Tag Archives: Stipa gigantea

Seven days from the winter solstice – Tikorangi this week

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The white form of Dahlia imperialis

The last tree dahlia of the season is in bloom. Dahlia imperialis alba plena is the towering giant of them all, way up in the sky, not blooming until well into winter so particularly vulnerable to frosts and winter gales. I took this photo yesterday to show those in other climates the intensity of winter light that we get here on sunny days. It is different to those who garden where the winter sun hangs lower in the sky. We are not tropical; I don’t want to mislead. It is almost mid-winter and can be quite chilly. However, it is a lot less depressing to the spirits when you live somewhere with this clarity of bright light, even on the shortest days of the year.

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Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ shimmering in the late afternoon light

IMG_7040We are now well into what Piet Oudolf refers to as the ‘fifth season’ and the new Court Garden brings me much pleasure, especially in the late afternoon when the sun is dropping lower and shines through the miscanthus grasses. I have used a lot of miscanthus running through the garden in waves and the plumes shine in the light and wave gently in any breeze.

IMG_7031IMG_7039I have finally found a place where this large yellow salvia can grow with sufficient space and it is a late autumn – early winter highlight. We have never had a name on this variety so if any readers can identify it for me, I would be grateful. It stands a good two metres tall so it is a large plant to accommodate. *** Now identified as Salvia madrensis, thanks readers.

Tips and techniques for the week:

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Stipa gigantea after a major thinning exercise

  • I took a before photo of this block of Stipa gigantea in the new Court Garden but I appear to have deleted it when I was filing photos. It looked fine at the end of its first year but I knew it wouldn’t stay looking fine and it was already too congested to allow the plants to fountain out and show their natural form. Last week, I took out well over half the plants and gave them away. I did have to lift some of the remaining plants to centre them to their own space but I am much happier with it now so it was worth the effort. I haven’t grown this stipa before and hadn’t realised how much space each plant needs. I am hoping this can now be left alone for a few years at least. It has a white field daisy growing between which I have learned I can get two, maybe three successive flowerings from spring to autumn if I cut it back to the base rosette at the right time.

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    Layering up the prunings at the back, more or less out of sight

  • Out of the ‘I thought it would be a straightforward job that would only take a day and a half at the most but actually took four full days and still isn’t quite finished’ school of thought, I spent this week clearing the wilderness of boundary plantings that separate the caterpillar garden from the boundary with the neighbours’ wool shed and yards. People with big gardens will understand that you have areas which get planted and then mostly left to their own devices. It is one of those jobs you finally tackle when preparing to open the garden to the public again. Nobody will notice I have done it, but they may well have noticed had I not. Over the years, it had become largely impenetrable with self-sown camellias, layered hydrangeas, native seedlings, especially kawakawa and various mounds of vegetation where I had emptied the wheelbarrow of prunings that I didn’t want in the compost heap. It amazes me how far I can get with a sharp pruning saw. Because there was so much of it, I dragged all the debris to the back and layered it by the boundary fence. At some points, it is quite a bit higher than in this photo. It can gently rot down there, adding humus and carbon to the soil and is a lot lighter on labour than carting it all away to compost and mulch. It is a technique we are using quite extensively now and is a tidy, unobtrusive way of dealing with excessive amounts of garden waste. That said, it is a big garden technique, rather than one for small town gardens.

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    On track to be an undulating, curvy hedge like a moving caterpillar

  • I have started a major clipping round on the hedges in what we call the Caterpillar Garden. The hedge is Camellia microphylla, already nearing the end of its flowering season. The plants were pretty neglected -raised from seed and cuttings many years ago and then left to kick around the old nursery until we were ready to use them. We planted them two years ago and the hedges, laid out in the shape of the basket fungus, are still a bit patchy. Mark’s plan is to clip these hedges into mounded, free-form shapes like an undulating caterpillar in the style we associate strongly with UK designer, Tom Stuart Smith. I am doing the first clip this season and have told Mark it is his job to come through and do the final clip of the top to get the mounding shapes he wants.
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    The straight-edged, hard clipped approach

    Most of our clipped hedges here are very straight sided with the top meeting at right angles. Lloyd does them with a string line to keep the lines straight and the hedges a uniform width. He has a good eye for these things. But after spending a fair number of hours clipping and shaping the caterpillar hedge, I can tell you that it is a great deal easier and more pleasurable to work with a more organic shape and form than that military regimentation of the sharper-edged hedges. Informality is much more forgiving than formality.

