Tag Archives: garden maintenance

Seven days from the winter solstice – Tikorangi this week


The white form of Dahlia imperialis

The last tree dahlia of the season is in bloom. Dahlia imperialis alba plena is the towering giant of them all, way up in the sky, not blooming until well into winter so particularly vulnerable to frosts and winter gales. I took this photo yesterday to show those in other climates the intensity of winter light that we get here on sunny days. It is different to those who garden where the winter sun hangs lower in the sky. We are not tropical; I don’t want to mislead. It is almost mid-winter and can be quite chilly. However, it is a lot less depressing to the spirits when you live somewhere with this clarity of bright light, even on the shortest days of the year.


Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ shimmering in the late afternoon light

IMG_7040We are now well into what Piet Oudolf refers to as the ‘fifth season’ and the new Court Garden brings me much pleasure, especially in the late afternoon when the sun is dropping lower and shines through the miscanthus grasses. I have used a lot of miscanthus running through the garden in waves and the plumes shine in the light and wave gently in any breeze.

IMG_7031IMG_7039I have finally found a place where this large yellow salvia can grow with sufficient space and it is a late autumn – early winter highlight. We have never had a name on this variety so if any readers can identify it for me, I would be grateful. It stands a good two metres tall so it is a large plant to accommodate. *** Now identified as Salvia madrensis, thanks readers.

Tips and techniques for the week:


Stipa gigantea after a major thinning exercise

  • I took a before photo of this block of Stipa gigantea in the new Court Garden but I appear to have deleted it when I was filing photos. It looked fine at the end of its first year but I knew it wouldn’t stay looking fine and it was already too congested to allow the plants to fountain out and show their natural form. Last week, I took out well over half the plants and gave them away. I did have to lift some of the remaining plants to centre them to their own space but I am much happier with it now so it was worth the effort. I haven’t grown this stipa before and hadn’t realised how much space each plant needs. I am hoping this can now be left alone for a few years at least. It has a white field daisy growing between which I have learned I can get two, maybe three successive flowerings from spring to autumn if I cut it back to the base rosette at the right time.


    Layering up the prunings at the back, more or less out of sight

  • Out of the ‘I thought it would be a straightforward job that would only take a day and a half at the most but actually took four full days and still isn’t quite finished’ school of thought, I spent this week clearing the wilderness of boundary plantings that separate the caterpillar garden from the boundary with the neighbours’ wool shed and yards. People with big gardens will understand that you have areas which get planted and then mostly left to their own devices. It is one of those jobs you finally tackle when preparing to open the garden to the public again. Nobody will notice I have done it, but they may well have noticed had I not. Over the years, it had become largely impenetrable with self-sown camellias, layered hydrangeas, native seedlings, especially kawakawa and various mounds of vegetation where I had emptied the wheelbarrow of prunings that I didn’t want in the compost heap. It amazes me how far I can get with a sharp pruning saw. Because there was so much of it, I dragged all the debris to the back and layered it by the boundary fence. At some points, it is quite a bit higher than in this photo. It can gently rot down there, adding humus and carbon to the soil and is a lot lighter on labour than carting it all away to compost and mulch. It is a technique we are using quite extensively now and is a tidy, unobtrusive way of dealing with excessive amounts of garden waste. That said, it is a big garden technique, rather than one for small town gardens.


    On track to be an undulating, curvy hedge like a moving caterpillar

  • I have started a major clipping round on the hedges in what we call the Caterpillar Garden. The hedge is Camellia microphylla, already nearing the end of its flowering season. The plants were pretty neglected -raised from seed and cuttings many years ago and then left to kick around the old nursery until we were ready to use them. We planted them two years ago and the hedges, laid out in the shape of the basket fungus, are still a bit patchy. Mark’s plan is to clip these hedges into mounded, free-form shapes like an undulating caterpillar in the style we associate strongly with UK designer, Tom Stuart Smith. I am doing the first clip this season and have told Mark it is his job to come through and do the final clip of the top to get the mounding shapes he wants.
    OCcamellias 014

    The straight-edged, hard clipped approach

    Most of our clipped hedges here are very straight sided with the top meeting at right angles. Lloyd does them with a string line to keep the lines straight and the hedges a uniform width. He has a good eye for these things. But after spending a fair number of hours clipping and shaping the caterpillar hedge, I can tell you that it is a great deal easier and more pleasurable to work with a more organic shape and form than that military regimentation of the sharper-edged hedges. Informality is much more forgiving than formality.

