Tag Archives: Tikorangi: The Jury garden

The ongoing quest for perfection

Auratum lily time

Some people like to plant a garden once and leave it. But some of us plant, look, think, weigh up what we have and then decide on action. I am not referring to minor tweaking and culling a few superfluous plants, more akin to major rejigs. I have two in mind, or maybe three. Always there is that quest for something close to perfection even while we know perfection in a garden that is growing will generally be ‘on the day’ only.

The lily border – wonderful but it could be better still

It is auratum lily time and the lily border is magnificent. But it could be better. I planted it in the winter of 2017 so this is its fourth summer. There are a couple of gaps that I thought I needed to fill; I have plenty of lilies I can relocate. But I have looked again and again and decided that it is time to dig the whole thing and replant it – but not until the lilies are going dormant in late autumn. When I first planted it, I put in large bulbs at about 15cm spacings – from the edges of the bulbs not the centres. When planted fairly deeply and spaced, the stems are strong enough to hold themselves up, even when topped by massive blooms. I do not want to have to stake these lilies. There are hundreds of them. Some areas are now so dense with offshoots already of flowering size that they are leaning on their neighbours and not standing upright. When they get too dense, the glory of individual blooms gets lost. It is time to lift the bulbs, cultivate the soil and respace them for next season, discarding the small offshoots. That’ll keep me busy for a week in autumn; there are about 30 metres of lily border.

Our NZ grass, Anemanthele lessoniana looking lovely with echinaceas but it is getting too large for its allocated space

In the herbaceous borders, I have been looking at the Anemanthele lessoniana with some concern. It is a native grass and one of our prettier ones with its orange tones in the foliage and light, feathery flowers with a hint of burgundy. But it festoons as it matures, rather than standing upright and the plants are now taking up a space with a diameter of at least 120cm and swamping their neighbours. It is too big for the borders. I shall relocate the plants into the grassy Court Garden and give them the space they want but it will leave some big gaps behind. I am wondering whether our native Poa anceps will make an acceptable substitute.

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ is an absolute star in late autumn and early winter – this was late afternoon on June 6, 2020

And I am spending a lot of time looking at the Court Garden. Just in its second year, I can see mistakes I have made. There are Too Many Miscanthus. M. ‘Morning Light’ is a wonderful grass and generally well behaved, a magical autumn mainstay, but I have badly overplanted them. For longer term management, I need to cull up to half of them to give the remaining plants room to star. We only ever started with one plant of it but boy, does it respond to being dug and divided.

Probably Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegata’ is proving altogether too vigorous here

I am looking in askance at the giant, variegated miscanthus (it may be Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’ or Japanese Silver Grass) that a friend gave me. Last year, I managed to keep the plants upright simply by tying a circle of jute string around each plant. They are too big for that this year, in just their second year. I don’t want to be digging such huge plants every second year in order to keep them manageable so I may reduce it down to just one or two specimens and weigh up their long term viability. Does their showiness outweigh the heft and effort needed?

Stipa gigantea still starring after a full three months in flower in the middle ground. The plant at the front is Elegia capensis

What a star Stipa gigantea has been this year. It is all about the flower heads – golden oat grass – and because it is sterile, the flowers have stayed and stayed. After three months, they are still looking terrific. But, I can see I still have them planted too closely, despite culling half of them after last summer. As it matures, the plants can be anything up to a metre and half across and they look best standing in their own space. I need to take out a few more and centre the remaining ones so they don’t overflow onto the paths. It is all about having a critical mass with this stipa, so there are enough flowers to share with the marauding sparrows. They stripped them bare last season but this year they have flowered in abundance, with no evident decline in sparrow numbers. We clearly achieved some sort of balance of critical mass.

Our native Chionochloa flavicans also still flowering after 3 months but I am unsure how gracefully the plants will age

I have an open verdict still on whether Chionochloa flavicans will last the distance with us. It has the reputation of ‘whiffing off’ – dying out in patches – and it is too early to tell yet. At least I know I can use the anemanthele to replace it if I need to. Chionochloa rubra remains splendid but its time to star is in winter when it is the dominant form. In summer, it is less obvious amongst showier grasses.

It is going to take me ten years to come up with a reliable recommended plant list for this style of gardening but it is a lot of fun getting there. And I am fine with using two dominant exotic grasses (the stipa and miscanthus) when almost all the other grasses are natives. We are not native purists here, we like to mix and match but it is also satisfying to use our indigenous plants as equals in a garden setting.  

