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.

Starting out

Its a bit daunting to be starting on another journey in this electronic world. My sons both have their own blogs, and one son, a PhD student, is very active in biology blogging circles. Me, I'm a novice at this. I am not an early embracer of technology, but I'm no Luddite either.
My interests differ a little from those of my children. One son is a playwright/writer, the other a genetics student. Me, I'm an archivist, working in a community archive in Masterton, New Zealand. I am an archivist, an historian, and a "history publicist", in my work hours. Outside of work I am a gardener, with a particular interest in breeding North American Pacific Coast irises.
I write a gardening column for the local newspaper, which is picked up by a few other community newspapers around the lower half of the North Island. I am interested in the history of my region - physical, natural, and cultural, so I'll use this blog to allow a look into my world.