Tag Archives: Taranaki gardens

The times, they are a-demandin’ change

Currently a bit forlorn, but give it a few months and it will look very different

The rose garden has gone. Gorn forever. Henceforth this area will be known as the sunken garden. Because the centrepiece is the sunken garden area – Felix and Mimosa’s DIY colonial Lutyens effort, as I have described it. It is all fashioned from granite, marble and brick. Mark once water blasted it and it came up an alarming shade of white.

An undated photo but best guess is around the mid 1950s. The marble lining is still white

I, too, could get it looking pretty but it took a lot of work and it didn’t stay looking pretty for long enough to warrant the effort

It was the rose garden because it used to house Mimosa’s old rose collection. I think I can recall it as being fantastically opulent, voluptuous and romantic with the air hanging heavy with scent – but only for a couple of weeks in spring. The rest of the time, it could look pretty scruffy. By the time I came onto the scene here in the eighties, it was already past its peak.  This particular garden has probably had more attention lavished upon it in the last 30 years than any other area. Major makeovers, not just regular maintenance. At least four major makeovers that I can recall doing myself. And no matter how hard I tried, it looked okay in winter, really pretty for a few weeks in spring but scruffy in summer and autumn. I could not keep it looking good all year and it finally reached the point where I avoided looking closely, preferring to skirt around the outside rather than walking through it.

We have a date on this photo – 1961

Felix, down  to his woollen singlet but still wearing his tweed hat putting in the stone millwheel table and benches. The wheel is the inner, turning centre of the mill, used for grinding papa to make a low quality brick on a neighbouring  farm. Felix traded two sacks of potatoes for the wheel. The date of this photo must be mid to late 1950s

It is obvious what the problem is when I look at the old photos. When Mimosa started and had the area at its peak in the late 1950s and 1960s, conditions were very different. It was open and sunny and the plants grew without competition. In the 70 years since she started, the backbone rimu trees have doubled in size and their root systems have grown to match. Half the area is now always bone dry, sucked out of nutrients and plants have to compete with the rimu roots. The area has also become enclosed, very sheltered and the sunshine hours have been reduced by a whole range of perimeter plants.

I wrote about this area back in March  when I was into full-on stripping out. It would have been easier had I been composting the plants but I recycled most of them. It would also have been easier had I not planted quite so many bulbs through it over the years. Clearing the area was a major operation and has generated many, many more square metres of ground cover than I started with to use elsewhere. There is much to be said for digging and dividing. The good picking roses have been relocated to the vegetable garden where it does not matter that they get black spot and suffer from defoliation. I can at least pick the flowers. We do not have a good climate for roses.

Finally, the last plants were gone at the weekend and the area was bare. Lloyd, our extraordinarily handy and obliging man about the garden, has moved in extra topsoil and raked and levelled to get it ready for sowing in grass. The eight camellias and two maples will stay and be shaped into gnarly, character, feature plants. We normally avoid growing plants in mown lawn areas and I know I will have to hand-trim the grass around the trunks but I am willing to do that. We do not like the weed-sprayed brown look of lank grass around trunks and I have no desire for the tidy, suburban look of encasing each trunk in a tidy round concrete circle planted with pansies. For those of you who want to know what the camellias are, two are the gorgeous species C. yuhsienensis, two are Mark’s ‘Pearly Cascade’ (C. pitardii hybrid) and the four standards are one of Mark’s hybrids that we never released but we refer to as ‘Pink Poppet’.

I am anticipating that once the grass grows we will have something far more sculptural to look at. And that seems a more appropriate look for the next era of this garden. Gardeners must look forward, not try forever to recapture the recalled magic moments of the past.

Again, this must be 1950s – the planting of the azalea bed that provides the far boundary to this garden, butting up to the rimu trees

Match the two horizontal branches in the preceding image to how they look this very morn. After 60 years, the trees have more or less doubled in size

The same Kurume azaleas as they look today, this time viewed looking from the other direction, underplanted with cyclamen. 

