Sunday, August 31, 2008


In May we spent a weekend in Rotorua, and took the opportunity to scout out their market, held in Kuirau Park – lots of stalls with lots of vegetables and plants. There was another sale going on there too – once a month the friends of the library hold a dispersal sale of old stock from the library. Of course, I had to have a look through the books on offer.
One just amazed me – a book published in Britain and dedicated to purple-leaved plums. Now, I like purple leaved plums, but I would not have thought there was enough information to make a solid book on them.
I was tempted to buy it (I have far too many plant books!) but in the end decided it was not really a book I needed.
I thought of the book again this week as I noticed the plum trees in full blossom, including some of those purple-leaved varieties – and I still do not think I need the book!
The most common purple plum is the dark form of the cherry plum, Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’.
Most of us will be familiar with the cherry plum, Prunus cerasifera, as it will grow wild with the slightest encouragement. I know my childhood home had three or four large trees of the variety in its boundaries. The plums from these trees kept my family in jam for many years, and one tree – which may have been a hybrid with a Japanese plum – gave fruit big enough to be bottled.
The purple form ‘Nigra’ has small but very pretty light pink flowers at this time of the year, followed by almost black foliage. As the leaves mature through the season they lighten a little, but largely retain their depth of colour. In the summer there is a crop of small red fruit.
This tree is very useful for providing dramatically dark foliage in the garden, and will be a great contrast for lighter foliaged trees. It grows to about four metres.
‘Thundercloud’ is similar, with single pale pink flowers and deeply coloured foliage, as the name suggests.
P. cerasifera will cross with other plums, and other members of the vast Prunus genus, including the early-flowering P. mume, the Japanese Apricot.
Although there are many varieties of P. mume grown overseas, and sometimes a small selection of these can be found in New Zealand, the most popular by far of these is ‘The Geisha’. This has lovely scented flowers of claret rose, borne in mid-winter. The flowers are small, and carried among a tracery of bare branches. This tree picks well, and gardening friends have told me the flowers will scent the whole house when a generous bunch is picked.
There is a large specimen of the tree near our house, and I like to take a special walk along to look at when it is flower – it is just stunning.
One of the most popular of the flowering plums is a result of crossing P. mume and a dark coloured form of P. cerasifera – Prunus x blireiana. This has fluffy pink, fully doubled flowers at this time of the year, and as the flowers fade the coppery red leaves appear. Over the summer the leaves gradually fade to greenish bronze.
This variety gives a cheering display in the garden, and is also good for picking. It will grow to about four meters and is popular as a street tree, as it does not have many fruit.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


The promise of spring which seemed so eminent has rapidly dissipated. The snow and sleet we have been experiencing among the thunderous storms has certainly changed people’s minds about how much work they can do in the garden.
It is a funny time of the year in many ways. The first of the blossom trees are out and the early bulbs have already been and gone, but it is far from spring yet, and care has to be taken in the garden.
If you are itching to get out into the vegetable garden, check the state of the soil before you start doing anything too vigorous. Working sodden soil is not a good idea – it is hard work for a start, but it is also very damaging to the soil. If your soil is waterlogged, give it a chance to dry out before you start doing anything major.
If your soil is not too wet, and if you have grown a winter green crop, it is probably a good idea to get in turned into the soil as soon as you can. That will give the vegetable matter a chance to break down a bit before the spring and summer planting season
As mentioned last week, it is time to get started on planting asparagus. Despite being a fanatic for this wonderful perennial vegetable, I do not grow them in my garden. They are a long-term crop and my kitchen garden area is too small, and I am too fickle in my growing desires, to commit to having such a long term crop.
If you want to grow this aristocrat of the vege world, make sure you get in and get your crowns as soon as possible. They do not need planting straight away though. I think it probably pays to get the crowns off to a head start by planting them in a pot first, and placing it in a nice warm, well-lit spot. At the same time, you can prepare the eventual planting space.
Firstly, choice a well-drained sunny spot, and start digging! Old books always stresses the importance of double digging, and getting down two spades deep when preparing beds. Today we are much more likely to use a no-dig technique, with lots of compost, which works for most crops, but for asparagus and rhubarb it is better to put the hard yards in.
As you are digging, mix in some blood and bone, and a good general purpose fertiliser, as well as some compost. It probably also pays to throw in some lime too.
If planting directly and not from pots, excavate a trench in the bed, and plant each of the clumps on a small mound of soil, lightly covering each crown when it is placed. Once planted, fill the trench with a good layer of organic mulch.
Now comes the difficult part.
When the luscious and succulent spears force their way through the soil, grab your knife – and leave them alone. The plant needs time to grow and will need all the time you can allow it to grow, so the leaves can photosynthesise and feed the plant. I hate to say it, but it is best if you leave them for a second year, if you can resist.
After that, you can harvest each year. Do not forget to leave some spears to grow through the season though, and do not get worried when they die down for the winter. They will come back for the next spring.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Heidi Blyth's irises

