Sunday, July 27, 2008

Too subtle for words!

It is an unwritten rule of gardening that the more we garden the more refined out tastes become. We eschew the bright gaudy flowers we adored when we started gardening in favour of more delicate colours and simpler forms.
It is, I think, part of a western belief that simple forms and toned-down colours are the height of sophistication. Japanese taste is sometimes held up as an ideal, people citing the wonderful contemplative gardens of the Japanese temples and courts as exemplars of sophisticated refinement.
They might not have ever seen a Japanese seed catalogue, not photographs of Japanese and Chinese public gardens, redolent with the worst excesses of “public gardening” imaginable – the strongest colour clashes and the most strident floral designs. Keep an eye out for the plantings in Chinese public gardens during the Olympic Games. I have seen a taste of some of these and they are gloriously bizarre and as far from sophisticated as it is possible to get.
I guess my tastes have changed over the years. When I first gardened I loved bright and bold cactus plants, and grew many of them in my garden. I also loved the bold Tall Barded Irises my grandparents cultivated, with every colour imaginable except true red. Like most men, I liked the flowers to be as big as possible, and the brighter coloured they were they more I liked them. I loved two-toned roses like ‘Raspberry Ice’ and grew pink and red dahlias for summer.
Now I grow softer coloured plants in the main, although I do like some colour still, and will often sneak some bright flowers into the picking garden, so I can have them inside.
Among the few plants that are in flower at the moment, I have a few varieties of hellebores blooming. Here it is possible to go to ridiculous lengths to have subtle colours – so subtle they are hardly noticeable in fact.
There are green flowered hellebores and grey flowered hellebores for those whose taste is so refined they abhor any colour at all, but there are also a good number of varieties with colour as well.

Among the species I grow Helleborus niger ‘White Magic.’ This is an evergreen plant that grows maybe 50 cm high and will eventually make a clump of about the size diameter. It has white flowers with a prominent green eye, but as they followers age and they get pollinated they can tend towards pinks.
This plant prefers really good drainage – I have mine in an elevated position at the edge of a garden under a weeping maple – and must not be planted where it will get wet feet.
I also grow the interesting species H x sternii. This is a hybrid of H. argutifolius and H. lividus. As it is usually seed grown it can show give a lot of variation in height, leaf and stem colour. It has greyish foliage and wonderful lime green flowers, backed with maroon. Mine has seeded itself a little, but not enough to be a pest.

The best colour variations available are among the H. x orientalis hybrids. There are some stunning forms around, and it is just a matter of picking which ones you prefer. Remember that these are always sold as seedling, as it is just too difficult to multiply these in any numbers to make them commercially viable. Most modern strains will breed very close to true, so if you buy a deep red strain, you should get deep red flowers.
The best way to select your plants is to buy them in flower, and they will be in nurseries very soon, if they are not already.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Kowhais and wax eyes

I just went outside to take some photographs for next week’s blog, looking for images of my hellebores and violets. I wandered around, noticing how many of my Pacific Coast Irises were germinating, and how many other little things (like snowdrops) were out in the garden. I went around the front to take a pic or two of the Dragon’s Gold kowhai, which is having a great season, and found it under attack from wax eyes! What a treat this little birds are.


