Monday, June 30, 2008

Beating the blues

It has not been the best week to be the parent of a mentally ill son.
For a start, our justice system decided it was okay for policemen to bash someone in a locked cell if they were psychotic. Four middle-aged, white Whakatane policemen were found not guilty of assaulting a young Maori man, Rawiri Falowasser. They beat him with batons and filled his cell with pepper spray because he would not co-operate with them.
Here’s the thing. Sometimes psychotic people behave oddly. It’s what psychotics do.
Then, Saturday's Weekend Herald carried a story about Ruby Wax’s new show about he depression. The headlined it by referring to her ‘blues.’
Depression = blues!
It is sort of like describing someone who has had their leg mauled by a shark as having minor abrasions.
Still, it is good to know the mentally ill are still there for us all to have a laugh at.
During the past month or so our son has been in psychosis. Not a lot of laughs for anyone close to the action, but no doubt others will have managed a cheap laugh or two.
Like the mental health “crisis team” who saw him when this episode first manifested itself, about a month ago. He was talking to the clock, and running a continual stream of consciousness conversation with himself.
The crisis team consisted of two people, one of whom complained they had been dragged away from their favourite television programme on a Sunday evening, the other of whom said we should be on medication as well as our son.
Still, I guess they got a laugh out of that.
As did the receptionist at the mental health clinic who, later that week, told our son he was ‘bleating’ about his illness.
Good supportive people work in the mental health field.
One of the many frustrating things about being mentally ill is that your diagnosis changes all the time. You are schizophrenic. No, this week you have schizophrenic affective disorder, and next week it will be bipolar, and then ... well, you get the picture.
Our son has had eight different diagnoses in as many years. This time around he has a ‘creative mind’. Apparently that is a disorder now and he needs to learn to make himself uncreative, presumably.
Fortunately he also has a wicked sense of humour – sometimes quite bleak, as you might imagine. The Mental Health Foundation has run a campaign to convince us not to judge the mentally ill. Our son does a little piss take on it.
“Hello, my name is Fred. I am mentally ill. Don’t judge me until you know me ... not like those bloody voices in my head do!”
He might need to change that.
“Don’t judge me ... not like those mental health workers do!”

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Winter's dreaming

Mid-winter brings one of the real delights of the gardening season – the perusal of mail order catalogues while seated with a red wine in hand in front of a roaring fire.
What fantastic gardens we create in mid-winter! So much better than anything we can ever achieve in the flush of spring. Those plants we carefully plan to flower alongside each other that, when we place them in our gardens, fail to bloom at the same time, prove reliable in these imagined gardens, and those wonderfully matching varieties that in reality clash terribly, fir together perfectly.
This weekend I have been looking through some bulbs catalogues, trying to work out whether I can fit some new varieties into the garden somewhere, and exactly where I might be able to find room for them.
I am tempted by one of the black Zantedeschias. This is, of course, the Latin name for the plants that most of us, for obvious reasons, cheerfully call Calla lilies, relatives of the old fashioned Arum lily so beloved of English florists.
They are a world away from those deadly white flowers, associated with funerals for our ancestors. Modern forms of these South African beauties come in all sorts of colours, including deepest burgundy red. One variety that a mail order company I deal with is called ‘Hot Chocolate’ and the catalogue writer is trying to tell me it is “the best bulb and cut flower yet bred in the world.” I wonder why they are so modest. It is a startling flower though, the flowers almost being black, and nothing like chocolate!
I want to plant this is my dark garden, where I have a number of other flowers in similar colours, including day lilies, irises, dahlias and salvias. Fortunately, this is in very well-drained soil and in a sunny position, requirements for growing Zantedeschia well. In the garden it would also a good degree of herbaceous plant cover which would protect the young shoots of the lily when they sprout, as they are slightly frost tender when young.
There are some other wonderful colours among Zantedeschias. As well as white and yellow, there are some great new orange shaded varieties, like ‘Hawaii’, ‘Hot Shot’ and ‘Treasure’. I also like the two-toned varieties. ‘Picasso’ has cream flowers stained with purple in the throat, the staining bleeding through slightly on the outside of the petals. ‘Cameo’ is similar with creamy flowers stained all over with pink, then set off with a deeper throat.
There are also some wonderfully deep red coloured true lilies, Liliums. One of the Asiatic lilies (oddly enough bearing its name in mind!) is ‘America’ with deep wine red flowers, while the Los Angeles hybrid ‘Black Out’ is also a very deeply coloured form.
If two-toned flowers are more your thing, you might want to look out for the very well named ‘Shocking’, which has huge cream flowers, upward looking, each petal splashed with red. Unique and absolutely true to name. ‘Latvia’ is deep yellow and marked with deeper red, while ‘Centrefold’ has white flowers marked with purple.
Lilies need almost perfect drainage but are among the aristocrats of the plant world and should be found in all gardens.
I have some bamboo stakes erected as tripods in the dark garden, and I usually try to grow some sweet peas over the frames. In the past I have grown some of the softer coloured forms, often light pinks, or peach coloured. I find these make a wonderful contrast to the darker colours. Last year I grew the creamy coloured ‘Jilly’ in honour of the Head Gardener, but I found they did not perform very well in my garden!
One plant I will not be planting in the bed again is the carnation called ‘King of the Blacks.’ I have planted it twice now, from different nurseries, and each time it has grown reasonably well, making a nice silver clump, but it stubbornly refuses to flower. It sets buds but the flowers, said to be the darkest of the Dianthus clan, refuse to open properly. I grow other pinks and carnations in the bed, so I assume it must just be the variety. I might try the black Sweet William called ‘Sootie’ instead. It has dark purple foliage as well as deepest red flowers.
I can just see it flourishing in that garden - in my mind’s eye at least!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Visiting the neighbour

