Tag Archives: Abbie Jury’s blog

But where are the hollyhocks?

Bragging rights on the home grown pineapple

Bragging rights on the home grown pineapple

“But where are the hollyhocks? I can’t find any hollyhocks,” the garden visitor said last weekend. I can honestly say that that is a first here. Nobody has ever commented on the absence of hollyhocks before. But it is true. We have none. I haven’t tried growing hollyhocks since the children were young and school gardens were still a part of the gardening calendar. The problem with hollyhocks is that they are very prone to rust in our climate which spoils the look.

There are, of course, many other plants we don’t grow. I can’t think that we have any petunias and gerberas are notable for their absence. Sweet peas we lack. Ditto tuberous begonias and we are distinctly light on fuchsias. Some plants we do not grow because we don’t like them, others because they don’t like us. Some are not worth the effort and presumably at least some are because we have never even thought of growing them.

The cold border in the park with meconopsis and Inshriach primulas

The cold border in the park with meconopsis and Inshriach primulas

The challenge for many a keen gardener is to grow plants which are either very difficult or are well out of their natural zone. We certainly identify with this group. It is enormously satisfying to grow something which is not known in your local area. To this end, we are always trying to stretch the climatic boundaries and we do have options in a big garden. Mark put his cold border onto a south facing slope where temperatures are noticeably cooler and he has managed to get some of the plants which want a colder winter settled in. The blue poppies (meconopsis) from the Himalayas, less common but colourful Inshriach primulas from Scotland, the Chatham Island forget-me-nots and the deep coloured burgundy hellebores are all much happier in cooler conditions.

On the ridge above, the Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis) and trickier forms of astelias perch in exposed conditions  compensating for our high humidity and mild temperatures. A different north facing slope gives us hotter conditions for the aloes and yucca plants that will rot out elsewhere.

Some highly desirable plants defeat us entirely. We’d certainly grow herbaceous paeonies if we could but they want low humidity, hot, dry summers and dry, cold winters to do well. There is no way we can simulate those conditions. Having had a Dunedin childhood, I loved the Bleeding Heart plant (now named Lamprocapnos spectabilis but formerly and widely known as Dicentra spectabilis). I bought several over a few years to try in different parts of the garden but they never returned for a second season. There was a little lesson there for me – just because garden centres sell a lovely looking plant in full flower does not mean that it is suitable for the local area. Oftimes they are shipped in from places where they do grow well. That is a lesson many others have learned, I am sure.

Where we draw the line is when it comes to having to spray in order to grow plants out of their normal climatic zone. We are not prepared to festoon sensitive plants in frost cloth either but that is because we can’t be bothered and we don’t want that ghostly presence of draped shapes in the garden. Chemical intervention is a step too far altogether.

I have never gotten over my shock when a very experienced gardener told me she kept her alpines alive in our conditions by drenching them in fungicide once a week. I can no longer look at her alpine area as an example of good gardening. Fungicides are not that good for the environment and in my opinion, good practice dictates they should only be used when absolutely necessary and not as a routine application. So no hollyhocks here – we are not going to spray to keep them healthy and we don’t want diseased plants sitting around festering.

If you are not a gardener who relishes the challenge of pushing climatic boundaries, then keeping to plants which are happy in your conditions is going to make life a whole lot easier. This does tend to mean you can’t have a sub tropical garden in Hamilton because winters get cold and frosty. Second daughter attended Waikato University a decade ago and she commented on the gardens she walked past which had clearly been “landscaped” in summer on a tropical theme. Come winter, the plants were blackened, looking very sad and often dead. If you are a novice gardener, take up walking. You can see much more on foot than you will ever see from a car window and noting what is growing well and is being repeated in gardens around your area is a good guide. It may also be an indication of what plants are available for sale.

For those of us who like a challenge, there is nothing quite like the bragging rights that come with… a pineapple! Yes, this was grown and harvested from our very own pineapple patch set against a warm brick wall. Not as sweet as a Dole one but not exactly a run of the mill crop for our area.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Tikorangi Notes: Friday 22 June, 2012

Latest posts: June 22, 2012
1) The garden identity crisis (or why you need to do quite big things around about year 15). My column from the Waikato Times this morning.
2) The sugar candy pink of Luculia gratissima Early Dawn on a winter’s day. Not my favourite luculia, perhaps. Plant Collector from the Waikato Times this morning.
3) The strawberry bed should be planted this weekend. Time is running out. From the Waikato Times this morning.
4) Much of what you may want to know about the early flowering camellias (plus more). From the latest edition of Weekend Gardener.
5) In the garden this fortnight. On actually getting around to digging and dividing instead of merely advising others to do it and getting rid of excess mondo grass – my garden diary from Weekend Gardener.
6) For absolute beginners – how to plant a tree. Outdoor Classroom has a second coming with our step by step guides.
7) Latest cookbook reviews – and why it may be better to keep local. In fact our NZ cookbooks are particularly good so it is a mystery to me as to why a NZ publishing house would want to import and release this utility series from Kyle Books in the UK.

