Tag Archives: naturalistic planting

The Lost Gardens of Tikorangi

Sometimes in life, you just have to wait for the right person to turn up. So it was with our Wild North Garden.

This area of about 16000 square metres (or 4 acres for oldies and Americans) used to be called the cow paddock, on account of it being the paddock where Mark’s dad Felix kept his house cow for many years. Around 1990 – goodness that is thirty years ago – Mark started on the area. First, he milled the old pine trees planted there by his great grandfather 100 years previously, most of which were dead or dying. The purpose was to get timber to build the very large shed we continue to refer to as ‘the packing shed’ because the purpose at the time was to accommodate our mailorder nursery. While there was heavy machinery on site, Mark had them dig out ponds and waterways which are supplied by springs at the lowest point and a not-quite-stream that flows from the neighbours.

Some pretty spring scenes have evolved but the area has become increasingly difficult to navigate

He started planting, mostly trees and shrubs. Most of the plant material is unnamed seedlings from his breeding programme so there are quite a few magnolias, michelias and rhododendrons. He also added specimens of the woody trees and shrubs we were selling through the nursery, just to make sure we had them represented somewhere in the garden. The result is an eclectic mix. There is also a beautiful, if wayward grove of giant bamboo.

Over the intervening years, the trees and shrubs have grown and the plans to develop the area have been put on hold year by year. We were just too busy with the rest of the garden and with earning a living. From time to time we would add a bit more. Mark planted the Louisiana iris while I added the Higo iris.

The area had minimal maintenance only – a bit of seasonal mowing in grassy areas and Mark would battle his way in to deal with seedling prunus and other invasive weeds. Come spring, we would venture down to enjoy the ambience of pretty, if wild, spring scenes but it was becoming something resembling Sleeping Beauty’s forest.

Enter Zach, the newest member of our team – the right person to bring fresh energies to this wild area, to tame and shape it to a wild garden rather than an overgrown wilderness. He turned up as a garden visitor last November and happened to have both the right skill set and the ability to share our vision of how the area could look. Sometimes gardening can be positively exciting and it really is a thrill to see this area being brought into shape. It is like the final frontier. This is the last major addition to the garden. The boundary fences with the neighbours mean there is no more room for expansion.

I wrote a few weeks ago that “There is a fine line between a wild garden and an unkempt wilderness”. Canadian gardener, Pat Webster commented on that post: “Wild gardens take an enormous level of skill and attention to detail. I visited one in England some years ago that was designed with ‘wild’ in mind. In its heyday, it may have been superb but when I saw it, the balance had tipped and it was simply too overgrown for me.” This is a new learning curve for us but we have come to grips with meadows and summer perennials over the last decade; we can get our heads around wild gardening.

Opening up. The misty light is smoke from the fire. We take out any lengths suitable for firewood and what remains is either stacked to the side to rot down in its own time or burned if it is too far to haul it to the sides.

At this point, the focus is on opening the area up, finding space and light, preserving the plant framework that is already well established while culling the unwanted incursions and removing wayward branches and dead plants. “It has become a woodland,” declared Mark as we stood and looked at the newfound space. Note, dear reader, forests and jungles are dark and dense, vegetated from top to bottom. Woodlands are open and airy with some high canopy but enough light getting through to allow woodland plants below to establish and flower.

Lesson number one on wild gardens has already been determined: never, ever, ever plant climbers like wisteria and honeysuckle, even when it is a very good honeysuckle with much larger flowers that was given to us by the then-curator at Eastwoodhill Arboretum. Rampant climbers need to be in tended, cultivated garden areas. In wild gardens, they simply rampage far and wide and cause no end of problems.

Natural clumps of cutty grass but which one?

