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