Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Looking back on a challenging year

Wildflowers in Lavinia's garden

The end of the year is the time we traditionally take stock of the year that has passed, and take time out to reflect on our aspirations for the year ahead.
In a personal sense, this has been a hard year for our family. In late autumn, our daughter Lavinia died in Rotorua Hospital. She had been unwell with an unusual form of reactive arthritis since she was at university, but she learnt to cope with her disability and to fashion as active a life as she could manage.
She lived in a small house on the top of a hill near Te Puke, surrounded by thousands of kiwifruit vines, and acres of avocados. She discovered the joys of gardening and fashioned a small garden of the truly cottage variety – flowers, herbs and vegetables fought each other for space in the lush volcanic soil. The occasional foray into the garden from one of her many dogs didn’t seem to faze her too much, and she appeared to have found her feet a little.
We were all worried when her visit to hospital for a minor infection turned from days into weeks, and distraught when she died of an undiagnosed brain abscess.


It was the start of a long and cold winter. In the depths of winter we had to plan our trips around the snow storms that were closing off all the routes between Masterton and Rotorua. We had one spectacular trip over the desert in between closures, when the whole plateau was clothed in a thick winter coat. We stopped briefly to take photographs of each other in the snow, and of the whipcord hebes bowed down with icy fringes.
The weather seemed to match our mood. An early warm spell held hopes of a bountiful spring. On one trip to Rotorua the Kuirau Park side of Pukeroa, the ridge that the Rotorua Hospital sits atop, was simmering with daffodils. We thought that maybe the worst of the weather was over, and a warm spring was about to arrive.
But this turned out to be a vain hope and winter returned with a vengeance. It seemed that week after week the southerly storms found their way north, cooling the ground and keeping spring at bay. My beloved Pacific Coast irises delayed their flowering, and were at their peak a full two weeks later than they usually were.
My tomatoes stayed firmly ensconced in their pots in the glasshouse as I fretted over whether the frosts had passed. In the end, I decided that I had to plant them out in the second week of November as they were getting very spindly under cover. They were in for a few weeks before we had a hard late frost and they were severely damaged, despite being covered. The frost blackened and destroyed many leaves, and burnt out the growing tips completely. They hardly had time to recover before we experienced a sudden burst of hail and they were once again damaged. This time the spotting led to blight. The poor old tomatoes look very sad and we will not have a great crop this year.
The roses suffered similarly early in the season. The cool temperatures and the lack of sunlight meant that many of the buds partly opened and were then either frosted or caught by rain, and they rotted.
In the end, the spring did come, and the iris seedlings, many flowering for the first time, were a reminder about the cycle of life in the garden. Each year there is an autumn, and there is a winter, but equally these times are followed by spring and summer. During these times, we harvest our stores for the leaner times ahead.
The irises held some lovely surprises, and I was looking for one pretty enough to name after Lavinia. Of course, there was none that pretty, so I took out my paintbrush and my labels and I started crossing some of the flowers, thinking that one day there might just be one worth the name. Those crosses that took have huge filled seedpods now and I am watching them carefully to make sure I gather all the seed and sow them for next season.
The vegetable garden has had it troubles aside from the tomatoes. The basil does not like cool soils and it is struggling, and the watermelons given to me by a gardening friend are just a joke. They are sitting there looking like something the dog has played with for a week or two.
But there is an upside of course. The cool and moist weather has meant the whole garden has been damper and, as such, has suffered less stress. Some vegetables have thrived in the cool spring - I do not think we have ever grown such luscious lettuces. As a bonus, the cool weather has stopped them from bolting and they have provided leaves for months. We virtually only grow loose-headed types now and they have loved the season.
The Rhododendrons up at Cross Hills in Kimbolton have loved the season too, and I don’t think I have ever seen that garden looking better than when I visited it in early November. The tulip display at the Wellington Botanical Gardens, which I have never managed to time right before, was breathtaking – not to everyone’s taste in their own garden I would think, but amazing just the same. The roses at Palmerston North, after a slow start, performed very well, and the bed of ‘Paddy Stevens’ that we planted in the new rose beds at Queen Elizabeth Park in Lavinia’s memory is doing well after a slow start.
I sat on the side of Pukeroa a week or two ago. Where the daffodils had had once held sway, knee-high plumes of grass flowers were shifting in the breeze. The grass had been left un-mown to allow the daffodils leaves to make next year's flowers.
And in Lavinia’s garden, the weeds, the flowers, the vegetables and the herbs still fight it out.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christmas season in the south

New Zealand's own Christmas tree, the pohutukawa

Another funny Christmas season is upon us, and we will be sending each other cards and presents covered with the images of a different hemisphere. Jolly red-faced gift bearers will be captured smiling alongside blazing fires while snow mounds can be glimpsed through windows iced with delicate snow patterns. And the floral images will be all out of kilter too. There will be holly trees decorated with bright red berries, and bunches of ivy, and pts and pots of bright red poinsettias. Of course, there will also be mistletoes, but they have a functional purpose at this time of the year.
In our hemisphere things are flipped over. Instead of snow, we have sand, and instead of berry-clad hollies we have the bright red flowers of our own New Zealand Christmas Tree, the pohutukawa. We are able to have bowls of fresh garden flowers rather than drab evergreens, and we have developed our own floral traditions.
Prime amongst those has been the adoption of the Christmas Lily, Lilium regale, as the flower most associated with the season.

Christmas lily, Lilium regale
This highly-scented white beauty is a relatively recent introduction to western horticulture, having been found in China in the 1920s. It is very hardy and quickly became popular the world around, especially in southern climes where its habit of flowering in late December was treasured.
This lily is quite variable as to habit. It can be as low as 60 cm high (most forms are about this size or slightly larger) but can also grow very tall. I have some forms grown from seed that reach over two metres before they bloom. A couple of years ago they were attacked by a virus which sauces them to become a little fascinated, so I thought I’d start them again from seed. The seedlings have flowered this season – a week before the proper date I might add, and before the mother plants have flowered - but they are less than half the height of their parents. It will be interesting to see how they develop in the years ahead.
Christmas lilies are almost ridiculously easy to grow. They will grow in all but the wettest and poorest soils, and will even cope with semi-shaded conditions, although they do tend to grow out towards the light. They are probably at their best in light, well-drained soils with good humus content, in the full sun.
Like most lilies they have parcels of bright golden orange pollen in the centre of the flowers, and also like most lilies, this pollen can stain material so it pays to remove the stamen when picking for the house.
For many people Christmas is just not Christmas without these lilies. The Head Gardener was brought up with this tradition (her grandmother had big clumps in her garden, as did her mother) so we have a number of clumps scattered throughout the garden, and they tend to stagger their flowering, so we usually have some in flower for about thirty days, and also usually have flowers for picking for Christmas.
For New Zealanders, especially those in the north, the quintessential Christmas flower is the pohutukawa.
This coastal relative of the more wide-spread ratas scarcely needs any description, its deep red flowers having been associated with the festive season, and its summer focus, since pakeha settlement.
For those of us restricted to gardening in inland, and thus in frostier conditions, this treasured plant poses a bit of a problem. It can sometimes be persuaded to survive in relatively sheltered places as long as it can be nurtured through the first few years when it is more frost tender, but otherwise is too tender to survive.
Perhaps a tub of the lovely orange flowered form, ‘Tahiti’ might be the answer. This Pacific Islands variety has become very popular, at least partly because of the ease with which it can be grown in containers. It has silvery foliage and bright orange-red flowers that are carried spasmodically throughout the year, with a flush in late winter.
There are other smaller forms around too, mainly forms of the Kermadec Islands pohutukawa, but none are as easily grown as ‘Tahiti’.
I have noticed lots of poinsettias about this year in the shops, their bright red ‘flowers’ (actually bracts that surround the small white flowers) looking seasonally attractive. Many gardeners are tempted to try and plant these shrubs (for that is what they are) in their gardens. Once again, if they are in more northern areas they will probably get away with this but in our lower North Island it is harder to get these plants to thrive. R n
It might be better to try and grow them as house plants, but even then there are problems.
These plants naturally flower in the winter. In the northern hemisphere they are easily manipulated into flowering for Christmas, but down here it is a little more tricky. Fortunately the flowering is initiated by lengthening days, so poinsettias are grown in glasshouses with black shading, and are subjected to day6 shortening from about October.
In the home garden that is difficult but it should be easy to get your Christmas poinsettias to flower next winter. Just keep them moist during the summer, and then start shortening their days in the middle of April. You cannot have any extraneous light on the plant – even a table lamp will provide enough light to stop flower initiation. If you have a spare room that you never use at night that is probably the ideal spot to get your poinsettia alive.

