Saturday, December 22, 2007

Some gardening highlights for 2007

Biggest disappointment- the non-arrival of my seed from the SPCNI pool in the United Statte, due to MAF finding a speck of fungous. A year's new genes missed out on.

Biggest improvement in a garden –Hollard’s Garden, Taranaki. I had previously visited this garden in October, and been disappointed, but visiting in November I saw a totally different garden. Pretty much my ideal sort of garden – well laid out, lots of unusual plants, and lots of unusual combinations. I loved it. Runner up – Auckland Botanical Gardens – I visited twice – July and November – and the gardens were very interesting both times, with lost of interesting plants and well thought-out advice.

Hollards gardens

Biggest surprise of the year – “Richmond” Garden I was a bit worried about visiting this garden, as I was not sure about whether I would like it. I was expecting it to be very austere and unwelcoming – threatening almost- but found it to be a charming a peaceful garden. It is certainly not a cottage garden, not a modern succulent garden, but it is a stunning piece of garden art and everyone who gets the chance should visit.

Worst mistake in a garden – is a tie this year. The Palmerston North Rose Trial gardens looked dreadful this year. Apparently the gardeners swapped their brand of spraying oil, and the roses did not like it. This year’s trial will be next to useless I think.
The other tied garden I will not name, because I do not want to cause them trouble, but a nationally rankled garden had a huge patch of one of the most poisonous noxious weeds, Cape Tulip, Homeria, in full flower. To the gardeners’ credit, when I told them they immediately destroyed all the plants.

Most spectacular plant. No contest here. The wonderful red mistletoe growing on the banks of the Atiwhakatu River, just upstream from Donnelly’s Flats, flowering just before Christmas. A most remarkable sight- just a pity we can not grow them in the garden.

Monday, December 17, 2007

New flowers from maiden plants

This has been a very strange season, with many frost damaged plants from seed sown in 2005 failing to flower and then, very late in the season, a few flowers on seed sown in 2006.
I am not complaining - any seedlings in flower are something to celebrate.
In season 2005 I crossed two of my favouriste seedling. 03059 is a Foothill Banner seedling, with interesting markings and a bigger flower than FB.

08081 is a "Magic Sea" seedling with glowing blue flowers, not unlike "Mendocino Blue".

I do not know what I expected to see from crossing these two, but the two sibs below are the first of these seedlings to flower. They are both interesting, but not quite what I was expecting!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Cabbage trees

Flaxes and cabbage trees – what a flowering season they are having this year – and what does it portend?
This season the cabbage trees and flaxes all seem to be having a fantastic flowering season, with many people commenting to me that they have never seen such a good bloom on their plants. I have even had one or two non-gardeners contact me, concerned about the funny creamy white growths they have noticed on their cabbage trees, worried about what it might be.
Although it is fabulous that these iconic New Zealand plants are having a fruitful season, according to Maori tradition, it does not augur well for those who are already fretting about the lack of moisture we have experienced this year. Maori tradition states that the sooner the cabbage tree blooms, the sooner the summer arrives. In another version, the better the flowering, the hotter the season. This has also been applied to flowering in flaxes.
In his wonderful book Dancing Leaves, the story of New Zealand’s cabbage tree, ti kouka, Philip Simpson offers a more prosaic explanation of the flowering habits of cabbage trees. He quotes research that suggests a biennial flowering pattern, with alternate years being larger or smaller, but overlays this with a longer interval between mass flowerings caused by the length of time taken for new stems to reach maturity. He suggests that sometimes these two patterns align, and a significantly more prolific flowering occurs.
There is another factor at work too. These bumper flowering years seem to follow periods of good growth, when the plants are able to make better plant growth, and able to convert their nutriment into flowers.
I guess you have to take your choice; Maori tradition holds that the flowering foreshadows a long, hot, dry summer, while pakeha scientists say that it is an effect of good growing period the year before. Either way, let’s just enjoy this rare floral treat from these wonderful New Zealanders.
Many gardeners have very negative feelings about cabbage trees, finding their leaf shedding habits very trying. I confess that, as much as I love the larger species and forms in the countryside and in large gardens, I would struggle to find room for them in a smaller garden.

But there are newer garden hybrids that are very much worth growing. Among these is the very attractive Jury hybrid from Taranaki, ‘Red Fountain’. There was a large number of this plant in the Auckland Botanical Gardens when I visited recently, and the staff at the gardens are obviously taken with it too, as they have erected information boards, extolling its virtues.
‘Red Fountain’ has bright burgundy red leaves from a stem that stays very small – the breeders say their plant has not grown 30 cm tall. The leaves weep gracefully, giving red cascade effect. They are very hardy and will cope with full sun. They are not fussy about soil types, and can easily cope with any but the hardest frosts. In view of the predicted dry summer, it is also useful that they can cope with minimal watering once established.
I think these are just made for growing in containers. I have seen some growing in electric blue glazed pots and they look stunning. They flower too – they had lots of flower in Auckland a few weeks ago – and the light pink to mauve flowers have a delightful scent – jasmine-like although not very strong.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A day on Mount Holdsworth - and what a day

I got an e-mail from a geologist friend the other night, telling me that the native mistletoe was in flower on the Atiwhakatu River bank on Mou=nt Holdsworth in the Tararua Range, just upstream of Donnelly’s Flats. I had heard about this particular plant – a specimen of Peraxilla tetrapetala I think – but I had never seen it in flower.

The mistletoe is very rare in the Tararua Range now – as it is most places – and the few trees that have specimens have been banded with wide strips of metal to prevent the opossums from reaching them.
It is worth the effort as they are spectacular plants. Older books talk about this plant being common in the Tararuas. What a sight it must have made.

I pushed on up the track, and went up the Hooper Loop track to Mountain House. On the way up a stiff climb I came across a little group of tiny orchids in the mossy floor underneath the beech. I think they are Caladenia nothofageti.
[An orchid expert friend has identified this as Adenochilus gracilis]

Coming back down the track I found the clump of greenhoods I saw in flower last year, just before Rocky Lookout on the way down. I think they are Pterostylis australis, but greenhoods look remarkably alike!

[The same friend, Ian St George, had this to say about the greenhood - The greenhood is probably P australis, but there are features of P. areolata and P. patens – I think there is a fair bit of hybridisation among these insect pollinated species]

I had to stop at Rocky Lookout on the way back down and check whether the Winika cunninghami was in flower around the back of the rock – it was, but very sparse!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Ngatea lilies

My children (and the Head Gardener too I think) say that I have a mortgage on silly jokes – “Dad jokes” they call them. I have news for them. I have found a garden filled with silly jokes, of the practical and unpractical variety in equal measure.
It is the extensive water garden in Ngatea called ….. surprisingly….. the Ngatea Water Garden.
I was driving north recently, going from Tauranga toward Miranda on the Thames Estuary to see the multitudinous bird life that gathers on the beach there. I noticed the large signs for the water gardens and decided that I needed a break in the journey. I didn’t expect to find quite the sort of garden I found though.
Roger and Emma Blake started this project in 1995 when they bought the 2 hectare property. Neither had a background in horticulture, but Roger’s engineering skills came in very handy as the couple set about constructing four large ponds on their property, using the excavated soils to help shape the gardens.
They were greatly helped by the extremely high water table on the Hauraki Plains – the ponds started to fill as soon as they were excavated. In total, over 5000 cubic metres of soil was shifted, and 300 tonnes of greywacke imported for building the rock features, including a large waterfall.
The ponds were cleverly designed with shallow areas near the shore and much deeper middles. This allows the water lilies and other aquatic plants to flourish near the shore, while also allowing the ponds to be relatively clean.
The water level in the ponds is almost self regulating – a 1 mm rainfall will mean a 3 mm increase in the pod levels, before the overflow system works. There are pumps to top up the water, but they are usually only used for about two months a year.
I wandered around the garden for over an hour, looking at the various highlights, jokes and plants. For part of the journey I was accompanied by a troupe of white ducks, no doubt thinking they would score a meal from me. They were to be disappointed.
There were a lot of different plants in flower in the garden, and they were very well labeled, so my camera was going mad. I was particularly interested in the Louisiana irises,, and the water lilies.
The Louisiana irises are water loving plants from the Southern United States, and unlike many so-called water plants, these are true pond-edge plants that do not mind being planted in boggy ground. They are vigorous plants, and have large flowers in a range of colours from near-red to blue, purple, white and yellow, with all sorts of combinations.
These are nowhere near as popular as they should be. They are easily grown in almost any garden soil except the very dry, and they are very hardy. For the water gardener they are essential.
Water lilies are a little trickier, although they are not as difficult to cultivate as most gardeners seem to imagine, and will provide many moths of glorious flower for the pond owner, or the tub owner for that matter.
There are many different types of water lily, but the hardy varieties are the easiest to grow outside in our climate. They flower with a wide range of colours, except for the blues and purples. For those shades you need to grow the less hardy tropical varieties.
Garden centres will have hardy varieties in stock now, usually growing in little tubs they have constructed for display purposes.
The hardy water lily existed only as a few species, found in different parts of the world, until the mid-1800s when French nurserymen created hybrids of many different kinds including most of what we now regard as classic water lilies. These were the same water lilies that Monet bought for his ponds, and most are still in cultivation today. New hybrids continue to be produced by today's growers, expanding the range of colour and form.

