Tag Archives: Primula helodoxa

Behind the scenes – winter works

We get a tad defensive about our weather here. That has a lot to do with summers that are a little cooler than areas that boast better summer holiday climates and we take longer to warm up in spring. So forgive me for boasting our autumn sunshine hours being the highest in the country for the three months just passed – 1207 hours to be precise. There is a lot to recommend sunny days in autumn and winter.

There are places in NZ that only get 1600 hours a year. We are usually above 2200 hours, sometimes even 2400 but even so we seem to be getting more than our share of sunshine this year. And goodness, we are achieving a lot in the garden.

It takes a surprising amount of work behind the scenes to manage this pretty spring scene of overhead azaleas and Tulipa saxatilis – a speces tulip from Crete – in the foreground

Mark and I have spent the better part of a week tackling the azaleas. Many of these are venerable old plants, mostly Kurume azaleas which are most often seen as low, tight buns smothered in flowers. Years ago, Mark made the call to limb up and thin, rather than to cut down and shape to tidy mounds. Our approach takes more work and we like the grace of the twisted stems which are white with lichen and the overhead carpet look. But, and it is a big but, that canopy needs ongoing work thinning and cleaning or it becomes a tangle of dead twiglets festooned in hugely excessive amounts of lichen. We had left this patch too long and it has been a major task to get it back. It is, Mark observed wryly after a day spent up the ladder carrying out microsurgery, one of those jobs nobody else will notice we have done. But we will notice and it will bring us renewed pleasure.

You can see the ladder nestling in the midst of these very tall evergreen azaleas
This is the spring look of an overhead carpet of colour we are working to regain

Lichen is apparently a sign of clean air. We could spray it out but we choose not to spray as a part of routine garden maintenance. Being azaleas, we could also cut down hard and let the plants ‘come again’, as is said, but we don’t want to cut down 70 years of growth and clipped mounds of azaleas are a bit suburban in style for our garden.

Adding the lower rail for safety reasons

“Have you any idea what Lloyd is doing?” Mark asked me on Friday as he noticed Lloyd cutting timber and heading down to the park. Yes, I did know. He was adding a lower rail to the high bridge and a very tidy job he made of it, too. He had become aware of the lack of protection for small people when he took his young granddaughter around the garden last spring. While it is certainly not childproof now, at least none will fall off if they take a step backwards. With the height of the bridge and rocky rapids below, it seemed a minor safety measure we could make with relative ease.

Zach has been solving a couple of longstanding issues down in the park. While the Primula helodoxa puts on a wonderful display in spring, Mark was concerned at the weed potential downstream and wanted the plants removed from the banks and the immediate flood zone so the seed from our plants did not colonise the Waiau Stream from here to the ocean. I had been worrying about two cold, sloping beds with very heavy soil that Mark had put in nearby. While they looked splendid when he first planted them, over the years they had gone back badly and we didn’t really know what to do with them. They were a step too far for us to give them the attention they needed to keep the complexity of suitable plantings and to keep them free of weeds. Last year, when we reopened for the first time in seven years, I took the temporary step of doing a quick tidy-up and getting Lloyd to carpet them in wood chip. That at least made them look cared for but didn’t solve the issues.

A pretty expanse of yellow but that is a huge amount of seed, much of which will potentially wash down stream
The primulas have largely gone from beside the water to the lower slopes of the hillside above the flood zone

I wanted to incorporate the beds into the meadow we now manage in the park. Zach, bless his energy, enthusiasm and ability to pick up on ideas quickly, has taken on board the concept of blurring the lines between cultivated areas and wilder areas. Sharp demarcations in the garden belong in the most intensively maintained areas. I mean tightly defined edgings, of course. In the more naturalistic spaces, we find a softer transition pleasing to our eyes. The survivors of the original plantings are still there – some very good hostas, trilliums and interesting arisaemas in the main – but now they are interplanted with a hillside of yellow primulas relocated above the flood zone. More meadow than garden and much of the informal ponga edging (lengths of tree fern trunks) has been removed so the meadow grass and buttercups can invade, as it will anyway. I am looking forward to spring to see how seamless it will appear.

