Tag Archives: sustainable gardening

Started at last – a perennial meadow

Not a blank canvas – closer to a wasteland with potential

Sometimes a garden can catch you unawares. At least, that is the case in a large garden. It is probably harder to avert your eyes from messy areas in a small garden. So it was that I found myself in the Iolanthe garden this week, thinning both the Daphne bholua forest that had formed (there is a plant that can seed and sucker alarmingly if you turn your back on it) and the sugar cane patch.

The original plant of Iolanthe is the dominant feature on one side 

Iolanthe has only opened her first two blooms this year but here is a view I prepared earlier

I paced out the Iolanthe garden and it is somewhere over 500 square metres so it is not a small space, though it is in a prime position and has a mix of shade and sun. It lost its way some years ago. In Mark’s father’s time, it was his vegetable garden but as the original plant of Iolanthe grew ever larger, the shade increased. I admit to having done a major effort on it back in the early 1990s, attempting to turn it into a stylish potager. In self defence, it was the fashion at the time and I was following Rosemary Verey’s example. I divided the space into rectangular areas defined by square, concrete pavers and planted rather a lot of twee buxus hedges. Of course, anybody with experience can tell you that little buxus hedges are not actually compatible with growing plants like vegetables that require friable soils to be dug over every season. Their root systems encroach ever more on the surrounding areas.

At its best, Mark’s chaotic butterfy garden could look like this – but all too briefly

Mark’s dad was patient with my efforts to pretty up the area but Mark removed most of the buxus in the years that followed. He then relocated the vegetables to a sunnier area on the property and the Iolanthe garden became the holding area for plants that needed to be relocated to other parts of the garden ‘in due course’ and the trial area for growing perennials he was buying in to see how they would perform here. And it became increasingly chaotic. At its best, in summer, it was Mark’s butterfly and bee garden with a riot of unrelated flowers, both self-seeding and planted. At its worst, it was a mess and that was for most of the year. I could no longer ignore it and it needed more than just an annual spruce-up.

This is a massive job and I had already started when I realised what I was doing – making a perennial meadow. We have made a considerable study of meadows and I have written plenty about different meadow styles. In our climate and conditions, we have to maintain some level of weed control at all times so that pretty mix of flowering annuals and field grasses is not a look we can maintain. But finally, I think the threads are coming together and I can plant a perennial meadow that will require only light maintenance and flower for maybe nine months of the year. The influence is very much Nigel Dunnett and some of the plantings I see on Pictorial Meadows. If you want to know more about this, google the work Dunnett has been doing at Trentham Gardens, near Stoke-on-Trent.

Existing citrus trees in this area

We are extending the permanent trees and shrubs. Mark has long talked about establishing an orange grove to give some purpose to the area. There are already about 10 citrus trees there (tangelo, limes, lemon, oranges and mandarins) and another three plants were hanging around the old nursery waiting to be planted. And feijoas. There was one growing and another two waiting for a home. Same with the tea camellia (C. sinensis).  While we are never going to be self sufficient in tea, I have taken to harvesting the big plant each spring and Mark had another two or three waiting to be planted.

Planting beneath the widely-spaced trees and shrubs is the big task but also the most interesting one. The meadow effect. Liberated from the feeling that I must manage the colours carefully and follow certain rules for herbaceous planting, all I am doing is thinking as I go about sustainable combinations planted in loose blocks. I am using the plant material we have to hand but avoiding using the perennials I have already featured heavily in the sunny perennial plantings around the new Court Garden area. In other words, really casual plantings but strong growers, a different plant palette so it doesn’t all look the same. Am I lucky that we can go into planting a fairly large area drawing on plant material we already have around the place or is that good management? Using material we already have does mean we know how it will perform in our conditions and how to manage it.

It was a throwaway comment from Mark that made me think more clearly about what I was doing. “I’ve always thought wind anemones have a place in an orchard,” he said. Yes! I thought. We have two shades of pink Japanese anemones on our roadside that I can raid and this is a place where they can grow in their own space and star in their season.

Elsewhere, we have a variegated agapanthus that I have never found the right place to feature in the garden. I have yellow day lilies I could use with that in one block. It is painting with plants and that is fun. I have already interplanted the purple eucomis with yellow crocosmia and am now interplanting bluebells and a pink alstromeria.

