Tag Archives: Tikorangi: The Jury garden

The Lost Gardens of Tikorangi

Sometimes in life, you just have to wait for the right person to turn up. So it was with our Wild North Garden.

This area of about 16000 square metres (or 4 acres for oldies and Americans) used to be called the cow paddock, on account of it being the paddock where Mark’s dad Felix kept his house cow for many years. Around 1990 – goodness that is thirty years ago – Mark started on the area. First, he milled the old pine trees planted there by his great grandfather 100 years previously, most of which were dead or dying. The purpose was to get timber to build the very large shed we continue to refer to as ‘the packing shed’ because the purpose at the time was to accommodate our mailorder nursery. While there was heavy machinery on site, Mark had them dig out ponds and waterways which are supplied by springs at the lowest point and a not-quite-stream that flows from the neighbours.

Some pretty spring scenes have evolved but the area has become increasingly difficult to navigate

He started planting, mostly trees and shrubs. Most of the plant material is unnamed seedlings from his breeding programme so there are quite a few magnolias, michelias and rhododendrons. He also added specimens of the woody trees and shrubs we were selling through the nursery, just to make sure we had them represented somewhere in the garden. The result is an eclectic mix. There is also a beautiful, if wayward grove of giant bamboo.

Over the intervening years, the trees and shrubs have grown and the plans to develop the area have been put on hold year by year. We were just too busy with the rest of the garden and with earning a living. From time to time we would add a bit more. Mark planted the Louisiana iris while I added the Higo iris.

The area had minimal maintenance only – a bit of seasonal mowing in grassy areas and Mark would battle his way in to deal with seedling prunus and other invasive weeds. Come spring, we would venture down to enjoy the ambience of pretty, if wild, spring scenes but it was becoming something resembling Sleeping Beauty’s forest.

Enter Zach, the newest member of our team – the right person to bring fresh energies to this wild area, to tame and shape it to a wild garden rather than an overgrown wilderness. He turned up as a garden visitor last November and happened to have both the right skill set and the ability to share our vision of how the area could look. Sometimes gardening can be positively exciting and it really is a thrill to see this area being brought into shape. It is like the final frontier. This is the last major addition to the garden. The boundary fences with the neighbours mean there is no more room for expansion.

I wrote a few weeks ago that “There is a fine line between a wild garden and an unkempt wilderness”. Canadian gardener, Pat Webster commented on that post: “Wild gardens take an enormous level of skill and attention to detail. I visited one in England some years ago that was designed with ‘wild’ in mind. In its heyday, it may have been superb but when I saw it, the balance had tipped and it was simply too overgrown for me.” This is a new learning curve for us but we have come to grips with meadows and summer perennials over the last decade; we can get our heads around wild gardening.

Opening up. The misty light is smoke from the fire. We take out any lengths suitable for firewood and what remains is either stacked to the side to rot down in its own time or burned if it is too far to haul it to the sides.

At this point, the focus is on opening the area up, finding space and light, preserving the plant framework that is already well established while culling the unwanted incursions and removing wayward branches and dead plants. “It has become a woodland,” declared Mark as we stood and looked at the newfound space. Note, dear reader, forests and jungles are dark and dense, vegetated from top to bottom. Woodlands are open and airy with some high canopy but enough light getting through to allow woodland plants below to establish and flower.

Lesson number one on wild gardens has already been determined: never, ever, ever plant climbers like wisteria and honeysuckle, even when it is a very good honeysuckle with much larger flowers that was given to us by the then-curator at Eastwoodhill Arboretum. Rampant climbers need to be in tended, cultivated garden areas. In wild gardens, they simply rampage far and wide and cause no end of problems.

Natural clumps of cutty grass but which one?

The clumps of what we call cutty grass in this country have been kept as sculptural features. With more light they will fill out further. Is it Carex germinata? Or maybe Gahnia lacera? This is not our area of expertise at all. It is one of our native grasses commonly referred to as cutty grass because it will cut all the skin on your hands if you make the mistake of grabbing it with bare skin. It gave me the idea that I could relocate my surplus plants of the festooning Carex comans ‘Red’ which is more honey brown than red and which just arrived here of its own accord – red tussock. I really like it but it has settled in so happily in the two places I have used it that I need to remove half the plants to allow the others room to let their natural form star. I think I will have enough to feature on the sunny side of the margins in the North Garden.

Mark has bigger plans. His mind is ticking over that now there may be space to explore a large, free-form Oudolf-inspired meadow. Maybe. At least starting with the surplus Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ I must cull from the new Court Garden – there should be enough to plant close to a few hundred square metres. That might pack some visual oomph.

