Tag Archives: Tikorangi: The Jury garden

Counting down to festival in the new world of Covid

Prunus Awanui in flower this week as we pass peak magnolia and go into the next phase of spring

As a nation, we are collectively holding our breath to see if we are indeed safely back to the status of zero Covid cases, except those caught and isolated in border quarantine. Just one community case in five days and counting now, this second time round. Our team of five million that saw us achieve this status the first time round has had some defections. Hopefully, the mob of doubters, conspiracists and anti-vaxxers is small, though very noisy. Obsessed only with their own *rights*, they have no concern for the safety and well-being of others and are swallowed up by their own crusade that Covid doesn’t exist, that it is no worse than the common flu, that it is a man-made virus being used by Bill Gates and his cohorts to take over the world (never mind that these positions are contradictory), that our government is lying to us, that it is somehow tied up with the 5G network and probably chem trails, that the Covid vaccine will be mandatory (it won’t) – all because they don’t want to wear masks on public transport and maintain physical distancing while we stamp out the latest flare-up. Sigh.

Mark’s Rhododendron Floral Sun never fails to lift my spirits, even more so this week in such uncertain times

It is not helped by a prolonged election campaign where some of the opposition parties are hellbent on undermining confidence in the government and community response to Covid. Let not the fact that NZ is a shining star internationally with its Covid response and that we have fewer restrictions and a safer environment than almost every other country in the world at this time get in the way of their narrative that  it is a ‘shambles’, ‘incompetent’, a ‘failure’, an example of ‘gross mismanagement’ and all the rest. Some even advocate opening the borders and ‘learning to live with Covid’, though they seem to be unable to come up with international examples of countries managing to live comfortably with Covid on the loose in the community.

New Zealand – we done good. We are on track to eliminate this latest outbreak. The election will be over in a month. Our lives will return to the comfort of level one freedoms in this new reality that Covid has brought to our world.

‘Back in the day’, as is said, I used to write a regular piece for the local paper called ‘Countdown to Festival’ and I still look back at that series with some fond memories. It was just an assemblage of snippets from local gardeners describing their preparations for the annual garden festival and, from memory, the paper paid me the grand sum of $35 a week for it. It comprised garden hints from gardeners all around the district, some quirky anecdotes and painting small word pictures of the characters who were beavering away to get their gardens to opening standard.  I think it had a quirky charm as well as some handy advice but it all stopped when I left the Taranaki Daily News and went to write for the Waikato Times instead.

The pretty path down to the park by my washing line, The white on the left is fragrant Rhododendron veitchianum, colourful azaleas in the centre and pretty Magnolia laevifolia ‘Velvet and Cream’ on the right

My mind went back to that series because we are now totally focused on getting the garden ready for opening on October30. Hopefully, we will be in level one which, in NZ, means no restrictions at all (life as usual but with no overseas tourists) but I am assuming we can still go ahead at level two, if need be. Mostly that means physical distancing and some controls on numbers, but presumably without coach tours owing to distancing not being possible on most coaches. Note to self: buy hand sanitiser – that public health symbol of Covid – and investigate registering for QR code. Even I, an occasional mobile phone-user at best, use the Covid app to scan into all shops and businesses. It is much easier than manually signing in. Frankly, it feels weird to be contemplating getting all visitors to the property to scan or sign in but this is our world now.

Lloyd can be spotted at the back of the photo with the tractor, our fancy lawnmower towing a large trolley, screeding tool, shovel, rake, barrow and plate compactor. This is not a job for the fainthearted.

The compacted ‘terrazzo’ look

With our lives becoming so much more home-based, local and smaller – holding the chaos of the world at bay – the garden has become even more important. This week, I ordered the first truckload of the top layer for the paths in our new summer gardens. Ten cubic metres or fourteen ton to start with and we will need at least as much again. It is not cheap so there was some nervousness but we are pretty excited at the effect of this crushed limestone and shell mix (I did say our world had grown smaller!). Lloyd is spreading it by barrow, shovel and rake,  screeding it and then using the plate compressor to compact it as he goes. A torrential downpour was a good test. It compacts suffciently firmly that the torrent of ground water did not wash it away and the surface is so smooth that it can be swept or cleaned with the leaf blower. The rain brought the whiter fines to the surface so the finished effect looks more like the terrazzo kitchen benches of long ago. After building up to this for so long, it is positively thrilling, I tell you.

