It is just a common old silver birch – Betula pendula. It is not even one of the more highly prized white barked or named forms. There is nothing special about it botanically speaking. It is not well suited to our conditions because it prefers a drier climate and it is hardy to cold winters. It is really messy, dropping fine twiggy lengths all year round which get caught in the lower canopy plants and it defoliates by late summer because rust attacks the leaves. Of late, it has been dropping not just twiggy sprays but also smaller, dead branches.
Nevertheless, I felt a distinct sadness when I looked at it yesterday and thought ‘No, it is time for you to go. The decision can not be delayed much longer. Tree euthanasia’.
It is one of the original trees that Felix planted back in the early 1950s when he started the garden. A large branch dropped out in the early 1980s and Felix suggested then to Mark that he could cut the whole thing out. But Mark decided not to and just did a clean-up. Now it appears that the tree is rotting from the scar of that episode but at least we have had an additional 40 years of pleasure from it.
Why do I like it? I love the graceful bare form silhouetted against the sky. It has always been part of our view from our favoured seating spot in the front porch where we often sit together for a coffee, tea or wine. I have photographed it countless times, simply because of that silhouette. Given its propensity for early defoliation, we get the silhouette unimpeded by foliage for at least seven months of the year now, maybe eight. When I look at older photos, it certainly used to have a lot more foliage and branches than it has now.
The birds love it. It is a favoured staging post, whether for Mark’s tumbler pigeons, our native woodpigeons – the kereru – rosellas, common old sparrows, tui and the rest. It has birds resting in it, surveying the lie of the land, almost all the time. It is not a feed source, it just gives a good view. There are plenty of other trees around and I am sure the birds will adapt quickly but I will miss the sight of them pausing there on their busy rounds.
It will be a job for our arborist. While access is easy and it is not a difficult tree to remove, it has a lot of rot in it and it stands maybe 15 metres high. But really, the concern is for the low stone wall that separates the driveway. Felix built the wall back in the early 1950s and it is a patchwork of wafer-thin split stone. We don’t fancy having to rebuild a section of it if we dropped a big branch on it. Our arborist is very good and he will manage to avoid such damage. But it can wait until our garden festival is over in November.
Here we are again, in lockdown across the whole country. Where we are in Taranaki, we haven’t been in any form of lockdown since May 12 last year, which must seem pretty astounding to most of the world. I think it is 170 days since we last had a Covid case in the community anywhere in the country, though there have been plenty caught and isolated in mandatory quarantine at the border. Despite the evidence to the contrary, some still persist in describing our Covid status as dumb luck. I am not alone with an uncomfortable feeling that there are people who would be delighted to see us fail. Some of them even live in NZ – an example of political allegiance taking precedence over common sense and humanity, perhaps?
What is disconcerting is to see the spiteful glee from some on social media. Mostly men from the UK, Canada and the USA, they are referred to on Twitter as ‘the northern hemisphere reply guys’ because they will pop into conversations to sneer and jeer, delighting in how our country is now grappling with a Covid incursion. It proves them right, you see. Given how many of them don’t even realise that Australia and NZ are actually different countries separated by an ocean (It is a 3 hour flight between), I think it may be time to dig out all those world maps that leave NZ off entirely. I would be quite happy if they just forgot we existed again. ***
It seems New Zealand is going to be splendid test case for whether it is actually possible to contain and then eliminate the Delta strain when it is loose in the community. If it can be done, we will do it over the next few weeks but at this stage, the outcome is unpredictable.
Like everybody else, my real life world has become much smaller again, focused inwards within the boundary of the bubble I share with Mark and Dudley dog.
Sometimes I get a reminder of my ignorance. Camellia tsaii is the one of those. It is a species camellia with tiny white flowers and small leaves with a serrated edge. We used to grow it in our nursery days and I see it is still produced commercially in New Zealand and often commended for its fragrance (more ‘light scent’ than fragrant, in my book) and its arching habit of growth with an estimated height of 2.5m.
Somehow, it took me a long time to make the connection between those tidy, bushy little plants about 80cm high and this plant in the garden. Behold Camellia tsaii, admittedly many decades old. It still has masses of tiny flowers – lightly scented – and feeds the tui. So too does it have the typical serrated foliage and graceful, arching growth. It is just that it is about seven metres high. I am sure the customers who bought a plant from us back when we used to retail were never advised that it had the potential to become a graceful, small tree.
