Tag Archives: Mark and Abbie Jury

It’s all in the detail

In the absence of a photo of the Isola Madre steps, I give you Villa d’Este steps even though they are not the same. And they are missing the elegant white peacocks.

In all the gardens I have seen, two sets of steps are etched in my memory. The first is the graceful flight leading down to the original boat landing on Isola Madre in the northern Italian Lago Maggiore.  I do not think I even have a photo of it and I failed to find one on a cursory look on the internet, so you will just have to imagine a long and sweeping set of stone steps, populated these days by oh-so-exquisite pure white peacocks rather than ladies in long gowns.

Lutyens steps at Great Dixter

The second enduring memory is of a style, not a particular set of steps. The circular Lutyens steps from the early twentieth century, seen in many gardens but perhaps best known from Hestercomb and Great Dixter. We wanted some of our own as soon as we saw them. It has taken a decade, but we are into slow gardening here. Finally, we had a location where we needed steps and where we had enough space to consider steps that would be a design feature, rather than utility access. And let me tell you, executing such steps is not as simple as it looks, even when you have had a good close look at them.

One of the lessons I took away from looking at a garden that I wrote about at the time as being the closest to perfection that we have ever seen, was the importance of quality construction. I am not big on what I call ‘veneer gardening’ – somewhat like theatre set design but in a garden context. It may hit with the wow factor but soon becomes tacky and doesn’t last the distance. The same goes for poorly executed constructions and installations. Good design and construction underpin a good garden over time. We wanted to get our steps right.

Fortunately we have Our Lloyd who is a perfectionist with a good eye, backed up with his theodolite, string lines, tape measures and various other accoutrements. Even so, it took three goes and three sets of eyes to get it right. The site does not have a large fall and the two levels are defined by small brick retaining wall. We figured the steps needed to be two metres wide so that is the distance between the two small pillars.  Firstly, Lloyd mocked it up for us to look at. I was slightly disappointed that the mock up did not have the generous look I was hoping for but Mark picked the problem at first glance. Lloyd had laid it out so the widest point was two metres, not starting with the inner circle being that diameter.

From a book – the circle of steps is fully contained in the gap of the small retaining wall.

It is the same mistake, I think, that is found in this set of steps photographed in a book we had. To be fair, that may have been how they wanted their steps, but it wasn’t how we wanted ours. We only have sufficient fall to get three wide, shallow steps – one set back into the top level and two opening out to the area that is destined to be planted as the Court Garden this autumn. The second glitch came when we realised after the initial construction, that the outward facing bricks to the central circle needed to be set lower than the bricks on the top half circle. On the top, those bricks are the riser, on the lower side, they are the retaining edging and the riser to the next step down so they are set at a lower level. It is surprisingly complicated.

Mock up number two (I did not photograph the first one) – the inner circle is now the width of the opening but the top step set into the terrace has yet to evolve so it is a flat circle 

The next mistake was not to drop the half circle on the left during construction

Getting there.

The thing about circles is that when you expand the diameter, the circumference increases hugely. The final width at the lowest point is about three metres. I think I am going to really like these when they are completed. At this stage, the plan is to fill the centres with compacted hoggin (golden, crushed limestone). We don’t do fully bricked steps in our climate. With our high humidity and rainfall, they get mossy and dangerously slippery very quickly. I like the colour of the hoggin, it is said to compact down to a very hard layer, is durable and cheap and cheerful. I am hoping to use it for the paths through this area although Mark has flagged a concern that, being limestone, it will leach into our acid soils and alter the pH so we are still pondering this matter.

Lime chip to the left, lime fines, more soft golden yellow than white, in the middle. 

At the other end of this large space, we need another set of steps but in this case, the low brick retaining wall is straight, not curved so we will do straight steps.

But, here is food for thought. My landscaper friend, Tony, looked and said, “You will set the steps back into the top terrace and not build them outwards into the lower space, won’t you?” And I admit it had never even occurred to me that this was a decision that needed to be made. I had just assumed we would build them outwards into the open space. But the visual effect is going to be very different, depending on the design decision made. Because the top terrace is not so wide, we may go half and half – perhaps the top step set back, the middle step set between the small end pillars that will define the space and the lower step set leading into the large, open area.

