Tag Archives: Abbie’s column

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.

In the garden this fortnight: April 12, 2012

A fortnightly series first published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

Celmisia (New Zealand's mountain daisy) are not within their normal climatic range here

Celmisia (New Zealand's mountain daisy) are not within their normal climatic range here

We have a garden where we are constantly trying to push the climatic boundaries and grow plants which are not naturally adapted to our conditions. For us it is what makes gardening really interesting. But we had a wry smile at the suggestion from Christchurch paeony growers that anywhere south of Auckland should be able to grow these herbaceous beauties. There are reasons why Taranaki gardens do not have paeonies and it is not for want of trying. We can grow some of the tree paeonies but those beautiful, over the top rose paeony types simply don’t perform. As they are not even successful in inland gardens where winters are much colder, it seems more likely that our high rainfall and high humidity levels are the problem. If we could grow them we would.

Pachystegia insignis (the Marlborough rock daisy) is also used to somewhat different conditions

Pachystegia insignis (the Marlborough rock daisy) is also used to somewhat different conditions

We have to work at plants which prefer drier, open conditions. The Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis) can keel over for us but generally we keep it going on an exposed bank. To our ongoing embarrassment, the excellent form we have is one stolen by my late mother from the Dunedin Botanic Gardens. She was a fine gardener but she was also one of those old ladies to be feared with her handbag and secateurs when a normally strong moral code deserted her entirely. We only succeed with the celmisias (mountain daisies) and meconopsis (Himalayan blue poppies) because of the work Mark does to bring some level of hybrid vigour into his seed strains. It takes constant effort to keep them going.

We continue experimenting with orchids as garden plants. Cymbidiums are easy and we have a great deal of success with dendrobiums, calanthes and pleiones. The masdevalleas have not been successful and Mark is still working on the disas to see if we can naturalise them by our stream. Similarly, we push the boundaries with heat loving plants. While most sub tropicals will grow here, without real summer heat, the genuine tropicals are a challenge. We dream of a big solar heated glasshouse.

Top tasks:

1) Autumn planting. We are hoping for our usual long, mild autumn when conditions are perfect for gardening, particularly for planting out. Plants then get a chance to settle in and establish before the rush of spring growth.

2) Finish getting the piles of firewood under cover. We rely entirely on wood for winter heating and we get through a large quantity. Fortunately we are entirely self sufficient but the winter firewood does not cut itself up and get itself in. Free it may be, but it is not without effort.


Fortunately not our garden, but it has been pretty discouraging for the friends whose garden it is. Buxus blight on the rampage.

Fortunately not our garden, but it has been pretty discouraging for the friends whose garden it is. Buxus blight on the rampage.

I am not the world’s greatest fan of buxus hedging. But I have some sympathy for the multitude of gardeners who are watching their prized box hedges turn brown. Judging by the Google search terms, it is an alarmingly common problem at the moment. “My buxus has no leaves. Is it dead?” Basically, yes. Buxus is an evergreen plant which never loses all its leaves. “Buxus turning brown.” It is dying. If it is any consolation, Prince Charles is reportedly having the same problem at Highgrove.

The problem is buxus blight – cylindrocladium. It is a fungus so it spreads by spore and it has dispersed extensively across the globe. It is particularly troublesome because it is not affected by temperature – hot or cold, its progress is undeterred, particularly in wet or humid conditions. I have yet to see any information on how far the spore can be carried by wind but it is more likely to be kilometres rather than metres. So unless you are in the country, isolated from other buxus, odds on that your buxus will become infected sooner or later, if it isn’t already. You will know if you have it. The leaves turn brown and fall off and it can spread rapidly. Left to follow its natural course, it is generally terminal.

You can treat buxus blight but you don’t seem to be able to eradicate it. This means you will have to continue treating it for the life of the plants. The best you can hope is to hold it at bay because the spore can survive for a year, maybe two, on the dead leaves and I defy anybody to succeed in removing every single blighted leaf.

