The Ballad of Roading Steve

Another post about living in the Tikorangi Gaslands. Not plants and gardening but the other omnipresent aspect to our lives here.

 Three years ago, we were trying so hard to preserve something of old Tikorangi midst the ravages of petrochemical development. That included keeping the rural character of the roads and the immediate environment. Ha! We failed dismally, as witness these roadworks just past our place.

They are a reminder that staff at New Plymouth District Council were mostly just humouring us when they appeared to listen. Except for one memorable staffer who did not make any attempt to humour us. No sirree, he made it clear from the start that he was the boss-man and he did not need to be polite or listen to residents. What could we possibly know? He is not there anymore. He moved on some time ago. Or maybe he was shovelled out? The politer staff would nod and give a credible performance of listening attentively. But, as subsequent actions and policies show, they were not going to deviate from their chosen path.

And so this road *improvement* has gone ahead, no doubt at considerable expense. In vain did we plead for rural amenity to be preserved while meeting the roading needs of petrochemical development. Make no mistake about it. The whole purpose of this super-duper rural road is to service the petrochemical industry, not the locals. Sure, some locals will see a wider, faster, heavily cambered road as “progress”. They don’t care about being able to stand on the side of the road and have a chat to a passing neighbour. I bet they don’t get out of their cars long enough to ever want to walk along the road verge. Presumably they don’t have any children who might, in the past, have biked to school. I am also guessing that they have never lost any dogs to speeding traffic. All they want to do is to get in their vehicles and plant foot, to get to their destination as fast as possible. That is how they see the modern world of progress.

We are living with a soundtrack of constant machinery from 7am until dark, Monday to Saturday. It has been interesting to me for several reasons. It is like a little monument to our failure in trying to make any changes for the better. But I am not feeling blue. It reminds me how successfully I have drawn in my world, circled the wagons, to exclude what goes on beyond our boundaries. And I have coped with the constant noise with equanimity. Some level of mindfulness or just simple inner tranquillity can indeed create a protective cloak.

Roading Steve, the architect of these roadworks, has also gone from Council now. Moved on. But he left a legacy. The road WILL be wider, stronger and faster for this short stretch.

No matter that since those plans were being mooted, the speed limit here has been dropped by the very same council to 80km/h, slowing the traffic overall to a safer speed.

No matter that the petrochemical company has instigated a voluntary speed limit on its heavy transport of 60km/h on that very stretch of road.

No matter that the bottom has fallen out of the Taranaki oil and gas industry and it may never recover to the levels seen when Roading Steve thought this road *upgrade* looked like a good idea. Let us not forget that oil and gas is a twilight industry and public attitudes are changing to be less sympathetic.

Where the new road has to narrow to meet the old, down the dip and on an intersection

No matter that this bright, shiny, new bit of road will encourage traffic to speed up coming down the hill until it terminates on a relatively risky intersection and narrows to the old width to climb the hill outside our place.

The work must go on.  For such is the inexorable process of local body government. Once initiated, a project cannot, apparently, be stopped. And progress can be measured by wider, stronger roads to accommodate faster vehicles. For which we all pay through local and national taxes. It is why I have circled the wagons.

Our side of the hill remains untouched. For now.

“Fell the trees” is the cry.

The Devon Street alders are to get the chop

Trees in the urban landscape have a hard life. More often maligned than admired, battling on in remarkably inhospitable situations, it is rare that they reach maturity. In New Zealand at least. It is even more rare in New Plymouth with its coastal and mountain views. A leafy tree is likely to survive better in a flat, inland city like Palmerston North where it will never get in the way of some ratepayer’s view.

The trees down the main street of New Plymouth are to get the chop. They drop too many leaves and make the footpaths slippery and many people hate them. We happened to be dining at the weekend with a group that included dendrologists – in other words, people with a much better than average knowledge of woody trees and shrubs. Conversation turned to the Devon Street trees.

