Tag Archives: gardening

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.
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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.
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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.

Plant UNcollector – the tale of our disappointing white nepeta

In reality, it is even more insignificant than in this photo

In reality, it is even more insignificant than in this photo

There are not many plants as disappointing as our white nepeta. Before you rush to set me right by telling me that your white nepeta is absolutely gorgeous, I will declare that I have had a look at the internet and I see there are various white forms around and most of them look to be an improvement on the one we had here. Note the past tense. We have taken it out – and there was a fair swag of it – and it is now on the compost heap.

Nepeta is not exactly a plant of class and distinction but it is easy to grow, forgiving and on its day, it gives a haze of colour as well as feeding the bees. We were quite taken by its use in plantings that resemble rail tracks in a couple of English gardens we visited, despite my reservations about both the use of edging plants and planting in rows.

The railway track effect at Tintinhull in England where the nepeta looked lovely

The railway track effect at Tintinhull in England where the nepeta looked lovely

We came home and looked at our nepeta in askance. I could not remember ever being wowed by its lilac haze in bloom but it was certainly spreading widely. This season, I said to myself, I will take special notice. It was not growing in a spot I walk past every day but it was relatively prominent. Dammit, I thought, when I saw seed heads on it. How did I miss it again? Was it really such a flash in the pan? Mark, it turned out, had been thinking the same. We stood looking at it together and realised it was possibly the world’s most boring white nepeta with the tiniest of insignificant flowers at the same time as setting seed. Sure the bumble bees liked it but they will like our lilac nepetas just as much or maybe more. Mark has a tray of seedlings raised, ready to plant as an immediate replacement.

Mark is unconvinced by the notion of white nepeta which, in his mind, contradicts the very nature of nepeta which should be blue or lilac. But the joke is on us that we had both failed to notice that ours never flowered in the right colour.

The curious arisaemas

Delighted by A. dahaiense

Delighted by A. dahaiense

Not all flowers are beautiful, but my goodness arisaemas have curious flowers and equally peculiar propensities.

Arisaema ringens has been around New Zealand gardens for a long time – sometimes called Jack-in-the-pulpit though that is more correctly used for the American species, A. triphyllum. While A. ringens has handsome, glossy foliage, the flowers hide beneath in such seclusion that you are likely to miss them entirely.

The last twenty years have seen an influx of new Asian and Japanese species to the country, many of which have piqued the interest of collectors. Even now, the choicest ones are difficult to source – often more a case of who you know rather than where you can buy them. And if you get hold of them, some are very difficult to keep going, especially in garden conditions as opposed to nursery pots.

Arisaema tortuosum

Arisaema tortuosum

Not all are devilishly difficult. A. tortuosum is easy and will seed down freely, a bit too freely, we find.  It makes a big patch, maybe 75cm tall, with the green hooded flowers sitting above the foliage. We find it is perfectly happy in the border right beside the house on the eastern side where the only water it gets is run off from the adjacent path.

Arisaema speciosum

Arisaema speciosum

A. speciosum is another easy variety in semi shade. It has handsome foliage, lovely mottled stems and curious flowers in burgundy-brown that really do look like hooded cobras. But the issue is that the flowers are held beneath the foliage so unless they are planted on a slope or on a margin where you can see into the patch, you may miss the flowering season. The early summer blooming A. candidissimum is one of the prettiest forms and is not difficult to grow with its palest pink and white hooded blooms appearing before the foliage dominates. It also multiples well.

Mark's A. sikkokianum hybrids

Mark’s A. sikkokianum hybrids

Mark's sikokianum hybrids (3) - CopyAnd then there are the tricksy ones, few more so than the Japanese A. sikokianum with its phallic spadix and hooded spathe rising prominently above the foliage. It is a show stopper in spring, though definitely curious rather than beautiful. After many years of growing it, I can tell you that it is difficult. We have never seen it increase from the corm. Growing well, it will set seed but these need to be raised in controlled conditions because it will not seed down naturally here. Even then, the patches tend to get smaller with time, rather than larger. It was for this reason that Mark experimented with hybridising it, to try and get increased vigour. This is known as hybrid vigour, in a similar way that the controlled breeding of designer dogs can make the offspring a stronger genetic strain than the highly refined parentage of pure breds. It has worked for us. The offspring carry all the best characteristics of A. sikokianum but they grow more strongly and are reliable as garden plants. Few would pick the difference to the lead species, but we know they are actually hybrids.

