Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Very Publick Reserve

We launched my latest book today – 'A Very Publick Reserve', the story of Queen Elizabeth Park, our local municipal park. The launch coincided with the opening of an exhibition on the park at Aratoi, the local museum of art and history.

The ceremony started with a mihi (welcome) from local kaumatua and friend Mike Kawana….
then Aratoi director Marcus Burroughs introduced my publisher, Ian Grant of Fraser Books…..

Taini Wright spoke very eloquently about the statue her poua (grandfather) Taiawhio Te Tau erected in the park in 1921… here is she welcomed to the microphone by Marcus and myself....

The book was launched by Dex Knowles, whose father was custodian of the park from 1940 until 1958. Dex spoke entertainingly about his childhood, and his father’s part in the park development.

I spoke briefly, explaining how the research started with a request for help from my daughter Lavinia and her friend Callum Daniell. I explained that this request has changed me from an nurseryman who like history, into an archivist who loved gardening! Callum and Lavinia both died in their thirties, and the book is dedicated to their memory. Vin’s brother Owen was there (he has some photographs in the book) and Callum’s widow and son were there too, so it was a moving day for me.

I signed books and caught up with some of the many friends and relatives who were present.
Later, I photographed Owen, reading the book in the rose bed we planted in Vin’s memory in the park.

An emotionally tiring day but very satisfying.

Watering in the dry

Summer has arrived in all its blazing glory over the past week or two. The lawns, which had needed mowing every four or five days, have suddenly browned off, and the vegetable garden is requiring a lot more attention – watering and weeding wise.
The arrival of the summer season also coincides with the instigation of watering restrictions in most parts of New Zealand. Many councils have (wisely in my view) decided that the best way to cope with the excess demands placed on their water supply systems by introducing watering controls on a calendar basis rather than water-flow. It is a good reminder to us gardeners that we need to be mindful of water conservation right through the gardening year, and with all of our gardening practices.
One way we can help ameliorate our garden’s water requirements is by being clever about the plants we use in our gardens. If you live in an area that gets very warm, and you have thin, dry soils why would you try and grow camellias, rhododendrons and other plants best suited to Taranaki type conditions? Instead look out for those trees and shrubs that will cope better with your conditions.
Among the obvious places to start looking are parts of the world that have similar growing conditions. From the Mediterranean we might select olive trees, rosemary and lavender bushes, and some of the delightful Cistus family, with their bright white and pink flowers. All of these will cope well with our summers, and will provide good colour.
We might also look to South Africa, where many members of the vast protea family reside. Among those that will do well in our climate are the Leucodendrons and Leucaspermums. The latter, with their spidery flowers, are not as common as the former, but provide lots of colour throughout the year.
From our Transtasman neighbours, we could select some from the vast number of Grevilleas. There are Grevilleas for most situations, from the gigantic tree G. robusta, the orange Silky Oak (actually, not silky and not an oak, but that is Australians for you!) right down to ground covering types. Most of these are well suited to growing in dry areas, and with a little imagination, can be turned to all sorts of uses. I was taken with a Grevillea hedge I saw recently – so much more fun that a box hedge, although not as fashionable.
For lower down in the plantings, you can probably do worse than looking for a daisy, as many of them are adapted to growing in dry areas. I have some Gaillardias and Coreopsis, both North American species, happily growing in a north facing bed that also grows South African bulbs very well. Gazanias, Osteospermums and Arctotis, all from South Africa, will cope with even hot situations. I have some planters that are filled with Gazanias, and they are already showing of their full range of colour.
There are, of course, some areas where we want to grow plants that are going to require some extra watering. The secret here is to make the best use you can of the opportunities you are given to water, and to optimise the effectiveness of your watering.
One simple thing you can do is to water when the weather is cool and calm. There is little point in watering on hot windy days- the water will not be used effectively at all. You are better to water in the cool of the evening, or in the early morning. Best of all, wait until it rains. That is the ultimate watering time.
Try to water as slowly as is practical. A steady slow flow will all be absorbed while a strong flow of water will cause run-off. There is no point in applying more water than the spoil can take up.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Watch out for Spaniards!

