Sunday, December 28, 2008

East Holdsworth

The Christmas season is upside down in the southern hemisphere and we, somewhat stupidly, try to follow the celebration patterns of our northern cousins, with roast turkey on the menu in the middle of the day, even though it is over 25 degrees.
I have a Christmas ritual – my annual climb up Mount Holdsworth. This year I decided on the East Holdsworth ascent, a track I have never been up.
I was pleasantly surprised. The first part of it is comparatively gentle, and the upper section – much steeper – is very climbable.
On the way up I found a lovely clump of the native forest snowberry, Luzuriaga parviflora in flower.
As is usually the case, this was growing in a rotted log, having spread through the rotten wood. There were little clusters of the single white flowers. A little further up the mountain I noticed a white berry on another clump.
This is relatively easy to grow in the garden, but hard to find in any garden centres.

I only climbed to the bush line, as I needed to get back home for my son to borrow my car to go and see his girlfriend. It was windy and claggy on the tops, so I just took a quick rest behind this rock. There was a lovely mountain daisy, Celmisia species in flower, and a Raoulia, as seen up close.

It was really a quick sprint up the mountain, but it was nice to see a new track.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

New Zealand Christmas

The Christmas season usually brings a few horticultural gifts for those of use who garden. Our relatives, struggling to find a gift for someone who has almost everything they need, always know that a gardener is easily satisfied. A gift voucher for your favourite garden centre, or a garden book or two will always be very welcome. And plants can never go amiss.
There are, of course, a number of plants closely associated with Christmas, sometimes a little out of kilter with the season though, with our hemispherical flip around.
The holly, with its prickly leaves and bright red berries in the middle of winter, is loaded with obvious analogies for a northern hemisphere festival, but in the south, by mid-summer, most of the berries will have well and truly been picked over by birds.
The mistletoe is different. If you know where to look, there will be patches of New Zealand mistletoe in flower. There is a wonderful one in flower at Mount Holdsworth at the moment. It is off the beaten track, but if you ask at the caretakers’ office he will happily tell you where it is. The species in flower at the moment is the bright red one, and it is a rare treat to see it. Opossums have decimated most native mistletoe plants, so take the chance to see this beauty.
The traditional New Zealand Christmas tree is the pohutukawa, again with red flowers (usually – there are yellow forms) and again, flowering well at Christmas – usually.
Pohutukawa and rata are brothers, members of the Metrosideros genus, and more or less closely related to Australian gum trees, Eucalyptus, South American fruits, Feijoa and Australian bottlebrushes, Callistemon. They are also, a little less obviously, related to manuka, Leptospermum, and ramarama, Lophomyrtus.
In northern and coastal areas it is pohutukawa that are usually called the New Zealand Christmas Tree, while rata is sometimes given the name in inland areas. Most years it is a little of a misnomer, as it generally flowers a little after Christmas, but this year it is flowering early, in time for the festive season. I have to say, much as I love ratas, they lack the stunning floral affect of a pohutukawa, the flowers generally being slightly smaller and slightly darker.
There are two main pohutukawa species in New Zealand – the mainland form, and a different species from the Kermadec Islands. The latter has smaller and more rounded leaves that the mainland form, and tends to flower spasmodically through the year rather than in one sustained burst.
If you are keen to try a pohutukawa in our district you must bear in mind that they are frost tender – especially when young – and need a frost-free area to grow well. There are some nice examples growing in Masterton, up on Lansdowne hill, so they can cope with a Wairarapa winter if grown in the right are, and given some protection.
Most of us, though, will have to be content to grow one in a pot. Fortunately, that is not hard – in nature they grow in hard, exposed places on the coast and they will flourish without too much care in a large pot. It would pay, though, to make sure you bought as named cultivar, as you would be able to ensure you got the flower colour and growth habit you were interested in. I think ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ is the one to go for – it is smaller growing than most species, it has crimson red flowers (others can be darker and almost rusty coloured) and it flowers all at once usually. ‘Te Kaha’, selected from a famous East Coast tree, is similarly mannered but the flowers are more orange coloured.
‘Mistral’ is a deeper flowering form, but is also slightly hardier, being a natural hybrid between pohutukawa and southern rata. It flowers slightly before Christmas.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

New seedling

Another maiden seedling has bloomed, this time another one of the 2007 seedlings, but an unusual one.
That year my USA seed was destroyed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, on suspicion of a fungous disease. As I only had a few seedlings of my own, I potted up some garden seedlings, making careful note of where they were growing. This is meant to have been growing under a ‘Pacific Rim’ seedling, but it looks nothing like any of them.
It is more violet than the picture shows, but the stripe of turquoise is very prominent. It is pretty enough to keep, I think, but time will tell.



As summer’s heat starts to build up, there is one type of plant I know I can rely on to provide me with heaps of colour right through rest of the hot season - the day lily, Hemerocallis. It is quite beyond my understanding why this brilliant summer-flowering perennial is not grown much more in New Zealand, as it should be stand-by in every perennial garden over summer. In other parts of the world it is the most important perennial, planted more then irises and dahlias, but here in Aotearoa, it is relatively unknown.Some city councils have tumbled that this is a great value plant for low maintenance gardens – in fact, some have planted up whole beds with some of the smaller flowering varieties.What is so good about these plants?
Obviously the first attraction is their lily shaped flowers. These are available in a huge range of colours, from almost-black through pinks, oranges, reds, yellows, and almost-whites. Each of these flowers only last one day – hence the common name and, perhaps, their lack of popularity – but there is a long succession of flowers and each variety will flower for up to a month, with many re-blooming later in the season. With careful selection, it is possible top have flowers for over five months.
There are evergreen varieties, and those that are semi-deciduous or totally deciduous. Even those that die away completely for the winter tend to only lose their leaves, much like a Hosta, for a short time,.
The leaves are interesting. In some of the smaller flowered forms they are almost grass-like, and would fit into a modern grass garden with ease. They are all more or less light green, and quite textured.
Flower size is very variable. Breeders overseas – especially in America where there are over 40,000 registered varieties – have been striving to increase the size of the flowers, and to flatten them somewhat, making them less trumpet-like. Most of mine are about 15 cm across, but I do grow one or two dwarf varieties too, which have smaller flowers. These smaller flowering forms are very popular for those with smaller gardens, or those who wish to mix their “Hems”, as they are popularly called, with other perennials.
They will grow almost anywhere in the garden. They are said to prefer free draining soils, but I have seen them growing perfectly well on the edges of bogs. They do, however, prefer full sun. I grew a number of these in light shade at the edge of a woodland garden, and they grew alright, but I was not happy with their increase or their flowering rate. It was not until I planted them out in the full sun that I realised what I had been missing out on. With their cheerful faces in the sun, they quickly grew much larger, and flowered much more exuberantly.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

New Slideshow and altered look

As a fifty-five year old who is only interested in any technology as a tool, it is always a challenge for me to alter anything like the settings on my blog, or the pictures displayed in my slideshow.
My over the past week I have been working a little on that.
The slideshow now features some of the more interesting Pacific Coast Irises (PCIS) I have bred over the past few years. I hope you enjoy them.
I am coming under pressure to register and distribute some, so I am looking to find space for a growing-on bed around the section somewhere. I think it might mean taking out a small tree or two. I am loathe to do that, but the trees cause headaches for the swimming pool, and I am sure Jill would like them gone, so.....

