If anybody said to me a year ago that the world would still be on hold with rampant Covid in mid 2021, I do not think I would have believed them. I guess we thought it would burn itself out and we would see some sort of return to the old ‘normality’. The opposite is the case. By most objective measures, the pandemic is actually getting worse and we may yet have to grapple with a scenario where a highly contagious strain emerges that is resistant to vaccines.
As we see other countries that have pursued elimination strategies now battling border incursions with new, more rampant strains, New Zealand and a number of south Pacific islands stand alone as places with no community transmission. But we have to be realistic; it is a matter of when, not if, we get another border incursion. It is the result of both good luck and good management that has kept us free so far and there will be a time when that luck fails. If you are of a mind to question how good our management has actually been, you should at least concede that it has been and continues to be better than most.
There are times I get a few pangs about not being able to travel as we used to. I miss that stimulation and inspiration. And it may be that our future offshore travel will be limited to family events, and quite possibly just to Australia. Even when travel opportunities reopen, I won’t be rushing to book further afield. Long haul air travel was never fun in better times; the prospect of sitting on aircraft for 27 hours or so (one way) wearing face masks and being attended by air crew clad from head to toe in PPE sounds grim, let alone transiting Covid hot spot air terminals on the way.
But, there are worse places to live out our dotage than here. And in this first week of our antipodean winter, all the yellows reminded me to be grateful for what we have and where we are.
Here we are, 23 days off the shortest day of the year and in the late autumn phase. The daytime temperature has dropped to the mid teens celsius and we even had a light frost this week. But we are lucky here that our light levels during the day don’t drop much. It just gets dark earlier.
We never get that grey, leaden look of spent perennials and patches of dark green that characterise many gardens in colder climates, let alone the blanket of white snow many northern countries experience. But neither are we tropical. I have busted out my thermals already. In self-defence, we do not retire indoors as the temperature drops and we are out and about in the garden in all but the worst weather.
The luculias are in flower. Rangy and frost tender these plants may be, the scent is divine and the flower heads are large and attractive balls of colour well into winter. My favourite is the almond pink of ‘Fragrant Cloud’. Unfortunately, they don’t hold well when picked but we keep our house at a warm temperature in winter that is not conducive to any garden flowers holding well indoors.
Also rangy and frost tender, the enormous, evergreen tree hydrangea is in full bloom. Walking past it on sunny days, the hum of honey bees is not quite deafening but certainly on track in that direction. As the plant is about 5 metres tall and currently sporting so many blooms on the sunny side that the foliage is barely visible, it can accommodate a whole lot of honey bees at a time when other food sources are less abundant. Last I heard, this unusual Chinese hydrangea is thought to be a member of the aspera group.
Nearby, still in the woodland area we call the Avenue Garden, I like this seasonal composition with the red form of Cordyline australis x banksii, the hanging chalices of the tree dahlia D. imperialis (another rangy, frost tender plant), the cerise of the enormous bougainvillea, blue flowered plectranthus and Luculia ‘Fragrant Cloud’ on the right.
Out in the rather wilder margins of Mark’s vegetable garden (which we never open to public view because while he is a productive gardener, he is also very messy in this area), the Ammi majus flowers on. I liked the mix of wildflower, the cloche and the communion of our two new ladders which Lloyd was using in tandem at the time.
In still wilder margins, this scene was the coming together of a United Nations of self-seeded plants – the nikau palms from NZ, Montanoa bipinnatifidaotherwise known as the Mexican tree daisy,and the yellow mahonia which may or may not be Mahonia japonica from Japan.
Back in the more cultivated areas of the garden, many vireya rhododendrons are blooming. These are the subtropical rhododendrons – so frost tender and generally pretty sensitive – and tend not to be longlived. Their flowering is triggered by day length, not temperature, so they bloom intermittently but autumn and spring are the main seasons. We have some dead specimens we are removing now and Mark is doing a cuttings round to propagate an ongoing supply. But this specimen, this one is defying that tendency to whiff off and die. It is the very plant that Felix collected from the highlands of New Guinea in 1957 and the start of his breeding programme –R. macgregoriae.
Autumn is sasanqua camellia season, now my favourite group of camellias. For years the NZ sasanqua market was completely dominated by consumer demand for white sasanquas – it may still be the case but I am out of touch with commercial production these days. We have plenty of different white sasanqua varieties in the garden but they do not spark joy for me in the way the coloured options do. This one is pretty ‘Elfin Rose’, seen here with the last nerines of the season, N. bowdenii at its feet.
It is not just flowers giving colour. While autumn colour is patchy and extended over a long period of time because we move so gradually from late summer to autumn to winter, the maples and some of the prunus give a pretty display.
Finally, in a sign of how our seasons lack the sharp demarcations of colder climates, the first magnolias are already opening. I follow a Facebook page for magnolia enthusiasts that is heavily dominated by mad keen magnoliaphiles from northern Europe. They are still posting photos of late season blooms opening on their spring magnolias. Meanwhile, as far away as we can get across the world, the Magnolia campbellii in the Anglican churchyard of my local town of Waitara is already open with a score or more blooms.