These are just alders. A boring, utility tree at best, but capable of thriving where less resilient trees will suffer. Opinion across the dinner plates was divided. A few thought it was a tragedy to cut down perfectly healthy trees fulfilling a role of greening the city. Others thought they could be replaced by something a great deal more interesting. It is hard to argue with the friend who emailed me the next day saying, “The alders always remind me of dank and dark South Wales where they are planted on the bulldozed slag heaps, as alders cope with the poisonous soil.” He was hoping for palms which are more evocative of the tropics.

But replace them with what? Metasequoia, maybe?

I think it would be fair to say that the majority opinion was that the alders can go but they need replacing with a better option. Therein lies the problem, for I fear the ignorant majority would probably be quite happy to see nothing come in as a replacement because all trees are ‘messy’ and a concrete jungle doesn’t worry them at all. Hope lies with the staff at the district council who may be more enlightened about greening the urban landscape. But it won’t be easy.

First up, removing the alders will likely require lifting the pavers that surround them and replacing a fair amount of the soil. It is not just a matter of chainsawing off the tops (though that will be no small task) and getting the stump grinder in to take out the bulk of the root ball just below the surface. Leave all those feeder roots in place – and they will spread far and wide – and the risk of soil borne fungus (particularly armillaria) attacking the new plants is high.

Amelanchier, maybe?

But the huge issue is what to replace them with. There is very limited space. Whatever comes in must have small leaves and small flowers that decompose quickly. Much and all as we would love to see magnolias used, evergreen magnolia leaves take years to rot down and deciduous magnolias have enormous leaves and flower petals, all of which will fall every season. Anything that forms a canopy is going to need extensive pruning and training and for the council, that costs money.

Deciduous or evergreen? Contrary to ill-informed opinion, evergreen trees drop leaves too. It is just they do it all year round instead of one hit in autumn. What can survive and thrive in a heavily polluted environment with an extremely restricted root system? Dinner time suggestions ranged from metasequoia (the restricted root system would stunt the top growth to a more manageable size), amelanchier (autumn colour, spring flowers, small leaves and petals but still plenty of them and it does not have a great natural form), Melia azedarach (though it may prefer a drier climate), pseudopanax (tough leaves, not a highly prized native, generally) and palms. The last option was somewhat favoured but Mark and I are cautious. Palms would look exotic. It would be possible to choose some options that would take the conditions. They are tall and narrow so take up next to no space. But – and it is a big but – as they mature, those fronds are often very heavy and a frond falling from a height in our frequent winds would do significant panel damage to vehicles parked below as well as potentially ripping off the spouting from verandas as it falls. Imagine the outcry….

Handsome, but…

… these falling fronds can cause significant damage

Mark takes the somewhat depressed view that maybe some shrubs in a planter box are the best we can hope for on the main street of New Plymouth. Unimaginative, utility and suburban.

Gleditsias. NOT our native kowhai

On the funny side, the little town of Waitara is local to us and it has gleditsias planted along its wide main street in a yellow and blue colour scheme. Even these trees are controversial. I have been at local meetings where landowners and business folk want them cut down because they drop leaves and are ‘messy’. But Mark likes to tell the story of when they were planted. A local councillor said to a noted local environmentalist: “You must be very pleased to see kowhais being planted on the main street.” I mean gleditsia, kowhai – not a lot of difference, eh? But maybe a good lesson on not leaving the blitheringly ignorant to make decisions on trees in public places.

For those loyal New Zealanders who think we should only be planting native trees, the trouble is that most of our native plants have evolved to grow in forest conditions. The roll call of suitable options for the stand-alone, exposed, windy, confined conditions of a narrow streetscape is very small indeed.

Melia azedarach – a pretty small tree but hardly one of stature and longevity

We can never overuse this meme

The slow autumn fade

As the nights cool and day length shortens, there is no denying that autumn is here. Coastal Taranaki is not renowned for autumn colour. It is generally drier climates with sharp seasonal changes of temperature that get the showiest displays. The trees we have that do change won’t be showing much until the end of May and into June. In our climate, the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn are extended in time but at least it means the depths of winter are but brief.