Water lily Pink Sensation

The easiest way to plant water lilies is in special mesh baskets. Start out by putting some aquatic fertiliser tablets in the base of the basket then fill the basket with garden soil, clay or special water lily potting mix. Do not use normal potting mix as it will probably have too much fertiliser in it.
The basket should be three-quarters filled with the soil, and formed into a mound. Place the lily rhizome on the top of the mound, tilted so the growing tip is at the final soil level. Fill the rest of the basket with soil, then top with gravel to help hold the rhizome firmly.
Gently place the basket into the pond. Often the plant is placed in shallow water until it has started growth, and then placed in slightly deeper water. The idea is to keep the pads at, or slightly under, water level.
The elegant flowers will appear right through summer. Once the flower bud reaches the surface of the water, it will open in the morning and close in the evening for three successive days before sinking beneath the surface again.
Water lilies need very little ongoing care. When they have filled their baskets they need to be divided and replanted – it is a good chance to swap varieties with other growers. At the end of the season remove all dead foliage and just leave the basket to over winter, as these plants are true perennials and go dormant over winter.

Water lily 'James Brydon' and fish

If you are in the Hauraki area this summer take the chance to see these water gardens – the various water lilies are worth the effort alone, and there are plenty of other horticultural attractions as well.And see if you can out up with the “Dad jokes” while you are there!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Pacific Coast Irises 2007

This year’s Pacific Coast season has been terrible, from the view point of new seedlings.
It started off badly when my annual delivery of seed from the Society for Pacific Coast Irises (SPCNI) was halted at the border because the inspectors found some supposed fungous spores on one seed. All the seed was detained and destroyed.
Then the growing season turned our bad as well. We had a number of late frosts, one or two of them quite hard, and it killed many buds in the fan. Some of the more established plants ended up having a beautiful late season flush, and the naturally late flowering types were lovely in the first week or so of November. The hybrids with a strong dose of I. munzii flowered last and they were lovely. They have a restricted colour range, in the blue range, but they are lovely things.
My crossing this year has concentrated on some “Pretty Boy” seedlings. Plants grown from seed in 2003 have given small plants, with flowering stems only about 15 cm high, and in mauve shades. The best of these are very light. 2004-41

Plants from 2004 seed have tended to be more in the orange/yellow shades, although there is one very floriferous dwarf form with mauve flowers, 2004-041. My favourite is my 2004-053, which has apricot pink flowers. It does not set seed very well as a pod parent, but seems to have worked as a pollen parent as there are pods filling.

The best of this year’ seedlings are 2004-004 and 2004-005, both seedlings from ‘Wishing,” and the lovely 2004-056, a seedling from “Sojourner.”


Now I just wait for the SPCNI seed list, and for my own crosses to swell up those pods so I can harvest and start again!

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Dawson's Falls, Taranaki

Mist at Bridal Veils Falls

Bridal Veils Falls

This week I went on a big trip north. I went through Rotorua, onto Auckland via a very circuitous route. I reported on the Ellerslie Flower Show, then made my way back home, also going to some off beat places.

On my travels I saw two awesome waterfalls - the Bridal Veil Falls near Raglan, and Dawson's Falls on Taranaki, Mount Egmont.

My son sent me an e-mail of some waterfalls he saw on his trip to the Catlins, south of Dunedin, so this is my riposte!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Snowball trees

I had a new experience this weekend. I showed some flowers at the local horticultural society’s show. I think I once entered a sand saucer in a show when I was a young child, encouraged by my family no doubt. My grandparents were keen exhibitors, and in my late mother’s scrapbook, I have newspaper entries of her horticultural endeavours. Pride of place went to a photograph of a prize-winning ginger plant she assiduously cultivated against the wall of our house, where it was protected from frost. I can still recall her pride in the sweetly-scented plant. She would be horrified to know that it is now a noxious weed!
This Saturday morning saw me taking a bucket of my Pacific Coast Irises seedling flowers down to the local hall, where I carefully arranged them among the many other flowers. It was really just a chance to let other gardeners see how lovely they are, but I confess to being slightly chuffed at winning a couple of little certificates.
There were many different flowers in the hall – not many roses as it is still a little early in this late flowering season- and I enjoyed looking at other exhibitors’ vases. One of my favourites was a large vase filled with that most child-like off all shrubs, the Snowball Tree.
This delightfully old-fashioned shrub has instant appeal at this time of the year when its large white flowers – they really do look like snowballs – cover the bright green leaves. When the flowers first appear they have a greenish tinge, but they soon take on a pure white colour. They are very attractive as cut flowers, and I believe they are currently being looked at as a cut flower crop.
The shrubs grow to about four metres high, but they do better if they are trimmed, and also thinned out to stop the branches becoming crowded and the flowers reducing in size. The foliage is deep green through summer, and colours up in the autumn, although that is not so noticeable in warmer climates. It is very unfussy as to soil type, but prefers a sunny aspect. It will grow better is given some wind protection.
It glories in the odd name of Viburnum opulus ‘Sterile’. The wild form of the species has flat flowers, fully fertile, but in this form the individual flowers are all sterile, and composed of large florets, much like a mop-headed hydrangea. Being sterile the flowers do not set seed.
The fertile flowered forms are very popular overseas, but less so in this country. They are mot so attractive in flower, but they have a wonderful summer/autumn bonus with very attractive berries, usually red. The form ‘Compactum’ is dwarf growing, to about a metre, and has white lace cap flowers in spring. The berries are red.
Those of you who took Latin at school (there cannot be many of you left now!) will recognise that ‘Xanthocarpum’ will have yellow fruits.
There are many different Viburnums in flower at this time of the year in New Zealand, representatives of a large genus of trees and shrubs, some with sterile flowers interspersed among the fertile, others with fully fertile flowers. Have a look around – there is bound to be one you like.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Grass-like plants