There are plants that are almost too reliable, an odd concept though that may seem to many gardeners. You know the sort of plants I mean. They cope with cold and wet places, they flourish in dry and warm sports - they tolerate quite shady areas, but they also seem to manage full sun as well. They flower reliably each year and frequently give an autumn display or a fruiting show in the winter. And we neglect these hardy plants because they are not quite showy enough for our tastes.
Surely the shrub that best fits into the category is the deeply unfashionable holly grape, the Mahonia. There are about seventy of these northern hemisphere shrubs and small trees, distantly related to the barberries, and with prickly foliage. They tend to make very architectural looking plants, with multiple stems carrying tidy and interesting-looking leaves. They mostly flower over the winter period – that is what made me think of them this week – with racemes of bright yellow flowers about 20 cm long, and often follow this flowering season up with a display of grape-like fruit. The prickly leaves and the vinous fruit have obviously led to the common name.
These shrubs are enormously popular in the United Kingdom and in America, partly due to their hardy evergreen nature I am sure, but have not earned the same following here. Probably the most popular is M. lomariifolia from Burma and China, with what some claim as the most beautiful leaf design of any ornamental shrub. Botanists among you will know the name “Lomaria” as it is the Latin name for a genus of ferns (some of which are found in New Zealand) which gives a good indication of the leaf type. The flowers are carried erect, while the fruit, which has a lovely white powder over it, is blue-black.
When you buy one of these it usually comes as a single stem, but as it grows, more branches will appear from the base until it makes a nice little thicket. The effect is enhanced by the way each of these stems is a different age, thus a different height.
This is a reliable old performer, although it will do best in semi-shade and in slightly acid soil. It is an obvious plant for among smaller growing Rhododendrons and the like, but looks equally good among a more modern planting with natives and grasses.
A more modern form ‘Winter Sun’, is starting to become popular, and is similar.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Glad to see you...

There are some plants inextricably tied up with childhood memories and old wives tales. For me there are the Muscari that lined the garden beds under my bedroom window – sailor boys we called the ranks of blue flowers. Sweet Williams are another flower I cannot separate from my childhood, recalling my mother’s desperate disappointment that they were biennial and did not flower for her in their first spring. Their multi-coloured flowers always intrigued me, and may be the basis of my enduring affection for most members of the vast Dianthus tribe.
Gladioli will always remind me of my mother’s front garden, where generations of these South African bulbs (strictly speaking, not bulbs but corms) grew untethered. There were only two colours that I can remember – a lovely apricot and, of course, white, white, white. My mother was certainly one of those who believe Gladioli can ‘revert’ to white. Most authorities aver it is simply not true. They say the white forms are more vigorous and simply out multiply the coloured ones. I accept what they say, begrudgingly, as my eyes tend to tell me the contrary, as my Mum had a great collection of white gladioli!
Mum was a frugal gardener and was rarely in a position to splash out for new bulbs, and I cannot help but think of her when I buy new Gladioli corms each year I am sure she would think it an outrageous extravagance, but I cannot do without a few new plants each summer.
I think Gladioli, with their sword-shaped leaves (that is where the Latin name comes from, the same root as gladiator =swordsman) are a bit tricky to handle in the average garden. If you have a large mixed border then it is relatively straightforward to plant clumps of Gladioli in various colours, but most of us do not garden like that. In the end, I have decided that I really grow these beauties for picking, so I grow them in the vegetable garden, where I can stake them without making the garden look too much like a bamboo stake field.
I used to go past the garden of a Gladiolus fancier, where the whole garden was given over to the cultivation of these corms. There were raised beds, terraced and elevated, everywhere, and miles of stakes. It looked great in the flowering season, but very ordinary at any other time.
Gladioli are not that hard to grow. They prefer full sun and well-drained, reasonable rich soils. They do not like to dry out during the growing season though. If they suffer a sustained dry spell they will almost certainly become infested with thrips and the glorious green foliage will turn sickly silver
I like to dress the soil with a little bulb fertiliser. I always use part of the garden that has not been manured recently as high nitrogen levels can lead to disease and rotting. The soil is very friable so I do not need to cultivate it, but in poorer soils it would pay to cultivate to about 20 cm.
Gladioli have a neat trick to enable staggered flowering. They bloom 100 days after planting. If you want to have bouquets for Christmas, just count backwards to the appropriate date and plant then. It also means you can stage the plantings for a succession of bloom.
I will not mention any varieties by name. It seems to me that the range changes every year and when I go back to me nursery to get extra stocks of one I have enjoyed the previous year, I find they no longer stock it. I will say, however, that there is an incredible range of colours available now, probably due to their popularity as cut flowers. I like strong colours, and have planted browns and reds over the past few years, but in the past have grown some lovely light blue and pink shades as well.
I have changed my mind about the size I like. I started out (like most men) liking the biggest flowers I could find, but over the past few years I have been only buying the miniature flowered forms. These are not the species-derived hybrids usually grown as Gladiolus nanus, these are small flowered forms of the summer flowering hybrids. They are a lot easier to place in the garden, and as they do not grow quite so tall, they are also more wind tolerant.
A few years ago I was in Gisborne in the autumn (the persimmon were hanging like Chinese lanterns on trees everywhere – amazing) and I saw quite a few gardens with a bright orange Gladiolus flowering in large clumps. I was very taken with it, not having seen it growing in our more southern gardens. I have since seen it in Napier as well. It is probably a form of Gladiolus natalensis, and I have never seen it for sale, but if you see it in a garden try and cadge a corm or two. It is a fabulous autumn plant.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

