Tag Archives: Tikorangi: The Jury garden

Vegeconomy

This scene reflects experience and resources

Vegeconomists are people who suggest that the poor should be growing their own food at home. I had not heard the word until it came up on social media this week but boy, I have heard the sentiment. Often. Usually in the context of, “What is wrong with these people? Why don’t they just get off their chuffs and plant potatoes and cabbages in the garden to feed themselves?” (Can you tell it is election time in this country and one of the big issues is the rising incidence of poverty and the growing gulf between the rich and the poor?)

There are many, many good reasons to grow your own vegetables but saving money is not usually one of them. And I would bet that the judgemental vegeconomists I have heard on this matter have not actually done it themselves. Or if they have, it was when the world was a very different place forty years ago and they are now speaking with a rosy glow of smug nostalgia.

Just one section of Mark’s various vegetable patches

It is not impossible to save money growing your own veg but it takes experience, timing, the right conditions, planning and a fair amount of good fortune. And good land. I dispute that you can save money on a square metre of garden and a few pots. Mark is of the view that it is possible to save money on winter salads. We eat salad every day, fresh from his garden, and the daily fresh greens and other raw ingredients would indeed command a premium in the off season at the supermarket or greengrocer. Mark has been vegetable gardening since we moved out to a country cottage the first year we got married so he brings over four decades of experience to the edible garden. These days, with more time and a lifetime of resources, – including things like moveable cloche frames, a propagation house, bird netting and plenty of posts and poles to hold the netting up, a fully functioning compost heap plus a small tractor to cart the compost if more than a few barrow loads are needed, along with plenty of good land with good shelter – yes, these days his vegetable gardening is very productive.

Sorting the apples for winter storage (in the second fridge)

We have also learned which vegetables and fruit store well and how to eat with the seasons. And that involves a deep freeze and a second fridge. We ate the last apple from autumn this week, the last frozen asparagus from November 2016 and I think there is only one packet of frozen broad beans left though there is still plenty of frozen corn. We are eating soy beans instead of borlottis this year because the borlotti bean crop failed but the soy bean crop was remarkably good. There is still an open verdict on the success or otherwise of the surplus brussel sprout crop which is fermenting into sauerkraut at this very moment.

So, please spare me from glib pronouncements that people can solve their poverty related issues by planting silver beet and taties. I have a great deal more respect for those experienced growers who get out there and work with community gardens to foster a love for growing your own, or with schools to encourage children to appreciate that fresh is indeed much nicer. But the economies of mass production mean that in dollar terms, it will almost certainly be cheaper for most people to buy vegetables than to grow their own.

All this was eclipsed, I must say, by the gentleman from down south somewhere who took it one step further on social media. There was, he asserted, no reason for hunger in New Zealand when people could grow their own food and head out to the country to kill a wild goat for meat. I do not think he meant a tethered goat like this handsome fellow from up the road. I also suspect he did not get out much and maybe thought it was still 1950 when jolly practical young fellows could head out with the gun and shoot a rabbit or goat for the pot, all the while speaking with a fridge and freezer full of meat already paid for, packaged and ready for his wife to cook for dinner that night. Bah humbug.

Just for clarity’s sake – growing your own fruit and vegetables can be enormously pleasurable, tasty, convenient and healthy along with bringing better flavour and often a higher nutrition level. Just don’t expect it to save you a whole lot of money as well. And maybe stop judging the poor as lazy because vegetable gardening is just too difficult for them and planting fruit trees is not practical in an unstable housing situation.

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FAQs, as they are called. Magnolia questions answered.

Just an unnamed seedling but glory, glory glory.

Is there a lovelier plant than a magnolia in full bloom? Maybe that is too extreme, but at this time of the year the absolute glory of magnolias all around me truly makes my heart sing. I will be talking about them with Tony Murrell on Radio Live tomorrow morning – tune in at about 7.45am these days.

Herewith, my answers to frequently asked questions.

