Thursday, December 31, 2009

The last PCI of 2009

Each year we get a few seedlings that try to flower about ten months early.  Their first flowering should be (in this case) September/October 2010 but they want to flower near Christmas, so this year we had this seedling from Pacific Frost on the Christmas table.  Cool eh?

The last walk of 2009

It has been a rather peculiar summer season so far, with alternating warm and cool spells. The Christmas break has been a good example with very warm days (over 26C on both Christmas and Boxing days) but then cloud and a front for the following days.

I have been itching to get up Mount Holdsworth, the 5280 foot mountain that looks over our valley. This morning I got up early and was on the road at about 6.30. I was astonished to see the tops were sprinkled with snow, and had to go back to the house and get extra clothing.

It was a great walk!

It was cool all the way up, and once I was above the tree line, after about two hours, I met up with some snow and a cold wind. I made it to the summit, then slowly came down, photographing as I went, including this view from the trig looking north.

This Pterostylis species that lives just below the bushline was nearing the end of its flowering, as evidenced by the reddish hue at the top. This is a cute little terrestrial orchid, perhaps 20 cm high and about 3 cm across.

Just below the summit I found some Bulbinella in flower in the snow.  They looked fabulous.

Further down I found some more Bulbinella, growing in the snow grass.

There was also plenty of Eeidelweiss in flower, the North Island species, Leucogenes leontopodium...

and the very pretty eyebright, Euphrasia cuneata.

Once I was on my way down past the bushline I put the camera away until crossing the Pig Flats bog when I noticed a solitary flower on a Caladenia.  These orchid flowers are tiny - only about 40 mm across - but they are great.

When I got home I showered and then lay in the backyard with my geneticist son, who is home from his PhD studies.  Although Polynesian landsnails are the vehicle he has chosen to investigate his questions about speciation, he is also interested in spiders.  We were amused to find five different species on one large perennial Anemone in the garden.
I made a comment about the hidden insect/beetle/bug life occuring all around us that we know nothing about - a throwaway line - and came inside to process my photographs from the walk. I had taken another photograph of another Bulbinella, as it was flowering through the spikes of an Aciphylla species. I do not take my glasses when climbing so the photography is sometimes a little hit and miss - so you can imagine my delight to find this, with all the weevils and beetles on board! 

Click on any of the photographs for a higher resolution view.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

There can be few better ways to start the day....

....than getting to work in a garden.
The weather has been bad this year, with very strong winds which severely damaged the roses in Queen Elizabeth Park, including the bed of 'Paddy Stevens' we planted in 2006 to in Lavinia's memory.
I knew we would all be going to see the bed tomorrow (Christmas Day) and wanted it looking nice so I brought my secateurs to work, and started the day by pruning out all the damaged wood.
I also managed to grab an opening bloom for my desk, so this is how my workstation looks for Christmas Eve....

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Regal lilies for Christmas

Among the things we all love about Christmas are long-established family rituals. For some families it is midnight mass or a church service in the morning; for others it is silver coins carefully hidden in the Christmas pudding, usually cleverly contrived so each diner receives one; for some it is an orange and a gold foil-covered chocolate coin at the bottom of Santa’s stocking; and a selection of sinful foods!

For many of us the garden plays a part in this ritual, and a crop of potatoes is especially planted in September to be harvested on Christmas Day, or maybe a row or two of peas to be gathered for communal shucking after the presents are opened in the morning.

I like to spend a bit of time gathering some flowers for the Christmas table early in the morning, usually having a variety of different summer flowering types to choose from. One flower, though, is essential as far as my wife’s family is concerned – the Christmas Lily, Lilium regale.

This icon of the Kiwi Christmas was virtually unknown in my own family. My parents gardened on the unforgiving Lansdowne clay, anathema for lilies, and my mother’s interest in these aristocrats of the flower world did not go past the gorgeous Lilium auratum she struggled with for many years.

For my wife and her family, the heavy scent of Lilium regale is as essential a part of Christmas as sherry-laden trifle, chocolate almonds and Boxing Day ham, and once we were married I was instructed to start growing some.

Fortunately they are very easy to grow, and we soon had a nice clump established, derived from bulbs from other members of her family. It required no great skill as Christmas Lilies are very easy to grow - they flourish in any sunny garden with well-drained humus rich soil. If you are working with clay ridden soil, try adding some gravel or sand to improve drainage.