Does ‘Hit the Deck’ work?

‘Just spray it on, brush it off and rinse.’

I was so discouraged by the state of swimming pool decking that I succumbed to advertising and bought some “Hit the Deck”. I can’t remember how much I paid for it but it wasn’t cheap. But the deck, the deck. We laid it maybe 18 years ago and in the time since, it has been water blasted (jet washed) once. That didn’t do the grooved non-slip surface any good. It is low grade, plantation grown, quick turnover Pinus radiata that we use in this country, tanalised to extend its life span but still a soft wood which will rough up badly with water blasting. Hence the “Hit the Deck” to deal to the blackened and slippery surface before we start swimming this summer.

My test area

Did it work? Yes, but it wasn’t as easy as it looked in the advertisements. If you look closely at the TV advert, they are using it on flat timber, not the grooved product that is widely sold for non-slip decking. It would not just brush off with the stiff broom they sell for this purpose. I did a small test area and found that to get it off, I had to get on my hands and knees with a stiff scrubbing brush. It is not possible to get a powerful enough scrubbing motion at the end of a long handled broom. It is a reasonably large deck and I didn’t fancy doing the whole area on my hands and knees so I handed the job over to Our Lloyd and suggested he try a very light cleaning with the water blaster, so as not to rough up the surface more but to get enough pressure to spray off the mix and the accumulated mosses, moulds and lichens. That worked and it was both faster and not as back-breaking but it still isn’t an easy job that you can knock out in an hour.

The deck looks hugely improved. Not perfect but the decking is getting on in years. So yes, the product does work.

Somewhat belatedly, I looked at what the Hit the Deck contains. I had turned a blind eye to this when I was more worried by the slippery decking. I can report that it is sodium percarbonate. And that, Reader, is a mixture of washing soda and hydrogen peroxide. You can check its chemical properties on Wikipedia which notes: “The product is used in some eco-friendly bleaches and other cleaning products…”. So it is relatively harmless and I guess you could mix your own if you wished and I am sure that it is likely to cheaper because there are no advertising and branding costs to be factored in.

I have written about the moss-killing properties of washing soda or soda ash before. It does work, I can vouch for that.

Found! Low maintenance gardening (of a sort)

The magnolia and te maunga

Magnolia campbellii, the Quaker Mason form

For me, the start of a new gardening year is marked by the opening of the first magnolia bloom. It is a very personal measure of time. This year, it happened this very week. Magnolia campbellii has opened her first blooms on the tree in our park. So I start a new season series of The Magnolia and Te Maunga – ‘te maunga’ being ‘the mountain’ in Maori. Our magnificent Mount Taranaki is commonly referred to simply as ‘the mountain’ by locals because it stands alone and is part of the very being of anyone who was born or now lives within sight of its presence. It is, by the way, an active volcano. With other volcanoes erupting in the world, Mark was moved to comment last week that we do at least live far enough away to get some warning if we ever need to evacuate. I have ascertained that the distance between our magnolia and the peak is 36km as the crow flies, so it is at the limits of my camera zoom.

Beneath the mighty rimu trees

Earlier in the year, we rashly agreed to open the garden for the annual conference of the NZ Camellia Society. I say rashly, only because the August date is coming closer. We closed our garden to the public coming up to five years ago now. While we maintain it to a standard that we are happy with, opening it to others requires a higher standard of presentation. I am beginning to feel the pressure. This week, I started working my way along the garden we call the rimu avenue. It is an area about 100 metres long and up to 25 metres wide, so large enough to accommodate a fair number of townhouses, were it in a major city. Fortunately, we are in the country, so instead of townhouses we have a backbone of 14 majestic rimu trees, now nearing 150 years old. Rimu are a native podocarp, botanically Dacrydium cupressinum. Mark’s great grandfather planted them back in the 1870s and photos show that they have doubled in size in Mark’s lifetime.

