Autumn nerines

The autumn rockery this week

Look at the nerines. Autumn stars, these are.

We grow a few different species but what is coming into bloom now are what we refer to as the N. sarniensis hybrids. I will admit that I do not know what they were hybridised with. As they appear to have been popular in both Europe and Japan by the 1600s, I am guessing the genes are pretty mixed by now but dominated by the species, N. sarniensis.

It really is shocking pink or highlighter pink, brighter even than in this photo

All nerines hail from areas of southern Africa and there are currently 24 species recognised. Notwithstanding that origin, the common name internationally is the ‘Guernsey lily’ owing to that island in the English Channel adopting the flower early on as its own and establishing a cut flower trade with it. I have no idea if it is fact or legend that a ship carrying a load of nerine bulbs to the Netherlands was wrecked nearby and the bulbs floated to the shores of Guernsey Island and naturalised themselves on the coastline. It is a good story and bulbs had to get there somehow.

The history of nerines in cultivation seems to be pretty murky, maybe because it goes back over 400 years. I had always assumed – based on the photos of the Guernsey lily that appeared to be predominantly red – that sarniensis in the wild was red. Mark thought it was orange, based on Nerine fothergilla major (which has now been reclassified as sarniensis, just to confuse us further) but it appears that the colour may be variable in the wild.

Our nerines range from pure white through pale pink, pink and white bi colours, mid pinks, coral shades, shocking pink, cerise, crimson, shades of orange and scarlet.

Ageing to blue purple tones

“Oh lord,” said Mark, looking at the purple ones on my flower lay, “the phone will ring next week with people wanting a purple nerine. Reader, they don’t open purple. Mark spent a bit of time crossing and selecting to get the blue and purple lines in the flowers and those ones age to purple. We never named any of them and we don’t know if other breeders have similar shades which they have put on the market, which would seem likely. Whether any are available in New Zealand is another matter.

Very few of our nerines have ever been sold commercially. We have a few named cultivars originally from the Exbury collection in the UK (where they have to grow them under glass), Felix Jury named a few but not many and I think Mark named one that we once sold. It is all a bit academic now because we just enjoy them in the garden and it doesn’t matter to us whether they are named cultivars or unnamed hybrids.

These nerines are deciduous and they put up their flower spikes before putting out the fresh foliage. I don’t love the foliage in spring when it is getting tatty and tired and we have some quite big clumps of them, but they make up for it in autumn. Because they have foliage through the winter, sarniensis nerines are frost tender and they struggle in cold, wet conditions. They need to be in full sun with sharp drainage and the large bulbs nestled into the soil but with their top half and necks exposed to bake in the sun. They are quite particular about conditions and won’t flower if they don’t like them. Nerine bowdenii which flowers later is much easier, hardier and less particular but only comes in pink, I think.

Autumn flowering self-seeders

Cyclamen hederafolium gently drifting itself in a most rewarding fashion

Over the years, we have tried growing any and all of the cyclamen species we could find. I see there are 23 species but we wouldn’t have had that number available to us. Most of them come from dry parts of Europe and North Africa, often with cold, dry winters – conditions that could not be further from ours. This is why we have only ever succeeded in naturalising three different species. Coum is our winter cyclamen, repandum in spring but it is the carpets of hederafolium that are delighting me in autumn.

Cyclamen grow from round, flattish discs that start tiny but can get steadily larger over the years. This is just one tuber, about the size of a saucer, with a big show-off display of flowers.

We didn’t plant all these hederafolium in pretty pink and white. We probably started this area with maybe three or four tubers but, over time, they have gently spread. That is what I mean by naturalising. We have them growing in cultivated conditions all through the rockery and in other garden beds and also growing in grass in the park meadow. I thought this drifting area was interesting because of the conditions where they have spread and the showy display they make.

For context, this is the wider view of the drift of cyclamen in the top photo. That ground is never fed and never watered so is very poor and dry but cyclamen are adapted to such conditions

They are growing in extremely poor ground, bone-dry and bereft of goodness because the enormous rimu trees suck up all the available moisture. There is also a natural carpet of rimu needles covering them. But, there is no competition from other bulbs or shade loving perennials. This means they never get swamped or crowded out by other plants or so wet in the shade that the tubers rot when dormant. And when the seed spreads, it has a fair chance of germinating and growing because the whole area is largely left undisturbed. Hederafolium sets seed freely and Mark has been pleasantly surprised when he has scattered the seed further afield and found cyclamen flowering there a few years later. It is best sown or scattered fresh, though. Gather the ripe seed and spread it at the same time rather than storing it for later.