Too much miscanthus

Next week, Zach and I will tackle the miscanthus in the grass garden. Normally, I would leave it standing longer into winter but it needs Major Thinning. I am anticipating culling somewhere between 50 and 70% of it, which can be done without it being apparent to anybody else that anything has changed. It does involve digging every plant, dividing some of them and replacing fewer at wider spaces. It needs doing. I badly overplanted them and underestimated how much they would grow. But I learn from every mistake I make along the way. When they are planted too closely and the clumps get large, they fall apart. With smaller clumps and more space, they will hold themselves upright well into winter. I am hoping we can then get away with root pruning them in situ every second year and maybe avoid having to dig and divide for at least another five years. That is the plan.

May our sunny days of early winter continue for another week at least.

Simple things – appreciating primula species

Many square metres of Primula helodoxa

Mark wasn’t particularly optimistic about the primula seedlings we were given some months ago. “We can’t do primulas well,” he said. I went away and thought about this and came back to him, pointing out that we can do Primula helodoxa rather too well, Primula obconica has stayed in one patch of garden for at least two decades despite minimal attention and the annual Primula malacoides pops up prettily around the place and would pop up everywhere if we didn’t restrict its spread. What he meant, I figured, was that we have not succeeded with the choice species like Primula vialii and the Inshriach hybrids which brought a range of different colours, did well initially and then just faded out.

Primula denticulata in the recently planted perennial meadow of the Iolanthe garden

More than one flower spike is forming in many of the plants which is a good sign.

This new primula is a wild form of  P. denticulata, so nothing too out of the ordinary or fussy.  It put up its first flowers a few months ago and, to my delight, is a pretty lilac blue. I am very hopeful it will do well here because it is a colour I really like. To be honest, it is more lilac than blue but that is fine. It has a good strong stem and holds its round flower head up well at 30 to 40cm above the foliage. What is particularly pleasing is that the stronger plants are putting up multiple flower heads. It is always encouraging to get a new plant and even better when you get given over 20 of them rather than buying a single plant and then trying to build it up. Time will tell if it settles in happily over several years and whether it is a suitable candidate for naturalising in meadow conditions but the early signs are good.

The only two polyanthus I kept on the left, Primula vulgare or the wild English primroe in a tiny bunch of nostalgia on the right

The primula family is huge with around 500 or more species. The English primrose, Primula vulgaris, was one of my English mother’s favourite plants in every garden she made – and in her lifetime she made many. I just have one patch of it because the foliage to flower ratio is rather too high in our mild climate but I like to keep it out of nostalgia. As a child, my mother encouraged me to pick flowers (always with long stems, she stressed, and the rule of thumb was that I could pick anything except the roses) and my bouquets were often primroses and grape hyacinths.

Primula malacoides – easy to pull out if it is in the wrong place but charming enough to allow it to gently seed around some areas

Polyanthus and auriculas also belong to the primula family. I am never sure whether I like auriculas. I can admire the curious flower markings but I am not sure how or where one would place them in a garden situation without having them look like a fake flower that was bought from The Warehouse. Maybe this is one of the reasons for that odd feature of the auricula theatre favoured by some UK gardeners – they couldn’t work out how to place them effectively as garden plants, either. Fortunately, this is an academic question here because auriculas are a plant that does way better in colder climates than ours.

Primula obconica has staying power here

Polyanthus are a cheap and cheerful late winter and early spring plant in many gardens. When our children were little, we would sometimes call in to a local hobby grower and let the children select the colours they liked to plant at home. Over time, I have cast out all polyanthus here except for a pure yellow one that I keep in one spot and a good performing white that I have in another area. They lack the refinement of the species that I now prefer; they need regular digging and dividing to keep them performing well and they tend to attract weevils. The weevil larvae show as wriggly white wormy things, usually about half a centimetre long. Years of nursery work instilled a fear of black vine weevils. Perfectly healthy-looking trees and shrubs in the nursery could suddenly flop overnight and forensic examination would reveal that the plants had been ringbarked by weevils just below the level of the potting mix. It took a lot of effort, changed practices, expense and the use of a rather strong chemical to eradicate weevils from the nursery. I am not keen on getting major infestations of these critters in the garden.

My rule of thumb is that I squish any white wriggly things I find in the garden soil. I don’t mind doing that for the new lilac blue prims if they settle in here for the long haul.