A reasonably remarkable mid winter sight - the original R. macgregoriae aged 55 years!

A reasonably remarkable mid winter sight – the original R. macgregoriae aged 55 years!

A week of typical winter weather – random rain, torrential at times with thunder storms and just enough sun to remind us that our weather isn’t too bad, temperatures swinging from cold (like 10 degrees during the day) to a balmy 16 or 17. A typical mid winter’s week, really. I have at least started my major renovation of the rose garden. It is fun and not all gardening is fun. Wait for more – it is all part of learning to garden with perennials and finding a level we are happy with in terms of a modern look without resorting to mass planting and utilitiarian ground cover.

The snowdrops are opening here and that is a simple delight. But the flowering star this week is the vireya rhododendron, R. macgregoriae. This is the original plant that Felix Jury collected in what was just New Guinea in 1957. It is a particularly good form and gave the basis of a breeding programme here. But the astonishing thing, for anyone who knows vireyas, is that it is still thriving after 55 years. This is not a plant genus that is known for its longevity.

Plant Collector: Cornus kousa var. chinensis

Pink and white all over - Cornus kousa var. chinensis

Pink and white all over – Cornus kousa var. chinensis

The cornus are a big family, commonly referred to as dogwoods. In our climate where we can grow most plants, cornus are not as widely featured as in other areas of the world because we are really too damp and too mild for most of them. They perform much better in a drier, continental climate with hot summers to ripen the wood, sharp seasonal change to trigger the autumn colours for which many are renowned and a good winter chill. Our C. kousa has had its hiccups in life (dieback threatened it a couple of years ago, possibly due to wet roots) but it battles on and in early summer the pink and white flowers are a seasonal delight, albeit a little brief. The welcome rain this week shortened its season.

Curiously, the flower is actually the dull, nubbly bit in the centre. What look like four pink and white petals are actually bracts – in other words specialised leaves which protect the flower buds, so not petals at all. This is common to all the dogwoods and to many other plants as well, including lacecap hydrangeas. Kousa is common in Japan and also found in Korea but Glyn Church tells me the form we grow in New Zealand is actually the one from central China, collected in 1907. After several decades, ours is a narrow, columnar tree about six metres high. When we were last in England, we saw many hybrids between C. kousa and C. nuttallii, some with spectacular, large flowers which were very showy indeed. Kousa shows resistance to anthracnose which has decimated the cornus display overseas and the new hybrids are, in part, an attempt to breed resistance to the disease.

Cornus kousa can age to deep pink

Cornus kousa can age to deep pink

The pitfalls and perils of garden water features

It may be a natural stream in our park but it is hardly an easy care water feature

It may be a natural stream in our park but it is hardly an easy care water feature

Water is an important inclusion in any garden, or so the common wisdom says. We laughed when Joe Swift on BBC Gardener’s World commented that he hated water features because they were rarely maintained. Water is difficult to manage well.

A natural stream might seem the best option for the lucky ones and on a fine day, the mountain brook that bounces its way through Ngamamaku Garden is indeed a source of envy for many of us. The trouble is that with our torrential downpours, natural streams can quickly become raging torrents which take out all your plantings. Tony has long since given up using treasures in his stream-side plantings. They disappear in the flood torrents. We have the upper reaches of the Waiau Stream running through our park and again, it is charming and a great asset. Because we control the flood waters by some simple but time honoured techniques (a weir and a flood channel), we don’t get the scouring but it takes constant management to prevent it all silting up and regular, heavy work to keep the water weeds under control – particularly oxygen weed and Cape Pond Weed.

