Tag Archives: gardening

The first autumn blooms and the journey to gardening nirvana

Amaryllis belladonna – more roadside flower than garden plant in our conditions

As the calendar moves into March, the autumn bulbs are the first reminder that summer will not be endless. First Cyclamen hederafolium and Colchicum autumnale remind is that the seasons wait for no man or woman. Now they have been joined by the belladonnas and the truly tiny Leucojum autumnale.

Colchicum, not autumn crocus. The foliage is unrelated, being a dianthus

Colchicums are often referred to as autumn crocus but there is no botanical connection, just a visual perception. The best known leucojum is L. vernum or the common snowflake which flowers in spring – a vigorous bulb that is widely found around old house sites that date back to the nineteenth century. The old brick chimney may be all that is left standing but it is highly likely to have clumps of the double daffodils and snowflakes, maybe some violets and a couple of really old camellia trees. For overseas readers, almost all the early European settlers’ homes were built in wood and house fires were common which is why the chimney is the only remaining evidence.

Blink and you may miss the delight of tiny Leucojum autumnale

Little Leucojum autumnale is a very different creature, a fleeting, dainty little flower that has to be measured in millimetres, not centimetres. It is very cute but easily swamped by larger plants if you are not careful. I see it is now classified as an acis, not a leucojum but it may take me a while to remember that. It comes from the western areas of the southern Mediterranean so places like Spain, Morocco, Tunisia and Sicily which are very hot and bone dry but the first autumn rain will trigger the bulbs into their very short flowering and growing season.

Some welcome rain fell this week – 62ml to be precise, which was very welcome after an exceptionally dry summer. Sadly it was followed by the first chill wind of autumn which rather reinforced the message of the autumn bulbs. Summer 2020 is over and we are now entering our long autumn season. I have removed my togs and towel from the swimming pool and put them in the laundry basket although the younger visitors here are still swimming.

What I call English manor house style of twin borders – seen here at Parham House

Cottage garden style as per Margery Fish at East Lambook Manor

Beth Chatto’s dry garden

As the summer borders reach their point of peak profusion, I ponder again how full I want these borders to look. The tradition of herbaceous borders is to have them packed so full that no soil is visible. Cottage gardening encourages the plants to meld and run together whereas herbaceous tradition says that each plant occupies its own space without much intermeshing with its neighbours. And then there is the Beth Chatto dry garden where, even in a mature garden, she kept each plant standing alone in its own space. Mark likes the Chatto approach because it displays the individual plants to their best. It is a style he has used extensively in the more detailed woodland areas. If you analyse the Chatto dry garden, they are predominantly smaller plant varieties growing in very hard condtions (dry river bed with very low rainfall) which could not be further from our summer garden conditions which foster lush and exuberant growth.

I am leaning to the traditional herbaceous position for these summer borders but it is a constant learning process about how each plant variety performs. I want to be able to walk amongst the plants to weed, stake and dead-head and that means knowing how much space to leave between each different clump that they may floof themselves over the space to fill it but still leave me passage between the plants at ground level without tramping on them.

The summer borders here

The bouffy aster needs staking to keep the path clear. I do it very simply and this is not visible when the plant is allowed to flop back

I love this big, bouffy aster coming into flower. We have the more compact version that makes a low carpet in bloom and another similar one that is just above waist height. I am guessing this larger version is a species – or close to it – with its daintier, paler blue blooms that are like a cloud of butterflies dancing on the bush. This year I have had to stake it to keep the path clear and it is obvious I have too much of it too close together for future seasons. Some at least will need to be moved to another area before next summer.

It is a constant learning process but that is what makes gardening interesting. Once a garden is all planted up, most of the gardening activity is simple and repetitive maintenance – outdoor housework, in effect. The interest levels in that are not high. It is the ongoing learning and constant tweaking in search of the impossible state of perfection that makes it interesting. That is how I see it for those of us who actively garden.

As a final comment: the new summer gardens have all been planted following the modern trends of lower labour input and management than the older, more traditional herbaceous plantings of the English manor house style of borders. But they still involve me in quite a lot of deadheading, dividing, staking and cutting back. I enjoy doing it but it is certainly more than I originally anticipated. My gardening nirvana may be when I have tweaked the plantings to the point where such a high level of intervention is no longer required.