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Late PCIs

This has been one of those weekends – I do not seem to have stopped, and it is now late-ish on Sunday evening.
I started the day with a quick sprint up to Powell Hut on Mount Holdsworth. A friend told me they had managed to reached the hut in two hours (the normal time is about three to four hours) so, of course….. well, I went as hard as I could and got there in 1.55. I doubt whether I could get there much faster.
The problem was I needed to be back home by lunchtime, as I was taking the family to see the Christmas Parade. So I had an apple, and drunk in the wonderful view along with some cold water, then came back down. In a way it was almost sacrilegious, as it was a day out of the box – sparkling clear and not a breath of wind.
Still I got to see Christmas Parade. For what that was worth.
The afternoon was better as I swam and cleaned the pool, then the whangai grandkids arrived, so I swam again! I managed some gardening in between, including harvesting potatoes and raspberries. The last of the firewood arrived just before tea so I stacked that and went and had a rest.
Today I was awake early – too early for the gym – so I went for a long bike ride, then gardened some more. We went out to the Mauriceville Fair, taking our son Owen’s friend Sophie, with us. Met up with lots of people I knew, including Kay from New Pacific Studio, who had a stall there, and Rachel, an artist from New Orleans doing a residency at NPS.
It is not the greatest fair, but it is a day in a part of the country I like.
I came home and gardened some more, and took some photos of some Pacific Coast Irises I have out.
It is very late in the season, and two of the irises are seedlings that should not flower until next year – they were sown March 2007 – and next year they will almost certainly settle into normal flower patterns. They are both nice ones of my own breeding, one an unusual salmon colour with green and blue undertones (as seen above) , the other a red with a deep signal. The salmon one fades during its time, as will be apparent from the pics.

The other, though, is a Mocha Melody seedling, with good branching, that should have flowered with its siblings six weeks ago. If this is a genetic trait I will be very excited. As it is, I have two seedlings to cross it with! I am crossing at the same time as I am watching the seed pods ripen on my other crosses.
There was another one out. This is very unusual. It has four legs, it bares it teeth every timne I go past, and it growls and barks a lot.

Must be a dog

Sprouting into summer

This weekend has been one of harvesting some of the first of the summer crops, and planning for the winter crop. On Saturday, I harvested the first of the raspberries, after having to put a mesh net over them earlier in the week, designed to keep little birds, and little girls, from beating me to the crop.
On the same day, I dug the first of the new season’s potatoes, the ‘Rocket’ I planted in late August. As you will be able to work out, this is a very early season variety, not one I have grown before. I was surprised when the tops fell over about a fortnight ago, thinking they were under-watered, but no amount of watering convinced them to stand up again, so I dug them. As you will remember, I plant my potatoes in a trough filled with compost and straw, and this makes harvesting very easy. The soil falls away from the tubers and they come up very cleanly. The return was good too – not outstanding, but ample, and the first of the potatoes (the tiddlers) have already been eaten and were delicious.
That left room in the garden, so I took advantage of the chance to get some Brussels Sprouts in. These vegetables are winter standbys, and new gardeners are tricked into thinking they should be planted in late summer/early autumn, but they need planting much earlier.
Brussels Sprouts are members of the vast Brassica tribe, and descend from cabbages. The usually accepted story of their origin is that they arose as a sport in Belgium about 1750, and were exported to other European countries and England by 1800.
They have become a winter standby in Europe – and are a traditional component of English Christmas Dinner, in much the same way the new potatoes and peas are part of ours.
Brussels Sprouts are quite straightforward to grow. They need good fertile soil, so I dug a trench in the old potato ground (finding some more tubers too!) filling it with a generous layer of my own worm-filled compost. I topped this off with some lime, as it is important to keep the pH level up for brassicas, to help stop the incursion of club foot disease. Most compost has low pH anyway, so it is a good idea to add lime when applying it. I also threw a little general purpose garden fertiliser, mixed with more slow release food, as sprouts like fertile soil and they are long-term plants.
Once the soil was prepared I tramped it to make it as firm as I could – sprouts like to be planted in as firm a soil as possible - then planted and watered them in.
I bought the plants in from my nursery, as they had good, strong, healthy-looking F1 hybrid plants. You could probably still grow your own from seed, but it is getting late enough in the season to do that. I think you would be better off to buy the seedlings in if you have not already sown.
It has been my experience that it pays to buy F1 hybrid Sprouts, as they are much more reliable and more likely to give a good crop. Do not forget that these plants like a cool snap to develop their flavour fully.
When it comes to eating them, make sure the cook does not over boil the sprouts. If they are overcooked they tend to have a sulphurous taste that few people like. I like them in stir fries, or lightly steamed and served with butter and pepper. If you find you have some loose sprouts at the end of the season (and I always do) just leave them to keep on growing. In the spring, they will send out flower shoots, just like small broccoli heads. They are delicious if cut small enough, and, once again, they are great in stir fries.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Very Publick Reserve

We launched my latest book today – 'A Very Publick Reserve', the story of Queen Elizabeth Park, our local municipal park. The launch coincided with the opening of an exhibition on the park at Aratoi, the local museum of art and history.

The ceremony started with a mihi (welcome) from local kaumatua and friend Mike Kawana….
then Aratoi director Marcus Burroughs introduced my publisher, Ian Grant of Fraser Books…..

Taini Wright spoke very eloquently about the statue her poua (grandfather) Taiawhio Te Tau erected in the park in 1921… here is she welcomed to the microphone by Marcus and myself....

The book was launched by Dex Knowles, whose father was custodian of the park from 1940 until 1958. Dex spoke entertainingly about his childhood, and his father’s part in the park development.

I spoke briefly, explaining how the research started with a request for help from my daughter Lavinia and her friend Callum Daniell. I explained that this request has changed me from an nurseryman who like history, into an archivist who loved gardening! Callum and Lavinia both died in their thirties, and the book is dedicated to their memory. Vin’s brother Owen was there (he has some photographs in the book) and Callum’s widow and son were there too, so it was a moving day for me.

I signed books and caught up with some of the many friends and relatives who were present.
Later, I photographed Owen, reading the book in the rose bed we planted in Vin’s memory in the park.

An emotionally tiring day but very satisfying.

