Conference garden tours, then and now

We hosted the Camellia Society conference tour last Monday, the first big group we have allowed in to the garden since we closed five years ago. There is a long-standing connection between the Jurys and the Camellia Society, even though neither Mark nor I are active members, so we wanted to honour that history. It takes quite a lot of work to host a large group and we were somewhat out of practice but it all comes back again.

I baked cakes. Quite a few cakes but only of three different types. I calculated that each cake could be cut into twelve pieces so that each piece was large enough to appear generous without being overwhelming. Ninety people so I baked eleven cakes, to allow for anybody who might take two pieces. I tell you, it was a mathematical exercise. And I found we still own sixty coffee cups which seems an awful lot for a household of two.

The conference attendees were extremely considerate at the casual, morning tea station

On the day, we were praying that the weather forecast would be wrong and the rains would stay away for the morning at least. And they did, which was just as well. The rains that came in the afternoon were simply torrential and we were awash and flooded. We can fit maybe 60 people under cover but over 90? Probably not.

Conferences are smaller these days and in the end, we really enjoyed the experience and so did the attendees. It is very affirming to have so many people appreciate one’s gardening efforts and hospitality. Maybe we will open the garden again in the not too distant future. There were just two coaches and a few cars which was quite manageable in terms of parking logistics.

Lloyd and Mark erected our small marquee for the occasion to provide additional cover. Look at the blue sky the day before the visit.

I remembered with some nostalgia a tour from the American Camellia Society. Mark’s mother was still alive so it must have been the early 1980s. The touring Americans were greater in number than they are these days and always charming, courteous and enthusiastic guests – somewhat different to our perception of Trump’s America today. But the image that stays in my mind is how we waved goodbye to them on the coach and walked back to the house for a cup of tea. And there, on the doorstep, was the cane washing basket with Mark’s mother’s pink, nylon bloomers draped over it to dry. She had forgotten to take them in and every visitor must have seen them displayed in all their glory. She was mortified, I recall, but had the grace to laugh at herself.

Back in the day, as we say, NZ conferences used to be much larger. That is the 1980s when the Camellia Society annual conference comprised five large coaches and a contingent of cars. Goodness knows where we parked them but I assume I can’t remember because we just didn’t worry about it. Times were simpler and we had flat(ish) road verges rather than the steep, inhospitable sides we now have. Nowadays, we have to get all vehicles off the road and we could never hope to park five full-sized coaches.

Rhododendron Floral Dance

The Rhododendron Association conferences were a little smaller – more like four coaches and the accompanying cars. But it was a rhodo conference that sticks in my mind. I am pretty sure it must have been 1986 because it was the year we first released Rhododendron Floral Dance. It was our fifth year of mail-order sales and the ‘catalogue’ was just four sides of A4 paper. We had no retail sales and the nursery was entirely Mark’s domain so only he understood which plant was which. The first hint we had that we may be totally unprepared was when Mark’s sister-in-law arrived, announcing that she had come to help because we would need it. The group had visited her garden in the morning.

Mark’s father was stationed in the garden, Mark in the nursery and I stood at the ready to welcome people and head them round the garden first. Picture me, flapping my hands ineffectually, trying to split the group as they poured off the coaches and out of the cars, determined to get to the nursery first. We were inundated. For the next hour or so, Mark ran from side of the nursery to the other, frantically hand writing labels. Older NZ readers will know Bill Robinson from Tikitere Nursery who graciously circulated, recommending plants left, right and centre. At the same time a new gardener who shall remain nameless (he went on to establish a large garden that made up in scope what it lacked in detail), whose bank balance was considerably larger than his knowledge, strutted around in very large chequered trousers  cut from the same cloth as the finish flag at a race track, big-noting in his determination to buy what everybody else was buying but in multiples. Mark’s sister-in-law and I took the money in a single plastic icecream container. It was the days before eftpos so it was all cash and cheques.