A blight upon your buxus

A blight upon your buxus

If you are going to try and salvage your existing buxus, first up you need to thin and clean out the accumulated debris. I am well aware that this is easier said than done, especially when you have a mature hedge which has become so dense you can almost sit on it. A blower vac is pretty much the one only way to go with blasting out the debris, which must then be removed. And thinning is a painstaking task with secateurs. What you are trying to do is to enable the leaves to shed water as quickly as possible and to allow more air movement. These techniques may slow the spread but they won’t treat the existing condition. You will have to spray. It is a fungus, so you need an anti fungal spray. I don’t know of any specific sprays developed to target this condition, but any of the broad spectrum fungicides might work. Anecdotally, I am told that copper works but I am guessing that you have to get it in the early stages for copper and you may have to spray more frequently.

The bottom line is whether you are willing to commit to repeated spraying to save your buxus hedge. For us, the unequivocal answer is no. We just think it is really bad environmental practice. There is evidence that repeated use of copper is not good for the soils. Amongst other things, it kills earth worms which leads to soil compaction and copper residue is cumulative over time. An occasional application is fine, but committing to ongoing spraying is different. Besides, the whole thing about buxus was that it required minimal maintenance – a clip twice a year kept it in shape. Would you choose it knowing that it requires frequent spraying just to keep it alive?

Suffruticosa (the very low growing baby one) appears to be the worst hit, probably because it is the densest grower. Sempervirens is also badly affected and that is by far the most common form around. Be wary of advice that the Asian forms from Japan and Korea don’t get blight. They are Buxus microphylla and microphylla var. koreana or Buxus sinica. Being larger leaved and a little more open in growth, they may shed the water more quickly and be less affected but overseas research says that no buxus species are immune.

It should be pretty obvious at this point that there is no point whatever in taking out affected plants and replacing them with fresh ones of the same variety. The problem is not the individual plants – it is the fungal spores swirling around.

As if the news of buxus blight is not bad enough, there is a further quandary when it comes to a substitute. Put simply, there is no like for like swap. Space does not allow me to look at the alternatives here, but if you want to know more, you will find some options on Buxus Alternatives for Garden Hedges. The bottom line is that there is no other single option which is cheap to buy, grows in sun and shade, has good dark green colour, will re-sprout from bare wood and only requires clipping once or twice a year. Personally, I think it is an opportunity to stand back and rethink garden designs which have leaned far too heavily on defining form by endless box hedging and I will return to this theme in the future.

If you haven’t got buxus blight, be grateful and be vigilant.

(first published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission)

Agapanthus -the blue (and white) stars of our summer roadsides

Our summer roadsides would be the poorer without agapanthus

Our summer roadsides would be the poorer without agapanthus

We have a bit of a love-hate relationship with agapanthus here in Taranaki and in warmer areas of this country. But as you drive around the countryside at this time of the year, most would agree that our roadsides would be the poorer if they were gone. They resemble giant blue harebells growing, well, growing pretty well everywhere if we are honest.

Agapanthus all come from South Africa and from relatively limited areas of that country. Don’t be misled by the common international name, the Lily of the Nile. They are neither a member of the lily family, nor do they grow anywhere near the Nile. Nor does Agapanthus orientalis come from the Orient. That descriptor merely means eastern, so the natural habitat of A. orientalis (probably more correctly known as A. praecox ssp orientalis) should be on the eastern side of South Africa, assuming the original plant collections and recording was done accurately.

The name comes from Greek. Agape is love and anthos is flower but whether this means the flower of love or lovely flower is unclear.

So are they a weed? These matters are rarely as black and white as they appear. On the debit side:
• Most agapanthus set seed freely and the seed germinates readily.
• Agapanthus grow well in a wide range of situations including inhospitable clay banks and shaded areas. They form a dense cover which prevents other plants from germinating – particularly desirable native regeneration. They have the potential to colonise bush reserves, national parks and native bush.
• The common agapanthus are resistant to the world’s handiest weedkiller, glyphosate (formerly known by its original brand name: Round Up). While you can take them out with stronger brush killer sprays, most of these require you to hold a spray licence.
• Digging out well established clumps takes quite some physical strength and determination because the plants cling on for grim death and the clumps can be formidable. Because they have roots which are rhizomes, if you don’t get the whole plant out, what is left behind in the soil will re-grow.
• There is no way this plant would ever be permitted into the country now. Mind you, the same thing could be said about kiwifruit.