Watering in the dry

Summer has arrived in all its blazing glory over the past week or two. The lawns, which had needed mowing every four or five days, have suddenly browned off, and the vegetable garden is requiring a lot more attention – watering and weeding wise.
The arrival of the summer season also coincides with the instigation of watering restrictions in most parts of New Zealand. Many councils have (wisely in my view) decided that the best way to cope with the excess demands placed on their water supply systems by introducing watering controls on a calendar basis rather than water-flow. It is a good reminder to us gardeners that we need to be mindful of water conservation right through the gardening year, and with all of our gardening practices.
One way we can help ameliorate our garden’s water requirements is by being clever about the plants we use in our gardens. If you live in an area that gets very warm, and you have thin, dry soils why would you try and grow camellias, rhododendrons and other plants best suited to Taranaki type conditions? Instead look out for those trees and shrubs that will cope better with your conditions.
Among the obvious places to start looking are parts of the world that have similar growing conditions. From the Mediterranean we might select olive trees, rosemary and lavender bushes, and some of the delightful Cistus family, with their bright white and pink flowers. All of these will cope well with our summers, and will provide good colour.
We might also look to South Africa, where many members of the vast protea family reside. Among those that will do well in our climate are the Leucodendrons and Leucaspermums. The latter, with their spidery flowers, are not as common as the former, but provide lots of colour throughout the year.
From our Transtasman neighbours, we could select some from the vast number of Grevilleas. There are Grevilleas for most situations, from the gigantic tree G. robusta, the orange Silky Oak (actually, not silky and not an oak, but that is Australians for you!) right down to ground covering types. Most of these are well suited to growing in dry areas, and with a little imagination, can be turned to all sorts of uses. I was taken with a Grevillea hedge I saw recently – so much more fun that a box hedge, although not as fashionable.
For lower down in the plantings, you can probably do worse than looking for a daisy, as many of them are adapted to growing in dry areas. I have some Gaillardias and Coreopsis, both North American species, happily growing in a north facing bed that also grows South African bulbs very well. Gazanias, Osteospermums and Arctotis, all from South Africa, will cope with even hot situations. I have some planters that are filled with Gazanias, and they are already showing of their full range of colour.
There are, of course, some areas where we want to grow plants that are going to require some extra watering. The secret here is to make the best use you can of the opportunities you are given to water, and to optimise the effectiveness of your watering.
One simple thing you can do is to water when the weather is cool and calm. There is little point in watering on hot windy days- the water will not be used effectively at all. You are better to water in the cool of the evening, or in the early morning. Best of all, wait until it rains. That is the ultimate watering time.
Try to water as slowly as is practical. A steady slow flow will all be absorbed while a strong flow of water will cause run-off. There is no point in applying more water than the spoil can take up.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Watch out for Spaniards!

This weekend I had to face one of the worst gardening problems imaginable. A grass has invaded that garden over the past few years, brought in on the wings of the westerly winds from infestations further afield. It is not a terrible weed, in that it does not spread like convolvulus or cooch, but it does spread freely from seed and I like to keep it under control as much as I can. It is especially a nuisance among the Pacific Coast Irises because its leaves are similar enough to the iris leaves and they can be come quite well established before I notice them.
But this weekend I found a strong plant established in a far worse place – deep in the middle of a well established Spaniard – and I do not mean an inhabitant of Barcelona either.
The Spaniards (Wild Spaniards, Speargrasses) are familiar plants to trampers as they mainly inhabit the Alpine areas of New Zealand (the Spaniards I mean, although trampers do too!), where they lie in wait for the unsuspecting hiker. Brush a bare leg against one of these plants, or worse still, put your hand down onto the fiercely spiked leaves and you will soon see why they are given their common name – they are capable of inflicting serious pain. I have two of these brutes in the garden. After all I have said about them it sounds like pure bloody mindedness to do so, but they are wonderfully symmetric plants, looking most like a small Agave or Aloe, but with much finer foliage. The flower stems, which start out large asparagus spears, open with many thousands of small flowers.
It was in the middle of all this spikiness I saw a clump of grass. I got down on my hands and knees, and carefully – very carefully – worked my way into the crown of the plant where the grass had taken hold. I think I got it all out, but time will tell.
I do not wear gloves when doing such a job. In my years handling thousands of bare rooted roses I came to the conclusion that gloves just made me careless and meant I got spiked more often, so I got a few spikes in my fingers.
Spaniards are remarkably easy to grow in the most gardens, provided their need for good drainage is catered for. They are not fussy as to soil type, but as they have a deep taproot, they do prefer deep soil. They will grow in semi-shaded areas, but under those conditions will not produce the same intensity of foliage colour.
They are not the easiest plants to come by but specialist native nurseries will stock them, and some larger garden centres have a range. Both mine, A. squarrosa and A. aurea, I bought locally.
I spent some time up in the alpine zone myself this weekend, training for a longer tramp planned for later in summer. There is little out in the higher altitudes yet – just a few native buttercups – but lower down the mountain the native iris, Libertia grandiflora, was at its best. This is the best flowering of the native Libertias, its 60 cm high clumps of green leaves being topped with striking 3 cm wide white flowers on many branched stems.
In the wild, this plant grows in the forest margins – at the edge of clearings or along streamsides – and that is probably the ideal place for it in the garden too. It makes a wonderful statement in semi-shaded areas, and will make fabulous ground cover when bulked grown in such conditions.
The other species commonly grown in New Zealand is the similar L. ixioides. This is the spiky plant often seen in traffic islands or strip beds in municipal gardens, where its stoloniferous habits (it runs like cooch, but a lot less vigorously) and its bright yellow/orange colouring, has made it a favourite. Two new varieties, ‘Taupo Blaze’ and ‘Taupo Sunset’, will make it even more popular, as they both have extra colouring, with pink and crimson shades, especially when cooler and drier conditions prevail.
These two new varieties have quickly become very popular with landscapers - and are on the “hot” list in America too. They work well in most garden situations and provide a colour lift if used carefully. I have seen them used among pink and dark dwarf flaxes and they look the part. They are very much no fuss plants as well. They also flower – white flowers in spring – but in this case, it is the foliage that is the thing.
At the opposite end of the scale are the tiny (but perfectly formed) flowers of the native Fuchsia, F. procumbens.
This is a great groundcover for damp, shady areas, and even though it grows naturally in the north of the North Island, it will also grow well down this far south. It will likely loose its leaves for winter, but will soon leaf back up in early spring with small, bright green, rounded leaves.
And then the little flowers pup up – and I mean up. Unlike any other Fuchsia, these guy likes to hold its flowers upwards rather than downward facing. The flowers are also very unusually coloured, being yellow, with bright blue stamen. They are very small, so I like to grow a plant in a hanging basket, where it is possible to see the flowers up close.
The flowers are followed by bright red berries in late summer into the winter. They are meant to make a nice jam, but I can never bring myself to pick them as tghey look so attractive.
Maybe they would also make a good salve for hands covered with injuries from weeding Wild Spaniards!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Giving it herbs

As our cuisine has changed over the years, our gardening habits have also had to be amended. There have been huge changes in the edible garden in the time I have been gardening. I remember the arrival of courgettes, and the increase in popularity of sprouting broccoli. At the same time that favourite of our parents, the marrow, disappeared from our plates and the old fashioned white-headed broccoli quietly disappeared from our gardens and our meals.
Perhaps no area illustrates this as well as the herb garden. There were devoted herb growers in the past, of course, whose interest in these plants stretched way past the culinary and into the medical, but most home gardens contented themselves with a parsley plant, a clump of chives, and perhaps a clump of sage, to be used for making the Christmas stuffing.How that has all changed!
I would think the two most commonly planted herbs now are coriander and basil as they are so useful for the different meals we now consume.Coriander can be a bit tricky to grow as it tends to go to seed as soon as the weather gets hot and dry. It is tricky to grow from transplants too – in fact, it is so prone to flopping over or going straight to seed, it really does make a lot more sense to grow your own from seed. Seeds sown in situ will need to be covered for about ten days before the shoots appear.
In the heat of summer it is a good idea to grow some in a container in a cool spot. Make sure you use plenty of nitrogenous fertiliser, or ensure a steady supply of liquid fertilizer during the growing season, as well as keeping the water up to the plants.
You can let the plants go to seed as coriander seed is very useful in the kitchen too, but make sure you harvest the seed as if it is left to mature on the plants, it will probably ensure a succession of new plants - it seeds with abandon.
Basil is absolutely essential for the summer garden. This is another herb that can easily be grown from seed once the ground warms up, but it is easily transplanted so it is easier to just grab a punnet of seedlings. I have noticed that most nurseries seem to scatter seed in the punnet, or in the pot, so I just buy a pot of plants and divide them up.
There are so many different basils that you should think of growing something other than the usual green variety. I like some of the smaller leaved types – in fact my favourite variety is the pungent Spicy Globe – but there are also plenty with different tastes and scents. Lemon Basil hardly needs explanation – Thai Basil and Cinnamon Basil are more pungent. There are also some purple leaved types.
Most gardens still have some parsley, although not the parsley we used to grow.
In the past the Englishman’s favourite triple curled variety was by far the most common form, to the exclusion of any other. Then television cooks started telling everyone that flat leaved Italian parsley was better and many New Zealanders switched. Scientists are now telling us that flat-leaved parsley does indeed have more taste so perhaps the continentals knew what they were talking about!
Parsley seed is a bit erratic in germination, and always a little slow too – it can take up to a month before deciding to come through, - so it is probably just as easy to let a nursery go through that trouble, and to buy plants. If you enjoy lashings of parsley you will need a few plants so buy a punnet or two.
Parsleys of all kinds prefer rich, moisture retentive soil in good sunlight. If soil fertility is a little low, mix in some general fertiliser at time of planting, and occasionally thereafter. To harvest, take the outermost leaves by cutting off at ground level.