Garden Diary: January 15, 2017 – trees that are no more, pond weed, Maxim Brussels sprouts and the like

Hydrangea Libelle

Hydrangea Libelle

It is hydrangeas looking gorgeous here this week. If you are on Facebook, I posted an album of last week’s hydrangea images. We regard them as really easy here but it has been pointed out to me that in other climates they are nurtured treasures. Try telling a Taranaki person that when they are a roadside wildflower here.

The decidedly indifferent summer weather continues and we start to worry about whether Mark cleaned the swimming pool for no purpose this season. Neither of us have even been tempted to get in so far. The water temperature has reached a level I find acceptable (anything 24C or over is suitable, in my book) but the air temperature is hardly conducive to swimming. At least it is pleasant gardening weather and on the worst rainy day, I finally made myself sit down and rewrite the Garden section of this site.  I am as guilty as many others of leaving background material untouched and not updated. The next area that needs an upgrade is the one on Jury plant hybrids but if the summer continues in this manner, that may happen sooner rather than later.

I may, however, get diverted. I read the feature by Lynda Hallinan in the January issue of NZ Gardener magazine – ‘With the benefit of hindsight… 40 lessons learned in five years of country gardening’. There is a format I could purloin, I thought. 40 lessons from a country garden after 65 years of intensive gardening. Sure, not all those 65 years were by Mark and me (though if you combined our totals, we are getting close to that), but I could bring you the collective experience from Mark’s great grandfather – who goes back to 1870 and the first plantings here, his parents and now us. So 145 years in total but only 65 of those represent intensive gardening. I need to locate and scan in some of the early slides which, if my memory serves me right, show the development of parts of the garden at five and ten year intervals. Our 40 lessons may be closer to a book than a single article, however.

Cornus proved to be a pushover

Cornus kousa proved to be a pushover

It has been a week of felling trees. The first, Cornus kousa, was a push-over. Literally. Formerly a fine specimen, over the years it had started to die back and I asked Lloyd to cut it back to live growth. He reported that it was very shaky and that he reckoned he could push it over by hand. So he did. Mark can no longer make the only slightly suggestive quip in his repertoire –  inviting people to admire his large kousa. The main trunks were rotten to the core so they didn’t even provide firewood.

Betula pendula is to be winter firewood

Betula pendula is to be winter firewood

The second tree gave Mark a few pangs as he felled it – a large silver birch. We don’t regard Betula pendula as a quality, long term tree in our climate, though they can be graceful and attractive in their time. This one paid the price for casting too much shade in the area where Mark is developing his long term vegetable garden and orchard. It will provide a lot of good firewood so will be appreciated in the burning but Mark couldn’t help but muse upon all the decades it had lived and the changes that have occurred all around it in that time. It is one thing when a tree falls of its own volition because it has given up its grip on life, quite another to fell it because it has simply become expedient. Though, it must be said that we do have plenty of other very large trees here.

On the vegetable front, I sourced three punnets of Brussels sprouts for Mark to plant yesterday – ‘Maxim’ variety, which is his preference. He rarely buys punnets of plants, raising almost all crops from seed but his Brussels are an exception. They are also one of the few brassicas he grows, along with some of the quick-maturing Chinese greens. I particularly dislike broccoli – a controversial opinion, I know. Neither of us are keen on cauliflower and we are terribly sniffy about the merits of cabbage. But both of us enjoy Brussels sprouts freshly harvested from the garden. Though last season, our Californian quail beat us to the crop. We had the first pick of the season’s green beans for dinner last night.

img_3727I spent a happy afternoon puddling in the goldfish pond. Every few years – well, maybe once a decade – Mark catches all the goldfish and drains the pond entirely to start again. In the interim, it needs a bit of ongoing maintenance and the pondweeds and plants were building up too densely. I try and keep the plants to a central strip. The goldfish need cover from circling kingfishers. The weed is problematic but it can be kept from reaching choking proportions by scooping with an old kitchen sieve. There are worse ways to spend a quiet summer’s day when the temperatures are not warm enough to warrant swimming.

