Tag Archives: gardening with nature

The Evolution of a Garden


Fallen branches and the occasional large tree are a fact of life here with our oldest trees dating back to the 1870s. The pinus radiata, in particular, are not stable trees in the long term. We usually hear them land so I was surprised to find this sight down the Avenue Gardens on Saturday. Mark had commented in the middle of the night that we had an earthquake culminating in a bang but neither of us had thought more of it.

IMG_1411Not an earthquake. A falling dead tree. Pinus radiata often drops all its side branches when it dies, before keeling over or, in this case, snapping a third of the way up. This is good because the side branches can cause even more damage when a tree falls although it can and does clip other trees as it falls. As falling trees of at least 135 years of age go, this was on the minor end. The trunk broke in three as it fell, with the longest length (about nine metres) rolling over to a final location which is not bad at all, though it did initially land on a garden bed.

IMG_1471On Monday, we started clearing the paths. Surprisingly, there is quite a bit of good firewood in the centre of the trunk and by the end of the day, the pile of split wood in the shed was growing satisfactorily. There is nothing quite like the Squirrel Nutkin feel of seeing the firewood for 2017 already stacked and drying.

IMG_1586The longer lengths will remain in situ and we will garden around them. It is just a stumpery that chose to arrive. The main damage was to woodland orchids – dendrobiums and cymbidiums and some crushed bromeliads. I rescued most of the bits and replanted. There is no shortage of chunky wood chip to house all the orchid pieces. The pine bark we use as a natural edging, stacked as a low wall in places. It doesn’t break down so is relatively permanent while creating its own eco-system.  I planted the odd small fern and orchid piece on the length of log to hurry up the colonisation process.

IMG_1587It is a lot easier to garden with nature, rather than in constant battle to keep it under control. By Tuesday, it looked like this. We are fine with that. It will settle down again over the next month or two and look as if it has always been like that.


New Year’s Gardening Resolutions for 2014

Plant food for the bees. Collectively, gardeners can make a difference

Plant food for the bees. Collectively, gardeners can make a difference

I failed on the Christmas-themed column. I am not big on poinsettias and I couldn’t think of anything new to say about Christmas trees. But New Year’s resolutions – these are different. If you are making garden resolutions, you may like to consider some of the following.

Lawns are a shocker when it comes to good environmental practice. There is nothing sustainable and healthy about most lawns but the vast majority of us have them for a variety of reasons. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that if you cut your lawn really short, it will mean you have to mow it less often. Not true. You stress the grass and open it up to weed invasions. Set the level on the lawnmower a little higher to keep a green sward. Good lawns invariably have longer grass.

Next time you buy a lawnmower, choose one that mulches the clippings. That way you don’t have to remove the clippings to get a tidy finish and if you are not removing the grass, then you don’t need to feed the lawn to keep it looking healthy. It reduces your inputs and therefore reduces both time and cost.

We are encouraging clover back into our lawns. It stays green, doesn't need mowing as often and feeds the bees

We are encouraging clover back into our lawns. It stays green, doesn’t need mowing as often and feeds the bees

Be cautious about lawn sprays and read the label information carefully. We are not fans of lawn sprays at all here. Year in and year out, we field enquiries about plant damage which is attributable to spray drift from lawn sprays. If you are using a spray which has a six month withholding period before it is safe to use on food crops (and that is common), you may want to think again about how environmentally sound is your gardening practice. Putting it through the compost process will not make the clippings safe for use. It might even be time to move on from the Chemical Ali generation. We are going back to encouraging the clover here. It used to be popular in days gone by and it has many merits.

Mulch. Mulch well, but only after the soil is wet through. If you lay mulch on top of dry soil, it stays drier longer. The rains this week may have been a reprieve for those who missed getting mulch laid in spring. If you lay the mulch on top of relatively weed-free soils, it will save you a lot of work later because it should suppress many of the germinating weed seeds that lurk in all our soils.

While on the subject of weeds, if they really worry you (and they do worry most of us even though, as the old saying goes, a weed is merely a plant in the wrong place), remember the old adage that one year’s seeding gives rise to seven year’s weeding. It is best to weed before the plant sets seed if you want to save yourself work down the track. If you weed with the push hoe, you need to remove seed heads that have formed already. You can leave the rest of the plant to wither in the sun but the seed heads will just continue to ripen and then germinate.

Single flowers with visible pollen and stamens feed the bees and indeed the butterflies

Single flowers with visible pollen and stamens feed the bees and indeed the butterflies

Grow plants with flowers for the bees. This means any flowers with visible stamens and pollen. We all know the bees are under deep stress, here in New Zealand as well as the rest of the world. We need the bees for pollination even more than honey. Every gardener’s contribution counts and collectively, we can make a difference to their food supplies. Fortunately, most of us have moved on from the austerity of the 1990s minimalist garden which contributed a big fat zero to the natural environment.

I am of the view that gardening should be two things above all else. It should be a pleasure. At its best, it can make your heart sing at the beauty. At a more mundane level, it can be quietly satisfying. If you get neither pleasure nor satisfaction from your garden, if it is all a great, big, tedious chore then review what you have and what you are doing.