Up that mountain

I found my way up my mountain for the first time since autumn.
I had hoped to go up on Saturday, when the forecast was for a sunny, clam day. Things did not work out that way, as my son needed my car, and Jill was away on a course. He needed the car for a job interview, so it seemed he should have priority, and I was happy to acquiesce. I woke early and went for a 90 minute run instead – just a lovely long run through reserves and parks, keeping an eye on the subject of my upcoming book! After the job interview, my son and I drove down the highway to Greytown and had a quiet stroll and lunch.
I did not sleep that well last night so when I woke at about 6.15 I thought I might as well go for my hill climb. I was on the mountain at 7.00, had climbed up the less-travelled path to the snowline by 9.00, and was home again just after 11.00.
It was lovely to be on the tracks again, although there was little of horticultural interest; the green hood orchids were in bud, but the wonderful New Zealand iris, Libertias, were in full flower in the forest margins. The triple trinity of pure white is very appealing - pity I did not take my camera!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It is the last fling of the PCI season, and I have spent an evening or two recording this season's crosses. I was surprised to see that I had made nearly 50!
One of the last seedlings to flower is one that is reportedly an I. tenax cross with ‘Gold Dusted.’ I am not sure that the bees were not at work here, as the seedling is tiny – less than four inches high – and has flowers of a shade and shape that bring a refined SDB to mind. I love it!

Also in flower, in pots in the shade, is this lovely ‘Foothill Banner’ seedling. The flowers are quite small, on tall stems, but they are stunning. It gives interesting seedlings too, so I have used its children a bit this year, crossing with some light pinks.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Things have been a bit lively

The last of the PCIs are in flower now, and the season is winding down. It has been an interesting one, with the snaking stem problem of the past few years almost non-existent this year. I think it may be related to a slightly warmer winter, and to my cultural practice changing. I did not trim the leaves in late summer as I often do. The dead leaves looked a bit raggy over winter, but the flowering season was good.
A few of my planned crosses have not resulted in seedpods. In one way that is good, in that it means there have been no bees at work on the flowers, but it also means I have missed on some gene recombinations. I have noted the failed crosses on my database and will try again next year.
We went to a wedding on Saturday. My fellow archivist Neil married off his eldest son. The on Sunday we launched the archive’s newest book – our fourteenth. Neil has been helping a local family publish the World War one diary of their ancestor. The launch went really well and we sold a lot of books. Anyone interested in the life of a foot soldier in the trenches should read the diary. The book is called ‘Things have been a bit lively’.

Mid-November - can the frosts be over?

Now it is mid-November, and all risk of frost has passed, we can think seriously about finishing off the planting of the summer vegetable garden.
I cannot believe I wrote that sentence less the five days after we had snow, sleet and hail in the main street. But, seriously, if we do not plant now it will be getting too late to plant at all, especially for some of the warm weather plants that need a longer season.
I planted out the rest of my tomatoes this weekend, a punnet of ‘Sweet 100s’ I have been growing on in my glasshouse. They are planted up a bamboo tripod, in soil that has not grown tomatoes for about five years.
I also planted out some peppers. I know not everyone likes capsicums – in fact, some people have an avid dislike of them – but I think they are a very useful year-round vegetable, for salads in summer and stir-fries in winter.
Your local garden centre will have quite a range of them in stock now. Make sure you get an F1 hybrid variety, not the older open-pollinated ‘Californian Wonder’, as there is no comparison as far as performance goes. I was going to say that I do not know why nurseries continue to offer the old variety – but I do in fact know. The hybrid seed is much dearer, so it is much more profitable to produce the open pollinated strains like ‘Californian Wonder’, but they are so inferior I would not consider growing them at all in my garden. They will fruit later, they will fruit less, and the fruit will be a lot smaller.
There are quite a range of varieties around, including some interestingly coloured ones. Most of you will be familiar with the yellow varieties you see in the supermarket, but there are also orange, white and purple varieties. We grew a lot of these about fifteen years ago, as a trial for a local grower, and they all performed well, although some lost their colour when they were cooked – the purples, for example, went green, in much the same way purple beans do.
Capsicums are not hard to grow. They need fertile soil, well-drained, and they must have full sun – the warmer the spot the better, basically. They are members of the same family as potatoes and tomatoes, so should not be grown in soil where these have been grown recently. Feed them well, and keep picking the fruit as soon as they are mature enough as it will allow future fruit to develop.
This year I have resisted the temptation to try watermelons again. I have tried at least five times, and the biggest watermelon I have succeeded in growing was about the size of a golf ball. You absolutely must have very warm ground for these to get under way in the spring – in fact, in the southern half of the North Island I think you are probably best to grow then through black polythene to ensure they get a good enough start.
Rock melons are slightly easier to grow, not needling such a long growing season. I must confess they do not appeal to the same degree as watermelons and I have never grown plants to maturity.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


This year’s Labour weekend turned out to be another one of those characterized by inclement weather – or, at the very least, variable weather. With the wind and rain so bad, I went to the movies at the local film festival and a friend and his partner strolled in and sat with us. She gently chided me for saying that it was too early to plant tomatoes yet. I wonder how she was feeling after the cold weather and frosts of the last week!
Fortunately there are still plenty of plants that can be popped into the vegetable garden while we wait for the soil to be warm enough for water melons, basil and sweet corn.
I would start with lettuces because it is not that far away from the salad sandwich season, and at this time of the year, lettuces are just so easy to grow well. They are not fussy as to growing conditions, but, like most vegetables, prefer a moist, well-drained soil in full sun. Being a leafy crop, they need lots of nitrogen, so you can go mad with the compost for them, digging it into the soil before you plant, or even growing in pure compost.
The next step is to decide whether you want to grow your own seedlings. It is very easy to do, and it is certainly very economical - lettuce seed is very cheap. I have to confess that all those years of raising millions of lettuces from seed have rather soured me on the process, and I am happy for my local nursery to do that part of the job for me. I usually just buy a packet or a punnet of mixed plants
If you are raising your own plants, just sow the seed in a light, warm place, and make sure you keep the watering up. I think it is best to raise them in boxes filled with seed raising mix, but generations of gardeners have used a small piece of the garden, with well-worked soil, and that does the job just as efficiently. Once the plants are sufficiently large they can be transplanted out.
I grow a mix of varieties, and have more or less given up on the large hearting types like ‘Webb’s Wonderful’ and ‘Great Lakes’, only growing oak-leaf types that can be harvested one leaf at a time from the outside. There are so many different varieties it would be pointless to list them here, but the butterheaded types, which make a loose head, are suitable for this type of growing, as are both green and red types with frilly leaves. Other gardeners prefer the more upright growing cos and romaine lettuces, used in Caesar salads.
You could even do a bit of creative gardening by making a little hedge or edging of lettuces – especially the coloured ones - as they look so decorative. Alternatively, if space is a bit tight, you can plant out between slower growing crops, like cabbage and broccoli. By the time the brassicas are starting to grow larger, the lettuces will be out of the way.
I read somewhere that lettuces are the sort of plant that live fast and die soon. That is not a bad way to describe it, and like most things that live fast, they need lots of food. As well as planting your seedlings in humus-rich soil, it is a good idea to ensure they have a steady supply of nutriment through the growing season. You can use any plant food high in nitrogen.

