Tag Archives: New Zealand gardening

Plant Collector: Narcissus jonquilla and Narcissus bulbocodium

Dainty but with a strong perfume - N. jonquilla

Dainty but with a strong perfume – N. jonquilla

We have been taking a closer look at the narcissi this spring, picking out the ones which flower for longer periods and, latterly, the later flowering varieties. It would be good to have more flowering near the bluebells which are in full flight now. Most daffodils that you see around and buy as bulbs are hybrids. We are back to the original species this week with two which are flowering after most of the others have been, done and gone.

First up is the daintiest, tiniest and most fragrant jonquil species imaginable. It happens to be known as Narcissus jonquilla and is native to Spain and Portugal where it can be found in damp places. There can be up to five flowers per stem, each not much more than 2cm across.

Narcissus bulbocodium - one of the last to flower here

Narcissus bulbocodium – one of the last to flower here

Then there is Narcissus bulbocodium, also known as the hoop petticoat daffodil. It has no scent but if you have a good form of it, it flowers in abundance. It looks as if it only has the corona, which is what the trumpet is called, but it actually has a little frill of six tiny pointed petals making a star near its base. It too comes from the Iberian Peninsula but can be found as far south as Northern Africa. Despite that, it is hardy and sufficiently strong growing to naturalise. Both species have fine, grassy foliage.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

So you want to open your garden to the public?

A welcome sight perhaps, carloads of garden visitors, but by no means a certainty

A welcome sight perhaps, carloads of garden visitors, but by no means a certainty

Spring in New Zealand sees the main flurry of garden visiting. If you have been out and about with friends recently and one is starting to make dangerous comments like: “My garden is as good as this one,” or “I have got one like that but mine is better,” maybe: “My standard Icebergs are more advanced than hers,” be proactive. It may be kinder to take your friend to Harvey Norman and persuade him or her to buy a new home appliance instead. Opening your garden to the public is a time consuming, expensive and demanding activity.

Many open garden circuits are of short duration with all proceeds going to charity. Clearly this motivation is entirely above reproach and we will just set it to one side as not being relevant to this discussion.

But too many garden openers are under the misapprehension that they can make money by opening. Experienced openers will tell you that in many cases it actually costs you money because you go to a great deal of time and expense preparing your garden, often buying expensive potted colour to plug gaps which you would otherwise have ignored. The bottom line is that there are too few garden visitors in this country to make it financially viable. To get more than just a few visitors, you need a brilliant location (preferably main road close to a population centre, right on a tourist route and featuring a castle), usually allied to an established reputation which takes years to build and a very good garden. Added attractions are advisable, whether they be a cafe, craft shop, plant sales or major events. If you go in for added attractions (which can certainly contribute a great deal to financial viability), don’t delude yourself into thinking that visitors are all coming to enjoy your garden. In reality your garden simply becomes a pleasant venue and many visitors come for the attractions, not to see your gardening efforts.

Don't expect the sort of visitor numbers Great Dixter gets

Don't expect the sort of visitor numbers Great Dixter gets

So what are the main reasons for opening besides charity? At its best, positive affirmation of one’s efforts. At its worst, ego. Garden openers’ egos can be a scary force to encounter and the whole exercise can turn a perfectly pleasant Dr Jekyll of a gardener into a Mr Hyde garden opener.

If you are contemplating opening your own garden, the first piece of advice I would offer is to go out and look closely at other people’s gardens – not critically but comparatively. You need to work out where your garden fits in and what you have to offer that is better, more skilled or more interesting than what is already out there.

The second step is to come home and look critically at your own garden, trying to assume the persona of an outsider looking for the first time. Over the years, we have met many gardeners who expect visitors to see their garden through the same eyes as they do. You know your own garden inside out. Often you envisage the potential when plants grow and fill out. The mistake is to think that the first time visitor will also see your dream. They won’t. They will see the reality on the day. You need to take off rose-tinted glasses to see that reality for yourself.

If you have children still at home, they won’t thank you. We always had two flat rules for the kids: no loud music and no loud arguments. But I do recall Second Daughter saying plaintively one busy week: “And you could tell visitors they don’t have to wave to me through the window when I am having breakfast.” That would the 11.30am weekend brunch when she was still in her dressing grown.