It was a feeding frenzy. At the end of 75 minutes, the icecream container was overflowing and the small nursery was stripped bare. Remember, this was 1986. We took $4500 in that time, when the rhododendrons were priced between $11 and $13 each (or a massive $20 for Floral Dance). We were like stunned mullets. As the coaches left, we waved goodbye and walked back to the house. The conference organisers were dismantling the trestle table laden with wine (cardboard casks of wine, it being the 1980s) which they had been serving on the back lawn. Mark told me that wine was a feature of the rhododendron conferences at that time. I have no idea how many went straight from plant sales to the wine without taking in the garden in-between. A few, I would guess. Whatever, it was an experience that we have never forgotten and neither was it ever repeated.

Conference tours in this day and age are a great deal more sedate and from the point of view of a garden owner, a great deal more enjoyable for that.

The rains, when they came in the afternoon left us awash

The glyphosate debate

The visual and environmental scourge of the scorched earth roadside

Glyphosate has been much in the news of late and the calls to ban it are increasing in this country. I am no scientist so any opinions we have here are based on experience and observation. Because we ran a plant nursery for about three decades, our experience with sprays is greater than the average home gardener. You don’t think all those brilliant looking plants you buy from the garden centre are grown organically, do you?

Because of my lack of scientific background, I was pleased to find a post on the credible and independent Sciblogs site, written by scientist, Dr Grant Jacobs. If you have any interest in the use of glyphosate, I would urge you to read it in full here.

If you are not going to read it in full, the key points I have taken from it are:

  • The original probable (not definitive) link between glyphosate and cancer was made by IARC in 2015 (IARC being the International Agency for Research into Cancer which comes under the World Health Organisation). IARC’s role is to flag areas for further investigation and identify hazards, not to make definitive rulings. Even the term ‘probable link’ is an oversimplification of IARC’s findings.
  • The role of risk assessment on those potential hazards falls to regulatory bodies – the Environmental Protection Agency is a key body in NZ. And while IARC made the initial finding, subsequent investigations by scientists in such regulatory bodies around the world have not raised red flags. It appears that all such investigations have cleared it as safe when used according to instructions and with usual safety precautions. The difference between hazard and proven risk is important.
  • Any blanket ban on such a product comes down to a political decision and that is what we are seeing happening in Europe. A political decision is not necessarily based on science. It can often be based more in public opinion and political polling.
  • The court case in USA which triggered the recent round of debate (the school caretaker who contracted cancer) is based on a judge and jury trial in a courtroom and as such it is subject to the vagaries of a court system where the jury may or may not understand the science and where the directions given by the judge have a huge influence. This will all be tested further in the appeals process but a court case does not constitute rigorous scientific enquiry and risk assessment. While the case is certainly interesting, it is not proof of anything at this stage.

Jacobs also clarifies why we need to be talking ‘glyphosate’, not using the original brand name of Round Up. Indeed Round Up for Lawns contains no glyphosate at all. It is the chemical that is under scrutiny, not the branding. Round Up is a Monsanto product and while there are many concerns about Monsanto across a whole range of issues, the safety or otherwise of glyphosate should not be confused with a battle against Monsanto business ethics (or perceived lack thereof). Let us keep the arguments separate.

I was listening to a discussion on Radio NZ about all this and the host went on and on about the safety of glyphosate. “Is it safe? Can you guarantee it is safe?” he kept asking. Wrong question. How safe is it if used properly? Is the risk within acceptable limits? These might be better questions. Our lives are filled with hazards that we choose to manage. In the 44 years that glyphosate has been in use, it has proven itself to be safer than many other chemical sprays that are, or were, also used. Remember Paraquat? I don’t think there is any dispute that glyphosate is hugely safer than Paraquat but is it safe enough to continue using?

I worry about the nature of public debate that may see political decisions to ban what has so far been a relatively safe agrichemical, while leaving far more dangerous options on the market. Unless we have a change of heart, mind and practice on how we manage weeds and pasture, we run the risk of banning one option, only to have people substitute with another spray that could be way worse. We are a country that accepts a pretty high level of use of chemicals, toxins and sprays. While some are now controlled and you need to be an approved handler to buy them, the home gardener can still buy a fair number of products across the counter that are no longer available to their counterparts in the European Community.