It took a while, but I think we are right now and they will be graceful, wide, shallow steps

No-one will ever look at these steps as closely again, bar the occasional professional, perhaps. But that is as it should be. The hard landscaping plays a key support role to a garden but it is not the star, at least not in our style of gardening. If it is right from the start, it will define the area and play a key role in how the garden is seen and experienced. If it is wrong or badly executed, it becomes an ongoing irritant, maybe just a nagging regret or sometimes an ongoing issue.

An earlier photo sequence I did of different styles of steps – from back in the days when I wrote for the Waikato Times – can be found here.

“The ulmus must go!” Vegetative time bombs

Growing well but just too large for this location – Umus ‘Jacqueline Hillier’

It’s no good. The ulmus must go. Ulmus ‘Jacqueline Hillier’ to be precise. I feel a little sad about this because it is a fine plant. I love it with its detailed bare tracery in winter. I love it with its fresh, bright green growth in spring and its lush summer appearance. I love its elegant and interesting form. It is a good plant in the wrong place.

It was I who planted it at the front of the rockery. At the time, we were still in full nursery production and it was one of the product lines. I see we described it at the time as reaching two metres by two metres, which I assume are the dimensions that were given to us when we first acquired it. That is why I thought it would be fine in the rockery where we could prune as required. It is now around four metres high and more than that in width of canopy and that is despite several major pruning efforts to restrict it over the past decade. The root system is extensive and suckers are popping up many metres away. It is just too big for where it is planted and is now so strong that it is increasingly difficult to grow anything beneath it and it is only a matter of time before the roots fracture the rockery structure.

It will require a chainsaw and we will get some firewood out of it but killing off the extensive root system is going to take poison, something we prefer to avoid.

Abies procera ‘Glauca’ – handsome but too close to the house

We are not unfamiliar with vegetative time bombs. We have a few, none more so than our very handsome Abies procera ‘Glauca’.

Oh look, here is a little photo taken earlier. Best guess is that it is early 1960s, when Felix planted it in the rockery. I am reassured that he, too, could plant without doing adequate research on ultimate size. Or maybe he thought it was a dwarf conifer at the time. At least he moved it out of the rockery while he could but it would have been helpful had he moved it more than 8 metres from the house. It is now over 20 metres tall, though not very wide, and we are psyching ourselves up for its removal. Should it fall (and it did have an issue with rot at its base, though that appears to have healed over time), it is likely to take out a good part of the house, starting with our bedroom. It is one of those major and expensive jobs that we know is coming up sooner, rather than later. Beautiful tree. Wrong location.

Spring growth on the left, 30 minutes trimming on the right

Some plants are more amenable to being kept in check. This little green maple (species long forgotten) is easy to keep at a controlled size. Once a year, I spend about half an hour trimming off all the long whippy growths and thinning the crown if needed and bob’s your uncle, an attractive vase-shaped plant. If I didn’t trim off the whippy growths, next year the new growth would be made at the tops of those so the plant would become considerably taller and more open over time.

A noxious weed: Commelina “Sleeping Beauty’ does not sleep

And as for vegetative time bombs that should be banned altogether, I give you Commelina coelstris ‘Sleeping Beauty’. I wrote about its bad habits five years ago and still it continues to reappear in the rockery, despite the fact that we are vigilant weeders and nowhere more so than in the rockery. It is worse than the weedy tradescantia.  Not only does it seed, but any piece of root left behind grows again. I nominate it for the banned list but one of our premier seed suppliers continues to sell this noxious weed. Shun it, is my advice.

Lily time in the Garden of Jury

Auratum lily time is a delight, a joy even. Showy, over the top, flamboyant but glorious. And we are just entering these weeks of glory.

We grow lilies in the better lit areas of woodland. They can get somewhat stretched reaching for the light so need more staking when not in full sun. I am rounding them up to limit the areas where we have them growing in order to make that seasonal staking task easier. But they certainly light up the woodland margins.