Week six of lockdown already but gardening continues

Te mounga – Mount Taranaki – with its first major snowfall of the year this week

The first wintry blast struck this week and our mounga has put on his winter coat. In our part of NZ, these early cold blasts are generally brief – two days this week – and we are now back to mild, calm and sunny autumnal days. This settled weather can often continue through until the shortest day, which is only six weeks away now, when we settle into proper winter. By mid August we will warm up again and spring will be here so we mustn’t complain about a full-on winter that only lasts about 7 or 8 weeks.

Flooding in the sunken garden soon after the upper garden beds were removed 

Flooding has not been a problem once the grass was well established

Eighteen months ago, I wrote about the unexpected consequence of flooding the sunken garden when we stripped out the surrounding garden borders that had clearly soaked up the rainfall in the past.  Fortunately, we did not rush into major work to rectify the situation because it turned out to be temporary. When the grass was fully established, the flooding issues disappeared. It is an interesting lesson in the importance of vegetation – even just grass – in preventing water run-off. Presumably all the roots create small channels, enabling the water to be soaked up by the ground where it falls. Bare soil is not good. It is a shame that the Council has never learned this. They still send out contractors to spray the roadsides, under the delusion that bare, denuded road verges channel the water away quickly, solving flooding issues. All it does is concentrate the flooding issues at the lowest point and prevent the ground from absorbing and filtering the water long before it gets to that lowest point.

Stipa gigantea – I removed maybe six plants from this section to give the remaining ones room to spread to their natural form

I have also been thinking about the lessons I am learning in the new grass garden. Even with quite a bit of gardening experience, I thought I was planting at final spacings in the new grass garden when in reality, I was planting for immediate effect. I am now going through removing overplanting – just about every second Stipa gigantea at this stage. Many plants, especially grasses, look better to my eyes when they have their own space without competition. It is then possible to enjoy the shape of each plant rather than the massed effect where shapes become enmeshed. Maybe next time, I will have learned enough not to repeat the same mistake of overplanting. It is even more important with trees and shrubs which are not as easy to thin as perennials.

Lloyd is back!

As we dropped down a lockdown level to 3*, Lloyd was able to come back to work. Physical distancing is not a problem here. I was very pleased to see him back. I do not drive the quad bike or the tractor – nor indeed the fancy lawnmower – and cannot manage a trailer so cleaning up after cutting back and clearing areas is much more problematic without him. With both his wife and son-in-law being medical professionals, he is extremely mindful of safe practices and the dangers of getting careless with regard to Covid, so we feel quite safe about him joining our home and workplace bubble.*

(*For overseas readers: we have our own Covid vocabulary in NZ and, thanks to the very clear communication from our prime minister, we all know exactly what bubbles and levels are and we have swapped out ‘social distancing’ for the more accurate ‘physical distancing’. With daily Covid cases down to one or two only, some days none at all, we are on track to eliminate the virus from our shores as long as we maintain border controls and quarantine. What happens longer term is as yet unknown but in the present, we are still alive and well, bar a few unfortunates.)

An autumn morn this week

Can I give a shoutout to our travel agent and the company she works for – Hello World? Against all expectations, she negotiated a full refund of both our long-haul airfares on Qatar Air and the travel insurance we took out for our cancelled trip to Greece and the UK. The money appeared back in our bank account yesterday. This was by no means a sure thing and many others have been left with airline credits, heavy penalty fees and financial loss. I am deeply relieved. None of us know when the world may open up again but in the medium term, we have our fingers crossed that the border with Australia may open soonish so that we can see our three children and grandson again.

Plants that disappoint

Four years ago

Four years ago, I wrote of this roadside shelter belt:

“Finally, coming home, I stopped to record the effective trimming of this Cupressus x Leylandii down the road. It was just an ordinary shelter belt until the lower canopy was recently lifted, exposing the trunks. The fact the branches have been trimmed reasonably flush helps but it adds a whole new dimension, being able to look through. It has turned an unmemorable shelter belt into something much more graceful and distinctive.”

And today. Cypress canker.

Sadly, it did not stay that way. Now it is a prime example of canker, a common problem in cypress and why the quick growing Leylandii has fallen from favour.  Canker is a fungus (two forms of seridium, in NZ at least), incurable and untreatable. It may or not be related to the limbing up carried out earlier, but it is all a bit academic now. Taking out the dying hedge is going to be a major operation for the property owner at some stage in the future.