Beneath these rimu, we have what is probably the most complex planting of anywhere in our garden. Oddly, it occurred to me this week that it is the least demanding in terms of regular maintenance. This is not related to the complexity of the planting; it is to do with the fact that it is all in dry shade and also to the plant selection over time. In the last five years, we have gone through it and pulled out fallen branches and a bit of occasional debris but it has not had the loving attention to detail that I am currently giving it.

Over time, this area has become a largely self-maintaining matrix planting, an ecosystem in its own right.  There is a little bit of seeding down, but not too much. The *volunteer plants* that arrive are largely ferns, nikau palms, native collospermum and other astelias. The most common weeds are the occasional germinating Prunus campanulata and the cursed bangalow palms. Most weeds need more light. That in itself is worth knowing. If you hate weeding, go for shade gardening.

Piling the debris onto the meandering paths

All I am doing to jazz it up is going through and removing much of the fallen rimu leaf litter and debris which builds up over time, taking out the spent heads of bromeliads, thinning clumps where necessary, a bit of cutting back of shrubby begonias, zygocactus, thinning the thuggish Monstera deliciosa and Philodendron bipinnatifidum and general tidying up. It looks a great deal better for it.

For those who are wondering what plants we have growing in the rimu avenue, I will tell you that when we first went into the enormous subtropical glasshouse at Kew Gardens in London, we felt right at home. There seemed to be a large number of plants growing under glass that we grow under the rimu, an area that is completely frost free. We have a whole range of shade palms, schefflera, vireya rhododendrons, dendrobium orchids, many clivias red, orange and yellow, species hippeastrum bulbs, Crinum moorei, bromeliads galore, ferns and a whole lot more. Everything is interplanted so it is complex and layered full, interesting year-round, as well as low maintenance.  Mark’s father first starting planting this area in the late 1950s so it has only taken 60 years of active management to reach this state of gardening nirvana.

Laying cut lengths beneath

and spreading the mulched leafy waste – yellow because it was mostly berberis

While I am working ‘up the top’, as we say, Mark and Lloyd have been down in the park doing a tidy up of fallen branches and dead shrubs and trees. Chainsaw and mulcher work, mostly. For those who read these posts looking for handy hints, I photographed their techniques for dealing with the waste on site. While they may have removed the bigger pieces for firewood, the smaller lengths of branch and trunk are chainsawed into short lengths and laid beneath large shrubs or trees. Line the lengths up in the same direction and they look neater and more purposeful than being tossed higgledy piggledy. The leafage and finer material has been mulched on site and raked out over a bed of dormant herbaceous planting. These are not techniques for formal or tightly groomed gardens but we find it an acceptable process in informal and more naturalistic areas. And we like the philosophy of keeping the cycle of growth, death and then decay nourishing further fresh growth in the same location.


Gone by lunchtime.

There has only ever been one significant flowering

Sometimes a tree just has to go. This flowering cherry has been sitting under a death sentence for several years. Mark planted it maybe 25 years ago and while it was quite a good shape, it rarely flowered and just grew larger, casting shade over other plants that were working harder for their continued existence. It will have been a named variety but we have long since lost the name.

“I am going to cut that cherry out,” said Mark about four years ago. It was as if the tree heard him and it confounded us by suddenly producing its best ever display of 2015. But 2016 and 2017 came and it was resting on its laurels of one decent enough performance, returning to its usual pattern of just a few scattered blooms.

One of the most useful skills Mark learned in his twenties was how to use a chainsaw safely. Possibly even more importantly, he learned the limits of his skills with the chainsaw and when it is necessary to pay for outside specialists to come in and handle a tricky situation. This tree represented no such problem. He dropped it efficiently and our Lloyd moved in to do the clean-up. Any branches too thick to be fed through the mulcher were sawn into short lengths and moved to the firewood shed. We get through prodigious amounts of firewood in winter, all of it harvested off the property. The leafage and small branches were mulched on the spot.

It was, as we say in New Zealand parlance, gone by lunchtime. Literally so, in this case.