The new lily border has just opened its earliest flowers. These are the result of a determined and sustained effort to beat the pesky rabbits in spring.  Last year, it was about even stevens with the rabbits taking close to half of them. This year, we are almost at 100% reaching for the sky. Blood and bone works as a deterrent. So much promise of lilies to open in the next week. You will just have to imagine the glory of a border getting on towards fifty square metres of auratum lilies. The fragrance matches the blooms – strong, sweet and almost overpowering. None of this would have been possible or affordable were it not for Mark who is skilled both in pollinating good parent plants and then raising the seed to planting-out grade. Nor indeed were it not for my efforts in getting the planting out done on this new border. Being full sun, there is not much staking required in this area.

Almost all of ours are unnamed hybrids raised by father and son – first Felix and now Mark. Felix named a few that we used to sell but they are pretty mixed in the garden now. All are outward facing, not upward facing. That was one of the breeding aims. Upward facing lilies act as leaf and debris catchers and weather-mark badly.

Of them all, I think these soft, marshmallow pink ones of Mark’s raising may be my favourite. Or it could be another one in a few days’ time.

Finally, just in case there are any lily experts reading this: I assumed these trumpet lilies elsewhere in the garden are an unusual, honey-coloured L. regale.  Mark assumed they were Aurelians, based on their finer foliage.  Neither of us know where they came from so at this stage, we are assuming they are chance seedlings. They are very beautiful and I will move them to a prime spot in full sun but if anybody has more knowledge about lilies than we have, please tell us your theory on their likely classification.

Not 5+ a day any longer, 25 different per week

Mood photos from my archives, though this is our kitchen

As I was driving into town, I caught a small snippet on the car radio about food. And the interviewee declared that a balanced diet is more important than worrying about the pros and cons of one particular food (could diabetics eat sweetcorn, was the question that led to this statement) and that we should (wait for it) all be aiming to eat twenty-five different fruits and vegetables a week.

That got me thinking. Do we eat twenty-five different fruit and veg week in and week out? The recommended daily intake of five plus is no issue, but that is servings of fruit and veg, not different types. We are large consumers of fresh fruit and vegetables but do we reach twenty-five different ones? When I say we eat a lot, we are maybe 90% vegetarian these days. Mark starts his day with avocado on toast, I have fresh fruit and muesli. Lunch is always a fresh fruit salad with five or six different fruits and Greek yoghurt. Dinner includes a fresh salad, a cooked green vegetable and a vegetable and carbs-based dish that contains protein. We can eat like this because we produce most of our own food, though I use the word ‘we’ in the royal sense. Mark grows the food crops. Were we buying all our food, I can’t imagine that the range of fruit and veg we eat would be anything near its current level. I blench at the thought of traversing the supermarket fresh produce section for the weekly shop and trying to select twenty-five different options. I mean, how many more of those resusable mesh produce bags would I need? (Answer: another nineteen).

Sorry, the dried fruit in the Christmas cake does not count

So could we get to twenty-five in a sample week? What could be counted and what couldn’t? I had no idea, I hadn’t been listening that closely to the interview but I surmised that frozen veg count, if in their natural state. Not that this is relevant for us as it is mid-summer here and we don’t eat frozen veg in summer (and not a lot in winter, thanks to Mark discovering the benefits of the cloche). So frozen is in, tinned – I don’t know. I have my doubts. Dried, no. This ruled out all the dried legumes we eat unless they are reconstituted as bean sprouts. (You can see we were getting right into this). It also, alas, rules out dried fruits so the Christmas cake can not be counted. There was an open verdict on olives.

Not sure whether olives qualify or not

I did get to twenty-five this week. About eight different fruits – half homegrown, half purchased. And the balance in vegetables of which only four were purchased. Though, I admit, the number was inflated by the lull in summer lettuce forcing Mark to go for summer salad greens that are more reminiscent of herbal ley than anything else (mustard, dandelion, chickweed, rocket and onion greens, he tells me, in last night’s salad).