Whatever happens, we must keep this area as low maintenance and distinctly different to any other area of the garden. It will walk on the wild side and be free from most hard landscaping. There are just a few bridges to build and we are waiting for Lloyd to come back from holiday to start on those.

Garden styles

It is a long time since I published a piece on the folly of allowing garden openers to write their own descriptions. Even then, discretion won out and I only published it on a UK gardening site I was contributing to at the time. This explains why I couldn’t find it on my own site when I went looking for it. A not-unrelated situation arose this week when we were asked to describe the style of our garden in a single word. Apparently, this helps garden visitors.

As a seasoned garden visitor myself, I am as wary of garden owners getting to declare their own ‘style’ as I am of getting them to write their own descriptions. But just in case you need some assistance in interpreting garden style, I offer the following explanations. Some, but not all of these ‘styles’ were offered as a suggestion to help us in defining our own garden category.

Japanese – three rocks, some raked gravel and a recently planted dwarf red maple.

English style, as seen through NZ eyes

English – buxus hedging, garden rooms, a Japanese cherry tree and pretty flowers because in NZ, the English garden style begins and ends with the Arts and Crafts movement seen by so many at Sissinghurst and Hidcote.

The real McCoy – Villa d’Este in Tivoli

Italian – more likely ‘Italianate’, similar to the connection between a ‘dinette’ and a banqueting hall, or a ‘kitchenette’ and a caterer’s kitchen. Terracotta pots, a clipped bay tree and hard landscaping carried out in concrete and ponga* logs or tanalised timber on account of a dearth of skilled Italian stonemasons here.

This really was a designer garden, designed by Dan Pearson

Designer – in theory a garden created by a name designer and executed with attention to detail and a big budget but more likely to be a recent garden designed and planted by the owner, a younger woman in her 30s or early 40s who is a magazine subscriber and who bought some graph paper, large paving slabs and black mondo grass.

Tropical – a naive gardener who does not realise that nobody has a tropical garden in Taranaki owing to us not having anything like a tropical climate. More likely to be three palms, either hardy or half hardy, and ten bromeliads. 

East Lambrook Manor set the standard for cottage gardens

Cottage – If you are expecting something like Margery Fish’s iconic cottage garden at East Lambrook Manor, you may be disappointed. More likely to be packets of wild flower seeds scattered on bare soil, struggling to germinate, let alone flower. And a clipped camellia and maybe some common purple foxgloves.

Plantsman’s – this is a difficult one. To those in the know about open gardens, it is often used as code for a garden lacking in design, prettiness or charm that may appeal to those who take a magnifying glass with them when they go garden visiting in order to view the close-up of an obscure native orchid in bloom. Occasionally, this is a descriptor adopted by an ambitious gardener with over 30 different plants in their garden who is unaware that in the rarefied atmosphere of upper-level horticulture and botany, the term ‘plantsperson’ is an honour bestowed by peers and colleagues, not self-awarded.

Courtyard – 80% paved or decked with a very expensive outdoor dining suite, sofa with all weather cushions, lighting, a very (very) small water feature and a narrow border or two on the periphery planted with clivias and a Kentia palm.

A splendid crop of broad beans

Vegetable – featuring a splendid broad bean crop in spring, some small tomato plants and a worm farm.

Sustainable vegetable – as above but mulched in cardboard or old woollen carpet.

Insect hotels are very on trend.

Potager – another vegetable garden but this time with rainbow chard and fancy lettuces corseted in clipped buxus hedging and featuring a fancy insect hotel.

Welford Park. Photo credit Chris Wood via Wiki Commons

Woodland – you may be envisaging an open scene of deciduous trees, perhaps white barked birches – with a sea of snowdrops beneath. More likely to be over-planted trees which need thinning and limbing up, underplanted with a few hostas and clivias that are struggling with root competition and too much shade.

Coastal – windy. Trees growing at a 45° angle, ice plants, gazanias, some wind burnt succulents and a defoliated copper beech.

A friend who has extensive experience in plant sales contributed the ‘Low Maintenance Garden’ – griselinia hedges, yuccas and Agave attenuata for structural focus, with Coprosma ‘Hawera’ groundcover, all surrounded by black stained bark chips.

The idea of defining our garden by a single style defeated me entirely.

*Ponga – NZ tree fern trunks which are widely available, relatively long lasting and usually inexpensive or even free.