Here, we are looking at the first flowers open already on ‘Fairy Magnolia White’, the first of the michelias of the new season to bloom. As we are in the last gasps of autumn, these early magnolias are a reminder that spring is not far away.
I get a fair number of emails from strangers. Too many are people trying to order plants from us – I have complained about this before; then there are a whole lot from people who think that research on the internet comprises finding somebody who might know the information, locating their address and sending an email along the lines of ‘please tell me all you know’. I admit I delete most of these. I no longer feel obligated to reply to every email. Then there is the spam. Initially, I thought the email I am about to share was spam but as I read through, I realised not. It is, I think, a combination of trying to order product from us which we don’t have and never have had, a ‘tell me everything you know’ (which is actually nothing on this topic) AND an offer that is, the sender thinks, too good for me to refuse.
As far as I can make out, the only reason I was singled out for this attention is because back in 2014, I wrote a piece about autumn fungi which included a photo of parasol mushrooms.
Do not spoil the big reveal. Hold back your impatience. At least speed read the body of the email before you scroll down to the photos at the bottom that the writer included, showing the glory of the HUGE container filled with beautiful plants located in such a prominent place that it is admired by thousands of people. It is worth the wait.
You have a chance to join a charity project which is seen by thousands of people of general public and you can have a sales promotion, for free, of your mushroom business:
I am an owner of a huge container of beautiful plants located in a public place, in the front of the entrance of Balham library in London, quite close to the Waitrose supermarket, so, thousands of people are passing by my huge container and enjoying the plants’ beauty.
I do this my private charity project to support the beauty of plants.
Please, SEE the pictures in the attachments.
Right now, I am going to add to my plants, beautiful Parasols, Macrolepiota proceras, on the corner of the huge container under the pine tree, (SEE the pictures) to be very visible by the thousands of people of general public so that they can be enjoying the beauties of the big beautiful Parasols, Macrolepiota proceras.
I am not any expert about any plants. I just want people can enjoy the beauties of plants. So, please, can you send me already prepared, ready to grow, cultivation kit, that can be transferred directly into my top soil which I have in the huge container, fruiting in about two months?
I mean the special substrate which is already mixed with the Parasols? Just to make a hole in the top soil in my huge container and to put into there your special substrate which is already mixed with the Parasols? I suppose, about 3 kilograms and fruiting in about two months?
Because this is a charity project, and because I am not any charity organization, I just am a person who is doing a good deed to support the beauties of plants, I can pay the total price up to £10 including the postage. (My budget is very narrow because I am going to add many more plants.) Or, I would appreciate if you can send it to me for free.
In return, I can place on my huge container a sign where will be written something like this (or suggest your text):
THESE BEAUTIFUL PARASOL MUSHROOMS WERE DONATED BY: www…………………. TO SUPPORT THE BEAUTY OF THE NATURE. You can order these beautiful mushrooms or/and many other mushrooms on the website above!
If you do not have the power to make the decision, please, forward this email to the owner / director / manager of your business. Many thanks!
If you cannot provide the one, please, can you send me a link to a web page where they can sell the one what I am looking for? Many thanks!
Many thanks for your reply
J*** London, Balham”
Behold the glory of the container. Is this not a triumph of naïve optimism?
Am I feeling a little guilty about gently mocking this person’s efforts, worried they may read this post? Well, yes but as he or she clearly never read the content of the first post that led them to contact me, the chances of them reading this one seem remote.
A sad story came out of Christchurch this week. Mrs Wang, an elderly woman aged 80, had a thriving vegetable and herb garden she had been tending for ten years out the back of her home, a charmless block of four social housing units. She came home to find the landlord, a charitable housing trust, had sent in a digger to destroy her garden and level it, to be sown back into grass. ‘Acting on complaints,” they said, from another resident.
Mrs Wang was clearly distressed. She was growing traditional Chinese vegetables and herbs that are not easy to source in New Zealand and they were gone. That is the short version. You can read more here.
The social housing trust went into immediate defensive mode when the story broke, issuing one of those apologies that isn’t really an apology because it is immediately followed by self-justifications and then an attempt to occupy the higher moral ground. We made a mistake in not warning her the digger was coming in, they said, but they would put it right by installing raised vegetable beds for the use of all the residents this very week.
This defused some of the criticism, especially from those who do not garden. After all, who would not be thrilled to get that symbol of the middle classes, a raised vegetable bed?
Where to begin? Did the trust ask all residents if they wanted to have their own raised vegetable plot? Is all that stood between the complaining resident and a thriving vegetable garden of their own the absence of a raised bed?
I have no inside knowledge but it seems likely that Mrs Wang is a first generation Chinese New Zealander. I say that because when her plant list came down social media, she had clearly written it in Chinese and she was growing traditional foods and medicinal herbs from China.
