The Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, commonly known as Bangalow Palms, are no more. We have been talking about cutting them down for several years and we have finally done it. The first we felled in the recent clean-up after Cyclone Dovi. It was in an area with a huge mess to be dealt with already and it seemed the right time to get rid of it. Zach dropped the second one this week.
I say we had two but really, we had two very tall specimens – and eleventy thousand seedlings. They were handsome enough with a tropical jungle look and posed no problems until they started setting seed. And boy do they set seed.
For the first few years, Mark would get out the extension ladder and cut the seed off. But they kept growing taller to somewhere around 12 or 15 metres and we kept growing older; this approach was not exactly sustainable. We decided they were expendable. I am sick of weeding out all the bangalow seedlings.
Archontophoenix cunninghamiana is an Australian palm from northern New South Wales. By my definition, native plants in their natural environment, or even just in their homeland, are not weeds. Seedlings can be surplus to requirements. I never describe our native nikau palm or even pongas (tree ferns) as weeds even though we have an abundance of them that we regularly thin out. They belong here.
Introduced plants are different. I see Brazil has a major problem with the bangalow outcompeting some of their native species and I think we are on a similar track in this country. Because it is so widely grown and sold commercially, that horse has probably bolted already. However, this does not stop us from taking responsibility for our own plants and stopping them from spreading. They will colonise much faster than our nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida).
I have seen more than enough of their seedheads over the years – huge amounts of red berries that are attractive to our native fruit-eating birds, particularly kereru, so spread widely by them. I can not say I had ever noticed their flowers before because they are so high up. Zach reverently carried over their flowers to show me. I say reverently because, weed or not, the flowers are exquisite in form and colour. Nature can be beautiful in so many different ways.
“He leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden.”
Horace Walpole from ‘On Modern Gardening’ (1780)
In New Zealand, we tend to place a very high value on tidy gardens. Edges, hedges and lawns, as I once heard a prominent gardener espouse. Attend to those and the rest of the garden will look fine – although, if it is a garden open to the public, it must also be weed-free.
I call this garden grooming, the outside equivalent of housework. It is a never-ending task to keep a garden manicured, but it is a matter of pride for many. You will likely be judged by your neighbours, relatives and visitors on how tidy your place is.
All those sharp lines and tidy edges give a high level of definition to a garden that makes for good photographs but they do not make my heart swell with joy.
When I set out in 2009 to get to grips with contemporary summer gardens, primarily in the UK and parts of Europe, I was jolted out of that preoccupation with orderly, tidy gardens. There is a whole lot happening there and not much of it has to do with tidiness. I saw a generous profusion in the modern plantings, a fresh energy and vitality in the scale, the colour and the size of the plants that were never going to straitjacketed into obedience in a nice, orderly manner.
Current trends overseas are referred to as the Dutch New Wave, New Perennials, the new naturalism, naturalistic gardening, Piet Oudolf-inspired, prairie planting, the meadow revival, the Sheffield School movement and more. They all share certain features which come down to a principle of gardening with Nature, not gardening by controlling Nature. Many gardens sit on the landscape; these gardens sit within the landscape.
My gardening and life partner, Mark, and I landed on the term of ‘romantic gardening’ – a softer-edged, more naturalistic style that blurs the lines between the garden and the wider landscape. It is a different way of looking and it takes a different approach to managing the garden.
“You must go to Ninfa,” English friends and colleagues said to us when we first started talking about romantic gardening. The English love Ninfa, which is in southern Italy near the charmless city of Latina. Sometimes it is even described as “the world’s most romantic garden”. Essentially, it is a looser, voluptuous style of gardening set within the ruins of an entire small town that was sacked in 1370 after being occupied since Roman times. How can the result not be romantic? It was very different to all the classic, grand Italian gardens where formality and structure gives the framework and the planting is largely an afterthought.
We also visited Torrecchia Vecchia nearby: a smaller, private garden which emulated some of the Ninfa style. It, too, was created around ruins, this time of a small village. On the day, I admit I was not blown away by its beauty, although it had some lovely areas. In retrospect, it has given me more to think about because it was a modern interpretation of what the Italians call the ‘romantic English style’. This is not surprising when you know it was created in the mid 1990s by leading English designer, Dan Pearson.