I did a round-up of flowers one year to see what was actually in bloom at this time. We think mainly of our rockery which has a second peak with the showy autumn bulbs (those that are triggered into growth by summer rain) but I see I managed to gather flowers from 40 different plant genera across trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and bulbs and that wasn’t including the last gasp of plants well past their peak season. We are blessed to live in a mild climate where plants grow and flower all year round.

Despite all that, it is a time of year that brings out the Squirrel Nutkin in me. Or is that the Laura Ingalls Wilder of The Little House on the Prairie fame? There is something visceral in preparing for cooler months and achieving a state where I know there is enough firewood to keep us warm and food supplies stockpiled against winter famine. Not that I grow the food crops – that is Mark’s domain. And indeed, the supermarket is only 10 minutes’ drive away but that is never going to be as satisfying as seeing the home produce rolling in. April is all about chestnuts, gathering walnuts, drying beans, sorting the apples and pears, gorging on rock and water melons, freezing tomatoes and corn, harvesting grapes and the like.

Miscanthus

In recent years, I have turned my attention towards the quiet charm of seed heads. This is the influence of British gardening media. They come from harsher climatic conditions where growth stops in winter and a preponderance of deciduous material means that the winter garden often looks, well, let’s be honest – dead. Their gardeners are urged to leave seed heads in place until spring as a major source of food for birds and wildlife. Dying of starvation is apparently an issue in colder climates.

There is far more discussion about the contribution domestic gardening can make to sound eco-systems and environmental management in British garden media. It is a conversation I have yet to see in this country where we are more likely to assume that any form of gardening makes a worthwhile contribution to nature – which is not necessarily true at all. It is time we questioned some of our practices like pouring on fertilisers, routine spraying, irrigation and lawn management but we can at least let some of our plants go to seed for the birds.

Hibiscus trionum

Not all seed heads are precious, I admit. I try and dead head our roadside agapanthus in the interests of public reputation (though as they are heavy seeds, they don’t spread far from the parent plant). There is a limit to how many crocosmia and tigridias we want so I dead head those. Some rhododendrons will seed themselves to death if not dead headed after flowering. And some simply have no aesthetic merit. Given that our feathered friends have enough food all year round here and many of our native birds are fruit and nectar feeders, I don’t feel obliged to keep everything intact for them in situ.

Rhododendron – one of the sino nuttalliis

When I analyse the seed heads I have photographed over the years, it is the perennials, including the grasses, that are the highlights. A few of the trees and shrubs are exceptional – particularly rhododendrons. But the graceful plumes, the fluffy pompoms, the flat heads that create silhouettes against the sky, the swept-back hairdos mostly come from perennials. The silky seed heads of the clematis are often as pretty – in an understated sort of way – as the flowers themselves. Hibiscus trionum also has exquisite seed pods with a beauty all of their own. I leave the tiered phlomis blooms on the plants until early spring because they keep their form and hold themselves erect.

Clematis tangutica

Sometimes I cut a few seed heads to bring indoors but, like hydrangea heads, they soon start to look somewhat forlorn and dusty to my eyes. Autumn can be melancholy enough without bringing it inside. But in the right place, these attempts by the plants to ensure their survival into the future can also create little cameos of detail which are delightful to look at.

Clematis tangutica at top, left to right: rhododendron, Schima khasiana, Hibiscus trionum and schizophragma

First published in the April issue of New Zealand Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.  

Ah. The nostalgia of the knitted dishcloth

Second daughter had reason to visit South Africa recently so my delightful birthday package contained several items from that trip. Included was the hand knitted cream square above. “I remembered your knitted dishcloths,” she said.

Ah. My poverty measure. “You don’t know you are poor until you have tried knitting your own dishcloths,” I joke these days but it is true. In what I call our poverty days, money was very tight indeed. Unable to justify buying a new dishcloth and lacking enthusiasm for recycling old rags, I set about knitting my own from cotton string in the traditional style of dishcloths prior to the Wettex sponges now favoured. It wasn’t a great success. The knitting was fine. The problem lay in my cotton string which lacked the absorbency of the commercially produced cloths and it didn’t last very long before wearing through.

