It is a cactus. Well, mostly was a cactus now but we will get to that. It is a particularly prickly cactus and we have no idea at all of its name or botanical history. Presumably it came from somewhere dry and desert-y, maybe southern USA? It has sat in the narrow border outside the laundry window as long as Mark can remember and he was born here.
Over the years, his father Felix had tied it to the wooden window frame and festooned it with old horseshoes and stirrups which we left in place – a nod to his history on the farm that he managed with horses, never a tractor.
When we moved into the house in 1997, it was a great puzzle to us how our cat, Casper, was getting onto the roof and in through our upstairs bedroom window.
Casper – still referred to as Cassy-purr on account of his excessively loud purr – was a characterful little cat. This is not a photo of Casper. He came before digital cameras. This is actually his successor, Buffy, blockading the stairs that the dogs may not pass. But in the days when we still had cats, they were all ginger. As far as I am concerned, cats should be ginger so they were somewhat clonal. Buffy can serve as Generic Jury Ginger Cat.
I walked around the house trying to work out how Casper was climbing onto the roof to get access to our bedroom window but there was nothing that looked climbable. I told the children that I would give five dollars to whomever solved this mystery. Elder daughter was reversing the car out one day and in the mirror she saw Casper, shinning his way up the cactus. To this day, I do not understand how he managed to do it without getting the pads on his paws pierced by the very fine, sharp prickles but he kept using that cactus as his personal access route until he met an untimely end on the road. It has remained Casper’s cactus to us.
Of late the cactus has been looking sadder and sadder and has become somewhat hazardous, shedding bits of its outer layer, with the fine spines still attached, onto the path below. It always was somewhat dangerous in that location so close to the path, but as I pulled the spines out of my feet whenever I ventured out without shoes on, I decided we needed to clean it up. As we looked closely at it, it was clear that most of it was now dead.
Donning leather gloves, I cut it back it back to live stems. There is not much of it left. Some of the tips were still alive and I have put them to one side for Mark to grow again, if he gets around to it. I do not like prickly plants. I do not like them at all. If the rest of the remaining plant dies, I will not mourn its passing. It is only of passing historic interest, really. Besides, the laundry window frames have not been painted since we moved in to the house, and probably not for a long time before that. Repainting them is on Lloyd’s to-do list at last.
Why is it dying? Mark thinks it likely that one of the stems had grown to a point where it was catching drips from the spouting and channelling the water down the length of the plant to the roots. Such a death is most likely to be a change in the drainage. Whatever, after about 70 years, it seems to have had enough of us.
I think I might do an extra post about the pink pampas, I said to Mark this morning. He immediately burst into the opening bars of the Pink Panther theme which others of a similar age are likely to remember as well as we do.
Pink Panthers aside, I was a bit surprised that I had not previously noticed the pink pampas on the roadside bank of a neighbour down the road and around a corner. It is Very Pink, so much so that it looks as though it has been dyed.
South American pampas is not such a common sight here these days on account of it being on the National Pest Plant Accord and banned from commercial propagation and sale. I think it may even have had a compulsory removal order on it for a few years to try and curb its spreading ways. It became very popular as a farm windbreak a few decades ago – cheap, quick growing and edible for stock so they could keep it in check. It was a shame the stock could not control the airborne seeds and, given the razor-sharp leaves, I am surmising they probably only ate it if they were very hungry. Pampas also adds greatly to the fire risk in summer or autumn droughts.
The few in evidence these days are testimony to its persistent weediness. If not kept in check, they will spread further.
The pink or purple forms are Cortaderia jubata while the creamy white fluffy plumes are Cortaderia selloana so different species, but both South American. New Zealanders often confuse them with our native toetoe grass which used to be classified as a member of the cortaderia family but has now been moved to the austroderia family. We have five different species of toetoe which are native to this country.
They are actually quite easy to tell apart. The toetoe flowers in spring, holding its ageing flowers through summer whereas the pampas flowers in autumn. The toetoe has arching stems and the flowers all fall to the lower side, somewhat like tasselling or fringing. The pampas holds its flowers upright and they are fluffy plumes all round like feather dusters. Anything pink or purple is a pampas.
The bottom line is that pampas is bad in this country, toetoe belongs here. That is still a startling synthetic shade of pink pampas down the road, though. These days, I sniffily describe such things by the epithet of ‘novelty plants’.