One of the effects of the increased planting of native plants has been the resurgence of interest in grasses and grass-like plants. Most gardens now have areas devoted to very naturalistic plantings, featuring different species of grasses, often clumped into groups of one or two species. When this is done well it can be stunning. When it is not carried off so well, the result can be very disappointing.
One of the problems is that we try to grow alpine plants in our lowland gardens, and some plants will just not cope with it. Many of the native grasses and sedges grow into ugly messes, and require frequent division to keep tidy, especially in rich soil conditions.
I am a great fan of the effect that can be afforded by use of grass-like plants. My front garden features a large bed of Pacific Coast irises, grown for their flowers of course, but the plants have strappy foliage, evergreen, and more than one gardening friend, visiting out of flowering season, has commented on the bed of grasses!
Modern gardeners have the option of using a wide range of native and near-native (for which read Australian) plants that will do the trick very well. Obviously our flaxes, especially the dwarf forms, are ideally suited to these situations, and other plants like dwarf cabbage trees and Libertias, with their wide colour range, are also well-suited to the job.
Among the Australians surely the most interesting and useful plants are the, Lomandras. These are members of the matt rush family, and in the main have quite strappy leaves. The wild species look quite a lot like New Zealand flax, but nurserymen have been selecting special forms for the garden, and there are some very interesting plants among them.
Lomandra longifolia looks like a slightly refined flax, but the new cultivar ‘Tanika’ makes an absolutely stunning grass-like plant for the garden, or for containers. It is bright green, with a hint of yellow, and seems perfectly hardy in the Wairarapa winter. Friends who grow it commercially tell me that it is a quick-growing species to about 800 mm high, with a graceful, drooping growth habit. It retains its form very well, and can cope with frost and even damp conditions. It is equally at home in dry positions, where it will not grow quite as large. It has intriguing flower spikes in the spring, with light yellow flowers held along long stems.
“Nyalla” is sometimes described as the blue-leaved equivalent of “Tanika”, and it does have a distinct blue tone. It is not as blue as a fescue or the stunning blue oat grass, Helictotrichon sempervirens, but it is a clear steely blue shade that will offer a great contrast to the greener “Tanika.” It is not as finely foliaged, and will grow a little larger eventually, but it looks stunning when planted alongside its green counterpart.
There are some lovely smaller growing forms, with bright green foliage. Perhaps the best two are “Little Con” and “Little Pal.” The former is the smaller form, growing to about 30 cm high, and with similar girth. It is great for dry situations, and does not brown off. It has small spikes of cream flowers in spring. This variety could be used as a bright substitute for mondo grass, Ophiopogon.
“Little Pal” will grow about twice as high as the forgoing, but has similar bright green leaves which bend and flow in the wind. This has yellow and burgundy flower spikes in the spring, and is a fabulous grass-like for massed plantings.
All the above Lomadras grow exceptionally well in pots, and do not need a lot of care once they are established. They grow well in coastal areas too.
One of my favourite native plants is the blue berried Dianella nigra. Last summer I found a big clump of these with light blue berries in the Tararuas – a nice change from the deeper purple forms usually seen.
Dianellas are found on the other side of the Tasman too and they have been developed as grass and flax substitutes, and again offer a great variety of plants for the New Zealand gardener looking for a different grass.
“Little Rev” is a delightful small growing foliage plant. This looks like a dwarf New Zealand flax, as it has slightly broader leaves than the Lomandra varieties, but it has a blue tinge that you will not find among flaxes. It grows to about 40 cm high and wide, and can cope with full sun or light shade. The blue tinge is most pronounced in full sun.
In case you are wondering how it was named, it has no religious connotations - it is a dwarf form of the species D. revoluta
“Little Jess” grows to a similar size, but has a slightly different habit. It grows on short canes, somewhat like a bamboo, or one of the crested irises. It makes a tight clump that is weather tolerant. Spring flowers of bluish-purple are succeeded by summer berries.
“Tas Red” is different again, looking a little like one of the pink foliaged flaxes. It is, in fact, a form of D. tasmanica, and features leaves having a red base and margins and lighter tones up the leaf. It colours up best in cooler districts, so should do well with us. Again, it has blue flowers in spring, followed by purple berries.
All these grass-like plants look stunning when associated with plants of similar types, or with plants with large leaves, for which they act as a perfect foil.
I am sure that these will become staples of the New Zealand garden, just as they are rapidly becoming popular in their homeland.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Begonias galore

It is a general rule of gardening that we start out liking very colourful flowers, but as we age and gain horticultural experience, our taste becomes more refined. We lose our enthusiasm for the bright baubles of the garden, and our minds turn to more sophisticated plants – hellebores, snowdrops, ferns and natives species of all kinds.
That has happened to me, but only to a degree. I do like hellebores, and have a few snowdrops too. This weekend I have planted a dozen ferns and my taste in roses and the like is to the more subdued colours.
But when it comes to tuberous begonias, all my learned experience goes out the window, and I want the brightest and biggest flowers I can find.
A passion for these colourful potted plants is not something I would have predicted, but when we were running the nursery, we grew thousands of these for the potted plant market and I became converted. Ever since, I have grown a good number of each year.
August is the time to get started on the new blooming season, with new plants to be bought and old plants to be re-started into growth.
Many growers recommend starting the new tubers into growth in growing trays, by placing them on a good free-draining potting mix, covering with about 15 mm of mix. The soil is then thoroughly soaked once, and once only, then the tubers are left to sprout. Do not water again as the tuber has not made any roots and cannot take any water up, and could rot.
As the plant begins to sprout it can be carefully removed from the mix and potted up, with care taken to ensure that the pot is the right size for the tuber.
I used to start my tubers this way, but I have found results are just as good if the plants are started in the pot that they are to be growing in, and it cuts out one step in the process. It is still important to make sure the soil does not become waterlogged as the tubers will not tolerate that.
I fill the pots to about 15 mm from the lip, using a good quality potting mix with slow release fertilizer. I place the tubers about three quarters into the soil, leaving the top of the tuber- the flat side- slightly above the surface. This is important as the plants are susceptible to stem rot, which can cause the branches to rot at the tuber, and can infect the tuber.
I ensure that the older, and larger, tubers are placed into larger pots. It will become important as the plants grow for two reasons. They will need a lot of food as they grow, and they will also need the support and balance a larger pot affords.
I water all my tubers in well, and then leave them in the glasshouse to sprout. If you do not have a glasshouse, any warm sheltered spot will do.
Once the plants have started growing I try to remember to put stakes in place, as, if I forget to do it at this stage, I will not do it until the plants are starting to fall about and then I will have more trouble putting the stakes into the soil without damaging the plants. Begonias have very brittle stems and they are very easily damaged. Later in the season, when they are laden with flowers, they can be very easily snapped.
I do not normally grow hanging varieties, but if you do, it is important to pinch them out when they are young. Once the growing tip is about 50 mm long pinch out the principal growing tip. This will encourage the plant to branch out at the base, giving a better effect as it grows.
Once the plants are well established I like to place them on our patio, where they are protected from the worst of the sun and heat, and where we can control the watering. It is important that they are not allowed to dry out but it is equally critical that they are not left drowned in their pots. Good air movement is important too, as they are a little prone to mildew and if grown in too sheltered an area they will quickly become disfigured. One wet and muggy year we had a dreadful problem with mildew, losing some tubers so we are vigilant against it. At the first sign of any infection, apply a fungicide. Prevention is the better option though, so make sure your plants are not too crowded and have good air circulation.
In the autumn, when the flowers have done their thing, I simply place the pots back in the glasshouse, on their side, so they can dry off and mature. It is those pots I will be cleaning out next weekend.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Monday, July 02, 2007


Protea 'Goodwood Red'

It has been a sad week, marked by the sudden death of Dick Newcombe, the man who gave me my start in commercial horticulture. Dick owned “Gardencraft”, a garden shop that my great uncle had started many years before. I think he got so sick of my haunting his shop each Friday night and each weekend, talking about plants, that he decided he might as well employ me.
My garden knowledge was largely book-based, so it was a bit of a shock to work in a retail shop, and I needed a bit of guidance about some of the more practical aspects of the job. Dick was a good tutor.
His main gardening passion was the Proteaceae, the vast family of southern hemisphere plants, largely based in Australia and South Africa. He and his wife Trish gardened on a ridge just north of Masterton, exposed to both the northwesterly and the southerly winds and with very stony soils. I remember being in the garden once after a bad southerly storm and Dick told me to lick the leaves of some golden elms, which had been scorched in the storm. To my astonishment, the leaves were salty, despite being fifty miles from the sea.
These are conditions that most of the Proteaceae relish in, and I can still recall the wonderful bank of Proteas, Leucadendrons, Leucospermums and Banksias that grew on a high point above the house. Here Dick grew a large range of species and cultivars, bringing the flowers into the shop as each bloomed, and taking orders for the winter season when we had large stocks of these newly fashionable plants for sale.
Dick’s bank was probably the very best place to grow such a range of types, the exposed nature of the site adding rather than detracting to its value. Most species do not like being enclosed and closely planted, seeming to need plenty of air movement. If they are crowded, they grow upwards in a spindly manner, and become much more prone to fungous diseases. As Dick’s shelterbelt above the planting grew, and as the plants matured and grew denser, they did not flourish as well.
They were also in perfect soil conditions, as the soil was very well drained, and had low natural fertility. These plants come from old soils in their natural state, and they need low levels of most elements. Some fertilizers will actually poison them. In most soils no fertilizers are needed. In very poor soils, just a little sulphate of ammonia should suffice.
Many varieties are frost prone, but again, Dick’s site was good, as it was high on a windy site, with a river flowing nearby, and there was plenty of airflow, as well as natural air drainage from the high point. Some species are frost sensitive, so it pays to look around and see what grows well in your own neighbourhood.
Dick grew a large number of true Proteas, including some of the oddities.
Proteas take their name from a classical Greek god who assumed many forms, the name hinting at the many growth types exhibited by these plants, ranging from tree-like shrubs of four metres, down to scrambling and suckering plants that scarcely lift their heads above the soil.
The flower range dramatically as well, from the tiny pendulous bells of P. nana, through to the giant flowers of the King Protea, P. cyanaroides.
Perhaps the one species most gardeners are familiar with is P. neriifolia, the oleander-leaved protea. This is one of the hardiest, coping with five degrees of frost easily, and is also one of the most tolerant as to soil types. In the past, the most common form was one with pink vase-shaped flowers, trimmed with fine black fur, but there are a large number of different forms of this species. “Green Ice” was one of Dick’s favourites, with palest green flowers tipped with white, and he also grew “Limelight”, which is similar, although the flowers were perhaps a shade greener, and the fur is black. “Snowcrest” was another favourite, with pink flowers tipped with white, of course.
Dick also liked some varieties with the most unpronounceable names. One that we always had vases of in the shop was P. scholymocephala, a plant whose flowers were considerable more beautiful than its name. Floral artists used to rave about this one, as it had wide-open flowers of cool green. The shrub does not grow as big as some species – maybe a metre high and similar around – and is relatively hardy.
The equally clumsily named neutrally P. lepidocarpondendron, with whitish flowers tipped with black, was another of Dick’s favourites.
The small flowered P. amplexicaulis was another Dick loved. This is a spreading plant, growing no more than about half a meter, and spreading to perhaps a meter around. The flowers are hidden a little among the foliage, and tend to face downwards, but they are charming little things, with dark petals, once again loved by the florists. This one is ideal for growing along a bank or even in a rock garden.
I think the most dramatic of all the flowers was the bright pink Queen Protea, P. magnifica. Although the flowers are not as large as those of the King Protea, P. cyanaroides, they are more colourful- huge puffy soft pink flowers. The white flowering form “Alba”, is equally as spectacular. These are a little trickier to grow than some species, but they are the most spectacular of all.
Dick’s other great loves among the proteas were the various forms of P. aurea. They are a large shrubs – small trees even- with hundreds of pencil-like buds that open into shuttlecock-like flowers. As the name suggests, the flowers are sometimes yellowish, but they are usually pink or red.
The best form that I have seen is the one named after Dick’s garden – “Goodwood Red.” The thin buds, with unopened petals overlapped, are deep pink, but when the flower bursts open, they are bright deep red. It makes a great garden plant, and is a fitting memorial to a great gardener and protea lover.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Breeding new plants