A stomach full of red magnolia buds

  • If your magnolia looks as if it still has furry buds (the outer casing of the flower bud that our children used to describe as sleeping bags for mice) but they fail to open to blooms or only show a splash of damaged petal, the culprit is almost certainly a possum. If you examine a bud, you will see where it has eaten its way in to take out the tasty centre. A single possum is capable of destroying most of the buds even on very large trees. Mark has been shooting possums most of his life and has carried out autopsies on the stomach contents of literally thousands of them over the years. This is because he wants to know what they are eating and it is part of the process of skinning them and jointing the carcass to feed the dogs. Old habits die hard and it seem a waste to discard both the fur – which can be sold – and the meat. At this time of the year, he can find a few possums wreaking havoc with stomach contents entirely comprised of magnolia buds. Red buds from early varieties on this one in the photo.

    A kereru eating early blooms on Magnolia Vulcan

  • Once the flowers are open, we have seen kereru eating the petals, particularly of the early varieties. But they don’t destroy an entire tree and we are willing to accept the damage. We have heard of the Eastern rosella parrots stripping trees up north but we have not seen it here, even though we have some of this Australian import here.
  • This is your annual advice NOT to spray your lawn from here on. Without fail, every year, we get enquiries about magnolias opening with distorted foliage and without fail, when we enquire, the person has used lawn spray nearby in early spring Most lawn sprays are hormone-based and will cause damage to a number of crops including tomato plants, kiwi fruit and grapes. Magnolias are particularly vulnerable at the point when they are about to break into fresh leaf and because they are often used as specimen plants in or close to the lawn, they cop the spray drift. If you must spray your lawn, at least wait now until later in spring when the trees have put on their new foliage.

    Just more pretty skypaper

  • As far as we are concerned, it is a myth from England that magnolias cannot be moved. We have moved large trees but do it in late autumn or winter, not spring.
  • If your coloured magnolia is flowering for the first time and the colour is not what you expected, take a look at the flower form. Some magnolias will put up pale blooms to start with. If the flower shape is more or less correct, then be patient. With a bit more maturity, the colour should deepen. This is particularly true of the deeper coloured reds and purples.
  • If your magnolia has two totally different flowers on it, it is most likely that the root stock has escaped and is growing too. Most magnolias are budded onto a strong growing root stock. Over time, a root stock that has put out shoots will out-compete the chosen variety budded onto it, so it really does need to be removed. Examine the base of the trunk. Budding is done just above the soil level so you will find the rogue growth on the lowest branching level. Anything below the bud (or graft) is rootstock, above is the chosen variety. The sooner the escaped root stock is removed, the better.

Finally, I posted the two photos below on our Facebook garden page but I wanted to include them here too. This is the sight I see when I look out of the window every morning – upstairs, looking across to one of our boundaries. That stand-out magnolia is Mark’s Felix Jury, named for his father. The white adjacent to it is Manchu Fan, the pinks are all unnamed seedlings. It is an absolute stand-out magnolia and I can boast because Mark won’t.

Rubbish in the magnolias

This particular view of our place is one enjoyed by the neighbour’s cows

I headed out this morning to photograph the view the dairy cows that surround us get at this time of the year. Very pretty, it was too. Our property is in dairy heartland, for those of you who do not know this area, so largely a green landscape of rye grass.

Tied neatly in a bag

But why, of why, do people think it is “tidy” to tie their rubbish into a neat plastic bundle to throw on the road verge for somebody else to pick up? This is not a rare event around here. Do these people not realise that the plastic that they discard will not decompose? Either somebody else has to pick it up or it will lie there, breaking into smaller bits, until a flood comes through to sweep it downstream out to sea where it will kill turtles, fish and seabirds instead.

A preponderance of high energy drinks and snacks. Some are even gluten free.

A forensic analysis of the contents shows a disproportionately large number of high energy foods and drinks which suggests that, in this case, it may have been recreational cyclists that discarded this bundle. There is a cycle trail that runs along that road. In which case, shame! Shame! Shame! You get out on your bike to enjoy the beautiful countryside which you proceed to despoil. Cyclists do not have this unlovely attribute to themselves, however. It is more commonly thrown from cars. It appears that we live about the distance from the city that it takes to completely eat a takeaway meal from MacDonalds, Burger King or KFC. We know this because we often pick up the waste from our road verges.