We have no problems with the new planetary diet that hit the headlines this week  from the Eat-Lancet Commission. It is close to how we are eating now. But twenty-five different fruit and vegetables a week (which was entirely unrelated advice from another source)? I think that may be more aspirational than practical for most of the population. 

The New Zealand Christmas Tree (but not all are equal)

The story of a New Zealand Christmas is inextricably bound up with the annual blooming of our native pohutukawa trees – Metrosideros excelsa. Truth be told, they only occur naturally as far south as northern Taranaki where we live and Gisborne across the island, (but not in the middle where it is too cold for them). Fortunately, most of the country is happy to go with descriptor of the New Zealand Christmas tree.

The Legacy of the the Lazy Nurseryman. The flowers are more brown than red.

But not all pohutukawa are born equal. No sirree. As we drove to town a few days ago, Mark looked at the trees planted by a local farmer along the roadside and dubbed them the legacy of a lazy nurseryman. They were planted well and are growing well and the farmer has taken care of them, fencing them off from grazing stock and keeping them an attractive shape. The pity is that he (or she) was supplied with plants that flower more brown than red so they will never mature to the glory that could have been. The problem, Mark explains, is that some nurserymen are just too careless about where they gather seed and fail to select the best performing plants with the showiest colour.

Some flower abundantly but without great colour and some just don’t flower at all

Our local town of Waitara is like Pohutukawa Central – there are many (many, many) trees planted, at least in part because there aren’t a lot of options for trees that will grow in windy, exposed coastal conditions and be fairly bullet-proof (vandal-proof, really) as unprotected street trees. But not all those trees flower well. Some don’t flower at all, really, and some that do are patchy with undistinguished colours. It is called seedling variation. When you come across a tree that is covered in bloom and a clear red in colour, it just leaps out at you, visually speaking.

The vibrant tones of this specimen stood out from a considerable distance away

I felt I was channelling my late parents-in-law as I drove around Waitara yesterday, looking at different trees. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they systematically evaluated many of the trees around the river bank and surrounding streets, noting which were the best bloomers year after year and the best colours. At least three went on to be introduced commercially by Duncan and Davies Nursery. Somewhere in the family archives, I have some of Mark’s mother’s diary notes of those observations. They read something along the lines of: “Good bright red to the left of Mrs Markham’s house, 18 xxxxx Street”.  I am not sure if they also measured the length of the flowering season though they did record which ones flowered well every year, rather than every second or random years.  There are so many handsome trees in the wider area here that it had not really occurred to me until very recently that the flowering season is but short – probably only ten days at peak. Ephemeral, I saw it described as recently. It is just that those ten days are in the lead-up to Christmas and a good tree is a show-stopper for that time. Not unlike the Japanese cherries, when you think about it. They too have a very brief peak season but an entire festival celebration has evolved around those days.

I took this photo out of the car window (Mark was driving) as we went through a busy intersection in New Plymouth. It is clearly a named selection and superior from the start

The lesson to all this is that if you are only going to buy one or a few pohutukawa, buy named varieties which will have been produced by cuttings so they will be identical to the parent. If you are going to buy quite a few, at least select a reputable nursery who can tell you what the seed source was. If they can’t tell you that, forget it. If you are going to raise your own from seed, start with the best flowering specimens. Pohutukawa don’t grow true from seed so you will get seedling variation in the offspring but if you start with the best parent, the proportion of good offspring you raise will be much higher.

If you are wondering about raising your own plants from cuttings, it isn’t at all easy to get them to root unless you start with juvenile material (from a young tree or one that has been kept pruned hard, not big old established specimens with lots of woody growth). If you are going to go down the route of raising your own material, get out and record now which trees have flowered all over the plant and in a good, clear red shade. It takes a commitment of time and effort to raise your own plants and it just seems a waste if you end up with murky, brownish flowers or worse, one that doesn’t flower at all.