If you are determined to open, presentation becomes a key issue. Open gardens are finished and presented to a higher standard than your average home garden. All that lawns, hedges and edges stuff has to be done well and maintained at that standard. Established weeds are a no-no as are unsightly areas of wasteland. Visitor safety can be an issue, especially when the average age of garden visitors usually works out somewhere over 60 (which means a fair proportion will be decidedly elderly). Access to a toilet and safe parking are additional factors, as is the personal touch of meeting and greeting visitors. Opening your garden these days requires a whole lot more than just sticking out an icecream container and collecting the money.

That said, our experience of opening for many years is enormously positive. We can count on the fingers of one hand the attempts at plant theft over the years (the loss of the unripe seed on Mark’s Paris polyphylla was particularly galling). There is the odd person who tries to sneak in without paying but we have become pretty good at dealing with that (it is so embarrassing but it should be embarrassing to the guilty party, not the host). Only once have we ever caught an old biddy going through the house (shameless, she was!). The vast majority of garden visitors regard it as a privilege to be able to come into a private garden and behave accordingly. Though I should add that we are a more expensive garden at $10 for adults. The cheaper you are, the more riffraff you will attract.

In the end, it is enormously affirming to have garden visitors who really enjoy the environment you have created and who are unstinting in their expression of appreciation. In New Zealand, that has to be the main reason for opening. If you are thinking about it for any other reason, you may be better off going to try some retail therapy instead.

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.

Prole drift in New Zealand gardening

The rococo styled fountain has drifted down the road from us

The rococo styled fountain has drifted down the road from us

Prole drift. I had never heard of it until last week but I was greatly amused by it. The usual example of prole drift is the devaluing of status suffered by the Burberry plaid when it was embraced with gusto by the chavs of the UK (referred to, apparently, as a downmarket demographic). The SUV is undergoing a similar slide in status. The classic Range Rover slipped a little when Japanese manufacturers started making more reasonably priced models. But those new generation sports utility vehicles still came with a reasonably hefty price tag and appealed to the wealthy middle classes who wanted to look as if they were forever whipping up to the ski fields, whether or not it was true. “The four wheel drive is so handy – eliminates the need for chains, don’t you know.” In those early days, such vehicles were often referred to as urban tractors or Remuera shopping baskets. These days they are just as likely to be Manukau or Pakuranga Tractors. There is a certain inevitability that the status symbols of the privileged will be coveted just as much by those a little lower, or indeed much lower, on the socio economic ladder.

But as I pondered prole drift, it occurred to me that it is a remarkably good description of much of New Zealand gardening. In an earlier column, I asked whether there was such a thing as the New Zealand garden. I came to the conclusion that there are certainly some defining characteristics. At that time, I wrote:

It must be something in our egalitarian heritage which has many New Zealanders taking the ideas of the large, historic gardens – especially in Britain though sometimes from wider Europe – and attempting to re-create something similar here. We seem to be oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of the great gardens of Europe and Britain were established and maintained by the wealthy and the powerful who could afford to pay gardeners to actually do the work. So we go for high maintenance gardening styles (clipped hedges, a touch of topiary, sweeping lawns, mixed borders, buxus enclosures around statuary) – all the trappings of the gentry and the nobility which our forbears were so keen to leave behind.

Prole drift! That is what it is: prole drift. We are still at the stage of wanting the status and class (prounounced something akin to claarss) and thinking that if we embrace the status symbols of those further up the social scale, somehow the mystique of privilege will envelop us as well. It is not our egalitarian heritage after all. It is covetous envy and has resulted in scores of mini-Sissinghursts and even mini-Villandrys with barely a smidgeon of originality. Buxus hedges in abundance, tightly clipped, filled with either neat and decorative vegetables (which makes it a potager), citrus trees (which makes it Italianate), colour toned perennials or annuals in formal style (French parterres) or a froth of artfully casual blooms lifted by the mandatory white cosmos or foxgloves (which passes for English cottage style but tightly corseted by encircling low hedges) , with accents of clipped topiary balls or pyramids, even the occasional knot garden, all ornamented with obelisks, Lutyens styled garden seats, pergolas, formal avenues, laburnum arches, and… marble garden features. Diana, perhaps, something armless or a small fountain.