This weekend I had to face one of the worst gardening problems imaginable. A grass has invaded that garden over the past few years, brought in on the wings of the westerly winds from infestations further afield. It is not a terrible weed, in that it does not spread like convolvulus or cooch, but it does spread freely from seed and I like to keep it under control as much as I can. It is especially a nuisance among the Pacific Coast Irises because its leaves are similar enough to the iris leaves and they can be come quite well established before I notice them.
But this weekend I found a strong plant established in a far worse place – deep in the middle of a well established Spaniard – and I do not mean an inhabitant of Barcelona either.
The Spaniards (Wild Spaniards, Speargrasses) are familiar plants to trampers as they mainly inhabit the Alpine areas of New Zealand (the Spaniards I mean, although trampers do too!), where they lie in wait for the unsuspecting hiker. Brush a bare leg against one of these plants, or worse still, put your hand down onto the fiercely spiked leaves and you will soon see why they are given their common name – they are capable of inflicting serious pain. I have two of these brutes in the garden. After all I have said about them it sounds like pure bloody mindedness to do so, but they are wonderfully symmetric plants, looking most like a small Agave or Aloe, but with much finer foliage. The flower stems, which start out large asparagus spears, open with many thousands of small flowers.
It was in the middle of all this spikiness I saw a clump of grass. I got down on my hands and knees, and carefully – very carefully – worked my way into the crown of the plant where the grass had taken hold. I think I got it all out, but time will tell.
I do not wear gloves when doing such a job. In my years handling thousands of bare rooted roses I came to the conclusion that gloves just made me careless and meant I got spiked more often, so I got a few spikes in my fingers.
Spaniards are remarkably easy to grow in the most gardens, provided their need for good drainage is catered for. They are not fussy as to soil type, but as they have a deep taproot, they do prefer deep soil. They will grow in semi-shaded areas, but under those conditions will not produce the same intensity of foliage colour.
They are not the easiest plants to come by but specialist native nurseries will stock them, and some larger garden centres have a range. Both mine, A. squarrosa and A. aurea, I bought locally.
I spent some time up in the alpine zone myself this weekend, training for a longer tramp planned for later in summer. There is little out in the higher altitudes yet – just a few native buttercups – but lower down the mountain the native iris, Libertia grandiflora, was at its best. This is the best flowering of the native Libertias, its 60 cm high clumps of green leaves being topped with striking 3 cm wide white flowers on many branched stems.
In the wild, this plant grows in the forest margins – at the edge of clearings or along streamsides – and that is probably the ideal place for it in the garden too. It makes a wonderful statement in semi-shaded areas, and will make fabulous ground cover when bulked grown in such conditions.
The other species commonly grown in New Zealand is the similar L. ixioides. This is the spiky plant often seen in traffic islands or strip beds in municipal gardens, where its stoloniferous habits (it runs like cooch, but a lot less vigorously) and its bright yellow/orange colouring, has made it a favourite. Two new varieties, ‘Taupo Blaze’ and ‘Taupo Sunset’, will make it even more popular, as they both have extra colouring, with pink and crimson shades, especially when cooler and drier conditions prevail.
These two new varieties have quickly become very popular with landscapers - and are on the “hot” list in America too. They work well in most garden situations and provide a colour lift if used carefully. I have seen them used among pink and dark dwarf flaxes and they look the part. They are very much no fuss plants as well. They also flower – white flowers in spring – but in this case, it is the foliage that is the thing.
At the opposite end of the scale are the tiny (but perfectly formed) flowers of the native Fuchsia, F. procumbens.
This is a great groundcover for damp, shady areas, and even though it grows naturally in the north of the North Island, it will also grow well down this far south. It will likely loose its leaves for winter, but will soon leaf back up in early spring with small, bright green, rounded leaves.
And then the little flowers pup up – and I mean up. Unlike any other Fuchsia, these guy likes to hold its flowers upwards rather than downward facing. The flowers are also very unusually coloured, being yellow, with bright blue stamen. They are very small, so I like to grow a plant in a hanging basket, where it is possible to see the flowers up close.
The flowers are followed by bright red berries in late summer into the winter. They are meant to make a nice jam, but I can never bring myself to pick them as tghey look so attractive.
Maybe they would also make a good salve for hands covered with injuries from weeding Wild Spaniards!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Giving it herbs