You little beauties!

I wrote about apple trees a few weeks ago, and made comment on the great value the ‘Ballerina’ varieties were for those gardening with constrained space. The column-shaped apple trees are very popular for growing in containers and many of you expressed an interest in growing them, and any other dwarf fruit trees.
Fortunately there is a range of other trees available in dwarf forms, with stone fruit being particularly well represented, peaches in particular.
These trees are naturally dwarf – they are sports from other trees and do not rely on being grafted onto dwarfing rootstock to keep them small. They make very attractive garden trees as they assume a symmetrical shape as they grow, giving an almost topiary like affect.
Probably the best-known of these varieties is ‘Bonanza’, a yellow-fleshed freestone with a red blush. The fruit are not in any sense dwarf – in fact, they are quite large – and have a sweet taste. This is covered in pink flowers before leafing up in spring, and is very attractive, both in blossom and in fruit, and is fully self fertile.
‘Garden Lady’ is similar, but is only semi self-fertile, while the newer ‘Honey Babe, which has large orange-fleshed fruit, probably does best near other peaches and nectarine for pollination.
If you are like me and adore white-fleshed peaches, but have very little space for fruit trees, ‘Rose Chiffon’ is the one for you. It has rose-pink flowers in the spring, doubled like the ornamental peaches, but unlike most double-flowered peaches, it also sets fruit well, a large crop of juicy, white-fleshed peaches following the flowers.
I hate the furry skin on peaches. It is as bad as chalk screech on blackboard for me, so I prefer to eat nectarines. Fortunately there are some dwarf varieties of these too. ‘Garden Delight’ is well named, as it is a very reliably fruiting variety, even succeeding in warmer area where nectarines and peaches can be difficult to fruit. It has large pale pink blossom, and juicy red-skinned, yellow-fleshed fruit. ‘Flavourzee’ and ‘Nectar Babe’ are similar but neither are as self-fertile as ‘Garden Delight’ and will fruit best if near other nectarines or peaches. It would probably be a good idea to plant more than one variety anyway, as it will also give a longer fruiting season.
These trees will probably reach something like two metres tall after twenty years, and will attain less than a metre’s girth. They will do best in a sunny spot with well-drained soil. They will respond very well to lots of food, so make sure you keep the fruit tree fertiliser up to them. Also make sure they are well watered during the growing season as they do not like to dry out, especially in grown in containers.
Bear I mind that these are miniature peaches and nectarines, and they are prone to the same problems that tall trees are, in particular leaf curl. Being smaller they are much easier to spray when they flowers are in bud, but it is important to remember to keep them leaf-curl free as they are not as robust as a tall tree.
If you are feeling like expanding the range of stone fruit you grow you might like to try those cousins, the apricot and the almond.
Dwarf apricots make charming little trees, again growing to about two metres high but bearing full sized fruit. Most apricots are self-fertile and will perform well as long as they get a chilling over winter – these are not trees for Northland or Auckland, or milder districts on the lower North Island. If you do not get frosts it is probably not worth trying to grow these, but if you are in a cold zone (and we are today!) give them a try.
‘Aprigold’ and ‘Golden Glow’ are the only two varieties I have seen offered in New Zealand. ‘Golden Glow is slightly smaller than ‘Aprigold, not growing more than 1.5 metres tall.
They need similar conditions to the peaches and apricots, except they can cope with the cold better.