It used to be larger but a chunk was brought down with a large branch falling from a tree above. Mark recalled a totally random piece of information. Most camellias make good firewood but tsaii was different. It was a much lighter wood and it sparked horrendously. Mark is a wood connoisseur, you understand, having been a woodturner back in his younger days and with decades of experience bringing the winter firewood into the house. He can always identify which wood we are burning and will balance the daily winter woodbaskets between quick-burning and slower-burning firewood. Tsaii originated in Vietnam, Burma and southern China, and I wonder whether the lighter wood is an indication of it being a lower canopy forest tree.
It is however a handsome little tree, our Camellia tsaii, is it not?
May you stay safe and well wherever you are. My totally non-scientific observations from social media tell me that cinnamon scrolls and cheese puffs are the dominant baking themes this lockdown. Given it was sourdough bread last time, these quicker options might suggest we are hoping to triumph over Covid sooner rather than later. All I can offer is the best cheese puff recipe I have tried. It does need tapioca flour which is more widely available now than it used to be. I haven’t been out but if your local Asian supermarket is still open, it seems to be a staple there if Countdown and New World don’t have it.
*** Just as an example of how vile the spiteful glee can be, here is somebody called Matthew Lesh who writes for the Telegraph in the UK starting a gloat at NZ’s expense with “Poetic justice is beautiful”. What on earth is wrong with these people?
Goodness, gracious me. Just eleven weeks until we open for the annual Taranaki Garden Festival. Well, ten weeks and five days to be precise. October 29 is D-Day.
I am not starting to panic. No sirree. The advent of an extra pair of skilled and motivated hands in the form of our Zach has taken away the pressure I felt last year. Though last year, as I was getting stressed by how much I wanted to get done, we had no idea that Covid and the difficulty of overseas travel would result in the biggest festival ever for us. We had three times the number of people we were expecting. It was fine. Our garden is large enough to absorb a lot of people without it feeling crowded. It is just a challenge as far parking and toilet facilities go. The poocalypse was memorable.
This year is shaping up to be another boomer of a festival, if early bookings and programme requests are anything to go by. It is not that we can’t travel overseas from NZ. We are not like Australia where they have to request permission giving sufficiently important reasons to be allowed to travel offshore. We can leave. It is getting back into the country that is the barrier – trying to book a place in MIQ (as we call our managed quarantine programme for almost everybody entering the country) is so difficult that few people want to risk it. And even more of us don’t want to travel overseas at this time. NZ seems a very safe haven. There is always the risk of Delta getting in but so far so good. I will be really miffed, though, if we get an outbreak just before the festival…. It is already disappointing enough that Covid in the community in Australia will probably keep that travel bubble closed, making it impossible for any Australians to cross the Tasman this spring.
We have never been so well prepared this far in advance. Ten weeks and we have broken the back of the major preparation work. We just need four weeks at the end to do the final round of presentation so all seems well in hand at this time.
Lloyd has built the last bridge essential for access around the new Wild North garden. He has had to make this one higher because the ground is boggy beneath so is now constructing some all-weather access to it. Because we live rurally on a reasonably large property, we have room to store materials that we may need one day. Who knew that the brick and concrete edging to a garden bed we dismantled some years ago would be just the ticket for retaining the edges of the access paths? We will have to buy in some pit metal, though, to get a safe surface to that area of path.
Zach was pleased to find a stack of big rocks to build his accidental rockery on the steep zig-zag path down to the park. I say an accidental rockery because he really only started by trying to retain the soil on the steep bank so it didn’t scour out and wash down onto the path below in heavy rains. It was part-way through that it became clear that he was actually constructing a semi-shaded rockery. I found him assorted suitable plants to fill it – the Australian native Veronica perfoliata, trilliums, snowdrops, Mark’s arisaema hybrids, little narcissi – to add to the Solomon Seal and green mondo grass that are already doing an excellent job of holding the soil.
It is a lovely time of year, despite winter’s last gasps and storm fronts. Where I am working on the margins of the Avenue Garden, the calanthe orchids are at their charming peak. In fact, everywhere I look, there are spring flowers out and a whole lot more in bud. We are on the cusp of peak magnolia season. Mark is spending many hours doing his circuits of his magnolia and michelia seedlings to assess performance.
We are busy but on track. And oh my, I couldn’t think of a lovelier place to be busy.