A week of paper wasps, fasciated lilies and crocosmia

A paper wasp nest

Look at this cute honeycomb nest. A small wonder of nature but not a welcome one. It is the nest of a paper wasp. I have lived my life blissfully unconcerned about these creatures. We have both the Australian and the Asian paper wasp in New Zealand, along with the more aggressive German and common wasp. Mark wages war every summer on the nests of the latter two.

The nest is fairly hard to spot in the foliage

Alas, a wasp from this nest that I hadn’t even noticed took exception to me cutting out some of the leafy tips of an over-large osmanthus. It stung me twice just below the eye and then buzzed me aggressively as I exited hastily. I didn’t even see it. I was more worried about getting to a mirror to work out whether it was a bee (in which case I would have needed to get the sting out) or a wasp. Mark went straight out and spotted the nest at eye level – he is observant, that man. They are quite hard to spot because there is not the busy coming and going that defines a common wasp nest. We looked on line and came to the conclusion that what he saw crawling over the nest was more likely an Australian than Asian paper wasp. Whichever, they are dead wasps now.

Left to right: German wasp, common wasp, Australian paper wasp, Asian paper wasp. Photo credit: unknown. All these wasps are unwelcome intruders to this country.

While unpleasant, two paper wasp stings do not appear to be as bad those from the larger common or German wasp. I kept ice cubes wrapped in cloth on them for an hour or more as required on the first day. The puffy swelling remained for another three days and the site remained tender to touch but not exactly painful, so it could have been much worse. At least I know what to look out for now.

We are past peak auratum lily season although there are still plenty in bloom as we enter late summer.

A mass of blooms on a single stem – a sign of fasciation

Here we have the curiosity of a fasciated lily, not to be confused with a fascinating lily unless you like freaks and novelties. It is an aberration in a plant, usually a seasonal deformity but not a lasting condition and it causes a flattening of the stem (basically it is two dimensional and ribbed) and a huge increase in the number of flowers but they are correspondingly smaller. The cause is unknown and it may stem from any number of things (including hormone spray damage but not in this situation) but presumably environmental because it does not appear to be a genetic issue in the plant. It is not likely to occur again in the same plant next year.

You can see the stem is very broad and ribbed. What you can’t see is that it is also almost flat.

I picked the white stem because the weight of the flowers was too heavy for the stem to hold it up but we have another example in the lily border which stands very sturdily, showing off its freakish growth. The local paper used to publish stories every year with some breathlessly excited gardener showing off their ‘special’ plant with its unusual head of flowers and flat stem but it is not rare and fasciation occurs across a wide range of plants. It is not generally stable or lasting but broccoli, apparently, is a freak fasciation that was stabilised. Google it, if you want to know more.

You can see a much fuller head of blooms and dense foliage on the fasciated lily in the centre

The crocosmias are starting to pass over but I like to line them up and compare them. Going left to right, we start with the common roadside weed. It is usually called montbretia in this country and while pretty, it is a seriously invasive weed. It washes down our stream in every flood and it is all down our roadsides but we certainly never introduced it ourselves. It multiplies readily both from the bulbs and by seed. Botanically, it is C. crocosmia x C. crocosmiiflora.

Second from the left is ‘Severn Sunrise’ and I am working to eradicate it from the garden. It appears to be just as invasive the common one and not much different in flower, habit or growth. I wonder if it is just a selection of the same cross. It may be more highly valued in countries where it is not such an invasive weed.

Third is red ‘Lucifer’ which is now listed as Crocosmia x curtonus (I see I previously found it as C. masoniorum × C. paniculata) so it has different parentage to the orange, weedy ones. It is by far the strongest growing one we have and certainly showy but also vigorous (read: the bulbs increase very rapidly) and it sets so much seed that I try and deadhead it to control it. I also need to thin out the bulbs which are getting a bit too determined to colonise and dominate the areas where they live.

Fourth along is one of my current favourite and the purest yellow with dainty blooms. It is just a chance seedling Mark picked up from the roadside so it will be the same cross as common montbretia (C. crocosmia x C. crocosmiiflora) but we have not had an issue with it seeding down. The bulbs increase readily but without free seeding, it is not a problem to keep it restrained and it seems to have a longer flowering season.

Second from the right is my newest addition – larger flowered and a pretty yellow but richer in colour so more apricot than pure yellow without quite getting to orange. I swapped some of our yellow one with Cemetery Sue at the graveyard to get this one and it is likely to be a named form but neither of us know the name. She has not had an issue with it seeding around so I am hopeful for its future in our garden.

The large bloom may or may not be ‘Star of the East’. It is certainly dramatically larger than all the others.