What is wrong with these people? Could they not just open their eyes, smile at the flowers, sniff the scent-laden air and take their rubbish home with them?

The view of the other end of the property

A cardboard tower and memories of cartons

In the fading light of late afternoon, a one-day cardboard tower on the cricket field at Pukekura Park (with bubbles)

The photo is of The People’s Tower, built yesterday in New Plymouth in cold, wet and miserable conditions under the direction of visual artist Olivier Grossetête. Today it will be demolished for it was only ever to be a temporary installation. Today is the last day of our Arts Festival, you understand.

I admit Mark and I only turned up on our way to an early evening show. We did not assist with the construction in trying conditions during the day. The reason I wanted to record the magnificent sight is because of cartons. Believe it or not, cartons and carton closure tape have played a significant role in our lives. Indeed, we are probably alone in being aghast at 1500 custom-sized cartons (in two different sizes) and 264 rolls each of 100 metres of tape being used in this handsome structure.

When Mark first set up the nursery here in the early 1980s, he started by selling plants mailorder. It was a major part of our lives for the next two decades. It takes a lot of cardboard to mailorder plants, especially large grade trees and shrubs. Mark would gather as much as he could from recycling bins, particularly out the back of the supermarkets.  Needs must and there was no place for faux dignity when it came to gathering cardboard. He was a whizz at constructing cartons to protect plants – it took several biscuit cartons, for example, to construct a sturdy protective cage for a single magnolia. We still have the industrial strength staple guns and hand-held dispensers for the tape.

As the nursery became more profitable, we took to buying in the largest size cartons. Because these were custom made to our specifications, we had to order them in quite large quantities. It worked out just over $5 a carton and this was back in the 1990s. The bill for a batch of cartons seemed eye-wateringly large at the time and, as the bill-payer, I have never forgotten my anxiety at the cost of cardboard. In the same manner, it took many years for Mark’s eyes to stop zeroing in on potential sources of recyclable cartons. So we did marvel at the wanton display of extravagance in the cardboard and tape People’s Tower, magnificent though it is.

Funnily enough, I checked this week on the date of our last ever mailorder catalogue. It was 2003. We must have had one helluva reputation because even today, I field enquiries pretty much every week from people wanting to mailorder plants from us. Dear Peoples, we do not sell plants at all these days. And we have not sent plants to your door for the past 14 years. Cardboard cartons and carton closure tape are well in our past.

Mark is casting an experienced eye over the cartons and the tape….

Bluebells in a New Zealand springtime

There is something wildly romantic about a proper bluebell wood. I have never forgotten being entranced by the haze of blue through woodlands near Castle Douglas in Scotland and that was more than two decades ago. Those particular bluebells and woodland trees are native to the area but this does not stop many of us trying to replicate the effect at home.

Bluebells are best suited to the meadow look, in our experience. They grow too vigorously to tuck tidily into garden borders but their charms become obvious in a less constricted, wilder setting. The whole woodland style is dependent on having deciduous trees fairly widely spaced because the bulbs need light to bloom. In this country, we tend to have a mix of deciduous and evergreen in our gardens and lean more to “bush” or even “forest” than open “woodland”. On top of that, the time at which the bluebells are in growth, coincides with the spring flush of grass so mowing becomes problematic. As with most bulbs, it is best to let them die down naturally because that leafy stage is replenishing the strength of the bulb for next season’s flowering.

We solved this problem by planting bluebells in our wilder areas that we do not mow and on the margins of plantings in the park where we used to mow the wider area regularly. That way, we had defined swathes of blue in bloom and then swathes of long foliage until they went dormant. Now that we have stopped the regular mowing, it will be interesting to see if they spread naturally to give us expansive carpets rather than swathes. They set seed so freely that we try and remove at least some of the spent flower spikes.

It took UK writer Ken Thompson to demystify bluebell differences for me. The English Hyacinthoides  non-scripta has sweetly scented, deep blue flowers on a droopy spike which means most hang to one side. Individual flowers are narrow tubes with reflexed tips. The Spanish H. hispanica is much stronger growing with an upright spike and flowers radiating all round. There is a greater range of colour from pale to dark blues and lilacs along with the pinks and whites. Individual flowers are bell-shaped and while the tips of the blooms flare out, they don’t reflex. They have little scent.