Primula denticulata – seedling grown so there will be variation in the flowers

The meadow, as we enter its sixth year

We are now entering our sixth year of managing our park as a meadow. Note the word ‘managing’. This is not just leaving it to its own devices but a much lighter touch than the previous mowing and weed control we used to practice. And in December, as in previous Decembers, my heart just fills with joy at the sight of the Higo iris in bloom. I love all times of the year in the garden – there is always something that delights me – but never more so than the iris meadow in the lead up to Christmas.

We have learned a lot in the five years past and I am sure we will continue learning. I was disconcerted to see cleavers moving in to a couple of areas. I just looked up its botanical name –  Galium aparine, which I have never even heard of before so I assume everybody knows them as cleavers. At least they are an annual weed that can be pulled out.

The tradescantia, pretty enough in flower, but arguably the worst weed of all

More alarming is the incidence of Tradescantia fluminiensis, better known as Wandering Jew. Mark has spent countless hours getting rid of this weed down the years. When we bought the property across the road 25 years ago, we acquired a stand of native tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa for overseas botanists) which was completely carpeted in tradescantia. It was a proud day when Mark announced  he had beaten it with a programme of determined eradication. Alas, he may have beaten it on our properties but every time we get a flood, more washes down from further upstream and every, wretched little bit grows. When we kept the grass short, it was easy to spot and remove immediately but in long grass, it damn well hides until we suddenly find another patch that escaped our notice. This will be an ongoing battle.

Having a stream flowing through brings responsibilities and these are weighing somewhat upon us. We worry that we are likely to be blamed for every escaped ornamental plant that establishes downstream, even if at least some are washed down from further upstream. The shiny leafed angelica, Angelica pachycarpa, somewhat more prized in overseas gardens but seen more as a weed here, has introduced itself from an upstream property.  Don’t believe the website that declares: “This is a bizarre and wonderful species of Angelica from New Zealand, and still fairly new to North American gardens”. It hails from Portugal.

I removed all the flag iris from by the water when I found out what a dangerous weed it is here, capable of forming solid islands of floating vegetation, blocking streams and estuaries.

To be honest, we figure that if the beautiful Higo irises establish themselves downstream, that may not matter. They are no risk that we can see. We worry about the Primula helodoxa, which are enormously rewarding as flowering plants but set prolific amounts of seed. We try and dead head them but there are so many that it is a hit and miss process. We are now thinking we should pull out the ones growing in the stream banks and contain it further back on dry land so the potential to seed down in the water is reduced. I am not getting too obsessed about them though. We have them near where the stream enters our place and while there are a few plants appearing further down (still on our place) it is not such a thick carpet as to shriek ‘noxious weed’. Besides, above our helodoxas, we can see we have seedlings that can only have come down from upstream neighbours.

Wachendorfia thyrsiflora – a triffid

We are, however, worried about the weed potential of Wachendorfia thyrsiflora.  It is very handsome, statuesque, even. There is no doubt about that. But it sets prolific amounts of seed and if you dig the plants out and leave them lying on the ground, they do not die. I discovered this. It is one we think we need to get back from the water. It is one thing managing a triffid of a plant on our place, it is another letting the seed fall into flowing water and potentially establish all the way down to the ocean.

Past experience has taught us that we can not get away with the traditional annual mowing of the meadow, just once a year in autumn. Our grass growth is so rampant that we have to do it twice and it seems that late January (so, mid-summer) and around June (mid-winter) are the optimal times.

Mown paths through the meadow. The clean bark on the right is a crepe myrtle

We have not done much yet to enrich the meadow mix. We are still waiting and watching to see what establishes itself. But Mark mentioned Verbena bonariensis as meadow option. It has light airy growth which would fit the meadow look, flowers for many months and is much loved by the bees. And it is an enthusiastic seeder though it remains to be seen whether it will self-seed in such a competitive environment. And I want more big, white daisies. I am trialling one in another area of the garden to see if it will make a good meadow candidate. I wouldn’t mind if pretty Orlaya grandiflora could get itself established.

Currently, I can be found in the afternoons down by the water, digging out the weedy carex and docks that are shooting up into flower, thinning the primulas and battling the wachendorfias. It is heavy work, sometimes muddy, but the setting is one to gladden my heart.

I have taken to describing our approach to gardening as similar to slow cooking – slow gardening. It is just that we measure it in years, not in hours or overnight.

