Tag Archives: Xeronema callistemon

Gardening with our native flora

The cordyline just arrived, I think. It is growing right on stream bank at water level and I can’t think that anyone would have planted it there

We like to garden with a wide range of plants here. A VERY wide range. Not for us that prescription from some *designers* who decree a garden should have no more than ten different plant varieties in it. I can’t give the most recent reference for that because I thought it was such a remarkably stupid thing to write that I didn’t bookmark it. I guess the author was thinking of small town gardens but even so, both Mark and I would be bored stiff.

I have been thinking about the extent to which we incorporate our native flora. The purist *native garden* is not for us, nor indeed the predominantly native garden. We are too much of the complex layering, detailed planting persuasion, using an extensive range of plant material in mix and match combinations, to ever want to place that type of restriction on ourselves. But when I walk around and look, it is a surprise even to me just how many native plants we grow and often take for granted.

I figured there are at least four groups of native plants – the volunteers that just arrive of their own volition, the rare and endangered which actually owe their continued existence to the horticultural trade, the utility backbone plants that we take for granted but are actually native and the ones that are grown because they are simply great ornamentals in their own right.

A note about naming: in NZ we know most of these plants by their Maori names. While there aren’t too many truly bi-lingual speakers in this country, our every day language is peppered with Maori words, names and phrases that can confuse English speakers from other countries. I hadn’t really thought of this until I mentioned pohutukawa on a Facebook post and an American replied, “Maori common names just don’t stick in my memory, I think that’s a Metrosideros?” Botanical names really do aid international communication so I have added those in brackets below.

We have never planted any tree ferns. They just arrive of their own accord.

The volunteers that just arrive will vary throughout the country. Ours include the tree ferns (commonly known as pongas – pronounced ‘pungas’, botanically cyathea and dicksonia), the nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida) , cabbage trees (cordyline),   an abundance of pepper trees or kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) and a wide range of ferns. If they are not in the way, we just leave them to grow where they wish. Even NZ gardeners may not realise that we have three native dicksonia species and seven cyathea species. I think we just have the most common four or maybe five species seeding down in our garden.

Kakabeak, growing in a town garden (hence the power lines). I have the white form in a new garden but it has its own little wire cage because pesky rabbits just about ate all of it over just two nights

The rare and endangered plants contain some special stories. The tree Pennantia baylisiana and the climber Tecomanthe speciosa  were both down to a single surviving specimen in the wild but are now relatively common thanks to sustained efforts to propagate and distribute them. Similarly, the two species of kakabeak (clianthus) were at the extremely endangered status in the wild but are now widely planted in gardens. Sometimes commerce can ensure the survival of a species where protection of their natural environment has failed. Even Astelia chathamica was rated as under threat in the wild (in the Chatham Islands which are our southernmost islands marooned in the Southern Ocean) but there is no danger of it being lost these days, so widely is it grown now in mainland gardens.

The renga renga lily, as seen in almost every garden

Utility backbone plants include a fair swag of trees grown in this country but especially the kowhai (sophora – there are eight native species though S. tetraptera is the most common) and the pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa). Both of these are absolute standouts in bloom. What we call the rengarenga lily (Arthropodium cirratum) is so widely grown that it is probably seen as a garden cliché. But we don’t have a whole lot of flowering herbaceous  plants that are native to New Zealand when you think about it. And our gardens would be the poorer without the native astelias which are used very widely, being preferable as garden plants to our native flaxes (phormiums)

Pachystegia insignis to the left (the white buttons are the flower buds) and Xeronema callistemon with the red flower spikes

Some native plants are special in their own right as ornamentals and not necessarily easy to grow in conditions far removed from their natural environment. The Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis) occurs naturally on exposed coastal rock faces in dry, hard conditions  ; the celmisias are predominantly mountain daisies : the Poor Knight’s lily (Xeronema callistemon) comes from sub-tropical northern islands and is distinctly frost tender and needs brilliant drainage, preferring coastal conditions. These and other plants are well out of their comfort zone here but interesting, showy and still indigenous plants if you take the country-wide definition.

The alstromeria is certainly not native but the grass is – Chionocloa rubra

What I don’t think has been helpful is the polarised positions adopted by some. The native purist position has long been claiming the higher moral ground (but only applying that to ornamental plants, and mostly trees at that, as I wrote about here) In turn, this spawned the sniffy response that our native plants are “boring”. Neither is a logical or thoughtful position.

I will say that if we stripped out the native plants from our garden, there would be HUGE gaps, not the least being our rimu avenue (Dacrydium cupressinum) and our totara hedge (Podocarpus totara). And yet, to the casual eye, most visitors would not pick that our garden is rich in a wide variety of native plants. I like to think that is because of a seamless blending of native and exotic flora rather than any self-conscious display of indigenous plants.