Given New Zealand’s distinct lack of abandoned villages, small towns or anything in ancient stone, we need to strip away the underpinning physical structures of these gardens to see what could work here. Trying to re-create the magic of historic Italy in tanalised timber or ponga logs is really not going to cut the mustard.
Without the human-made structures, the layers of history and romantic back stories that typically characterise ‘romantic gardens’ elsewhere, we looked to the natural landforms, plants and management strategies instead. “Enhancing Nature”, Mark likes to call it.
For us, a romantic garden is one where the overriding sense is of being in the garden, rather than looking at the garden. English garden writer, Tim Richardson, talks about the difference between pictorial gardens and immersive gardens. Pictorial gardens are those where your eyes take in a pleasing view, where design and structure are usually the key elements. That is why they photograph well. Immersive gardens are more about the wrap-around experience, enveloping you in the movement, texture and colour of the close-up view.
This softer-edged approach of working in cooperation with Nature is underpinned by increasingly important principles – sustainability, support for natural eco-systems, better environmental practices, harmony and respect – while placing a high value on both prettiness and beauty. It is sometimes a celebration of the simplicity, rather than grandeur.
Romantic gardening is not tied to a particular garden design style: it can work with cottage-style, woodland, meadow, sunny perennials, or even just a suburban section. The exception is a formal garden which requires strict maintenance and precision for its impact.
It is a way of looking with different eyes and a different mind-set translating into gentler ways to maintain the garden. Moving away from sharp definition and excessive tidiness means a softer-edged garden, a blurring of hard lines so paths and garden are more seamless, where plants are not corseted into submission but allowed to festoon – but within reason. Instead of focal points, we limb up taller plants to create views through and to highlight the play of light and shade. In some areas, we let the grass grow long and just mow paths.
We still have parts of our garden that are maintained to a high level, but not too many and generally closer to the house. I may look at the tidy areas with satisfaction when they are looking spruce but it is the looser areas that can make my heart sing.
The Higo iris in the meadow down in the park, the flowering cherries in the Wild North Garden dropping their petals on the water, the voluptuous helianthus with the tall grasses flowering in autumn, the disorderly jumble of colours and blooms in the bee and butterfly garden – all these make me happy in ways that tidy formality does not.
First published in Woman Magazine March 2022 and reprinted here with their permission
From Ulladulla, we headed down to Catalina in Bateman’s Bay where our Air BnB was Something Else. With hundreds of metres of sheer curtains in lilac ombre festooned in every room and acres of large white tiles on the floor, it had its own style. Sydney daughter described it as having a Greek wedding vibe.
It is just over two years ago that the Black Summer fires swept through parts of Australia. Just -pre-pandemic in fact. I wrote this piece in January 2020. We had entered bushfire territory.
It is astonishing how quickly the Australian bush can regenerate – helped, daughters told me, by the fact that rains arrived not long after. That is by no means always the case but the area we were in was looking lush and green by Australian standards. “You can tell where the fires came through,” Canberra daughter said, “by the trees with black trunks with dense tufts of fresh foliage on short growths.” Those trees are mainly their native eucalyptus. We soon had our eye in for spotting fire damage and that was haunting.
The fires swept through Eurobadalla Botanic Gardens near Mogo on New Year’s Eve of 2019. Looking at the fire photos on line, there wasn’t much left and all the infrastructure was destroyed. These gardens are more what we call ‘nature reserve’ than ‘botanic garden’ but I don’t know how much of that is post-fire. Sydney and Melbourne both have botanic gardens that are more international in their plant collections; Canberra’s botanic gardens are based on Australian native plants and have a totally different feel. I would guess Eurobadalla has always been more focused on native plants but with the main efforts going into rebuilding infrastructure, the flora is more about regeneration at this time than showcasing a broad range of native plants.