I struggle to appreciate bedding plants. I really do. To me, they belong in dated floral clocks and on traffic islands. Maybe in the occasional garden bed in public gardens to appeal to older folks who have not updated their ideas since the 1960s.
I don’t have many photos on file of bedding plants but these two are from RHS Wisley, south of London and they are certainly not representative of 99% of those magnificent gardens. But there are requirements for such places to be all things to all people. That Is Enid Blyton’s Famous Five clipped amongst the blue which speaks volumes about the age demographic for that particular garden. To this day, it worries me that George on the right looks from behind as if he is having a pee.
Mark is inclined to dismiss the scaling down of plants, rendering them more suitable for suburban gardens. Our garden is anything but suburban but, by all means, if your garden is smaller and you crave a suburban look, stack it with these compact versions of the original. He doesn’t often name-drop, my Mark, and usually only in private but he reminded me that he had discussed this very matter with the late Beth Chatto when we met her and she was in complete agreement with him. He felt vindicated.
I was thinking about this because the helianthus are in full bloom. One day they were just the promise of buds showing, the next day they were in flower – one of the last of the summer glories. The common sunflower is a member of the helianthus family. Until this year, I had only seen the compact form of helianthus bloom here and very showy it was. Then my gardening friend, Susan, gave me some of a large form which I put into the Court Garden. I had been waiting for it to bloom, worrying as some of the outer stems snapped off from their weight. It is not a tidy plant, but look at it. It is glorious in its late summer raiment of garish yellow. I love it at this time of the year. And I love the big, rangy form, brittle though it is, more than the tidy, compact form.
Don’t get me wrong; the scaled down version is very good and it has its place in the garden but the bigger, more open form delights me more. The lower version is knee-high on me, the taller one is shoulder height. So, too with the asters. I have used the compact little blue carpet aster which I think bears the full name of “Aster novi-belgii ‘Professor Anton Von Kippenberg’ “ – sounds like those extended names given to miniature horses. In fact I have two carpets of it in the Wave Garden where it is much loved by the bees and the butterflies. I say carpets because, at its best, the plants form a carpet of blue at about 30cm high.
I haven’t come to grips with the aster species (Michaelmas daisies) but Kippenberg is either a dwarf species selection or a dwarf hybrid, probably the latter. The other asters we grow are much taller and rangier – think chest or even shoulder height and I have used them more extensively because they blend well with other plants rather than being best as a mass carpet.
I have noticed with both the aster and the helianthus that the dwarf versions mass flower in one hit. All the blooms open at once, which is very showy but once they are over, that it is for the season. The rangier, taller versions set flowers down the stems which come out in sequence and so give a longer season in bloom.
I am not sure about dwarf dahlias. Years ago we were given a little red one and while it is a tidy little plant and it blooms well, I do not find it charming. I much prefer its larger, less controlled relatives.
So too with alstroemerias. Yes, the big ones can be problematic. They need support and they are inclined to spread rather enthusiastically. Unless you dig out every last bit of their fleshy roots, they also stage a second coming. But I like them.
I was given one of the compact new dwarf varieties. Okay, it flowers very well over an extended period and it is easy to divide and increase. But it is so stunted, to my eyes. So… tidy. I don’t dislike it so much that I have dug it out – yet – but I would never buy one.
It comes down to taste and garden style in the end. We have plenty of space. In smaller gardens, just beware of stacking too many of these tidy, compact, scaled-down versions in unless you like the traffic island look at home.
If you only have a small area and are looking for inspiration on how to create a garden that is less suburban and constrained in style, you may enjoy having a look at Christchurch gardener, Robyn Kilty’s site. She has managed to fill her small spaces with a garden that looks deceptively free, graceful and exuberant while not being wild or out of control at all. It takes more skill to garden in this style but it can be done in smaller spaces.
Ladders feature remarkably large in our life here and not just because Mark and I are of shorter stature. Lloyd is tall. Many of our plants are much taller than he can reach. For many years we have operated on four aluminium ladders – three typical A-frame type and a full extension ladder. A few months ago, Lloyd stopped a pruning job halfway through and said that he did not feel safe continuing with it because of the state of the ladders. Lloyd is not one for complaining so, on the rare occasions when he red-flags a workplace safety issue, we take it seriously. Besides, we knew our ladders had become dodgy and rickety.