It was one of those ridiculously fine spring mornings we have been having lately – ridiculous because it is the middle of winter – when I had donned a silly woollen hat, slipped on my golden earmuffs to protect what remains of my hearing, and got the old trusty red lawn mower to work. It was fun and easy, although I could not help but think it was too late in the year to still be mowing lawns!
I had almost finished when the young fellow who lives next door popped over to our shared box hedge and signalled he wanted a chat. He was sorry to have stopped my mowing (I was glad of the break) but could I pop over the hedge and see him when I had finished, as he had a few questions?
The neighbours are a lovely family – Mum, Dad and two little gorgeous blond girls – and I was happy to pay a social visit to discuss a few gardening queries. They are self-confessed tyros at the gardening game and wanted a few bits of advice.
One of the problems they wanted to talk about was moving some fruit trees out of the middle of their lawn. The previous owners planted a mini-orchard, with about three or four peaches and nectarines, a couple of plums and a couple of apples, scattered around an extensive back yard. They are not planted in any lines and the current owner finds it vexing to have to swerve and dodge the trees when he mows the lawn. I think they are also inconvenient when he rides his motorbike around the lawn!
He wanted to know whether he could move them.
Of course, winter is the right time to transplant most deciduous trees, and as these are not very big I am sure they will present no problems to move. In an ideal world he would have wrenched them earlier in the season, and then taken the trees carefully to their new site, but as they are only being moved a few metres into already extant garden beds, I am sure there will be no problem just lifting them now.
Home fruit growers will know only too well what the difference is between tree-ripened, home-grown fruit, and the fruit bought from the local supermarket. It is tastier, fresher, and most importantly, can be left on the tree to properly ripen. It is only tree-ripened fruit that has fully developed sweetness and flavour.
When I asked what varieties the apple trees were, the neighbour shrugged his shoulders and laughed.
“The type that has apples!” he answered.
I was asking because I think if I was growing one or two apples I would be looking to grow something that I could not get from the shops. I love the Wairarapa-bred ‘Royal Gala’ (which I see in now Britain’s most popular eating apple) and ‘Pacific Rose’ is hard to beat later in the season, but there are a few I would be looking seriously at.
A friend grows a number of unusual types, and I was surprised to be given a ‘Peasgood Nonsuch’ during the last season. This is a giant of an apple – colouring similar to Royal Gala but at least twice the size. It is an old variety – released in 1853 – and is very sweet. It bakes very well but is also a delicious fresh apple, and is a reliable cropper in the garden.
If you believe the old adage (and most of them are believable) about an apple a day keeping the doctor away, there are a couple of varieties you might want to try to seek out this year ‘Hetlina’ and ‘Monty’s Surprise.’
The New Zealand Tree Crops Association decided to put their heritage apples to the test, thinking that the older varieties might have higher levels of anti-oxidants and other beneficial compounds. They commissioned exhaustive analysis of their many varieties they were cultivating band two came out trumps.
‘Hetlina’ is a Czech variety, with reliable crops of medium sized red fruit. It is an early season variety carried on a disease resistant tree.
‘Monty’s Surprise’ is the name given to an ancient tree found growing in Manawatu. The large fruit are red splashed over light green, and are crisp. This late ripening variety is great for cooking and is also disease resistant. Sounds like a pleasant way to keep the doctor’s bills down.
If you would like to grow an apple but are very constrained as far as space goes, either espalier along a fence line, or grow some ‘Ballerina’ apples. These are columnar varieties growing perhaps three metres high but no more than 30 cm across. They are obviously well suited to growing in narrow beds, or even as accent plants in formal beds as they have such constricted growth. They are also excellent for growing in containers. There are a number of different varieties, mostly with dance names like ‘Bolero’, ‘Polka’ and ‘Waltz,’ from green-skinned to red, so it would pay to check these out too.
They may be ideal for my neighbours.
While I was visiting the elder daughter, nearly five, confidently rode past us on her bicycle. She is nearly five, and has the confidence of a new cyclist. She grinned like a Cheshire cat each time she went past, and each time she navigated the trailer nearby I gave a sigh of relief. On her last pass she was so intent to showing us her grin she managed to graze the trailer’s drawbar.
Maybe it is just as well those trees are going to be removed from the back yard. Sounds a whole lot safer to me.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Gumballs and mop tops