Nearly a champion

We have had another interesting weekend- a bit more restful than many we have had lately.
Saturday was the annual second hand book sale on behalf of the Heart Foundation, so we all – Jill, and I and our son, who was home for the weekend – spent an hour or two looking through, and picking up, a few books. And talking to people we only see there!
Then on to the flower show, where I had staged a few exhibits of my Pacific Coast Iris seedlings, winning first, second and third in the class, and according to the judge, just missing out on the ‘Best in Show’ award for all irises Needless to say, a Tall Bearded won!
The iris is an interesting seedling, a cross of a Sea Magic seedling, pictured in a recent post, and a much smaller flowered ‘Valley Banner’ seedling, with the usual VB markings. The resultant seedlings have been very interesting, with none throwing strongly to either parent, although there are some lovely light blues among them. This is the one that took the judges eye. It is strong growing, flowering on 70 cm stems, and having a delightful ‘watercolour’ look as he described it.
Sunday was also relaxing after a long bike ride through the countryside. I mainly gardened, and worked on finalizing the last remaining bits of text for my book, including the index. Mid afternoon, my adopted granddaughter (9) showed up at our house, with her cousin (11). They had biked around to see whether I wanted to go for a bike ride with them. Of course I did! We went up and down the pathways in a nearby reserve, looking for ‘dragonflies’ (actually damsel flies, but…) and ducklings. It was great fun.
I am in the throes of a reading binge - I have read five novels in the past week. Sure beats watching the crap on the TV!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Hail to the PCIs

It has been a funny weekend this one. It is the traditional spring/summer vegetable planting weekend, but the weather had been abysmal. We spent Saturday in Wellington with our son. He has been recovering well but said he was desperate to get out of our small town, so we all took the day off and went to the capital. In the end the weather was not much so we did not f\do a lot, just cruised around boomk shops and the like, and had afternoon tea in his favourite café in Cuba Street. It was just about three shops away from where my daughter used to live. He had taken some interesting pics, so I think he enjoyed his day.
Sunday,, the weather was lousy, so I spent most of the day at work, captioning for my book, and sorting out some research for a Wellington professor I am helping with her next book. It was tiring, but rewarding. A brief hailstorm played havoc with the PCIs, shredding many of them. I hope they will recover with fresh blooms for next week’s iris show.
I had intended to spend much of today in the garden, but my editor rang with some questions which needed solving, and when I had sorted that out, we got a phone call asking if we wanted to go to a family concert by our third son, our son’s best friend from school days, who is now a professional entertainer.
His family is so different to ours – larger than life, loud and happy, and very in tune with each other – that it was a bit overwhelming, especially for our son. But Jason can sing like an angel, and it was so lovely to catch up with him again.
And the afternoon was gloriously fine too

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Late spring, early summer is the most exciting time of the year for those of us who are iris lovers. Although there are irises in flower most months of the year, this time of the year is the height of the flowering season, with the majority of the best known forms coming to their peak.
Most gardeners are most aware of the tall bearded types, often called ‘flags’ by older gardeners. They come in the most fabulous range of colours (Iris was the Greek goddess of the rainbow) and have become much more weather resistant over the past few years.
Older tall bearded irises have much more muted colours that would be considered the norm today, but they are also some of the most interesting types around. There is even a special society dedicated to growing these older irises, the Historic Iris Preservation Society, HIPS. New Zealand has a special interest in this group, as Wanganui iris breeder Jean Stevens was internationally regarded in the middle years of the 20th century. Wairarapa iris fanatic Terry Johnston, who runs a web site dedicated to New Zealand and historic irises at, has made a special study of the Jean Stevens irises, and is recognised as an authority of her work. One of Terry’s favourites among her many introductions, is ‘Summit’, which he describes as a “stunningly bright, stand-out iris,” with its bright golden falls and its near-white standards. It is certainly a great iris.
Modern beaded irises tend to be more ruffled and tend to have more flowers on each stem. The Australian Barry Blyth has bred a wonderful range of hybrids well-known world-wide now, and the Californian breeder, Joe Ghio, also keeps a steady stream of wonderful bearded types.
If you have not seen modern iris, it would pay to get along to a local display garden, or to your local flower show, where a good range should be on display.
Bearded irises tend to come from warm climates, and need soil high in lime if they are to flourish. They do well in Mediterranean gardens, with lavender, cistus, Ceanothus, and similar plants, and combine with members of the Dianthus family perfectly. They tend to have their flowering peak at the same time too.
They are one of the few plants that prefer to be planted on the soil rather than in it. The rhizomes should be placed on the soil surface, with the roots buried. Older books insist they need to be replanted in autumn but they will transplant well when in flower, so if you see one in a garden and you think you can convince the owner to give you a piece, grab it while you can be sure which variety it is. Do not forget to keep the plants reasonably well watered over their first season; after that they are quite drought resistant.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

This weekend

This has been a very tiring weekend. I have been working very hard all week on getting the Society of Pacific Coast Native Irises Almanac out – managed to complete that on Friday. The PCIs are in full bloom here and I have been trying to run around with tweezers, labels and notebooks, making the crosses I have planned for this year.
The publishers of my next book, on the history of our local park, have requested extra photographs – both old and new – so I have spent most of the weekend on the scanner and the camera. I also have to do captions for some 300 illustrations, so I am more than a little frazzled.
Our son, who has not been well, is living away from home and coming home for the weekend. He did not have such a good day and was feeling depressed this evening, and was reluctant to go back to his flat. I was feeling guilty about having work so much this weekend, but he spent a lot of time with friends, away from here. It took some caring to get him home again, but he seemed in a better frame of mind when he left. He said having had a bitch session helped!
On the bright side, one of my favourite seedlings, a blue with turquoise highlight, which has been lost in the seedling patch, flowered in rows of divisions I made a few years ago. I have been able to use the pollen on some of my new blue varieties, so that’s a good ending to a pretty crappy weekend.

