Down amongst the graves

Friends invited me to join them amongst the graves last week. The Te Henui Cemtery in New Plymouth must be the country’s prettiest, most vibrant graveyard. I credit this entirely to the energy and cheerful dedication of the small band of volunteers who tend to a multitude of discrete, grave-sized gardens.

My first sight was a monarch which resolutely refused to oblige by opening its wings, feeding on a shaggy echinacea

It is very seasonal and, on this visit, it was lilies, agapanthus and dahlias that did the heavy lifting in the floral display. The sunlight was so bright and the shadows so deep that I was struggling to get half way decent photos which is why landscape shots are missing. I need to go back on a day when light conditions are more muted. But it is a really interesting place to look at plant detail and planting combinations.

The most startling plant combination of the day, one to make you stop and go ‘wow’, was the dark leafed ligularia with Stipa tenuissima. The stipa is pretty controversial, as I learned a month or two ago, (banned from commercial production but not illegal to have in the garden) but the combination is one that would not look out of place in a super-smart Auckland townhouse.

Mark was not with me on this occasion but I have shared a life with him for so long now that I know what his response will be. And he does not like upward-facing lilies. He holds his opinion so firmly on this matter that it could be described as dismissive. It didn’t stop me photographing this handsome red lily that was looking splendid. I am guessing it is an Oriental hybrid, maybe even what I have just discovered is sometimes called an ‘Orienpet’ which is, the ever-handy internet tells me, a hybrid between and Oriental and a Trumpet lily. Why does Mark reject upward-facing lilies? Leaf and litter gatherers, he calls them. And when a bloom gathers debris, it marks badly and its flowering time is limited as a result. In the Garden of Jury, lily blooms are to be outward-facing, not upward-facing.

The cemetery has a good selection of lilies so locals and visitors may like to check them out from now until early February.

I call it a helichrysum but I think it is actually an anaphaliodes

It is over ten years ago that I wrote up Helichrysum ‘Silver Cushion’ and I have not added anything to my knowledge about what most people know as everlasting strawflowers in the intervening years. All I can say is that this plant is not what we have growing as ‘Silver Cushion’ though it must be related. Those everlasting blooms are larger and clearly hold better over a long period of time. They were dainty and charming, albeit somewhat reminiscent of tarnished tinsel daisy-stars at this time of year.

My best guess is that this and ‘Silver Cushion’ have derived from our native plant Anaphalioides bellidioides (formerly Helichrysum bellidiodes) but I doubt they are species selections and what else is sitting in the genes, I do not know. I would like a piece of this larger form, though.

Any input from readers who know more about anaphalioides is most welcome.

I am not a fan of Dame Edna gladiolus, not at all. I tolerate my vigorous yellow ones that are a legacy from Mark’s mother. But look at the startling colour in these two. Vulgar, yes. Lacking refinement, yes. But vibrant and with a clarity of colour that is not to be derided. Just not in my garden, I think. The foliage gets rusted and unsightly here. That is another good reason to go to the cemetery – to see plants and colours that I do not grow at home.

I do not understand why my dierama – angel’s fishing rod, do not perform as well here as amongst the graves. They flower, but nowhere near as freely. I don’t think it is varietal, it is more likely to be conditions. What am I doing wrong?

Our thanks go to the dedicated volunteers who tend to this particularly cheerful and colourful place which combines delighting the living as much as remembering the dead.  

A simple santolina, I think in the only landscape view I managed in the glare of summer sun


Finding hope

I was contemplating writing about poinsettias* as a Christmas topic that is not derived from our own garden. Though I am not sure that I have anything to say about poinsettias that I have not said before. My world has become so much smaller this year. But then I came across two minor incidents that seemed to capture hope.

Christmas this year seems especially poignant. While we, in our archipelago of five million, can lead close to normal lives, nothing, anywhere, is normal. Our degree of disruption is just less than so many other places and we can go about our day to day business without fear. Our hearts go out to those in other countries where life is so very difficult and spirits are low.  

My local town of Waitara is widely regarded as … fairly unprepossessing, shall I say? But two sights yesterday made me smile. Blink and you might miss the first one. It is in the bottom left of the photo.

Not a lonely little petunia in an onion patch but a brave, little, self-seeded petunia flowering in a sea of ashphalt and concrete right beside the gutter. The seed must have fallen from a hanging basket above. A tiny beacon of hope and survival, maybe.

Along came a woman with her hair wreathed in Christmas tinsel. I asked her if I might photograph her from behind, to preserve her anonymity. Though, upon reflection, you don’t go out adorned like that if you wish to remain anonymous. She turned so I could photograph the rear view and then told me I could photograph the front if I wished. Is she not both brave and beautiful?

May you find your own little harbingers of hope if Christmas is a difficult time for you this year.

Back to the topic of poinsettias

*Should you wish to know more about poinsettia, I can refer you to

1) The travesty that is the ‘cream’ poinsettia

2) cultural requirements for the poinsettia

3) a note about the universality of the poinsettia – this time in China in a brief para and photo at the end of this piece:

But I do not appear to have shared these photos of a splendid poinsettia flowering in front a friend’s house in New Plymouth in June this year. I think he told me it was just a house plant he had put into the garden where it grew and grew.