If this is the case, then Mrs Wang was born into a time and place where famine was a massive issue. In the land of relative plenty where we live, ripping out a productive garden seems like vandalism. To somebody for whom the Great Famine of 1959 to 1961 (or 1958 to 1962, depending on which historian you are following) is a part of her living memory and her dual heritage, such wanton destruction must be beyond comprehension.
Back to raised vegetable beds. They have their place, particularly for gardeners with mobility issues or where the ground is somehow unsuitable for cultivation. But commonly, they are an affectation, an attempt to pretty up the productive garden, maybe emulate the potager style made famous by UK gardener, Rosemary Verey. They are not often favoured by diggers, by those for whom cultivating the soil and building up the richness is an integral part of gardening. Mrs Wang spent ten years working that ground. I am betting she is a digger, a cultivator. And diggers don’t have raised beds.
But the Ōtautahi Community Housing Trust is going to give her one and the cynic in me says that is more about them pretending to be contrite and putting things right with one hand while exerting an iron fist of control with the other. See, with a raised bed, they can insist that is the only area she is allowed to use. It defines the space and stops her expanding. Because it is better, in their eyes, to have a bleak area of mown grass with a shared clothesline holding pride of place.
There were so many better – and cheaper – ways to deal with this situation. A mediator could have helped broker a compromise between the unhappy residents (was there even more than one?) and Mrs Wang. It would have saved a lot of distress and distrust, not to mention bad publicity for the social housing trust that is the landlord. And my goodness, if I ever hear judgemental comments about how the poor should be growing vegetables again, I may make a very terse reply. Mrs Wang did until last week.
The lily border is a great delight from mid-January on when the enormous blooms put on an entirely OTT display and the scent hangs heavy in the air. I planted it four years ago and looked at it this summer, thinking it needed a bit of attention. There were two or three areas which looked a bit sparse and others with a multitude of smaller bulbs starting to compete in the crowd. I shall lift and divide, I thought. I knew it would be a big job and thought maybe a solid week or ten days would do it.
More fool me. The lily border is about 30 metres long and up to 2 metres wide. A few days in and I worked out I could achieve about 1.5 lineal metres a day. I had a lot of time to do the maths, you understand, and the time stretched out on account of my two trips to Tauranga and a week off with cataract surgery. It became a very boring exercise and it was through gritted teeth that I persevered until I reached the end this week.
What was moderately interesting was analysing the bulbs I lifted. I planted them all as single bulbs at about 20 centimetre spacings coming up to four years ago. That meant a lot of bulbs. Say 50 square metres all up at 25 bulbs per square metre – up to 1250 bulbs. Even if it is only 40 square metres of actual area in bulbs, that is a 1000. I didn’t buy them. Mark did some controlled crosses, picking good parents, raised the seed and put them in his vegetable patch for future use.
Some bulbs had not increased much and were just setting babies on their stems. Some had clearly grown from seed in the first year or two before I started deadheading the border to reduce seeding. Others were large bulbs with two flowering stems last summer and clearly ready to be split apart.
Others had become clusters of bulbs sticking together like a soccer ball, yielding 12 to 15 bulbs from medium small through to large. They were remarkably impressive for just four years. Mark tells me this is the end result of those bulbs that set lots of babies down their stem, usually just below the level of the soil down to where the flower stem emerges from the bulb.
I split all the multiplying bulbs apart, replanting just the flowering sized ones into the freshly dug bed, each covered with a generous scoop of compost before returning the soil and then the aged mulch that I had raked to one side before digging. I aimed to get the bulbs fairly deep – up to 20cm down because if they are planted deeply, they are better at holding themselves up without staking. There is no way I am going to be staking 1000 lily stems. We retain the spent seasonal foliage on site to replenish the soil so I stripped any remaining leaves and cut most of the stems into short lengths about 5cm long so that they will rot down quickly. We finished it off with a tidy top layer of wood chip.
The smallest bulbs were discarded. The smallish ones that will take another year or two to flower, I gave away until I could find no more takers. Zach planted the rest of the littlies back in Mark’s vegetable area for me. It is my emergency supply, I told him and he laughed. Having just planted five rows – fairly short rows, I admit – he felt I should have plenty for any contingency.
We were served Lilium brownii in China when we were there in 2016 but I had not realised until Mark asked me to do a net search that all true lilies are edible and L. auratum is a traditional food in both Japan and China. With so many auratum bulbs here, we tried one. I broke the bulb apart into its component scales, washed them thoroughly, tossed them in olive oil and roasted them. They are perfectly edible, texturally similar to chestnuts and with a flavour best described as inoffensive. They might be more exciting in a stir fry, preferably with added garlic but they are not sufficiently tasty for me to want to add them to our diet on a regular basis.
In fact, all parts of the lily are edible but I will not be harvesting the fresh shoots as an early summer green and eating the massive flowers seems a bit daunting. But should we get hit by famine, it is comforting to know that we have a generous additional food source here we can harvest at will.