The last one is by far the showiest and I think it is probably ‘Star of the East’, judging from photographs. Although it may not be, because ‘Star of the East’ is just a selection from the same cross that gives us weedy montbretia and this bears no resemblance to that cross.  It is genuinely spectacular but certainly not vigorous. We have had it in the rockery for several years where it limps on without increasing as I would like it to and it seems to be sterile. Conditions are hard in the rockery and I think I need to lift it and move it to a more hospitable location with richer soil. I say this every year but this season, I swear I will do it. It is worth the effort.

Crocosmia are wildflowers of the grasslands in southern and eastern Africa. There are currently nine different species and they should not all be judged by their wayward, roadside weed family member. They are also not as invasive in less benign climates than ours.

Our yellow crocosmia in the Iolanthe meadow garden

The karaka tree

Karaka berries in abundance on the pavement

Given the uneven nature of the pavements in my local town, my eyes were looking down when I came across this remarkable sight. The fruiting of the karaka. Even by karaka standards, this is a bountiful crop and very decorative on a sunny day, although I imagine some locals are less pleased about the amount strewn over the footpath.

It is a common coastal tree both in the wild and as a distinctive, evergreen, garden specimen. The ever-handy internet tells me that botanists think that its original habitat was the northern half of the North Island and the northerly offshore islands. The fact that it is now found all round the country and even on the Chatham Islands is because it was a valuable food source for Maori who deliberately planted it and cultivated it.

That is quite a crop of berries on the karaka tree

I think most New Zealanders know that the karaka berries are highly poisonous unless prepared correctly. It is not the fruit pulp that is the problem, it is the toxic kernel. Should you want to know how the fruit is prepared for human consumption in the indigenous diet, I can refer you to this article on The Spin Off. In the interests of research, I sampled the flesh of a ripe fruit and I can tell you it is indeed sweet and fruity although it is only a thin layer over the rather large kernel. It reminded me of the taste of loquats.

The tree in the centre is a self-sown karaka destined for the chop

Karaka pop up all around our property as self-sown seedlings along with tree ferns, nikau palms and kawakawa. This one got away on us and is destined for the chainsaw because it blocks a vista we want to keep open. Like most seedlings, we will let them grow if they are in the wilder margins or shelter belts but restrict them in cultivated garden areas. If we didn’t, we would have a forest of karaka because I swear, every fruit that falls beneath this tree germinates and I have to weed them out when small.

I kept seeing references on line to it being toxic to dogs who, allegedly, eat the whole fruit including the kernels. I asked Mark if he had ever heard of a dog being poisoned by karaka berries and he scoffed, pointing out that they are of no interest to dogs at all and he certainly had never heard of it happening. There are many things we grow in the garden that are toxic to dogs, including yew trees, but the chances of you inadvertently killing the family pet by growing a karaka tree seem very remote although it must have happened in the occasional instance to be recorded. It makes a good specimen tree with its lush foliage and quick growth without becoming a forest giant (it stops at about 15 metres naturally so you can keep it smaller in a garden situation) and the fruit will bring the kereru into your garden.

I doubt that there are many people in New Zealand, other than botanists, who know the botanical name for this tree – Corynocarpus laevigatus. There is a name I had to look up and I know that I will never remember it. We all know it by its Maori name- karaka. There may be more people who can pronounce it correctly, but not too many more. It is usually pronounced karaka to sound like cracker. I looked that up too and while there are regional variations, phonetically it can be transcribed as cah-raa-cah or kuh-raa-kuh (but with a short u sound), bearing in mind that the Maori language places equal stress on all syllables. Mark and I are practising to at least try and get it closer to the correct pronunciation.

Lowest, lower, lowish and high maintenance gardening

“What do you think is the lowest maintenance form of gardening?” I asked Mark.

His response was immediate: “Plant shrubs and spray the ground beneath with RoundUp.”

He is right. All outdoor space needs some maintenance just as we routinely maintain indoors. Even if you concrete or deck most of your area, it still needs some attention. The concrete will need sweeping and probably some attention to moss growth with weeds finding purchase in any cracks or natural build-up of litter. Using pavers or cobbles requires quite a bit more attention as there are many more opportunities for weeds to get established. And lawns – or mown grass if that better describes your green sward – needs regular mowing even if you ignore all the other interventions and care that many lavish on their lawn.

Probably the most memorable wild garden I have seen but it was in harsh conditions which would restrict growth, on a big scale, created with skill and while lower in maintenance requirements, it was not free of any need for some gardening interventions.