I think the uppermost two topknots on Mine No Yuki need to removed entirely but that can wait if we run out of time

Lloyd has also been clipping our shaped and cloud pruned camellias this week and will start on the hedges soon. In the meantime, Mark rather defies my work schedule but has been painstakingly giving the geriatric apple trees a major and considered prune. Next up, the two avenues of Fairy Magnolia White and the punctuation points of Podocarpus parlatorei in the new gardens are awaiting their annual trim. Mark is by far the most skilled pruner here.

Mark has done the first four geriatric apple trees but there is a whole lot more pruning waiting to be done and I am not yet seeing him show the signs of urgency I am hoping for

I am here, there and everywhere. Garden grooming is my strength. Attention to detail. At least it gets me all round the place. We have passed peak magnolia, the snowdrops have long finished and the dwarf narcissi are all but over. Now it is bluebell time, Japanese cherries, rhododendrons, evergreen azaleas and mid spring bulbs. The plants and the seasons are not disturbed by Covid.

The mid spring bulbs are starting – Moraea villosa and sparaxis

The freshly laid paths in the Court Garden look a little stark but we are confident they will mellow and soften quickly. The initial stage is preternaturally tidy.

Notes from the Garden of Jury – September 13

The little sights in the garden can bring me delight – bluebells and narcissi against the twisted trunk of a giant eucalyptus

I am feeling the pressure of opening the garden again after seven years. All I can say is that if you want to see it, you had better come this year to the Taranaki Garden Festival (October 30 to November 8) because they way I am feeling, we may not open again.

We maintain the garden all the time to a level that keeps us happy but that is not the same as the level needed to reopen after such a long time closed. With seven weeks to go, there seems to be so much to do. We will get there – we are experienced at this – but it does take away some of the pleasure of early spring.

Spring has long been associated with anxiety in my mind. For seven years, from the age of 15 to 22, it was the time of major exams that could change the course of my life. I had nightmares about it all for at least two decades after that. Then spring became a pressure time for us when we were in business with the garden open, retailing plants and the never-ending demands of nursery production work. The last seven years have been bliss. Bliss, I tell you. With no external pressures or expectations of us, we have been free to take all the time we want to enjoy the daily sights of spring abundance and beauty. Whether we continue to reopen after this year will depend on how much we enjoy the festival and sharing the garden with visitors. It will have to be quite a lot to reward me for all the effort going into it right now.

A daily routine here but I admit that the photo was taken earlier when temperatures were warmer. Mark is not one of those hardy men who wears shorts all year round.

Emerging lilies. You won’t see the detail if you are reading this on your phone, but front right is the one rabbit-chewed shoot. In the past two years, all would have been attacked by now.

Regular readers may recall my despair at the rabbit predations this time last year. Mark and I were out sprinkling blood and bone after every rain to try and deter them. The auratum lilies are all coming through again and I am checking every morning. So far only one has been chewed off. This is testimony to Mark’s ongoing efforts with the gun. He has shot nearly 50 so far this year and that in a limited area of barely 2 acres. There are still a few around that need to be cleaned out and we dare not take our eyes off the ball – or the fluffy tails – because those few can increase exponentially (not unlike Covid, really) but man with .22 rifle appears to have the upper hand at this stage. In case you are wondering what we do with 49 dead rabbits, there is not much that the dogs enjoy more than fresh rabbit for breakfast.

I have tried cooking rabbit before – both casserole and pie but the only recipe I have really enjoyed is for rabbit and pistachio terrine (a recipe courtesy of Alistair Boyce) and it takes a bit of effort and pre-planning so I don’t make it often.

Lloyd in the process of compacting the base layer of pit metal. We borrowed the compactor from an obliging man up the road but they can also be hired. 