The issue of the possible threat to human health underpins all this debate with IARC, cancer and banning glyphosate. It is separate to the issue of the impact on ecological systems. That is a whole different area to be considered. There are theories that environmental damage may be more to do with the surfactant (the sticking agent) rather than the glyphosate. We have also raised our eyebrows at the quick knockdown glyphosate products – the convenient aerosol or pump sprays that the home gardener can use to kill a plant more or less instantly. But again, that is a separate issue to fundamental matter of the claimed threat to human health.

It is complicated, not black and white. By all means, go organic and shun the use of non-organic sprays in your own garden. But maybe don’t cast glyphosate as the greatest villain of all the sprays and single it out for blanket bans while leaving the others on the market. I think that is called throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Time will tell if we will face a future without glyphosate and that bears some thinking about for home gardeners, farmers and most landowners as well as the public sector which maintains the parks, reserves, road verges and playing fields. Our attitudes to weeds, to invasive plants, to long grass and to presentation standards which are widely held as desirable will have to change too. On the bright side, the scourge of the scorched earth roadside may disappear which would be hugely beneficial both environmentally and aesthetically, in my opinion at least.

Garden lore: seasonal garden advice

Herewith your annual reminder of three seasonal matters.

  • If your magnolia appears to have plenty of furry buds but when they go to open, all you get is a few damaged petals – or nothing – the culprit is almost certainly a possum. They can develop a taste for the buds and eat the centre out without the damage being overly obvious to the casual eye until the blooms fail to open. A single possum is quite capable of taking out most of the buds on a tree over a few nights. Mark and the dogs head out every dry night at this time of the year on a possums-in-the-magnolias round. The price of our glorious display is seasonal vigilance (and high velocity lead, which is not an option for city dwellers).

    One of the first blooms on Magnolia Felix Jury

  • If you feel you must spray your lawn, do it on the next fine day and do not delay if if you have deciduous magnolias (or indeed kiwi fruit or any other plants that are susceptible to hormone spray drift). The faintest whiff of lawn spray at the time the leaf buds are breaking dormancy is likely to damage them badly and magnolias are particularly susceptible. Most magnolias break into leaf just as flowering finishes. Every year we get enquiries from people worrying about the deformed new foliage on their trees. Invariably, the cause is lawn spray. Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot you can do about spray-happy neighbours.
  • Get any tree or large shrub pruning done urgently. The birds will be building nests full time shortly. I am not sure what killing off birds’ eggs – or worse, later in the season, hatchlings – is called. Aviancide, perhaps? But if you have ever taken the time to watch the birds gathering materials for nests, you will realise what a huge amount of time and effort it takes. It seems very mean to destroy them, all for failing to factor that into planning for pruning.

    Vulcan in its full glory today.

Change of plan

Verbascum creticum, a tall, large flowered biennial

We have spent a fair amount of time and energy examining meadow gardens and wildflower gardening over the years. It is not something we want to embark on lightly. With our growing conditions, the potential for unleashing a weedy mess is high. But crunch time is coming. What to do with the central court in our new garden? We do not want an actual tennis court. Nor do we want more lawn. We want something naturalistic, ecologically sound, relatively low maintenance and preferably wildly romantic.

Last year, I was still thinking of meadow-style and saved seeds of various large biennials and annuals that we could possibly use – Verbascum creticum, white foxgloves, nigella, even the red poppy. It takes A LOT of seed to sow an area as large as this and it was going to be expensive if we had to buy small packets to make up the chosen mix.

Flagged that plan. I may try it further out in the garden but in a smaller area. In the future. Maybe. This central court is too prominent and too large to experiment with random ‘wildflowers’ (not wild in NZ of course). It HAS to work rather than be experimental and to work in the longer term without creating a maintenance headache.