As our cuisine has changed over the years, our gardening habits have also had to be amended. There have been huge changes in the edible garden in the time I have been gardening. I remember the arrival of courgettes, and the increase in popularity of sprouting broccoli. At the same time that favourite of our parents, the marrow, disappeared from our plates and the old fashioned white-headed broccoli quietly disappeared from our gardens and our meals.
Perhaps no area illustrates this as well as the herb garden. There were devoted herb growers in the past, of course, whose interest in these plants stretched way past the culinary and into the medical, but most home gardens contented themselves with a parsley plant, a clump of chives, and perhaps a clump of sage, to be used for making the Christmas stuffing.How that has all changed!
I would think the two most commonly planted herbs now are coriander and basil as they are so useful for the different meals we now consume.Coriander can be a bit tricky to grow as it tends to go to seed as soon as the weather gets hot and dry. It is tricky to grow from transplants too – in fact, it is so prone to flopping over or going straight to seed, it really does make a lot more sense to grow your own from seed. Seeds sown in situ will need to be covered for about ten days before the shoots appear.
In the heat of summer it is a good idea to grow some in a container in a cool spot. Make sure you use plenty of nitrogenous fertiliser, or ensure a steady supply of liquid fertilizer during the growing season, as well as keeping the water up to the plants.
You can let the plants go to seed as coriander seed is very useful in the kitchen too, but make sure you harvest the seed as if it is left to mature on the plants, it will probably ensure a succession of new plants - it seeds with abandon.
Basil is absolutely essential for the summer garden. This is another herb that can easily be grown from seed once the ground warms up, but it is easily transplanted so it is easier to just grab a punnet of seedlings. I have noticed that most nurseries seem to scatter seed in the punnet, or in the pot, so I just buy a pot of plants and divide them up.
There are so many different basils that you should think of growing something other than the usual green variety. I like some of the smaller leaved types – in fact my favourite variety is the pungent Spicy Globe – but there are also plenty with different tastes and scents. Lemon Basil hardly needs explanation – Thai Basil and Cinnamon Basil are more pungent. There are also some purple leaved types.
Most gardens still have some parsley, although not the parsley we used to grow.
In the past the Englishman’s favourite triple curled variety was by far the most common form, to the exclusion of any other. Then television cooks started telling everyone that flat leaved Italian parsley was better and many New Zealanders switched. Scientists are now telling us that flat-leaved parsley does indeed have more taste so perhaps the continentals knew what they were talking about!
Parsley seed is a bit erratic in germination, and always a little slow too – it can take up to a month before deciding to come through, - so it is probably just as easy to let a nursery go through that trouble, and to buy plants. If you enjoy lashings of parsley you will need a few plants so buy a punnet or two.
Parsleys of all kinds prefer rich, moisture retentive soil in good sunlight. If soil fertility is a little low, mix in some general fertiliser at time of planting, and occasionally thereafter. To harvest, take the outermost leaves by cutting off at ground level.

Up that mountain

I found my way up my mountain for the first time since autumn.
I had hoped to go up on Saturday, when the forecast was for a sunny, clam day. Things did not work out that way, as my son needed my car, and Jill was away on a course. He needed the car for a job interview, so it seemed he should have priority, and I was happy to acquiesce. I woke early and went for a 90 minute run instead – just a lovely long run through reserves and parks, keeping an eye on the subject of my upcoming book! After the job interview, my son and I drove down the highway to Greytown and had a quiet stroll and lunch.
I did not sleep that well last night so when I woke at about 6.15 I thought I might as well go for my hill climb. I was on the mountain at 7.00, had climbed up the less-travelled path to the snowline by 9.00, and was home again just after 11.00.
It was lovely to be on the tracks again, although there was little of horticultural interest; the green hood orchids were in bud, but the wonderful New Zealand iris, Libertias, were in full flower in the forest margins. The triple trinity of pure white is very appealing - pity I did not take my camera!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It is the last fling of the PCI season, and I have spent an evening or two recording this season's crosses. I was surprised to see that I had made nearly 50!
One of the last seedlings to flower is one that is reportedly an I. tenax cross with ‘Gold Dusted.’ I am not sure that the bees were not at work here, as the seedling is tiny – less than four inches high – and has flowers of a shade and shape that bring a refined SDB to mind. I love it!