New Zealand mistletoe

As to mistletoe….or should that be Kissletoe?
There are some wonderful native mistletoes, some with bright red flowers. They are rare plants now, threatened by possums, but some years they flower in profusion up at Mount Holdsworth. What better way to walk off Christmas excesses than to take some one you love and go for a walk. Ask the curator where the mistletoes are before you go, but if you don’t find any, you’ll still enjoy the walk!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Jungle beauties

A recent return trip from Rotorua saw me making a slight detour on the way home – I decided to take advantage of having a little extra time to make a trip through to New Plymouth, to visit to the garden of Andrew and Yvonne Brunton. Their fabulous garden Rosedale at Bell Block will be well-known to many of you who travel to the Taranaki Rhododendron Festival as it features a very attractive enclosed garden, formed behind high confer hedges, and a stunning river-side walk lined with Rhododendrons and camellias as well as other precious gems. It is one of Taranaki’s best gardens and always a favourite.
But it wasn’t the gardens I was going out of my way to see - it was the enormous shed on the side of the rose-lined driveway that leads to the garden. Within this growing shed the Bruntons grow over 1000 varieties of jungle cactus, Epihyllum, and it was these cactus I was making my way to New Plymouth to see. I had visited the nursery before, during the lead up to the festival, and was entranced by the display of the thousands of plants growing in the Brunton’s growing shed. I had visited too early in the season to see them at their flowering best though. I knew I should be right this time though as my epiphyllums as my were flowering in the glasshouse at home.
I had an interesting journey through the Forgotten Highway from Taumarunui to Stratford, through some of the most isolated country in the North Island, and some of the most scenic country as well. It was raining when I got to Stratford and the green pastures all the way through the journey made it obvious that Taranaki was not suffering from drought.
When I made it through to Manutahi Road, and up the colourful driveway I was expecting to see a great display of Epiphyllum flowers, but it was not to be. I was met firstly by Andrew, and then by Yvonne, both bemoaning the long cold winter and the cloudy and sunless spring that had left the flowering season many weeks behind. They apologised that the flowers would not be anything like their best for another couple of weeks.
The Bruntons were very disappointed at the weather.
They had started growing their large collection when Yvonne was given some leaf cuttings by an auntie. At that stage they were on a dairy farm near Stratford. Their joint passion for the ever-expanding collection of cacti, New Zealand’s best, led them to relocate to the warmer climate of Bell Block four years ago to concentrate on what is New Zealand’s only commercial Epiphyllum nursery.
In the wild the Epiphyllum species are literally jungle cactus. They are epiphytes that grow in the humus collected in the branches of trees, alongside other plants like orchids and bromeliads. Under these conditions they can get the filtered light they need, as well as a reliable source of moisture. The medium they grow in is very well drained so they are never sitting in water.
These wild plants all have white flowers, and the majority of them are night flowering. I well recall the large specimen of one of these species that my grandparents cared for (albeit spasmodically) in their sunroom. Once a year, for a few nights, the plant would proudly display a succession of stunning white, heavenly-scented, flowers.
When these species were introduced into European horticulture plant breeders soon saw the potential for crossing them with related but more colourful species of cactus, and a huge range of varieties was soon available, all of them day flowering and with colours ranging through most of the rainbow, with the exception of true blue. There is also a lovely range of bi-coloured and bi-toned forms as well as a range of flower size, from relatively small up to 20 cm or more across.
Being jungle plants, these beauties do have some particular requirements before they will perform at their best.
They prefer a well-drained potting mix to start with. The Bruntons use their own formula based on a standard potting mix but with added pumice. They say that some people recommend orchid mix but they feel this is too chippy. They suggest a 50/50 mix of orchid mix and potting mix would work well.
In the wild, Epiphyllums grow in filtered sunlight and prefer the same in the garden. They can be grown outside in areas not prone to frost, but also thrive on patios and in glasshouses as long as they are not exposed to the full rays of the sun.
Watering needs to be handled with care. They do not like to dry out at all, but they equally dislike becoming waterlogged. Either condition is likely to lead to the plant to rot. It is best to keep the potting mix on the dry side of moist.
They can be grown in the same pot for up to five years but do need occasional repotting. At this time make sure you use fresh potting mix and also ensure that you do not “over-pot.” A plant in too big a pot will not flower as well as a plant kept slightly root bound.
Pests are not usually too much of a problem but it pays to keep a watch out for scale insects ands for mealy bugs, as well as for snails and slugs.
These jungle beauties make the most amazing pot plants. Their succulents leaves give no real hint of the startling beauty of the flowers, which can be among the brightest of all flowers. If you are planning a trip to Taranaki anytime soon make sure you look the Bruntons up and call on them and see some of the 1000 different varieties they grow, plus some of their own new hybrids. These stunning flowers are worth a long trip – even one through the Forgotten Highway.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


The world certainly throws some cruel twists our way. Regular readers will know that my daughter Lavinia died earlier this year, aged 33. She had a long struggle with the effects of reactive arthritis but seemed on the pathway to a better life with a new drug.
Unfortunately the new drug seems to have helped mask a bacterial infection in the jaw which lead ultimately to a cerebral abscess and her death.
When this happened in May we were distraught, and it has been a long hard year for us all, her mother, her partner, her family and friends. This past week has been especially sad as the six-month anniversary of her death coincided with what would have been her thirty-fourth birthday.
Little kindnesses have sustained us - the friend who thinks to bring some fruit or flowers; the friend who realises that the company of children is a blessing and brings youngsters to see us. One special friend brought a prized gem from her garden. She is a galanthophile (lover of snow drops) and she brought one of her prized possessions, a special Greatorex hybrid named "Lavinia," accompanied by a delightful card and soft, comforting words.
She is an internationally known garden writer, and connected by marriage, her later husband being the brother of one of my uncles. She has not had the easiest road through life either, with debilitating illness and the early death of a beloved husband, but somehow manages to always hold fast to the expectation of a new spring rather than dwelling on the coldness of winter.
Her concern was especially poignant as her eldest son also suffers from arthritis, and has had a difficult time coping with the pain and dislocation that the disease carries with it.
This week Michael passed away and I am very sad that my friend will have to suffer that devastating pain of losing a child.
I'll gather some sweet peas and some rose buds from my garden and take them around for her and her aged father.
Tonight give your kids an extra hug and be thankful for all the springs you have.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Pacific Coast irises season 2006 part 3

A selection of seedlings from Pacific Mist x Eyes Have It have been remarkably uniform – all very dark blue/purple, and very hard to thin out as they are very similar.
The I. munzii hybrids from Lawyer XP 326 have been enchanting plants, with some very imposing late-flowering hybrids. Perhaps the best are the very light blue forms that are still in flower.
Encircle has left some very floriferous plants with subtle flowers, while 2003’s Pretty Boy seedlings have all been in mauve shades, but with Ghio form. The Magic Sea seedlings appeal to many visitors, with their bright clear blue. This year I have crossed some with the I. munzii seedlings

As expected the Pacific Rim seedlings are prettily engaging, with subtle shades and diminutive growth.

In the main the Cross Purpose seedlings were disappointing but one or two were delightful.

The Big Money seedlings were disappointing, many being washed out mauves and creams. We do still not have a good yellow in the garden, but we continue to hope.

Among the Air Show seedlings, we have two of interest. One is a huge purple veined specimen, while the other is a nice two-toned form.

As always we await the first flowering of the following seasons seed, planted out in March – a few tantalizing hints of interesting things for next season – and there is, of course, another 160 seedlings in the glasshouse – about half our own, and half from the seed pool.

Pacific Coast irises season 2006 part 2

A few more Pretty Boy seedlings.

I have also had some interesting seedlings from a cross from Debby Cole’s garden, from the seed pool in 2000. She offered some Air Show x Marine Magic.
Crossing between two clones of this cross has given rise to a number of interesting seedlings this year, again variations on a theme with lighter standards and deeper falls, prettily veined. The best, not shown, is a pure deep purple/red.

Pacific Coast irises season 2006

It is nearing the middle of November and the PCNI season is almost over. The last of the I. munzii hybrids have nearly finished and now it is simply a matter of waiting to see the seed pods fatten. The first flowers appeared on about 10 September so a two month span is not too bad.
There have been some interesting seedlings this year. A number of seedlings from Stroke of Midnight showed a great deal of variety. There were a few nice reds (none dramatically deep but attractive nonetheless) and a few lovely very pale flowers with light blue through mauve signals. They look much like Stainless Steel to me.