How about wild gardens? Yes, that is a lower maintenance style of garden but it also takes a much higher level of skill to find the right balance. There is a fine line between a wild garden and an unkempt wilderness. The same goes for cottage gardening. It is a fine line and quite a bit of skill that differentiates a cottage garden from a wild garden. The wild look will not appeal to many (most?) people who just want a tidy back yard. Wild gardens are an acquired and thoughtful taste.

I don’t take many photos of Mark’s vegetable garden because it leans to the wild side but he can tell you after growing vegetables all our married life that it is anything but low maintenance.

Vegetable gardening is anything but low maintenance. Don’t believe any of the trite commentary that you can have a productive vegetable garden with very little effort. You can’t. Getting a decent crop and some continuity in supply takes a whole lot more work on an ongoing basis. What about trendy food forests?  It takes an even higher level of skill to manage a productive food forest. You actually need to know what you are doing if you want regular harvests. In less skilled hands, a food forest will soon morph into a wild garden on track to becoming a wilderness with very little food produced for humans, although the birds, insects, rats, mice and rabbits may thank you.

By our standards, our shade gardens are on the much lower maintenance side

Shade gardens tend to be lower maintenance because plant growth is much slower in areas without sun and the soil is not cultivated to the same extent. The shade and woodland areas here are the lowest maintenance areas we have and I can say that confidently with decades of experience. They are less demanding even, than the sunny meadow. But they are not no-maintenance, just lower maintenance and that is all dependent on tree cover. New Zealanders are not known for a love of trees in domestic gardens – maybe because our housing stock is not generally of high quality and we want all the solar warmth and light we can get.

No, truly, this lovely summer scene of Scadoxus katherinae really is very low maintenance in the shade

The risk with trees is greater if you get the selection wrong in the first place, or the placement wrong and then fail to carry out maintenance as required to ensure that it is a good shape and in good health. The cost of remedial work or removal of an established tree is a whole lot higher than a shrub. That is why Mark recommends keeping to shrubs if you want low maintenance.

If money is no object, you can have what you want. You can pay a good designer and then pay a skilled maintenance crew to come in and do the work but it will be an ongoing commitment. Just as houses need cleaning, attractive outdoor spaces and gardens need attention too.

This particular formal garden was not low budget but I lack photos of the DIY low budget/low maintenance option that I consider is much less demanding of both skill and maintenance.

If you are operating on a lower budget, my advice given in earlier posts stands: plant a formal garden with a very limited range of plants. It is all about the look, the photograph. In practical terms, it takes regular attention to maintain the pristine level of care a formal garden requires but there is no great skill in carrying that out. You don’t need a competent gardener to maintain that, just somebody with a penchant for tidiness.

Apartment living avoids the expectation to maintain the outdoors area

If you can’t afford to pay somebody to come in and do your outside maintenance that you don’t wish to do yourself, and you live in a city, then buy an upper floor apartment. The body corporate will take responsibility for all the shared outdoor space. If you buy an apartment that looks out over green space and trees, the view may be all you need.

Or plant shrubs and buy a sprayer and a good supply of glyphosate. Not that I am recommending this as desirable, but it is a lower maintenance option. Shun detail and shun underplanting.

Our Wild North Garden will remain wild but not a wilderness

This train of thought came about because I am much absorbed by our perennial gardens – the new summer gardens, the semi-wild Iolanthe cottage garden and the Wild North Garden. We have a new part-time gardener. This is very exciting for us – a strong, young person with some skills is like a breath of fresh air in our ageing establishment. His first project is working in the Wild North Garden to get it to a standard that we think necessary before we open it to garden visitors.  Meantime, I am taking apart and completely replanting the perennials in a little-noticed shrub and perennial border that edges the sunken garden area. It was anonymous because it wasn’t working very well and I want more visual oomph.

An anonymous sort of border that I felt needed some major tarting up but only of the underplanted perennials

I came to the conclusion that the highest maintenance form of gardening that I can think of is in fact gardening with sunny perennials. It is taking a lot more work than I thought it would. Fortunately, we are of the Christopher Lloyd (he of Great Dixter) school of thought. To paraphrase him in a comment we once saw on TV, “I think you will find that the higher maintenance your garden is, the more interesting it is.” In high maintenance gardening, you notice the detail and the changes, not just the single snap-shot big picture. That is what keeps us absorbed here, even if as it keeps us busy.

Gardening with sunny perennials here has the highest maintenance requirements but we find the rewards outweigh the efforts required. Less enthusiastic gardeners may not.

I just issue the general warning that if you want a low maintenance garden, don’t go down the track of gardening with sunny perennials. At least not in our climate with its benign growing conditions and rampant growth.