Cypress canker

Some cupressus species and named varieties are much more susceptible than others and if you are thinking of planting any, it would pay to do an online search. There is a handy reference here from Agriculture Victoria. The names many of us know like ‘Leighton Green’, ‘Castwellan Gold’, ‘Naylors Blue’ and ‘Swanes Golden’ are all particularly susceptible. Best not to plant them in the first place, would be my advice. The cost of removal is going to be hugely greater than the cost of initial purchase.

The sparrows are stripping the flower stems bare as they open

While on disappointing plants, it is the pesky sparrows that are making me think there is no point in growing Stipa gigantea. I have used it quite extensively in the new grass garden and I will give it another year to see if sheer quantity can defeat the sparrow population. But the signs are not looking good and I may have to replace it with something else. The flower spikes are barely forming before being stripped by sparrows and bare stalks don’t do a whole lot for the garden aesthetic.

This is how I envisaged my Stipa gigantea would look

The whole point of Stipa gigantea is the gentle waving flower and seedhead which is very tall and golden – hence its common name of golden oats or giant feather grass. It appears to be compulsory in every modern British garden which is where we first saw it. And my friend Robyn Kilty praises its virtues in her little garden in Christchurch. It is a tidy grass with attractive glaucous foliage, easy to multiply by division and appears to be sterile so doesn’t set seed like many of the grasses.

I will be disappointed if I don’t get my sea of ethereal, waving golden orbs. I blame the early settlers. Could they not have left the sparrows (and blackbirds, many common slugs and snails, rabbits, ferrets, stoats and a host of other bothersome introductions) back in Old Blighty?

Look at the stipa in the background. I wanted that height and gentle movement

Postscript: while on disappointing plants, my Stachys Bella Grigio died completely. As predicted by a number of people who had a similar experience with this new release a few years back.

Learning from experience: gardening with bigger grasses in NZ conditions

Late March, so autumn of the first year.

We know quite a bit about many aspects of gardening, particularly shade gardening, but gardening in full sun with big, bold perennials is a whole new ball game here and a steep learning curve. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I planned to lift and divide the larger growing grasses that I have used in the new borders.  Of course I am only half way through it. These jobs always take longer than I plan, even factoring in other distractions. But it is interesting to stocktake the performance of these bigger grasses one year on from planting.

Stipa gigantea falls apart into divisions when lifted

Stipa gigantea – the giant feather grass or golden oats. Yes it grows quickly and enthusiastically but is very easy to dig out (not strong-rooted) and pretty much falls apart into divisions when lifted. So it is easy to manage. The flower heads are the feature but while ours bloomed, the sparrows laid waste to them so we did not get the full glory last summer. As far as we can make out, it is sterile so seeding and invasion are not an issue.

It is hard to beat the miscanthus at any time of the year

Miscanthus – I think it is ‘Morning Light’ we have. It required a little more effort to dig it out and an old handsaw and small axe to separate it into pieces but was not particularly difficult. I would not want to leave it too long though, before digging or it would get beyond my physical limits to dig and divide without assistance. It has been a standout. The clumps stand tidily like sentinels and it is brilliant at all stages – the foliage and the plumes. It is the only fully deciduous large grass I am growing and even the pillars of dried foliage have been attractive all winter. It is also close to sterile, setting almost no seed.

Is it Chionocloa rubra? Someone will know but it is a native tussock at least.

Chionocloa rubra – there is a bit of a question mark over the name of this one but a couple of visitors have suggested this identification. A native tussock grass that is performing brilliantly so far in attractive vase-shaped clumps. It is easy enough to dig and divide (more hacking apart with saw and small axe than dividing, to be honest) though I only divided this year to get more plants. It won’t need as much active management as most of the other grasses.

Anemanthele lessoniana is another native grass. It was a little underwhelming in its first year but I am told flowers attractively once established. I started with just three plants so I have divided them after their first year to get more.

The native toetoe (now an austroderia though formerly a cortaderia – our environmentally friendly version of the invasive Argentinian pampas grass) was one I planted a little anxiously, worried about its potential size. I need not have worried. The resident rabbits love it so much that the poor little things have failed to make any headway. I shall have to construct little cages over them if I want them to get any larger. I see we have five different austroderia species native to NZ though which one this is, I am not sure yet.