Personally, we are not convinced by the Kermadec pohutukawa (Metrosideros kermadecensis). It is a different species and rather smaller growing and often sold as more desirable because of that compact habit and its extended flowering season. Yes, you will get flowers over months, but you only get a few flowers at any one time and the whole thing about the pohutukawa is that beautiful mass of bloom around Christmas. Ditto the yellow forms of M. excelsa. Yes, they are really pretty and they have an interesting botanical history of their own but they won’t give you the wham-bang mass display of the New Zealand Christmas tree.

Just choose good ones if you plan to plant any.

Blurred lines

One of the access paths linking the park to the avenue gardens

When you garden on a town section, boundaries are usually clearly defined, most often by fences or hedges. Some lucky gardeners are in a situation where they can visually *borrow* a wider view of the neighbours or maybe some bush or landscape to draw the eye out from the rigidly confined boundary. More often, the situation imposes limitations that mean the garden has to be inward looking and confined to its allotted space. Some people like that sense of a contained space, accentuating it further with tall fences. Whether you see that as security and privacy or self-imprisonment depends on the individual.

It is different when you garden in the country and that clear definition of an end point is arbitrarily imposed on a larger landscape. Or not, as the case may be.

Scadoxus to the right, calanthe orchids to the left along with self-sown ferns and tree ferns – subtropical woodland, I guess

I had never really thought about what Mark was doing in one area where our avenue gardens meet the area we call the park. I had vaguely noticed that he was drifting down the hill with some plantings of pretty choice material like some of the interesting arisaemas, calanthe orchids and scadoxus, but in a casual, naturalistic manner. We were in that area together recently when he commented that he was attempting to blur the line between highly cultivated garden and wilder areas, to transition seamlessly. It was like a penny dropping for me. Of course that is what he was doing.

Arisaema dahaiense!

This inspired me to get into that area where I have never done anything  before, bar the occasional quick tidy-up. It was a perfect place for a few clivia plants. I am trying to rehome the last of the clivias red, orange and yellow that had been potted up by the last of our nursery staff and that must have been back in 2011. They are amazingly resilient plants. Some were in very small planter bags and all that has happened in the intervening years is that the pots have been moved out of the former nursery area and beneath trees. They have not been fed, let alone nurtured and loved but still they are green (some more greenish than dark green), many are flowering and seeding. Enough is enough, I thought. These need to planted out.

Having seen the occasional garden that suffers from the ABC syndrome (another bloody clivia, mass planted), I have been trying to drift them through the shaded areas, mostly areas that are loosely maintained at best. It takes longer to plan a drift than a mass planting and drifting a couple of hundred clivia plants without making them a mass takes a while.

Yellow seeds from last year’s flowering, visible here, will flower yellow.

Not for us all the yellows in one area, oranges in another and reds elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with that. I have seen it done and it is what I describe as the ‘landscaper look’, usually done with plants that have been purchased and are identically matched, being the same clone. It is just not our style. We prefer a looser look, using seedling raised plants so there is subtle variation,  the mix of colours being more suggestive of the gentle hand of Nature enabling plants to seed down in situ. Which they will do over time – we have clivia seedlings popping up around the garden but to leave it all to Nature will take longer than we have left. We are just hurrying the process along by a decade or two when we use established plants.

If you are going to raise your own seed, it pays to start off with the best parents. This means selecting the ones that flower well every year and have the best flower heads of the type you want. For showy garden plants, we want ones with fuller heads rather than too many with the hanging bells. The red clivia seed will eventually bloom orange and red; yellow clivias come from yellow seeds. True. I am not sure what colour seeds the peach ones have (we only have a few in the new peach shades) and we don’t have any of the green and white clivias in the garden yet.

When I think about it, blurring the lines are the tool we use to get to a seamless transition between different garden spaces. The soft transitions within the garden are all part of refining our thinking about how important it has become to us, personally, that we garden confidently with a strong sense of place, as referenced in this piece I wrote in March last year.  

 

Starting with a paper plan

Mark has been laughing at me and calling me Gertrude. This is a reference to Gertrude Jekyll so I will take it as a compliment. It is all on account of my working on a planting plan. On graph paper, with coloured pencils.