Tikorangi notes: Iceland poppies are not from Iceland, naturalising trilliums, bluebells and escaping root stock

I have never been a fan of Iceland poppies. They were the one flower I remember my mother buying  when I was a child – a bunch of stems still in bud. She would burn the stems and then put them in a vase where they would open to what seemed garish and unappealing flowers to me. Tastes change and in recent years, I have found my eyes drawn to mass displays of these simple blooms. This patch is on a traffic island which holds the very modest clock tower in my modest local town of Waitara and it makes me smile when I pass.

The Waitara clock tower in a traffic island 

Ironically, on the opposite corner was this stand of fake flowers outside a Gold Coin shop.

Iceland poppies do not come from Iceland. I finally checked and in fact they come from the chilly areas of Europe, Asia and North America – sub polar territory, so presumably alpine meadows.  In the wild, Papaver nudicaule  (nude because of its bare stem which makes it a good cut flower) are pretty much all white or pale yellow. The other colours are recessive genes which have been brought out by plant breeding – presumably line breeding which is selecting down the generations of individual plants to pick out the stronger colours until those coloured genes have come to the fore.

Puketarata Garden near Hawera

This is not a plant I have ever felt the need to grow myself but there is a simple appeal to a mass display. I remember being quite charmed by their use in the clipped buxus formation at Jen Horner’s garden, Puketarata, one spring. It is hard to beat the simplicity of a single poppy, or indeed a daisy flower.

This poor little white one survived being taken off at the base with the strimmer last spring

These trilliums represent a minor triumph in Mark’s experiments with plants he can establish in meadow situations. We have plenty of trilliums in our woodland gardens but establishing them in a cultivated garden is different to getting them to naturalise on his bulb hillside. When I say “naturalise”, I mean that they are now sufficiently well established to return each year, able to compete with the grass and uncultivated soil. They are not actually increasing yet but they are at least established.

Mark has raised more seed and has about 70 pots of them in flower in the old nursery area. He is disappointed that most of them have come up white and said that he wants the red ones for planting in the meadow and he asked that the pale yellow ones be kept together as a group in one area. For him, this is all part of blurring boundaries in gardening again. He really likes the idea of trilliums thriving in managed garden conditions and then, as the garden becomes looser and more informal further out, the same plants popping up as wild flowers. Especially when it is something as choice as trilliums. Maybe I could surprise him with the surplus Paris polyphylla making an appearance on the bulb hillside, too.

I photographed this small flowering growth on Prunus Pearly Shadows as an example of unwanted root stock shooting away, even on a very well-established tree. Many plants are budded or grafted onto other rootstock so that the desired cultivar can utilise the strength of strong growing root stock. Which is well and good when the rootstock is compatible and doesn’t escape. If you don’t cut off the root stock, it can overwhelm the grafted selection so it is best to see to it as soon as you spot it. How do I know it is rootstock? It is a single white; Pearly Shadow is a fluffy pink double and is not yet in flower.

Prunus Pearly Shadows

This particular tree is a splendid example of what is described as a ‘vase-shaped form’. It has not been shaped. It grows naturally in that upward Y shape. It is in our car park area and has so far attracted three reversing cars. I am not quite sure how people fail to see it in their rear vision mirrors.

It is peak bluebell time in the park and even if these can be weedy, the drifts of colour are very pretty. Bluebells should, in our opinion, be predominantly blue. But the addition of a few white or pink ones amongst the blue gives a contrasting accent of colour that can lift the blue. The pink is also a strong grower, the white less so. We don’t want bluebells everywhere so I am removing them from some areas of the garden they are attempting to infiltrate but we are happy to let them spread in our meadows.

Lagerfeld Rules – should he ever turn his attention to gardening

The man himself - Karl Lagerfeld (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The man himself – Karl Lagerfeld (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In honour of the now late Karl Lagerfeld, I recalled a piece I wrote back in April 2012 when I was still writing for The Waikato Times. I don’t usually republish, but I thought maybe it was acceptable at this time.

I admit I had never really registered Karl Lagerfeld until last week. Sydney daughter sent a little clip of his quotes. “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.” Ouch. “Florals are for middle aged women with weight problems” and “Having adult children makes you look 100 years old. I don’t want that.”

I started to feel vulnerable until daughter pointed out to me that while I am upon occasion seen in public with one or more of my adult children (and isn’t Lagerfeld so right that it makes one look old?), she could not recall me wearing florals or sweatpants.