Arisaema dahaiense

Arisaema dahaiense

For sheer bizarre appearance, the more recent acquisition of A. dahaiense has to take the cake. It is very peculiar and not a carnivorous plant, though it looks as if it should be. The mottled, frilly flange is particularly striking. Because we are gardeners rather than plant collectors, the fact that this large-flowered curiosity has settled down quite happily in the leaf litter of open woodland conditions is a real bonus.

Peculiar propensities?  Arisaemas are hermaphrodites. When they are young or growing weakly, they are male. Only when conditions are right and the plant is strong, do they become female and therefore capable of reproduction. Then if they need a wee rest, maybe after a season of prolific seed set or drought, they revert to male again. Is this a metaphor for the human condition, some may wonder. I could not possibly comment.

A. taiwanense seed

A. taiwanense seed

If you notice a vague visual similarity to the mouse plant (Arisarum proboscidium), the striped Arisarum vulgare or arum lilies you are correct. Though not close relatives, they are all aroids in the Araceae plant family. Arisaemas go dormant in late summer and grow from corms – often roundish balls or larger round discs, though speciosum corms can look more like something unfortunate that the dog has left behind. Some species set copious amounts of seed which can be attractive in itself in autumn, though it helps to know your species. I remove the tortuosum seed because it can spread too freely whereas the speciosum seed, while abundant, has not created problems for us.

If you really want to know more about this plant genus, the gold standard reference is currently still a book, a proper book, not the internet – “The Genus Arisaema” by Guy and Liliane Gusman.

Arisaema candidissimum

Arisaema candidissimum

010 - CopyFirst published in the December issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

Exotica in the shade

Shade gardens we have a-plenty

Shade gardens we have a-plenty

Glory be, but I do love spring.  This month subtropical bulbs and orchids shout out to be noticed.

We have extensive shade gardens. It is an inevitable result of a large, mature garden with many evergreen trees dating back as far as 1870. We do a lot of what we call lifting and limbing – taking off lower branches and keeping areas open to the light, for there are not a lot of plant options when it comes to deep, dark shade. Beneath the mighty tree canopy, it is dry but frost-free with dappled light. Over the decades there has been much trial and error to find what will thrive in these conditions and the plantings have become increasingly complex.

Dendrobium Bardo Rose

Dendrobium Bardo Rose

By this time in spring, we are over peak season for cymbidium orchids but the Australian dendrobiums are a delight. These are much smaller and more mounded or clumping in appearance and they take care of themselves. We have found the Bardo Rose group to be particularly obliging and free-flowering in woodland conditions. Ours all came from the local Orchid Society, an organisation that we have found combines generosity with superior technical knowledge.

Pleione orchids in the woodland

Pleione orchids in the woodland

Pleione orchids do not last as long in bloom as many of the other orchids. Their flowers are soft rather than waxy but oh my, they make such a pretty carpet. It is easy for them to get swamped so we try and keep the area around them open but beyond lifting and dividing every few years, we just leave them alone. In our experience, the lovely yellow varieties do better in a climate where they get more winter chill. I think all our yellows have died out now but we have plenty in shades of lilac, purple and pure white. Most of our successful varieties came from the late George Fuller, orchid expert and former curator of Pukekura Park, and seem to have formosana in their parentage. If you want to build them up, a single bulb will usually set 2 offsets each season so you can double them every year.

Calanthe orchid - CopyThe calanthes are ground orchids and we have big clumps now because these obliging plants can just be left to quietly increase in size. These are fully evergreen and somewhat frost tender but they are a delightful sight through spring and they combine very well with clivias, ferns and even hostas.

