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!