We bought this little orchard tractor over 20 years ago and it was already old then. It has done a lot of work in the years since.

We have laid the base course of pit metal for the paths in the new summer gardens. I say ‘we’, but that is in the royal sense. This has been Lloyd’s project. It took about 19 cubic metres and he did it with our baby tractor and wheelbarrow. We had thought we would get a bobcat in but Lloyd pointed out that the paths, though appearing generous, were just too narrow for the bobcat and some of the turns too tight so he thought it better to take the time to do it himself with minimal disturbance.

When it rains heavily, this path becomes the natural water course

An off the shelf solution but it needs precise installation to make it work for the best outcome

He is only half way there. There is still the top layer of crushed limestone and shell to be laid but we are letting the base layer settle first. Heavy rains highlighted a problem: in one area, the run-off from downpours naturally flowed down one path and scoured out the newest set of steps every time. We can get away with quite a bit because our volcanic soils are very free draining and surface water is absorbed quickly (this never happens in clay soils). But our rains can be torrential and when that happens, the run-off will find its natural path. Lloyd is, by nature, a problem solver. He decided we needed a drainage channel in front of the steps, one that is safe to be walked on. Fortunately, this is an off-the-shelf solution. He has laid it with an imperceptible drop to one side (this is a man who makes a spirit level his friend) and then connected it to a length of holey, plastic drainage tubing hidden just below the mulch to disperse the water more widely. We are waiting for the next downpour but we expect the problem to be solved.

Magnolia Athene against the bright blue sky yesterday

When 1+1 equal more that 2. Magnolia parents and offspring.

I added a postscript to last week’s post about blind pruning camellias. After comments on that post, I added in chainsaw pruning tips (cutting back overgrown camellias to ground level or just above) and a word of caution about hygiene with cutting tools. You can find it at the end of the post if you are contemplating more extreme, less refined pruning.

Today’s post is heavy on photos. Magnolia photos to celebrate the season. I haven’t sat down before and collated images to show the parents of our named cultivars, lined up alongside their progeny. When Felix started crossing magnolias back in the early 1960s, he wanted to see if he could get the cup and saucer flower form of M. campbellii, that would flower from a younger age, on plants that would stay smaller and with more colours.

Magnolia Mark Jury  with a larger, more robust flower and longer flowering season than either of its parents.

He didn’t start with many options. There were not many different magnolias available in NZ at the time – nothing like today’s range – but he had a unique tool in his kit. That was the magnolia he named for his youngest son, Mark Jury.

Magnolia sargentiana robusta on the left, ‘Lanarth’ on the right, the parents of ‘Mark Jury’

More Mark

‘Mark Jury’ came to him from Hillier Nurseries as a seedling of ‘Lanarth’ (M.campbellii var mollicomata ‘Lanarth’, to be precise), costing 18 shillings which was quite a lot back in the 1950s. When it flowered, it was not ‘Lanarth’. Discussions with Hilliers – slow discussions by hand-written letters as was the way back then – determined that it was most likely to be a cross between ‘Lanarth’ and M. sargentiana robusta. It proved to be an important breeder parent for him.

Magnolia ‘Lennei’ alba crossed onto ‘Mark Jury’ was one of his first efforts. (For the technically minded, ‘Lennei’ is more correctly M. X soulangeana ‘Lennei’, itself a cross of M.denudata and M.liliiflora).

It resulted in the beautiful ‘Athene’

‘Lotus’

and ‘Milky Way’.

Swapping to the pink form of ‘Lennei’ crossed on to ‘Mark Jury’, he raised and named

Atlas

and Iolanthe. This particular cultivar is one of the enduring stars in Felix’s collection.

The picture on his use of M.liliiflora is not as clear. He had the dark form of M. liliiflora ‘Nigra’, a paler pink form of the same species and, it seems, a liliiflora hybrid in the garden and over time, he grew somewhat hazy in his recollections of which plant in the garden he used for which cross. One or other form of M liliiflora crossed with ‘Lanarth’ gave two notable results.

