Tag Archives: gardening

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

A water meadow

img_6423December was memorable last year. Finally, we achieved the water meadow effect we have been striving for in our park.  This was thanks to the iris and to our learning how to manage long grass in ways other than cutting it.

higos-7There are anything up to 300 different species of iris but the one that comes to mind most frequently is the bearded iris. These are ephemeral delights in our climate with its high rainfall, high humidity and fertile soils, so a joy in bloom in October but over all too soon. The so-called Dutch iris flower earlier in spring. These are hybrids of 3 lesser known species, often somewhat derided, seen as a little vulgar even, but they can look charming enough in the right setting and are easy to grow.

Iris sibirica

Iris sibirica

November is the month of the sibirican iris which are happier in our wet conditions. The most common bright blue form is ‘Caesar’s Brother’ but there are other selections around which flower at slightly different times and extend the season well into December. The common name of Siberian iris suggests that they originate in Siberia – which they do, but they are not limited to that area in the wild, growing instead right across Northern Europe as far east as Central Asia. Unlike the bearded iris which prefer sandy, lighter soils where their rhizomes can bake in the sun, the sibiricans thrive in heavy soils and on the margins of wetland areas.

higos-1In early spring this year, I spent a few muddy days down by our stream, digging out the yellow flag iris. We had several large clumps of these and they flowered well every year. Alas, they are a recognised weed in this country and we felt we needed to take an ethical stand and remove them because they were planted by and in running water. Every piece of rhizome that breaks off or gets washed downstream has the higos-5potential to grow and we didn’t think that establishing mats of flag iris all the way to the ocean was a good reflection on us. In digging them out, I can tell you the dense mat they form is not unlike wild ginger. I replaced them with a mix of Higos and sibiricans which may spread by seed but don’t form the choking, solid mats.

higos-3Every time the Higos bloom, we think most kindly of Auckland plantsman, Terry Hatch. Years ago, he gave Mark a tray of germinating seedlings which were reputedly from wild gathered seed. Mark had tried growing Higos earlier but without success. They are not a species, but a group of Japanese iris bred extensively over 500 years in the quest for the single perfect bloom to bring indoors, in that wonderful higos-2pared-back style perfected in Japan. The requirements of a garden plant are very different and those highly refined hybrids did not perform. The seedlings from Terry – about 700 of them in the end – gave us a huge range in colour, size and style and they have settled in most satisfyingly by the stream. By this I mean they are performing very well year after year, with no attention at all but without any indication of becoming a weed. I tried some in a perennial border and they grew and flowered well, but their leaves are very long and tend to swamp other plants in the months before they go dormant.

Mark's Louisiana seedlings

Mark’s Louisiana seedlings

Our water iris are something of a United Nations when we add in the Louisianas. Indeed, these do originate from that American state though, like the Higos, they are not a pure species but a group. There are at least five different species of iris native to Louisiana and it is likely that what we are growing are hybrids. They have been settled in down by the stream for many years now but we only have a few different ones. Inspired by the success of the Higo seedlings we got from Terry Hatch, Mark has been experimenting with raising Louisianas from seed to extend the range of flower colour and size and the results have given us more to plant out in the ponds on the other side of our garden, in the area we call the North Garden.

higosWhat we love about the water iris is the contribution they make to a softer-edged, naturalistic style of gardening which we increasingly favour. A return to a more romantic garden style. It took my breath away last December. I am looking forward to a repeat this month.

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abbie005First published in the December issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

Tikorangi Notes: Sunday October 9, 2016

 I vowed I would complete The Mission of the 78 Azaleas in July.  I am almost there, which is to say I am down to the last two plants needing a home. The trouble with being down to the last two, is that they suddenly take on psychological significance. There are no more sitting in the nursery to draw on so I must make sure that these last two are in The Right Place. I don’t want to suddenly find a spot which I missed that is calling out for a bright spot of colour. It may take a little longer.

img_2427In the meantime, it is The Challenge of the Lytocaryum weddellianum. This is a very pretty little, feathery palm from Brazil, a close relative of the coconut palm but small. It is sometimes referred to as the wedding palm (presumably because it is favoured in pots as green decoration at wedding receptions?). There are a reasonable number of them sitting out in the nursery that Mark bought as baby plants years ago. It is doing particularly well in the subtropical gardens beneath the rimu trees.