I have more confidence with this venture having ascertained that a small area I replanted two years ago and mulched heavily with fresh bark and leaf chip has stayed weed free. This week, I found that the price of a truckload of up to 6 cubic metres of such mulch material can be delivered here for a mere $100. This seems like a bargain to me. I am waiting for my first load and will mulch heavily. As with everything we do in the garden here, we factor in sustainability and maintenance from the very start.

Our bulb hillside plantings are successful but do not a meadow make

We have always wanted a meadow and have had success with bulb hillsides but have been apprehensive about going full-on into a more extensive area. There is romance in the simplicity of flowery meadows but that does not mean they are simple to create. I am hoping that we now have sufficient experience and knowledge to make it work. It may be the last piece in the assemblage of sunny perennial gardens we have been putting in – all different in style and concept with very little overlap in the plant selection for each area.

I have a lot of work to do before summer to get the meadow planted. I just wish it wasn’t quite so muddy at the moment and that the weather gods would give us a spell of several dry days in a row.

It is an old photo but one of my favourites and is the view at one end of what is to be a perennial meadow

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.

 

 

Garden thoughts

Just another heavy transporter passing along one of our road boundaries. A particularly noisy one this Sunday morn.

I garden. A lot. So I have a lot of solitary thinking time. Never more so than this week when it has taken every ounce of my inner strength to maintain some equilibrium in the face of relentless heavy traffic from the gas well site on the farm across our bottom road. The company is ‘demobilising’ the workover rig that has been on site and that has generated as much, maybe even more, heavy transporters along our two road boundaries than at the peak of the bad days from 2011 to 2013. Once the rest of the rig gear has been moved out, the ‘well stimulation’ equipment will all be trucked in for four weeks of intensive fracking and flaring. Super! Yes we still carry out open air flaring and extensive fracking in this country. Worries about climate change apparently lie with somebody else, anybody else – a concern divorced from current, high-level activity.

This is why our garden is still closed to the public. Fortunately my coping mechanisms are better than they were during the bad old days, but it does take a lot of mental energy to keep some positivity and inner serenity, I tell you. Especially for one who is not naturally of a serene disposition.

The gnarly trunks of the aged Kurume azaleas. In the background, Mark has draped old shade cloth over the newly sown areas of grass to discourage the pesky rabbits and sparrows.

Back to gardening. I mentioned last week that I was doing a clean-out of the Rimu Avenue. I still am, though I have broken the back of it and am now working more on the margins, including the bed of venerable Kurume azaleas which are underplanted with cyclamen. This is another area that can be left pretty much to its own devices for extended periods of time but it looks better when I get in and clear out the regenerating growth from the base of the azaleas, take out dead wood and shake out the accumulation of leaf litter from the trees above that builds up in the canopy.

It is not really self-sustaining gardening. More like lower-input gardening. For those who like a bit of substance to your gardening reading, you may enjoy Noel Kingsbury’s latest post on the subject of so-called ‘natural gardening’. He is an English writer and a specialist in that new wave style of perennial gardening led by Piet Oudolf.

We have never talked about ‘natural gardens’. Naturalistic, yes, and we have played around with various other descriptors. Enhanced nature, romantic gardening, gardening WITH nature rather than trying to control it but maybe the one we use most is sustainable gardening. We try hard to reduce the negative inputs (spraying, chemical fertilisers, really high input labour practices, use of internal combustion engines for routine maintenance and suchlike). For us, sustainable gardening is also about being able to manage this place as we get older in the next couple of decades. We have no plans to leave in our old age. I anticipate that, like his father before him, Mark will be carried out in a wooden box and hopefully that will not be for another 20 years. So we have to be mindful of how we manage our acreage and what expectations we have of the garden.

Fairy Magnolia White has opened her first, fragrant blooms this week.

Mark sees it in simple terms. He thinks that we all like to be surrounded by pretty things and that is why he loves flowers and always has done. It is the prettiness – sometimes even astounding beauty – combined with nature that feeds his soul, and indeed mine.