Like most lilies they prefer to have their heads in the sun and feet in the shade so I mulch ours with straw each year. They like a bit of food so it pays to fertilise each year, I but use a slow release kind (Osmocote or similar) or blood and bone, as animal manures will cause some problems.

Christmas Lilies can be found in pots in garden stores at this time of the year and will transplant well enough as long as you keep them moist in the months ahead, but they are probably best planted as bulbs in winter. The bulbs are usually planted about twice size of the bulb, about 6 – 10 cm below the soil.

When the flowers have finished, allow the stems to die back naturally. When they turn brown they are ready for pruning off. Christmas Lilies make good growth and will need to be lifted and replanted every four to five years. When replanting, dig the bulbs up in winter and replant immediately. Do not store the bulbs or allow them to dry out.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Summer plantings

December is a funny month. It is usually a frantic time, as we focus on the upcoming festivities, and perhaps even plan some holidays. But it is also about December the weather starts to settle down into a more predicable pattern, and we can think of those lazy, hazy days of summer. Unfortunately, for those of who garden on the east coast, summer means hot days, often windy, and prolonged spells of rainlessness.

This year has started kindly as far as rain goes. I made a trip up to Hawke’s Bay the other day and it was reasonable green all the way – not Taranaki green, but not east coast summer brown either. The forecasters are hedging their bets a bit this year, not really saying whether or not we will get a stinker drought, but whatever happens as far as rain goes, we will all be under some pressure to keep our water consumption down in the garden.

Fortunately there are a few things we can do to help ameliorate our lack of summer moisture.

Perhaps the most important thing to think about is correct plant selection. We live in dry areas, and cannot grow wet climate plants without a lot of difficulty.

I was really impressed with the street plantings in Hastings the other day. Someone has put a lot of thought into the sorts of plants that will survive a summer baking without too much watering, and have come up with an interesting range of shrubs that seem to be doing very well.

One of the people I was travelling with was enchanted with the use of lavenders as street side plantings, and I agree – they have grown very well, and probably need minimal care. I was also taken with other Mediterranean plants I saw growing in municipal plots, in particular a range of rock roses, Cistus. These sorts of plants, with their silvery leaves and tough textures, will thrive in the heat of summer, and will always look tidy. For native lovers, Hebes were also used extensively and well.

In the garden we can extend the range a little more with some shrubs that would be a bit too untidy to use as street plantings, especially the Australian and South African shrubs that thrive in our climate. Proteas, Leucodrendrons, Regal pelargoniums, Grevillias, and many others, will all do well and will easily cope with the summer dry.

Extra colour can be added by other dry loving bulbs, perennials and annuals, as well as a good dose of the very fashionable succulents, such as Aloes and Agaves.

Many natives wild thrive in these conditions too, especially some of the smaller leaved Coprosmas, the silver-leaved and golden flowered Brachyglottis, and many of the Hebes, which were also a feature in the Hastings gardens.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A stroll in the hills

I had not been up in the Tararuas this season , and have a plan for later in the summer, so I thought I had better get some miles into my legs.  I went up the Atiwhakatu track this morning, deviating onto the old track to find see whether the red mistletoe was in flower.  It was, and it looked fabulous.  The old track ... not so great .... as it is falling apart in places.  Still, it was a lovely walk up to the newly built hut.   It had a few visitors, and looks very nice - certainly a vast improvement on the old hut.

I came back down to the Hooper Loop track, then made a quick detour up to the Mountain House track and came back down from there.  It looks like the one yellow mistletoe on that track has died.
It is still the night of the tramp rather that the day after, but I do not feel as if there will be any muscle repercussions. 