Stachys Bella Grigio

Stachys Bella Grigio

Sometimes good plants can be difficult to place. Take this Stachys ‘Bella Grigio’, new to the NZ market. It is very good – healthy, grows well, keeps its silver white colour, distinctive – so why does it stick out like a sore thumb in the garden? I saw it used extensively in somebody else’s garden a month or two ago and it didn’t look any better there, either. I just have not found the right place for it. The contrast with everything else around it is too stark and I do not think a stachys (otherwise known as lambs’ ears) should be shouting “look at me! Look at me!”. I will have to lift it soon or it will continue to annoy me. I am not convinced I am going to be able to place it here. Maybe it would just be happier in a much more contemporary, simpler garden of sharp contrasts, defined lines and limited colour range, rather than in our softer-edged, more fulsome, romantic style. The jury is still out on this plant, even though it is very good.

The season of the clivia

img_5606Mid spring brings us vibrant clivias in bloom. The ”contemporary” or “landscaped” look is to block plant in a single colour so you may have a swathe of orange clivias with the yellow ones segregated in a different area. This is not our style, in a garden where we strive for far more of a naturalistic, woodland look – “enhanced nature” seems to be the latest descriptor for this style though it is not a term you are likely to see me using often. We like to blend our plantings and combine the clivias with ferns, astelias, bromeliads and any and all of the other plants we use as the understorey in our shady areas.

029-4This completely confused a self-described Auckland landscaper I once took around the garden. This must have been back in the 1990s when ambitious but unqualified young people who, in a previous generation would likely have done an apprenticeship, discovered they could earn more money by dispensing advice and services to the growing wealthy of our largest city. He patronised me all the way around the garden – landscapers, you understand, rated themselves further up the social scale than mere gardeners – and at the end pronounced his surprise that we didn’t grow any clivias. I may have a been a little tart when I pointed out he just hadn’t noticed them, for they are there in abundance.

Clivias are one of those plants that attracts aficionados and there is a club dedicated to this passion . I am not sure what these people are called – cliviaphiles (in the manner of snowdrop nuts who are called galanthophiles?) or would they be the less classy cliviaholics? Whatever, it is in part these clivia enthusiasts who are bringing us the expanded range, particularly in colour.

019-2The soft yellows are still a recent introduction but already widely grown, readily available and making a huge contribution in gardens. Extending the colours into peach tones is well underway and of late the combination of white and green in clivias represents another development. One can, when all is said and done, have too much orange in the garden (NABOC syndrome – Not Another Bloody Orange Clivia) whereas the option of other, softer shades can bring welcome variety and interest. If you covet red clivias, you need to be aware that they open orange and age to red. Do not be like the gardener I heard of who bought a swag of large red clivia plants at considerable expense. When the first ones opened orange, she dug them all out.

img_5485Considering the easy care nature of clivias, you may wonder why they are often relatively expensive to buy. It is all to do with time because they are slow to get established and to reach flowering size. In these days of instant gratification, most gardeners want plants that will perform and be showy in the garden from day one. In the case of clivias, be prepared to pay because it costs nurseries money to hold slow growing plants much longer to reach saleable size.

Clivias are easy to lift and divide if you have a big enough clump, although it will take a few years for smaller divisions to re-establish and reach flowering size. It doesn’t seem to matter what time of year you do it, though it is advisable to avoid the heat of summer. They are under storey plants in forest or bush so well able to cope with both low light levels and root competition. We can vouch for their ability to grow away even if you just spread the roots out on top of the ground and cover them with a thin layer of soil or even leaf litter. What they won’t take is wet feet or frost. They were not named for Clive of India, as I assumed. Apparently it was for Queen Victoria’s governess, the Duchess of Northumberland whose maiden name was Charlotte Clive. I don’t think she would ever have grown any in a Northumberland garden.

Clivia gardenii

Clivia gardenii

There are only six different species of clivias and some hybrids between these – called inter-specifics  –  but the showiest one that is most commonly seen in gardens is C. miniata. Most of the others have flowers in the form of tubular bells that hang loosely from the stem whereas miniata has bigger heads of clustered flowers in a truss form. If you have clivias in your garden you may have noticed that they set seed quite readily. You will have more success if you pick the ripe seed and sow it in seed trays. It is handy to know that orange and red clivias set red seed whereas yellow clivias set yellow seed. They also cross freely amongst themselves so you will get variation, though not all will be uniformly good.