Tomato time again

The end of October, with its associated Labour weekend holiday, has everyone’s mind turning to the vegetable garden. Even those who have touched neither a spade nor a shovel know this is the time of the year for planting out those summer vegetables that are the staple of our diet over the warmer months.
Sometimes, though, the weather has a mind of its own, and wants us to wait just a little longer before we get too busy in amongst the courgettes and pumpkins. When I was hunting around the old records at our nursery, I found the first owners, who operated the nursery from the 1890s to the 1970s, did not sow any marrows (there were no courgettes or zucchinis in those days!) until early November.
Tomatoes are the main concern for the home gardener at Labour weekend, although there are plenty who will wait (as I will) for a week or two, for the ground to warm up a little more, before planting out. If you are braver than I am, and you think the frosts are all over and you are keen to get planting, there are a few little things to remember when planting tomatoes.
Firstly, site selection. Tomatoes need as much sun as they can get, so it is important to select a well drained site in full sun most of the day. If you have been growing tomatoes in the same site for a year or two, it probably pays to get a new site as tomatoes are very prone to soil sickness. Ideally, you shouldn’t grow on the same soil for more than two years. If you have to use the same site, then change the soil.
Soil texture is important too. A built-up bed, well enriched with compost and sheep pellets is ideal, as tomatoes like a good feed. A little added lime will not go astray either.
The soil needs to be well-drained too, so add some sharp sand if the soil holds too much moisture.
Now the soil is ready, it is time to select your variety.
There are many traditional varieties available in garden centres, with ‘Moneymaker’ probably the best known of these. It is an old variety, with well flavoured, round fruit of medium size. ‘Grosse Lisse’ is also popular, with larger fruit. ‘Beefsteak’ is a very fleshy type, with sandwich sized fruit.
I think you can do better though, by trying one of the newer hybrid types although they might be a little dearer.
Each nursery will grow its own favoured hybrids, so you will have to have a look around to see what is on offer at your favourite seller, but as a rule, hybrids will fruit quicker, they will fruit more, and they will also be more disease resistant.
Others of you will be keen to try some of the heirloom varieties that are also becoming more popular in New Zealand. There is a very wide range of these, with black, purple, greed, white, striped – all colours and types available. A few years ago, I trialled some of these in my own garden, and I have to say I was most unimpressed. All the types I tried proved to be very poor at fruiting, and they were also very disease prone. If you like growing unusual fruit and vegetables, by all means give them a try, but they should not be thought of as a replacement for the more standard varieties.
Some other pecialist varieties are still popular. Many love the Italian tomatoes, usually pear-shaped and often claimed to have reduced levels of acidity. ‘Roma’ is perhaps the best-known, but each locality seems to have its own favourite. We used to grow lots of a type called ‘Italiano’, with bigger fruit than ‘Roma’.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The problem PCI

Among the first seedling PCIs I raised was a problem plant. It was very robust and grew lustily, but it had flowers of a shade of purple I am not fond of, and it carried its flowers in the foliage a little - well, a lot actually. I would have pulled it out years ago except my neighbour Bill, who is no flower gardener at all despite being a great vege man, used to jump the box hedge between our two front yards, and almost fall to his knees in rapture at this iris.
So I allowed it to live.
For the last couple of years I have had problems with snaking stems on early irises, so this year I did not prune the foliage in autumn as I usually do and look how Bill's favourite has responded.

Now I have a number of problems. Do I keep this iris after all? Actually, Bill has shifted and new neighbour Nick does not seem so much of a garden guy so I can take it out if I want to.
Seeing it is so floriferous, should I breed with it?
Can I even find its identifying tag now, as it has grown out beyond where the tag should be, and it will probably have snapped by now as I have not replaced it?
Aaaah, the joys of being a plant breeder.
On other plant breeding news, there are about twenty Lapageria seedlings in the glasshouse, from my white/red cross. Fingers crossed - as always.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Those PCIs in season again

It is that fabulous time of the year when the PCIs pop into flower, and there is another generation of seedlings to appraise.
This one is from a cross with two of my own seedlings. It is taller than I aim for, but looks like a bright blue siberica, flowering at about 12 inches and is lovely in the garden.

We also have a wonderful yellow seedling, from an 'Oxymoron' pod, although it cannot have been self-pollinated. It is low growing and has good substance. It is the best yellow we have.

This seedling, from the same 'Oxymoron' pod, is much more like its mother.

This lovely soft blue is another cross from two of my seedlings, showing some I. munzii influence. Its siblings are not as light as this.

This 'Black Knight' seedling is the one that attracts the most comments, but it does not have great form. I have crossed it with a couple of dark varieties with different breeding, hoping for a smaller plant with ruffles.

Just to show how genes can work, this is a sibling to the above!

There are plenty more to come in the weeks ahead!

Taranaki notes

Despite making almost annual visits to the Taranaki region to look at gardens, I had never visited ‘Tupare,’ the famous Matthews family garden, on the banks of the Waiwhakaiho River. This month I finally made it. The Taranaki Regional Council, who administer the 3.6 hectare garden in conjunction with the National Trust, has spent a lot of time and money over the past year or two renovating this garden, and at the time of our visit it look sparkling and bright.
The garden was established from the 1930s by Sir Russell and Lady Matthews, surrounding a Chapman-Taylor designed homestead, with other Arts and Crafts buildings throughout the grounds. The council has renovated some of the gardens, and made a new visitor centre, as well as renovating the exquisite homestead.
As always with Taranaki gardens, the gardens were very lush and featured a lot of moisture-loving plants such as bog primulas and hostas, as well as woodland plants like dwarf anemones. The maples, which always seem to do extraordinarily well in Taranaki, were also a feature, as they were just coming into leaf. We stopped to admire the tiny flowers on one or two varieties, and also drooled at the sight of a ‘Chishio’, one of the smaller varieties, coming into leaf in the dappled shade of some large trees.
Japanese maples do best in free-draining soil, but need constant moisture. They simply do not like dry soils. They also need good shelter from strong winds, as their leaves are very wind tender. In sheltered spots in Taranaki, they grow as well as anywhere in New Zealand.
The most unusual feature at ‘Tupare’ was a bank of wildflowers, behind a very formal wisteria-draped pergola. The large bed featured a few weeping cherries (only recently planted, and not what I would have chosen) but the highlight was an extensive planting of bluebells. This is a very English idea – the bluebell copse often pops up in English literature as well as in garden design – and is slightly outdated I guess, but looked fabulous in association with the Tudor-influenced homestead.
These ‘English’ bluebells are usually not English at all – they are most commonly Spanish bluebells, Hyacinthoides hispanica. This species is slighter bigger and showier than the English species, H. non-scripta. English environmentalists are worried the Spaniards have escaped from gardens and potentially threaten their wild species.
Bluebells are very useful woodland bulbs as they have evolved to flower before trees leaf up, meaning they can survive well in shaded areas. In New Zealand they were often planted underneath silver birch clumps but they will even survive under evergreens, provided they can grad a little light.
The ‘Tupare’ bluebells are a mix of white and blue – there are some pinkish varieties too – and look very effective on their steep bank.
There were also a large number of other bulbs throughout the garden, including some purple and white Sparaxias which had escaped the beds and naturalised into the surrounding paddocks, along with a few of the blue bells. I was chuffed to find a nice clump of the Sea Daffodil, Chlidanthus, in flower in a sunny bed near the house.
The Matthews family obviously gardened with all the senses in mind, as there is frequent use of scented plants, Michelias and the old scented Rhododendrons, ‘Fragrantissimum’ and ‘Countess of Haddington’ all being prominent.
‘Tupare’ is a great garden to visit. We spent a relaxed couple of hours wandering through the hills and vales that comprise the grounds, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The Head Gardener was delighted to find a pathway named after herself – or a Matthews child with the same name, anyway.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Taranaki visit

We have just arrived back from a trip to Taranaki, so I thought I would post a few photographs showing some of the horticultural highlights.
As an iris lover I was interested to see lots of gardens featuring a little bearded iris I think is ‘The Gem’, an old variety bred by Jean Stevens down the road at Wanganui. This photograph comes from the front garden of our motel!

