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.