The more than 37 000 knitted wattles on the entrance lawn were both eyecatching (“Well, that is one way to get colour in the garden,” was Mark’s initial observation) but poignant in the extreme when we read the information board. Wattles, from the acacia family, are one of the first nurse plants to appear after fire. So these hand-crafted sticks of flowers were both an acknowledgement of the devastation experienced and a symbol of regeneration.
We went for a walk one grey, calm morning along a beach which seems to be part of a nature reserve by the Clyde River that reaches the sea in Bateman’s Bay.
Elder daughter has a been a great picker-upper of unconsidered trifles all her life. It is only recently that I have dispersed most of her rock and shell collections from the back shed here. To my amusement, she has passed on this trait of gathering beach treasure to her small son. And I can tell you that the shells on this Australian beach were a great deal more varied and colourful than anything I have seen on a New Zealand beach. Small, but so pretty. I wanted to gather them myself. Daughter and son pocketed these small treasures to take home and that brought a smile to my face.
The beach was lined in what we call she-okes in this country. Excellent firewood, Mark says, despite being fast growing, brittle trees that can fall apart in our winds. She-okes are Casuarina equisetifolia, native to Australia and up through the Pacific into Asia. They are not a tree of great beauty in form or foliage, being typical of that somewhat scrawny, scruffy, rangy look of much of Australia’s tough native vegetation. What was interesting about these plants was the role they were playing in breaking the force of the sea and their ability to grow in areas where they must get inundated by salt water on a regular basis. That said, the front row of trees had fullly exposed roots and were falling backwards on a frequent basis.
After a rewarding week of family bonding, we were jolly relieved to test negative at Sydney airport, on our arrival home and again five days later. Travelling in Covid times is a whole new ballgame but we are big fans of N95 masks.
Postscript: It gave me quite a jolt when I heard my daughter cautioning her five year old that we were moving through snake territory at Eurobadalla Gardens. This is not what a NZ grandmother expects to hear. For overseas readers, NZ has no snakes at all – not even in zoos. Australia, on the other hand, has a fair representation of the world’s most venomous snakes. NZ children are taught about personal safety measures in earthquakes and tsunamis. I assume many Australian children are raised being aware of safety around snakes and bushfires.
Given my ingrained fear of them, I snorted when I saw this tweet come down my Twitter line. In a world where many people pay lip-service only to the threats posed by climate change, I thought yes. Very much yes.
We grow a few different species but what is coming into bloom now are what we refer to as the N. sarniensis hybrids. I will admit that I do not know what they were hybridised with. As they appear to have been popular in both Europe and Japan by the 1600s, I am guessing the genes are pretty mixed by now but dominated by the species, N. sarniensis.
All nerines hail from areas of southern Africa and there are currently 24 species recognised. Notwithstanding that origin, the common name internationally is the ‘Guernsey lily’ owing to that island in the English Channel adopting the flower early on as its own and establishing a cut flower trade with it. I have no idea if it is fact or legend that a ship carrying a load of nerine bulbs to the Netherlands was wrecked nearby and the bulbs floated to the shores of Guernsey Island and naturalised themselves on the coastline. It is a good story and bulbs had to get there somehow.
The history of nerines in cultivation seems to be pretty murky, maybe because it goes back over 400 years. I had always assumed – based on the photos of the Guernsey lily that appeared to be predominantly red – that sarniensis in the wild was red. Mark thought it was orange, based on Nerine fothergilla major (which has now been reclassified as sarniensis, just to confuse us further) but it appears that the colour may be variable in the wild.
Our nerines range from pure white through pale pink, pink and white bi colours, mid pinks, coral shades, shocking pink, cerise, crimson, shades of orange and scarlet.
“Oh lord,” said Mark, looking at the purple ones on my flower lay, “the phone will ring next week with people wanting a purple nerine. Reader, they don’t open purple. Mark spent a bit of time crossing and selecting to get the blue and purple lines in the flowers and those ones age to purple. We never named any of them and we don’t know if other breeders have similar shades which they have put on the market, which would seem likely. Whether any are available in New Zealand is another matter.