The Pretty Boy seedlings have been very interesting, with quite a variety of form as well as some very interesting colour combinations. They have basically all had yellow through peach to almost burnt caramel ground colours, overlain with varying degrees of colour. It is going to be hard to weed these out, but I have already discarded some of the browner forms as they were very similar.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Tomato time - nearly

This weekend I did the second most popular thing for New Zealanders at Labour Weekend – spending time with family. Although, in this case, I spent a bit of time with someone else’s family - the Summers family, who were having a family re-union. Oddly enough, this family is connected to my wife’s family, as are the Springs, so you can imagine the hilarity at our family get togethers!
The first New Zealand ancestors of the Summers family were William and Louisa. William was a gardener at a number of large sheep and cattle stations in the Wairarapa in the 1890s, where his main job was the production of fruit and vegetables on a large scale. One vegetable that he probably wasn’t growing too many of is the vegetable (strictly speaking a fruit) that has been occupying the thoughts of many New Zealanders over the long weekend – the tomato.
The tomato comes from the highlands of South America and, although it has been grown in the West for many years, it has not been universally popular as a vegetable. For many years it was thought to be poisonous (as are many Solanaceous plants) and was not eaten at all. By the turn of last century it had become more popular although it was still not the staple diet item that it is today.
I have an old catalogue from a Lower Hutt seed firm, dating from 1903. I have just checked and there are 32 varieties of tomato on offer. Interestingly, there are also 32 different melons on offer – rock, water and pie.
Among those many tomato varieties there are few we would recognize today, although, no doubt “Marvel of the Market” was very much like the spherical red-fleshed fruit we favour today. There were purple, yellow and pink skinned types, pear shaped, and, in the case of “The Peach”, even some slightly furry ones. There was one called “Cherry”, according to the catalogue, mainly used for pickling, and “Red Currant,” just proving that some fashions do return.
I did not plant any tomatoes this weekend, as I believe they are best left for a week or two after Labour Weekend. It is a natural human instinct to tie activities with calendar events, but in this case the association does not work well for those of us who garden much south of the Bombay Hills, especially in inland areas. On the coast, you can plant at Labour Weekend, or earlier in fact, but inland it pays to wait awhile.
Before you plant out tomatoes it pays to have everything well prepared. The site selection is important, especially as regards sun. Tomatoes just love growing in full sun – in fact they’ll cope with about as much sun as they can get, in our climate at least.
It pays to add some fertilizer to the soil, and some compost, but be careful with the compost. Tomatoes are very susceptible to damage from hormone sprays and if you have composted anything from a sprayed lawn, you could be in trouble. I would not use any bought compost for tomatoes either, to be honest, as they are sometimes made from garden waste deposited at recycling centres. They are fine for most things, but keep them away from tomatoes, roses, beans and grapes.
Definitely dig in some fertilizer – whatever type you think best. I often use a slow release product, but frequent small applications of quick release will work well too, and you can adjust to a higher potash mix as the plants start to fruit.
The real key to growing tomatoes well is in the watering. The plants grow best with regular watering (compost will help hold the moisture) but is most important for the health of the fruits. Irregular watering, drying out and soaking, will lead to the dreaded blossom-end rot and to cracked fruit.
I think it is a good idea to add some water crystals to the soil before planting, as it will help buffer any dry periods.
Once the soil is prepared the stakes should be driven into the soil. I like to grow mine up strong wooden stakes but you could use a frame or a teepee perhaps. Whatever you use it is important to put the stakes in before the plant as it prevents damage to the roots.
Once the tomatoes are planted it’s a good idea to give them a deep watering – literally soak the soil and then leave the watering for a week or so. If you can do so, it helps to put some kind of mulch down. Remember not to use suspect compost though – perhaps some pea straw or mushroom compost would be good. As well as reducing the need for watering, the mulch will also suppress weeds.
The choice of variety is a very personal one. I like to plant some early varieties – I usually use Early Girl – as they will set fruit at a lower temperature. I also grow some medium sized varieties, as I prefer the stronger flavour of these types. Many of you will prefer to grow the Beefsteak types, with their fleshier fruits. Whichever you choose, it pays to spend a little more and buy an F1 hybrid. It will be sturdier, stronger and will fruit much better than the older open pollinated types.
At the opposite end of the modernity spectrum are the heirloom varieties – some of those old ones from the catalogues of a century ago, and oddball types from around the world. They will tend to fruit later and they will also not have such large crops, but many gardeners enjoy having the slightly eccentric varieties available – the purples, pinks, striped and green forms, in all shapes .
And who knows? They might even find one of the types that Bill Summers was growing, all those years ago, in those huge gardens, attached to the large sheep stations.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Clivias in frosty places

Sometimes in the garden, as in life, it is not the huge things that bring the most satisfaction. In the garden it might be the first flowering of a special plant, or the successful cultivation of a difficult plant. So this week the Head Gardener is one very happy gardener – her Clivia has flowered.
For those in more northern climes this would be no great deal. In warmer areas Clivia present no special difficulties, but in our frost-prone garden it has been an interesting challenge to get one of these South African beauties into flower.
We first planted two large containers with Clivia bulbs about five years ago. The HG is very fond of their elegant beauty and, although I am not a huge fan myself, I do think they are useful and attractive flowers for cool and shady areas.
We planted our plants very carefully, in relatively deep shade underneath a couple of small evergreen trees. Despite the deep shade the occasional frost still manages to sneak in and damage the other frost tender plants that we grow there. Each year the Plumbago manages to make it through until about August before being fried, and the yellow Lantana (also in a container) get similarly blitzed each year. The Clivias usually get their share of damage, and each year the leaves are badly scorched, but this year, perhaps because the winter has been milder, the leaves came into spring virtually untouched, and one on plant a lovely head of flowers has appeared.
Most garden Clivias are bred from the orange species C. miniata. This species has been grown and bred around the world for nearly one hundred years. Until recently the vast majority of the forms available in the trade have been seed-raised orange forms for the garden, with a concentration on large flowers. However, that has not always been the case overseas.
The Clivia is a very popular plant in Japan. In that country, though, the emphasis has been on the raising of new varieties with variegated leaves, and hundreds of forms are known and registered.
In China it is the miniature forms that are most popular, especially when grown as houseplants. In Changchun, Masterton’s Chinese sister city, the plant is so popular that it has been adopted as the official flower of the city
In New Zealand we are lucky in that we can grow them outside (albeit with difficulty in colder areas) but there are some things to keep in mind - the Clivia has some quite specific needs. As explained above, the leaves are frost tender so it is important that the plant should be in a frost free spot. In many areas that means planting in deep shade but that suits these plants fine, as it replicates the conditions they grow under naturally. They perform best under evergreen trees with medium to deep shade, even in warmer areas. The most amazing display of Clivias I have ever seen in a garden was at ‘Ngamamaku’ at Oakura, where a deep, steep-sided gully has been planted out with hundreds of Clivias.
The soil type is relatively important too, as these bulbs prefer very well drained soils. They seem to need high oxygen levels to perform best and will not be happy in wet clay soils.
If you are a fan of these plants you will have noticed that there is an increasing range of plants available now – and they are slowly coming down in price too.
The first of the ‘other’ Clivias to make it out of the specialist societies were the yellow forms. When they first appeared they were hideously expensive and they weren’t the healthiest plants either, some being quite “miffy.”
New Zealand plant breeder Dr Keith Hammett decided that Clivias were worth his time and collected a huge number of forms, corresponding with overseas growers who were breeding new forms. The result of his work is now available in garden centres.
His pale yellow form, ‘Moon Glow’, is a broad leaved, strong growing variety with very wide petalled flowers. The plants are grow from seed so they are a little variable but the all feature hybrid vigour and are a worthwhile addition top any home garden.
Hammett has also turned his attention to the red varieties, also increasingly popular. It must be said that these flowers are not fire-engine red. Remember that they are coming from orange flowers and they will be closer to orange than red, but they are considerably deeper flowered than the old types. Hammett’s varieties are in the trade under the name of ‘Fire Glow.’
Hammett has also unreleased an orange strain called ‘Sunset Glow.’ These are similar to the yellow and red forms in that they have very wide flowers with good colouring, and they are very vigorous.
Tony Barnes at ‘Ngamamaku’ has also been breeding Clivias and had a wonderful range of hybrids for sale at the garden. I visited during the crossing season a couple of years ago and spent some time with Tony as he worked away at his crosses. I can easily see how someone would get excited about breeding these plants as these is a good range of material within the genome to play with. Over the next few years expect to see a great improvement in the form of these flowers, especially on the show bench.
If you are keen on growing any of these plants, it pays to seek out help from the New Zealand Clivia Club. They can be found on-line at Through the website, you will be able to find other New Zealand suppliers of these wonderful plants.
Just do not tell the Head Gardener though. I reckon she’ll be keen to increase the range of Clivias growing around here.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Those stinking aroids

The last weekend of September was a very interesting one for the Head Gardener and I. A spell of fine weather that followed a welcome dose of rain left the soil in wonderful condition so a large part of the weekend was spent with backs bent and rakes, hoes, spades, shovels and dibbers at the ready.
Saturday afternoon, though, we spent a bit of time in the capital city, ostensibly to pick up our son but really to have a bit of time in the Botanical Gardens. It was not a great day weather-wise in the gardens, but the beds were at their early spring best. The display of tulips of contrasting colours had drawn a large number of spectators, happy to brave the cool wind and the drizzle. The tulips were stunning – large healthy well-grown specimens in perfect patterns – not to everyone’s taste but nonetheless a memorable sight.
The sights that will stay in my mind, though, were the newly emerging leaves on the Japanese maples, and the virid light they imparted. There were especially beautiful in some of the sheltered dells where they serve as cover for a wide range of damp-loving species.
One of these species caused us a bit of grief.
I spotted a clump of the yellow skunk cabbage (and what a name that is!) Lysichiton americanus, in a bed alongside the duck pond. I was so taken with the clump that I stopped to take some photographs. We then continued on our way, looking at the main beds with their tulips, and wandering through the small pine trees, up the ridge and down into the Lady Norwood Rose Gardens.
As we approached the large glasshouse I suddenly realised that I didn’t have the car keys with me, so we carefully, and sullenly I have to say, retraced our footsteps. I had a hunch that I might have put them down when I photographed the skunk cabbage. Fortunately that turned out to be the case, and we found the keys hidden just inside the bed. We were able to move forward again, albeit on a different pathway.
So, the yellow skunk cabbage -it caused us so much grief I have to tell you about the plant.