The new South African face cloth looks as if it may be made to last – potential, even, as a family heirloom. It is not large, as can be seen by the comparator towelling facecloth. But it is dense. So much so that I think it may be more suited to exfoliation of tougher parts of the body rather than washing one’s face. It too is hand knitted, part of an indigenous initiative to support individuals in smaller communities. While I would like to think that one could knit one’s way out of poverty, I am not sure how realistic that is with face cloths. But there is something about this simple object that I find gently poignant.

A colchicum is not an autumn crocus

Crocus to the left, colchicum to the right

It is that time of year, dear Readers, when it is time to remind some of you, that the larger bloom to the right is NOT a crocus. Not at all. It is not even a relative. It is a colchicum. The left-hand flower is an autumn flowering crocus, probably one of the C. serotinus group, maybe salzmanii.

Colchicums come from the family of Colchicaceae and the order of Liliales.

Crocus belong to the subfamily of Crocoideae, family of Iridaceae and order of Asparagales.

That is the botanical explanation. The lay explanation is that crocuses are much smaller and daintier and bloom at the same time their fine foliage is coming through. Many of the 90 or so species flower in spring but some will bloom in autumn.

Colchicums flowering now

Colchicums, on the other hand, bloom well before their foliage ever appears and have much larger chalice blooms – and more stamens if you can be bothered counting. Compared to the crocus, they look as if they are on steroids but in fact it is the product of colchicine which is extracted from them. Colchicine’s main use was – or is – as an anti-inflammatory for the treatment of gout. Not one to try yourself at home, however, because it is highly toxic in the wrong hands. When the foliage appears much later, it is large and lush all winter until it dies off, untidily, in mid spring.

Because they flower before the foliage appears, colchicums are sometimes referred to as “naked ladies” (even “naked boys” I found somewhere on the internet though I have never heard that), but that is merely confusing to those of us who understand belladonnas to be naked ladies.

Crocus, but probably serotinus, not the saffron crocus

Crocus, on the other hand, give us saffron. Well, the saffron crocus does but we failed with our efforts to grow it here despite starting with a fair number of corms. They did not reappear after the first season. Too wet and humid, I think.

Colchicums are a better bet when it comes to naturalising bulbs in a meadow setting, being somewhat tougher and showier in such circumstances.

A sense of place

I illustrate this column with a few photos of gardens that have struck a particular chord, enduring in my memory long past the experience of visiting them. What they have in common is a strong identity and sense of place. 

 

I apologise for the fact that I can not recall the name of the creator of this very interesting house and garden landscape south of Blenheim but I understand he has since died. I have never forgotten this remarkable place

What is it that lifts a garden – a good garden – above other good gardens? I have seen that special character described with various terms over the years, including having ‘soul’ or ‘the wow factor’. Or, more pretentiously perhaps, possessing ‘genius loci’. I wrote about genius loci in a sharp column seven years ago.

Ladies and gentlemen gardeners, it now appears that the current term is that the garden has ‘a sense of place’. It is one that appeals to me more than the soul or wow factor descriptors because it is less subjective.

Gresgarth Hall near Lancaster in the UK

I came across the term twice this week, both from UK media. The first instance was a survey on the Thinking Gardens website, being carried out Janna Schreier. Searching for a more rigorous measure than the loose use of the descriptor ‘soul’, she defined ‘a sense of place’ as being one ‘with a distinctive character which fosters emotional engagement’. Her survey then listed possible attributes of that and asked the participant to rank each on a five-point scale. These were:

  • Uniqueness
  • Strong identity
  • Fit with surroundings
  • Thought provoking
  • Harmonious design
  • Brings back memories
  • Personal to the owner.

I would point you to the survey but it finished yesterday. In a subsequent exchange of emails, I commented that plantsmanship was missing from that list but was critical for us here when it came to top-level appreciation of a garden. I rank plantsmanship* as being of equal importance to harmonious design. But from that list, I probably ranked strong identity, personal to the owner and maybe uniqueness as most important. Though uniqueness is very hard to define – pretty much every gardener I have ever met who rates themselves thinks their own garden is both unique and original, though too few are. In my opinion.