To the vexing question of whether the pronunciation is cliv-vea or clive-ea, we go with the latter but I have heard NZ enthusiasts use the former.

First published in the October issue of NZ Gardener in more or less the same form (slightly less, in this case).  

Orange seed will flower orange or red, yellow seeds will flower yellow

Orange seed will flower orange or red, yellow seeds will flower yellow

The start of a new gardening year – Magnolia campbellii

The very first blooms on the M.campbellii in our garden

i in The very first blooms on the M.campbellii in our garden

The start of a new magnolia flowering season has come to mark the start of a new gardening year for us. No matter that this occurs in July, in the depths of winter. It coincides with the earliest of the japonica camellias, the start of snowdrop season and the blooming of Narcissus bulbocodium citrinus, but it is the heady sight of the first big pink blooms on Magnolia campbellii in our park that signals to us that spring is just around the corner.

In the most urban of settings in central new Plymouth

I lookn the most urban of settings in central new Plymouth

Before our plant of M. campbellii opens, we notice the row of 4 or 5 plants breaking bud on Powderham St by the Huatoki Stream in New Plymouth. These open in early to mid June, even before all the leaves have dropped but are at their peak right now. Being in the city, surrounded by concrete and tarseal, the temperatures are warmer than our country garden. We still have only the very first few flowers open.

I was interested to discover that the pink form of campbellii which is all around our district is unusual. In the wild, white forms are apparently far more common. The species has a wide distribution from eastern Nepal through the northwestern areas of Sikkim and Assam in India, southwestern China and as far down as the north of Burma. We saw it earlier this year on Mount Baotai in China but couldn’t tell whether the plant was naturally occurring there or had been relocated.

The 'Quaker Mason' form of M.campbellii in Taranaki

The ‘Quaker Mason’ form of M.campbellii in Taranaki

The pink form we have in Taranaki is commonly referred to as the ‘Quaker Mason’* form and originates from around Darjeeling. As early as 1915, Duncan and Davies Nursery were listing this plant despite huge difficulties in propagating it – it had to be done by layering and it was not easy to do that successfully, either. Our own specimen was one of the first trees planted here by Felix Jury and will date back to the start of the 1950s.

Tupare's white form of M.campbellii this morning

Tupare’s white form of M.campbellii this morning

Tupare (18)Tupare Garden in New Plymouth has one of the oldest white forms of campbellii in our area, though the tree is not a particularly strong grower. It has a different provenance which the late Jack Goodwin relayed to Mark. Alas Mark did not write it down at the time but his recollection is that Russell Matthews, who created Tupare, bought it as a seedling grown plant from a local nurseryman who had imported seed, probably in the 1940s. This may have been James or Francis Morshead. M. campbellii is renowned for taking many years before it sets flower buds and an anecdote from another source relates the huge disappointment Matthews felt when the first blooms opened white, not pink. More a collector of status plants than a plantsman, he was apparently delighted when Victor Davies – of Duncan and Davies Nurseries – assured him that the white form was most unusual and therefore a real treasure. Only history puts this into context – that the white form is unusual for Taranaki because of all our Quaker Mason pink plants, but not at all unusual in the wild.

Quaker Mason by the Anglican church in our local town

Quaker Mason by the Anglican church in our local town

On my way home from New Plymouth this morning, I detoured past the campbellii outside the church of St John the Baptist in my local town of Waitara. Sure enough, it too is in full bloom and looking glorious and is also the Quaker Mason form. Local readers may be gratified to know that one of the very finest specimens of M.campbellii – the Quaker Mason form again – is actually in Stratford, in the garden owned by Hugh Thompson.

These are all Magnolia campbellii var. campbellii. The other form of the same species, known as Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata, originates from areas further to the east and flowers several weeks later. Our fine specimen of ‘Lanarth’ (or Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata ‘Lanarth’, to be pedantic) will not flower until halfway into August.