I was interested to see a few colonies of the crested iris, I. watii, in flower. This used to grow wild in my grandparents’ garden, but not with the same vigour it displays in Taranaki.

The Head Gardener found this Ferraria flowering at New Plymouth’s Pukekura Park, and did not know what it was. I used to grow this about thirty years ago, so I was glad to see an old friend again!

Sunday, September 28, 2008


One of the great things about gardening is the wide variety of forms it takes. There are types of gardening that suit almost all temperaments, and most of us can find one that suits. For some it is the extensive cultivation of vegetables that is most satisfying, while others want to create an elaborate landscape. Still others are focused on making a peaceful place for their relaxation, while others want flowers, sometimes at the expense of all else. There are even some who prefer to grow challenging plants, so they can have the thrill of raising flowers that others cannot succeed with.
Sometimes these groups overlap, and surely those who are looking for plants that promise exciting and superb flowers, yet can also offer a degree of difficulty in cultivation, are drawn to try the many members of the orchid family. They are sometimes drawn in by those that are easy to cultivate - the Cymbidiums or Australian Dendorobiums – and then find themselves moving on to more and more challenging plants.
Among the orchids there are plants that are about as challenging as it is possible to find in the gardening world, but there are also plenty that are relatively easy to grow and certainly offer a great return in flowering display.
There are over 20,000 species of orchid in the wild and almost innumerable hybrids. They grow almost everywhere in the world – the only continent without orchids is Antarctica. There are wonderfully delicate native orchids, usually without large flowers, but often deliciously scented, and well worth looking out for in the forest. Some of these are amenable to cultivation and make charming plants for the bush house or cool conservatory. At the other end of the scale are the warm temperature beauties with chocolate box flowers.
Most cultivate orchids are epiphytes, or lithophytes – they live on trees or on rocks – so they obviously have need perfect drainage. Most will grow well on a potting mix made of pine bark, readily available from nurseries. Do not plant in ordinary soil or common potting mix- your plant will not thrive at all.
As many cultivated orchids are derived from plants that live in tree canopies, some sort of cover from harsh sunlight is essential. A shaded conservatory will serve well, or a specially constructed shade house. Do not forget that plants grow at all levels in the forest and plants that grow higher in the canopy will need more light than those whose natural habitat is the forest floor. As a general rule, if the leaves look lush and drawn, they are probably not getting enough light, while, on the other hand, if they are yellowish and unthrifty, they are probably getting too much light.
Good air circulation is also important, as you would expect from plants that live in forest canopies. If orchids are grown in glasshouse or conservatories, where they can be supplied with extra warmth over winter, it is important to maintain good air circulation by using fans.
Watering and feeding can be a bit of a challenge to the beginner, but it is best to remember that, in the wild, these plants receive a steady flow of nutriment from their environment, and they never sit in a pool of water. For the home cultivator, that means ensuring the plants have a stream of food in the growing season – spring, through to autumn – usually in the form of a slow release fertiliser in the bark, coupled with liquid food in their water. Cymbidiums, which are probably the most commonly grown orchid, are enthusiastic feeders and need a constant supply of food.

Child cancer half marathon

A few months ago I made a promise to myself that I would try and get fit enough to run the Country half marathon, held in mid-October. I have run it in the past - the distant past - when I was a keen runner. I worked my time down from the 1.50 I first ran, to 1.23, a good club runner's sort of time. I knew I would be lucky to break 2.00 nowadays, being 55 and running so much less.
Then, on Thursday night, I read about a half marathon being held near Carterton, the next town down the valley, in aid of Child Cancer, and organised by my uncle.
I rang Uncle Ray and asked if he would take a late entry, and he told me he looked forward to seeing me on Saturday. He explained it was a staggered start, as it was an open handicap, and asked what time I thought I would run. I told him I hoped to do 2.00. I didn't tell him I really had no idea, as I had not timed myself on any runs.
Come the race and I was a worried old man. The course was at Belvedere, tucked under the Tararua ranges, in a windy area, and there was a front approaching.
I was right to be worried. Keith Davenport, who has a very interesting Flickr site under the name of Sir Wise Owl, took this picture of the clouds building up.
You can see his other pics at

I started running at 1.00 (the anticipated mass finish was designed for 3.00), starting with a hill climb into the wind, and then a slow downhill into the wind.
The wind was so strong that the worst gusts literally stopped me!
We then turned to run sideways across the wind - no easier - and then ran downhill with the wind behind us. As I stretched out too much and hurt my calf muscle. I kept in running, thinking that if it got worse I would just pull out, but it did not deteriorate.
The course was a three lap event, but by the time I got to the start line on the second lap the wind had died down a lot. I was also able to catch up to another runner and use him to shelter behind as we went into the wind. He took off once we were out of the wind, and I never saw him until about the same place on the third lap. By that stage the wind had nearly died right away and it was raining!

I was aware that I was on pace for the two hours, as I knew I was running 40 minute laps. I caught up to the man I had been sheltering behind as we turned for home on the last lap and managed to overtake him.
I crossed the line and heard the timekeeper call out "02."
The way this week has gone I was sure it would mean I had run 2.00.02, but no, I ran 1.59.02.
My calf seized up once I stopped, but it has eased a lot now and I can reflect a little on the run.
I enjoyed the race (although I was hardly racing!) I enjoyed the wind too - it just made the whole thing more exciting. And I was surprised how emotional I was as I came near the finish line. My scalp was tingling and I was really pumped up.
Now the question is - did I use this small event as a run-up to the Country half marathon, or am I satisfied?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Riverside trees

Semi-mature lancewood

Last Friday I went rafting on the Ruamahanga River with a group from the Rangitane iwi authority. The river was up with a good fresh running through it when we dropped our rafts in at Mount Bruce. It was raining lightly but it was not cold and we all had a pleasant trip through the many rapids and pools that make up the upper portion of the river.
We also floated through the short but stunningly beautiful Ashleigh Gorge, where the native trees come right down to the water’s edge. I had rubber-tubed through the gorge in summer, when the water level was lower, and it was just as lovely then.
One of my fellow rafters had joked about me not being able to write a garden column about the trip, and then in the next breath enthused about one of the beautiful plants growing alongside the river, a stand of immature lancewoods, with their spiky leaves. I decided then it was time to do a story about the native Pseudopanax. I thought I would not embarrass my rafting fellow by naming him as the inspiration of the story. Later in the journey, though, in a tricky section of the river, he bounced across the raft and into the cold water, taking me with him, so Jason, here is the story of the Pseudopanax.
The lancewood is one of the many New Zealand plants that undergo a radical chance in habit as it progresses through its juvenile stages to adulthood. The thin, strappy leaves of the seedling plants are hardly recognisable by the time they have fully matured.
There are only about ten species in the genus, eight of those being confined to our fair land. The other two are found in South America. Although few in number, there are some wonderful garden plants among them.
Horoeka, the lancewood, is a small, round-headed tree when mature, but starts out life as a gawky thing, with a single stem clothed in very thin leaves that droop almost parallel with the stem. All are coloured a purple shade, often with a contrasting rib mid-leaf.
As they plant grows it passes through two or three more stages, until it ends up as much-branched, round-headed tree atop a sturdy stem.
In the wild this tree is usually found in the forest, but it has proven to be remarkably adaptable in the garden, and seems well able to cope with periods of drought. It is quite wind proof too, as the leaves are very wiry while the stem is very flexible.
I think it looks best in groups, as a single plant can look a little lonely. They are especially suited to modern native gardens, their hard look marrying nicely with grass gardens or flax areas.
There is actually an even harder looking plant than the normal lancewood – the toothed lancewood, P. ferox, also sometimes called the fierce lancewood. This has sets of fearsome sharks teeth ranged along each side the slender juvenile leaves. The leaves are often variegated, with a bright mottling often seen in the wild. This tree should be planted more often. It was first found in Otago by the botanist James Buchanan, who also searched for plants along the banks of the Ruamahanga in the 1870s.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Little bulbs