We do not have a poinsettia here in any shape or form, though I did once try planting out a Christmas houseplant whereupon it just became insignificant for reasons explained in the second link above. Had I been more patient, it may have ended up looking as exotic and large as our friend’s garden specimen.

It is a sign of different times that our Christmas presents this year are arriving with no festive wrapping. Our children, all living out of reach overseas, have resorted to remote shopping online and remote delivery. A minor sign of a Covid Christmas, even in safe New Zealand.

Anchoring a garden to its location

“When we can see the cycle is complete, it is time to cut the hedges that mark the tended places close to the buildings and provide the contrast to the rough wild hedges that run away darkly and on into the valley. 

The link between garden and the beyond landscape is deliberately mutable and I prefer to tread lightly now and to only act where it is really needed to keep in time with the landscape.”

I was completely charmed by these two sentences in a recent post by English designer and gardener, Dan Pearson. Yes! I thought. He was writing about exactly the same philosophy that inspired a piece I wrote two years ago that I headed ‘Blurred lines’. It is always reassuring to find a fellow traveller. And what a gentle way to mark the transition by neatly trimming hedges in the cultivated areas of the garden and then allowing them to be naturally wild and loose in the farther reaches.

There are beautiful photos of a heavy frost in that post, too. We never, ever get frosts of that magnitude here but any readers in Central Otago will identify with the chilly, still beauty of a hard frost in the morning light.


I have been thinking for the past fortnight about that approach of blurring transitions between garden and wider environment and how, to me, it is the difference between a garden that sits on the land and a garden that sits comfortably within the environment. It is all part of the spectrum of creating a garden by controlling nature through to creating a garden in partnership and cooperation with the forces of nature. Mark is currently fond of the description of naturalistic gardening, which he favours, being more or less about tidying nature.

Puketarata again
And the view from below the haha at Puketarata to show how they achieved the seamless vista in the previous photo
Still at Puketarata

Closer to home, that desire to sit a garden comfortably within a wider environment is what makes Puketarata Garden near Hawera memorable for me. Here is a garden within the environment, not sitting on top the land with no reference – or deference – to its location and sense of place.

By definition, strictly formal gardens sit ON the landscape, drawing inspiration from cultural and historical precedents far away in place and time. Close to the residence at Gravetye Hawera (not to be confused with its very different namesake, Gravetye Manor).
Gravetye Hawera again, heading away from the house

Different, but related, it is also what I like about Gravetye Garden in Hawera. I am not generally attracted to formal gardens in themselves but what I like there is how the strictly formal areas melt out gradually to the farthest boundaries where there is the contrast of much wilder areas. Because it is a confined space – several acres so not a town section but on generally flat land and defined by very tall boundary hedging with no view beyond that I recall – it is an example of how a very controlled style of gardening can still be anchored to its place. I see many gardens which could, theoretically, be lifted in their entirety and plonked down in another location altogether and nobody would be any the wiser. That gentle transition from control to wildness at Gravetye Hawera is what connects it to its own specific location.  

Gravetye Hawera melts out to wilder outer reaches and it is this unexpected charm that, for me, anchored this garden to its location

I will be honest. I am not sure how, or even if, this applies to small town gardens. If you live on a small section surrounded by tall, timber fences currently favoured in this country, it probably doesn’t. The area is already defined as a tightly confined space. If you are lucky enough to have a view – even the neighbours’ trees –  then the lessons from Puketarata can be scaled down to a smaller focus but still draw the eyes of the viewer from the close-up view and out beyond, blurring the edges of the garden into the wider environment. Or maybe the Gravetye example of softening the outer reaches could be scaled down to a small, confined space but I am not sure how this would be done in practice.

I do not think I could be happy living surrounded by tall fences. It would be more like a prison to me than a safe space but as I drive around towns and cities, it appears that is a minority view. Human beings can be very territorial.

With the current cessation of international travel, it may be that we are limited to enjoying experiences vicariously for a while yet. I don’t subscribe to many gardening blogs but two I enjoy are Dan Pearson’s ‘Dig Delve’ – at its best lyrical in conveying his delight in his private garden – and Pat Webster in Canada. Pat gardens in Quebec, so under snow for some of the year, and brings a personal focus on the historical and cultural context of her garden. It is not just about plants and design; she is also an artist and the installations she creates for her garden all use that wider social and historical context as a reference point. Pat can also be found on Facebook here.

Early summer in the borders, after days of unrelenting rain

Finally, and unrelated, Mark, the rain gauge man, tells me we have had over 20cm of rain since last Monday. Even by our standards, that is a lot. The borders, photographed this morning, have held up remarkably well to the unrelenting rain. I have my fingers crossed for more sun this week.

The colours of a New Zealand Christmas

Nature provides us with seasonal decorations – all around the area where we live. Pōhutukawa

My social media is flooded with Christmas photos, mostly from cold, northern climates. But I thought, as I drove through my local town, the colours of a New Zealand Christmas are red, blue and yellow. Bright red, blue and yellow because of the clear light that characterises this country.