Very few of our nerines have ever been sold commercially. We have a few named cultivars originally from the Exbury collection in the UK (where they have to grow them under glass), Felix Jury named a few but not many and I think Mark named one that we once sold. It is all a bit academic now because we just enjoy them in the garden and it doesn’t matter to us whether they are named cultivars or unnamed hybrids.
These nerines are deciduous and they put up their flower spikes before putting out the fresh foliage. I don’t love the foliage in spring when it is getting tatty and tired and we have some quite big clumps of them, but they make up for it in autumn. Because they have foliage through the winter, sarniensis nerines are frost tender and they struggle in cold, wet conditions. They need to be in full sun with sharp drainage and the large bulbs nestled into the soil but with their top half and necks exposed to bake in the sun. They are quite particular about conditions and won’t flower if they don’t like them. Nerine bowdenii which flowers later is much easier, hardier and less particular but only comes in pink, I think.
The clean-up from Cyclone Dovi is continuing here at a cracking pace. Zach started on the large, fallen abies in the park and has almost finished it. We were relieved to find that damage to the bridge beneath is minimal. A few more centimetres to one side and it could have wiped out most of the bridge. This would have been a problem for us, had it twisted the metal chassis beneath the bridge timbers.
Because it is right at the bottom of the park, dealing with the debris is an issue. Mark was not interested in the timber for firewood. We burned the Abies procerawe dropped a few years ago but it proved to be a very light timber and we have better options. Access issues mean it isn’t practical to offer the wood to people who are less picky about their firewood and we don’t want to haul the whole lot out with our baby tractor, so creativity is required.
We debated about hiring an industrial-grade mulcher to deal with all the branches and foliage but decided in the end to burn it nearby. It leaves a dead patch in the grass but that can be resown and will disappear in a year or so. It is less work than having to disperse a mountain of wood chip in an area where we don’t need mulch.
But what to do with the lengths of trunk that can’t be left where the tree fell across the stream?
We re-use a lot of fallen material here. Suitable thinner lengths of branches are sometimes used to edge garden beds and borders where appropriate. Where we can, we clean up fallen trees, reducing them just to the main trunk and then garden around them. Over time, they rot down and start to disintegrate but that is part of the long-term cycle.
Where this is not an option, we will cut the trunks to manageable lengths, take out what we want for firewood and place the rest. Other gardens may have sculptures and installations that are clearly made by human hands; we have casual installations of wood, sometimes as stumperies and sometimes just as low-key placements.
We have already placed the pine lengths from the Avenue Gardens that were surplus to firewood replacements. At least some of the abies is destined for another use – giving height and structure to a rather casual area of planting. This is an area that has no name yet, where the Avenue Gardens transition down the hill to the park – I wrote about it once on blurring the transition from well-tended gardens to more laissez-faire outer reaches. We may have to come up with some shorthand name rather than referring to it as ‘the bit beside the steps coming down from the Avenue Gardens to the Mangletia insignis”.
This is Mark’s vision. Neither Zach nor I can grasp yet what he has in mind, although Zach has carted abies lengths to this area in preparation. Zach and I are pretty good on placing individual bits as punctuation marks in the garden but not on creating entire structures. We will both watch and learn as it happens. I have every confidence in Mark’s skills in this endeavour
Our feature Rimu Avenue is essentially a stumpery, created as a pragmatic solution to enable plants to grow in dry shade where the enormous trees above are sucking all the goodness and moisture from the ground beneath. They are a naturalistic, raised bed solution. The oldest section was created in the 1950s by Mark’s dad, Felix and he used ponga logs and stumps (NZ tree ferns, for overseas readers). These are remarkably durable – still serving their purpose after 70 years.
When Mark doubled the length of the Rimu Avenue 20 years ago, he was disinclined to go out to the bush to harvest ponga so he used what we had to hand – a bit of ponga but mostly lengths of trees that have fallen here.
Somewhat unintentionally, our labour saving strategies are creating a theme throughout the entire garden – the re-use of fallen timber to create focal points, casual structure and different environments for plants as well as stowing lengths of fallen or felled trees in a way we find aesthetically and environmentally pleasing. It has been happening here for years. Cyclone Dovi has just accelerated it.