It has taken a couple of months, some research and many discussions but the first two of three new ladders arrived this week and it is ridiculously exciting. This is what is called a platform ladder. Now any of us can feel quite safe standing on the top rung because it is a larger platform with a safety bar on a very sturdy base. We bought the tallest one because it is the higher jobs that had become problematic here but I can see that this ladder may also give new options for my garden photographs. I may finally be able to get some elevated vistas of the summer gardens, particularly the Court Garden. It is heavier than a straight A-frame ladder but still light enough for me to move short distances on my own although I think it will be Lloyd who uses it the most.
The second ladder has yet to arrive. It is what is called an orchard ladder with just three legs, the back one of which is a prong. This means it can be located closer in to the plants and will do less damage in a garden because it is only the front two legs that need to be placed with care and it can be used safely in areas with more slope. We have gone for the tallest option again. We had been thinking about buying one for several years but even before it has arrived, I can see how helpful it will be. Mark is particularly looking forward to this one.
We will still keep the rickety A-frames and the extension ladder. The A-frames are lighter and easier to move around for small jobs, as long as we are mindful of their limitations.
While I was busy learning about ladders, I bit the bullet and found another shorter ladder, primarily for indoor use. It was way cheaper than the other two ones, says she justifying what feels like an extravagance. A snip at just under $80. Being of shorter stature, kitchen stepladders have always been a part of my life but even so, I cannot reach the top cupboards without bringing in a taller ladder. In a house with a high ceiling stud and five of the downstairs rooms having cupboards right to the ceiling, it does mean that anything on the top shelves languishes there, ignored and probably useless, except for once every five years or so when I might remember something or wipe down the toppest of the top shelves. No more! All is now within my reach. I wonder if it is time for me to declutter?
True, I bought it online and I may have hesitated had I seen it in person. It is a little larger than I had anticipated. Quite a bit larger. To balance out the extra height, it has a wider base. Note, it is another platform ladder which is helpful because these are way more comfortable to work from. Clearly it will not replace the modest, utility kitchen steps that we use every day so I must keep those, too.
When I was a child, we used to have just one type of flour for cooking. Now we have six on hand at all times (wholemeal, high grade white, ordinary white, self-raising, cornflour, spelt flour and tapioca flour). We probably only ever had one ladder too, and that would have been a solid old wooden one in those days. Now we have a ladder for almost every occasion.
ACC* would be proud of us.
Footnote: For overseas readers, ACC is our Accident Compensation Corporation – a longstanding, taxpayer-funded body that acts as an insurance company paying out on a no-fault, no-blame basis for medical and related costs – including wages and loss of income – for all injuries and accidents. It is not a perfect system and we all like to moan about it but it has freed this country from the litigious nature of many other countries. ACC also likes to educate us on dangers around the home and unsafe ladders feature regularly.
A quick garden update. Zach has reached as far as the bamboo grove in the Wild North Garden and we now have a path through it which I found quite exciting.
Mark’s low meadow (formerly the front lawn) had finished flowering so Lloyd ran the mower over it for the first time in over three months. I expect we will have a lawn back soon and that will continue until late spring this year when Mark will want to grow it again.
I feel sufficiently confident to give an interim report on the grasses I have used in the new Court Garden although it will take another few years before I can give a definitive verdict. These are bigger growing grasses because we had the space and I wanted an immersive effect that wraps around when we walk through the area.
The site is the hottest area in our garden but, being lowered, it can also be frosty in winter. Cold air flows down to lower levels to settle. The ground is typical free-draining, Taranaki volcanic soils that do not become water-logged and never dry out entirely. We haven’t added any fertiliser and once planted, we never water. The area is mulched with wood chip.
Chionochloa rubra– NZ native so evergreen. It takes first prize for graceful form because it fountains out from a narrow base and that form makes it a real star in the winter garden. Its flowering is relatively insignificant but I don’t have to groom the plants to remove dead sections. We started with just one plant and I kept dividing it, which it does easily. I have never lost a plant. It needs space to be able to appreciate the graceful form and the best plants are now 120cm high with a spread up to 2 metres.
Chionochloa flavicans – also a native, sometimes referred to as ‘miniature toetoe’, so evergreen. At its best in spring but holds its showy flowers right through until autumn. Rabbit fodder when young. Has the reputation of ‘whiffing off’ unpredictably and it certainly doesn’t appreciate being crowded by other plants. Again, we started with a single plant and kept dividing. I have overplanted it so will lift the lot shortly and split the plants, replanting fewer and at wider spacings. I am hoping that by dividing, it will stimulate more growth and delay any inclination to ‘whiff off’. Plants are now about 75cm high and up to 140cm wide.