I am not sure how people manage big gardens when they can’t do their own basic chainsaw work and manage the clean-up. Expensively, I guess.

Pretty enough flowers. Once. In 2015.

Managing garden maintenance

Close in by the house is under constant maintenance

Close in by the house is under constant maintenance

Garden maintenance. Oh yes, it is often like housework outdoors. No matter how much you do, it always needs to be done again. Vaccuming, tidying, dusting, spring cleaning – there are garden equivalents for the lot.

I admit I am not the world’s most dedicated housekeeper. I do it because I have to. If I found a gem of a reliable cleaner, I would find the money to pay this person to do it for me. But the times of my life when I have paid regular cleaners have also been somewhat irritating because they do not do it to my standards. Gems are hard to find.

Good garden help is equally difficult to find, I believe. Fortunately, because I don’t mind the garden maintenance side, I don’t feel the need to pay someone to do it for me. I have a wonderful book from 1984, vintage Alan Titchmarsh who is now a doyen of English garden television but who was a lesser known, bright young wit 30 years ago. It is called “Avant-Gardening, A Guide to One-Upmanship in the Garden.” In it he has a chapter entitled: “Having a Man In” and his opening line is: “Or a woman; but most likely a man.” He divides gardening help into Treasures and Tolerables. The Treasures, he declares, are rarer than blue roses.

I would love to quote the lot about The Tolerables, but it is too long. Edited highlights include: “They resent change. Their favourite flowers are …scarlet salvias, orange French marigolds, standard fuchsias and lobelia and alyssum. They love ‘dot’ plants. They have difficulty in recognising your treasures and pull them up as weeds…. The vegetables they grow will be their favourites, not yours. ….They dig beds where you don’t want them and act on ‘initiative’ without asking if you actually wanted the orchard felling…. They don’t let you know when they are not coming in (it pays to keep you guessing).” There is more in that vein.

Judging by the number of enquiries I have had over the years, good garden help is just as scarce nowadays as it has ever been. But, as with anything else, if you are only willing to pay the equivalent of minimum wages, you are unlikely to find a Treasure who knows what he or she is doing in your garden. A Treasure whom you can trust is even rarer and will need to be cherished.

The bottom line is that most of us end up doing it ourselves and gardening as a DIY ethos is deeply ingrained in this country to the point that it is often worn as a badge of pride.

The outer areas are on a once a year maintenance cycle

The outer areas are on a once a year maintenance cycle

I credit the potted wisdom on garden maintenance I received years ago to senior NZ gardener, Gordon Collier. Think of the garden as radiating circles, he told me. The circle closest in to the house is where you carry out the most garden maintenance to keep it well presented. Essentially, you stay on top of it by keeping at it all the time. The next circle out should be on a seasonal cycle so you get around it four times a year. Then there is the outer circle which you do once a year.

This of course is big garden advice. A smaller urban garden probably does not take you beyond the second circle. I have always remembered his words because it gave a sensible and manageable framework for a large garden, and we are large gardeners here. It is worth thinking about if you are extending your garden. The further out you go, the less you will do in terms of regular maintenance. Plan from the start to keep it on an infrequent cycle and you won’t be making a yet bigger rod for your own back.

He Who Does the Majority of the Weed Control here (aka my Mark) would like it pointed out that this does not apply to weeding. Depending on the time of the year, he will start a weeding circuit as often as every three weeks. If you leave the weeding circuit to three monthly, or annually, you will never keep invasive weeds under control. The convolvulus will have smothered its host, the seedling cherries grown too large to hand pull and there will be a permanent carpet of bitter cress. Most weeds will have viable seed on them by six weeks – hence the three weekly cycle to catch the weeds missed on the last round.

That outer round of maintenance is the pruning, cutting out dead wood from shrubs, the removal of large debris, seasonal dead heading where necessary, cutting bank rank grass and a general tidy up. It is what I am doing right now.

The middle circle is hedge trimming, digging and dividing perennials, cutting back, staking, pruning, shaping, clipping and mulching.

The close in circle is… well… like vaccuming the living areas and washing the kitchen floor really. Frequent and ongoing. I just prefer to work outdoors and, in my case, without power tools.

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