As you will see from the photograph, it is a member of the large family of plants called the Araceae, most familiar to most people by the common arum lily. Like the arum, the Lysichiton prefers moist soil, with good humus content. It will grow in sun or part shade. It is at its very best, though, in damp areas alongside ponds or streams where, if it is at all happy, it will even seed and establish itself.
As with members of the Araceae what appears to be the flower is in fact a sheath that covers the actual flowers. The sheath appears from the ground in early spring, wrapped around the spadix – the stem that has the small flowers spaced along it.
Unfortunately it shares another common trait of many members of the Araceae - it is fly pollinated, and as such uses a very traditional way of attracting flies to the flowers.
It stinks.
It has a heavy musky scent which unpleasant but it is not as absolutely foul as some of the more lurid members of the family.
Each year or so someone comes to see me with tales of a lily that has just appeared in their garden. They have never seen it before and that it has large flowers like an arum, except they are black. And everyone says the flowers stink.

What they have in their garden is commonly called the “Stink Lily”, “Voodoo Lily” or the “Dragons Flower”, but it is known to botanists as Dranuculus vularis.
Unlike the yellow cabbage yellow this plant comes from Mediterranean Europe and prefers freer draining soil. It has attractive green leaves with white markings, arranged around the snakeskin patterned stem. The flowers, though, are the thing.
And what a thing they are. The spathe pops out fully and tightly closed, greenish brown, with deep markings on the edge. When the spathe opens and the spadix is finally exposed it comes in the most lurid maroon, and can be up to 1.5 metres long. It is sometimes called “amorphophallic” by botanists. When I tell you that “amorpho” means “shaped”, I am sure you can work put how it got its description. As a matter of interest, I see some United States nurseries are now calling this the “Viagra Lily.”
This is an attractive looking plant, and the putrid smell (said to recall rotting meat) doesn’t last for long – maybe just one day. Just the same, don’t plant it by the front door.
I was pleased to see another old favourite in the gardens though, a form of the common “arum,” Zantedeschia aethiopica. The usual form is the common white form so heavily associated with funerals in the United Kingdom, and almost regarded as a weed in New Zealand. There is a very interesting green-flowered form called “Green Goddess”. It is brilliant in the damp conditions where the white flowered form grows, and it is a great flower if you like having different flowers in a vase inside. It was very popular during the time ladies were keen on joining floral art clubs, as it was perfect for many forms of floral display, and it is having a bit of a comeback again now, no doubt influenced by the increasing interest in large foliage and pool gardens.
My favourite among all these arums-like plants is a tiny little one I have in my glasshouse, just for the kids - the mouse plant. Arisarum proboscideum is a shade loving plant that grows about 15 cm high, with funny little flowers that look just like mice, especially when seen from behind. A great one for the kids to scream at!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Little Aussie battlers

One of the amazing things about the plant world is the sheer diversity it contains. The term ‘plant lover’ can cover an enormous range of interests.
I had thought my plant interests were fairly well defined, and that I was of an age when I was not going to fired by a sudden enthusiasm for a new class of plants. Then, just last summer, I found myself getting all excited about native orchids.
I have always like visiting orchid shows, although I have been resolute about not growing too many plants as I have enough trouble keeping my other enthusiasms under control. I like looking at the large-flowered cymbidiums and other forms, but it is the small-flowered species that get me.
Last summer I made a few forays into the ranges near home and found that the highlights of my journeys up into the alpine herb fields were the various orchids I found on the way up, and sometimes even on the way down!
When I go to an orchid show I make a beeline for the more unusual species on display.
I have a fascination with the Australian Dendrobiums, and it will be the display of these trans-Tasman beauties will be the first stand I visit. These are relatives of our native Winika cunninghamii, with delightful tiny flowers of typical orchid shape.
Our Australian cousins have a much bigger range of species and hybrids to choose from. The species that grabs me the most is the charming little rock orchid D. kingianum (more properly now called Thelychiton kingianus – really!). This grows wild from northern New South Wales up into Queensland, on rocks usually, as you would expect, but also sometimes on trees.
It is a small growing plant – maybe around 20 cm high – and has up to seven flowers per pseudobulb. These flowers are now available in a huge range of colours from white through to seep purple, although most are in the pink range.
Although these guys are not frost hardy they will stand quite cool conditions and are easily grown. If you can grow Cymbibiums you can grow these guys as well. Being dwarf they do not need large pots and will thrive in small plastic containers. At the shows there are always some huge clumps of these plants, in large pots, and the sight of hundreds of these flowers fluttering over the dwarf foliage is really something to savour.
D. speciosum (now also a Thelychiton) is a cousin of the rock orchid, and will readily form hybrids with it, but has a completely different form. It has tough leaves to about 40 cm high, topped by racemes of white to cream flowers, up to 120 flowers on each stem. The flowers are often finished of by purple markings on the labellum. It is a charming plant, with the large racemes drooping and displaying their flowers freely. The flowers are deliciously scented as well – very noticeable in an enclosed hall.
As you would expect, these two plants have been hybridised, and not just by keen orchid breeders either – they will cross in the wild when their growing areas overlap. The hybrid is known as D. delicatum, and is quite variable, but in the wild it is usually creamy coloured with purple markings on the labellum. The flowers are intermediate in size, and not carried with the abundance as D. speciosum, but are nonetheless still numerous. In cultivation these have been crossed with some of the darker forms of D. kingianum, with a bigger range of colours now available.
All of the above are quite straight forward to grow. Their main need is for absolute drainage – they will not grow in soil, or even in normal potting mix. In the wild they are lithophytes (they grow on rocks) and they need very sharp mix. The standard mix is composed of very coarse pine bark chips, or something similar.
During the growing season these plants will need watering most days but in the winter the watering can be held back to about once a week, or even less.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The best native climber

Reports have been coming in to me that the clematis is in flower on the Rimutaka Hill road. Friend after friend has been telling me that the trees are wreathed with the shining white flowers of Clematis paniculata, so this weekend I made a short trip out into the countryside to see whether the rumours are true.
Sure enough, the puawhananga are in flower and what a brilliant sight they make – surely the most brilliant of the native clematis, and also one of the most attractive of all native flowering plants.
There are hundreds of Clematis species scattered all over the temperate world, and of course, very many more hybrids and varieties. New Zealand has its share of these species and they include some very interesting plants, but the star is the puawhananga.
For many years this was hardly grown in gardens even though it was widely known. That may be due to simple sexual discrimination. Female and male flowers are borne on different plants. The male flowers are bigger and more attractive. In the past nurserymen have tended to offer plants that have been gathered from the wild and they take a long time to flower, then, when they do flower, the flowers have not been of the best quality.
Fortunately, nurserymen have learnt how to grow these beauties from cuttings (it is not easy from wild plants) and now we can have selected forms with known characteristics.
Probably the best of these is ‘Serenity,’ selected from wild plants growing in Canterbury and with flowers that can be over 110 mm wide.
To grow any Clematis paniculata properly you need to bear in mind the conditions it favours in the wild. To put it crudely, it needs its head in the sun and its bum in the shade.
In the wild, these plants grow in the litter at the bottom of the forest floor. They grow in friable humus-rich soil that is both cool and, usually at least, moist. In the garden, they need similar conditions, with perhaps a deep mulch on the soil. It pays to plant this near a tree or shrub that it can scramble up, although it will grow perfectly well along a fence. If grown along a fence do remember that it will need a cool root run and cannot cope with hot and dry soil conditions.
In the wild these plants grow with very long stems – in fact, it is sometimes very hard to track back from the flowers to see where the roots are. As they wander through the scrub, they tend to lose many leaves from the lower portions of the stems and this can be a problem in the garden if the plant is grown along a fence.
‘Serenity’ is, as you would expect from a southern plant, a hardy form of this species but a hybrid based on C. paniculata is even hardier. ‘Purity’ also originates from Canterbury and is perhaps one of the hardiest of all evergreen flowering climbers.
It flowers later than ‘Serenity’ – mid-October rather than mid-September- and its flowers are slightly tinted, indicative of its hybrid origin. The flowers have a distinct green colouring when first open, but fade to a pale cream if grown in light shade. In full sun the flowers turn pure white.
Again, this needs a deep cool root run to succeed well, but once established can cope with extensive periods of drought. However, it cannot cope with a dry and warm site so plant in under shrubs or trees for best display.
This is better than ‘Serenity’ for fence line plantings as it has long flowering stems that droop down, giving a dramatic floral display. If you decide to grow it along a fence line just bear in mind that this one loses foliage along the stem too, so it probably pays to cut it back by about a half after each flowering.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Blooming weepers