Dunnett at Trentham

While I would love to try the perennial meadow style pioneered by Nigel Dunnett and the Sheffield Movement (Pictorial Meadows) that so entranced us at Trentham last year, I also know our limits. That work is the result of years of experimentation, learning and analysis by the protagonists and the plant selections are what works in the UK. We would be starting from scratch to find what works well and how to manage it in our very different climate and growing conditions. It may also look rather flat and contrived in a tightly contained garden rather than linking to the wider landscape with natural landform.

A blank canvas of about 450 square metres

This court area is about 15 metres wide and at least 30 metres long. It is a rectangular, formal shape bounded by a low brick retaining wall (still under construction) and the long sides defined by formal plantings of Fairy Magnolia White (to be pleached in due course and clipped hedges of Camellia Fairy Blush. The steps still await construction, as do the large pergolas Mark really (really, really) wants at each end. It is flanked on one side by the new grass garden and on the other by the equally new lily border and the caterpillar garden, all of which I have written about in the last year.

Each plant in its own space in Beth Chatto’s dry garden

The solution lay in what I have referred to as the grass garden. It isn’t really the grass garden that I envisaged at the start. It isn’t even the summer garden we initially called it, though it looks good in summer. It also looks good in spring, different but equally pleasing in autumn and has enough interest to carry it through winter. Basically, it is more an example twin herbaceous borders in a modern style, showing influences from a number of contemporary designers with some debt to Beth Chatto’s dry garden. I add Chatto, because we eventually worked out that one of the aspects that makes her dry garden so charming is that each plant stands in its own space, not jostling for room and melding into its neighbours as in classic herbaceous plantings where one aim is to have no ground space visible.  It is that individual space that not only gives a very different feel – lighter, more spacious, when done with skill –  but also makes maintenance far easier.

Miscanthus in winter in the new borders

There is a school of thought that digging and dividing perennial plants is an unnecessary activity, devised by those who like to make work. And that may be true in some climates and some styles of gardening – an extension of the no-dig garden philosophy, even. One thing I have learned from experience is that if you dig and divide often, it is not a big task to be feared. It is digging over-large plants in hard, compacted soils that is difficult and heavy work. I had to get Lloyd (who does the heavy work here) to dig out the enormous Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ clump that I then cut up with an old hand saw to get about a dozen sizeable pieces. I wasn’t sure how they would respond to such rough treatment but they thrived and looked good all year. They are still standing, erect and pale and have not been beaten down or fallen apart in heavy rain and wind, as well-established clumps often do.

This week, I plan to dig and divide all the clumps of large grasses that I planted at this time last year. I shall report further if it turns out to be harder than I expect it to be, but the ground is still well cultivated and friable and I am not anticipating a killer task. I have promised some divisions to a colleague but there will be A LOT of miscanthus, Stipa gigantea and Calamgrostris ‘Karl Foerster’, along with our native Anemanthele lessoniana, toetoe (now an austroderia but formerly known as a cortaderia) and a large but graceful brown tussock that we have yet to find the name of. And there is the solution for the new court garden.

An immersive experience at Bury Court

It is to be the new grass garden, drawing on lessons learned from both Piet Oudolf and Christopher Bradley-Hole. In that large, geometric area, confined by a hard-edged boundary, I envisage an immersive experience – wandering informal paths through plantings that are shoulder high (at least when in flower), predominantly grasses. Waves of grasses (the Oudolf influence) in a limited selection. With just a few tall Verbascum creticum and foxgloves in white and pale apricot (we have both a-plenty) and maybe Ammi majus and some white daisy type plant which I have yet to find.  But the big grasses will be the feature. So more ‘New Perennials’, or modern prairie on steroids than meadow.

It will take a year or two to build up enough plants to fill the area. But now that I have a plan, I am impatient to get started. The first task will be to clear the area of grass and weeds and then rotary hoe it. It will happen. It just won’t be instant.

Postscript: I have zero intention of lifting these grasses in the court garden every year. They will be planted and left,  with maybe a cut around the outside from time to time to reduce the spread.