Lytocaryum weddellianum is a bit of an in-house (or in-garden) gag here. Others often give the advice to repeat a plant in a garden to give unity. I have always doubted this because too often it is done with common plants like renga renga lilies (arthropodium) or the tractor seat ligularia (L. reniformis).  I once saw it done with Dahlia ‘Bonne Esperance’ and I came to the conclusion that all that repetition does is to ensure that your garden all looks the same. Nevertheless, I am threading the lytocaryum through one area on the grounds that if you are going to repeat a plant to gain unity, you might as well do it with class and botanical depth.

img_2406We have a relatively large forest of a giant bamboo – in this case Phyllostachys edulis. The neighbour wishes it was not on the boundary and we are trying to be vigilant this spring and doing a weekly round of jumping the fence to grub out the new shoots that insist on popping up in the farm next door. It is a handsome bamboo and of some use as cut lengths in the garden. It is also edible. Sadly, panda bears have not arrived to take advantage of the food source (further proof that the cargo cult does not work) but I am having another go at cooking the fresh shoots this year. To be honest, the bamboo shoots that you buy in tins taste more of the brine than anything else. And even fresh, they are more textural and a carrier of other flavours (as tofu is) than a taste treat in their own right. But they add variety to our diet and I can see a use for them in stirfries. “Please bring me some bamboo shoots for dinner,” I asked the other night. And he did. The big one is past cooking stage. The trick seems to be to harvest them just as they come through the ground and to prepare the white sections that are below the surface.  I shall slice some, blanch them quickly in boiling water and then freeze them to see if we use them later in the year. The first batch I poached gently in stock before adding to the dinner that night and they were pleasant, if not life-changing.

img_2420The deciduous magnolia season is over, bar Magnolia Serene which is always the last to bloom and is still a picture. So I can now admit that 2016 was not a memorable year. The rain, rain and yet more incessant rain combined with mild temperatures turned many to slush – botrytis, Mark says, on a scale we have not seen before. I really struggled to get good photos. There is always next year when the weather gods may be kinder.

img_2392Now it is bluebell time. It appears that ours are all Spanish bluebells or hybrids. The pink and white variants are a bit of a giveaway. Ken Thompson in The Sceptical Gardener gave me a handy guide to tell the difference between the blue ones – which are English, Spanish or hybrids. I stopped by the site of one of the original houses in Tikorangi where bluebells continue to flower. Mark thought that they are probably the oldest bluebells in Tikorangi so may date back to the early settlers and therefore more likely to be the English bluebell. Nope. Indubitably of Spanish origin too.

But Spanish or English or a mix of the two, a carpet of bluebells is a pretty sight and leads in to a poem written by a friend who stayed with us last week.

img_2377Bluebell Woods

Red Riding Hood haunts the Bluebell Woods

plucking her squelchy bouquet.

Nasturtiums Humpty down the bank

trumpeting and capering on their way.

Celandine tells of golden cups

quaffed by golden kings

 

But the scarlet poppies alone in the field

have only songs of war to sing.

J F Panting

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Evergreen azaleas – unsung garden heroes

You can have any colour you like, as long as it is pink, white, red, lilac or coral

You can have any colour you like, as long as it is pink, white, red, lilac or coral

Evergreen azaleas are a bit of an unsung garden hero, really. There can’t be many more obliging, hard working plants. Generally regarded as playing second fiddle to their more aristocratic rhododendron family members, they seem to have followed their slide down towards oblivion in recent times.  Yet they are such a forgiving plant, tolerant of a wide range of conditions from full sun to almost full shade – as long as it is high shade. They also grow well even where there is a lot of root competition. They can be featured in their own right or they can be a backdrop. And if you have enough different types, the flowering extends for much of the year, though the majority peak for us in September to early October. I tracked the blooms and found the latest varieties still with blooms near Christmas and the first ones showing colour in early March this year. That is a pretty impressive record.