Finally, in case you are wondering for whom this handsome magnolia species was named – plant collector Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (though I don’t think he was knighted at the time he was plant hunting) named it for Archibald or Alfred (some uncertainty on his first name) Campbell, who was an enterprising and powerful representative of the British government in Darjeeling in the north of India from 1839 onwards. He is possibly better known for starting the tea industry in that area, although magnolia enthusiasts around the world continue to use his name. And we celebrate the coming of spring with the magnolia named for him.

* Quaker Mason – or Thomas Mason, to give him his correct name – was an early gardener and plantsman in Wellington. From his arrival as a new settler in 1841, he played a major role in early horticulture in the area through until the end of the century.

Postscript: while we are in the depths of winter with the shortest days and coolest temperatures, we do still get bright, clear light and very blue skies – no photo enhancement involved. This is a Tikorangi winter.

A Mid-Winter’s Day in Tikorangi

IMG_8681Winter can be very pink, here. Or so I have often declared. I hereby move my position. Late winter and early spring can be very pink – all those camellias and magnolias. In late autumn to mid-winter, the dominant colours are more inclined to the oranges and yellows with a smattering of reds.

Having been relatively confined by a combination of wintery, wet weather (Mark says he is consistently tipping 2.5cm or an inch out of the rain gauge each morning) and a bad head cold, I decided I would go and see how many flowers I could find that are in the orange, red, yellow colour range. There is still the last of the autumn colour evident but I figured that I would keep to flowers without adding in coloured foliage. It is probably indicative of our soft climate that I can expect to find a range of different blooms in the depths of winter.

IMG_8669I could of course have added in fruit. The citrus trees add a glorious blaze of colour in the depths of winter – just a common old lemon and a very productive mandarin tree in this photo, but the orange trees we have scattered through the ornamental gardens are also indubitably orange and a very cheerful sight for that.

IMG_8464And it is hard to ignore the glory of the persimmon tree, be the sky grey or blue. It is a feature of our climate that we have high sunshine hours and bright, clear light even in mid-winter, albeit interspersed with the rain. We don’t get many days when it is irredeemably grey and gloomy, without spells of clear skies.

IMG_8673The tamarillos are also hanging decoratively. These used to be known as ‘tree tomatoes’, botanically Solanum betaceum. Apparently the ravages of the potato psyllid have hit commercial production hard, but our plants just continue on in a regime of benign neglect. The fruit is usually stewed with sugar but stewed fruit is not part of our diet. I enjoy them more as a fruit cordial. Mark’s father used to like eating them sliced on wholemeal bread with a little raw, chopped onion. The yellow fruit beneath are windfall grapefruit.

IMG_8684But to the flowers. On the left, we have the vestiges of autumn – salvias, impatiens, tree dahlia hybrids, daisies and Oxalis peduncularis. At the front are a few berries and seeds – baby figs from Ficus antiarus,  Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ , a small berrying shrub whose name escapes me at the moment and the showy seeds from Arisaema speciosum.

Moving to the middle, the winter bloomers include, excitingly, the first of the bulbs – Lachenalias aloides and reflexa, a brave jonquil and the lesser known Phaedranassa carmioli (both Mark and I had to look that one up). The big yellow candlewick flower is Jacobinia chrysostephana adjacent to the flowers of Ligularia reniformis  and what I think is still classified as a datura, not a brugmansia. Also included is an early flowering clivia and Agapetes serpens.

There is only one red azalea out so far, several red camellias but interestingly, the stars are the vireya rhododendrons – plenty of these frost tender subtropicals flowering their socks off and lighting up the woodlands. I guess they speak volumes about the nature of a Tikorangi winter. We should not be complaining too much.

Hovenia dulcis (1)Finally I offer you… the ‘fruit’ of the Japanese raisin tree, Hovenia dulcis. I am guessing that as our plant is maybe 20 years old and planted in a somewhat out of the way position, we just haven’t noticed these before. They are actually the swollen tips of the stems and are edible. They even taste fruity, in a raisin-ish sort of way. Apparently drying them makes them even more raisin-y. It is more a curiosity than an edible essential, but we like these odd additions to our diet here.