Pōhutukawa come in every shade of red. The yellow is much less common and not as spectacular in the landscape but has a charm of its own.

The pōhutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) are commonly referred to as the New Zealand Christmas tree though their climatic range does not extend the full length of the country. This is the time they all come into flower for a brief but impressive few weeks.

Lovingly crafted and gifted from our daughter

I am not great at Christmas decorations (and Mark’s efforts are limited to the Christmas table flowers). There doesn’t seem a great need for them when we live surrounded by flowers and foliage just outside every window. With no little ones in our life at this time, and indeed no big ones this year with no international travel possible, the box of decorations will likely stay in the Harry Potter cupboard beneath the stairs. In the interests of festive spirit, however, I have brought out the exquisite three kings in crochet that Elder Daughter made for me. And planking Santa and yoga Santa are making their annual appearance.

Planking Santa and yoga Santa – pretty much family heirlooms now.

Spare a thought for Melania, though. There are words I never thought I would say.

After the black and silver gothic horror of her first efforts decorating the White House,

followed by her bizarre attempts at designer red – quickly transformed on social media to figures from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’,

this year she went with a more traditional theme. I might not have taken much notice of this were it not the headline I saw from Mashable: “Melania Trump unveils her final White House Christmas decorations and they’re fine.

Talk about being damned with faint praise, tinged with relief!

Lightly decorated though our house will be and few in number sitting down to Christmas treats (few? What am I talking about? Just two) ours at least will be a Christmas of colour, light and flowers.  I may have to dig out the CD we have of reggae Christmas carols as the background soundtrack to Christmas zoom calls with the children, just to make them groan and remember the days of childhood Christmases.

Elegia capenis

Elegia capensis in the new Court Garden

I lost count of the number of times we were asked about Elegia capensis during our recent open days. I have used it extensively with the grasses in the new Court Garden and it is looking rather splendid.

Its common name is the horsetail restio and the entire restionaceae plant family hails from South Africa. There are plenty of them but E. capensis  is the most common in ornamental gardens. It is not too fussy on conditions as long as it never dries out entirely and is not subjected to very cold winters.

Most visitors described it as looking like a bamboo but with feathery growth, which is apt. The new shoots come up in spring like narrow bamboo shoots, first developing brownish sheaths at points up the stem before growing the fine foliage in tiers. The stems last about three years before dying off.

When you look at the seed head, it is just as well that seed is not viable here

Our plants have never set viable seed. Whether that is because they are all one clone and they need other clones to set seed or whether it is the lack of smoke from bushfires, we are not sure. They may even be fully dioecious – needing both male and female plants to set viable seed. These are plants that have evolved to deal with frequent fires (they sprout afresh from underground rhizomes). PlantzAfrica says: “The seeds react well to treatment with smoke or with the ‘Instant Smoke Plus’ seed primer. Without this treatment the germination rate is poor.” I have never even heard of Instant Smoke Plus before.

We used to produce a few to sell in the nursery but the death rate in production was high. I have only just discovered why. We assumed that they would be similar to other plants like hostas and rodgersias that grow from rhizomes. In other words, we would lift the plants in winter, separate the rhizomes and repot them ready for spring growth. Then I read somewhere that they should be divided in February – late summer – so we tried that and it was not particularly successful either. What I have since discovered is that their roots are very sensitive, making the plants difficult to propagate by division. They are evergreen and not overly hardy so they are in growth all the time, unlike plants like the aforementioned hostas which have a dormant period. Commercially, they are more commonly raised from seed.

Where we have been successful in dividing this elegia, it has not been by taking apart the rhizomes but by cutting off large chunks of the original plant and putting the entire chunk into the new location. When I say cutting off large chunks, this requires a strong person, a very sharp spade and sometimes an axe, to take off blocks that are about 20 cm across which need to be replanted straight away. Brute strength, not high-level skill.

I see BBC Gardeners’ World describe this plant as invasive, which I think is wrong. It doesn’t seed readily – or at all here. Nor does it run below the soil surface so it is not invading. It is, however, strong growing and can make a large clump in the right conditions and that large clump is not easy to reduce or eliminate because of the solid nature of the rhizomes.

The maceaya is the poppy foliage amongst the elegia

What is setting out to be genuinely invasive is the Macleaya cordata, commonly known as the Plume Poppy which is interplanted with the elegia. We have it in a shade garden where it certainly ‘ran’ below the soil surface but not in a particularly problematic manner. In full sun in the Court Garden, it is not so much running as sprinting – in every direction including into the pristine new paths. Attractive it may be, but it is a worry. I may just have to leave it in the shade garden and find a less determined plant option for the sunny, grass garden.

Terry’s restio, as we refer to it here.

We have another restio that I picked up from Terry Hatch at Joy Plants in Drury but I am not sure where – or if – I kept its species name. It is not as vigorous as the elegia so better suited to the perennial borders where I have it planted but lacks the immediate visual charm of the deep green colour and tiers of feathery foliage up the stem. There is no such thing as a perfect plant for all situations.