It seems silly to be talking about winter when summer hardly seems to have started, but for those of us who are keen vegetable gardeners, the seasons tend to blend into each other.
In winter we are starting off the seeds we want to plant in spring, and in early spring we start sowing the early summer vegetables. Now that summer is almost here, it is time to keep planting some of the winter garden staples, in particular Brussels Sprouts and leeks.
Each year I am appalled to see these seedlings for sale in garden centres in April and May. I guess there must be a few people each year who are tricked into buying these vegetables long past the time they could possibly grow effectively, but I am sure they do not come back the following year. Brussels Sprouts and leeks are both slow growing and need to be planted before the year turns over.
That makes for a slight problem as far as the Brussels Sprouts go. If you share my reluctance to spray vegetables you will possibly have come to the same conclusion that I have regarding growing brassicas over summer – it is just not worth it. If you use the less deadly insecticides like Derris Dust, you have to spray or dust so regularly and assiduously to keep the bugs away that you will almost certainly miss a day or two and end up with decimated crops. I have given up on planting broccoli and cauliflower after the start of December, and we eat so little cabbage that it is not worth worrying about.
But I do love Brussels Sprouts and try to grow a row or two of these each year.
They need to same sort of soil as most brassicas – humus-rich, well drained soil with high pH suits them best. I like to dig in some compost a week or two before planting, liming the soil at the same time. It is important to think about applying lime almost every time you add compost to your soil, as most composts are likely to be low in pH. The lime will also help protect against that curse of the brassicas tribe – club root. For further protection, make sure you do not grow brassicas in the same place year after year – even two years in a row is not a good idea. Soil that has been prepared for brassicas will be well suited for growing either a root crop or something like beans the following year, so make sure to rotate your crops, even if your vegetable patch is quite small.
If you are going to grow your own from seed you will have to get a move on as it is already getting late for sowing. If you can find an F1 hybrid variety I think that is the best option to go for. The increased vigour of the new hybrids makes them worth looking for, but do not be surprised at the increased price you will have to pay.
If you are like me and content to just buy a bunch of seedlings from your local nurseryman that will do just fine too. You might not be able to get hybrid plants though, as most prefer to work with open pollinated seed – it is so much cheaper.
However you got your plants, once it is time to plant them, space them about 40-50 cm apart, in rows of a similar distance. Make sure you water them in well, perhaps using a weak liquid fertiliser as well.
I was taught that Brussels Sprouts should always be planted into very firm soil, and should be planted very deeply. Some books insist that you should stamp the ground where you are going to plant your sprouts before planting, and then plant them as deep as the first leaves.
These ideas come from the length of time Sprouts are in the soil. They need to be well anchored and they also need to be regularly fed. I find it pays to stake them as they get larger, as a good blow can topple them as they get mature, especially if they are wet and heavy at the time.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Elementary my dear Watsonias

I was reading an interesting piece about gardening in a popular magazine last week. A prominent Auckland gardener was talking about a slight trend she had noticed towards growing flowers again. I was surprised at first, then got to thinking it was an Auckland thing, the trend towards non-flowering plants anyway. Then I thought again. When I walk through the streets of most New Zealand towns I can see the results of a drift towards evergreen shrubberies, grass gardens, and architectural feature gardens.
Each of these gardening styles has it merits, and parts of my own garden reflect some of these ideas, but I cannot imagine a garden without flowers providing too much interest.
I was thinking about this the other day when I drove over the Rimutaka range to Wellington. There is a very pleasant garden lining the roadway at Te Marua, where someone, and I suspect it is not an ‘official’ garden as it is too colourful, has planted up a wonderful bed of perennials and bulbs – and there are flowers everywhere.
It looks quite easy-care, as there are lots of gazanias and other daisies as well as a sprinkling of other easy-to-grow perennials, but the highlight of the bed, for me at least, is the wonderful display of soft salmon Watsonias. They look amazing, and blend so nicely with the other hues in the border.
There are many species of this South African member of the iris family, and all long term gardeners will be very familiar with them. I wonder how many younger gardeners have grown them though as they seem to be almost impossible to buy in garden centres. Maybe it is because they are so easy to grow gardeners just swap them among themselves.
I recall my mother had large clumps of a number of different species, with slightly different forms. Her favourite was a very tall growing species – it grew taller than her – with light pink flowers. I suspect it was W. versfeldii. It makes large clumps of corms, much like small Gladiolus, and can be counted on to be in flower for weeks in late spring/early summer.
Another one she cherished, although she always told me she was not sure whether it was a Watsonia, a Tritonia or a Sparaxis (all closely related), is the reddish, tubular-flowered, W. aletroides. This species flowers earlier in the spring with narrow cylindrical flowers about 75 mm long, and tipped with white. It flowers on stems up to a metre high, and at one time was a very popular cut flower, although it is seldom seen nowadays.
There are a number of large flowered hybrids in gardens, many of them from a programme initiated by a Melbourne nurseryman, and named after Australian cities. I think the salmon variety we see in gardens is the variety known as ‘Melbourne’ but others have continued to play around with these plants and it may be a more recent introduction. Others in the Australian series include the white flowered ‘Hobart’ and the deep rosy mauve ‘Canberra.’
There is a number of interesting dwarf species, including the pretty species named as W. stenosiphon in the Wellington Botanical Gardens. This may be wrongly named, as there is a great deal of confusion about the naming of Watsonia species in New Zealand, at least partly brought about because so many of the species are very variable.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cabbage trees