The Oudolf rivers at RHS Wisley in the UK

This is a new exercise for me, but then so is planning out the plantings for a new garden that is currently a blank canvas. Added to that, the style of planting is different for us too and I need to know how many plants I am going to have to source from elsewhere if I want to get it planted up next autumn. This is the court garden where we eventually – and reluctantly – ruled out initial plans for a meadow-style garden. Practical considerations headed us instead to the idea of an immersive experience of walking through tall grasses with just a few tall flowers. Rivers of grasses, I said. In my mind’s eye, I saw the Oudolf rivers of planting in his twin borders at Wisley – a planting that we have loved and that has proven remarkably stable without huge maintenance demands for over fifteen years now, I think. But with taller plants, many more grasses, with wandering paths not a wide central path and of course we are working on flat ground without the view from above that Wisley has. So not at all like the Oudolf borders in fact, bar the idea of rivers of plants flowing diagonally across the whole space.

Learning from the mistakes of version one

Take one was to draw it up on graph paper and put in the central paths, which I did as a two metre wide figure of eight. I then laid out some squares of colour in diagonal lines running across the space. And I could see immediately that I was instinctively drawing a plan that was gardening in stripes. Child-like design.

Mark has a better eye than I have when it comes to design. He pointed out three things. The first was that Oudolf’s rivers were wide bands, each containing about five different plants, not single rows in stripes. It seemed so obvious when he said that. Next, he commented that he envisaged waves not rivers and he thought the paths should also be informal and meandering, not a formal shape. I knew he was right.

Thirdly and most importantly, he observed that designing a garden on graph paper gives a bird’s eye view, not the ground level view that is what will be experienced. That is the critical take away point from this and, I think, the reason why amateurs (and even some professionals) get it wrong and end up with a garden that, well, always looks like a graph paper garden, best viewed from above. There is a part of the process that requires the ability to translate the bird’s eye view on paper to the actual experience at human eye level on the ground. I assume professional training teaches you how to do this but it is not always achieved. We watched coverage of a major new garden on UK television where the glory of the design could only be shown by putting a drone up and getting the aerial view. It is what I think is wrong with the new garden installation at Pukeiti which they call Misty Knoll but that is referred to by others as the twin bomb craters. I am sure it looked better on paper than in real life.

Posted without comment. The Misty Knoll garden installation at Pukeiti Gardens

We went outside to look at the court garden space yet again, and I started afresh. Waves, not rivers. Waves to create an immersive experience. I measured the space with a tape measure, not by pacing it out. I also measured the area each plant needs in order to stand in its own space when mature because we don’t want the herbaceous border look where the plants knit together. Neither do we want spacings that are so wide that it looks as if we were too mean to buy enough plants to fill it. Each 5×5 square on the paper represents a square metre.

We are not going to be planting until autumn, but at least I will know this week how many plants I need to locate. We have most of them here already to work with, but I will need to buy some extras in. The foundation plantings are to be in six or seven grasses. The uniformity of filling the whole space in just one cultivar is not for us.

Looking down from above on the rockery in front of our house

Because there is so little to show so far on that new garden, I give you the bird’s eye view and the ground level view of our rockery yesterday. Because we have a two storied house, we get an elevated view of some areas of the garden. And looking down on the rockery from above shows the pure 1950s design of this garden feature. Shapes and design, not detail so it is the big picture look.

At ground level, the construction of the island rockery beds varies from ankle height to knee height to thigh height – sometimes all in the same island bed. The paths have also been lowered which accentuates the garden elevations. Truth be told, the lowering of the paths was probably in part to get soil to fill the raised beds but it is a detail that is less obvious from above.

I get enormous pleasure from the rockery because it is a highly detailed space immediately in front of the house and there are always pockets of seasonal interest within it. Because so much of the planting is bulbs, there is always dying foliage too, but that is just part of the nature of this style.

Yesterday, on a grey day, I looked at some of the views within the rockery and was delighted that it was like an Impressionist meadow, albeit in miniature.