It is perhaps the dearth of homegrown gardening TV programmes and Monty Don and BBC Gardeners’ World taking a break from our screens that drove him to start recording ‘Best Gardens Australia’. This is not gardening as we see it. In fact it has very little indeed to do with gardening. The plants are mostly added in the manner in which scatter cushions and a stylish throw might be added to complete the picture of a stylish sofa. It has a heavy infomercial component and big budget outdoor spaces, mostly dominated by the mandatory swimming pool, additional water features, hard landscaping on a grand and permanent scale (no matter how small the site) and… pavilions. Garden sheds, washing lines, wheelie bins and storage for bikes are not in evidence, but pavilions rule supreme. Along with ‘resort-style living’. In New Zealand, resort-style gardens tend to mean the intimacy and tropical look of small, Balinese hotels. In Australia, it means something very different – the Miami look of lots of stark, hard-edged white plaster and concrete.

The children’s summer house in a handsome Yorkshire garden

England has its summer houses and garden rooms and very charming many of them are, too. In New Zealand, we are generally more modest and less permanent and the gazebo is most common. I am not a fan of the gazebo as a general rule, with its tanalised pine construction and trellis decoration. We call them gazzybows. They are usually bought in kitset form and too often used as a ‘garden feature’, rather than to enhance the outdoor living experience.

The typical off-the-shelf gazebo

I am not sure at what point a gazzybow crosses over to a pavilion. I suspect you need a budget at least 10 times larger (maybe 20), space in similarly inflated proportions and block or concrete construction (plastered, of course). By the pool. With a full second kitchen, a dining set that can accommodate a minimum of 12 people to a sit-down meal and a barbecue that can roast all the cuts of meat from a beef beast to feed the many (many) friends that the pavilion owners have assembled. Mark was a bit stunned by the pavilion shown with a drinks fridge that would rival most upmarket hotels.

Never have we felt more like the poor relatives across the Tasman than when faced by the ostentatious wealth of ‘Best Gardens Australia’. We are more in synch with the gardening philosophies of the aforementioned Noel Kingsbury.

French style. My photo library is entirely lacking in images of contemporary Australian pavilions.

So in the spirit of sweeping generalisations, I tell you that if you are a modest New Zealander, you have a gazebo. If you are nouveau riche Australian, you have a pavilion. If you are British establishment, you have a summerhouse or garden room. If you are French, you have a little, aged, shabby chic café table and chairs.

Finally, the late afternoon light falls upon our maunga or mountain on the winter solstice – a sight which keeps us anchored firmly to this place where we live and garden.

Looking forward to 2018

The birds’ nests have nothing to do with the content of this post. But they are more beautiful than stacks of heavy duty plastic bags, containers of spray, irrigation wherewithal and the rest.

‘Touch the earth lightly, Use the earth gently’* as we enter 2018.

Most of us are happiest when surrounded by people who share our values and think in similar ways.  And that is true of the gardening world as much as any other sector. I assume that people who are not interested or irritated by my gardening views either stop reading or unsubscribe. But nothing shouts louder to me that there are many gardeners who are on an entirely different trajectory than the garden-related advertisements on TV. There are not a lot of these in this country – it is a market largely driven by small suppliers and marginal profits. But when it comes to advertising, the likes of Tui, Kiwicare and sometimes Yates have it covered. And many times, what the former two at least are selling is death. Knockdown sprays that come with a promise to kill faster and more thoroughly than ever before. Is this really what gardening is about for their target market?

The dainty filigree weaving of the waxeye nest, held together on the outside with strands of everlasting, synthetic baling twine in the modern tones of aqua blue

There is a myth that gardening is, by very definition, good for the environment. It can be but it is not a given. As the world enters the uncharted territory of a new year and the growing awareness of the appalling and indefensible environmental harm being caused by humankind, it behoves all of us, in my opinion, to take a close look at how we live. And how we garden.

