. The first half of the new court garden is planted and I have started on the second half. This is not light work. Mark has rotary hoed and I follow up with raking the area out and getting clods of roots out, as well as squishing the abundance of grass grubs. It has only just occurred to me that had I transferred all those grubs to a jar instead, we should have had enough for a meal of alternative protein. Whether grass grubs are delicious when tossed in garlic butter in a hot pan will likely remain mystery, however. I am not that intrepid.

Starting on the other half – the pressure is on to get it planted before winter sets in 

I describe this as romantic chat between two wheelbarrows (me being a two barrow gardener)

The rush is on because our soils are still warm and temperatures are mild, despite it being late autumn. I am hoping for a few more weeks of grace so the plants can start forming new roots. You would not want to be doing it this late in the season in colder climates or places with heavy soil where the plants would languish in wet, compacting ground. With our excellent drainage and friable, volcanic soils, we have much more leeway.

My plantings are neither complex nor detailed. This is a novel experience here. Most of our garden is highly detailed so going with sweeping plantings of large growing perennials is very different and way easier to put in. Because I am digging and dividing from other areas to get the plant material, it is heavy work but it means I am able to put in sizeable clumps at finished spacings. Had I bought the plants, it would be different. When you are starting with nursery-grown plants in small 10 cm pots, it is really difficult to envisage their mature size and the instinct, always, is to over-plant to get a quicker effect. That of course makes for more work in the future because that over-planting will need thinning sooner, rather than later.

B I G salvias for autumn colour, though I am having to cut back early because of transplanting them

I planted the waves of foundation plants first, using just seven different plant varieties (5 grasses, Astelia chathamica and Elegia capensis), added the blocks of a few additional plants I wanted to use (two black flaxes or phormium, a block of rushes that I have lost the name of already, the giant Albuca nelsonii and a plant of Carmichaelia williamsii which has had a hard life but I hope will survive and thrive) . Finally, I added the flowers. At this stage just the giant inula (likely Inula magnifica), big salvias for autumn flowering, pale foxgloves and Verbascum creticum. I hope I have at last found the right spot for these botanical thugs. The plant selection is fairly typical of the way we garden in that it will end up around 25% native plants integrated with exotics. We have never gone for the deliberate “native garden” but instead select native plants that will work in a mixed situation.

The discards of earlier generations to the left, our plastic generation to the right

There are times when working in the garden here takes on the flavour of an archaeological dig. This used to be a farm and farmers were not exactly renowned for taking their rubbish to the dump. It then became an outlying area of the garden in Mark’s father time, before becoming nursery in our time. I always gather up all the non-biodegradable rubbish as I garden and this haul interested me. Given that our nursery years coincided with the widespread switch to plastics, I was surprised that the volume of modern plastics and synthetics (on the right) was not greater. We must have been tidier than I thought. On the left is the older rubbish. Metal, glass, broken china and some pieces of clay pots, basically. There is quite a lot of broken horticultural glass there. Felix was doing his home propagation back in the days of terracotta pots and wooden seed trays covered with sheets of glass. While the broken glass would have been hazardous in the beginning, time has dulled the edges. Unlike modern plastics, I don’t think there is evidence that glass and shards of pottery enter the food chain and pollute the oceans. In this time when there is growing concern at plastics in the environment, we are relieved to be out of the nursery industry – a business that is now built on extensive use of plastics, some of which may be reused but precious little of it will ever be recycled.

Dahlia imperialis towers some 3 to 4 metres high against the autumn sky

Finally, because I read a brave comment in a southern blog this week boldly declaring, “Even though it’s May, that most dire of months for gardens in the southern hemisphere…” (waving to my friend, Robyn Kilty) , I offer you three flowering plants this week. All are big, rangy, brittle, frost tender and come into their own just as the autumn storms hit. But are they not lovely?

This evergreen tree hydrangea is even larger. Now, I understand classified as a form of H. aspera

And the luculia season has started, bring us sweet scent. Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Cloud’.

 

 

 

 

The ornamental oxalis

The white form of Oxalis purpurea – the best of them all

Back in our nursery days, we had a large range of ornamental oxalis. I see in our old mailorder catalogues that we offered over 20 different varieties that we had in production at the time and I wrote extolling their autumn merits for several publications.