This weird spring has had many gardeners scratching their heads, wondering quite what the climate gods are going to throw at us next. Most of us have planted our summer vegetables, but every week or so another southerly comes through and we look out our windows at night, worried that the morning might see a frost.
So where is the weather headed for summer?
It looks suspiciously like the meteorologists are ducking for cover on this making statements about possibly slightly warmer or perhaps slightly cooler weather, and maybe above, maybe below average temperatures.
But Maori lore is telling us we are in for a hot, dry summer. There is a long-held belief that a better than usual flowering season among ti kouka, cabbage trees, indicates the following summer will be warmer and drier than usual. Looks like we are in for a warm one based on the exceptional flowering of cabbage trees this spring.
The strong stems of these giants of the lily world are a strong feature of the New Zealand landscape, and many New Zealand artists have drawn on their strong outline to portray the New Zealand landscape.
Maori harvested ti kouka, eating the new leaves, and preserving the roots in a complicated process, to extract the sugars. Early pakeha settlers are also said to have eaten the hearts of young trees, giving the plant its common name.
Our relationship with the cabbage tree in the garden is a little more complex. Although very valued in the larger landscape – both in the wild, and in parks and commercial plantings – we are more reluctant to bring the ti kouka into the garden.
I am sure this is partially due to the problem of the fallen leaves. Mature trees tend to drop lots of leaves in the late spring period, at about the same time as our lawns grow with the most vigour. Cabbage tree leaves have very strong fibres – Maori used them to make fabric - and they will win a battle with lawn mower blades. This has meant many gardeners – especially those whose job roster includes lawn mowing – are very reluctant to have cabbage trees around.
There are two steps to take. The first is to ensure the trees are planted in gardens rather than as specimen trees in the lawn, where the leaves will prove a problem. The other is to gather the leaves and keep them until they are completely dry. Under these conditions they make superb kindling.
There are a few species of cabbage trees for the garden, and a few cultivars as well.
The most common species is Cordyline australis, with long green sword shaped leaves. This is the wild form most commonly seen in the wild and it is easily grown as long as a little care is taken at the time of planting. It will flourish best in well cultivated soil, and establishes most quickly if given a good head start with adequate watering.
The toi, C. indivisa, is a beautiful tree with broader leaves, often with a purplish cast and an orange midrib, and heads of the most amazingly scented flowers. It grows naturally in the mountain forests of our regions, and is a always a delight to stumble across when in on a tramp. Unfortunately this charming species is not easy to bring into the garden. It seems to need the higher rainfall and moister atmosphere of the mountains.
C. banksii is another forest species, with shorter stems and longer leaves. There is a nice purple form of this species that is sometimes available from specialist nurseries. It is another species that does best in cool and moist conditions.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Pink bells weeping

When the middle of November arrives the roses in my garden are only just starting to burst – they are always a little later than other gardens. I suspect it is only because I grow very few modern bush roses, being content to have some modern shrub roses, and a few of David Austin’s English roses.
So it was a surprise when a friend of my uncle rang me to tell me I should call in and have a look at the roses along the front of his house. He said they were at their very best and I should call in on my way home.
I do not know what I was expecting to see, but I can assure you it was not three huge weeping standard roses, each over two metres high, covered with tiny roses, a mix of shades of pink. The effect of these lovely parasols along a neutrally toned house frontage, in what is essentially a wooded garden with a heavy emphasis on foliage almost made me fall off my bike!
The gardener (I call him that because he was at work in the garden when I called) explained they were mature specimens of the weeping miniature rose, ‘Pink Bells’, grafted onto 1.8 metre standards. The arching branches have formed a dense mat and are never pruned in the conventional sense. Rogue branches that grow too exuberantly are removed, and an occasional trim is sometimes delivered, but the roses are left to their own devises. They are planted in a dry, sunny spot that obviously suits them well, and are left to get on with their display.
When I saw the plants they were a jumble of different shades of pink, as the flowers fade as they age. This variety does rebloom, but not with the gusto it applies to its first flush.
There are a number of varieties that are suited to growing this way. Perhaps the best known is the lovely soft pink ‘The Fairy’, with its glossy green foliage. It has pretty little rosette-style flowers in clusters, and will repeat during the summer.
If you are more a dark red rose sort of person you could try ‘Crimson Shower’ with its delightfully old fashioned looking crimson blooms. It is recurrent and is healthily resistant to black spot and mildew.
If you like old roses you might think of growing ‘Buff Beauty’ as a weeper. This variety has very sweetly scented flowers that are almost apricot, deeper in the centre. It is a lovely rose that works well as a weeper.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