Clipping the michelias

Starting on the left – the annual clip

This is what it will like when done – freezing the size of the plants in time with an annual clip

We have a row of lollipop michelias at our entranceway and it is time for their annual clip. Yes, one annual clip is all they get and we are maybe three weeks late on doing them this year. I did not intend to start yesterday, having other things planned. Besides, clipping the michelias feels like a Big Job. Well, it does involve a ladder for the taller ones.

I timed myself yesterday. It takes me 30 minutes a plant to clip with secateurs and to rake up the clippings. That is not long for annual maintenance on what are significant feature plants. You could do it faster with a powered hedge trimmer or even hand clippers but you lose the precision. Besides, I don’t like using the hand clippers because each time they snap shut it jars my wrists and the residual carpel tunnel syndrome I nurse in those joints.

Aesthetically speaking, cutting with secateurs means there is no leaf damage whereas the speedier clippers or hedge trimmer will cut almost every external leaf which will then discolour on the damaged edges. It is also easy to reach in at the time and remove dead wood and do a clean-up of the interior of the ball using secateurs and the finished result is less… brutally shorn, shall I say?

Most michelias can be clipped hard, especially these hybrids of Mark’s. The two smaller ones here are an unnamed hybrid from his breeding programme while the taller ones are Fairy Magnolia Blush. I have planted two Fairy Magnolia Cream in the vehicle entranceway to the left which will, over the next few years, be trained to lollipop standards.

Michelias are magnolias, just a grouping within that wider family. That is why Michelia yunnanensis has been renamed Magnolia laevifolia by the experts. Our position of continuing to refer to them as michelias is on shaky ground botanically but we find it a useful differentiation in common parlance. It is a handy point of difference to the big leather-leafed Magnolia grandiflora types which are what most people think of when evergreen magnolias are mentioned. Our agents chose to brand Mark’s hybrids as “fairy magnolias” to mark out that difference.

Magnolia laevifolia  (aka Michelia yunnanensis) defoliating in wet, cold climate

The aforementioned species, Magnolia laevifolia, is a lovely plant in bloom but not always the best garden plant. It has a tendency to defoliate in a wet spring and we have certainly had that this year. This plant is not in our garden. I photographed it at Pukeiti. It is neither dead nor dying. Nor is it deciduous. It has defoliated in the wet and that is a characteristic of this particular species that is not to its credit. Not far along the same track is a fine specimen of Mark’s Fairy Magnolia ‘Blush’ which, we were pleased to see, shows no tendency whatever to defoliate, even in the hard growing conditions of Pukeiti Gardens.

This is what Magnolia laevifolia looks like at its best, seen here in my friend Lorri’s garden 

As a piece of advice for local gardeners, if you into clipping camellias – and we clip a few now as feature plants as well as camellia hedging – the time to do it is right now. If you leave it much longer, you will be cutting off all next year’s flower buds.

We have renamed the area of our garden we used to refer to as “the park’. It is now The Meadow

Finally, for a spot of colour, may I give you a host of golden primulas (not daffodils) in our meadow garden by the stream. It is just common old Primula helodoxa but so very pretty in its season.

Plant Collector – Higo Iris and Primula helodoxa

Down by the stream

Down by the stream

The prettiest photo moment in the garden this week has been the meeting of Japan and China in the Higo Iris and Primula helodoxa down by our stream. These are conditions where the plants will never dry out. They get plenty of sun but are in heavy soil on the stream bank.

P. helodoxa is one of the more common primulas in this country. It is a candelabra type – layers of flowers perhaps more akin to a tiered cake stand than a candelabra. The flowers are sweetly scented but rather a bright, sulphurous yellow in colour. In the right conditions, it is so easy to grow that it is borderline weedy because it sets seed freely and increases by clumping. We try and deadhead our plants because they are by running water. Helodoxa is one of the Primula prolifera group and is known in some parts of the world as ‘Glory of the Marsh’, which is rather lovely.

The Higo irises are from Japan and sometimes referred to as Japanese water iris. Higo is not a species. It is a particular strain of iris that originated from the species I. ensata. These are from wild collected seed and are proving quite resilient with us. The named Higo hybrids tend to have been bred for cutting and bringing indoors whereas we want garden performance, not floral perfection. We have Higos by the stream and I am also trying some as garden plants amongst other perennials where they are now into their third year of performing well. I am just a bit worried that they may be multiplying too enthusiastically. The foliage is thin and grass-like. They are deciduous whereas the primula is evergreen.

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