Ponds – are ponds easier? Possibly the larger your pond, the more self maintaining it becomes though you generally need fish (commonly goldfish) to keep the mosquito larvae at bay. By definition here, a lake is sufficiently large to allow water skiing, or at least canoeing. If it is not of that dimension, it is a pond. Maybe a large pond, but a pond. By the time your pond has shrunk below about a metre square or round, it can’t really be called a pond any longer. A puddle, perhaps, or a basin? If you have a natural pond fed by a spring, it may stay fresher and relatively stable through the seasons. Home made ponds can be difficult. Firstly they are prone to developing leaks and that is a terminal condition unless you remedy the problem – which is never easy to do. Shallow ponds are problematic because the water heats up and that encourages algae growth. If it is too deep (somewhere about 40cm), you have to fence it. Basically a pond, by definition, is a static body of water which will therefore go stagnant. And homemade ponds are often lined in polythene which is really hard to manage so it is not visible in any way at any time – folds of polythene just look really tacky.

The formal pond that depends on pristine water quality shrieks out money. I have seen a couple and essentially they are the same as running a swimming pool – dependent on a full filtration system and frequent vacuuming. I have a few ethical issues with their sustainability and personally that swimming pool look does not strike me as aesthetically pleasing. It is all a bit too Beverley Hills. If you are going to have something that looks akin to a swimming pool, it may as well combine function with form and be a swimming pool. I also particularly dislike the hum of the pump as a background sound in the garden. To do it properly, you need a silent pump. The same goes for any water feature which relies on moving water to a part of your property where it does not naturally occur. Circulating the water does at least solve the problem of it becoming stagnant but it is a fraught activity, more often prone to lapses in taste and poor management. Fountains? A matter of taste. Repro classical fountains don’t do it for me. I have seen enough of the real thing in European gardens, which is where they belong – usually in the gardens of royalty or at least wealthy nobility. The increasing democratisation of the classic fountain hasn’t done much for its aesthetics. They are just a little “Look at me! Look at me!” in the average New Zealand garden. Leave them for Versailles.

The overseas fashion for rills or narrow canals has been slower to catch on here. I think the origins for these lie in Islamic gardens – the requirement to wash before frequent prayers. In recent years, English garden designers rediscovered them and you see the ribbon of lawn bisected with the water channel, often only 20cm wide. Hmmm. The words drainage channel and lacking in purpose spring to mind so we will say no more on the topic.

Mark has a mantra that design features in a garden need a logic to them, they need to make sense in the context. So creating a naturalistic waterfall cascading down from a dry hillside is a contradiction in itself. The fountain in the formal garden is not pretending to be natural – it is all about the imposition of human will and design on nature. The waterfall is trying to simulate a natural event so it needs to be as close to seamless as possible, not, as more often happens, a feature plonked in to “add interest” with little regard to logical context. Being able to hear the pump thrumming away as it circulates the water makes it even worse.

None of the above is to deny that it is possible to do water features well and when they are done well, they are a welcome addition to the garden, whether it be a reflecting pool, the sound of a babbling brook or cascading water, a formal design feature or a modest goldfish pond. The mistake is to think that they are mandatory and once in place, that they need no attention. And I own up to the fact that we have a formal goldfish pond which is severely afflicted by algal bloom at the moment.

The simplest type of water feature - in this case a stone millwheel with a bung in the base so it can be drained and refilled easily

The simplest type of water feature - in this case a stone millwheel with a bung in the base so it can be drained and refilled easily

A word on safety: we have all had it drummed in to us that children can drown in as little as 7.5cm of water, which means they can drown in a puddle, really. We were told by an inspector some years ago that the reason so many little ones drown in swimming pools is because they are attracted by the blue colour that is the norm and that once in, they instinctively try to reach the bottom to stand up. Vertical sides also make it near impossible to get out. These aspects do not generally apply to garden water features but if the safety aspects worry you, it may be better to dispense with the feature altogether rather than try and net it over.

If you absolutely must have water and your garden is small, a large container with some sort of plug or bung system to enable drainage is probably the most easy-care solution. You can then replace the water when the mosquito larvae start swimming around or it all turns green and yukky. If you plan anything more ambitious, think carefully before you start and be prepared to maintain it.

How ironical is it that one of the very best examples of gardening we have seen internationally is Beth Chatto’s dry garden in the UK? The dry, gravel garden at Hyde Hall nearby is also shaping up brilliantly. Mind you, both are in very arid, stony areas. Similar plants would rot out in our higher rainfall and humid conditions. But generally it is better to garden with the conditions and not to feel that one simply must introduce a water feature to counteract the dry areas.