Ipheion flowers

I always think early spring is one of the most exciting times in the garden. It seems every day brings a new plant into flower, and although some of the aristocrats of the garden – the roses, rhododendrons and lilies – are a little way off flowering, there are still plenty of little horticultural treasures about.
I am more than a little partial to flowering bulbs, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that it is the little dainty flowers appearing at this time that get me excited.
Among the large golden daffodils that are flowering at the moment, one of my favourite bulbs is just starting to put on its show – the charming ‘Thalia’.
This is a very old hybrid of the delightful Narcissus triandrus , the Spanish species sometimes called ‘Angel’s Tears.’ Some say it earned its common name because the flowers, white in the best forms, hang down, suggesting sadness. Others say, more, prosaically, that the English plant hunter who found it, so upset his guide, named Angelo that he cried.
Either way, it is a lovely plant, and ‘Thalia’, nearly four hundred years old, is surely one of the loveliest of its hybrids with its pure white, pendulous flowers, with two or three flowers on each stem. It is fantastic in the garden, or in containers as I grow it, and it is great for picking for indoors.
Some books say this variety is nicely scented, but do not expect something like the fruity fragrance of ‘Erlicheer’ – this has a much more subtle scent. I suspect it comes mainly from the newly opened flowers, but I do have to say that mine do have a subtle scent.
That is hard to discern though, as mine are growing alongside a pot of white freesias – their scent just does not get a look in.
I grow a few different white freesias. I have the old fashioned one known as ‘Burtonii’, which is the type that most New Zealand gardeners were brought up with. It has a lovely cream throat and not a hint of the purple staining common on many others. I also have a semi-double form which I have never seen for sale but which is swapped among bulb lovers.
I also love some of the large modern hybrids, and grow them in pots. They are not as sweetly scented, and I know some gardeners think them a little gross, with flowers three of four times the old species, but they are charming and easily grown. They are frequently grown for the cut flower trade, and unsurprisingly, they make great cut flowers from the garden as well.
At the opposite end of the scented spectrum, are the bright little Ipheion uniflorum.
These are bright little starry flowered bulbs from South America, and they are scented. Actually, it is probably more accurate to say they smell, as they do not have a very attractive scent, unless you are keen on the fragrance of onions!
They are usually blue, and the first varieties I ever grew were the plain, light blue forms, but I also have a pot of a much lighter form. I am not sure of its name. ‘Alba’ has a greenish central vein, which this form lacks, so it is probably a seedling from ‘Alba.’
You might not want to plant either of these forms amongst your most precious rare bulbs, as they do increase rapidly, especially in light, warm soils, but they are great value as edging for borders.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Stylosa x PCI ???

Iris unguicularis 'Starkers Pink'

One of the delights of being the editor of the Society for Pacific Coast Native Iris (SPCNI) – in fact, maybe the only delight - is the sudden access I have had to the back issues.
I have had a very interesting week or two, trawling through the old copies, looking at the stories that have been running in the almanac for over thirty years.
Today I came across a story about the history of PCIs in Australia, written by the well-known bearded iris breeder, Barry Blyth.
In discussing the development of PCIs Downunder, he mentioned an early breeder had assured him he had created a race of irises using I. douglasiana, I. innominata and, amazingly, I. unguicularis.
This winter flowering species, often known by its old name of I. stylosa (sounds a lot nicer doesn’t it?) is a favourite of mine, and in various gardens I have grown the usual form, ‘Water Butt’, ‘Mary Barnard’, ‘Alba’, ‘Starker’s Pink’, I. lazica, and I. cretensis.
There would be a difficulty in crossing any of these with the PCIs, as they have normally finished flowering before the PCIs start, but this year one of my seedlings, 04054, is already in flower. This morning I opened one of its buds and crossed it with pollen from ‘Starkers Pink’.

Iris Pacific Coast hybrid 04054

As far as I know, at least some of the Unguiculares section are 2n=40 , and as the PCIs share the chromosome count, it is theoretically possible that the cross might work. It will be interesting to see what happens - I'll keep you posted.

Red Robin

I have been very busy over the past few months, writing a book about Queen Elizabeth Park, Masterton’s main recreation ground. It was formally established in 1875 and first planted in 1878, with some of the original North American conifers still flourishing and giving the horticultural backbone to the park.
In my research I found out some more details about one of the most interesting plant introductions from New Zealand, about a plant that originated in the park and is now grown all over the world.
The members of the Robinson family are locally famous horticulturists. Their founding ancestor, Alexander Robinson, was a nurseryman/gardener, who established a business in association with some of his sons. At one stage their grounds were in Nursery Road, the original gardens of W.W. McCardle, the nurseryman who first planted the park.
One of Alexander’s sons, Lawrence, usually known as Laurie, came to run the nursery. He was a native plant fanatic and was a passionate advocate for the forested environment to the west of Masterton. For many years he agitated for the Tararuas to be declared a national park.
He was a very observant gardener, and over the years introduced many new varieties to the nursery trade, mainly native plants, although his most famous introduction came from an exotic.
He was active in the Masterton Beautifying Society for many years, and served as a seconded member of the Masterton Borough Council for decades. It was this inside knowledge that was to lead to the discovery of his most successful introduction.
He learned the staff at the park were about to fell a mature Photinia serrulata.
This was once an important large shrub in the trade, being evergreen and having attractive bright green leaves. I always think of it as a more refined laurel cherry. It flowers profusely in September, with black berries following in the summer.
It was the fruit, which last on the tree through the winter that was the attraction to Laurie Robinson. He normally raised his stock plants from seed he bought in, so the chance of grabbing some fresh seed free of charge was too good to pass up. He sent his young son Paul, who was to later run the nursery (and to tell me the details of the story) down to the park to gather the seed, which was duly sown in the long fields at the nursery.
And what happened?
One of the seedlings, and one only, turned out to have bright red foliage in spring. Laurie realised it was a hybrid with Photinia glabra ‘Rubens’, which grew near to the seed tree in the park. It was quickly propagated, and after years of building up enough plants to be released, it was made available to the public as ‘Red Robin’.
All this took place in the late 1940s, long before legislation allowed plant breeders to register their new varieties and receive a royalty for their endeavours. ‘Red Robin’ is now grown in the millions world-wide, being particularly well-known as a hedge plant, but also popular for use as a standard, as a street tree and as a feature shrub in the garden.
‘Red Robin’ is very easy to grow, not seeming to pose any particular cultural difficulties other than the requirement for reasonable drainage. It simply will not tolerate soil that is waterlogged. It does prefer full sunlight, as this will