One of the things I do is edit the Almanac for the Society for Pacific Coast Native Irises (SPCNI). I have been wanting to do a piece on the PCIs growing in the southern hemisphere, and had been hoping to get some pics of the irises Heidi Blyth is introducing.
I am sure Heidi is sick of being referred to this way, but she is the daughter of the well-known Australian iris breeder, Barry Blyth. He has made his name with a series of innovative bearded iris introductions.
I have found a link to some of Heidi’s introductions, so if you would like a look, go here:

Travelling along

Living with a mentally ill person is certainly never boring. Our mood fluctuations seem to mirror his, in a weird way. When he is sort of well, we get our hopes up and imagine there will be an end to this terrible time. When he slips back, we also slide towards depression, imagining a ghastly future for him.
This week the nurses at the mental health clinic where he is staying let him go. There was a note on his file that he was not allowed to go, but they ignored that. Then, two hours later, they rang us, to casually let us know.
Needless to say we had a sleepless night. It was a frosty night here and we knew he would have no money and no way to get anywhere.
It turns out he managed to find his way to the motorway and somehow walked into Wellington from Lower Hutt. When we caught up with him he was at Wellington Railway Station after a frozen and sleepless night.
You will notice we caught up with him. Not mental health services. We traveled 100 km to find him and return him to the clinic.
But, silver linings and all that stuff….
We finally got to talk to a sensible psychiatrist who was prepared to listen to what we said. His medications have been altered and he already sounds a different person.
Today we go down to the clinic to take him out for lunch and catch a show at the local art gallery.
The last thing Lavinia said to him and me when we left her was “Travel safely.”
It’s not a bad piece of advice, but maybe we need to travel hopefully too.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A sad week

This has been a sad week for our family.
Our younger son has been struggling with his mental health for the past three months, and we have been struggling with mental health services, trying to get them to understand that he is far worse than they imagine.
Since the second anniversary of his sister Lavinia’s death, he has become more and more detached, and over the past month or so has been living in a fog of confusion. He has been a worry to all of us who love him.
I have had visits from the community police, who were concerned to know why he was behaving so irrationally in town, and from various shopkeepers. No-one has been judgmental of him – apart from many in the mental health service, who were sure he was taking drugs.
On Thursday we finally had a message to say they were considering hospitalizing him.
I had been in meetings in Wellington and Jill was concerned that our son was not home, but he was at home when we got back from collecting me from the train.
We settled down for the evening, and our son started going onto the back steps for his smokes.
At one stage I realised he was not there. His shoes were on the steps but he had gone.
I raced into town and could not find him. I then had a voice tell me he was in Pownall Street, a suburban street near our house. I drove there and found him, on a dark and stormy night, walking in black clothing and barefooted, down the middle of the road.
He came home with me.
We rang mental health services – and were told there was nothing they would do, and we should lock out doors!
The following day his case worker rang and finally agreed we had to do something for him, and he went into hospital in Lower Hutt, a 80 minute drive from here.
We went to see him today. He is obviously sedated, and is slightly confused still, but hopefully he is in the right place to get back on the road to wellness.
Years ago, when he was still a teenager, he and I, along with his brother, went to Rotorua to see his sister, us males staying in a motel. In the morning he got up and went for a walk, after I had gone for a run. He got lost in Kuirau Park, a thermal park opposite the Rotorua Hospital. He was in the middle of the park, alongside a steaming pool, wondering how he would find his way out, when I appeared out of the mist – not knowing he was missing, or where he was.
It’s what fathers like to think they can do.
They can rescue their children – even when they don’t know they need rescuing.
I now know I cannot do that. He and I stood at Lavinia’s bed, overlooking Kuirau Park, the weekend before she died, the last time we three were together.
I could not save Lavinia.
I cannot find my son.