Hippeastrums are a plant family that has been much hybridised but I am not entirely convinced that has been to their advantage. It is two species that we rely on, both South American. It was by chance we found they settled happily into woodland conditions. In full sun, they were ravaged by narcissi fly but in high shade they are fine. Apparently nazi flies, as they are often called, don’t like shade. H. aulicum is one of our early to mid spring mainstays, flowering consistently year in and year out while multiplying most satisfyingly. To me, they look like beautiful Jacobean lilies in the woodland.

Hippeastrum aulicum, one of our woodland mainstays

Hippeastrum aulicum, one of our woodland mainstays

Hippeastrum papilio has been a more recent acquisition for us and it is certainly spectacular, looking more like an orchid than the butterfly for which it was named. It is offered for sale but be prepared to pay a lot for a single bulb – maybe $30 if it is flowering size – because it takes several years to get to that point. I can’t think that we would have started with more than just one or two bulbs at that price. I see with a bit of dividing and replanting we now have about sixty but not all are flowering size yet. Mark has done some hybrids of aulicum x papilio to increase numbers and get some variety, but they have yet to bloom.

Hippeastrum papilio

Hippeastrum papilio

I will have to leave the arisaemas, trilliums and the Paris polyphylla for another time but will finish with Scadoxus puniceus from South Africa. Many readers will be familiar with the summer flowering red S. multiflorus ssp. katherinae, especially in the Auckland area because it was, and maybe still is, much beloved by landscapers. It is a mainstay of our summer woodland, but in spring it is the lesser known S. puniceus that is the showstopper. Growing from large bulbs which are slow to increase, the foliage is lush and the large blooms are curious rather than beautiful. S. puniceus is not widely available, but if you can find somebody with it, it is easy enough to raise from fresh seed as long as you are willing to wait quite a few years to reach flowering size.

The rewards are there for patient gardeners.

The lesser known Scadoxus puniceus

The lesser known Scadoxus puniceus

Text first published in the October issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission 

Lachenalias part one: the early bloomers

Left to right: Lachenalia aloides quadricolor, bulbifera, reflexa hybrid, aloides

Left to right: Lachenalia aloides quadricolor, bulbifera, reflexa hybrid, aloides

Pity the early-blooming lachenalias for none of them are blue. And the blues and mauves are the sought after members of this plant family. But as winter draws to a close, it is the cheerful red, orange and yellow combinations that light up a grey day. It is all in how you use them.
Nothing subtle about aloides but great in semi-wild areas

Nothing subtle about aloides but great in semi-wild areas

I had not been a fan of the most common form of Lachenalia aloides. It lacks refinement and reminds me of cheap, fake flowers. But when I relocated surplus bulbs out to an open area near our entrance, I changed my mind. They are a bright splash of colour around an old tree trunk which makes me smile. The addition of the undervalued muscari (grape hyacinths) that remind me of my childhood adds a splash of pure blue, making the colour seem even brighter, along with an early flowering scilla. We have a particularly strong growing form in New Zealand which you can still occasionally find under its completely incorrect name of Lachenalia ‘Pearsonii’. It is just a strong-growing, tall strain of aloides with its distinctive orange and red colouring.
Same species, aloides. Quadricolor to the right.

Same species, aloides. Quadricolor to the right.

L. aloides is a variable species and one of our early bloomers is another form – L. aloides quadricolor. It has a little more subtlety than its more vibrant, stronger sibling. The individual flowers are little smaller and finer, although still on a strong stem. Quadricolour refers to the four colours – red, yellow, green and interesting maroon or burgundy tips. There is a complexity to these flowers which counters the somewhat garish effect that can be evident in the more common form.

L. aloides tricolor flowers later for us and is smaller in size and basically green with red tips. The most desirable of this set is probably L. aloides var. vanzyliae but it is the one we are struggling to get growing well. I will keep an eye out for flowers as the season progresses because it is an unusual white with pale blue at the base and bright green tips and it is just as lovely as it sounds. When I find it again – and I have it in about three places – I will lift the bulbs because I think this one will be best kept to a pot.