The first was ‘Apollo’.

The second was the colour breakthrough in ‘Vulcan’ that paved the way for a multitude of magnolias into the future, getting to the red tones.

Again, an unspecified form of M.liliifora but crossed this time on his old favourite ‘Mark Jury’ resulted in one named cultivar of note.

Magnolia ‘Serene’.

When Mark moved in to the next generation, starting by using Felix’s hybrids, it was his cross between ‘Atlas’ and ‘Vulcan’ that closed the circle his father started.

Magnolia ‘Felix Jury’ was what Felix had been wanting to see if he could reach and he lived long enough to see it happen. It does of course have ‘Mark Jury’ in its parentage through ‘Atlas’. To be honest, the flowers do not always look this red. I took this photo last week and we admit that it is ‘Felix’ at its most sublime.

Mark has had one notable success with his yellow crosses – ‘Yellow Bird’ with ‘Iolanthe’. ‘Yellow Bird’ is not evergreen – it just flowers at the same time as its new leaves appear in our climate and its flowers are small but a good colour. He was pleased to get a smaller growing tree that flowers on bare wood and that has been named ‘Honey Tulip.

‘Honey Tulip’ is a good stepping stone. Mark’s dream is to get the equivalent of ‘Iolanthe’ – a large cup and saucer bloom in pure yellow. Whether he has enough years left to achieve this is as yet unknown. It may fall to the next generation of hybridists to realise that vision.

The difference between clipping, hacking and blind pruning

Camellia yuhsienensis – not self grooming but apparently resistant to camellia petal blight. To save you the bother of contacting me: no, we no longer sell any plants at all these days and I think it is unlikely that this particular camellia is still commercially available in New Zealand.

‘Blind pruning’ is not, as some might assume, an activity carried out by the visually impaired. An old horticulturist introduced me to the term years ago. Essentially, it is pruning that is carried out so that the end result does not show evidence of it, even though it can be quite extreme. Skilled and careful pruning, as opposed to clipping or, at its worst, hacking. It is a higher-level skill.

I lacked confidence in my ability to carry out extreme pruning without making it obvious so usually left it up to Mark but this year I doubted that he was going to work to my timetable and told myself I can do it. Camellias are obliging plants to work with because if you get it wrong, they come away again with new season’s growth able to sprout from bare wood.

Clipping is done with hedge clippers. We do it with our camellia hedges and with some shaped camellias. It is what gets the sharp definition. The first shaping takes skill – and time – but from then on, any reasonably capable person with a set of sharp clippers can maintain that shape.

Before…

After. Definite hacking on the middle plant but that was the only option to get back the shape I want

Extreme cutting – hacking, as I call it – is unsightly until the fresh flush of growth covers the bare ends but it is sometimes the only option. In this border, I wanted to get the middle camellia, ‘Spring Festival’ back to a mounded growth sitting lower than the four standards behind it. With very little foliage left in the middle of the bush, there was no alternative to extreme cutting and now is the time of the year to do it because it will put on a flush of new growth very soon. It won’t flower well next year but should hit its stride again in 2022.

The four standard camellias behind are all Mark’s hybrid ‘Pearly Cascade’ and they needed more love. Between the two photos, I have removed at least a third of the growth and they look better for it. You would have to look close into the plant to find the fresh cuts because it is not obvious to view. That is blind pruning, as I understand it.

Before…

… and after

The feature camellias in the sunken garden area have not had my attention for the last two or three years and they did not look lovely this year. This is ‘Pearly Cascade’ again, grown au naturelle rather than the grafted standards in the earlier border. It is a pretty enough little camellia although the flower is not by any means unique. It is very like ‘Nicky Crisp’ in bloom. It was as much the habit of growth that encouraged Mark to name and release it. It keeps excellent foliage in full sun and stays low with arching, spreading growth rather than shooting upwards. This plant must be 15 or 20 years old and has just received the odd passing nip and tuck to keep it to size.