It appears I failed to photograph the calamgrostris at is peak but it is the third one up on the left in this May scene of late autumn.

Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’. Yes well, this one may be on borrowed time. It is scary. I bought several – I can’t remember if it was 5 or 10 because I divided a couple of clumps mid-season when it was clearly growing strongly (about now, alarm bells should be ringing for experienced gardeners). It is a stock grass for the contemporary perennial gardens we have been looking at, mostly in the UK. Our Canberra daughter also said it was the stand-out grass in her little prairie-style patch. And it was most attractive all summer and autumn. Not so in winter where it has been a messy mix of green and brown. It is deciduous in colder climates but not so here. But that is not the main issue.

Added bucket for scale but I also measured and the root systems reached 45cm across in one year. As a quick aside, my kneeling pad of the day is a piece of rubber carpet underlay cut to size. It doesn’t last that long but it comes from waste destined for landfill anyway and while it lasts, it is good.

The plants I bought came in 2.5 litre pots so larger than a liner but not big. Under one year is all it took for each plant to e x p a n d from about 12 or 14m across to somewhere closer to 45cm across. It took every ounce of my determination and strength to dig out the clumps for they were going deep as well as wide. The root ball is solid and dense and that is when I went to find the axe to chop it apart. I raised my eyebrows and started replanting just a few smaller – much smaller – clumps and these reduced in number the further I went. Most are piled to compost. The clumps I replanted are on trial for one more year but in my bones, I know they are on borrowed time. In our conditions, it is just way too vigorous though I am guessing that in harder conditions with dry summers and cold winters, it may just be deemed a ‘strong’ grower. I don’t know if it seeds but I am not seeing seedlings pop up so far. I would say that it may be quite useful if you want to retain an eroding precipice quickly but as a garden plant, try it before getting too carried away. I think I will decide that its powerful growth outweighs the charm of its flowering plumes.

I haven’t tackled the Elegia capensis yet but it can stay untouched for another year. It is a restio so not one of the grasses, though its growth habit and bamboo-like appearance mean it fits a similar niche in the garden. I know from experience that this is one we can contain if required by cutting around with a sharp spade to reduce its spread.

The smaller grasses can wait but the standout smaller variety so far has been a very dark green form of the Australian lomandra. We have several named forms and I am hoping I will unearth the labels when I lift the clumps again (I hate looking at visible plant labels so I tend to push my labels in so deep that I can’t find them again) and the dark forest green one is by far the pick of the bunch. The rest are a bit… utility, shall I say?

The takeaway lesson from all this is we need to trial plants here. That key plants used widely overseas perform differently in our conditions. It is why we buy garden books that cover design, history, philosophy and contemporary trends but never books written by overseas authors which focus on recommended plants and planting schemes. There is no substitute for local experience.

Postscript: I have finally found a home for the Dutch irises. They always looked a bit crass and coarse in the rockery and other areas where we concentrate on species and dwarf bulbs. But they are perfect with the big grasses, Just the right scale. And they bring in colour now in early September when there is not much else happening in that area.

 

A garden of grasses. Mostly.

The grass garden at Bury Court

The grass garden at Bury Court

It is interesting to reflect on gardens over time. Sometimes a garden that makes you go ‘wow’ on the day is not the one that endures in the memory. In fact, not wanting to be too dismissive, but it is a rare garden that stays in the memory for long after a single visit.

That is Mark, not the owner, at Bury Court

That is Mark, not the owner, at Bury Court

The grass garden at Bury Court has endured for me. So much so, in fact, that it has inspired me to start a grass garden here.  Bury Court’s grass garden was by leading UK designer, Christopher Bradley-Hole but credit must also go to the garden owner, John Coke, whom we didn’t meet but had certainly stamped his mark on the other areas of the garden which were early Piet Oudolf. It is not that I want to recreate that grass garden which was full of soft, waving, tall grasses in informal plantings but contained within a sharp-edged, rectilinear design with a charming Japanese-influenced summer house at its centre. I am just using it as inspiration.

Anybody who has looked at gardens in the UK and Northern Europe over the past decade or maybe nearing two, will have seen the extensive use of grasses in perennial plantings. It is variously described as ‘prairie planting’, ‘New Perennials’, ‘naturalistic gardening’, ‘Sheffield School style’, ‘Oudolf- inspired’ and, no doubt, other terms as well. The bottom line is that it is the integration of grasses with flowering perennials in various styles and combinations and it has yet to catch on in New Zealand. Towards the end of our last trip in 2014, we started counting the ratios and it was common to see 3:1 – three flowering perennials to one grass. The Bury Court grass garden was 1:8 – that is one flowering perennial to eight grasses. The effect was very different and the movement of the tall grasses a delight.