Over the past couple of years, I have been watching the progress of a couple of newly planted trees just down the road from our garden with great interest. The house was sold and new gardeners came. They kept much of the planting but they replanted a bed alongside their driveway, which had previously featured a row of standard ‘Iceberg’ roses in a box-lined bed. I like ‘Iceberg’, but I believe the row of standard white roses has been overdone in recent years, so I was intrigued to see what was going to replace the roses.
I would never have guessed what the new plants would be though – a couple of weeping peach trees.
Of all the various flowering fruit trees, the peaches are the least planted nowadays, although at one time they were very popular. My grandparents had a spectacular deep pink variety in their garden and it was a delight each spring. I think the best upright form of this tree, though, is the pure white double flowered ‘Iceberg.’ The white is intensely pure, as the name would suggest - it glistens.
From this tree came the weeping forms grown in New Zealand, ‘Cascade’ and ‘Pink Cascade’. ‘Cascade’ was the first weeping form to be released in New Zealand, and has the pure white flowers of ‘Iceberg’ – or at least, it mostly does. The plant is not stable as it throws pink flowers on some branches, so the effect is slightly softer. The growth form is gently weeping and when planted against a dark background, as the tree down the road is, the effect is very dramatic.
The light pink ‘Pink Cascade’ was selected from the white form, and has the same growth habits. The colour is fairly stable, although it does seem to throw the occasional rogue flower.
You do need to exercise a little care with flowering peaches in the garden on two counts. Firstly, they are rather prone to the same diseases that fruiting peaches are, in particular leaf curl. It probably pays to spray copper oxychloride at bud burst to keep this pest in check.
The other potential problem is silver leaf. This disease can attack large trees, usually when they have been heavily pruned. If an infection is noticed quickly enough, use of the natural remedy Trichopel will keep it at bay. Otherwise it is a case for the chainsaw I am afraid, as this disease will rapidly spread.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Wild freesias

We have been on holiday recently, in Rotorua and Gisborne. We were booked into a motel out at Wainui Beach, a couple of minutes past Gisborne city, and the beach proved too much of a temptation to us when we arrived. We quickly got into beach clothes and made out way across the road and down onto the long sandy beach.
It did not take too long for us to get tired, so we retraced our footsteps towards our entrance to the beach at “Sandy Cove.” I was surprised to discover that a large colony of wild freesias had established itself along the dunes at the entrance of the beach, and I spent some time among them, smelling and photographing.
I was aware that Freesias have established themselves in parts of Australia, and are regarded as weedy pests in Victoria and in South Australia and West Australia, but I have never seen such a large colony growing in the wild in our country.
As I would have expected, the colony at Gisborne seems to be largely formed of hybrids from F. alba, and most of the flowers are white, with a significant proportion having purple-backed petals, although there are also some creamy coloured forms, and some lovely mauve-flowered plants too. I even found a few with very attractive markings.
They reminded me very much of the large plantings my mother used to have in a very dry spot facing north, under her bedroom window. In this hot bed, a jumble of bulbs, mainly from South Africa, battled it out with each other for floral supremacy. The Freesias were regular winners in early spring, and a wide range of small flowered hybrids, in muted tones, flowered each year.
I am sure the Gisborne plants are fence-jumpers as I saw a number of wonderful borders filled with the white Freesia ‘Burtonii’ in beachside gardens on another stroll through the Wainui village. I guess the predicted global warming might mean this plant could become more of a problem in beach areas, but it was great fun to see these plants growing wild.

My own Freesias were in flower when we arrived home from our trip. I have pots of the golden double flowered form ‘Yvonne’, and of the deep purple single form, ‘Blue Navy’ –well, they were labelled ‘Blue Navy’ when I bought them, a double form, but they are actually singles.
I also have ‘Attica,’ another modern hybrid, this time white, growing in a pot. This variety has bulked up quickly but its growth rate is nothing like that of the old fashioned ‘Burtonii’ that most gardeners are familiar with.
This was a chance sport of F. refracta alba, and arose in the Nelson garden of a Mrs Burton, after whom it is named. For many years this was by far the most popular Freesia in our country. Its creamy flowers, with their bright golden spot and absolute absence of any purple staining, made this enormously popular. Over recent years this variety seems to have lost its vigour and it is harder to find in garden centres.
Some years ago I was given a double-flowered form of F. refracta alba. I have never seen this offered in nurseries, so it has probably only been passed from bulb lover to bulb lover. It is small flowered and has a messy centre but it is an interesting old plant.
The Freesias at Wainui Beach have colonised so well because they carry prolific amounts of seed – except ‘Burtonii’ which is sterile. The gardener can use this proclivity to their own benefit buy raising crops from seed. Most reputable seed companies stock at least one mix of these and they are easy and fun to grow.

Friday, August 25, 2006

When we think of native plants we tend to think of trees and shrubs – the kauri, the totara, the many hebes and the colourful coprosmas. We might also think of some of the architectural plants like the flaxes, the sedges, and the multitude of grasses. The one group of native plants that we tend to ignore are the herbaceous perennials, so today lets consider some of them.
As you would expect from a self confessed iris lover, I am really keen on the various “New Zealand Irises,” the Libertia ¬species and hybrids. I think they are very under-rated plants, although I suspect that is about to change with the introduction of some new hybrids.
‘Taupo Blaze’ is a variety released from the Taupo Native Plant Nursery, a stunning new form of the endemic plant, Libertia ixioides. The type species is densely tufted plant, with clumps of greenish-yellow foliage. It is very adaptable, growing in full sun through to almost full shade. It is very useful in the full sun, which induces better colour, the leaves going strong yellow or even orange. It has flowers too – pretty little white flowers, tri-petalled but not actually anything much like an iris, held on branching stems. When the flowers have finished the seed heads are also bright orange or yellow.
The species if often used as ground cover or in multiple plantings in hard conditions as it is very hardy. It probably deserves better though, and I have seen some wonderfully imaginative use of this plant in very formal grouping.
Then there is “Taupo Blaze.”
This is a relatively new selection, and already has landscapers excited. It has greenish foliage in the summer but as winter approaches the foliage darkens, going through orange through red, ending up rich burnt red. The white flowers appear in the spring, standing out very well against the dark foliage. The seedpods are deep red.
I first saw this plant in garden centres late last year and was deeply impressed. I can see this having all sorts of uses; from landscape multiple plantings, though to specimen planting in the mixed border, through to highlight planting in containers. I think it would look great in a colourful ceramic pot.
Interestingly enough, this is a plant that performs best in poor soils. In common with many colourful foliage plants, if the plant is growing in nitrogen rich soil much of the colour will be lost. Give this no fertilizer, or at best, give it some extra potash for better colour.
There is a cheery companion for this plant, a very bright form of L. ixioides called ‘Goldfinger.’ This is a bright and cheery little plant, with light green leaves with a bright golden central stripe. This guy is another one for containers I think – perhaps bright blue this time. There is another similar form called ‘Highlander.’
Another species that is sometimes found in garden centres is L. peregrinans. This is a stoloniferous plant – it spreads by little stems that move along the ground, or just under, making new plants. It has much stiffer foliage that the above species, and is not as graceful, but it does have its uses. The quick-spreading nature makes this very useful for bulk plantings, and it is popular for use in median strips and the like. Be a little careful of it in the garden though – it will not stay in one place for long!
Last year, half way up the Tararua Ranges, I came across the charming little L. pulchella. This is a sparse-growing plant, and at about 10 cm long, it is only about a fifth the size of the other species. It would probably not be noticed in the damp places it grows when it is not in flower, but it makes a charming little display when in flower in early summer. If you can find it in a specialist nursery, this is a great little plant for a damp place, or perhaps for a pot in the glasshouse.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Potatoes in early spring

