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!