Lachenalia bulbifera

Lachenalia bulbifera

Red L. bulbifera is the first of the season to come into flower for us. It is easy to grow and sets a multitude of little bulbs, though not to the extent that we have classified it as invasive or dangerous. It is another one that I like planted around the trunk of an old tree giving a bright spot of colour in the distance and drawing one over for a closer look.
Mark's reflexa hybrid is stronger growing than the straight species

Mark’s reflexa hybrid is stronger growing than the straight species

The yellow is Mark’s L. reflexa hybrid. Because we struggle with the dreaded narcissi fly, he was casting round for alternative yellows to daffodils for naturalising. While not quite a pure yellow (the tips can have a red tinge), it is a strong and reliable grower and gives the yellow carpet effect though we have yet to get a major drift established in grass conditions.

Lachenalias are South African bulbs, mostly from the Cape Province. Some are very easy to grow, others less so. Naturally the very choice varieties are the ones that are less amenable but that is always the way. Some are desert plants and we struggle with those, but the ones that grow in areas of winter rainfall are generally easy and reliable in our conditions. A few, like L. glaucina, are particularly frost tender. Lachenalias last very well as a cut flower and will out-bloom most other late winter and spring bulbs in the garden. L. bulbifera is already in bloom by the beginning of July while the white L. contaminata flowers through November. A family of easy-care bulbs which gives us a full five months of blooming across the colour spectrum – what is not to like?
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Garden lore: July 20, 2015 Petal blight, white camellia hedges and winter pruning

“One has a lot, an endless lot, to learn when one sets out to be a gardener.”

Vita Sackville-West, A Joy of Gardening (1958)

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Petal blight

Petal blight

After writing about Winter Whites last week, referencing the ubiquitous white camellia hedges, of course I noticed this hedge on my way to town. My eye was drawn to the composition of brown and white flowers. It is a japonica camellia, though which one I am not sure. Closer examination revealed a bad case of petal blight, even this early in the season. There are two main giveaway signs. The first is the brown flowers hanging on to the bush. Most modern camellias are what is called self-grooming. They are bred to drop their spent blooms but those affected by petal blight hang on. The blighters. The second sign is shown by turning over a brown bloom and removing the calyx that holds the petals together. There is the tell-tale white ring of death – fungal spores. There is no remedy. You either live with it or you remove the plants.
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I have never been a fan of japonica camellias for hedging. The foliage can go a bit yellow in full sun and both leaves and blooms are too big. Smaller leafed camellias, seen in the sasanquas, some of the species and the hybrids look much better. Miniature single flowers usually fall cleanly and disintegrate quickly, avoiding the sludgy brown effect below.

Camellia transnokoensis

Camellia transnokoensis

While our C. transnokoensis hedge needs to thicken up yet, we are charmed by its floral display. The sasanqua ‘Silver Dollar’ is also an excellent hedging choice. While the small flowers are nothing special viewed close-up, it is one of the first sasanquas to bloom for us and one of the last so it has exceptionally long season allied to compact growth and small leaves which are a good, dark green.

Camellia sasanqua Silver Dollar - an excellent hedging option

Camellia sasanqua Silver Dollar – an excellent hedging option 

While some claim that sasanquas can get petal blight, we haven’t seen it on our plants. And although the single flowered species and hybrids are not necessarily resistant, most set large numbers of flowers but each bloom only lasts a few days so they fall before blight takes hold.

On another topic, winter is pruning time. I did the wisterias on Friday. This is one plant family I recommend removing totally if you are not willing to prune them. They have dangerous proclivities. Most of the roses are done and I have started on the hydrangeas. Those in colder climates may be better to wait another month before tackling the last two because pruning encourages new growth which is vulnerable to frosts. The pruning guides I did several years ago as part of my Outdoor Classroom series give step by step instructions if you are not sure where to start – wisteria, hydrangeas, roses.