The funny thing is that so far so good – this heavily derivative style of prole drift gardening has indeed been accorded status and recognition in this country and, scarily, is often equated with style, superior taste and class. It remains to be seen what happens as it continues its drift sideways and downwards.

The evolution of a New Zealand style of gardening better suited to our conditions (geographic, climatic, botanic, cultural and financial) will continue. Genuinely original gardens shine and in time, we may see a decline in popularity of the current prole drift styles.

Random piece of information: just beyond Hoi An in Vietnam, on the road to Danang are the Marble Mountains. These are mined and the local craftsman can create whatever you desire and to whatever scale you wish. What is more, they will then pack it and ship it to your home. On the day we visited, the striking memory was of the carved American eagle, but the factory was full of repro classical statuary. You too can order your greatest desire – and at third world prices. They were doing a roaring trade in the classical figures. I am afraid I still subscribe to the view that if you can’t have an original (and the British museums got first dibs on a large quantity of them), then you are better off to have nothing.

Repro classical statuary to your heart's desire from the Marble Mountains near Hoi An in Vietnam

Repro classical statuary to your heart's desire from the Marble Mountains near Hoi An in Vietnam

A final few words about the rococo fountain: it belongs to Pat. I do not for one minute think that Pat believed that this recent installation in her front garden would elevate her social status. It is equally unlikely that she has looked into the rococo forbears of her fountain. No, she bought it because
a) she really liked it
b) it was cheap
and c) she has a very obliging husband who was willing to install it for her. I just think that the fountain may have drifted as far as it can – it may have reached its ultimate destination.

Agapanthus -the blue (and white) stars of our summer roadsides

Our summer roadsides would be the poorer without agapanthus

Our summer roadsides would be the poorer without agapanthus

We have a bit of a love-hate relationship with agapanthus here in Taranaki and in warmer areas of this country. But as you drive around the countryside at this time of the year, most would agree that our roadsides would be the poorer if they were gone. They resemble giant blue harebells growing, well, growing pretty well everywhere if we are honest.

Agapanthus all come from South Africa and from relatively limited areas of that country. Don’t be misled by the common international name, the Lily of the Nile. They are neither a member of the lily family, nor do they grow anywhere near the Nile. Nor does Agapanthus orientalis come from the Orient. That descriptor merely means eastern, so the natural habitat of A. orientalis (probably more correctly known as A. praecox ssp orientalis) should be on the eastern side of South Africa, assuming the original plant collections and recording was done accurately.

The name comes from Greek. Agape is love and anthos is flower but whether this means the flower of love or lovely flower is unclear.

So are they a weed? These matters are rarely as black and white as they appear. On the debit side:
• Most agapanthus set seed freely and the seed germinates readily.
• Agapanthus grow well in a wide range of situations including inhospitable clay banks and shaded areas. They form a dense cover which prevents other plants from germinating – particularly desirable native regeneration. They have the potential to colonise bush reserves, national parks and native bush.
• The common agapanthus are resistant to the world’s handiest weedkiller, glyphosate (formerly known by its original brand name: Round Up). While you can take them out with stronger brush killer sprays, most of these require you to hold a spray licence.
• Digging out well established clumps takes quite some physical strength and determination because the plants cling on for grim death and the clumps can be formidable. Because they have roots which are rhizomes, if you don’t get the whole plant out, what is left behind in the soil will re-grow.
• There is no way this plant would ever be permitted into the country now. Mind you, the same thing could be said about kiwifruit.

There is a credit side and a degree of resigned acceptance by the authorities in this country which sees agapanthus treated as a surveillance pest plant rather than the hard line decision to ban it outright.
• While it seeds freely, the seeds are not dispersed by birds at all so in most cases, the seedlings pop up close to the parent plants. The big problem comes with plants beside waterways because the water can do a very efficient job of spreading them much further.
• They are a significant plant for cut flower producers and there are dwarf and sterile forms available for home gardeners which pose no threat at all. There is a large international market and agapanthus occupy an established niche in our nursery industry. Many of the named hybrids have parentage which includes one or more of the species other than praecox and this reduces the weed problems.
• They make a significant contribution to our summer landscape as a flowering plant and will tolerate harsh, roadside conditions so are favoured for amenity plantings.
• They are evergreen, tidy and suitable for using to stabilise slip-prone areas.