As I have said before, digging and dividing is way easier if you do a little often because the ground stays friable, making the digging part much easier. If you don’t want to have to dig and divide, plant trees and shrubs, not perennials.  

Miscanthus to the left and to the right – rather too much of it and they appear to be wanting to meet in the middle

A very ordinary little dog

Spike with his best friend ever, Zephyr. He was as bereft as we were when we lost Zephyr. I bought Spike the little coat because we worried he was cold with his thin coat and truly, on the occasions he wore it, all I could think of was comedian Julian Clary.

There was nothing special about Spike. Countless other dogs are more handsome, prettier or nobler and come from more refined breeding lines. Yet more are smarter; the lift never quite reached the top floor for little Spike. But he was our ordinary little dog and he was deeply loyal.

We didn’t choose Spike. He chose us. His owners lost interest in him when he outgrew his puppy cuteness. He took to roaming the countryside, often calling in to visit and Mark was one of the few people, if not the only person, in his life who took the time to give him attention and a kind word.

Steinie the father. Merlot took after his father in personality and looks but with only one black ear.

We knew Spike’s lineage. His parents were owned by a friend of ours at the time and the dad, Steinie (short for Steinlager beer) was a characterful dog loved by all. In fact, we had Spike’s litter brother whom we named Merlot. Merlot was similarly of the utility genre of dog but hugely charming. And naughty. Irrepressible and unabashed in his naughtiness. Dudley may be an avocado thief but Merlot – he had a taste for chocolate. He had a taste for most human food but chocolate was his favourite. That was when we learned that the toxicity of chocolate is directly related to the quality – the higher the cocoa solids, the more poisonous the chocolate is to dogs. The Christmas when he ate three boxes of chocolates which he stole was when I worked out that these gifts often given to Mark were not of good quality. So too with our son’s large chocolate Easter bunny and the block of king-size chocolate he stole from a customer’s car when the door was briefly left open. Merlot suffered no ill effects and he was always unrepentant when reprimanded.

That is Merlot in the earliest days of digital cameras. Marooned, awaiting rescue, on the roof when he jumped out of our son’s bedroom window to retrieve a discarded ham sandwich said son had thrown out.

We wept when we found Merlot’s body by the road, hit by a car immediately outside our place. They did not stop to tell us. At the time, Spike’s owners offered us the less-loved Spike as a replacement but he lacked the engaging charm of his litter brother and I declined.

Dog television!

Spike’s life took a turn for the worse. Roaming dogs are not a welcome sight in the country and after many complaints, his owners took to tying him up. They would feed him but otherwise he was left alone and ignored. For seven days and six nights a week, he would be tied up and on the seventh night they would let him roam free. On that seventh night, he would turn up here. Mark used to joke that Spike had his suitcase already hidden beneath our guava bush, waiting for an invitation to move in.

Spike was a lean running machine when he came to us and even rested on high alert

He was offered to us again and eventually we agreed, more out of pity and concern for his welfare than because we wanted him in our lives. We took off his over-sized collar – the buckle had stripped all the fur from his throat – and we made him a bed. He never looked back. He was finally home and there was no way he was leaving here. His roaming stopped immediately, even though we never tied him up again. His devotion was unparalleled. Mark was number one but it was me he came to whenever he had a panic attack at thunder, duckshooting season or the sound of gunshot from any gun other than Mark’s when they were out hunting rabbits or possums. I wondered if his deep-seated fear of shotguns came from having one fired at him in his earlier, roaming days.

While fine with other dogs, he was completely disinterested in other humans. Not fearful, just disinterested. He only had eyes for Mark and me and to most people he probably lacked character and charm. But our love for him grew.

He was one of those dogs that transition from boundless energy of youth to old age without the slowing down of middle age. I can’t remember when we first looked at him and thought he was getting old – maybe two years ago, no longer than three. His hearing went first and he lost a lot of confidence with that. The panic attacks at thunder and gunshot stopped as he went deaf. The dark  ginger patch over his eye faded to near-white. He had an irregular heartbeat, the vet told us and then dementia started. We let him grow old in comfort and security.