Stumperies – an ecological option

Our Rimu Avenue with its informal raised beds which are essentially a stumpery

Our Rimu Avenue with its informal raised beds which are essentially a stumpery

Stumperies are a thing, overseas if not so much in New Zealand. After all, Prince Charles has one at Highgrove. So has Wisley, the Royal Horticulture Society’s flagship gardens. Indeed, many of the best gardens have a stumpery. The first deliberate construction of old tree roots and stumps is attributed to Biddulph Grange in Britain, where the keen owner wanted to display his fern collection but other shade gardens through history must have had incidental stumperies. They are hailed these days as ecological havens.

When you think about it, the stumpery is basically a naturalistic alternative to trendy insect hotels. But instead of being a confined hotel, it is more like an entire estate.

Our stumperies have rather more pragmatic origins than caring for the under-appreciated critters of the garden. In the area we call the rimu avenue, it has evolved over decades. The rimus are so grand and large now that they suck all the goodness and moisture from the ground around them. Our stump and log constructions are a means of getting informal raised beds so we can establish underplantings, including epiphytic plants like vireya rhododendron species and zygocactus, the so-called chain cactus. It adds a lot more interest and gardening potential to have these elevated areas and pockets for planting amongst the tree stumps and trunks.

When we have dug out the stumps of larger plants, these are re-sited to shade areas, sometimes placed upside down so the roots give more visual interest. There they can gently decay, but in the process they add some structure and height to otherwise flat areas dominated by very tall trees.

Allowing nature to create a stumpery – two pine logs left where they fell

Allowing nature to create a stumpery – two pine logs left where they fell

The more substantial stumpery efforts come on the other side of the garden where we have venerable old pine trees. As with the rimus, they are up to 140 years old. Unlike the rimus, they lack a good grip below ground and from time to time, one falls. Four plus a gum tree of the same age have done so in recent years. They cause surprisingly little damage when they fall but were we to try and extract the enormous trunks, it would create a swathe of destruction. We do a cleanup of the foliage, the side branches and the prodigious quantities of pine cones but leave the main trunk where it fell and simply work around it, chainsawing back to clear paths where we need to.

A naturally developing ecological haven on fallen poplar logs

A naturally developing ecological haven on fallen poplar logs

When our instant stumpery installations arrive, they are invariably covered in epiphytes – native astelias and collospermums in particular. We thin these if required but basically leave it to nature to colonise these new areas, adding in special plants to add interest. The ferns just arrive. Dendrobium and cymbidium orchids add seasonal colour and settle in readily. Clivias are often happy at the base. Hostas tend to need more soil than is offered in these situations, but rogersias and farfugiums have settled in well. Hippeastrums and scadoxus are bulbs that we find are happy in this environment and common old impatiens seeds down and adds some summer blooms.

A small stumpery (or stumpette) in a narrow, shaded border in Pat and Brian Woods garden in Waitara

A small stumpery (or stumpette) in a narrow, shaded border in Pat and Brian Woods garden in Waitara

You don’t need a large area to establish a stumpery. Many suburban homes will have a dark and narrow back border (usually the home of the wheelie and recycling bins and the garden hose). As long as you have half or metre or more in width and are not scared of wetas, you can bring in a smaller stump or length of tree trunk and start establishing shade loving plants around it. A little shade garden will contribute far more to a healthy eco-system than gravelling or paving and can be genuinely low maintenance. Fewer weeds grow in shade and once plants are established, it becomes a self maintaining system with the falling leaf litter and gently decaying wood feeding the soil. I did pause to wonder if a very small stumpery became stumperesque in style, or maybe a stumpette?

Amusingly, according to the information board on Wisley’s stumpery, “Not everyone appreciates an artistic garden feature. When the Duke of Edinburgh first laid eyes on the Highgrove stumpery, he allegedly turned to Prince Charles and said, ‘When are you going to set fire to this lot?’”

A natural-formed seat in the stumpery at Wisley, though it would look better without the dedication plaque

A natural-formed seat in the stumpery at Wisley, though it would look better without the dedication plaque

First published in the May issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

Rock on – our rockery in autumn

Nerine sarniensis hybrids blooming in the rockery

Nerine sarniensis hybrids blooming in the rockery

When I am old and maybe decrepit, needing to draw in the boundaries of the garden, I shall fluff around in the rockery. I really enjoy this area and, as we enter autumn, my heart sings with the new season blooms.