Sometimes a particular plant will take my fancy for a brief time of the year. The Liquidambar is not a plant I can consider for my garden, as much as I like its autumnal glory – it is simply too big for my garden and I have half an acre – but there are times when I wish I could accommodate it.
Just north of the Esk Valley, on the Napier-Taupo road is a farm garden with a string of these trees, which each autumn turn to fire. I once travelled up the valley at dusk, and the magnificence of the sight was almost overpowering. I recently spent time in the Bay of Plenty, where these trees are such an important part of the autumn landscape, and looked forward to coming back through the Esk to see the trees again. They did not disappoint, although I have to admit I thought I was never going to find them – they are a lot closer to Napier than I remembered.
I drove through the area in December last year and looked out for the trees, but did not notice them. For me at least, they are autumn trees, and well worth growing for that reason, and although they do hold their leaves for weeks at a time, I think it would too extravagant to have such a large tree in the garden.
Unless you go for ‘Gumball.’
This is a dwarf form which only grows to about two metres tall, and can easily be shaped into a tight ball of foliage. I have only ever seen this grafted onto a standard of about 1.5 metres, but it makes a fantastic little accent plant for the formal part of the garden. It has the usual bright green leaves through summer then in autumn the leaves take on red, wine, orange and purple shades. The leaves hold on well into the winter. I can vouch for that because I saw two of these trees in the front lawn of a garden near me, but missed photographing them as a storm approached. After a few days of nor’westerlies, followed by a thunderstorm with rain and hail, the strong southerlies, I was afraid to go back, expecting the trees to be branches only. As you can see from the photograph, both small trees still had most of their leaves.
If you have a large garden and are able to cope with a full sized liquidambar (lucky you!) it would probably pay to seek out one of the named varieties. Most Liquiambars sold in New Zealand are raised from seed, and they are relatively cheap, but some nurseries graft named varieties onto the seedling stock, and if you purchase one of them, you will be certain to get the colour you are wanting.
‘Worpleston’ is one of the most popular varieties. It has an upright pyramidal form with foliage that turns pale apricot and orange first, then switches to deep purple – the colour we imagine when we think of pinot noir.
‘Palo Alto’ also has a good pyramidal form but its leaves turn orange and red. I suspect that the Esk Valley trees are this form.
‘Aurora’ is slightly smaller growing than the previous two varieties, and turns yellow and orange in the autumn.
Of course, the other dwarf from of a popular tree is the wonderful Robinia ‘Mop Top’. They make a bold statement in the garden, and have quickly become one of the most popular trees with landscape designers, who love placing groups of them in beds, or in avenues alongside drives. They are probably now almost thought of as passé, but a bit of imaginative thought and this could make a great feature in a grass garden, or perhaps towering above some informal plantings of hebes and coprosmas.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The family tree of camellias