Anemanthele lessoniana – another native – so evergreen – with a vase shaped habit of growth and more colour variation in the foliage. Lovely in bloom with a cloud of fine flower heads. I had this in the twin borders but the plants were getting too large so I have now moved them to the Court Garden. When stressed (and my plants have often been stressed as I have lifted and divided them to increase the number from the original three), it turns an attractive gold but I will need to groom the foliage to remove dead thatch when the plants make fresh growth. It has reached about 90cm high and up to 140cm wide.
Austroderia fulvida – toetoe so another evergreen native. Very large growing and too early for me to comment on its longer term performance. I bought three small plants through Trade Me and they have already reached 1.7m high and 2.4 metres wide.
Stipa gigantea I have referenced countless times. It, too, is evergreen in our conditions and I give it the occasional groom (by hand or with a leaf rake) to remove dead foliage. Excluding the tall flower spikes, it is about 80cm high and 160 cm wide as it matures. It divides and increases easily so just start with a single plant but you do need a certain critical mass to have sufficient to share with the sparrows. We found the pesky birds stripped the blooms in the first season and the whole reason for growing this grass is for its showy, long-lived flower spikes so that was disappointing. This year we have had plenty to share with the birds. The foliage has a glaucous tint which is a contrast.
Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster‘ – I have written about this before. It is such a strong grower, spreading at an alarming speed, that I reduced it down to just six plants which I am hoping I can keep in check by root pruning on an annual basis. By root pruning, I mean getting a very sharp spade and cutting back the size of the clump without digging it all out. That way, I can get the spreading fresh growth off it. This works because it makes its new growths on the outside of the clump. It is evergreen in our climate but the foliage looks pretty scruffy by the end of season. I am pretty sure I cut it back hard last winter so the spring growth was all fresh and lush. It is one of the first grasses to flower in spring and those lovely plumes hold all summer and into autumn. It is all about the plumes because the foliage and form are nothing remarkable.
Calamagrostis ‘Overdam‘. At least, I think it is Overdam. It was given to me. It is strong growing too, but not as threatening as Karl. It has the same lovely plumes but the bonus of clean, variegated foliage which stays looking fresh through the season, somewhat like a lower growing variegated miscanthus, though it spreads sideways rather than up. It will likely need root pruning, too.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’. Look, we started with one plant in the garden years ago that just sat, grew annually and fell apart because it needed dividing. As soon as I started dividing it (done variously with a sharp spade, an old handsaw or a small axe), it responded by growing with huge enthusiasm. I overplanted badly and need to take out at least half of the plants but as it is all about the plumes in late autumn and early winter when they glow white in the low sun angles, I will wait. The plants are around 1.7 to 1.8 metres high with flower spikes on top of that so it is very tall. If it is divided often enough, it will stay together – falling apart from the middle is a sign it needs dividing. It is fully deciduous, fine leaved and variegated. Mark is sure that the old foliage has potential for thatching but he has yet to test this theory. This is the only grass that I have spotted seeding down so far but the seedlings are easy to pull out when small.
Miscanthus whatever whatever – may be just a larger growing form of sinensis with a wider leaf but it should be called Miscanthus giganteus variegatus. The leaves are wider and with a most attractive, clean variegation but the vigour and size is daunting. We ended up digging out three massive plants because I couldn’t hold them together and, as they fell apart, they blocked the path entirely. This is a triffid of a grass. Gardening friend, Susan, suggested that maybe the way forward is to do the Chelsea chop on them – cut them back to ground after the first big flush. I think she is right and I will be cutting them back to ground level about mid November. The second flush of growth should be more compact and shorter. If I can’t keep them under control this way, they will have to go. The plants are too big for me to lift alone and I don’t want to commit to plants that need lifting and dividing annually.
Lomandra We had a named variety in the garden but I found a better option to replace it with. I rate lomandra as one of the world’s more boring plants and I suggest you leave lomandras to supermarket carparks and roading roundabouts. We have more interesting and attractive native grasses without having to resort to this utility Aussie in NZ gardens.
Here endeth the interim grass report. Except to say that I am moving and dividing some now because we still have at least six to eight weeks of the growing season left before temperatures drop and growth slows or stops over winter. That said, I have done this in winter and we can get away with it but it is not recommended in less benign conditions where the plants may just sit and decompose in sodden, cold soils.