There is a credit side and a degree of resigned acceptance by the authorities in this country which sees agapanthus treated as a surveillance pest plant rather than the hard line decision to ban it outright.
• While it seeds freely, the seeds are not dispersed by birds at all so in most cases, the seedlings pop up close to the parent plants. The big problem comes with plants beside waterways because the water can do a very efficient job of spreading them much further.
• They are a significant plant for cut flower producers and there are dwarf and sterile forms available for home gardeners which pose no threat at all. There is a large international market and agapanthus occupy an established niche in our nursery industry. Many of the named hybrids have parentage which includes one or more of the species other than praecox and this reduces the weed problems.
• They make a significant contribution to our summer landscape as a flowering plant and will tolerate harsh, roadside conditions so are favoured for amenity plantings.
• They are evergreen, tidy and suitable for using to stabilise slip-prone areas.

Basically Biosecurity and most northern regional councils would love to ban it outright but pragmatism triumphs so the aggie lives on to flower another day. Auckland has banned the larger growing forms of A.praecox (the common form), still allowing the production and sale of dwarf forms as a compromise position. The sensible position for the home gardener who lives adjacent to native forest or to waterways, would be to remove them entirely. As a back-up position, being industrious and thorough about dead heading would reduce the problem. For the rest of us, it probably doesn’t matter and they make a huge contribution to our summer gardens and landscape.

Agapanthus Tinkerbell - no weed potential here

Agapanthus Tinkerbell - no weed potential here

By no means are all agapanthus thugs. Little Tinkerbell is common in gardens though probably more noted for its very clean white and sage green variegated foliage than its flowers. It is distinctly shy on flowering, as a rule. It also has a significantly large root system for a plant without a great deal on top but it is a useful addition in the garden border. Other named hybrids are often more amenable than thuggish and have their place in the garden setting.

This is a plant family which is a great deal more highly prized overseas than here. In harsher climates, stronger growing plants are valued for their ability to survive the conditions and most of Europe and the US have much harder conditions than we have. Toughies that stay in leaf as well as put on a lovely summer flowering display are harder to come by, especially in blue. Because they don’t tolerate extremely cold conditions, additional measures are often required to get the common agapanthus through winter.

But in this country, you can’t even give away common agapanthus. Which is why we were genuinely shocked by a section in “A Green Granny’s Garden”, by Fionna Hill. I reviewed this before Christmas and I have to admit I did not read it cover to cover or that review might have been a little tougher had I come across the following paragraph referencing her attendance at a Hollard Gardens’ workshop here in Taranaki:
“Workshop participants have been invited to bring seed and other plant material to share. We pulled lots of agapanthus plants from Maggie’s New Plymouth garden that day and (we thought) cheekily we’d take the opportunity to leave a wheelbarrowful. We give the barrow to some helpful children to wheel back to the meeting shed, while we speed off down the road. I think it might not have been welcome, at that time, believing them to be a pest.” (sic). The page of self justification that follows does not mitigate the action for anybody except the author, who concludes: “I shouldn’t feel so guilty about that wheelbarrowful that Maggie and I have left as a contribution – at UK rates, the barrowful was worth about 300 pounds.” I don’t think so, dear. What you did was to furtively leave your friend’s weeds for Hollards’ staff to dispose of. You should be feeling guilty and embarrassed.

The New Zealand Garden – is there such a thing?

The D.I.Y. Lutyens-style sunken garden

The D.I.Y. Lutyens-style sunken garden

We have been talking about the New Zealand garden. This conversation has been given new impetus by the lack of any analysis of the nature of the New Zealand garden in the lavish new book on the topic by Kristin Lammerting, which is essentially a parade of gardens that she liked, including her own, (or maybe gardens that had been recommended to her) written up in glowing terms with fabulous photographs but zilch insight into the context. We will probably continue discussing this until we die, it being a topic of never-ending interest because it is a reflection of who we are in this long, thin country of the southerly latitudes. In the main, we are a nation of gardeners. Most residential properties and indeed commercial businesses make some attempt, however meagre, to beautify their frontages. Some do better than others but there is a shared value in beautifying our immediate environment.

So I offer up the following thoughts on defining our place in the world of international gardening, with the rider that this is by no means a definitive list.

· Size. We do big gardens here. Even our small, urban gardens are actually quite large by international standards. Our traditional quarter acre section is huge as an allocation of space for an individual family. Our major private gardens are usually several acres. Space is not a luxury confined to the wealthy in this country. It is perfectly realistic for the average home gardener to own a substantial patch of dirt.