But to add to the mix, there are the natural hybrids. The English and Spanish forms cross freely and the hybrids fall somewhat in the middle with characteristics from both parents.  I had previously tried to unravel the species and headed out looking for the cream anthers that define the English one as compared to the blue anthers of the Spanish form, ending up totally confused. Of course I did. I wasn’t factoring in hybrids. If Ken Thompson is right in his interesting book ‘The Sceptical Gardener’ – and I am willing to accept that he is correct given that he is an academic plant ecologist – and the majority of bluebells growing in UK gardens now are either the Spanish version or hybrids, then it seems likely that almost all of what we see in this country will be the same.

I stopped down the road to examine some bluebell patches on the site of one of the first settler houses built in Tikorangi. If we had any proper English bluebells around here, Mark hypothesized, that seemed a likely site. No, they were either Spanish or hybrids. Ditto with the bluebells here which date back to his great grandmother’s days and have now mixed with all the others we have.  I can’t see any point in nursing ideals of species purity when it comes to bluebells in New Zealand.

A word about white or pink bluebells. While the English bluebell can occasionally throw a white mutant, given the rarity of H. non-scripta in this country, it seems likely that all colour variants we have are either Spanish or hybrids. The whites and pinks are charming mixed with the predominant blues, making a pretty scene. Isolate them out by colour on their own, and they become a novelty plant. Bluebells, by definition, should be mostly blue. A display of only pink bells would look awfully contrived for this simple flower while a mass of white bells might as well be onion weed, really. That is my opinion.

First published in the September issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

Greening the Grey

At the altar of the motor car

I have nothing but admiration for the lead Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society takes on public education on matters related to plants and the natural environment. And boy oh boy, the  paving front yards to accommodate cars is a huge issue. One in three front yards is paved, they say. This is not unique to Britain. Every western city probably has a similar situation.

The alternative suggested by RHS

Does it matter? Yes. It matters in many ways. Out of pure self interest, the paving enthusiasts of this world should worry about increased flooding. The earth is like a giant sponge that absorbs and filters water. If large areas are paved, the water is then channelled to a limited number of collection points which can’t cope in times of heavy rain. No matter how much one rails at the local council’s inability to deal with flood waters, there are limits to what can be done when water is being turned into a flowing torrent rather than being absorbed into a wider flood plain. Channelling it to flowing water also stops the natural filtration that operates through earth’s own systems so all toxins and pollutants are being headed straight to waterways.

The environmental benefits of growing plants are perhaps a harder concept to sell to people who don’t see anything wrong with living in concrete jungles. But we ignore the evidence of declining insect populations and the loss of biodiversity at our peril. Our planet is hitting crisis point, fuelled by human ignorance.

Twenty six years ago, I went to Britain on a study bursary as a Commonwealth Relations scholar. Many interesting things happened on that trip. That was how I once ended up in Belfast as a guest of the Irish Information Service at a time of high tension during The Troubles. Also, the House of Lords to listen to a famous debate about the smokies from Arbroath. As part of a fortnight hosted by the Foreign Office, we had many briefings including one from a senior government official who proclaimed, “Britain leads the world in conservation.” I hope I kept my snort silent. At the time, New Zealand really was pretty clean and green and Britain could not have been a sharper contrast. I was deeply cynical. I am not now.

We have heard and seen far more discussion at the most local and personal level about environmental matters in the parts of England we have visited. There is an awareness of the importance of green space, of trees, hedgerows, ponds, wild flowers, meadows and gardening that leaves us for dead in New Zealand. We have seen little back gardens that are set up as mini nature reserves. It may all be too little too late in global terms but at a personal level, I think it is important to daily life.

It is not that the RHS are the only body leading public education in this area, but they are an influential one and all power to that.

A day at Wisley

An attention grabber! The Pink Pantser in the RHS Wisley glasshouse.