Also in flower, in pots in the shade, is this lovely ‘Foothill Banner’ seedling. The flowers are quite small, on tall stems, but they are stunning. It gives interesting seedlings too, so I have used its children a bit this year, crossing with some light pinks.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Things have been a bit lively

The last of the PCIs are in flower now, and the season is winding down. It has been an interesting one, with the snaking stem problem of the past few years almost non-existent this year. I think it may be related to a slightly warmer winter, and to my cultural practice changing. I did not trim the leaves in late summer as I often do. The dead leaves looked a bit raggy over winter, but the flowering season was good.
A few of my planned crosses have not resulted in seedpods. In one way that is good, in that it means there have been no bees at work on the flowers, but it also means I have missed on some gene recombinations. I have noted the failed crosses on my database and will try again next year.
We went to a wedding on Saturday. My fellow archivist Neil married off his eldest son. The on Sunday we launched the archive’s newest book – our fourteenth. Neil has been helping a local family publish the World War one diary of their ancestor. The launch went really well and we sold a lot of books. Anyone interested in the life of a foot soldier in the trenches should read the diary. The book is called ‘Things have been a bit lively’.

Mid-November - can the frosts be over?

Now it is mid-November, and all risk of frost has passed, we can think seriously about finishing off the planting of the summer vegetable garden.
I cannot believe I wrote that sentence less the five days after we had snow, sleet and hail in the main street. But, seriously, if we do not plant now it will be getting too late to plant at all, especially for some of the warm weather plants that need a longer season.
I planted out the rest of my tomatoes this weekend, a punnet of ‘Sweet 100s’ I have been growing on in my glasshouse. They are planted up a bamboo tripod, in soil that has not grown tomatoes for about five years.
I also planted out some peppers. I know not everyone likes capsicums – in fact, some people have an avid dislike of them – but I think they are a very useful year-round vegetable, for salads in summer and stir-fries in winter.
Your local garden centre will have quite a range of them in stock now. Make sure you get an F1 hybrid variety, not the older open-pollinated ‘Californian Wonder’, as there is no comparison as far as performance goes. I was going to say that I do not know why nurseries continue to offer the old variety – but I do in fact know. The hybrid seed is much dearer, so it is much more profitable to produce the open pollinated strains like ‘Californian Wonder’, but they are so inferior I would not consider growing them at all in my garden. They will fruit later, they will fruit less, and the fruit will be a lot smaller.
There are quite a range of varieties around, including some interestingly coloured ones. Most of you will be familiar with the yellow varieties you see in the supermarket, but there are also orange, white and purple varieties. We grew a lot of these about fifteen years ago, as a trial for a local grower, and they all performed well, although some lost their colour when they were cooked – the purples, for example, went green, in much the same way purple beans do.
Capsicums are not hard to grow. They need fertile soil, well-drained, and they must have full sun – the warmer the spot the better, basically. They are members of the same family as potatoes and tomatoes, so should not be grown in soil where these have been grown recently. Feed them well, and keep picking the fruit as soon as they are mature enough as it will allow future fruit to develop.
This year I have resisted the temptation to try watermelons again. I have tried at least five times, and the biggest watermelon I have succeeded in growing was about the size of a golf ball. You absolutely must have very warm ground for these to get under way in the spring – in fact, in the southern half of the North Island I think you are probably best to grow then through black polythene to ensure they get a good enough start.
Rock melons are slightly easier to grow, not needling such a long growing season. I must confess they do not appeal to the same degree as watermelons and I have never grown plants to maturity.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