The widespread use of native plants is one of the key differences in NZ gardens and that is worth celebrating. We are derivative enough here. We don’t want to be a nation of gardens that could be located in any number of other countries around the world with no unique features to define our own location and heritage.

Pohutukawa to the left, kowhai with tui bird to the right

‘Editing’ the plants for a lower maintenance garden

A few years ago. It is amazing how much the skyline of trees has changed since. My feet.

A few years ago. It is amazing how much the skyline of trees has changed since. My feet.

Editing, dear New Zealand readers. Cleaning up the borders and beds is often about editing the plantings.  I know this because I read a certain amount of British garden media.

I have certainly been editing the plantings in the gardens around our swimming pool. It seemed a good summer occupation and on a few hot days this week, the flow between gardening and cooling off in the pool has been excellent.

The gardens were put in when we built the pool in the late 1990s and, in that clichéd way, we naturally opted for a sort of tropical feel. It was never thought out very well at the time. In the years since, I recall doing one relatively major rejig of the gardens but beyond that, they have only had the most perfunctory of care and minimal maintenance. This often included plugging gaps with whatever I had to hand.  And it was showing that lack of attention.

I am a more thoughtful gardener than I used to be. I think that comes with experience. Knowing that we were unlikely maintain a pristine swimming pool, we had chosen from the start not to make it a key landscape feature but rather to site it discreetly where it is largely out of view. I am not keen on garish blue pools taking centre stage so ours is also a modest dark grey and we went with a black pool cover.

Curculigo, euphorbia and Ligularia reniformis, lush enough to pretend to be tropical and low maintenance

Curculigo, euphorbia and Ligularia reniformis, lush enough to pretend to be tropical and low maintenance

The upshot of this is that I figured we want a really low maintenance approach to the gardens around the pool and that it should be specifically targeted to the swimming season – which for us is mid to late December through to mid February. There is no point in putting in plants that flower outside that time because we won’t see them. Extreme editing was called for to eliminate my previous efforts to plug gaps and add seasonal interest with assorted perennials and bulbs.

I am quite happy with the earlier effort blocking up the Ligularia reniformis with Curculigo recurvata (nice foliage contrast and happily co-existing). We removed all but one of the damn dangerous euphorbia (E. mellifera, I think) which seeds far too freely and has disappointingly insignificant flowers but compensates with good form and foliage. Ligularia reniformis is getting to be a cliché in New Zealand gardens and I will restrict how widely we use it elsewhere in the garden, but it is very handsome and lush here, reaching well over a metre in height. However, the compact red dahlia hybrid will have to go. Not our style. Too suburban in our context.

Pachystegia insignis in the foreground, Xeronema callistemon behind and overhead a large Aloe bainseii

Pachystegia insignis in the foreground, Xeronema callistemon behind and overhead a large Aloe bainseii

The Pachystegia insignis (Marlborough rock daisy)  and Xeronema callistemon (Poor Knights lily)  flower outside the summer season entirely but these native plants are not the easiest to grow in our environment and the plants are handsome and well established with good foliage contrast. Besides, it is not in our nature to edit our plantings down to a simplistic mass.

IMG_6956It is the next ten square metres or so where I have gone for a block planting. It was a mish-mash. No longer. I chose to use two common plants – the pretty but tough Dietes grandiflora and black taro. At least we know it as black taro but I am not sure if it is a colocasia (in which case it may be ‘Black Magic’) or an alocasia.  It looks very new and raw at this stage, but I expect it to be a pleasing combination with plenty of pretty flowers next summer and good foliage interest. And low maintenance, without looking like a supermarket carpark.

Patience is a virtue. The freshly planted dietes and black taro.

Patience is a virtue. The freshly planted dietes and black taro.

I see some debate in garden media about whether digging and dividing perennials is necessary. Many folk seem to dread and shun digging – hence the no-dig craze for vegetable gardens. All I can say is that since I started doing a lot more digging and dividing, the garden looks hugely better for these efforts and the perennial plants thrive in more friable conditions with less soil compaction. It is also a learning experience as I experiment with plant combinations and think through the seasonal effects. It is a whole lot more interesting than mere garden maintenance and gives an opportunity to review and edit the plant selections. And it doesn’t even cost any money because I am working with plants already in the garden. There is nothing to fear from increasing the dig and divide regime.

IMG_6892And for those of you who don’t follow the garden Facebook page, I offer you my little study in dietes blooms. It makes no logical sense to float them in water, because they are not damp-loving plants at all. I just thought they would look charming, and they did – first in the swimming pool and then I gathered them all (slightly battered) to float them in the stream. Because I could.