Grahame Dawson’s small, urban, industrial chic garden in Auckland challenged my preconceived notion that such plots of land must, by definition lack genius loci

Two days later I saw a tweet from Dan Pearson*, the UK landscaper for whom I carry a bit of fan-girl torch.

Dan Pearson @thedanpearson 

Another inspiring day talking gardens with Troy at Sissinghurst. Sure progress with their project to key the gardens sense of place.

Could anywhere have a stronger sense of place than New Plymouth cemetery?

Aha! I thought. A sense of place is it, then. And I like that term. It is much more encompassing than just ‘genius loci’. Oddly, we have our own word in New Zealand. Our country is gently taking on more Maori words into our language, particularly when there is no word for word translation that captures the complexity of the Maori concept. The word is tūrangawaewae, about which Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand says:

“Tūrangawaewae is one of the most well-known and powerful Māori concepts. Literally tūranga (standing place), waewae (feet), it is often translated as ‘a place to stand’. Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home.”

I recently described our garden as ‘our place to stand’. Must have been a bit prescient there? Though a “place to stand” is more about the personal experience of the garden-maker than the “sense of place” which is the experience of the fortunate garden visitor. Certainly there is something special that sets apart some gardens over others, that makes a few gardens particularly memorable. I am happy to consider that above design, context, plant content and maintenance, that special quality that sets them apart is indeed that they have a clear sense of place.

I have not often seen that special quality of a sense of place in public gardens but the Oudolf borders at Wisley are a notable exception

Footnotes:

*I continue to stick with Mark’s off the cuff definition of plantsmanship, even while I hesitate over the gender reference in the word: “The ability to use different plants in creative ways in the right environment and to feature unusual plants.”

*I subscribe to Dan Pearson’s weekly blog – Dig Delve. It is a gentle insight into plants and the very personal garden he is building with his partner, Huw Morgan.   There is no big-noting, self-promotion or even that faux modesty that is now favoured by many writers. Rather, it is quiet and modest, an insight into creating a garden from scratch that focuses on eco-systems, sustainability and soft-edged naturalism. I find it most refreshing and calming in this day and age when so much of gardening appears to be about whizzy-bang instant results to impress.

I had a special affection for Te Popo garden when it was in the hands of Lorri and Bruce Ellis and I now see that response as inextricably tied up with that strong sense of place that they created.

Te Popo again in Central Taranaki

Bury Court in the UK – much more than just beautiful buildings and an early Oudolf garden. A garden I wish to return to soon.

Wildside in Devon – a very strong sense of place is one of the defining features

 

 

A touch of Tikorangi around the world

We are generally accustomed to seeing Jury plants growing in different parts of the world, though sometimes it generates a special thrill. A UK friend sent this photo of Magnolia Felix Jury in bloom at The Garden House in Devon last week. We had seen this particular tree growing strongly several years ago but it was summer, so in leaf, not bloom.

It takes time for a magnolia to prove itself, particularly across a range of different climates. Magnolia Vulcan has never really performed in cooler climates because it loses its flower size and blooms more in muddy-purple tones than in the deep claret-red that sets it apart here. There is always apprehension as to how other deeper coloured cultivars will perform in much harder conditions than we have. Early blooms on ‘Felix Jury’ in the chilliest climes of Northern Europe show that it retains its flower form and remarkable size, but the colour can bleach out – albeit to prettier shades than the muddy ‘Vulcan’. Whether that colour will deepen as the plants mature (which is what happened here over a period of years) remains to be seen.

This made it a special delight to be sent the photo of The Garden House specimen, showing good colour, good size and the correct flower form.

Even I found it touching to see Mark’s delight at the specimen of Magnolia Felix Jury growing a few doors up from where our daughter lives in Canberra. He felt it was like having a touch of Tikorangi in her street. Canberra is not exactly Magnolia Central so if ‘Felix Jury’ blooms as well there as at The Garden House, it will be a showstopper. The house owners were a tad surprised when I knocked on their door to ask if I could take photos and explained why. They also had Mark’s Fairy Magnolia Blush growing to the immediate left of the umbrella. Nothing illustrates the stark difference in climate to here more than an astroturf lawn.