046 (3)I am on the ‘Mission of 78 Azaleas’. Some years ago, Mark did a cuttings run from plants here and they had reached the point where they really, truly did need planting out. I found homes for about half of them last spring, but there are still 35 sitting out under the shade cloth, looking reproachfully at me and begging to be given permanent homes this winter.* I shall do it this very month. I swear I will.  From this, you may deduce that azaleas are one of our backbone plants in the garden, threaded through quite large areas.

The $2000 azalea bonsai, spotted in Foshan, China

The $2000 azalea bonsai, spotted in Foshan, China

Not only are azaleas forgiving, they are also remarkably versatile. This is a plant family that is particularly revered in their homelands of China and Japan and I could not help but marvel at the bonsai specimen we recently saw in Foshan with a price tag of RMB9800 – which equates to about $2000 in our money! I admired the clipped azalea hedge kept to about knee height that I saw in the garden at Wairere Nursery near Gordonton a few years ago. Last time I visited Hollard’s Garden near Kaponga, it appeared that every last azalea (and they must have a similar number to us) had been clipped to a tidy, tight mound after flowering. This is a style decision and may appeal to folk who prefer their plants to conform to a prescribed standard.

We have taken a different track with some of our larger plants. While slow growing, some can reach a couple of metres in height after a few decades and they can get a bit formless and scruffy. The usual approach is to cut them off close to the ground and let them ‘come again’. Do this sort of hard pruning in winter or very early spring if you want to go down that track. But we like to feature the shapes of our mature plants and to use them to create a middle layer in our garden – lower than the trees but well above ground level. We shape, lift and thin and this gives us an undulating carpet of colour just above head height.  It takes a bit of work. The plants keep shooting from the base so I try and get around each spring and rub off the new growth and I remove any dead wood at the same time.

007 (11)I like to tell the story of a knowledgeable Japanese garden visitor. He came from Kurume and we have a fair number of very small leafed, small flowered Kurume azaleas. He had no English and we have no Japanese, but he managed to convey to us that our Kurumes were simply astounding in their stature and shape but that we needed to take better care of them. He was pointing to the grey lichen infestation in the canopy of a patch growing in full sun. While it is often recommended that you spray for this – lime sulphur or copper is the usual treatment – it is no mean feat to spray above your head height and we are consciously trying to avoid spraying. So I am on a long term campaign – year three into what may be a five year project. In late spring, I manoeuvre my way around on the ladder to take out maybe 20% of the old growth which is most heavily infested, without losing the canopy effect. They do look better for it, but I am grateful that it is only one area that needs this attention.

Evergreen azaleas are much easier to propagate than rhododendrons and are worth a try after the new growth has hardened in summer. Alternatively you can raise seed, as Mark’s father did here to bulk up the plantings without having to buy them. They won’t grow true from seed, but we like the variation we have as a result and the mass of bloom we get is unsurpassed.

Pink Ice is simply lustrous in bloom, but turns to mush in heavy rain. The smaller flowered varieties are more weather hardy.

Pink Ice is simply lustrous in bloom, but turns to mush in heavy rain. The smaller flowered varieties are more weather hardy.

First published in the July issue of New Zealand Gardener and reproduced here with their agreement. 

* Progress is being made. I am down to 24 plants looking at me reproachfully in the nursery.

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The saga of Yucca whipplei

Yucca whipplei did at least give total privacy from garden visitors when sitting indoors

Yucca whipplei did at least give total privacy from garden visitors when sitting indoors

It was a bit of a milestone here last week as we completed the task of Moving Yucca Whipplei. This has been such a long story that I even have a folder of photos on my computer devoted to the move. When we planted the yucca in the narrow border by the house getting on for 30 years ago (I am pretty sure Felix was still alive at the time), I guess we figured it would be a tidy mound of grey foliage in that difficult dry border. Obviously neither Mark nor I looked it up and this would have been prior to the age when it was easy to do a quick net search.