In case you are equally ignorant about Lagerfeld, think elderly German fashion designer, made his name with Chanel, now slim, white haired, permanently suntanned and always wears dark glasses. These days, his main claim to fame appears to be his capacity for pithy, outspoken comment. I could find no evidence whatever that Mr Lagerfeld has had anything to say about gardening. But let that not matter. Shamelessly putting words into his mouth, we started a meme: Karl Lagerfeld on gardening. This is what we consider he would be likely to say, should he ever turn his attention to botanical issues.

Only the real thing will do

Only the real thing will do

“If you can’t afford the real thing, then it is better to go without.” There would be nothing armless, legless or headless in Karl’s garden, especially nothing white unless he could persuade the British Museum to loan him some of the Elgin marbles. Reproduction classical just wouldn’t do.

“Never plant an avenue of the same tree unless you can afford to replace the lot should one ail. A gap in an avenue is like a toothless smile – engaging in children but an indication of lack of care in an adult.” Karl understands that when an established plant dies, it is almost always an indication of a problem below ground so there is no point in replacing like with like. The incoming plant will succumb to the same problem sooner rather than later. And avenues with gaps look, well, like avenues with gaps or a smile with missing teeth, really.

“Glazed blue pots are so last century. There is nothing aesthetic about a bright, shiny blue pot from Vietnam. Leave them to women who wear floral prints or straw hats adorned with fake flowers.”

“Buxus hedging,” declaims Karl with withering scorn, “is the polar fleece of the garden. Ubiquitous, utility but the comfort refuge of the unimaginative.” Harsh this may seem, but edging garden beds in rows of grassy plants gives rise to even stronger condemnation: “Reminiscent of crimplene trousers with elastic waists.”

Karl would put the not into knot gardens – as in advising not to be seen dead with one in your garden unless you have a European title (minor nobility is fine), live in Europe and can claim direct lineage to the design. Otherwise it is a knock-off copy and Karl does not do knock-off copies. Ever. Accordingly, he rejects chevron gardens, parterres, potagers, rills, canals and the like, unless you have the castle or palace to go with them. At the very least, a stately home is required.

Perhaps better than the toilet bowl recycled as a garden feature, but blue pots are problematic

Perhaps better than the toilet bowl recycled as a garden feature, but blue pots are problematic

“Unspeakable. I will say no more,” is his response to any toilet humour in gardens. He shudders in distaste at the thought that anybody, anybody at all, could ever think it was witty or clever to recycle an old toilet bowl as a plant container. In fact Karl is equally unimpressed with any efforts to recycle old baths, laundry tubs or other accoutrements as garden features. “We don’t have a bathroom in our dining rooms. Some things are best kept discreetly out of view at all times if you want to retain any mystique.”

When faced with the new breed of gardener who will only grow plants that are edible, Karl sniffs. “You might just as well say that you will only wear clothes that can be machine washed and never need ironing. Fashionistas would not be seen dead in polyester. Just as high end fabrics are used for high end clothing, so too are high end plants used for high end gardening. Some things exist because they are beautiful. That is enough. Broccoli is never beautiful.”

Long an advocate of the little black dress, Karl is only too well aware that the same little black dress on one woman will look like a shapeless sack whereas another will carry it off to perfection and on most men it will simply look silly. So too with gardening. “You cannot fake chic,” he says (yes he actually really did say that!) “Some do it with style. Others just follow the rules and it shows.”

“I am a fashion person, and fashion is not only about clothes – it’s about all kinds of change”. Karl is well used to ringing the changes, to leading the way. Not for him to slavishly copy and follow rules.

We will leave the penultimate comment to the man himself: “I’m very down to Earth, I’m just not from this Earth.” If he thought about it, he would be likely to add the advice that you should not think that just because you are working in your garden, trackpants or floral attire are acceptable.

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

Garden lore: protecting arms

Puttees. But for lower arms. We have large swathes of bromeliads that need an occasional clean out of accumulated debris and dead foliage. Many bromeliads have finely prickled edges that can rip arms to shreds and will find the small gap between glove and long sleeves. These are my DIY solution and are equally useful for reaching into many prickly or scratchy plants.