A reminder about our Festival workshops:
There is a whole lot more to meadows and wild gardens than just letting plants grow. It takes a shift in thinking, a fresh view and different approaches to managing the garden. They are less demanding on maintenance but they still require management. “Tidying nature”, Mark is fond of saying.
We have spent a lot of time considering the less environmentally friendly aspects of domestic gardening – the use of nitrogen fertilisers, sprays to manage weeds, pests and fungi, the costs both financially and environmentally of achieving top quality lawns, meeting human expectations of tidiness and order, let alone the use of internal combustion engines like the lawnmower, hedge trimmer, weed-eater, chainsaw, rotary hoe and more.
We want our garden to be lower maintenance so it is sustainable into the future, more environmentally friendly yet still be beautiful to our eyes. It is why we have moved some areas of the garden to being managed meadows. Added to that, this year we are opening the new four acre Wild North Garden. I say new, but work started on it thirty years ago when Mark began planting up his father’s old cow paddock. Only now do we have it to the point where we are happy for others to see it, a new area of much looser maintenance with a wilder, more romantic feel to it.
My workshop this festival is entitled ‘A Gentler Way to Garden’ but it could be sub-titled ‘Lowering our garden carbon hoofprint’. If you are interested in walking more gently on the land but still creating a beautiful garden that can make your heart sing, you are very welcome to join this workshop on Sunday 31 October. You do, however, need to book. Details are here.
The other workshop we are offering is ‘New Directions with Sunny Perennials’. It all started with our desire for summer colour here, masses of summer colour when our extensive woodlands are largely restful green. We have had a fairly close look at contemporary trends in gardening particularly in the UK but also parts of Europe – alas not quite as close as it would have been had we been able to make our most recent trip in July last year. But over several years, we have distilled our learning, so to speak, and experimented and trialled to come up with summer gardens that work in our situation and the NZ climate.
This is the same workshop that many people missed out on last year (numbers are restricted) but with the benefit of another year of experience in handling these styles of perennial gardening. We are offering it twice, Monday 1 and Saturday 6 November, as part of the Taranaki Garden Festival. More details and booking here.
On wet and bleak days, I have been sorting through our bookcases. Not all books are precious, I decided, and not all are worth keeping. The substantial hardback books that were released annually by the American Camellia Society had probably not been looked at since the year they arrived. They took up two shelves and dated from the late 1940s through until the early 1980s. I asked Mark years ago if we needed to keep them and he thought we should but this year, he agreed they could go. I managed to rehome them with a friend who is a camellia aficionado. He assured me there was a lot of interesting reading in them. True, I sweetened the rehoming exercise by also supplying him with a surplus bookcase from here to hold them.
Some books do not age well. World atlases go out of date. We had a surprising number of those and really, I just need to go and buy a single up to date one for the times when I want to hold a map in my hand, not look on a screen.
The internet has rendered many reference books unnecessary. Mark still reaches for books to look up details on a plant but that is because he resolutely remains a technophobe, despite my efforts to upskill him. I don’t use reference books much now, preferring the ease and immediacy of a Google search.
Some books we keep for inspiration, some for sentimental reasons, some for family reasons, some because they are simply beautiful books and some because we are sure one of us will read them one day. There is a lot of surplus dross that we will never miss between those books that justify being retained.
But then there are the odd forgotten treasures. So it was with the issues of ‘My Garden’, very early issues of the ‘New Zealand Gardener’ from the 1950s and the ‘Amateur Gardening Annuals’ from 1954 to 1957.
‘The New Zealand Gardener’ was actually started in 1944 and is still produced today although it is unrecognisable in production values, tone and content. I could relate to a letter from a defensive nurseryman, justifying plant prices by comparing pre-1900 wages and prices to those of 1955. He had started in 1896 on 5/- a week (5 shillings, for post decimal generations, was 50c) but now his firm paid £2/16/- ($5.60) to apprentices and ‘journeymen’ were paid £12/1/- ($24.10). I may once have written on a similar theme myself, pointing out that the real price of plants has declined a great deal over time but I do not think I matched his final comment:
“We find that those who complain about the price of a few plants think nothing about going into a shop and paying £5 for a hat!”
