Tag Archives: gardening

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.


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


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.







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.


Conversation on Radio Live


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.


The montana in bloom this week

Cyclamen hederafolium

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




Tikorangi notes: Off to China!

A random tui nest found yesterday

A random tui nest found yesterday

We leave for China tomorrow. Well, a small part of China – the south eastern area. Foshan (near Guangzhou), Dali Old Town, Jinghong and Kunmimg. The draw card is the International Camellia Congress which will make travelling much easier than doing it on our own.

Many of the plants we grow originate from these areas of China. We are hoping to see the yellow camellias in flower. Five years on from when I wrote about C. chrysantha, the other yellow species we have here still have not bloomed. But we may also catch some of the deciduous magnolias, wild azaleas and michelias in bloom. With our closed borders in New Zealand, the new species of michelias that have been discovered in the wild are not in the country and may never be admitted so it will be interesting to see what we are missing.

Being old enough to remember when China was closed to most of the world, I am not totally surprised to find that they still have in place the electronic equivalent of the Great Wall or the more recent Berlin Wall. I may only be taking my tablet as a back-up for photos because I see my most-used sites are all blocked – Twitter, Facebook, Gmail and Google. It is likely that there will be on-line silence until we return at the end of the first week in March.

While on the subject of China, I checked back for the piece I wrote in 2010 about Rewi Alley. It gave me cause to ponder how quickly our modern print and electronic media both moved away from longer-form writing to snappy short pieces with photos. I can’t imagine a NZ newspaper publishing a piece of that length any longer. But there are some interesting quotes from a personal letter from Alley to my late mother-in-law.
IMG_7068The photos today are the start of a little exercise in colour combinations, which we have spent some time discussing as we plan our new summer garden plantings. I am a big fan of blue and yellow in interior colour schemes (our dining and TV rooms are indeed soft yellow and French blue). I have long wanted to try a blue and yellow border in the garden, but now think it will look too contrived for what we want.
Yellow can be a difficult colour so I gathered a separate selection of cerise, magenta and orange blooms. Mark keeps pointing out to me the problems of adding yellow to this sort of colour mix – bright yellow at least. It is the one that can upset the apple cart of harmonious colour combinations. We may be quarantining our yellows to one area or at least using with extreme restraint.

Finally, as I was montying in the rockery, I was pondering how much modern gardening expectation has been shaped by two factors – the motor mower and glyphosate. Back in the days when grass was scythed and weeding was all done by hand, the current standards of the perfect lawn and the weed-free garden would have been inconceivable. It seems… unfortunate, shall I say… that the commonly held measuring stick for judging gardens today is predicated on two inventions, both of which are really bad for the environment.

Garden lore: chainsaw pruning

“There appears to be a large element of tree worship in us Americans, and anything remotely connected with a tree is approached with a numinous awe. People who are slothful by nature and who never get around to cutting down the peony and lily stalks in November (though this is well worth the labor) and who never divide irises on time, or plant the daffodil bulbs before Thanksgiving, or prune the climbing roses – such persons nevertheless leap into action when leaves fall, as if the fate of the garden depended on raking them immediately. I do not intend to comment on that situation, on the grounds that fiddling with leaves is no more harmful than cocktail parties, marijuana, stock car racing, and other little bees that people get in their bonnets.”

Henry Mitchell, The Essential Earthman (1981).

Camellias severed to bare stumps 6 months ago

Camellias severed to bare stumps 6 months ago

Times have certainly changed since Mitchell wrote the above para. The modest rake is more likely to be a noisy leaf blower these days. Loosely related, I thought some readers may be interested to see the after effects of extreme winter pruning.

Both the michelias and camellias were four to five metres high, stretched and thin as they reached for the light. Because we are making a new garden and have opened the area to the light, we wanted a hedge effect, not a straggly, willowy shelter belt. In winter last year, these plants were taken to with a chainsaw. They were cut off at about a metre in height, in many cases leaving no foliage at all.

Well established michelia hybrids respond to hard pruning with abundant fresh growth

Well established michelia hybrids respond to hard pruning with abundant fresh growth

After about six months and a spring flush, the new growth is phenomenal. We won’t get any flowers this year but we will have a bushy, well established hedge sooner, rather than later.

This extreme action does not work with all shrubs but it can be done with camellias and michelias. It may not work in harsher climates, either, but in our mild, temperate conditions it is fine. The timing is relatively important. It needs to be done well before the spring flush and we find early winter is the best season. It is a hedging technique. The trade off is that you lose the shape of the plant but gain bushy growth instead.