He may not have had many talents, but he was a dab hand at climbing trees in search of possums
He was a keen hunter with his pack leader, Mark. That is possum blood, not Spike blood and almost certainly acquired as he wrestled with the creature to kill it a second time, after it had already been shot dead. Enthusiastic, he may have been, but he was not a killer, more a willing participant.

Spike was so old that he pre-dated digital cameras, let alone phone cameras. I searched through boxes of old photographs to see if I could find any images of Merlot, his litter brother, as a puppy so we could determine his age. Eventually a friend came up with a photo of Merlot as a young dog, but not a puppy, which we managed to date to 2002. So we figured Spike was around 19. We have never had a dog of that age.

We hoped that Spike’s heart would just stop in his sleep and save us from having to make the hard decision to euthanise him. But it didn’t and the day came when we looked at him and thought that his life was no longer good. Neither of us could remember when we last saw his tail wag and he was increasingly confused and ever slower in his movements. We asked the vet to make a house call this week.

Spike was fine with Dudley but never formed the same bond that he did with Zephyr

It was harder than we thought to say goodbye. The thing about losing a loved pet is that it is such a personal sadness but one that is experienced by so many other people that the outpouring of sympathy and understanding is genuinely heartfelt.

We buried him beside his best mate, Zephyr in our little row of unmarked pet graves beside the stone wall. A very ordinary little dog he may have been, but he was our very ordinary little dog and we loved him well.

RIP little Spike.

Meanwhile, in a New Zealand summer

In a world beset by problems, a little ray of delight can change a day. In a segment entitled ‘Meanwhile in New Zealand’, I give you this from the southern city of Dunedin:

Whether this is the same sea lion who then chased the swimmers out of the surf at St Kilda Beach the following day, I do not know. It seems a little ungrateful if that is the case. St Kilda is a big beach. John Wilson Ocean Drive is a long drive. She seems to be claiming an awful lot of territory as hers.

Yellow tigridias in the summer borders but everyone has red freckles

I have been looking at the tigridias this week. Tigridia pavonia or jockey caps in the vernacular. These are Mexican in origin, day flowers – as in each bloom only lasts part of a day but each bulb sets a flower spike with multiple buds that open in succession. They make a good wildflower or can be mixed in with other plants in a border but overall they are not a plant of great refinement.

We were given a collection some years ago and I spent some time separating them out into different colours to use in different contexts, as well as sorting out the more common spotted ones (freckled, we call them) from the ones without. The scarlet red and the yellow ones were put into the summer borders. The pinks and whites I used in separate blocks in the lily border, going from white no freckles through pale pink to deep pink with freckles at the far end.

The usual form has the freckles in the lower row.

Tigridias seem to cross readily so there is a whole range of orange tones I have seen in another garden and apparently they come in purple which I haven’t seen and surprises me because they need a blue gene to get to that shade.

My yellow ones and red ones have never thrown a freckle-free bloom that I have seen and I was thinking about this in my garden thinking time*. My theory was that if I was really intent on trying to get a freckle-free result, crossing the pure white onto the yellow should work. Ditto, crossing the deepest pink freckle-free bloom with the pure red one. The seedlings would be variable, but a few at least should, theoretically, come out in a pure colour with no freckles.

Would crossing the deep pink/no freckles with the freckled red and the freckle-free white onto the yellow likely lead to seedlings in red and yellow without the spots, I asked Mark

Fortunately, I have a resident plant breeder to hand and he confirmed my theory with the proviso that it depended on whether the freckle-free white sets viable pollen. Sometimes mutations can be sterile – genetic blind alleys.

I prefer the purity of the blooms with no freckles. Mark does not. He has never understood why his late camellia-breeder Uncle Les Jury spent time trying to breed out the freckles. He told me the story of when he was a small child and a tigridia flowered in the rockery in front of the house. His memory is still so vivid that he gave me the exact location of it in the rockery and he still recalls looking into the bloom and being fascinated by the spots. He has a childhood attachment to freckled tigridias and who am I to argue with that? He has shown zero interest in doing the crosses for me to get freckle-free yellow and red ones.

My favourite tigridia at this time

I know the process of doing it but I lack the will to do the cross, mark the blooms that have been hand-pollinated, watch for the seed to form and ripen, gather the seed and sow it and then look after the seedlings for the two years they take to reach flowering size before I see if any of the potentially scores or even hundreds of seedlings look as if they have pure colour and nary a spotty freckle in sight. It takes effort, skill and a whole lot of patience to do controlled plant crosses. I have other priorities for my time so I shall be content with keeping an eye on my existing yellows and reds to see if they do it for me. It seems unlikely at this stage but I can live with this passing disappointment.