Moraea polystachya gently seeding its way around

While on bulbs naturalising, I don’t mind the lovely blue Moraea polystachya seeding down in even less hospitable conditions – the cracks in the old concrete. It gently seeds itself through the rockery but not at an alarming rate and it cohabits happily with other plants. Also, the corms are large enough to find easily if I want to move them. It also has the longest flowering season of any of the autumn bulbs because it keeps flowering down the stem. They are iris-like in appearance and if you trace back the family tree, you get to what most of us might call the broader iris family.

Windflowers or Japanese anemones

Also spreading alarmingly are the Japanese anemones which aren’t even from Japan, commonly known as windflowers. I love them and am prepared to wage ongoing war on their spreading ways but they should always come with a warning. Don’t plant them anywhere near treasures of a more refined disposition because they will swamp them. It is best not to plant them near trees and shrubs because they spread below ground and you will have them all through the root systems of other plants all too soon. If you can, define a space and keep them to it which means having a clear area around them so you can see when the roots are popping up growing tips beyond their allotted space.

Japanese anemones

Naturally, I haven’t done this myself – at least not on these clumps which are in the Iolanthe cottage garden/meadow. I know I will regret it but I still have a sentimental fondness for them at this time of the year.

Finally, unrelated in subject matter, but the recent cyclone opened up a view of the sunrise that we can see as we sit companionably over the pre-breakfast cup of tea. It is an ill wind etc

Three books (one of which has absolutely nothing to do with gardening)

Almost to the day, it is two years since we first went into lockdown in this country, when we realised – well, most of us realised – that Covid was real and like nothing we had dealt with before. Life changed for most of us. Lynda Hallinan’s book ‘The Joy of Gardening’, came out late last year but appears to have its genesis in the earlier lockdown days. It is a book firmly anchored in our Covid present.

I have written before of myself that ‘I garden so I have a lot of thinking time’. The same is true of Lynda. Most of us know her as an irrepressible, bright, bubbly person who is genuinely keen on gardening and plants. This book is more intimate, more reflective at this time when our focus is closer in, more defined by our immediate environment as we try to make sense of a world that has changed.

There is a soft focus to this book, quite a bit of nostalgia and thoughts about what gardens and plants mean at a personal level, leavened by the author’s irreverent humour. There are lots of of romantic, soft-focus photos by Sally Tagg but we know these are just mood-setters because all the photo captions are banished to the last two pages of the book and then just recorded as plant names. That is a case of a book designer thinking that the look is more important than reader convenience. That aside, it is a beautiful hardback and I do love me a book with a built-in book marking ribbon.

Lynda is a journalist and it shows. She has an immensely readable style and the words flow with confidence. While divided into ten sections (Making Memories and Love & Loss are two), each section has a number of separate pieces loosely related to the theme. It means you can pick up the book and read a page or two and it stands on its own. I have been known to refer to this as loo reading but you may prefer to think of it as coffee-break reading. It can detract from a sustained reading session because those short bits are so short and snappy but there is a surprising amount of good information included. I think it is a charming book, best savoured in smaller bites and particularly relevant at this time.

I know very little about Ethiopia which only seems to reach our news when there is famine or civil war. It did of course give us Haile Selassie with the odd spin off of the Rastafarians but well before that, it was an ancient civilisation where humans were first recorded in modern form and an early Christian nation. It is also one of the fastest expanding economies in the world today, with a predominantly rural population. This has led to major deforestation which is the subject of a book by Kieran Dodds titled ‘The Church Forests of Ethiopia’.

It is predominantly a book of photographs of the local people and the environment in Amhara Province with a lot of aerial shots showing the agricultural deserts where the only remaining native forests are patches of green surrounding churches. The Tewahedo Orthodox Christian churches are a distinctive round shape like domes or saucers and the reason why the small patches of remnant forest around them survive is because they are sacred. Think miniature gardens of Eden in a desert. It is a unique landscape.

The book is a fundraiser to support the organisations and groups involved with replanting to extend the existing forests and particularly creating links between the forested areas which enables native animal and insect life to move from one area to another. You will be supporting critical environmental work if you buy this book but also, you may enjoy having this rather gentle pilgrimage through the church forests of Ethiopia in your bookcase. The one thing it lacks is any information on what the dominant native plant species are but I guess if you want to know more, you could Google ‘woody flora of dry Afromontane areas in Ethiopia’.

