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.