There has been a bit of grumpiness in the Winter household at dinner time. We have run out of our own potatoes and we have to eat some shop-bought spuds. They are nothing like the ones we grew ourselves, and the potato eaters (well, the potato eater –there is only one) are not happy.
Still, it is that time of the year and at least we can start the potato-growing process again. It will still be about four months before have anything worth eating so I guess I am going to have to either put up with soggy spuds or switch to rice or noodles.
If I do I will be following a national trend. Over the past fifty or so years, potato consumption has steadily fallen, and the standard serving of potatoes with the evening meal has disappeared. I do not know the exact figures but I believe that only about 30% of the population now eat potatoes most days. I would not be surprised to learn that a significant proportion of potatoes grown commercially in New Zealand are destined for the “chip” market.
That makes the case for growing them at home even stronger, to my mind. As well as the benefits of actually knowing where your vegetables have come from, the crops you grow will be tastier and healthier.
My neighbour Bill is the one to talk to about potatoes. His crop is always earlier than mine and his potatoes are significantly larger than mine. Then, he is of Irish descent, so he should know more about growing Murphys, shouldn’t he?
The first step for growing potatoes is site selection. As long as the soil is well drained and in a fairly sunny position, almost any soil will grow a reasonable crop of potatoes. It was a long-standing tradition, now largely abandoned, for new home-owners to grow a crop of potatoes on their newly purchased section and many a lawn has been established on land “broken in” by a crop of spuds.
The ideal soil is a light sandy soil that has had some organic matter added to it in the previous autumn. Unless you have a time machine, it is too late to do that, so a good dressing of any vegetable fertilizer before the soil is given its final working up will prove very beneficial. The crop needs plenty of nitrogen as it grows so do not stint on the fertilizer.
We are luck as our vegetable garden is in a very well drained part of the section, and it has been built up over many years with plenty of compost and manure. I only have a small vegetable garden (the flowers keep intruding and taking over!) so it is important that I rotate the crops carefully. This year’s potatoes will be going into a quarter of the garden that was manured the previous year for a leaf crop. It was limed in the autumn and has been left fallow over the winter.
Old books insist on gardeners buying selected seed strains for planting, but to be honest I think there is nothing wrong with just selecting some of your own best tubers each year and planting those. I have been doing that with some Maori potatoes for years and I have not noticed any diminution in the crop. You could also plant some of the tubers from the vegetable drawer if you wanted. They will work just fine.
There are many different varieties on the market – I understand that there are over 50 grown in New Zealand, although I guess your garden centre is not going to have them all in stock.
Among the popular ones for planting early are the old favourites like Jersey Benne, Cliffs Kidney and Ilam Hardy. These are all proven varieties, but among the newer ones that have become popular are Rocket and Karaka.
It pays to bear in mind what ‘early’ means in this situation. It does not mean that the plants are hardier or that they need planting earlier – it simply means that they mature quicker. In theory, you can plant ‘early’ and ‘main crop’ varieties at the same time, and get a staggered harvest. In general, though, most of us plant the ‘early’ varieties first, and plant a ‘main crop’ variety later.
I grew ‘Red Rascal’ last year and was delighted with that so I will be sticking to that for this season’s crop. I do not have the space to have more than one patch of potatoes so I will just have to make do with that.
Garden writers seem to persistently recommend that the potatoes be pre-sprouted for a month or so before they are planted. They are set out in a single layer in an old seed pan in a warm spot. The sprouts will appear from the eyes. The strongest should be retained, while weaker and spindly shoots should be rubbed out. Large potatoes, with more than one set of sprouts, can be cut before planting.Having said all that, I don’t ever bother with pre-sprouting, and have never noticed a bad crop as a result. I simply make trenches about 20 cm deep, and plant the tubers in the bottom of these trenches. Keep the soil handy though. The tubers are placed about 30 cm apart and the rows about 90 cm apart. As the spouts appear through the bottom of the trench, the soil previously placed aside is heaped over the sprouts. This is very important as the new tubers are formed on the stems. You could use well matured compost or even well-aged straw as part of mound.
From then on it is quite straight forward. Keep an eye out for late frosts (I find the knitted frost cloths are ideal for my small patch) and make sure the plants are well watered as they mature, as they will not form tubers if too dry. If you and your neighbour plant now you’ll be eating your own potatoes (or your neighbour’s) for Christmas.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Dangers of plant photography

This plant photography business can be a very dangerous one, as I discovered this morning as I walked to work.
For the past few weeks I have been keeping an eye on a wonderful Michelia doltsopa as it comes into flower. It is a semi-mature tree – about three meters high – and the flowers have been delightfully scented and, unusually in our climate, free from blemish. They have also been too high on the tree for me to photograph from the footpath. Each day I look, hoping to find just one flower that is both clean enough and low enough for me to take a photograph.
Today was the day. There was a new flower, nestled in the leaves of the lower growing plants. It was just what I had been waiting for, so I took my camera out of my bag – it always accompanies me on my meanderings – and took a number of photographs.
I also took pictures of the white Chaenomeles that grows alongside it, and the lovely light pink camellia in the same garden.
I was feeling very pleased with myself. I had taken my photographs and was back on my way to work when I heard some noise over the sound of National Radio playing from my MP3 player.
I turned around and saw a middle-aged lady, immaculately dressed in black from head to toe, waving and chasing after me. I recognised the lady as the mother of a young man who had helped me research for my book on the streets of our town when he was about twelve, and who shares my first name. She is also a friend of a lady who used to work for me at the archive, having worked as a teacher with my assistant’s husband. She now works at a local private girls’ school.
I smiled, expecting her to have news of Gareth or Pam. Instead she asked me if I had taken some photographs.
I must have looked a little bewildered, but answered that I had indeed taken some photographs of the flowers just down the road.
Then she asked if I had taken photographs the week before.
I answered that indeed I had. I had photographed the Viburnum tinus in flower along the school’s front boundary, and had also photographed a Magnolia ‘Vulcan’ that was growing in a neighbouring garden.
She smiled and apologised for hounding me. It seems that some of the boarders (forgive the pun) at the school had seen me photographing the shrub in the border, and with the fertile imagination that seems to be reserved for thirteen year old girls cloistered in unhealthily large numbers, had decided that I was some kind of sexual pervert and that I was photographing the school. Perhaps they thought I was stalking someone – I don’t know.
The teacher was amused that the photographer should have turned out to be me, and rushed away to explain to the girls that there was nothing to worry about.
I am jot sure how I feel about it all. I guess I should just be more careful, and, on reflection, maybe it wasn’t the brightest thing in the world to do to take photographs outside a girls’ school. But really – get grip girls.
It’s all about the flowers!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Viburnum tinus

In one of my horticultural incarnations I used to help design gardens. I was always careful to ensure that my clients could not see that I had designed their particular patch. I reasoned that if the garden properly reflected their needs you should not be able to see the designer’s hand in the eventual garden.
There were obviously others working in the same landscaping field, and I noticed that I could easily differentiate between their works just by looking for their signature plants, the ones they used in all their gardens. I was determined not to fall into that trap.
There is another real trap for the beginning garden designer – professional and amateur alike - and I saw a great example of it last weekend. I was lost in a nearby town and driving around pretending to be looking at gardens. I found myself in a deep cul-de-sac face to face with a very pretty winter garden, filled with heathers, South African Ericas, Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ and any number of Camellias. I knew immediately that the garden had been planned and planted at this time of the year. Whoever planted the garden must have gone and picked all the flowering shrubs in the garden centre in August. The garden looks superb now but it will be a plain looking this later in the season when all the late winter flowering shrubs have finished.
One plant that was looking nice in that garden was one that I have just planted myself, to help hide the gap left behind by the hebe hedge. I needed a few evergreen shrubs to fill in the large gap along the front boundary and was interested in getting some winter colour built in as well. The garden has a good number of camellias and a few rhododendrons for later in the season so I thought that maybe I would plant a Viburnum tinus for my late winter colour.
This is an old-fashioned favourite that seems to be undergoing a bit of a revival now. It is a tough, reliable performer and was planted in many Victorian shrubberies, where its dark green leaves and resilient nature were much appreciated. It went out of favour for a while as it can be prone to attack from red spider mite, leaving the plant looking decidedly unhappy, with silvery foliage and a degree of dieback. This infestation is prevented relatively easily with a careful spraying programme and shouldn’t deter anyone from planting this shrub.
The type species grows to about two metres – at least according to the books it does, but you can add another metre to that at least. It makes a lovely rounded shrub and will grow to have about the same girth. That would make it too big for the front of my garden so I chose a smaller growing form known as ‘Eve Price”. Like the original species this has dark green shiny foliage, covered with red buds at this time of the year and earlier. Over a matter of weeks all these buds open to creamy white flowers. In the late summer there will be a crop of blue-black berries, but don’t plant the shrub for them – they are not that exciting!
This is a great, tough little plant for an exposed site. It can cope with wind, rain, drought, sun, coastal conditions, frost – and it is attractive as a bonus. It will make a tidy low hedge, planted at about one meter intervals, and will probably only need clipping once a year. It grows about 1.2 metres by 1.2 metres. It can be kept smaller of course.
There is another taller form, called “Emerald Beauty” that is sometimes offered – it is too tall for my purposes but is very attractive.
The other form that is sometimes offered in the trade is the oddly coloured (and dreadfully named) “Bewley’s Variegated.” This has green leaves deeply coloured with deep yellow splashes. The effect actually looks surprisingly drab, but if variegated shrubs are your thing I guess you will find the combination of green, yellow, white and red to your taste.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