We like to end up our UK garden trips at Wisley, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticulture Society about an hours south from London. It gives a context to what we have seen and it is interesting to look at the evolution of some of the recent plantings and reflect on styles and designers over time. The twin Piet Oudolf borders are a personal favourite. And they are certainly standing the test of time with considerably lower input than the classic double herbaceous borders. They were not without controversy when first planted in 2000. I still recall talking to an English visitor in our garden here. I commented that we were heading over to the UK to look at contemporary planting directions and he replied disdainfully, asking if we would be planting in a herringbone design as they had at Wisley.

The Oudolf borders July 2, 2017

The Piet Oudolf borders are not in fact a herringbone design and when we got to see them, they were a delight – soft rivers of colour. Those rivers give a sense of form to a garden which has no hard landscaping. In case you are interested in the background to these borders, I quote the instigator of this planting. “I started talking to Piet about these borders in 1997 with plans agreed in 98/99 with planting using 17000 9cm plug plants in Jan.2000.The only significant change to Piet’s maintenance regime was to mulch the entire borders with 6mm quarried gravel in c.2004 to a depth of c.60mm.This was `topped  up` in 2009.”

And back at the same time of year in 2014

There is considerable restraint and knowledge in the selection of plants. It is a lot more than just picking for flower colour. Obviously, compatibility in growth habits is an issue but so too is a high level of uniformity in height, an ability to stay upright without staking, repeat flowering without the need to deadhead and a succession of blooms and foliage interest from spring through to autumn. Allied to that, there is no place for dominating thugs in this type of planting, nor for prolific seeders. I would guess a fair proportion may be sterile (in other words, not setting viable seed) which usually prolongs flowering, eliminates seeding issues and keeps the plants true to type. When we did a count on our last visit, we estimated a proportion of about 3 perennials to each grass in these borders. Each river of colour is comprised of just a few different plants. I think it was looking at the composition of several rivers that led us to the 3:1 ratio. The borders have to work equally well viewed looking up or down the slope and also close up, so the individual combinations of plants are as important as the mass effect. For those readers trying to keep echinaceas going, over time these borders have apparently shown that E. pallida is short lived while E. purpurea is longer lived. It is multiple visits that help us to understand better how these plantings are put together and managed. You can never take it all in on just one visit.

Detail of one river in the Oudolf borders

I posted earlier on the Missouri Meadow as observed over our visits.  In 2014, we saw the new South African meadow in its infancy. This is Professor James Hitchmough again, as was the Missouri Meadow but in this case, the focus is on South African plants, not North American ones.

 

South African meadow 2014

and three years on in 2017

Three years on, the dominant plant at this time of the year is the eye catching Berkheya purpurea, which Mark covets for our garden. It is a thistle. The maintenance regime on this meadow is clearly more hands-off than the Oudolf borders. It will be interesting to see it again a few years’ time. With agapanthus, kniphofia, crocosmia, nerines, geraniums, eucomis, osteospermum, gazanias and more, there is quite a mix in there including a few that would be thugs in our climate. We love these meadow plantings and find the range of meadows illuminating but our London friends (one a keen home gardener) could not relate to the whole idea of a South African meadow in this context. So that was an interesting response.

These friends had recently been to Great Dixter and expressed surprise at Christopher Lloyd’s dramatic ‘subtropical’ garden being taken out and seeing conifers going back in instead. It became a little clearer when we came across the Wisley project along similar lines. The conifers are being used as a framework for subtropical plantings. This is not a combination that would ever occur to a New Zealander but we will reserve all judgement until we see the finished product. Sometimes it is good to be surprised. Conifers are long overdue a revival and who knows? Maybe a new combination will launch a new fashion. Or maybe not.

Tom Stuart-Smith plantings were a delight

There is so much more to Wisley. The Tom Stuart-Smith plantings in front of the glasshouse really appealed to us this visit. They had seemed a little ‘blocky’ and amenity in style when young. Now the combinations and the relaxed style of mature plantings is a highlight. The trial grounds included both echinaceas and nepetas as well as coloured lettuces. The national collection of rhubarb never fails to amuse – though more the concept of it than the reality, I admit. I have posted an accompanying album of more photos to Facebook again. It starts with the succulent cake and ends with the Famous Five and the issue of whether George was a boy or a girl.