Last week I discussed the way that many new cultivars originate from eagle-eyed gardeners and naturalists who notice variations in plant growth. This accounts for many new introductions, but among the more intensively selected garden plans a completely different way of raising new varieties is followed.
They are deliberately cross-pollinated to give raise to new forms.
The first humans probably undertook this process unwittingly as they slowly selected grains and vegetables for their improved traits – disease resistance, improved flavour, greater yield, and ease of cultivation.
Although the genetic basis of the improvements was not guessed at until one hundred years ago, gardeners soon realised that if two similar plants were grown alongside each other they would sometimes cross, and the resultant plants would sometimes (not always by any means!) be an improvement on both parents.
Today we know the general rules that apply in the process, having an understanding of the roles of dominant and recessive genes play in the recombination of DNA between the two parents. This has enabled professional plant breeders to be able to predict the results of their hybridisation with greater certainty.
Plant breeding has become a major industry in some parts of the world. We have all noticed the wide array of varieties of both flowers and vegetables on the seed market – these varieties are the results of years of work by breeders, mainly in the United States, Japan and Europe.
Think of the humble petunia. The varieties that were top of the pops twenty years ago – the Magic and Satin series – have long gone and have been replaced by a bewildering range of different types. These new varieties have improved resistance to mildew, they are more weather resistant and they flower sooner and longer. Bedding marigolds have undergone a similar transformation and modern Impatiens bear no resemblance to the taller-growing older types, and have a much wider colour range.
Similar changes have happened among vegetables, although not all gardeners will agree that the changes have been for the better. The introduction of F1 hybrids with their improved vigour and increased uniformity has suited commercial growers very well, but the increased price of seed and the uniformity of growing times have not always pleased home gardeners, who prefer to have a staggered harvest for their crop.
Sometimes gardeners think the old vegetable varieties tasted better too. I often hear how old tomato strains were much tastier that the varieties we purchase in the supermarket, but I am not convinced. I have grown a number of heritage forms over the years and I have never found one that tasted as nice as the modern F1 hybrids I grow. I accept that glasshouse varieties are bred to have thicker skins, and probably don’t have such a strong taste, but the modern varieties I grow outside have better and earlier crops, they are more disease resistant, and they taste better than the old ones I have tries.
The presence of professional breeders in the market makes it harder for the amateur to raise noteworthy varieties. I correspond with iris breeders in the Unites States, a few of whom make their living introducing new varieties. Professionals generally carry out rose breeding too – they raise literally thousands of seedlings to select each one they release onto the market. The amateur probably has to work among less popular varieties, or to try and beat the professionals by making the sorts of wild crosses they would not consider- maybe crossing a dwarf rose with a rampant climber, to see what would happen.
The process of cross-pollinating is the same for all plants. For the Pacific Coast irises I breed, I remove the male sexual organs form the flower I want to use as the father, having first determined that the pollen is shedding. I then remove the petals from the flower I have selected to be the mother, the pod parent. I use a paintbrush to apply the pollen onto the style arms that lead to the female sexual organs.
Rose breeders work in a similar manner. The stamen are removed from the male parent, and stored for a day or so to allow the pollen to ripen and drop. A female flower is prepared by the removal of all the petals and the stamen, and then the pollen from the male is brushed over the female parts.
This technique will work for most plants that have large flowers – camellias, rhododendrons, orchids, cacti even, all are bred in this manner, and I have crossed some of my garden pinks using this method. It might been be fun to cross some of those old heritage tomatoes with modern hybrids to see what happened.
I have been crossing my red Lapageria with a white flowered form, using an identical technique. It is too early to tell how well it is going to work but I do have some white flowers flushed with pink so I am hopeful that it will prove successful.
Sometimes, though, the plants perform better if the two varieties selected for crossing are simplyallowed to grow alongside each other. Dahlias, for example, are difficult o hand pollinate and are grown in this manner. I suspect that many new hebe and manuka varieties are also bred this way.
Be prepared for some disappointments if you are thinking of taking up plant breeding. Not all of your wonderful crosses will result in seeds – sometimes that plants are too distantly related, sometimes the weather is not right, and sometimes they are just stubborn - and then, once the seed is harvested, not all will germinate. As if that was not enough to deter you, the majority of your plants will show no improvement on their parents and will need to be discarded.
But, and it is a huge but, when you do find something new it is worth all the trouble. Proud parents have nothing on the breeder of a successful new dahlia, rose, orchid or Pacific Coast iris.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Smoking bushes