A snowdrop in memory of Lavinia

Last Sunday when I got home from a trip to recycle the remains of the hebe hedge, I found a pleasant surprise on my back doorstep. I knew immediately that a good gardening friend of had visited me because there, sitting proudly in a little black pot, was a charming little double-flowered snowdrop.
I knew who the visitor was, as I know only one galanthophile, snowdrop-lover. I thought I even know which one of her many species and hybrids it would be, and that proved to be right as well.
Along with the plant was a lovely card, also featuring a snowdrop, a single one. The inscription made it plain that the plant was a gift in memory of my daughter Lavinia, and that the pot contained a number of bulbs of the Greatorex hybrid called ‘Lavinia.’
I like growing plants that have family connections, but there are not many plants named ‘Lavinia.’ Apart from this little charmer, which I had drooled over in my friends’ last garden some years ago, I can only think of the camellia, ‘Lavinia de Maggi.’ This is an ancient striped form which I have never seen in New Zealand, but it does appear in overseas catalogues and books.
I have never seen the Galanthus “Lavinia’ for sale in New Zealand either but it must be around, perhaps floating among specialist nurseries.
Many people get snowdrops and snowflakes confused. They both have white flowers and are also both popular early-flowering bulbs, but the snowflakes are much larger.
The most common snowflake is Leucojum aestivum. This is the plant that you will find growing in dampish areas in old gardens, and even in paddocks. It will naturalise easily and is so easily grown that some gardeners tend to sneer at it a little. I recently saw a large clump growing in the Esplanade gardens in Palmerston North, along with some hardy early daffodils, underneath some trees. It looked fabulous.
The six petals of snowflakes are all the same length, and this is the most obvious difference between the snowflakes and the snowdrops. The snowdrops (Galanthus species) have three long petals, and three shorter ones.
In the wild, these petals have an interesting function. On cold and wet days the three outer, larger, petals wrap around the inner petals, where the ‘naughty bits’ are kept, to protect them from the damp. On sunny days, they open up to allow access for insects to pollinate the flowers.
The smaller petals are usually tipped, or banded, with green markings. In some cases, the pouter petals can be tipped or striped with green too.
Galanthophiles (I love that word!) celebrate the variances within the 19 species and the numerous hybrids. Most of us would struggle to differentiate between the hybrids, and would be content with one or two species and/or hybrids.
I have a healthy clump of the most common species, G. nivalis. This is the variety found in most garden centres in the spring. It is widespread across Europe in the wild, and has been naturalised in many countries where it does not naturally occur. In the lower North Island, we are probably near the end of the range for this plant in New Zealand. It does not like warm climates and those further north struggle to grow this well.
The other species sometimes met with is G. plicatus. This has larger stems (up to 25 cm instead of about 15 for G. nivalis) but is otherwise very similar.
The Greatorex hybrids were created by crossing pollen from a very double-flowered old form of G. nivalis with a particularly nicely formed G. plicatus. They were named after various Shakespearian heroines – hence ‘Ophelia,’ ‘Desdemona,’ ‘Titania,’ and, of course, ‘Lavinia.’ They are very similar and even galanthophiles (I had to work that word in again) struggle to determine which is which.
‘Lavinia’ has a wide-spread skirt of outer petals, which effectively mask a very filled layer of green-tipped petticoats. It is a charming little plant and I will cherish it. I have planed it in the little garden that Lavinia helped make when we first shifted here, along with some of her other favourite flowers.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Pittosporum 'Elfin'

New dwarf Pittosporum

I recently had the pleasure of going to see some nursery-owning friends, to have a look at a new plant they will be releasing onto the market later this year, or perhaps next autumn.
The Portman family has been gardening at Clareville for many years, at one time having a very interesting open garden behind their old cottage. As people flocked to see their garden, they started to sell plants – out of a wheelbarrow at first, if I remember right. They soon expanded their selling operations, and have a very successful garden centre for a number of years.
A few years ago, Allan Portman took me out to their nursery area and showed me a dwarf Pittosporum tenuifolium he had raised from seed. It was about the time the first dwarf forms of this species were being touted in the industry but it was obvious that his form offered something new. It had tiny leaves of a grey-green hue – as is befitting of a plant called the Silver Matipo – and seemed to have good basal branching. This is very important if the plant is to remain dwarf.
This weekend Allan was recovering from the flu, bit it did not take too much encouragement from wife Fay and son Stephen for Allan to join us out in the nursery again, to show us how well the little seedling I had seen had done in the intervening years.
It has done very well thank you.
The Portmans showed me a line of potted specimens, each globe-shaped and about 30 cm high. They were very attractive little plants and I am sure they will find a ready place in the market. It seems to me that they have superior branching to other forms I have seen, and they also have the good habit of keeping leaves right down the branch. This attribute is very important for those who want to trim the plant, and I can see that this little beauty will be used for topiary and hedging by many gardeners.
This new form, which will be sold in the trade as “Elfin,” is just one of a number of interesting seedlings from the Portmans’ stock tree. Allan is very cagey about where the tree is – he would not even give me a hint, and I do not blame him, because it seems to throw sports quite freely. Among the other seedlings I saw a couple of very fastigate forms, growing like little grey-green columns – and a number with interesting purple and copper shades.
“Elfin” will look great as an untrimmed specimen in a care-free garden, as it has such an attractive shape and colouring. It will make a splendid patio container plant, and I am sure there will be many gardeners who will use these for hedging.
This plant is probably going to go international, as it is being trialed in a number of countries as we speak. Keep an eye out for it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Visiting Magnolia campbellii

It is remarkable what a few fine days will do – and not just to the garden, although at this time of the year it is certainly most welcome – but also to the gardener. Even the most resilient horticulturist feels a little downhearted at this time of the year. The lack of sunlight and the dearth of flowering plants at the end of winter can be very trying. So, on Saturday, I bundled the Head Gardener into the car and we took of on a mission – to see the Magnolia campbellii in the Esplanade Gardens at Palmerston North.
I grow a number of Magnolias here in the garden, but M. campbellii is not one of them, so I delight in other people’s trees. I used detour on our nursery run in Upper Hutt to see an advanced specimen in a private garden, and then would find another large tree near one of our customers in Lower Hutt.
This weekend’s journey proved to be well worthwhile for a number of reasons – some pleasant, and other decidedly unpleasant.
Our timing was perfect for the Magnolia. The tree, which is visible from the main road into Palmerston North from the south, was just at its peak, and the recent poor weather had not affected the flowers too badly at all. As always it was stunning sight.
I think most Magnolia lovers would agree that this is the very epitome of style and is surely the best species of all. It has the most wonderful pink flowers, without the hint of purple that many species and hybrids have. It is a large tree when fully grown – up to 30 meters in fact – and is terribly slow to start flowering – it can take at least ten years from planting before the first blooming – and it is very prone to frosts – in cold areas you’ll only get a good flowering one year in four perhaps – but having said all that, it is still the best to my mind.
I don’t have the space or the patience for this species, so I make a pilgrimage each year, to one of my favourite trees to pay my homage – and hopefully get some nice pictures. Once we had got some pictures we went for a wander through the rest of the garden.
We were near the hot house when HG turned to me with a quizzical look on her face.
“Can you smell that horrible pong?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” I replied. “What do you think it is?”
She thought that it was coming from the muddy grass we were walking over, but I was not so sure. The smell was more reminiscent of three-week-old socks rather than soggy grass.
Then I saw a Chinese couple, bent over double underneath the bare branches of a large Ginkgo tree.
I am very fond of these particular trees, and love the sight of them when I visit the rose trial gardens in the summer, when they are green and stately. I love them even more in autumn, when they have turned deep golden yellow.
But I wasn’t aware that one of these trees was a female.
These ancient trees – known from the fossil record as being at least 270 million years old – are easily grown, and make spectacular trees for the large garden, with their attractive maidenhair fern-like foliage. The female forms, though, if pollinated by near-by males, produce a large crop of plum-sized fruit. These fruit contain a highly prized nut, highly; prized both for culinary and medicinal purposes, but the flesh is absolutely foul-smelling – and it was this flesh we could smell.
When the fruit-gatherers had finished we went under the trees and picked up a fruit for ourselves, removing the flesh. We carefully washed the nut, and our hands, which also ponged, in a washbasin, and I popped it in my camera bag.
When we got home, refreshed and thrilled with our little outing, I put the Ginkgo nut on the table, and went out to check the glasshouse. By the time I got back the whole kitchen smelt of old socks. I checked my feet – which were fine – so the nut ended up on the fire – thankfully not an open fire.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