A blank canvas of about 250 square metres (I paced it out)

A blank canvas of about 250 square metres (I paced it out)

I have been incubating ideas for the past three years. In an old garden, it is rare for us to be in a position to start a new area from scratch but that opportunity has arisen. Somewhere over 250 square metres of empty space in full sun with good drainage, in fact, that I can get down on for my grass garden. But we need that amount of space for we envisage B I G grasses waving in the breeze and when each plant will take up probably a square metre, that chews up the space. We have enough highly detailed garden here already, so we are looking at bigger canvas garden pictures with lower maintenance. That is the plan, anyway.

Stipa gigantea, with phlomis, at Wisley. Lovely ethereal seed heads but unproven in our conditions

Stipa gigantea, with phlomis, at Wisley. Lovely ethereal seed heads but unproven in our conditions

Our native toetoe, or cortaderia

Our native toetoe, or cortaderia

We have been given some plants of Stipa gigantea, beloved by UK gardeners. It remains to be seen if it will perform in our conditions, but I have put the first nine plants out. Also our native toetoe (which used to be a cortaderia but has now been reclassified as an austroderia) which will grow here and is our native version of the pampas grass often used overseas. Pampas (Cortaderia selloana) is on the totally banned list where we live, be it pink or creamy pampas. I have a very large miscanthus that I will relocate and divide in winter and a few other different grasses we have gathered up over the years but never found a suitable spot for. In using some of our native grasses and the Australian lomandra, there is an immediate difference to what we have looked at overseas. For our grasses are evergreen and theirs are generally deciduous. That is a big difference. Deciduous grasses give a fresh new look every spring whereas evergreen grasses hold their dead leaves so they don’t look as pristine but they are present all year round.

Aurelian lilies in abundance here

Aurelian lilies in abundance here

In terms of flowers, it will be a restrained palette. Mark has raised a lot of Aurelian lilies (clear, bright yellows and few in orange) that flower in early January and are desperate for a forever home in the garden. They will be number one, planted in groups of five. I have no idea how many there are out in his vegetable garden waiting to be lifted – maybe 80 flowering sized bulbs or so?

Crocosmia - from left: the roadside weed known as montbretia which is way to invasive to introduce to the garden, a spectacular large orange form that unfortunately does not increase quickly at all, yellow and orange forms and red 'Lucifer' for the new garden

Crocosmia – from left: the roadside weed known as montbretia which is way too invasive to introduce to the garden, a spectacular large orange form that unfortunately does not increase quickly at all, yellow and orange forms and red ‘Lucifer’ for the new garden

For mid summer, the crocosmias can add spots of colour and I may use the pure red and pure yellow tigridias too. We have a giant, autumn flowering yellow salvia that towers over 2 metres high so needs big space. I think that will fit in. Self-seeding, towering fennel (I like fennel flower and seed heads), a tall, creamy yellow alstromeria and that might be it for the initial plantings. The grasses are to be the prime focus in this new area.

Fennel, seen as a roadside weed here but I think it will fit well in the grass garden

Fennel, seen as a roadside weed here but I think it will fit well in the grass garden

Being gardeners, not designers, we are working from gut instinct and experience, not a formal plan. We are debating about whether to turn it into a gravel garden by using fine gravel as both mulch and path surface but that is a bit further down the track. We happen to have a small mountain, almost a mountain range, even, of fine gravel that would be suitable if we decide that is a good idea.

It is not instant gardening. Because it is dependent on plants, not hard landscape features, it will take time to fill in and mature. But that is in the nature of long term gardening – gradual evolution rather than instant gratification.

And a weedy carex - at least we think it is a carex, that we are hand digging to remove from both the new garden and the park. Decorative seed heads but way too badly behaved and invasive

And a weedy carex – at least we think it is a carex, that we are hand digging to remove from both the new garden and the park. Decorative seed heads but way too badly behaved and invasive

Postscript: A Facebook follower says of that weedy carex above: “Eek, that weed is a Cyperus eragrostis ( I think) type of sedge.” We are in complete agreement that it is a menace.