May has started out wonderfully. The succession of warm days and mild evenings has made this a delightful autumn. We have had no frosts to speak of in the Wairarapa valley, and the lack of wind has been a blessing for those of us who love autumn trees and shrubs. Most plants seem to have managed to hold onto their leaves longer than normal – some have not even coloured up yet.
There is, of course, a down side to this settled mild weather. It has meant that the lawns have kicked back into growth, and although they are scarcely at spring pace, they are still growing aplenty. Weeds are also whipping ahead. I turned over some soil about three weeks ago, planting autumn seedlings, and the bare dirt has been invaded. I needed to go over it again this weekend, weeding. The soil was nice and damp though, and the weeds all came out easily enough.
What with weeding and mowing, it was Sunday afternoon before I found any time to go and have a tour around the countryside, looking for autumn foliage. The Head Gardener is an unemployed bum now (for three days between jobs!) so she found the time to come with me and we made our way eastwards.
I was on the lookout for some colour on a group of smoke bushes that are among my favourite autumn shrubs. These particular plants are mature shrubs – perhaps as much as four metres high – and I have watched them since I was a child.
They are the American version of smoke bushes, Cotinus obovatus, so-called because the leaves are egg shaped. The European version, C. coggygria, probably better deserves the common name because this species has plumes of misty purplish flowers in early summer. These would be enough to earn the epithet of ‘smoke bush’, but they fade over the summer and become even smokier and more deserving of the name. They colour up in the autumn but the display is nowhere near as good as that of their American cousins.
C. obovatus is taller growing that its EU relative, and does not have the same amount of flowers, nor the same degree of smokiness. Maybe it is the politically correct smoke bush – the smokefree one. However, what is lacks in flower power it more than makes up for with foliage display. The leaves take on hues of orange, scarlet and purple as the winter approaches, giving a startling display.
The shrubs we looked at used to bring us a lot of trade, as each autumn we had people calling in at the nursery, asking what the shrubs were and where they could buy some. As we knew they would be in display each early May, we made sure we had plenty of stock.
Overseas it is possible to buy named clones of these beauties, with different coloured forms being favoured, but I do not think they have arrived in New Zealand yet.
There is a variety of the European form that is worth growing for a different foliage display, a deeply coloured form called ‘Royal Purple.’ This has deep wine purple coloured leaves with a shiny surface. It has gigantic flower heads of light mauve over summer, and then colours up almost as well as the American forms in autumn.
All the forms share a similar set of requirements. They like a sunny situation and prefer cool, free-draining soil. They do not like the soil to be over-rich, and they certainly do not need fertiliser applied. If grown in rich soil they grow rather coarsely and do not colour up so well. They do respond very well to trimming and shaping. The neater bushes will give better a better display of autumn foliage. They flourish in colder areas with dry summers.
After we had sated ourselves on the smoke bushes, we took off again, heading out into the country. We saw some wonderful poplars, and tasted some spicy wild apples growing on the side of a gravel road. We even saw a friend on a piebald horse accompanied by his young daughter on a rotund little pony, droving a ragged mob of sheep along the road near their farmlet. What we did not see was a great deal of autumn colour apart from an impressive avenue of scarlet oaks glistening in the late afternoon sun.
Early on Saturday morning I had taken my camera down to the municipal park to take some photographs of the autumn display. I headed straight to my favourite tree, a mature Ginkgo biloba. It was at its very best – covered with the bright gold leaves that this tree is so renowned for.
If you have room for one of these magnificent trees, at the risk of being sexist, make sure you find a male. They have better form and they do not have the messy fruits that the female trees bear at this time of the year.
The male trees like ‘Autumn Gold’, ‘Fairmount’, and ‘Saratoga’ all start out with relatively slender habits but become “rounded with maturity.” Sounds like every male I ever knew!
Many prize the female fruits for the plum-sized nut contained within the flesh, but, boy of boy, that flesh stinks! It has the most regnant dirty-socks smell, and it is very difficult to remove.
Just alongside the Ginkgo was an unidentified red-leaved Japanese maple, Acer palmatum. It is growing in a sheltered area away from the worst of the winds and like most of the red forms of this popular maple, it colours up spectacularly. When its leaves fall they mingle with the butter gold Ginkgo leaves the effect is worth an extra trip, so next weekend I’ll take the Head Gardener with me and we will go have a look.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Thoughts from Wanganui

Strobilanthes gossypinus

Our recent trip to Wanganui featured a few fabulous hours spent meandering around the pathways at the delightfully retro Wanganui Garden Centre in Gonville. As I said last week, this garden centre is a throwback to the way garden centres used to be twenty years ago, with an amazing range of plant material, much of it grown by the owners, and an informed and helpful staff who know their plants.
Last week we looked at some of the interesting native plants ranged through the many beds in the nursery, this week we will look at some of the interesting exotic plants, but before we do I must say that the exotic highlight of the journey was something we saw on a Sunday afternoon drive up the Wanganui River road to Pipiriki.
For much of the journey we traveled through groups of naked ladies, as they lined the sides of the road and ran up through the roadside paddocks. We stopped for a look through the amazing Catholic church at Jerusalem, well-known to all old hippies as the haunt of the poet James K Baxter, and even found naked ladies in the convent garden.
I am referring, of course, to Amaryllis bulbs, seen in many shades of pink through to carmine red. I have never seen so many naturalized in one small area. A fabulous sight but back to town.
I had enjoyed my time among the native plants at the Wanganui Garden Centre, seeing a number of new varieties, and a number of old forms I had only read about. The same applied to the exotic plants on offer.
I am a huge fan of foliage in the garden, and can be relied on to make my way to the divaricating plants, much to the Head Gardener’s dismay, as she does not like them at all. However, as well as tiny leaves on erratically branched shrubs I am keen on strongly foliaged shrubs and was intrigued to see a bed of plants with lovely architectural shaped leaves in a most unusual colour. The leaves are greenish but with a hint of silver, and they are topped with fine bronze hairs, more strongly visible on the young leaves. The leaves are interestingly ribbed, like some of the blue Hosta varieties.
The small shrub glories under the name of Strobilanthes gossypinus ‘Persian Shield’, and reportedly grows to about 80 cm high, slightly less around. This is going to look great with other coloured foliage shrubs and perennials and with strap-leaved plants too. I think it will probably look best in a small group. It will look great in pots too, perhaps glazed terracotta pots on the patio.
Although it looks quite hardy – silver foliaged plants usually come from quite hard climates – I think it will probably need protection from frost as Strobilanthes species seem to mainly originate in subtropical areas of the world, and I think this species comes from southern India. In the wild these plants tend to be monocarpic – they only flower once – but this species reportedly takes ten years before it flowers so it will be long-lived in the garden.
In a bed just across the pathway from this solid silver-leaved beauty was a lightly foliaged South American beauty, Calliandra “Blushing Pixie.”
The Calliandras are legumes with very fine foliage, perhaps like a small Albizzia. The flowers are remarkably like an Albizzia as well, a puff of flame coloured stamen bursting out of the fine foliage. They are very easy shrubs to grow, needing light soil and full sun for them to perform at their best. They have light sensitive leaves and they fold up at night, which makes an interesting talking point with children.
Coming closer to home, I was interested to see a new Grevillea in the same bed, one with bright red flowers. It was labelled as Grevillea “Deua Flame”, a name that sounded more Maori than Australian to me, but this is a true blue Aussie.
It is, in fact, a form of the recently described species called Grevillea rhyolitic, previously a part of Grevillea victoriae, often grown in New Zealand.
It occurs naturally in New South Wales and is hardy in temperate climates in well-drained soils and full sun to partial shade. It is seems likely to be tolerant of medium to heavy frost.
It grows to about 1.5 metres high and bears clusters of bright red pendulous flowers in clusters through much of the summer. I am sure this is going to become a very popular variety in New Zealand.
I had a trawl through the fruit trees while we were wandering around and was impressed with the wide range of varieties that were available, including a large number of connoisseur apple and pear varieties. I was intrigued to see the lovely golden apples of the ornamental crab apple, Malus “Golden Hornet”. This is a very popular variety in the United Kingdom but is rare in New Zealand, as we seem to prefer red crab apples like “Jack Humm” or “Gorgeous”.
This is a form of the Japanese group of apple hybrids known as Malus x zumi, and forms a small tree suitable for small to medium gardens. In the spring, it covers itself with white, pink-flushed flowers, and then in the autumn it is covered with smallish yellow apples – smaller than “Jack Humm” or even “Gorgeous”. They seem to survive stripping by birds well into the winter, which is probably a sign that they are sour for a long time. If you are on the lookout for a small deciduous tree with spring flowers and summer fruit you could do worse that look this one out.
The other fruit I saw for the first time was a dwarf form of the Irish Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo “Elfin King”. This charming little variety only grows to about two metres high, less if grown in a container, but still produces lovely sweet fruit. This is normally a small to medium sized tree, evergreen and very easy to grow so the dwarf form will prove popular with those with smaller gardens.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Dame Edna would be proud

Gladiolus 'Nymph'