We appear to have a few more issues of the English ‘My Garden’ edited by Theo A. Stephens. The fact that the August 1950 one proudly proclaims it is the 200th issue suggests it started publication in late 1933 or maybe January 1934 but our earliest copies are from 1943. It is subtitled ‘An Intimate Magazine for Garden Lovers’. I did wonder if it was a forerunner to the Royal Horticultural Society journal named ‘The Garden’ but I don’t think so. My quick browse of Theo Stephens’ publication on line simply showed me that there is a thriving international market for early copies but I am not looking to sell our ours. Looking at an issue from March 1943 – written in the midst of WW2 – was oddly haunting with parallels to the current state of our world in a global pandemic.
“This war is giving us many new experiences and teaching us much. One thing it is bringing home to us in a way we have never experienced before is the worthlessness of money until you can translate it into some form of goods or services….
At the present time I have money which I want to exchange for services which are necessary. Where my garden normally calls for two gardeners I am quite prepared to carry on with one, and in view of the number of people I could, and would, keep supplied with vegetables, eggs, and meat, this one would be justified – but I can’t find him.”
Grammar pedants may notice the use of the Oxford comma in that quote. True, few of us need to hire one, let alone two gardeners but the labour shortage in NZ is real and the daily lives of so many people everywhere have changed in a multitude of ways as we are forced to adapt rapidly, if reluctantly, to a world that has changed dramatically in the last 20 months.
All these publications share certain characteristics. The writing content rules supreme. Photos are few in number, small and in black and white. There is next to no humour, wit or levity and very little that is personal. This transmission of information is a serious business and of a technical complexity and range that would befuddle modern gardeners. The Amateur Gardening Annual from 1954 has 54 erudite articles ranging from stump-rooted carrots to the classification of dahlias, from apple maggots to jacobinias to Australian gum trees and 49 other specialised topics. The level of technical knowledge and expertise in the average home gardener was much higher back then, apparently with a thirst for more information.
Modern garden magazines are more about entertainment, image and aspiration but maybe they will acquire some quaint, nostalgic charm when viewed from 2090?
I have twice heard our government give a strong message to New Zealanders to get home urgently while they still can. The first time was in March last year when then deputy prime minister, Winston Peters, said it and it was certainly chilling. At the time, I wondered if he was being overly dramatic. He wasn’t. Within days, flights had slowed and then they stopped entirely for a time.
We heard the same message from our Prime Minister on Friday, this time aimed at New Zealanders in Australia. It was just as chilling. Get home in the next seven days or risk being stranded indefinitely.
I saw a tweet come down my line from a journalist that made me laugh – in that ‘if you don’t laugh, you will cry’ sort of desperation. I went to look for it this morning to screenshot it for this post but it has gone. She must have decided it was too flippant when there are thousands of our citizens in Australia scrambling frantically to find flights and then get negative Covid tests within the required time frame. It showed two small boats with people on them and the caption read: ‘Is this our Dunkirk moment?’
Covid is not done with us yet. Even though Mark and I are Pfully Pfizered, as I say, I am deeply grateful to be in one of the very, very few countries in the world that has no Covid past the border and my gratitude for how our government has managed it so far remains strong. I just wish we didn’t have so many whingers and moaners looking for fault. Just look beyond our borders to see how bad it could have been here, too.
On a perfect morning like yesterday, I could not think of a better place to be. Magnolia season has started, the narcissi are coming into bloom and we are at peak snowdrop. It may still be midwinter here but we are on the cusp of spring. All I have to offer is colour. And flowers.
We always get the best red shades on the earliest blooms each season and we get the very best shades of red overall. They don’t look this colour in all climates and soils across the world.
While the red magnolias dominate the early season, when it comes to lachenalias, it is the yellow and oranges as well as red that bloom first. We have to wait for later in the season to see the less vigorous but arguably more desirable blues, lilacs, pinks and whites.
Still with the bulbs, the first hippeastrums are opening. We don’t go in for the hybrids much, preferring the evergreen species of H.aulicum and H. papilio which have settled in very happily to their permanent homes in the woodland.
It is, of course, camellia season. I spent some time this week writing a piece about camellias for an overseas publication so I am a bit camellia-d out but the yellow species never fail to thrill, even if they are not as floriferous as the more usual varieties.
The big-leafed rhododendrons down in the park are just starting to break bud and show colour but the sub-tropical vireya rhododendrons in the upper gardens flower intermittently all year so we always have some in bloom. This a scented red which Mark raised for the garden that has never been named or put on the market.
In the chaos of the wider world, home has never looked safer or offered more solace for the soul.