This year’s Labour weekend turned out to be another one of those characterized by inclement weather – or, at the very least, variable weather. With the wind and rain so bad, I went to the movies at the local film festival and a friend and his partner strolled in and sat with us. She gently chided me for saying that it was too early to plant tomatoes yet. I wonder how she was feeling after the cold weather and frosts of the last week!
Fortunately there are still plenty of plants that can be popped into the vegetable garden while we wait for the soil to be warm enough for water melons, basil and sweet corn.
I would start with lettuces because it is not that far away from the salad sandwich season, and at this time of the year, lettuces are just so easy to grow well. They are not fussy as to growing conditions, but, like most vegetables, prefer a moist, well-drained soil in full sun. Being a leafy crop, they need lots of nitrogen, so you can go mad with the compost for them, digging it into the soil before you plant, or even growing in pure compost.
The next step is to decide whether you want to grow your own seedlings. It is very easy to do, and it is certainly very economical - lettuce seed is very cheap. I have to confess that all those years of raising millions of lettuces from seed have rather soured me on the process, and I am happy for my local nursery to do that part of the job for me. I usually just buy a packet or a punnet of mixed plants
If you are raising your own plants, just sow the seed in a light, warm place, and make sure you keep the watering up. I think it is best to raise them in boxes filled with seed raising mix, but generations of gardeners have used a small piece of the garden, with well-worked soil, and that does the job just as efficiently. Once the plants are sufficiently large they can be transplanted out.
I grow a mix of varieties, and have more or less given up on the large hearting types like ‘Webb’s Wonderful’ and ‘Great Lakes’, only growing oak-leaf types that can be harvested one leaf at a time from the outside. There are so many different varieties it would be pointless to list them here, but the butterheaded types, which make a loose head, are suitable for this type of growing, as are both green and red types with frilly leaves. Other gardeners prefer the more upright growing cos and romaine lettuces, used in Caesar salads.
You could even do a bit of creative gardening by making a little hedge or edging of lettuces – especially the coloured ones - as they look so decorative. Alternatively, if space is a bit tight, you can plant out between slower growing crops, like cabbage and broccoli. By the time the brassicas are starting to grow larger, the lettuces will be out of the way.
I read somewhere that lettuces are the sort of plant that live fast and die soon. That is not a bad way to describe it, and like most things that live fast, they need lots of food. As well as planting your seedlings in humus-rich soil, it is a good idea to ensure they have a steady supply of nutriment through the growing season. You can use any plant food high in nitrogen.

Nearly a champion

We have had another interesting weekend- a bit more restful than many we have had lately.
Saturday was the annual second hand book sale on behalf of the Heart Foundation, so we all – Jill, and I and our son, who was home for the weekend – spent an hour or two looking through, and picking up, a few books. And talking to people we only see there!
Then on to the flower show, where I had staged a few exhibits of my Pacific Coast Iris seedlings, winning first, second and third in the class, and according to the judge, just missing out on the ‘Best in Show’ award for all irises Needless to say, a Tall Bearded won!
The iris is an interesting seedling, a cross of a Sea Magic seedling, pictured in a recent post, and a much smaller flowered ‘Valley Banner’ seedling, with the usual VB markings. The resultant seedlings have been very interesting, with none throwing strongly to either parent, although there are some lovely light blues among them. This is the one that took the judges eye. It is strong growing, flowering on 70 cm stems, and having a delightful ‘watercolour’ look as he described it.
Sunday was also relaxing after a long bike ride through the countryside. I mainly gardened, and worked on finalizing the last remaining bits of text for my book, including the index. Mid afternoon, my adopted granddaughter (9) showed up at our house, with her cousin (11). They had biked around to see whether I wanted to go for a bike ride with them. Of course I did! We went up and down the pathways in a nearby reserve, looking for ‘dragonflies’ (actually damsel flies, but…) and ducklings. It was great fun.
I am in the throes of a reading binge - I have read five novels in the past week. Sure beats watching the crap on the TV!