As I write this it is Sunday evening and it is very hot - our late and dry summer continues without abatement. In the un-watered parts of our garden things are very dry and in paddocks all around our district the naked ladies have made their appearance, splashes of bright pink showing against the straw shades of the pasture.
I refer to the bulbs, Amaryllis belladonna, of course, rather than unclothed female members of the rural community.
I have had a trying week. My seed from the Society for Pacific Coast Native Iris was found to have a slight fungal infection when it arrived at the border in Auckland International Airport. As a result it has had to all be destroyed. Although I am slightly frustrated, I so understand why they did what they did, and I support the work that the inspectors do, so I’ll just have to grin and bear it. I have a lot of seed from my own crosses, and as others lost their seed at the border, I’ll share that around with some of the other growers.
I have been cursing the very dry season too. Autumn is one of my favourite times of the year and I love looking through the bulbs on offer in nurseries, working out what I am going to plant this season. I have to say that the warm and dry garden has put me off a little, but this weekend I did go down to the garden shop to select a few bulbs.
I have grown to love Gladiolus as I have aged, not something I might have predicted. Their showy flowers are sometimes difficult to place properly in the garden, but I grow a few for the house in my picking garden and wouldn’t be without them now.
This is, of course, not the right time to be planting florists’ gladiolus, the type most of us grow, but the dwarf forms should be planted now. I already a large clump or two of these, but I have added a few more varieties this season.
These are usually sold as Gladiolus nanus, but this name seems to have no authority. It is just used to describe the dwarf early flowering forms. They are unlike the larger florist forms, and although they are a similar size to the summer flowering “butterfly” gladiolus they are much more wild-flower looking.
These “nanus” forms should probably be called G. colvillei, the name given to winter-flowering hybrids based on G. tristis and G. cardinalis.
G. tristis is a highly scented species from South Africa, sometime available from specialist bulb nurseries. It usually has slightly insipid flowers but it makes up for that by having the most wonderful scent, especially noticeable at night. As you would expect G. cardinalis is bright red flowered. It is also likely that G. carneus is involved as many hybrids have flashes of colour on their bottom petals very reminiscent of this species.
Perhaps the most famous of these the variety known as ‘The Bride’; it has white flowers with a greenish centre to each flower, giving a very cool look in the garden. ‘Nymph’ is another very reliable older form. In this case the white flowers have cream markings on the bottom three petals, each cream area being surrounded with a thick carmine pencil line. These two are both very hardy and long-lasting varieties, and both do well in my garden.
This year I am adding ‘Halley’ and ‘Charming Lady.’ I hadn’t seen ‘Halley’ before and was taken with its creamy yellow flowers, set of with a red throat, colours more usually associated with the larger hybrids. I assumed that it was a new form – I was somewhat taken aback to stumble across a reference to it in a 1917 garden journal! The journal recommended planting this with yellow Californian poppies (Eschscholzia) but as I have only just this year managed to weed out the last of the white ones I planted nearly ten years ago I don’t think I’ll be doing that! I think I’ll plant them in the garden I have filled with other yellow flowers. I think it will flower about the same time as the white and yellow freesias.
“Charming Lady” is quite different to the foregoing, in that it has pale pink flowers shoot through with lilac. It is lighter in the centre. I have a garden with Alliums and other spring flowering bulbs and I think these colours will all go together very well.
At the other end of the flowering season – about now in fact- comes another fabulous Gladiolus species – well, it is now, but for most of my gardening career it was an Acidanthera. The botanists have rightly decided that it is in fact a Gladiolus – it will even cross with the large flowered hybrids.
This is another South African species with hooded white flowers and showy maroon blotches, coupled with an attractive scent. It is sometimes called Peacock Gladiolus, or even Peacock Orchids, although it is, of course, not remotely related to orchids. When crossed with the larger flowered forms some scent is brought across with the genes, but this is soon swamped in further crosses, so the elusive scented florists’ gladiolus looks as far away as ever.
All of these species prefer well-drained soil and will cope with full sun without any bother. In the hardest of climates they need lifting for winter but nothing in our region should pose any threat to them. You might need to keep an eye out for thrips in a dry season though. Apart from that they are plant-and-forget plants.

Monday, March 05, 2007

I have had a bit of a ‘herby’ weekend this weekend, as is befitting the weekend leading up to ‘Herb Awareness Week.’ I spent Sunday morning tidying up my back flower border and planting a gift rose. The international nursery responsible for releasing ‘White Romance’ rose onto the market contacted me about my scepticism about it replacing ‘Iceberg’, and has given me a plant to trial.
I saw “White Romance” for the first time this spring and I think it is a fabulous rose. Whether it replaces “Iceberg” is another matter, but next summer I will report on how this very double, and very romantic-looking, rose has done in my garden.
I cleaned the rest of the garden up while I was at it, pulling out some of the free-seeding perennials that had got out of hand. This includes some hybrid marjoram, seedlings from Origanum ‘Rosenkuppel.’ I planted this about seven years ago and it has gradually spread through the southern end of the border. It is easy to pull out, and at this time of the year when if shows its lovely heads of flowers – white on some plants, pinkish mauve on others - so I haven’t worried too much about it spreading. If it gets too bad I just pluck some leaves to eat with tomatoes!
I had a crack at my corner of basil mint too. I planted this in a pot at the back door a few years ago, but it has really gone troppo and tried to take over everything – I should have known a mint would do that. I find the flavour and scent of this culinary herb too coarse for my taste (I love mint and basil so it seemed like a good ideaat the time of planting) and I wasn’t picking it and keeping it under control, so it has gone. Fortunately there are still plenty of herbs in the garden.
The Herb Federation of New Zealand has selected the International Herb of the Year, Lemon Balm, as their herb of the year too. This is a another member of the ubiquitous mint family although its genus name, Melissa, is derived from the Latin word for a bee. The specific name (officinalis) means “from the shops” so it has obviously been in commerce for a very long time.
As you might expect from a mint cousin, lemon balm is very hardy and makes a clump of stems up to a metre high. It is shallow rooted and, again like its cousins, spreads with creeping rhizomes. The leaves are deliciously scented with tangy lemon.
In late summer this plant covers its self with white flowers and they in turn are covered with bees.
Herbalists have used this plant for hundreds of years as a relaxant. It is said to be useful for calming a over-busy brain and has mild anti-bacterial properties. It is commonly used to make herbal teas, often in association with spearmint. The leaves are often crushed and spread on the skin as a mosquito repellent, and an essential oil derived form the plant is very popular in aromatherapy.
The other traditional European herb being highlighted this week is the golden daisy known to botanists as Taraxacum officinale. This has leaves in a rosette from the base, the leaves being jagged and hairless. Each individual flower is carried aloft on a hollow stem and is the brightest gold imaginable.
It is, of course, the dandelion.
Most of us would be scared to bring any more dandelions into the garden than were able to make their own way there, but in colder climes the dandelion is well-regarded as a salad green, especially in spring when the leaves are not quite so bitter. The roots are collected in autumn and dried and roasted to be used as a coffee substitute. The roots exude white latex that is commonly used to treat warts, topically. Herbalists swear that dandelion has good liver and kidney restorative powers.
I must confess that I am not converted to the use of dandelions – in fact I took a few out today when cleaning up the garden.
I also removed a specimen of one of their native herbs of the year – a koromiko. Regular readers will know that koromikos (Hebes) are among my favourite flowers so I would be reluctant to remove one, but it was one of the own seedlings that was shy at flowering and added nothing new colour-wise to my collection. Besides, I needed the room to plant the “White Romance.”
Koromiko has long been used my Maori as a cure for dysentery and diarrhoea – many pakeha use an infusion for this purpose too- and was an important ingredient of Mother Aubert’s patent medicines.
In most cases the best way to use koromiko is to collect the green unopened tips of a robustly growing plant and steep them in water. Crushed and bruised leaves can also be used as a poultice for a boil.
The other featured native herb is the manuka, Leptospermum scoparium. My back garden features a lovely variety of the ‘Electric Red’, which I limbed up this morning to allow the perennials underneath it to get some light. I’m feeling a little guilty now.
Most of us will be familiar with manuka oil and its many uses – mainly in the pure oil form or in soaps. It has proven antifungal and antibiotic properties, and manuka honey is widely regarded as having beneficial effects on the immune system.
All of these plants are easily grown – in some cases all too easily grown – so present no cultivation challenges. I suggest that they can just be planted in flower beds (except dandelion of course) and treated as part of the normal garden rather than as special herbal plants.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Summer blooming iris

I grow my Pacific Coast Iris seedlings in a slightly unusual manner. Our climate is quite different to their homeland – we have wet and cold winters, and hot and dry summers. They would not survive the summers very well without extra watering, but they do not like having wet feet. My answer has been to grow them in a mulch of bark from Pinus radiata. The Monterey Pine is the most common timber tree in New Zealand, having a phenomenal rate of growth in our climate. As this is so well drained I need to apply summer water.
I think a consequence of that is early flowering of seedlings. I sow my seed in March, prick the seedlings out in late spring and usually plant out the following March. Some of the seedlings will flower the following spring, but usually only one or two each batch. Sometimes a larger number will flower in the summer, probably as a result of the extra watering.
This year one of my older seedlings has had a summer flowering season, a seedling called 2003-109, grown from ‘Cross Purpose’ seed from the SPCNI pool.
It’s pretty enough and I would have kept it in the garden, but it might be useful to breed with more extensively if it passes on its re-blooming characteristics in the following generations. The I can look forward to irises all summer too!

