Tag Archives: Matrix planting

After the arborist

I circled the man in the tree. I don’t think I would stand on that branch but these trained arborists know what they are doing.

We had the arborist back in last week. Two of them, in fact because our usual arborist has teamed up with another so there were two skilled people on the job. This is just as well because we only call them in to do major jobs. On this occasion, it involved three trees but the one I photographed because I thought it was most interesting was a fairly large ficus – a fig tree but not a fruiting one. Mark estimates it was about thirty years old and growing at a great rate. Not only was it in the wrong position but it was of neither interest nor merit. When it dropped a large branch recently, we realised it was also brittle.

Dropping it was a skilled job because it had to be dismantled, not felled in one go. With the road on one side and a densely planted garden on three sides, how the pieces came down was of considerable importance to us. It took the arborists about six hours to fell the tree and clear up.

The amount of tramped, bare space was a bit daunting at first glance

This was how the scene looked at the end of the arborists’ work. They mulch all the leafy material and remove it and cut the bigger lengths up. Fortunately, they had dug out most of the plants that were in the area – mostly clivias and bromeliads – and the only damage was to a dracophyllum which is now somewhat smaller than it was. In a moment of whimsy, one of them shaped the remaining trunk into a throne, though only designed for those with small derrières and the gluey sap oozing from it was a problem, as Mark found when he tried. Mark described the area as looking somewhat like a state highway, given the amount of bare, tramped space.

Not so much a trendy insect hotel, Mark quipped, as an entire insect resort

Because the timber was very soft and sappy, it had no use for firewood or garden edging, or anything else. It seemed best to let it break down at its own speed in situ. I asked Lloyd to stand up the longer lengths and rounds and to stow the small material out of sight at the back. He also removed the throne shaping. Not our style and we didn’t want to encourage any garden visitors to tramp across the garden to try it out.

Then I moved in, replanting what had been dug out and rustling up other suitable material to fill it all up. Ferns, clivias, chain cactus, bromeliads, three small growing palms from the collection Mark still has ‘out the back’, some liriope and I can not recall what else. This area is mixed and informal and is one of the best examples of a stable matrix planting we have. By matrix planting, I mean one where the selected plants co-exist happily over time (measured in decades, not months or a year or two), requiring remarkably little maintenance or intervention. It is also bio-diverse because of the range of plant material used, the depth of natural leaf litter and because most of the spent material is kept on location, not removed.

To finish off the reinstatement of the area, I moved in large amounts of leaf litter as mulch. With high overhead trees, the whole area has considerable depth of mature leaf litter and I was able to skim it off from adjacent spaces to get what I wanted. There is no bare earth left visible.

The cut edges on the trunks need to mellow. The plants need to bed down and put on fresh growth. It does not look as densely planted as the surrounding areas. But it doesn’t look raw and new and I am pleased. The two factors that made the biggest difference to the appearance are the natural mulch and using plants that were a variety of different sizes and maturity. If you buy plants from a garden centre, they are a uniform grade. Freshly planted, they will look like plants you bought from a garden centre.  If you can cast around and rustle up plants to hand, the look is far more natural and that is the effect we want.

The whole exercise took about four days from the arborists arriving to reach this final point. The pile of woodchip mulch has grown further. It is clearly generating some heat on this frosty morning. It represents a handy resource, even if we don’t want to use fresh woodchip mulch everywhere in the garden.

Matrix planting – a skill worth pursuing

The auratum lilies -now dormant – called to me for some attention

Many gardeners will recognise the situation where one heads out to the garden to do something and what initially seemed to be a straightforward task escalates into one that is considerably more major. I shall dig and consolidate the lily bulbs in the avenue garden, I thought to myself. They haven’t been touched for years and are somewhat higgledy piggledy around the place. It escalated. Of course it did.

After more than 20 years…

“I am surprised they are still there, really,” said Mark. “It must be 20 years since I planted them and some of those now are seedlings from the originals.” It is probably more like 25 years since Mark planted the lower beds of the Avenue Gardens. No major work has been carried out in the time since, bar clearing up after the occasional treemageddon. We do a tidy-up from time to time and most years the lilies get staked. Nothing has been fed and not a lot new has been planted, just the occasional removal of a dead plant and plugging the gap if need be. I ended up going over almost every square centimetre of the area and becoming familiar with every plant, not just the lilies.

Remarkably low maintenance in the long term

As the days passed, my awe at the skills Mark used when planting the area grew. Matrix planting. That is what it was at the time – a highly complex planting of a whole range of different material, most of which has stood the test of time and is still there. It is the stability and the compatibility of the plants used that makes it a matrix – a form of sustainable gardening that is worth attempting to come to terms with.

When I did a net search looking for a definition of matrix planting, I found a fair number of recent references attributing it to renowned Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf. Oudolf is a giant in the contemporary international garden scene and he may have popularised matrix planting as a concept but he did not come up with it.

Orchids a-plenty in early October

As I told Mark how much I admired his skills in carrying the original planting 25 years ago in some areas, he just shrugged it off and said, “I was only copying what my father did”. Indeed, we still have areas in the garden that Felix planted from the 1950s onwards that remain stable, interesting, timeless and remarkably low maintenance today. These are mostly in shade and semi shade whereas Oudolf’s contemporary work that I have seen is predominantly in open, sunny conditions.

It is the sustainability and low maintenance with a high level of plant complexity that makes matrix planting so important. Without a high level of plantsmanship, you end up with utility, mass planting of few varieties – the hallmark of many contemporary landscape designers who have to plant clients’ gardens with reliable selections so they can not take risks. And people who pay professionals tend to like the tidiness of uniformity. Without sustainability, you have much higher maintenance requirements. This may not matter much in a small garden but if you are managing a large area with a low budget and low labour input, that stability of plant relationships is critical to keeping it all manageable while maintaining a high level of plant interest.

When I talk about a complex planting, I mean different layers and a mix of trees, shrubs, perennials both evergreen and deciduous, bulbs and a smattering of self-seeding plants. In this area, we start at the top with a layer of massive old man pines which are up to 50 metres high. At a lower level, we have rhododendrons (a few, in better lit areas), vireya rhododendrons, cordylines, brugmansia, palms, a few cycads, hydrangeas and the like). At ground level we have trilliums, Paris polyphylla, assorted varieties of bromeliads, Helleborus x sternii, argutifolius and foetidus, orchids (mostly dendrobiums, calanthes, cymbidiums and pleiones), veltheimias, hippeastrums, the aforementioned lilies and a whole lot more. I did say it was a complex planting.  Oh, and lots of clivias in red, orange and yellow. Being in the shade, we don’t get a lot of weeds but the naturally occurring vegetation needs to  be managed and thinned – assorted ferns, macropiper (kawakawa, pepper tree or, botanically, Piper excelsum), native astelias and collospermum, even seedling nikau palms and cordylines.

Lifted, divided and replanted after many years

The surplus from this one small batch amounted to 3 or 4 barrow-loads

I was amazed at how much I could remove without making it look different, just tidier. I lifted entire blocks of bromeliads and reduced them to a shadow of their former selves. After replanting this patch, I removed four laden barrows to dump but it still looks well furnished.

At the end of about three weeks, I decided I had done as much as I intended to. I didn’t need to add much new material at all. That is why I was in awe at Mark’s original plant selections and plantings. And while it was a larger job than I originally envisaged, if that sets it up so that it can be maintained with the lightest of intervention over the next two decades, that is a good outcome.