Ukraine bus shelters and yes, we may well wonder if they are still standing

Nothing whatever to do with gardening, but a book I felt belonged in my bookcase in a totally random manner is ‘Soviet Bus Stops’ by Christopher Herwig. It is what it says – a collection of photographs of bus shelters throughout the former Soviet Union. These shelters date back to a time when private cars were a luxury, when the dreary conformity of the Brezhnev years spanned the era from the 1960s through to the start of the 1980s. This is apparently known as the time of stagnation and these bus shelters are a memorial to the triumph of individual creativity and flamboyance in a repressive regime.

Architects, artists and designers could unleash themselves – within a budget – and unleash themselves they did with marked regional differences and varying materials. I feel I owe it to Ukraine to show their shelters which are charming but not of the same level of flamboyance and scale as some other areas – favouring form over function as one of the brief introductory essays says. There aren’t just a few of these bus shelters, there are many although I am not sure yet whether I feel the need to buy the second volume of this odd phenomenon.

It is a quirky little book but also a record of the triumph of human spirit, even more so in the context of what is happening in that part of the world right now.

What on earth were they thinking at the time in Kyrgyzstan?
and indeed in Kazakhstan

In partnership with Nature

Mark counted more than sixty rings in the cut trunk so the abies must have been planted around 1960

The clean-up from Cyclone Dovi is continuing here at a cracking pace. Zach started on the large, fallen abies in the park and has almost finished it. We were relieved to find that damage to the bridge beneath is minimal. A few more centimetres to one side and it could have wiped out most of the bridge. This would have been a problem for us, had it twisted the metal chassis beneath the bridge timbers.

Wisteria Blue Sapphire on the bridge has been hammered but will recover, the azalea has been extensively damaged but should also recover and Magnolia Lotus on the right lost some branches as the abies fell but the bridge just had railings broken.

Because it is right at the bottom of the park, dealing with the debris is an issue. Mark was not interested in the timber for firewood. We burned the Abies procera we dropped a few years ago but it proved to be a very light timber and we have better options. Access issues mean it isn’t practical to offer the wood to people who are less picky about their firewood and we don’t want to haul the whole lot out with our baby tractor, so creativity is required.

We debated about hiring an industrial-grade mulcher to deal with all the branches and foliage but decided in the end to burn it nearby. It leaves a dead patch in the grass but that can be resown and will disappear in a year or so. It is less work than having to disperse a mountain of wood chip in an area where we don’t need mulch.

But what to do with the lengths of trunk that can’t be left where the tree fell across the stream?

I like the shape of this fallen pine tree that perched itself up on its side branches like some freeform crocodile or giant lizard. It is decaying so it will drop at some point but that is fine.

We re-use a lot of fallen material here. Suitable thinner lengths of branches are sometimes used to edge garden beds and borders where appropriate. Where we can, we clean up fallen trees, reducing them just to the main trunk and then garden around them. Over time, they rot down and start to disintegrate but that is part of the long-term cycle.

This was a substantial length of pine tree that fell and then rolled into a most convenient position on the edge of a path.

Where this is not an option, we will cut the trunks to manageable lengths, take out what we want for firewood and place the rest. Other gardens may have sculptures and installations that are clearly made by human hands; we have casual installations of wood, sometimes as stumperies and sometimes just as low-key placements.

Defining the path with pine tree sections

We have already placed the pine lengths from the Avenue Gardens that were surplus to firewood replacements. At least some of the abies is destined for another use – giving height and structure to a rather casual area of planting. This is an area that has no name yet, where the Avenue Gardens transition down the hill to the park – I wrote about it once on blurring the transition from well-tended gardens to more laissez-faire outer reaches. We may have to come up with some shorthand name rather than referring to it as ‘the bit beside the steps coming down from the Avenue Gardens to the Mangletia insignis”.

Stacking lengths of abies to use in a different area

This is Mark’s vision. Neither Zach nor I can grasp yet what he has in mind, although Zach has carted abies lengths to this area in preparation. Zach and I are pretty good on placing individual bits as punctuation marks in the garden but not on creating entire structures. We will both watch and learn as it happens. I have every confidence in Mark’s skills in this endeavour

Felix used ponga logs and stumps to create his section of what we now call the Rimu Avenue

Our feature Rimu Avenue is essentially a stumpery, created as a pragmatic solution to enable plants to grow in dry shade where the enormous trees above are sucking all the goodness and moisture from the ground beneath. They are a naturalistic, raised bed solution. The oldest section was created in the 1950s by Mark’s dad, Felix and he used ponga logs and stumps (NZ tree ferns, for overseas readers). These are remarkably durable – still serving their purpose after 70 years.