Monday, February 26, 2007

A wedding and a wonderful weekend in Wanganui

On a recent sunny weekend, the Head Gardener and I travelled to Wanganui to attend a friend’s wedding, and to catch up with some of my family, the River City being my father’s ancestral homeland.
More years ago than either of us care to remember I took my then new girlfriend, now the Head Gardener, to Wanganui for a day trip. We looked around the art gallery and the museum then made out way up to Virginia Lake. High on the hill above the lake stands a glasshouse proudly called the “Winter Garden.” I managed to convince my beloved that this garden was a gift by my family to the good people of Wanganui, a deception neither of us have forgotten, and one of us has not forgiven.
So this weekend, on our way to the wedding on St Johns Hill, we went back to the lake and the gardens. I have been a few times in recent years and have been a bit disappointed in the plantings but this time around we were very impressed with the garden – but not with the lake. We had been warned that the city had been experiencing a paucity of precipitation (borne out by the very dry looking gardens and lawns) and that the lake was suffering. It was cowpat green and giving off a most unpleasant odour. We didn’t get too close to the lake at all.
The first thing I was taken with was a bedding display in the large lawns in front of the “Winter Gardens.” It was a grand circular bed filled with two different French marigolds. These marigolds were past their best and many had seeded. As a result of the seeding a multitude of sparrows and other seed-eating birds had colonized the flower bed and were busy scoffing the autumnal harvest.
The real highlight of the bed though was the large planting of the bright red perennial lobelia, L. cardinalis, that was providing a convenient roost for the many small birds.
This is a Mexican species with beetroot red foliage - in fact, it is well worth growing this plant for the foliage alone -but its crowing glory is the brightest scarlet red flowers that top the deep foliage in summer.
Despite coming from Mexico, this flamboyant dark-skinned beauty prefers slightly damp soils, in full sun. It will grow perfectly well in normal garden soil but can also grow in the margins of the pool. The dark red foliage dies almost completely away over the winter so do not go thinking that the plant has died – it is just taking a well-deserved rest. It can be divided at this stage and replanted, but it also grows easily from its fine seed.
The most common form of L. cardinalis is the one called ‘Queen Victoria’ with slightly deeper red foliage. There are green leaved forms but to me it seems pointless to grow these when the red leaves are half the point of the flower. I think it looks best when planted with light green foliage or flowers (the lime-green Nicotiana looks stunning with it) or grey foliage and/or white flowers.
There are a number of hybrids available in the market, largely derived by crossing L. cardinalis (so named from the cardinal red flowers) with the North American L. siphlitica (I’ll leave you to work out what medicinal use gave this species its name). This is a blue flowered species with green foliage, although there is a lovely white flowered form around too, just called ‘Alba.’
There are now varieties in most shades from white through pink and mauve, to red, blue and purple. Among these is the very popular ‘Cinnabar Rose’, with rose pink flowers.
After photographing the Lobelias, and scaring the sparrows, we made our way up into the “Winter Gardens” themselves, a complex of a large display glasshouse and an attached “Beach to Bush” garden.
Scattered through both the interior and exterior gardens are lots of statuary and garden ornaments. I am a plant lover and such ornamentation usually leaves me unmoved, but on this occasion I was pleasantly surprised as the decoration blended in well – except, I have to say, for a large red and gold concoction, looking like an over-sized Christmas bauble.
The first thing to take everyone’s eyes as they entered the glasshouse was the stupendous display of enormous tuberous begonias. These are largely named varieties (they are labelled discretely but it is easy to see what varieties they are) and they are all grown in large bucket-sized pots. They are staked and supported and the floral display has to be seen to be believed.
At the wedding reception I was talking to a friend I hadn’t seen for a couple of years, and asked after her parents. She pulled out her digital camera and showed me a photograph she had taken earlier that day. It showed her father looking resplendent among the begonia display!
The tuberous begonias and their associated pot plants like bromeliads, impatiens and orchids are obviously thriving in the constant warmth and relatively high humidity in the glasshouse. I loved a Japanese influenced garden, complete with white impatiens to replace the traditional azaleas, bamboos and statues.
I strolled through the sandy part of the ‘Beach to Bush’ garden too, having a wry smile at the beach-like atmosphere created, complete with half-buried torsos and beach chairs.
The bush part of the area is a blue-shaded lathe house – a sort of shade house with thin slats of wood creating the shade. It was filled with native plants – ferns, perennials and some lovely creeping fuchsias – but I was very surprised to see that the bush was underplanted with bright red begonias!
At first I was a bit taken aback, but I am sure the gardeners and designers were making a point about how we should be using our native plants to create gardens, not replicas of native forest, and how a little humour in the garden can provide a lightened effect.
And for the lady gardeners the really important news. The bride was exceptionally beautiful, and the bridegroom made the most entertaining and romantic speech at the reception. All the ladies at our table were ooo-ing and ahh-ing.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The little darlings - dahlias

Taratahi Lilac

As the summer heat comes to its apex (in theory at least) our choice of bedding plants for garden display is going to come under severe pressure. Those of us who planted petunias will probably not be too happy this year as they have not really thrived. Most of the “warm” annuals, such as geraniums and zinnias, have struggled with the intermittent weather and the cool evenings.
Some bedding plants relish this sort of weather though, and I have noticed that some types seem to have flourished – the Impatiens in some local body gardens seem to be doing very well for example.
One planting that I have been taken with is on a sloping bed in a local park. There is a mixed planting of yellow and red bedding dahlias, backed by some bush Nasturtiums. The dahlias have been planted in separate blocks of yellow and red, and they look marvellous.
I am a great fan of dahlias for the summer garden as I believe they provide a long period of flowers for both the garden and the house. The bedding sorts have been so improved over the past few years as to be almost unrecognisable. In the past they were not uniform as to size, and the colours were at best variable. They were only available in open pollinated varieties and there were some awful colours in the mix.
That has all changed with the introduction of the F1 hybrids like ‘Sunny’, first brought into New Zealand by their Japanese breeders in the early 1990s. There have since been a number of new strains, including what is probably the best dwarf form, ‘Figaro.’ This is an improved form of the old ‘Rigoletto’, being both more reliably double and also smaller.
The wholesale buyers of seed will be able to buy this in single colours, but I don’t think any local seed companies offer it in this manner. Early in the planting season you will probably find that some of the larger bedding plant suppliers have grown punnets of single colours for your bedding schemes.
I have noticed that the yellow form seems to be a lot more consistent that the red and orange forms, with the reds in particular showing a few rogue types with shades that tend more or less towards orange.
Many of you will remember the old ‘Redskin’ variety, with, of course, purple foliage. There is an attractive update on that form too, with the ‘Diablo’ range. The dark foliage works particularly well with lighter coloured flowers – yellow, orange, white and light pink in particular – but the darker red forms do not work so well.
Over the past few years I have been growing a few of Keith Hammett’s new garden dahlia introductions in my ‘dark bed’. This is a bed that has a lot of dark foliaged plants in it so Hammett’s new series with its near-black fern-like foliage fits in brilliantly. I especially like ‘Knockout,’ which has bright yellow flowers most of the summer, making a wonderful contrast. I think my next favourite is the startling ‘Scarlet Fern,’ as bright a red as the name suggests. In the next little while two further varieties will come available – I’ve had a sneak preview and they look great. ‘Best Bett” has lovely soft apricot flowers while ‘New Horizons’ has red flowers with bright yellow highlights. Another new one was released late last year.
Despite my best efforts I failed to make it to the Ellerslie Flower Show last year but friends who made it to the show all tell me they were most taken with Hammett’s latest introduction ‘Kapow.’ This is another in the dark foliaged series but in this case has white, or perhaps light pink, flowers that have a strong magenta stripe down each petal. The effect is every bit as stunning as the name suggests.
It is not going to be an easy task to find this variety but keep your eye out for it – it may be more available next year – as it is going to be a star of the garden in the future.
It is not well known but some of the world’s most popular dahlias have been bred in Masterton, where the Fraters have a successful breeding programme. They have been responsible for a number of varieties that have done very well in Australia – three of their ‘Taratahi’ varieties are in the top 100 varieties as judged by the members of the American Dahlia Society. The most popular of these is a lovely lilac pink cactus variety, ‘Taratahi Lilac.’ I must say that flowers in this range are not really my go, so I prefer the scarlet ‘Taratahi Ruby’ or the beautifully subtle yellow and orange blended ‘Taratahi Sunrise.’ The latter two are both of water lily form.
There are also an increasing number of very dwarf forms grown nowadays and they are perfect for growing in containers or in very small gardens. These varieties only grow about 40 cm high and are available in a wide range of colours. I like the ‘Dahl’ series, with a number of different named forms around, all with the second name ‘Dahl.’ These are all semi-double to double forms and are reliable flowering types.
The ‘Little Dahlings’ range is slightly smaller and has single flowers.
I grow a number of small forms, and have noticed that they drop seedlings. Being ever the optimistic gardener that I am I generally leave them to grow on and flower. At first they were dwarf varieties, mainly in the red/orange range, but this year one has sprung up to be about two metres tall, with moderate flowers on very elongated stems. The flower is nothing to write home about so I think it is probably time I started taking the seedlings out, and bought some new dahlia varieties for next summer.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Flashy Aussies