Ammi majus





Garden lore: protecting arms

Puttees. But for lower arms. We have large swathes of bromeliads that need an occasional clean out of accumulated debris and dead foliage. Many bromeliads have finely prickled edges that can rip arms to shreds and will find the small gap between glove and long sleeves. These are my DIY solution and are equally useful for reaching into many prickly or scratchy plants.

They are just the sleeves from a denim shirt cut to size and elasticised top and bottom and I keep them to hand in my gardening basket. While I find my shredded arms heal remarkably quickly (the reddening and discomfort will disappear overnight if I coat them in that potent  liniment still made by Rawleighs and sold as antiseptic salve), I am mindful that as we age and skin thins, it may be wiser to try and avoid tempting fate. Gardens host all sorts of fungi and bacteria which may not be good on broken skin. I have heard horror stories over the years about bad infections from wounds caused by rose thorns.

The colour match between my puttees and the pair of gardening gloves was mere serendipity.

Look at all those little hooks on the margins of the bromeliad leaves

Suddenly it’s spring

We have entered the season of floral skypaper

It would be churlish to complain too much about our winters here. Common wisdom divides the months of the year into four seasons so winter is June, July and August. But spring came this week. Sunny, calm, blue skies and sunshine with the temperature yesterday reaching 18° – clearly it is time I put away my merino thermals and found the mid-season tee shirts. The dreary rains of winter are but a memory at the moment (though they will return in spring for we are a high rainfall climate). Canberra had us thinking that a dry climate is much easier to live in but a high sunshine, high rainfall climate without extremes of temperature is much easier to garden in.

“Just an unnamed seedling from the breeding programme here,” as we say often

Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata ‘Lanarth’, commonly referred to just as Lanarth

I am very sympathetic to those readers sweltering and burning in the northern hemisphere and  grateful not to be there. I am even more grateful to be here where the spring garden has exploded into life. I always say our gardening year starts with the first magnolias to flower. Each year, it feels like a new beginning. Oh, the magnolias! All those views of floral skypaper and big, bold blooms in the landscape. It is beyond glorious and this is why I try and encourage people to grow Proper Trees, not scaled down, dwarfed, shrubby things with scaled down blooms. If space is a problem, go for a narrow, upright tree (fastigiate, is the term) rather than one that promises to stay at two metres high (which it won’t, unless it is the white stellata). Aside from the soft pink M. campbellii, the dominant colours of the first varieties to flower in the season are red and purple. Believe me, looking at the first light of morning shining through these rich colours is like a stained glass window.

The yellow camellias are flowering again. This is C. nitidissima

Lachenalia aloides and an early flowering scilla that I once sorted out a species name for but have since forgotten where I recorded it…

It is not just the magnolias. While the snowdrops are already passing over (their season is but a short delight here), we have masses of different narcissi flowering all over the place, along with lachenalias, leucojums, early scillas and late cyclamen. The camellias are blooming, along with the big-leafed rhododendrons like macabeanum and giganteum. Every day, I go out and find something else to delight.

A tui in Prunus campanulata ‘Felix Jury’

I had an idea that I would pick a branch of each of the Prunus campanulata (Taiwanese cherries) currently flowering to show the range of colours and flower size. We have somewhere over a dozen in bloom at the moment and more still opening, with a garden full of tui and bees as a result. So I headed out with my flower basket and snips, channelling my very late mother in law who left the basket… and gave up. Maybe next year. The problem, I realised quickly, is that I would need a ladder. Too many are flowering well above my reach. And as the trees are spread far and wide through the garden, it is a task that would be better carried out with obliging ladder carrier. But that is the thing about long term gardening: there is always next year.

Finally, an animal story. When we first adopted poor, unloved Spikey dog in 2009, we worried that he felt the cold badly. His coat was very thin – at least compared to the Shetland sheep dog we also had at the time – and he had not one ounce of body fat. Daughter made him a coat of many colours. I put it on him one chilly morn and Mark laughed at the ridiculous sight. Spike then hurtled down the avenue gardens after a rabbit and reappeared without his coat. Suggestions ranged from him being too embarrassed to be seen in the coat to Mark’s idea that he had regifted it to a needy rabbit family. Years passed and we never found the Joseph coat – until this week. It is a little brittle after 8 or 9 years in the open but a triumph to the resilience of yarn blends. One minute – that is how much wear that coat had.

