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.