Last week I wrote about the upsurge of interest in vegetable gardening. It is almost a lost art among the young, and it is perhaps it is us baby boomers who are to blame. We were brought up with our father’s assiduous vegetable gardening habits as part of our cultural background, but as we grew up and questioned the values of our parents, we somehow threw gardening out the window.
Mostly, our children did not spend time in the garden with us, and we did not raise them to understand the joys and thrills of picking their own fresh produce.
It is time to start encouraging them again, and letting them see just how rewarding vegetable gardening is.
Last week I explained the procedures for making a raised bed for vegetables. I mentioned how suitable a number of different crops were for this process, but did not talk about potatoes. Partly this is because potatoes are slightly demanding of space, but they are very amenable to raised bed cultivation and will quickly reward the tyro gardener. And if we get underway soon, even the greenest gardener can produce some potatoes for Christmas.
This is the time of the year to start thinking about planting potatoes. Firstly, pop along to your garden supplies shop and select a bag of your favourite type. Do not be put off by the wide range of varieties available. There are many, many different types on the market today, and it can seem a little daunting. I suggest you get a reliable early type. The ‘early’ designation refers to how long the potato takes to mature, rather than the time of the year it should be planted, so you can plant ‘early’ types late in the season – sounds a bit silly doesn’t it?
Once you have purchased your seed spuds, they should be sprouted. Just place them with their eyes upwards in a cool, dry but well-lit area – I use the glasshouse bench but a window sill away from direct light will do just as well. The eyes will sprout and once they are about 1 cm long the seed is ready to be planted.
Now the fun begins.
If you are growing in a traditional manner, you need to make some furrows for the seed. The seeds are placed sprouts up in the furrows, and about 10 cm of soil placed over them. As the sprouts grow taller, the earth excavated from the furrow is placed on the sprouts until you end up mounds of earth. The new potatoes form on the stems as they grow.
But with raised beds that process can be a whole lot easier.
Firstly, use a bed that is only about half-filled with soil. Place the seeds on small depressions in this soil and cover with a generous layer of straw. Water this in very well, and then add about 10 cm of soil. As the sprouts grow, just keep adding more soil until the plants are growing in a tall mound, as in an open garden. You should ideally keep mounding until the plants flower and growth starts to die off. I always find the mounds have grown too tall for me to do that – and I run out of soil!
There is an important reason for doing this mounding. As well as allowing more potatoes to form on the stems, it is vital to keep the sunlight away from the developing tubers as they will turn green and poisonous of not kept covered.
I used straw for the first time last year. My beds are probably a hybrid – neither an old fashioned bed nor quite a modern no-dig bed either. I found the potatoes grew very well, and when harvested were a magnificent size – and very clean. I will definitely use this method again this year

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Eat your garden

At first glance a downturn in the economy looks like it would prove a problem for the nursery industry. People with less disposable income are going to cut down on spending in the gardens, and the sale of Italian ceramics and expensive palm trees will plummet.
But it does not seem to work like that.
When things get tough we cancel our overseas holidays and we postpone the upgrade to our cars and our houses, but we also stay at home more. When we stay at home we look at our sections, and there is usually an upsurge of interest in gardening during economic hard times.
You would think there would also be an increase in spending on home vegetable production too, but there is interesting information about that. Friends in the trade tell me they have had difficulty keeping up with the demand for asparagus and strawberries this year. I guess this means we are looking to grow the higher status vegetables, rather than pay high prices for them.
This downturn has coincided with increased communal concern about the eating habits of our children - and ourselves! Some schools are taking a very proactive role in encouraging healthier eating. They are promoting Kid’s Edible Gardens by helping schools make organic, no-dig mulch gardens within their grounds, as well as setting up worm farms and encouraging the kids to compost. The kids can grow their own vegetables, herbs and flowers, and hopefully persuade their parents of the benefits of home gardening
No-dig, mulch-based gardens are the ideal way for tyro gardeners to get their gardening career off to a flying start. It is, basically, gardening in a giant sandbox, and if done properly should entail little weeding and lots of harvesting
The first step is site location. For vegetables a raised bed is best located where it gets full sun. It should also be away from the roots of large trees or hedges that create shade and compete for moisture.
When planning beds remember you want to be able to easily access the beds from all sides so don’t make them too wide. I think about 1.3 metres is about right. It is definitely better to have two small beds than one large one. Leave about 50 cm between each of the beds – wide enough to get a wheelbarrow through.
I think the beds should be about 40 cm high. Much lower and you miss the benefits of easier cultivation – too much higher and they are going to be difficult to work in. I prefer to use treated timber for the walls of my beds, but I know others have used concrete block or bricks. If you are extra green, you might even use woven willow or something similar.
I made my frames away from where the beds are, and then moved them over and drove the corner pegs into place. You can, of course, drive the stakes in at the corner first, and then attach the boards. If the gardens are more than a couple of meters long you will probably need a central stake as well.
Now comes the fun part.
First of all place a deep layer of newspaper all over the bottom of the bed. I know you will not want to use the garden section of the paper, but make sure this layer is about twenty pages thick. This will ensure there will be no weeds germinating from underneath your freshly planted garden. It will also keep all but the most determined perennial weeds at bay.
Next place a deep layer of straw on top of the paper. I like to use pea straw but cereal straw, like barley straw, will work equally well. Again, make sure this is a thick layer – perhaps a third of the height of the bed.
The next step is the soil creation. You can make your own, by mixing compost and good garden loam. It is important that this loam is weed free. You could buy in a mix of soil from one of the composting company. Our local recycling centre makes a good mix I have used in the past.
I like to add another layer of pure compost on top of the mix – about 10 cm deep. You can happily plant directly into that mulch, perhaps adding a little handful of fertilizer with each plant.
The beds will last for about three years before they start to run out of fertility. I think it best to replenish the top layers but some recommend taking all the soil and straw out and replacing it.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Molly's citrus