*Apropos gardeners’ thinking time, all the feedback on last week’s post indicated that none of us are intent on using that time to come up with theories of great importance or indeed to plan great contributions to the culture of civilisation. It is the immediacy of the task in hand that occupies us and the very act of being able to focus on that task is what soothes us and centres us in our own patches in nature.  

Gardeners’ thoughts

Monarch butterfly on Montanoa bipinnatifida.

I have often said that because I garden a lot, I have a lot of solitary thinking time. “What do you think about?” a fellow gardener asked us here this week. I hadn’t actually thought about that side of things.

We are told that gardening is soothing, good for the spirit and the soul, a welcome antidote to a world that has often felt as if it is spinning beyond our control in the past year. I have no doubt that being surrounded by plants and the cycle of the seasons, by birdsong and the beauty of endless small scenes whether it be a butterfly landing on a flower, the buzzing of bees, the unfurling of a flower bud or the discovery of a plant that I had forgotten about – all these are immediate delights in a chaotic world. Gardens anchor us to a small place in time and space.

But if you take the end product and the goals along the way out of the equation, what about all those hours spent alone in our own headspaces? Our panel of three (Mark, our gardening friend Susan and me) is hardly a conclusive study but we all came up with responses that were remarkably mundane. Mark said he largely focuses on the task at hand. He used to like listening to the radio but since Radio NZ has taken its programming off the local AM band, that is no longer an option. The FM band is too unstable when he is constantly moving. I notice Lloyd mostly listens to music. I used to do that when I was trying to block out the omnipresent noise of the petrochemical industry surrounding us back around 2011 to 2014 and listening to music certainly puts one into a very contained headspace without many external influences. But I prefer listening to the sounds of nature if I can.

My thoughts range far and wide with a constant inner monologue (and sometimes an audible monologue when I talk to myself) but I admit, it is not a particularly profound discussion with myself. At its best, I may come up with the words that had been eluding me in a piece of writing or some clarity of insight into something that had seemed murky and confused. At its worst, I replay grievances in my head – whoever said that gardening is ‘soothing’ and ‘healing’? But in the main, it can be a pretty mundane conversation with myself and I was somewhat surprised to find that, considering I spend large parts of my day in this solitary state. I think that is what Susan was angling at too, when she asked the question.

Magnolia Felix Jury

Of late, in fact since Wednesday December 9 to be precise, that inner monologue has been underpinned by constant low-grade anxiety nagging away at my inner peace. That was the day that our *friendly* petrochemical company, Todd Energy, unveiled its plans at a community meeting in Tikorangi to apply to extend the already large Mangahewa C gas well site from the existing eight wells to twenty wells, making it the largest site in the country, as far as I know. That site is close to us. It is literally on the farm across the road on our bottom boundary.

Oh look. Mangahewa C site on the farm across our bottom road
Previous drilling as seen from our garden

While some of the Todd Energy staff might be so naïve that they didn’t realise the devastating impact of that news on many local residents, at least some of them knew exactly what they were doing. “Let’s really give the Tikorangi residents a Christmas present this year. Ho ho ho! Hahahahaha!” my inner monologue has some unnamed Todd staff saying to themselves and even to each other.

Flaring, as seen from our place. Climate change, anyone? Pfft!

I spent a few weeks in the garden toying with the Todd Energy Twelve Days of Christmas but I couldn’t get the words to scan to my satisfaction.

“On the twelfth day Of Christmas Todd Energy gave to us

Twelve more gas wells

Eleven more frack jobs (more like eleventy hundred more frack jobs over the next decade) ….

Five Christmas hampers (utility ones from Pak’n’Save)….

And a drilling rig they call Big Ben.”

We fought hard for better process of the gas industry in our community over a number of years – all documented under the petrochem tab you can find at the top at this page. We failed on most fronts and that battle from 2011 to 2014 almost broke me. The activities of the petrochemical companies were devastating on a daily front – it was the main reason we closed the garden in 2013 – as well as  draining mentally and emotionally. When activity eased off with falling international prices and the general understanding of the impact of climate change grew, we were lulled into a false sense of relief, thinking that maybe we had seen off the worst of it. It seems not.