The clumps of what we call cutty grass in this country have been kept as sculptural features. With more light they will fill out further. Is it Carex germinata? Or maybe Gahnia lacera? This is not our area of expertise at all. It is one of our native grasses commonly referred to as cutty grass because it will cut all the skin on your hands if you make the mistake of grabbing it with bare skin. It gave me the idea that I could relocate my surplus plants of the festooning Carex comans ‘Red’ which is more honey brown than red and which just arrived here of its own accord – red tussock. I really like it but it has settled in so happily in the two places I have used it that I need to remove half the plants to allow the others room to let their natural form star. I think I will have enough to feature on the sunny side of the margins in the North Garden.

Mark has bigger plans. His mind is ticking over that now there may be space to explore a large, free-form Oudolf-inspired meadow. Maybe. At least starting with the surplus Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ I must cull from the new Court Garden – there should be enough to plant close to a few hundred square metres. That might pack some visual oomph.

Whatever happens, we must keep this area as low maintenance and distinctly different to any other area of the garden. It will walk on the wild side and be free from most hard landscaping. There are just a few bridges to build and we are waiting for Lloyd to come back from holiday to start on those.

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.  


Naturalism or prairie-style at Olympic Park (part 2 on the Sheffield School of planting)

From Dunnett at the Barbican, we went on to Olympic Park – the site of the 2012 London Olympics. There was quite a lot of media coverage at the time and everything I read praised the Hitchmough and Dunnett plantings which were strongly naturalistic and meadow in style. I can’t think why we didn’t go and see it when we were over in 2014 so I was determined to get there this time. The perennial plantings presumably went in some time in 2011 to allow them to get established so they must be in the sixth year by now. Some may even have gone in a year earlier. Most of it will have been done from seed. Given this is an expansive area undergoing repurposing after the Olympic hype, I deduced that maintenance of the plantings would be minimal at best. What would survive under a laissez-faire regime?

A prairie! Almost. Maybe. Though I admit I have never seen a genuine prairie. I think of early summer meadows as lush and green. These were more white and golden with a heavy population of grasses already in flower and seed and perennials that have naturalised within the environment. I bet a lot has been lost since 2012, but there are lessons to be learned in what can cope within this competitive environment. The charm within the detail was a delight.

Would NZers accept this as a naturalistic eco-system? I doubt it.

Alas, I am not sure that New Zealanders would accept this as urban landscaping. The cries to mow the rank, long grass may be too loud. We are still mired back in the suburban values of short, mown, green grass with tidy edges and tidy, colourful bedding in amenity planting. If it can’t be mown, then too often it is sprayed. There is a brave new world awaiting us out there. One where the input costs are much lower, the maintenance requirements minimised and where the environmental contribution is hugely greater. It just needs us to take off our judgemental glasses where the managed environment is judged in terms of “tidiness”, to look instead at Nature.

Just a sampling of flowers from one small area

My heart will never sing at the sight of sprayed edges, mown grass and bedding plants, be they in rows, blocks or circles. But we exclaimed in delight as we wandered the areas around Olympic Park. I started gathering the flowers from one area, just to see how big the range was. The hollyhock block I wrote about earlier was on the perimeter of these plantings.

I am guessing that these areas are subject to a very light maintenance regime – probably strimming them back to the ground in winter and I doubt that much of the resulting straw waste is removed. They are not irrigated at all. But I did figure that litter must be removed from time to time because there was not a huge and unsightly build-up of rubbish in the growth.

The colour-toned woman in the sari was serendipity at the playground area

The areas of generous perennial plantings around the playground area were more intensively maintained and visibly ‘gardened’ as is appropriate for the most intensively used areas. Even these were contemporary in style and concept, away from the old-fashioned bedding plant genre.

The work of the Sheffield School concentrates on environmentally friendly plantings which can be achieved for hugely lower costs than more traditional approaches. They are not alone in this position and the acceptance of the need to work with nature, not to bend it and control it to human will seems to be widespread in the UK. A friend tells me much of Regent’s Park is now wide mown paths through meadow land and we have seen similar changes within the Hampstead Heath green belt. There is much to learn for New Zealand but it will be a brave local council that leads the charge.

Again, I have posted additional photos of the Olympic Park area on Facebook.