Earlier generations did not need a different type of fertiliser for every plant group. It is marketing that has convinced the consumer that they need an array of bags of fertiliser – one for tomatoes, another for citrus, yet another for roses while rhododendrons and camellias need their own unique blend. And that regular fertilising is a necessity (or ‘best gardening practice’). That is nonsense. Get your soil right, and you should be able to eliminate most purchased fertilisers by using compost, green crops, worm farm liquid or similar home-generated remedies which have a proven track record down the millennia. Powdered or granulated fertiliser is a pretty recent phenomenon and yes, it does encourage plant growth but the environmental cost is high. New Zealand’s love affair with nitrogen can be traced straight back to big business and profit which fails to factor in the wider costs.

Gardens should not need regular applications of fertiliser. It is just bad management from a gardening point of view. And expensive.

Surely the most inviting nest of those here is the exquisite creation of the chaffinch with its outside covering of lichen and inside feather-down lining

Nor should lawns need frequent fertilising and spraying. Truly, it is long past the time when we should have reviewed the prestige value of the perfect lawn. Canberra daughter tells me that a green lawn where she lives is either astro turf or a sign that the homeowner is breaching water restrictions. A perfect lawn anywhere is a sign that its owner is willing to pour all sorts of chemical concoctions onto the grass with scant regard for the environmental aspects.

I am not advocating getting rid of all your lawns. Just change the way you look at them and ponder instead, how to manage blocks of grass without the application of a whole lot of fertiliser that you then wash away into the wider environment with frequent irrigation.

The remains of a thrush’s nest is more like half a coconut shell – firmly moulded and plastered on the interior. With incorporated synthetic black twine. 

Garden to your conditions rather than trying to alter your conditions to your style of garden, especially when it comes to water use. Irrigation systems for gardens are a red flag that you are growing the wrong sort of plants for your area.  You should be able to grow plants in the soil by watering them in initially and then maybe the occasional drink while they settle in but then leaving them to the elements. English gardening doyenne and pioneer of the dry garden, Beth Chatto, has the simple mantra “right plant,  right place”. If you are having to irrigate regularly to keep your plants alive and healthy then you have the wrong plants, not the wrong place that you alter to suit the plants. So often I read descriptions of gardens and the first thing that goes into many modern gardens with bigger budgets is the irrigation system. That is wrong on so many levels.

The soft and welcoming nest of the greenfinch, we think, lined in wool and edged with green mossy strands. The nest is too large to be a goldfinch. 

We used to shudder at how much plastic we used when we had the nursery running. Look around your plant centre at how much plastic your plants involve and ponder which bits you can do without. It takes a brave and driven person to return the plastic to the retailer and insist they take responsibility for it. I read recently of someone who sorts her purchases at the supermarket checkout and leaves items of unnecessary packaging there and thought that was not really going to be my style at the local Waitara New World. But you can decline single use plastic bags to hold your plastic plant pots by simply carrying a carton or having a boot liner. You can avoid or reduce the use of the products out the front of the plant centre, all bagged in single use, heavy duty plastic sacks – the potting mix, the compost, the decorative gravel or lime chip and the host of other products, few of which you probably need.

The tui builds a big, bouffy, soft nest for its young, somewhat aerated with its coarse twigs 

The planet desperately needs more trees, in New Zealand where trees are seen as expendable, as much as anywhere else in the world. And if you can plant trees, they are going to do far more to counter growing carbon dioxide levels than bedding begonias or compact shrubs will ever achieve. That said, any flowering plants which have visible stamens and pollen will support the smaller insect life that our ecosystems need – particularly bees.

Fungicides, herbicides and broad spectrum insecticides are not great at all for the environment. The more you can reduce your use of them, the better. We have tracked the glyphosate debate down the years and were not entirely convinced by the declaration that it may cause cancer. Many things cause cancer, including the charcoal on barbecued meat. But the recent research coming out from Canterbury University on the link between herbicides, including glyphosate, and antibiotic resistance in bacteria is seriously worrying. I, for one, do not look forward to living in a post-antibiotic world. I was once hospitalised for several days on a drip because of a puncture wound on my foot. The subsequent infection was resistant to all but the last line of hospital-only antibiotics. We need to worry about these things and take some responsibility at a personal level.

The remains of a blackbird nest, built on an internal platform of layers of mud and straw. With polyprop strawberry netting added – a reminder of how birds will find waste lying around. 