Eucalytpus ficifolia
Some years ago a friend told me a story involving a case of misleading advertising. He told me he had seen a house advertised for sale in the columns of his local newspaper. One of the strong selling points was that the property was covered with “near native trees”. He was intrigued about this so he went to view the property. And what were the “near native trees?”
They were Eucalypts. The house was sited in the middle of a huge plantation of gum trees.
We both had a big laugh at the sheer audacity of the real estate agent, while acknowledging that, while there was a case for calling plants of our nearest large neighbour “near natives”, it was a bit cheeky.
Turns out, though, that the realtor knew more than we did – either that, or they fluked a lucky guess. Palaeontologists have kicked in behind the real estate industry by reporting that at one time, there were indeed species of Eucalyptus flourishing in New Zealand, albeit about 50 million years ago.
They died out, of course. Perhaps out climate was just too wet for them and they could not find too much room in our ecosystem. Their cousins, the ratas and pohutukawas, certainly managed to fill niches throughout most of New Zealand so maybe they blocked the Aussie imports.
When pakeha settled New Zealand it did not take them long to realise the potential uses for gum trees and they were soon scattered throughout the islands. Their main use, of course, was for shelter and timber, but many species that have made their way into our gardens too.
At the moment there are some wonderful examples of that brightest of all Australian plants, the red flowering gum, Eucalyptus ficifolia. This is the spectacular Western Australian with fig-like leaves and the blazing flowers of red and orange in its best forms.
This makes a wonderfully shaped small tree when mature – often (but not always) single-trunked, but always with a rounded crown of dark green leaves. These leaves are covered with the large bunches of flowers, usually red, for periods in mid-summer. This is not a huge growing tree like a Sydney Blue Gum – it will probably only grow to about seven metres.
This species is usually grown from seed, and is inclined to be a little bit variable, but the flowers are usually from deep red to orange. Pink and white forms sometimes occur in the wild, and garden grown plants sometimes have flowers in this colour range. I do not think they are anywhere as attractive as the brighter forms. In Australia grafted plants of named varieties are available, but I don’t think they are in the trade in New Zealand at the moment.
There is one problem with this spectacular small tree for those of us who garden inland – it is frost tender. Once established it will cope with most frosts in our part of the world so a bit of care during the first couple of winters will be well repaid. Funnily enough, for a plant from Western Australia, this plant actually prefers to grow in a reasonable wet area as it grows in part of the state with naturally high rainfall.
There is another gum with attractively coloured flowers, once often planted but not so popular nowadays with our smaller gardens, the Pink Ironbark, E. sideroxylon ‘Rosea.’ This is much hardier than the foregoing, but it is also much taller and less colourful, and comes from a much drier climate – you just cannot win sometimes.
My grandparents had one of these in their Masterton garden. It grew to at least 15 metres tall (and might get taller in the right place I would think) and it made a great feature for that part of the garden. Their form had lovely deep pink flowers, but again this can be variable. The flowering time is from late autumn through to late spring, so a generous flowering can be expected over winter. This has the delightful effect of providing nectar for homey-eating birds, including of course the tui.
The foliage on this species is nowhere near as dark as the red flowering gum, and the tree is more branched and lighter foliaged. My grandparents grew plants at the base of their tree – you would struggle to do that with a mature E. ficifolia – so it can be an attractive option for the larger garden.
If you are keen to help bring birds into the garden, there are other Australian options. The winter-flowering Banksia intergrifolia is often used as a shelter tree, largely because it is very wind tolerant, even withstanding salt-lade sea winds. The leaves are dark green above but silvery underneath, so they are very pretty when they shift in the wind.
The flowers are bottlebrush shaped and an attractive shade of greenish-yellow.
This is quite hardy and will cope with quite a few degrees of frost. It is not the most stunning of plants but if you have a bit of room, it is worth planting for the sake of the birds.
There is another summer flowering tree that will also provide food for the birds, the stunning silk tree, Albizia julibrisin ‘Rosea.’ This Oriental favourite – it grows wild from Japan through to Iran – has a lot to recommend it. The light foliage makes this an easy tree to grow other plants (including lawn) underneath and its spreading habit of growth means it is still appealing when it has lost its leaves fort winter.
At this time of the year, the branches are covered with silky carmine-red flowers.
I think this is the perfect tree for the backyard as it provides a nice light shade over summer but is clear for the winter. It will grow in any well-drained soil and needs no special care.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A summer journey up Taratahi

Pimelia longifolia

I try to have a little challenge for each summer. This is never anything that anyone is ever going to make a reality TV programme about, such as herding cattle in Mongolia, battling hurricanes in the Florida Keys or digging deep under the jungles of Central America looking for remains of ancient civilisations. My summer expeditions are more localised and gentle than that.
This year my aim was to get back up to the top of the Tararua Range that overlooks the valley I live in – in particular the summit of Taratahi, Mount Holdsworth.
Maori have a method of describing how they fit into the world when formally introducing themselves – they give their mihi, a formalised introduction that says what waka their ancestors arrived in Aotearoa on, which iwi and hapu they belong to, who their parents were and what their name is. They also say which mountain and river they belong to.
Taratahi (“one peak”) stands proud on the skyline from Masterton and is the visible termination of many streetscapes – and it is the mountain I belong to. Ruamahanga is my river.
It was a windy day when I climbed the flanks of Taratahi recently. Down on the plains the air was still, and there was scant high cloud, but as I drove toward the mountain I could see that misty clouds were being driven over the top of the range and being sucked down, covering almost all the alpine zone.
Normally my intent in climbing is to get to the very top of the mountain (I am a man after all) but this time I was only interested in reached the transition zone between the beech-clad (New Zealand beech, Nothofagus, not northern beech) forest and the shrub and tussock dominate higher areas. Mid to late January is a good time for photographing flowers in this area, and I was keen to add one or two photographs to my little collection of alpine flora.
I was also hoping to get a better photograph of the blue swamp orchid, Thelymitra cyanea. I had found one of these in flower in the swamp that lies in Pig Flats when I made the journey in late December 2005 but my auto-focus camera had been unable to focus on the individual plants and I had come down from the mountain with about five fuzzy photographs of an indeterminate shaped blue object against a sharply defined moss bed.
I was a little surprised to find a flower in the manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) growing on the edge of the track at the exposed site called Rocky Lookout, about a quarter of the way up the mountain. I photographed the plant here though, feeling a bit pleased with myself that I had found the solitary plant in flower.
Half an hour later I crossed Pig Flat and saw hundreds of blue swamp orchids in flower!
Further up the mountain, as I popped my head out of the deeper forest into the sub-alpine zone, I found a number of native shrubs in flower, including the charming Pimelia longifolia. Why this alpine charmer is not grown in gardens I do not know.
The tops were shrouded in mist so I only ventured as far as Powell Hut, which was hidden from the valley by clouds.
I stayed for a quick lunch, grabbed a few photographs and then made my way back down the hill, meeting dozens of others making their way up.
Coming back down the hill I noticed, among the trampers, a number of red-bodied dragonflies skitting about, but when I tried to photograph them they simply flew away. Lower down on the flanks of the hill I spotted a large kapokapowai Uropetala carovei sitting on the branch of a dead manuka tree. Growing up to 85 mm long, this is the largest of New Zealand’s 11 dragonflies. It is a slow-flying, slightly lumbering species, long-lived, normally living near water. The nymphs take four years to mature.
I came home well satisfied. I had the photographs I wanted, and the bonus of a photograph of a dragonfly to show my athropodophilac son.
Now I just need another challenge for the rest of summer.