Basically Biosecurity and most northern regional councils would love to ban it outright but pragmatism triumphs so the aggie lives on to flower another day. Auckland has banned the larger growing forms of A.praecox (the common form), still allowing the production and sale of dwarf forms as a compromise position. The sensible position for the home gardener who lives adjacent to native forest or to waterways, would be to remove them entirely. As a back-up position, being industrious and thorough about dead heading would reduce the problem. For the rest of us, it probably doesn’t matter and they make a huge contribution to our summer gardens and landscape.

Agapanthus Tinkerbell - no weed potential here

Agapanthus Tinkerbell - no weed potential here

By no means are all agapanthus thugs. Little Tinkerbell is common in gardens though probably more noted for its very clean white and sage green variegated foliage than its flowers. It is distinctly shy on flowering, as a rule. It also has a significantly large root system for a plant without a great deal on top but it is a useful addition in the garden border. Other named hybrids are often more amenable than thuggish and have their place in the garden setting.

This is a plant family which is a great deal more highly prized overseas than here. In harsher climates, stronger growing plants are valued for their ability to survive the conditions and most of Europe and the US have much harder conditions than we have. Toughies that stay in leaf as well as put on a lovely summer flowering display are harder to come by, especially in blue. Because they don’t tolerate extremely cold conditions, additional measures are often required to get the common agapanthus through winter.

But in this country, you can’t even give away common agapanthus. Which is why we were genuinely shocked by a section in “A Green Granny’s Garden”, by Fionna Hill. I reviewed this before Christmas and I have to admit I did not read it cover to cover or that review might have been a little tougher had I come across the following paragraph referencing her attendance at a Hollard Gardens’ workshop here in Taranaki:
“Workshop participants have been invited to bring seed and other plant material to share. We pulled lots of agapanthus plants from Maggie’s New Plymouth garden that day and (we thought) cheekily we’d take the opportunity to leave a wheelbarrowful. We give the barrow to some helpful children to wheel back to the meeting shed, while we speed off down the road. I think it might not have been welcome, at that time, believing them to be a pest.” (sic). The page of self justification that follows does not mitigate the action for anybody except the author, who concludes: “I shouldn’t feel so guilty about that wheelbarrowful that Maggie and I have left as a contribution – at UK rates, the barrowful was worth about 300 pounds.” I don’t think so, dear. What you did was to furtively leave your friend’s weeds for Hollards’ staff to dispose of. You should be feeling guilty and embarrassed.

Tikorangi Notes: Friday 28 January, 2010

LATEST POSTS: Friday 28 January

1) Agapanthus – love them or hate them, they are stars of our summer roadsides. Abbie’s column.

2) An exceptionally fierce summer storm last Sunday took out many flowers in the garden but the disa orchids came through unscathed. Plant Collector.

3) Garden tasks for the week from dealing with potato blight to why you may want to think twice before planning to become self sufficient in pine nuts.

Agapanthus blue and white, and montbretia on our roadside

Agapanthus blue and white, and montbretia on our roadside

Agapanthus or Nile lilies are considerably more highly prized overseas than in New Zealand. Here we tend to see them as indestructible, utility roadside plants or fillers but come summertime, these large clumps of strappy foliage are adorned with a mass of blue or white blooms. They become a real feature of our countryside. But such is the antipathy to these plants, that they are frequently looked down on as garden plants. I think the only one we have in a garden situation (as opposed to our road verges bounding the property) is little variegated Tinkerbell.

Variegated agapanthus - doubly damned in NZ

Variegated agapanthus - doubly damned in NZ

I will have to find a spot for the yellow variegated form shown here, but am not sure yet where it will fit. We have never done anything with this seedling of ours. There is no point in building it up for sale in this country – it is damned on account of being an agapanthus, doubly damned because it is variegated in a country where we do not favour variegated foliage much at all, though it is a good plant with stable colour. The crocosmia (commonly referred to as montbretia) is similarly a borderline weed but it lights up the roadside outside with the agapanthus.