For us, the very essence of good gardening is about enhancing nature, about adding to sustainable eco-systems. It is not about controlling it and being convinced by modern consumerism to use a whole lot of products that actively harm the environment. And truly, I will judge you if you tell me you are keeping your buxus hedging alive with regular spraying, that you fertilise your lawn to keep it green or I spot your irrigation system. I may not say anything to you about it but I will be mentally raising my eyebrows.

It matters how we garden. A lot. At least, to us it does. I am not given to inspirational homilies, but we could do worse than to reflect on the words of Clarissa Pinkola Estes as we enter 2018.

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach…. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

 What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.”

If you want the entire quote, you will find it here.

‘Touch the earth lightly’ is from hymn but I never got past the first verse and the credit here.

Up, up and away. In search of modern romantic gardens.

We are off today on one of our garden visiting trips. For the first time, I have felt sufficiently unnerved by international events to register our trip on the Safe Travel site run by our government. That is so they know roughly where we are in case of catastrophe.

Overseas readers may not realise that for New Zealanders, almost every overseas flight is long haul. It is only 3 hours to Australia so that doesn’t really count and some of the Pacific Islands are not so far away. Anywhere else, it is basically 12 hours and that only gets us to refuelling stops in preparation for the second leg which is more or less another 12 hours. Unless you want to fly via the Arab states of Dubai, Qatar or UAE in which case it is over 17 hours plus a shorter long-haul leg after that.  Being an economical traveller, I have transited most airports on offer – Los Angeles, Dubai, Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Guangzhou. They blur in the memory.

But this trip, I am really glad that we are not booked via the US (might get code-shared with United Airlines!!! Nor do we want the grief of their new visa regs), South Korea (I really like Korean Air but that is altogether too close to the odd gentleman with the bad haircut and despotic tendencies just across the border) and now via the Arab states which are looking altogether too volatile. Our Hong Kong stopovers may be hot, colourful and crowded but they don’t seem anywhere near as threatening.

We are not visiting Italy to see classic gardens of the Villa Cimbrone class this time

Wild flowers at the Palatine are more the style we are looking at these days

We land in Italy and the reason we start there is because I have been told very firmly that if we are interested in romantic gardening, we absolutely must go to Ninfa. I am obeying orders. Ninfa and La Torrecchia nearby are not the classic, formal style that most New Zealanders think of when it comes to Italian gardens. Those are the historic gardens of the rich and powerful and we have seen some of them in the past, and will go and see Villa d’Este because we will be in Tivoli some of the time. Ninfa and La Torrecchia are much more recent creations, renowned for their soft-edged profusion of flowers and foliage set amidst ruins of earlier eras.

Charmed by the villages of France – Giverny in this case. Look at that little bus shelter!

and wooed, so to speak, by the food

Then it is up to Normandie in France, to stay in Rouen and (believe it or not) in the village of Camembert. We were utterly charmed by our visit to Giverny which we tacked on to our last UK trip. Not so much by Monet’s garden itself as by the village, the countryside, wildflowers, the friendliness and the food and wine. That ooh-la-la French style is so unique. Again, we have plans to visit a modern French garden or two rather than keeping to the big budget historical attractions. I am rather hoping for some time admiring wild flowers in the land of Calvados cider and camembert.

The South African meadow was in its first season at Wisley when we visited in 2014

Crossing to the UK, we have a busy eight days planned. Again it is the modern directions that interest us – gardening in sustainable eco-systems, gently guiding nature rather than forcing it into the strait jacket of human expectations. We are really keen to see how some of the plantings we saw in 2009 and 2014 have matured over the intervening years – the Missouri and South African Meadows and Oudolf borders at Wisley for starters. We also plan to get back to Bury Court and Wildside – two of the best private gardens we have seen – but the rest will be new to us. The naturalistic plantings around Olympic Park in London have had five years to mature – we want to see how they look now that time has passed and also to see the recent public plantings around the Barbican and Kings Cross. The time of floral clocks and garish bedding plants has long passed in favour of a whole new genre of softer-edged, lower maintenance public plantings. We want to see some of it.

There may be a lull in posts over the next few weeks but we expect to come back brimming with ideas and enthusiasm.

Bury Court

Wildside