Twenty years on and the oxalis collection has refined itself down. It is the difference between gardening in containers and gardening in the soil. Some of those varieties were so delicate and touchy that we have lost them. Others needed to be kept confined because of their invasive proclivities. Some flowered prettily enough but their season was so short that it was hard to justify their place in the garden. I decided years ago that I was not going to fluff around with plants in containers. We have quite enough garden with many different micro-climates. If plants couldn’t perform in the garden, I didn’t have the time or inclination to nurture them in controlled conditions in containers.

These days, the oxalis we still have are the stand-out performers (and a few of the nasty weed ones that most of us battle – particularly the creeping weed which I think is Oxalis corniculata). The star has always been and still is the beautiful, well-behaved Oxalis purpurea alba. Large white flowers in abundance over a long period of time and not invasive. At this time of the year, I am more than happy to use it as ground cover in sunny positions. Oxalis flowers don’t open without the sun so they need to be in open conditions.

Oxalis purpurea nigrescens

O. purpurea is a variable species. The striking red-leafed form (O. purpurea nigrescens) with pink flowers comes a bit later and is invasive so needs to be kept confined. We also have a strong-growing (somewhat invasive) green-leafed form with very large pink flowers which is worth keeping and also has a long flowering season. Back in the days, I recall more than one person telling me that there was a red leafed form with the large white flowers but I have never seen it so I rather doubt its existence.

Oxalis luteola as runner-up in my best garden oxalis list

The standout yellow is Oxalis luteola. It, too, is well behaved and forms a gentle, non-invasive mat that flowers for a long time in mid- autumn, combining well without competing with other bulbs like the dwarf narcissi that are in growth but won’t flower until late winter and early spring. It leaves the rabbit-ear Oxalis fabaefolia in the dust for length of flowering time. Both have large, showy yellow flowers but the latter’s flowering time can be measured in days rather than weeks.

Oxalis massoniana

I am very fond of little Oxalis massoniana with its dainty apricot and yellow blooms but it needs a bit of nurturing to keep it going. The popular old candy-stripe O. versicolour is happy left to its own devices in the rockery but will not come into its season for a few weeks yet. It is the only one I know that looks more interesting when its flowers aren’t open because the striped buds disappear into a fairly ordinary white flower on sunny days.

I have hung onto the strong-growing O.eckloniana for its large lilac blooms but I keep it confined to a shallow pot sunk into the rockery. I could rustle up a few of the others from around the garden, like O.hirta in both lavender and pink, O. bowiei, O, lobata, the unusual double form of O. peduncularis  and O.polyphylla but they are not the star performers that luteola  and purpurea alba both are.

If you are into container gardening, a collection of different ornamental oxalis species give interest on a sunny terrace or door step from autumn to mid-winter. I saw somebody listing a whole range of different oxalis on Trade Me at one stage. In fact, it looked like somebody had bought our full collection all those years ago and kept it going so they are still around. If somebody offers you O. purpurea alba or O. luteola, don’t reject them just because they are oxalis. They are worth having.

Oh look! Here is a little display board I prepared earlier of under half of the oxalis that we used to grow

Planting the new court garden

A big, blank space. Bamboo stakes are used to define the areas to be be cultivated and to get the curves right. 

In the world of gardening, I am not sure that there is much that is more exciting than starting planting a new garden which has been years in mental incubation. Indeed, I am surprised how positively thrilling I am finding it to be out in the space actually putting the plants in.

It is a blank canvas, what we refer to as the court garden, on account of it looking like a tennis court when it was just an open space. We have talked about it a lot, stood and looked at the space and mentally envisaged the possibilities – which were pretty much endless – for this open, sunny area. Having narrowed down the plan, I set about refining the plant palette and building up the material to go in. As Mark has observed in the past, ours started as a poor man’s garden. His father could not afford to buy in all the material to plant up the large garden across several acres so applied himself to raising a lot of it. These days, rather than a poor man’s garden, it is an economical couple’s garden. It would cost a lot to buy in all the plants needed to fill over 450 square metres and they would arrive as small specimens. I have been gently building up plants for a few years now so what are going in are reasonable large divisions. Instant effect, Mark calls it.