But that spreading foliage is dense and doesn’t allow spent blooms to fall. Breeding for self-grooming – where a plant drops its spent blooms – was a big focus for Mark’s camellia breeder Uncle Les and his father, Felix. It stops that ugly look where sludgy brown blooms stay on the bush. But when the foliage is too dense, the blooms can’t fall and that has become even more of problem with rampant camellia petal blight.

‘Pearly Cascade’

Mark is unusually derisive (he not a man much given to derision) about the idea of ground cover camellias or michelias. Both are heavy blooming plants and when they are spreading, as ground cover is, there is no way those spent blooms can fall so they just congregate as a mush on top.

I started on this plant by nipping back the top to the height I want, followed by shortening the sides. This is all work done with secateurs. Then it is an exercise in delving into the body of the plant and reducing the dense growth – taking out wispy branches, short growths and badly crossing branches first and then selecting which remaining stems are superfluous and can be cut back flush to the trunk. It is precise work and it takes time. There is much stepping back to look. In the end, I reduced the plant by about 50% and it looks a whole lot better for it.

Before…

The two C. yuhsienensis were more of a challenge. They had grown huge without us really noticing, larger than we want in this area. This is a beautiful species but it is not self grooming at all. Mind you, with all those spent blooms still on the bush, we examined them and can report that it appears to be impervious to camellia petal blight so that is a bonus.

… and after

and the matched plant on the other side

I needed the kitchen step ladder and a pruning saw as well as secateurs but the approach was the same – reduce the height, narrow the spread and then thin the middle. Even I was surprised by how much I removed but the plants look a whole lot better for that. Looking from above, I can see that I need to remove more from the right-hand side of the one at the front to get a better balanced plant. The four lollipop camellias – another compact cultivar of Mark’s that we call ‘Pink Poppet’ but never released commercially, still need to be trimmed but they are a hedge clipper job. They get shaped like an umbrella or mushroom because we want that flattish, curved shape rather than round top-knots.   The tops are currently out of proportion to the stems on these grafted standards.

Those are piles of prunings lying on the grass beside the four plants trimmed so far

Mark’s advice, given to me often down the years, is not to keep lifting and trimming up plants. Over time what evolves – and we have a few examples of these from my earlier efforts – is a plant with bare legs that looks as though it has been grazed by stock up to the level where they can no longer reach. That is why the top down, outside in and then thinning the interior works better to retain a more natural form. If you plan to keep a plant clipped or trimmed, longer term it is easier if you keep the height down to what can be managed without a ladder.

It took hard pruning to achieve this shape, now it is maintained by a simple annual haircut with sharp hedge clippers

Clipping gives sharp definition, at least for a couple of months after the annual trim

Postscript

I didn’t set out to write a definitive piece about pruning camellias but will add two points and links to earlier advice on chainsaw pruning.

Firstly, if you are ever pruning camellias with variegated flowers and foliage (often showing as mottled yellow and green leaves but not every leaf will be mottled), you are likely pruning a camellia which has a virus that causes such variegations. Make sure you disinfect your cutting tools afterwards, before touching any other camellias or you risk transferring the virus. Virus is not always bad but it will weaken the plant and you probably don’t want mottled foliage throughout your camellias.

The mottled leaves and the irregular variegation on the flowers are a good indicator of the presence of virus

Secondly, if you are going to do the chainsaw massacre number and cut a camellia off close to the ground, we recommend cutting about a metre up and leaving some framework to the plant. If you cut it off close to the ground, it will re-sprout as a thicket and you will never get a good-shaped plant out of it, though you will be able to clip to a mound. If you leave some branch structure and a central leader (main trunk), you will get a better-looking plant in the long term.

Now is the time (late winter to early spring here) to carry out such extreme pruning so the fresh growth that will sprout soon can be made on the bare wood.

This piece from 2016 shows the results of chainsaw pruning six months later.

Back in 2011 when I used to do step by step sequences for the newspaper, I covered hard pruning of camellias. My photography has improved a bit since then but the information is still relevant.

Simple things – appreciating primula species

Many square metres of Primula helodoxa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primula obconica has staying power here

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

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

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