Tag Archives: Taranaki gardens

Gardening with our native flora

The cordyline just arrived, I think. It is growing right on stream bank at water level and I can’t think that anyone would have planted it there

We like to garden with a wide range of plants here. A VERY wide range. Not for us that prescription from some *designers* who decree a garden should have no more than ten different plant varieties in it. I can’t give the most recent reference for that because I thought it was such a remarkably stupid thing to write that I didn’t bookmark it. I guess the author was thinking of small town gardens but even so, both Mark and I would be bored stiff.

I have been thinking about the extent to which we incorporate our native flora. The purist *native garden* is not for us, nor indeed the predominantly native garden. We are too much of the complex layering, detailed planting persuasion, using an extensive range of plant material in mix and match combinations, to ever want to place that type of restriction on ourselves. But when I walk around and look, it is a surprise even to me just how many native plants we grow and often take for granted.

I figured there are at least four groups of native plants – the volunteers that just arrive of their own volition, the rare and endangered which actually owe their continued existence to the horticultural trade, the utility backbone plants that we take for granted but are actually native and the ones that are grown because they are simply great ornamentals in their own right.

A note about naming: in NZ we know most of these plants by their Maori names. While there aren’t too many truly bi-lingual speakers in this country, our every day language is peppered with Maori words, names and phrases that can confuse English speakers from other countries. I hadn’t really thought of this until I mentioned pohutukawa on a Facebook post and an American replied, “Maori common names just don’t stick in my memory, I think that’s a Metrosideros?” Botanical names really do aid international communication so I have added those in brackets below.

We have never planted any tree ferns. They just arrive of their own accord.

The volunteers that just arrive will vary throughout the country. Ours include the tree ferns (commonly known as pongas – pronounced ‘pungas’, botanically cyathea and dicksonia), the nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida) , cabbage trees (cordyline),   an abundance of pepper trees or kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) and a wide range of ferns. If they are not in the way, we just leave them to grow where they wish. Even NZ gardeners may not realise that we have three native dicksonia species and seven cyathea species. I think we just have the most common four or maybe five species seeding down in our garden.

Kakabeak, growing in a town garden (hence the power lines). I have the white form in a new garden but it has its own little wire cage because pesky rabbits just about ate all of it over just two nights

The rare and endangered plants contain some special stories. The tree Pennantia baylisiana and the climber Tecomanthe speciosa  were both down to a single surviving specimen in the wild but are now relatively common thanks to sustained efforts to propagate and distribute them. Similarly, the two species of kakabeak (clianthus) were at the extremely endangered status in the wild but are now widely planted in gardens. Sometimes commerce can ensure the survival of a species where protection of their natural environment has failed. Even Astelia chathamica was rated as under threat in the wild (in the Chatham Islands which are our southernmost islands marooned in the Southern Ocean) but there is no danger of it being lost these days, so widely is it grown now in mainland gardens.

The renga renga lily, as seen in almost every garden

Utility backbone plants include a fair swag of trees grown in this country but especially the kowhai (sophora – there are eight native species though S. tetraptera is the most common) and the pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa). Both of these are absolute standouts in bloom. What we call the rengarenga lily (Arthropodium cirratum) is so widely grown that it is probably seen as a garden cliché. But we don’t have a whole lot of flowering herbaceous  plants that are native to New Zealand when you think about it. And our gardens would be the poorer without the native astelias which are used very widely, being preferable as garden plants to our native flaxes (phormiums)

Pachystegia insignis to the left (the white buttons are the flower buds) and Xeronema callistemon with the red flower spikes

Some native plants are special in their own right as ornamentals and not necessarily easy to grow in conditions far removed from their natural environment. The Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis) occurs naturally on exposed coastal rock faces in dry, hard conditions  ; the celmisias are predominantly mountain daisies : the Poor Knight’s lily (Xeronema callistemon) comes from sub-tropical northern islands and is distinctly frost tender and needs brilliant drainage, preferring coastal conditions. These and other plants are well out of their comfort zone here but interesting, showy and still indigenous plants if you take the country-wide definition.

The alstromeria is certainly not native but the grass is – Chionocloa rubra

What I don’t think has been helpful is the polarised positions adopted by some. The native purist position has long been claiming the higher moral ground (but only applying that to ornamental plants, and mostly trees at that, as I wrote about here) In turn, this spawned the sniffy response that our native plants are “boring”. Neither is a logical or thoughtful position.

I will say that if we stripped out the native plants from our garden, there would be HUGE gaps, not the least being our rimu avenue (Dacrydium cupressinum) and our totara hedge (Podocarpus totara). And yet, to the casual eye, most visitors would not pick that our garden is rich in a wide variety of native plants. I like to think that is because of a seamless blending of native and exotic flora rather than any self-conscious display of indigenous plants.

The widespread use of native plants is one of the key differences in NZ gardens and that is worth celebrating. We are derivative enough here. We don’t want to be a nation of gardens that could be located in any number of other countries around the world with no unique features to define our own location and heritage.

Pohutukawa to the left, kowhai with tui bird to the right

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.