In the meantime, he had been gifted a genuine Harrods coat and I had bought him a little number that made him look like the canine version of Julian Clary. But we always knew that as a bogan, freewheeling dog, he would have preferred a black vinyl number with chrome studs. These days he is over 14, stone deaf with a heart condition and possibly some level of dementia so he has passed the winter days sleeping in his bed by the fire. Yesterday, with spring in the air, he came out of hibernation and could even have been described as frolicking as he accompanied us around the garden with visiting friends. There may be life in the old dog yet, if he doesn’t get taken out by a heart attack.

Magnolia campbellii, looking more like a painting at maximum zoom with the snow of the distant mountain behind

Different light. Different colours. Canberra in mid winter.

Late afternoon by Lake Burley Griffin

One of the interesting things about travelling is the different light. Canberra in mid winter is very, very different to Tikorangi in mid winter. A special family event saw us convening in that city a couple of weeks ago.

Plenty of eucalypts

Canberra, being inland Australia, has what I recall from my days of school geography as ‘a continental climate’. In mid winter, it is cold and dry. In mid summer, it is hot and dry. Much colder, much hotter and very much drier than our verdant climate at home. And in my many visits there since our eldest daughter took up residence about 15 years ago, I have never experienced wind. In winter, this is just as well because, when daytime temperatures are often only single digit (celsius), a wind would make the cold intolerably bitter.

You can see how much colder it is by the daughter’s Crassula ovata (commonly called the jade plant or money tree). She forgot to cover it and hopes it will survive. We never have to worry about that sort of thing and it grows quite happily outdoors, all year round.

In my mind, I see Canberra as being dominated by muted golden colours. This is largely on account of it being such a dry climate. This is the entry to a major sculptural installation at the National Art Gallery. I never tire going to experience American artist, James Turrell’s Skyspace ‘Within without’ each time I visit and thought I had shared it before but it must have been just on the garden Facebook page instead.


It is an astonishing piece, all angles, flat planes and light and shade. Truly glorious. We had hoped to catch the last day of the Cartier jewellery exhibition in the gallery but so did everybody else and the prospect of queuing for over an hour just to get in did not seem appealing. New Zealanders are not used to queuing.

This is the entry lane to Skyspace and probably as close as you will get to a group shot of the family on this public site. It is minus me as photographer and minus the only representative of the next generation whose second birthday we had gathered to celebrate.

Public architecture and landscape in Australia is on a more lavish scale than we tend to have in New Zealand – a sign of a larger and wealthier economy. The parliamentary precinct houses many other facilities as well and goes well beyond utility provision of services to enable federal government to operate. I hadn’t see this particular water feature before.

 This is the wider context – a staircase waterfall, designed to be safe for the public while capturing light, movement and gentle sound in what is an arid environment.

What Canberra may lack in terms of plant appeal in mid winter, it makes up for with its birds. Flocks of birds, in this case a convention of king parrots on the road side in our daughter’s quiet street. Daughter tells us that the red head on the front bird is a sign that it is the only mature male amongst the 20 or 30 juveniles in that group. New Zealand birds are generally restrained in colour whereas Australia has many birds that are bold, brash and colourful.

We rarely see the muted, mystical light of a winter morn in Canberra. This may be because we have far more wind – a disturbed westerly air pattern, as Mark refers to it. This is just a suburban street scene – eucalypts, eucalypts and more gum trees. But no koalas on these ones. There are more than 700 different eucalyptus species, most of which are native to Australia. I once offered to buy the daughter a book on them so she could start to learn the different ones but she did not take up my offer.

We came home to a place where the dominant colours are green, green and more green but with plenty of highlights of pinks, reds, yellows and all the colours of late winter breaking into spring. It is very different. My next post is likely to be ‘And suddenly it’s spring’. For this week, we have left winter behind here.