If you really don’t enjoy gardening, then keep it very simple. It is much easier to maintain, especially if you can’t afford to pay someone to come and do it for you. If all you have to do is maintain edges, sweep paved areas, mow the lawns and do a seasonal round of tightly defined garden beds in order to keep it looking tidy, then it becomes more manageable for the reluctant gardener. Alternatively, move to an upper floor apartment.

Secondly, I think we should be gardening WITH nature, not in spite of it. Gardening shouldn’t be about imposing human will over nature, controlling and suppressing it, establishing dominance. Too much gardening practice is an imposition on the landscape, a battle with nature. Happy gardeners are often those who have managed to carve out a more constructive relationship with the natural world.

On which note, I wish readers a happy gardening year in 2014.

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

Gardening crimes against nature

The banks of waterways should not be sprayed

The banks of waterways should not be sprayed

There is a wonderfully self-satisfied confidence in many gardeners that their hobby is good for the environment and that they are working with nature. On the contrary, too often gardening is in direct opposition to nature and many gardeners are guilty of environmental crimes. This has probably escalated considerably since the 1960s when all manner of nasties became available to the home gardener in order to control the excesses of nature.

Lawns are arguably the greatest gardening crime against the environment. Edwin Budding would have had no idea of what he was unleashing on the world in 1827 when he invented the lawnmower. It took until much later in the century before a motor mower appeared. Until then, all grass was cut by scythe and would have been grass, not lawn as we know it. Now we prize lawns that resemble lush bowling greens, but at what cost?

Take a demerit point if you remove all clippings from your lawn but then turn around and fertilise it regularly to compensate. At least buy a mulcher mower next time you replace your machine. If you mulch your clippings back into the lawn, you don’t need to buy fertiliser to give it a boost.

Take three demerit points if you put your lawn clippings out with the green waste or in your wheelie bin. There can be no justification for the public sector having to dispose of domestic lawn clippings.

More demerit points can be added if you insist on spraying your lawn with hormone sprays (which of course means you cannot remove the clippings to the compost heap but must find some other way of getting rid of them for the next six months). The most common spring time enquiry we receive about distorted leaf growth on deciduous trees, particular magnolias, is directly attributable to the use of hormone sprays on lawns. Quadruple your demerit points if you are one of the environmental vandals who insists on spraying your lawn to kill the earthworms beneath so they cannot spoil the effect with their worm casts. Shame.

Not taking responsibility for plants you may be growing which have the capacity to escape beyond your patch is a crime against nature. Too many of our weeds in this country are garden escapes – erigeron daisies, self seeding campanulata cherries, old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba), wild gingers, to name a few. Without ripping out every seeding or suckering exotic plant, gardeners have a moral responsibility to make sure they keep such things under control. Potting them up to sell at your local school gala or a car boot sale is not acceptable. Not at all. You are merely dispersing plants with weed potential.

Using plastic coated bubble slow release fertilisers in the garden warrants demerit points, no matter what your garden retailer may tell you. These were developed for container plant growing, not for general garden usage and, believe me, those plastic bubble coatings last for many years in the environment. If you are going to use bought fertilisers, then make sure you are using ones which are fully biodegradable. Better still, make your own compost.

Growing plants that you have to drench regularly with fungicide, insecticide or even simple copper sprays in order to keep them alive and healthy needs review. Get the message – these plants are not happy in your conditions. It is only a triumph to grow something difficult or different if you can give it conditions that make it relatively happy and healthy. Regular human intervention with a chemical arsenal is not good gardening practice. Once a year is neither here nor there but more often than that, and you should be asking yourself questions. I include copper in that list. While relatively benign, there is evidence that repeated applications over time kill earthworms, bacteria and other soil organisms which are part of the natural environment.

An array of edging tools - preferable to spraying garden edges

An array of edging tools – preferable to spraying garden edges

While on chemical sprays, I acknowledge we are growing increasingly conservative about their usage. In our gardening opinion, they are best as a last resort rather than a routine management tool. As such, I rail against the sight of sprayed edges. Invest in a repertoire of edging tools and get rid of the nasty brown sprayed look which is a crime against both nature and aesthetics. And when you routinely apply herbicide, you create a vacuum which nature will invade. In sunny areas, this will be with weeds and in shady areas, it is likely to be liverwort.

The same goes for banks on waterways. We should be avoiding all man-made chemical usage near waterways so err on the conservative side. A line trimmer or a scythe can be used to cut back and will leave cover rather than dead brown vegetation and then bare soil to erode. Pioneer farmers knew to plant trees along waterways to shade out weed growth.

Fortunately the horror that was the minimalist garden died out quickly after its heyday in the 1990s. That was the three large rocks, white pebble mulch with one sanseveria (unkindly known as mother-in-law’s tongue) and three green mounds of hummocky scleranthus. Contribution to nature? Less than zero. Demerit points? Top of the scale.

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