There are some people in this world you just bond with. I am not sure what causes it – maybe there is some kind of reflection of ourselves in what we see – but I have found myself becoming closer to many of my older relatives as I age.
Last weekend one of my favourites died in her rest home in Wanganui. My Aunty Molly was my father’s youngest sister, his last surviving sibling. She was the last link to a past my father spoke little of, so it was always enlightening to speak with her.
But more than that, she was one of the world’s great optimists. Even when struck with a terrible back problem that basically immobilised her, and despite being functionally deaf, she found delight in the world. In her room perched high above the Wanganui River, she kept in touch with family goings on and, despite her age, crocheted lace edgings to handkerchiefs.
She was a good gardener too, and a great story teller.
When she was admitted to the rest home she sold her home of countless decades in Gonville, Wanganui. It was a quick sale and she received the price she wanted.
About six weeks later she was visited by her neighbour across the road, who had been away for months on work. The neighbour came bearing a large armful of freshly picked flowers.
“Oh, you honey” Aunty Molly said. “All my favorites.”
The neighbour looked slightly perplexed.
“Of course they’re your favourites Molly. I picked them from your garden early this morning.”
The neighbour had obviously not realised the house was sold.
She had also picked a bucket or two from Molly’s famous grapefruit tree and made pots of marmalade, much to Molly’s delight.
Gonville is, of course, a great place for growing citrus. Although Wanganui’s climate is not so warm as the east coast it has mild winters, and lemons, grapefruits and their allied plants thrive there.
August is a good time to start planning for spring plantings of citrus trees. Ideally,
They should be planted in a warm, sunny protected position out of cold winds. The soil should be free draining so if your soil is a little stiff dig in some compost and some sharp sand. If you have terrible clay loam and it is impossible to get a good position, remember citrus can be grown in pots.
When planting out make sure you plant your tree no deeper than it is in the bag and be careful with the roots -citrus do not like their roots to be disturbed. As well as adding some compost, add a slow release fertiliser too. I use Osmocote but there are other brands available. If you are going to put your citrus in a pot use a quality outdoor potting mix to ensure good water retention and slow release fertiliser to help your plant through summer.
You will need to feed your plants once they are established. As citrus are gross feeders they require regular feeding for best fruiting and growth. A branded citrus fertiliser (your garden centre will probably stock more than one) can be applied monthly, or again, a 3-4 month controlled release fertiliser can be applied 3-4 times a year. I think the slow release is best for potted plants as it prevents salt build up in the soil. If you prefer a more organic approach, pelletised sheep manure can also be used as a top dressing in spring and summer
I am a great fan of mulch, and my citrus all grow with bark mulch at their feet. You can spread mulch around the base of the tree in spring and summer to help prevent water loss, and keep weeds down. Make sure the mulch does not touch the base of the trunk as this can lead to rotting.
Keep the watering up during summer especially, and at fruit set, as lack of water at that time can lead to incomplete pollination and dry fruit later.