Tag Archives: urban gardening

Urban living – Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’ and wheelie bins

IMG_0741Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’. Again. Beloved of landscapers and non-gardeners alike, it is even more popular in Australia than in New Zealand. For readers who continue to think that the name ‘Little Gem’ means this is a dwarf tree that will only reach two or maybe three metres high, I offer you these plants photographed from Sydney daughter’s third floor balcony. They are already head height on the third floor and will have more growing to do.

These particular plants have been stretched upwards by close planting at not much more than metre spacings. Trees will reach for the light when there is competition but there is nothing unusual about ‘Little Gem’ reaching this height. Apparently the owners of the ground-floor apartment are not so keen on them. I can understand this. All they will see is the bare trunks at the base but to them falls the task of cleaning up the leathery leaves which take a very long time to break down. It is our daughter who gets the benefit of flowers and foliage three stories up.


IMG_7138Just be warned if you are planting this handsome but ubiquitous tree in a small space. Also, do not expect a glorious floral display from the evergreen grandiflora magnolias, such as you get from deciduous magnolias and members of the evergreen michelia family. The grandiflora flowers are individually showy but short-lived and generally few in number at any time. The bougainvillea in this photo from the third floor balcony has since been removed by the ground floor owners and I can’t blame them for that. Like most climbers, it flowers on the top growth, so they would have had all the problems of rampant and wayward growth with fierce thorns but none of the delight of the colourful bracts.


When a frangipani and wheelie bins fill your only outdoor space….

Urban living is a source of some fascination for me, a long-term country dweller with huge amounts of personal physical space – even more so when it is high density, inner city living rather than suburbia. There is much discussion in our largest city of Auckland these days about the need for intensification of housing in the face of a rapid growth in population. I could not help but notice in Sydney that the provision of space for rubbish and recycling collection is often overlooked in the planning of both building and the provision of services. When your only outdoor space is almost totally taken up by a plethora of recycling bins, it seems a failure of something.


Sydney notes: Friday 13 November, 2015

IMG_7117I spent the past week in Sydney, helping our second daughter move into her new apartment. This was a larger task than either she or I had anticipated so left little time for things horticultural. But oh the jacarandas were lovely, used widely as street trees and in front gardens in the eastern suburbs. Sydney is a great deal warmer than Tikorangi – our jacaranda will not bloom here until mid summer. IMG_7111

IMG_7141Daughter’s apartment is on the third floor. No lift. It’s not too bad – the stairs are well designed to make it easy. But I mention the third floor because that is several Magnolia Little Gems and a handsome red bougainvillea growing level with her apartment balcony. I have written about this evergreen magnolia before and have for many years suggested that its name is only ‘Little Gem’ as compared to a hypothetical Extremely Giant Gem. Three stories high so far, and these trees are not fully mature. What is more, whenever you see it photographed, it is usual to see a pristine white bloom and it certainly has a beautiful form. Alas each flower only lasts a day or two so one ends up with brown blooms – still with an attractive form – until they disintegrate, but never a tree covered in a mass of pure white. IMG_7138

IMG_7135Over the years I have seen a number of small English backyards where the only access way is via the house and thought that would be tricky. I can now say that these are eclipsed by apartments with no lift. ‘I will repot her container plants while I am here,’ I thought. Or at least the kentia palm and the tired peace lily which looked as if it was on the point of surrendering. I briefly toyed with carrying the plants down to the potting mix where there was a bit of communal garden so the mess wouldn’t matter, but decided it would be easier to carry the potting mix up and do it on the balcony. I wasn’t sure there was an outdoor tap and the rootballs needed a good soak. Logistically, it is harder than you think. Believe me. I was trying to contain the mess but even so some of the debris and the water went over the edge and I worried about alienating the lower apartment residents. The spent potting mix then had to be carried downstairs to spread. These were new challenges for me and I will look upon apartment gardeners with even greater respect. Undeterred, Daughter reclaimed her closed unit worm farm from a previous dwelling and located it discreetly at the back of the ‘landscaped’ communal area. Her kitchen scraps need to be carried downstairs anyway, so she figured she might as well keep them separate, feed the worms and use the liquid fertiliser they generate. It makes you proud to be the parent.

IMG_7132The kentia palm, I noted, is in fact three kentias (Howea forsteriana from Lord Howe Island) and there were at least five seeds sown in the original pot. That is a nursery technique to get a larger plant in a shorter space of time. Naturally I wondered about separating them but daughter needed one attractive kentia, not three smaller ones going into shock from such brutal treatment.

IMG_7128Greater love hath no mother than shopping for plastic items in Kmart but I did also get to wander through the plant section of a Bunnings store while we were doing a mission in search of home handyperson supplies. For $A26.90, you can buy a novelty houseplant of germinated “Black Bean” seeds. These are Castanospermum australe. I use the word novelty because these are not designed to grow to maturity but to be a disposable houseplant. More gratifyingly, I spotted a stand of small  plants of Mark’s new daphne, Perfume Princess.IMG_7130

There is nothing quite like finding a little bit of home in a Sydney garden centre.

The industrial chic garden

IMG_4503I visited a most interesting private garden in Auckland earlier this month. Industrial, urban chic, I would call it.

I wrote about hedging ideas after my visit to the Kelliher Estate on Puketutu Island but I didn’t name the gardener at the time because I hadn’t asked him if he wanted to be identified. It is Grahame Dawson, and as I walked around the Kelliher garden, I asked my companion what Grahame’s own garden was like. What made me curious was that his approach to gardening at the Kelliher showed a flair that is unusual in a public garden (or a trust garden) and I felt sure that I was looking at somebody who had large garden instincts. My companion took me in to meet Grahame in his home garden.

It was very different to the Kelliher Estate garden and I loved it. It is not that I want to emulate it myself. I just thought it was very different, quirky, characterful, self-indulgent even, but not naff and goodness, that is a fine line to tread.
I loved the hanging curtain of tillandsia growing through weighted chains (top photo) and the disco ball echoes of the rounded mounds (threaded through hanging baskets suspended upside down). Yes there was a lot of tillandsia – three main types in the hanging mode, I think Grahame said. Tillandsias, or air plants as they are often referred to, have a huge a family of well over 700 different species and are in the bromeliad group. These ones contributed to the curious phenomenon of a predominantly grey garden. I was viewing it on a grey, cool spring day and I didn’t find it in the least bit dreary, in case you are wondering.
I liked the bold juxtaposition of the almost stark seating area to one side, with the plantings opposite on the site.
The undercover display of specialist orchids were arrayed in the manner of an auricula theatre and that is natural light casting an ethereal glow in the mid afternoon light.
The pool resembled a shrine to my eyes. The little figure, Grahame told me, is Narcissus.
For those who want ideas, Grahame has a natural flair for managing multiple pots without looking messy or cottage-y. The simplest of terracotta pots painted grey made the row a feature with or without the orchid selection they house.
Back at the Kelliher Garden, I had photographed the pots along the front terrace. Alternating square and round pots, he had filled them all with Aloe plicatilis. The very simplicity gave it a formality while softening the scene with thoroughly practical foliage.

People visit gardens for many reasons and goodness knows, with two decades of opening our own garden behind us, we have heard many of those reasons over the years. Too often, a garden is judged – and I use the word ‘judged’ deliberately – on whether the visitor can imagine themselves owning the garden. I didn’t want to own Grahame’s garden – industrial chic is not my style – but it is rare to come across a place that I would describe as genuinely original, combining both wit and skill. This was one.