I come from a gardening family. Among my kin it is not so much a matter of whether you garden, as what you garden. Some relatives share my inherited passion for irises, others have a predilection for fuchsias or orchids, and one branch of the family were great camellia growers.
I say ‘were’ as my Auntie June died recently, and at Queen’s Birthday weekend we gathered to remember her, literally in the shade of a huge camellia bush growing in her daughter’s garden.
Camellias are very rewarding plants to grow. They are tidy evergreens, generally looking attractive year round with bright, glossy green foliage. They are not too demanding as to growing conditions either, as long as a few fundamentals are taken care of.
Soil conditions are simple- slightly acidic soil, free draining is perfect, but less than perfect is not going to worry these plants too much. Camellias do not like growing in waterlogged soils, and they really dislike very alkaline soil, but they will do on most other soils. They will cope with reasonably heavy soils as long as a good degree of humus is added – make sure not to use mushroom compost though, as that is very alkaline.
Sun or shade is not crucial either – camellias are very adaptable as far as light requirements go and they will cope with either. Obviously plants in the full sun will need more protection from wind and sun, with a deep mulch of peat or bark going a long way to helping.
I find our varieties that are growing in the shade flower a little later than those in the sun, and also tend to grow a little looser. I have not seen it in my own garden, but I do know that some plants growing in the shade develop problems with scales and sooty mould, and in extreme cases, thrips.
Camellias can safely be planted at this time of the year as long as one or two little tips are followed.
Work some organic matter into your soil before planting. The bigger the area you can do this for the better, as the plant will make quite a sizable ball of fibrous roots. If you are planting in very heavy soils such as clay, make sure you do not create a large basin in the soil, trapping water in what is in effect a big bucket. Make sure there is a way for any water that potentially could collect in such a depression, to drain away.
Once the soil conditioning has been carried out, dig a hole about twice the size of the container, and sit the container in the base of the hole. The bag can gently be removed, and the soils carefully built up around the root ball. Make sure the top of the root ball is level with the soil, as it will act as a wick and draw moisture out of the soil if it sits higher.
Many varieties have a willowy growth and benefit from being staked as this will stop the new growth from tipping over. New plants like this tend to look a little leggy, and it is tempting to prune out the new growth but this is a mistake. Leave the growth as it will help fill the plant out as it grows, and will give a more mature looking specimen more quickly. This is obviously not the case if you are trying to shape an espalier or other tailored form.
Do not be tempted to feed the shrub as you plant it – this is best left until the spring and summer when it is actively growing. I think it is best to use a slow-release product such as Osmocote, especially on young plants. Use a long-lasting type designed for trees and shrubs, and you will be able to feed annually. For larger tress you could use one of the proprietary mixes designed for azaleas, rhododendrons and Camellias, or the same slow-release types. Natural manures will be fine, but remember to use them sparingly, especially chicken manure. A little and often is probably the best message.
Camellias need little pruning other than for shape. The best time to prune is in winter, as the next season’s flowers are produced on spring growth, and a spring or summer pruning will remove many of the flowers.
I will be looking out for a new Camellia for our garden this season. It will have to be bright and cheery – and it will have to flower in June.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Another week....

One of the great things about my job is that I get to spend half of most days helping people with their research enquiries. It can be all sorts of things, ranging (this week) from the location of petroleum storage tanks in the 1960s, the location of Bacon and Wrigley’s flourmill in the 1880s, through to the discovery of the takahe in the 1940s, and its subsequent cultivation in captivity in Wairarapa in the 1950s and 1960s.
The rescue and raising were largely done by local man Elwyn Welch, whose entry in the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography I wrote some years ago. I was honoured to be invited to the launch of a children’s book about the rescue, and to catch up with Elwyn’s widow Shirley, and their son Murray whom I had gone to school with.
Seems like a great use of an archive, in that the information for the story came from some of my writing, and photographs came from the collection of long-time archive supporter the late Ted Nikolaison’s collection.
The book launch was at Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre, and the local paper published this picture of the auther Ali Foster, Shirley Welch and the illustrator Viv Walker, herself a remote cousin of the Welches.

The family has come to light with extra treasures, in the form of correspondence and papers relating to Elwyn’s work, plus movie film from the time. I was shown it yesterday, and promised it will be coming our way soon.
Makes me wonder what next week will bring.