They are just the sleeves from a denim shirt cut to size and elasticised top and bottom and I keep them to hand in my gardening basket. While I find my shredded arms heal remarkably quickly (the reddening and discomfort will disappear overnight if I coat them in that potent  liniment still made by Rawleighs and sold as antiseptic salve), I am mindful that as we age and skin thins, it may be wiser to try and avoid tempting fate. Gardens host all sorts of fungi and bacteria which may not be good on broken skin. I have heard horror stories over the years about bad infections from wounds caused by rose thorns.

The colour match between my puttees and the pair of gardening gloves was mere serendipity.

Look at all those little hooks on the margins of the bromeliad leaves

A quilted flower

The quilted spathe of Monstera deliciosa with the distinctly phallic green fruit from a previous bloom to the right

I had not noticed until yesterday that the interior of the spathe on the Monstera deliciosa is delightfully quilted. For quilting enthusiasts, they are hexagons – six-sided figures. The spathe is the curved hood on the flower – botanically a modified leaf but most of us will continue to call it a flower. Some readers will know the monstera better as the fruit salad plant – most often seen as a house plant or perhaps more as an office plant where there is greater space. I would rather doubt that it flowers, let alone fruits, when it is treated as an indoor plant.

We have it as large, shade plant, climbing our trees and furnishing some of the back areas of the woodland gardens where it never gets frosted. It is a bit rampant, a monster even, although easy enough to cut back when it roots its way along the ground. It is more difficult to contain when it romps its way up the trees because it puts out strong aerial roots all the way and our largest ones are now a good ten metres up the trees. Looking tropical, even in the depths of winter. Fortunately, this is not a plant that will smother or strangle its host tree.

Monstera deliciosa can indeed be a monster plant when liberated in the garden

Our plants set fruit but we are not hot enough to ripen them to the allegedly delicious stage. Sometimes we get them to the point where the segments are ripe enough to fall apart, as they do, but the taste, while somewhat ‘tropical fruit salad-y’ in flavour, remains too sharp to eat many. A bit like cut glass, we say, which is apparently to do with oxalic acid. Our guess is that in hotter climes, the oxalic acid is less dominant.

Coming back to the flowers, I hadn’t really noticed how lovely they are until I saw this one yesterday and noticed the matching quilting on the central spadix (which develops into the phallic shaped fruit) and the interior of the spathe which embraces it.

Arum lilies, photographed in somebody else’s garden

“Aroids”, Mark said which had us googling a few other plants with flowers of similar form which were otherwise totally different and yes, they are all members of the araceae family, though not all are members of the aroid sub family.  Arum lilies are probably the best known. Arums are a great deal more prized overseas than in New Zealand. Here, they are seen as an indicator of poor land management (our pioneer roots are as farmers in this country), invasive and widely banned from sale but not on the total eradication list, as far as I know. As a garden escape, the problem with arums is that stock don’t eat them and they are difficult to control once they have established themselves. I once wrote giving advice on how to get rid of them. The coloured calla lilies are still grown as ornamentals but I dug most of mine out this year. I found them shy flowering and they didn’t justify the garden space. Too much foliage for too few blooms.

Arisaemas we grow a-plenty. Theirs is a very curious plant group, though not beautful in the usual sense. A. dahaiense

What surprised me more was to find that arisaemas and lysichiton are also members of the araceae family. They have the distinctive hooded flowers, but that is about all that looks the same as monstera or arum. I am sure I have photographed the lysichitons here (unromantically referred to in common parlance as ‘skunk cabbages’) but I can not find the photos in my files. We have both the yellow American species (americanus) and the white Asian species (camschatcensis) which we grow as bog plants.

Alocasias also belong to the same family. This includes taro, which is widely sold in New Zealand because it is a food staple for Pacific Island people, though it has never made its way into the general diet of most others and I admit I have never tried it. It has never been touted as delicious. Should you happen to be in Missouri, the botanic gardens there have the world’s largest collection of members of the araceae family. Munich Botanic Garden also has a splendid collection owing to world expert working there, the ever-handy internet tells me. I was just a bit surprised by the diversity of araceae we grow here. I was looking up the toxicity because some can cause burning of the skin and I wondered if it was connected to the aroids. But no, it appears that it is only a characteristic of some family members – chemically speaking, calcium oxalate crystals in the form of raphides. So now you know. This will explain the sensation of eating tropical flavoured glass shards when sampling the monstera fruit that are less than perfectly over-ripe.

Arisaema sikokianum – not easy to keep going as a garden plant but eye-catching