But Yucca whipplei grew. And grew until it blocked almost the entire window of our TV room. While not as fiercely prickly as some members of the yucca family, it was not a plant with which you would want to tangle. I stopped cleaning the outside of that set of windows. A few years ago I declared I wanted it gone, which to Mark meant it had to be moved, not destroyed.

After more than 25 years, it flowered

After more than 25 years, it flowered

005Our ever handy man on the spot, Lloyd, cut back the concrete in anticipation of the move. That was on June 14, 2012. But time passed and other jobs always seemed more urgent. Towards the end of 2014, we spotted a flower spike forming. That was pretty exciting, given that the plant was over 25 years old and had never bloomed before. Moving it was out of the question.

The flower was a delight. Spectacular, even, as it grew ever bigger – reaching past the roof on the lower storey of the house. The flower passed and still the yucca remained.

Peaking above the roof on the first storey

Peaking above the roof on the first storey

Come September last year, the men were coming to install double glazing on that window so the main spike was cut down and removed. This was no mean feat. Mark had hoped he could chainsaw it off but the leaves just chewed up and choked the chainsaw. There was no alternative to clippers and a hand saw.

Removing the main stem last year

Removing the main stem last year

The remaining stump sprouted most enthusiastically and this year, I created the ideal spot out of the way on a sunny hillside where it could be relocated to its forever home. Fortunately, a yucca is not like a tree where the root system is critical but even so, it was a fairly major exercise to dig it out and then lift it away. It is now safely planted well away from any windows and we hope to see it flourish. The hot, sunny, protected position left vacant outside our TV room windows is destined to be the new home for a frangipani that has been waiting in the wings (which is to say, in Mark’s covered house). We are extremely marginal for a frangipani, but I have my fingers crossed.

The final removal was no small task and involved two men, a tractor and a heavy chain

The final removal was no small task and involved two men, a tractor and a heavy chain

I see I wrote in October last year: “As far as we know, this is Yucca whipplei, also known as Hesperoyucca whipplei, chaparral yucca, Our Lord’s candle, Spanish bayonet, Quixote yucca or foothill yucca. So Wikipedia tells me. Apparently the most common name is Our Lord’s candle. It being native to southern America from California through to Mexico, it clearly felt right at home in the bone dry conditions of the house border beneath the eaves.”

Yuccan whipplei in its 'forever home"

Yuccan whipplei in its ‘forever home”

That chapter has closed. Our Lord’s candle is set to burn with renewed vigour over on the sunny hillside.

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Conversation on Radio Live

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Luculias left to right: gratissima ‘Early Dawn’, pinceana ‘Fragrant Pearl’ and pinceana ‘Fragrant Cloud’

Fava beans (dried broad beans)

It appears common to call dried broad beans fava beans

I will be back on the radio at 6.30am this Sunday morning, talking gardening with Tony Murrell on Radio Live. It goes to air live (yes I do drag myself out of bed at 6.15am to make a cup of tea in anticipation) so the topics covered may range widely but it is likely that we will be talking about broad beans, luculias, pruning wisterias and high maintenance plants. And garlic, again. If you are worrying about how to prune your wisterias, I put up a step by step sequence here. 

Sasanqua camellias

Sasanqua camellias

I can understand that many may not be awake at 6.30am on a Sunday morning, but the segment is subsequently put on line. Last week, we discussed the glyphosate controversy, planting garlic and strawberries, what is currently blooming (sasanqua camellias, Cyclamen hederafolium and the montanoa or Mexican tree daisy) amid a fairly free ranging conversation.

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The montana in bloom this week

Cyclamen hederafolium

Cyclamen hederafolium is just past its peak but has been flowering since January