In my lowest moments, I imagine myself asking the young person who is the ‘Community Relations Manager’: “Do you have children? What are you going to tell them when they ask you what you did to try and counter the impacts of climate change? Are you going to be proud to say ‘Oh, I did spin and soft-soaped local residents for a fossil fuel company in the dying days of the fossil fuel industry’?”

So there we are. My inner monologue now is trying to focus on how to maintain some equanimity and peace in the face of the ravages of an unwelcome industry. I managed it in 2014 when I realised how close I was to breaking point. I can do it again. I hope. It may be time to get out the iPod and recharge it, to block out the world. Are those Bluetooth earpieces worth getting so I can dispense with the awkward cords? Do they fall out of ears readily in which case I am sure I will lose one in the garden?

What do you think about when gardening? Can you empty your mind sufficiently to turn it into a meditative exercise? Do you mentally plan great works of note? Or do most of us really just plan what we will eat, edit our mental ‘to-do list’, ponder what we have heard or seen and focus on the detail of what we are doing? All that time to think – I feel at least some of us must be mentally coming up with next great scientific theory or planning a work of literature. Or maybe not.

Footnotes:

For the easier to read version of ‘It’s very personal’ – a piece I wrote for the 2017 Frack Off Exhibition, click here.

Our Labour government only stopped NEW permits for oil and gas offshore and in areas other than Taranaki. It is still allowed – encouraged, even, by some here.

All the optimistic talk of ‘clean hydrogen’ being pushed successfully by the fossil fuel industry is unproven technology predicated on the use of gas as a *transition* energy.

Gas is only *clean* (or clean-ish) if the emissions are measured only at the end-point user. There is nothing clean or sustainable about getting that gas out of the ground, keeping it flowing and getting it to the end-point user.

What makes the Mangahewa gas field economically viable is frequent and ongoing fracking (hydraulic fracturing). The ground beneath here has been fracked repeatedly since 2007.

Summer gardens update

I am worried about 2021. We all crossed our fingers that it would be better than 2020 but there was no radical change on January 1. The wall to wall Covid news coming out of the UK, Ireland, Europe and USA is unrelenting and disturbing. The trans-Tasman travel bubble so many of us are waiting for looks to be on hold with outbreaks in Sydney and Melbourne. And the transition of power in USA looks more dangerously unstable than the usual peaceful and orderly process. My thoughts go out to those readers in more dangerous parts of the world.

All I have to offer is summer.

Looking through to the Court Garden on Christmas Eve.

All spring, it was the newest of the summer gardens, the Court Garden where the main plantings are grassy-themed, that brought me the most pleasure. As I walked out to do my morning rounds, it was there that I chose to linger the longest.

The borders yesterday morning, just before the onset of steady rain
The light levels were fairly low which gave a softer feel than the harsh glare of the mid-summer sun

As December progressed and now that we are into January, the borders have taken over pride of place on my morning perambulations. They bring me much delight and while I can see a couple of areas that I will tweak, overall, I am happy with them. The borders have the most complex plantings and that means there is more of a succession of blooms.

The first auratum lily has come into bloom

The auratum lily border is the only garden we have that is dedicated to a single plant genus. It only stars for one month of the year and that will happen soon. The entire length holds the promise of so much with the mass of buds fattening and starting to show colour.

Stokesia and hydrangeas in the wave garden

The Wave Garden has its good sections and the flowering of the blue bearded iris in early November was a delight. But I have been reworking some bays that I was not so happy with so it is a bit patchy overall at this stage.

The grass garden on January 2

The growth in the Court Garden is nothing short of phenomenal and I am looking nervously at the abundant Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ but thrilled at the flowering on Stipa gigantea this season. Being sterile, the flowering lasts a long time. It really is the immersive experience I planned for.

Flowery abandon in the Iolanthe Garden

The Iolanthe garden is very different with its casual wildness and mass of blooms both planted and self-seeded. I am doing a bit of maintenance – well, I say a bit, but really I am wheeling out barrow-loads of seeding forget-me not, parsley and spent foxglove flower spikes. Fortunately, the weed infestation is nowhere near as bad as I feared and it has the appeal of an artfully casual cottage garden, very different to the other summer gardens.

May you stay safe and find hope where you can.