In the depths of winter, it is always a delight to think of the warmer months ahead, and the promise of regeneration in the garden. Although it is wet (very wet actually!) and cold at the moment, it will not be long before we notice that the days are lengthening again, and we will soon be talking about the first of the spring bulbs. The early spring crocuses, the C. chrysantha hybrids, are already starting to bud up in my glasshouse, and I notice that some of the snowdrops in the garden are showing signs of being in flower very soon.
And then there is the absolute delight of sitting inside, out of the rain and cold, planning new plants for the upcoming season.
I have been trying to decide whether I have enough room for some more lilies. I am always looking out for room for new plants and, because lilies are a little bit fussy about where they grow, I need to plan carefully.
The first and most important thing to take into account is their absolute need for good drainage. My mother used to garden on very poor and wet soil. Each year she would save up, buy a Lilium auratum, and nurse it carefully. She often managed to get two seasons out of the one bulb, but, at least equally often, only got the one flowering. Undaunted, she would be back the following year, buying yet another of her favourite lilies.
I am not sure why she did not grow some of the easier varieties, like the ubiquitous Christmas Lily, Lilium regale. This seems to be a requisite for the Kiwi Christmas for many families, including the Head Gardener’s. I had never struck this tradition until we met, so I was a little puzzled about the need to have vases of these lilies for Christmas. Being the compliant gardener that I am, I turned my attention to growing some for her – well, to be more honest, they were growing in the nursery garden when we bought it, so we always had a good supply for the house.
When we sold the nursery and moved to our present garden I wanted some again, so I brought some of our clumps with us, but I also grew some from seed. They have turned out to be gigantic! They flower at over two metres high – too big to pick – but they make a great feature at the end of a perennial border, and they scent the garden marvelously in mid-December.
I also grew some other species from seed so I have a scattering of these through the season, including some of the hardier species, including L. hansonii. We also have a clump of the unremittingly cheerful Tiger Lily, Lilium tigrinum – not a specialist’s lily but great value in mid-to-late summer.
It is, of course, the showier cut-flower lily varieties that are easier to procure nowadays, and a good range of these are currently available at garden centres and at nurseries.
I share my mother’s delight in the L. auratum varieties, and I have a number of different types in the garden, both out in the beds and in some pots near the house. The type species is the famed golden-rayed lily of Japan, although it is seldom seen nowadays, being largely replaced by the Oriental Hybrids.
There is a lovely range of these, mainly in the red trough pink to white shades, although in some varieties such as ‘Conca D’Or” the yellow banding of the petals has been increased to give a yellow-ish effect. I particularly love the many pink hybrids and the whites with red bands down the petals, although other gardeners prefer the deep red varieties.
No matter which one you pick, they have the most amazing scent – deep and spicy, and even more powerful than L. regale. I have a clump growing near the swimming pool and it is a marvelous feature in the cool evening summers, when the pale pink flowers glow and the whole garden is scented.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

It has been a very interesting winter, hasn’t it? Weeks of snow and hail and closed roads, then the weather turns from the southwest to the southeast and we have a sustained period of intensive rain. We have had over 100 ml of rain in our garden over the past week, and there has been widespread flooding throughout much of the lower half of the North Island.
I was keen to get out into the garden this weekend, but I must admit that I thought my chances would not be great. All that rain would surely mean that the garden would be waterlogged and impossible to work in.
I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that the garden had in fact coped very well and the soil was in beautiful condition. I managed to work in a few hours of hand weeding through the perennial beds, and among the small fruits. I even thought I had a bonus there. I found some fruit on the end of one of the raspberry branches. I made the mistake of thinking that snowy and wintry weather was suitable for ripening raspberries. I can tell you it is not!
There was not too much in flower in the garden, but there was plenty happening. There were buds in some of the bulbs but the floral highlight was a new clump of a double hellebore.
I bought this unnamed Helleborus orientalis hybrid a few years ago. It was expensive but has proven to be a good investment as it has flourished and has never failed to provide a display of interesting flowers each season. The flowers open deep maroon but fade to green flecked with purple. As with many hellebores the flowers tend to be downward facing, but they are stunning, and well worth getting down to look at!
These are, of course, old-fashioned favourites, and were deeply out of fashion for a long time. They have had a revival recently though and they are once again to be found in many gardens.
I remember clumps of hellebores in my grandmother’s garden. They were mainly green or muddy maroon, but there were also some lovely forms with white flowers and deep maroon markings.
Nowadays, though, there is a fabulously expanded range of colours, with clear colours becoming better known.
Among those that I have seen lately are some very interesting yellow forms. Don’t go expecting a buttercup colour - this is a very pale yellow – primrose I guess is a better description - but it is a clear bright yellow. The yellow seems to be deeper in full sun than in the shade, and the plant needs good drainage but it is a stunning sight.
Just recently I saw a yellow (alright, primrose) with maroon spotting on each of the petals. This is a very pretty plant.
The dark forms are also very interesting, and there is quite a range of these on the market. They are mainly grown from seed so it probably pays to see them before buying as there will be a bit of variation. The colour will range from deep maroon through to deep slate-grey.
There is a similar range among the doubles, with deep purples, pinks, greens and reds, as well as the yellows. I have grown the yellow form as well as the purple, and they are both fabulous plants.
If hellebores like your garden they are likely to gently seed down and establish themselves. You might even be lucky enough to have some interesting new forms appear.

Friday, July 07, 2006

A couple of recent television programmes on orcharding have made me think about growing some fruit trees of my own. The first dealt with a Hawkes Bay organic apple grower. He grew under the biodynamics system and mainly sold his apples to high priced markets in Europe.
The second showed a cherry and apricot grower in Otago who had ripped out all his apple trees. He said the reason for doing this was the poor returns from apple growing, which he believes stemmed from his competitors in Chile and South Africa being able to get their produce to market much cheaper than he could.
This made me think about the long-term future of export apple growing, and made me think that it might be, as he thought, an unsustainable business. The price of oil is only going top rise, and the cost of transport will rise accordingly. That will affect the profitability of apple growing, making it a more economically marginal activity, and the result of the will, presumably be, the removal of a lot more apple trees as growers exit the market.
As they go the price of apples will undoubtedly rise, and the financial imperative to grow apples will return for the home gardener. After all, it is not that long ago that every hoem garden had a little orchard with one or two apples, a couple of plums, and maybe a peach tree. Certainly, the garden I grew up in had most of the above.
Gardens are smaller nowadays so we might need to think about growing in a space-saving way. Fortunately, apples are very easily to grow in a constricted space, by being espaliered.
To start with, select the ground for your tree. Apples are very adaptable and will cope in most soils. If you have heavy clay soils you might want to add lots of humus to the soil and plant the trees in a raised mound. Similarly, if you are planting in thin soils, you will need to add some humus. Either way, for the home garden it is best to buy dwarf trees. Your local nursery will be bale to advise which rootstock is best for your area.
If your trees are to grow against a wall or fence, you will need to stretch some wires over the surface for the espaliered plants to grow along. Bear in mind that the framework for your tree will become very woody and it may be difficult to paint behind it, so it might pay to place the wire about w15 cm away from the wall.
If you are planting in the open you will need to make a framework to stretch the wires along. I think the best method is in the open if that is at all possible, as the trees and the resulting fruit will be much healthier in the full sun, and with the breeze moving around them.
The trees you buy will probably have one main stem with a few lateral shoots at a lower level. The centre shoot should be trained vertically, while the two lateral shoots should be tied at about a 45-degree angle, unless they are very green. The angle is to allow the shoots to develop a little before you train them back to horizontal. This is usually done in the first winter after planting.
The following season a further two laterals are tied to the next set of wires, and so on until three layers have been formed. The top can then allowed to sprout a fan of foliage and the shaping is complete. Remember to keep the branches at least 30 cm apart as this will allow plenty of light to get into the tree, fostering good health.
Apple trees grown in this manner do not need a lot of feeding – in fact, too much food can be a real problem – so remember to feed sparingly. Remember too that apples fruit on second year wood, and older, so do not prune out all the old wood.
What variety to plant?
I thin k the answer is to plant some of the varieties that you cannot buy in the shops, as you will have a much more interesting range of flavours to experience.
For example, there are the wonderful apples bred by James Hutton Kidd in Greytown in the 1930s. The best known of these is undoubtedly ‘Gala,’ and it has to be said that a tree-ripened home-grown specimen of this variety is a different beast to the insipid variety you will find in the supermarket.
‘Freyberg’ is another of Kidd’s apples, with the most amazing taste of aniseed on tree-ripened fruit. This flavour deepens if the fruit is left on the tree as long as possible. The flesh is yellow and sweet, the skin light yellow.
If you prefer nuttier flavours try ‘Egremont Russet.’ As the name hints this has a yellow skin, usually almost covered with brown russet. Your average supermarket buyer would blanch at the thought of the appearance of this apple, but it has a lovely sweet nutty flavour. I like it when it is almost over-ripe as the flavour is more intense and complicated.
‘Lobo’ is an old Canadian variety. It has light yellow skin, flushed red often with russet. These large fruits are brilliant for cooking as they take on an almost frothy texture, and they eat well too, but store them for a while as they tend to be a bit sour straight off the tree.
A friend brought me some of their heritage varieties last summer. The most amazing of these was the large and colourful, and appealingly named ‘Peasgood Nonsuch.’ This old variety is huge, with bright orange yellow fruit splashed with red. The fruit are firm and tender, and although they can be eaten raw, they are best used for pies and tarts.
I tell you, you’ll only need one apple to make a pie with this variety.