Mark used whatever timber he had to hand when he doubled the length of the Rimu Avenue to give both structure and raised beds

When Mark doubled the length of the Rimu Avenue 20 years ago, he was disinclined to go out to the bush to harvest ponga so he used what we had to hand – a bit of ponga but mostly lengths of trees that have fallen here.

A simple feature. It will only last a few years because it is just a section of banglow palm trunk but it will decay gracefully

Somewhat unintentionally, our labour saving strategies are creating a theme throughout the entire garden – the re-use of fallen timber to create focal points, casual structure and different environments for plants as well as stowing lengths of fallen or felled trees in a way we find aesthetically and environmentally pleasing. It has been happening here for years. Cyclone Dovi has just accelerated it.

It all decays over time but don’t we all?

I see the date on this photo is 2004, probably very soon after Mark asked Lloyd to bury the upturned plum tree stumps to make a natural feature
In 2022 – today in fact – those stumps are getting ever smaller and less of a feature but that is part of Nature doing what Nature does.

A small kingfisher, autumn bulbs and cyclone recovery

Does anybody else feel they are living life day by day, waiting to see what else life will throw at us? Oh, most of you? I thought so. As I heard somebody on the radio saying yesterday, the pandemic has hit pretty much every corner of the world and it ain’t over yet. Add in the invasion of Ukraine, the very real threat of a nuclear war in Europe, the appalling flooding in northern New South Wales and it makes our experience with Cyclone Dovi seem minor.

Little Beaky the kingfisher or kōtare

I have to focus on the little things in my immediate physical world to keep me sane. Meet our little kingfisher or kōtare. Zach found it on the ground on Tuesday and it had clearly fallen out of its nest-hole high, high above in the Phoenix palm. Zach named it Queenie but told me the next morning it had changed to Beaky. I can only assume that these are pop culture references which I am too old to understand.

For such a small creature, Beaky had a very loud voice and on Wednesday, it spent a lot of time calling to its whanau (family) above. At times the mother would reply so she knew where it was and we hoped she was feeding it.

Beaky’s family nest was a hole high in the Phoenix palm

Thursday – no sign. No bird. No noise. I hoped Beaky had not been taken by a feral cat or stoat. Zach bravely declared that he was sure the tail feathers must have grown sufficiently for Beaky to fly but I had my doubts. Zach was right.

On Friday, the sound of loud kingfisher squawks drew me back to the area where I saw a little kingfisher perched in an adjacent tree. As I watched, it flew over to the Phoenix palm and then back before flying a little more confidently further afield. Was it Beaky? It is a bit hard to tell when it is up in a tree but it was a baby kōtare, clearly new to flying and managing to make a great deal of noise so I think it was likely to be Beaky who may just be the noisiest, small kōtare of all time. I hope it was.

The gum tree or eucalyptus at our gateway with the rootball and base standing upright again. The belladonnas are not bothered by all that has gone on around them

On the cyclone clean-up front, we have made good progress. In a difficult operation, the arborist dropped what remained standing of the giant gum tree at our gate, removing also the broken branches – called swingers – caught up in an adjacent tree and in danger of falling onto passing cars. This involved getting in a large truck with a hiab to lift down sections safely but also meant that they could stand the base of the main trunk upright again which is way more pleasing visually. I got out the tape measure – it is about 2 metres across near the base so that is a pretty huge chunk of timber to fall.

In the Avenue Gardens

The main damage in the Avenue Gardens has been cleared. It remains to be seen how much of the herbaceous underplanting returns in spring. The whole area was densely planted and lush until three weeks ago. I am hoping Mark is thinking his way into deciding what we can replant for the middle layer of shrubs and small trees that were taken out. That is his area of expertise.

The next path over from the areas of damage and all looks well with the new surface

Because so much of the material was mulched on site, we have used some of that fresh woodchip to cushion the paths, which gives a nice, soft surface to walk on. We still have a small mountain of mulch left but it was important to get the big piles off the garden before they heated up more and cooked the herbaceous material beneath.  

Moraea polystachya in the rockery

More autumn bulbs are opening every day. While I love the bulbs in the rockery – all the Cyclamen hederafolium, Rhodophiala bifida, Haemanthus coccineus, Leucojum autumnale, Moraea polystachya, sternbergia, Colchicum autumnale and the first of the nerines amongst others – there is something particularly engaging about the brave cyclamen and colchicums flowering in wilder conditions in the long grass in the park.

There is a resilience and an element of surprise with bulbs that will naturalise in more challenging conditions.