Traditionally, rockeries are for growing alpines and sometimes retaining banks. However, we can’t grow alpines in our climate and our rockery is on the flat. It is pure 1950s vintage, built from a combination of rocks of various sizes, concrete and some brick, with sunken paths and raised beds divided into many hundreds of little pockets of soil. It is designed for highly detailed gardening and at about 20 metres by 10 metres, it is relatively large.

The purpose of the multitude of small beds is to keep bulbs separate and to confine the more invasive ones. Most of the pockets have two or three different types of bulbs in them to give seasonal interest.

There is always something to see, though summer is the toughest season. Because there is so much stone and the beds are elevated, parts of it dry out almost to dust. We have dwarf conifers, cycads, and a few other small shrubs to give both all year round structure and summer shade. There are a few smaller perennials and a limited range of annuals and biennials but generally, the rockery is about the bulb collection.

The range of nerine colours at one time

The range of nerine colours at one time

As we enter autumn, it is as if the rockery heaves a sigh of relief and leaps back into life. All the bulbs whose growth is triggered by autumn rains start to move.

As a general rule, we find that the species bulbs look better. They are usually smaller flowered and more delicate in appearance than the showy hybrids which can look out of scale and even vulgar in this particular context. The exception is the nerines which peak this month. While we grow some nerine species, it is the sarniensis hybrids that dominate. A few of these are of Exbury origin but most are the result of breeding efforts by both Felix and Mark Jury. The colour range is delightful – from white, through every shade of pink including near iridescent highlighter pink, to purple, corals, almost apricot, oranges and reds. Unlike the floristry business, we want shorter, squatter stems so that the heavy heads are held upright even through autumnal weather.

Cyclamen hederafolium

Cyclamen hederafolium

Also lighting up the autumn is Cyclamen hederafolium (formerly known as C. neapolitanum) which hails from southern Europe and Turkey. This is the easiest of the dainty species cyclamen to grow and it has gently naturalised itself here. It throws its first brave flowers up in January but peaks this month. It is one of a number of autumn bulbs that bloom first before the leaves appear. Others are most of the nerines, colchicums and Haemanthus coccineus.

Moraea polystachya

Moraea polystachya

The pretty autumn flowering peacock iris, Moraea polystachya, outdoes almost every other bulb with its long flowering season. It seeds down gently into the cracks between the rocks without becoming an invasive menace. Some of the ornamental oxalis also give extended displays of colour but not all oxalis are born equal and neither are they all born with good manners. The most reliable performers in our rockery are O. purpurea ‘Alba’, O. luteola and O. lobata. They have been here for decades and never looked threatening.

O. luteola and purpurea 'Alba'

O. luteola and purpurea ‘Alba’

Colchicum autumnale

Colchicum autumnale

Then there are the bulbs with a much shorter season. Colchicum autumnale makes a bold statement with its big lilac chalices held above bare soil. Hippeastrum bifida is a transient delight for us. We have it in both pink and red and the blooms look as if they have been touched with gold leaf when the sun shines through. The autumn flowering leucojum is one of the daintiest and prettiest of tiny blooms and the crocus also delight.

Autumn crocus (species unknown) with cyclamen hederafolium

Autumn crocus (species unknown) with cyclamen hederafolium

The rockery is not what I would call low maintenance. The more time I put into it, the better it looks. In spring I completely replaced the soil in maybe a dozen pockets in my efforts to eradicate the pretty but invasive Geissorhiza aspera. I do not lie when I tell you that we have battling it for well over 25 years, hence my extreme action in replacing the soil in the worst affected areas. We have to be vigilant on weeds, slugs, snails, narcissi fly and weevils. I wire brush the rocks from time to time to stop the moss growth from hiding their shapes. There is plenty there to keep me busy in my dotage and, with the raised beds, I can do a lot of it sitting on a stool. Sometimes it is the detail and the little pictures in the garden that delight.

024First published in the NZ Gardener April edition and reprinted here with their permission.