This is to be my contemporary grass garden, inspired by the work of Christopher Bradley-Hole at Bury Court  but different. Immersive, not pictorial, to coin the phrase of English writer, Tim Richardson. It is set a little lower than surrounding areas so we step down into it to be surrounded by the movement of large grasses, shoulder or head high, planted in waves. A prairie on steroids perhaps? It is not designed to be viewed from a vantage point so much as to be experienced within.

Doryanthes palmeri (which will grow much larger) with Stipa gigantea

I have planted the first waves using Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’, Stipa gigantea, Chionocloa rubra and Calamagrostris ‘Karl Foerster’. And I have found a suitable space for Doryanthes palmeri. The next two waves will be Elegia capensis and Astelia chathamica. I do need to buy in about three plants of our native austroderia, commonly known as  toetoe. For, as Mark says, what is a grass garden in New Zealand if it lacks toetoe? I have sufficient plants for a wave of Chionocloa flavicans (which looks like a smaller toetoe) but I am not pinning my hopes on that because it seems to be like Christmas dinner for the rabbits and I am learning that I must garden that area with the rabbits, rather than fighting them all the time. It is one of the very few plants I am using that we have not trialled and come to understand already.

Moody miscanthus in the autumn light . It will be on a much larger scale in the new garden

Once I have planted all the waves of grass, then I will paint within with the few flowering plants I plan to use – the giant autumn-flowering salvias in yellow and red, tall yellow Verbascum creticum for spring, the very tall white nicotiana we have seeding around the place, maybe foxgloves in white and fennel. Nothing small, nothing detailed, no bulbs except the huge Albuca nelsonii. I expect the large evening primrose to find its way into the area of its own accord and I am sure Verbena bonariensis will seed down from the neighbouring borders. But the flowering plants are all secondary to the movement of the grasses.

Mark is rotary hoeing. The vintage piece of equipment in front is his prized Planet Junior that he uses often.

For those of you who are interested in the mechanics, Mark killed off the weeds and dead-headed the nasty carex we have through there to reduce future seeding. He is currently rotary hoeing the area. I drew up a planting plan and expected to be out there with my large piece of graph paper, keeping fairly closely to that plan. But in practice, it is just a guide. My spacings on paper were too close. My eyes on the ground are better than a paper plan. I rake out the rough-turned sods and then lay out each wave and sometimes I dig the plants back up again to move them a little to change the angle or the spacings. I am constantly mindful that this must be a low maintenance area. We have quite enough high maintenance areas already.

We won’t mulch immediately. Because our soils are so wonderfully friable, we will allow the first couple of flushes of weeds to germinate and rake them off. Weed control from the start is critical, especially with big grasses. Only then will we mulch. I have decided against the fine gravel mulch I had thought I would use. I am sure I will have to refine the plantings at least once in the early years and don’t want all that gravel incorporated into the soil. Neither do I want sharp edgings to the paths (which are about 1.8 metres wide to allow for plant flop). I want it to be more seamless so the current thinking is that we may opt for a granulated bark mulch which can be spread across both garden and paths. That we will have to buy in by the truckload.

We should see results this summer in our soft growing conditions and by the second summer, it should be hitting its stride. I am optimistic. Sure, it is hard work but if you are into active gardening, this is probably the peak of fun.  The culmination of years of thinking and planning and something entirely different. I will keep readers posted on progress.

Postscript: I am a dirty-kneed gardener. Mark laughs at me and regularly tells me I should not be allowed indoors. Indeed, I often shed my trousers in the laundry before I enter the house. Don’t tell me about knee pads. I have tried them and they don’t suit me. I have an abundance of kneeling pads but unless it is wet, muddy and cold, I find it easier to wash my clothes than constantly re-position the kneeling pads.

What I don’t understand is how Mark stays so clean, despite gardening as much as I do. Well I do know. He either uses long-handled tools or squats. My gardening mother stayed clean by always bending. With dodgy knees and a dodgy lower back, I kneel. Kneelers with dirty knees unite, I say.