· Despite our inclination towards large gardens, we usually do all our own gardening. Hired help is not common. Skilled and qualified hired help is positively rare. Overseas visitors are frequently astounded at how much New Zealanders routinely achieve in large gardens without assistance.

· It must be something in our egalitarian heritage which has many New Zealanders taking the ideas of the large, historic gardens – especially in Britain though sometimes from wider Europe – and attempting to re-create something similar here. We seem to be oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of the great gardens of Europe and Britain were established and maintained by the wealthy and the powerful who could afford to pay gardeners to actually do the work. So we go for high maintenance gardening styles (clipped hedges, a touch of topiary, sweeping lawns, mixed borders, buxus enclosures around statuary) – all the trappings of the gentry and the nobility which our forbears were so keen to leave behind.

· Grand designs, maybe, but on a very low budget so the D.I.Y. ethos rules supreme. In many circles, getting somebody else to design your garden for you or others to maintain it is somewhat frowned upon – a sign that you are not a true gardener. If you have wealth, you shouldn’t be flaunting it. Because very few of our gardens have a lot of money behind them, we tend to be very light on permanent structures and surfaces. It is a bit like our attitude to housing. We would not expect our wooden bungalows to be around in 300 years and the same goes for our gardens. So we don’t use a lot of stone or brickwork, leaning more to the rather short term pongas, timber (sometimes tanalised) and the utility concrete block or paver. We tend to favour grass over cobbled surfaces, keeping sealed areas for driveways and a path immediately around the house.

· What we lack in hard landscaping, we make up for in plants. Plants are cheap in this country, ridiculously cheap by international standards. Our equable climate means they grow quickly and gardening is pretty easy. We love a wide range of them, especially something new or different. We love them even more if we can multiply them ourselves and get some for nothing. So we use plants for structure, as well as soft furnishings – plants are often used instead of walls, fences and edgings. This passion for plants is quite possibly part of the British settler heritage. Most of the world’s great plant hunters (including Joseph Banks) hailed from there and even today, a curiosity for plants and a desire to stretch the boundaries of what one can grow is a characteristic of gardeners in that country. It is just easier here – we have better soils, a more obliging climate and cheaper plants.

· We did not, however, inherit a love for big trees. No danger of us taking up the champion trees scheme (where the largest specimens are identified, measured, monitored and even revered). We are more likely to chainsaw them down. Maybe it is a gut response to the somewhat intimidating nature of our native forests. I think it more likely that our houses are often cold in winter and our climate is not quite as hot as we would like so we just don’t want shade. Landscape views are common but highly prized, certainly above trees. We garden more with shrubs than trees.

· The frequent lack of a strong design element defined by permanent structure, a heavy dependence on plants for form and a dislike of big trees, all allied to a mobile population who move house frequently, means that our gardens tend to be quite ephemeral. They grow quickly. It only takes 10 years to create a very pretty tree and shrub garden here. Many gardeners regard trees of 15 to 20 years of age as mature. Never go back is the mantra of gardeners who have moved house. Odds on, the new owners will have ripped out your garden and replaced it. We don’t expect our gardens to survive past us, and very few do.

· Native plants. All our native plants in this country are evergreen and some are strongly sculptural (the cabbage tree, pohutukawa, nikau, tree ferns, even the pachystegia and tussocks). We have a huge array of indigenous flora which we generally take for granted but the integration of many of these plants into the ornamental garden is another defining feature.

· In our easy climate, most of the country gardens all year round. We don’t put our gardens to bed for winter while we retire indoors. We have flowers and foliage all the time so we don’t need to depend on hard landscaping to give winter form.

· Our reverence for immaculate lawns and the priority placed on kerb appeal are values taken more from American suburbia than Europe.

We are still magpies here – we borrow ideas from here and from there and try them out. Our settler history is still very recent. When we moved in to Mark’s parents’ house, we found the books which they used to give them ideas when planning the garden that we now own and the end result was a typically large country garden strongly modelled on the English landscape traditions, right down to the D.I.Y. Lutyens-style sunken garden pond. In the sixty years since, the form remains English but the range of plants and the way we use them are very different. It is likely that the sheer lushness of plant growth in this country will continue to define our gardening style far more than any slavish copying or reinterpretation of overseas genres.