One of thse good Sundays

There is nothing like a good Sunday adventure to fill the memory banks with good vibrations, so to speak. Today I managed to load up a few.
I have been helping a Maori friend and a group of pakeha friends with the problem of an old totara marker board from an urupa (cemetery) in the country out the back of Carterton. The board had been rescued from a creek by the farm’s owner, who then handed it to the local historical society, who was very unsure about what to do with it. I helped a researcher delve into its past, and it was decided (in keeping with usual Maori custom) to bury the marker within the confines of the cemetery.
A new fence has been erected around the site of the cemetery and a little board marking the site has been erected. Today a blessing ceremony was held. Here the Reverend Puanga Ratapu is performing the ceremony with Rex Hemi.

Afterwards the landowner (Brian Gawith) and one or two others joined me in climbing a steep little hill at the end of the Ahiaruhe road to walk over an old paa site – very interesting, and near the Ruamahanga River, of interest to me of course. While we were there, a beautiful burst of song indicated the presence of a shining cuckoo, which we were fortunate enough to be able to see high in the branches of a kowhai tree.

All in all, a great day – one to keep stored away.

Loony toons

Has the bad spring weather finally broken? I certainly hope so as I have finally taken the plunge and planted my tomatoes in the vegetable garden, with the expectation the string of frost-bearing southerlies has finally abated and we may now get a succession of warmer days and nights.
After I had planted and watered in my tomato crop I went for a stroll around the neighbourhood seeking out inspiration for this week’s story, and stumbled across a very dramatic sight.
A few blocks away from our house I found a very interesting feature tree in front of a house painted light blue. The tree was a mature Chinese Toon, Cedrela sinsenis ‘Flamingo’. I do not imagine the house painting was deliberately planned to highlight the foliage of the tree at this time of the year, but it certainly had that effect – the contrast between the almost powder blue of the house and the light pink of the Cedrela was startling.
The Cedrelas are trees from the warmer parts of the world, their name deriving from the Greek word for a cedar, but they are not even slightly related to cedars - in fact, they come from the same family as mahogany. The timber from some species is highly regarded, as it is slightly fragrant and easily worked. It is sometimes used for musical instruments, sometimes sold as mahogany.
The Chinese Toon is a popular tree in warmer gardens the world over for its spectacular spring foliage display. It has a very erect growing habit, making a little forest of upright stems and branches. In spring these stems are topped by clusters of ash-like leaves (botanists call them pinnate) which are slightly furry (pubescent) underneath.
The colouring is quite unlike any other tree, as the new leaves assume a rosy pink tone, with a bright red rib in the middle of each leaf. The effect of one of these trees, shining in the sun is unforgettable. I do not know whether they look better against the bright sky or against a dark green backdrop of other trees.
As the leaves mature they gradually lose their pink colourings and become slightly creamy-pink before eventually turning green.
If you are particularly adventurous you might want to consider using the leaves for a garnish or as an addition to your salads. The fresh new leaves definitely have an allium-like fragrance – sort of onion-y but with an overtone of garlic - and they are reportedly eaten by the Chinese, who either salt them or eat them fresh. I cannot vouch for this however, and I would think it would be wise to be cautious about scoffing too many at any one sitting.
There is an old adage that good fences make for good neighbours, and if you want an entente cordiale with the people next door it would pay not to plant this tree alongside a fence line, as it does have a propensity to sucker, and your friends next door may not share your passion for pink salads.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Flight of Butterflies

A few years ago a friend gave me some seed from a cross made in America between the Siberican Iris 'Flight of Butterflies' and Iris ensata. The frist of the seedlings flowered this year, and I have to say there seems scant effect from I. ensata. The seedling is pretty enough though, and each stalk seems destined to carry six flowers, on three branches.
My friend the Iris Hunter tells me Flight of Butterflies is a 40 chromosome variety, so I have tried to daub some PCNI pollen onto it, in between the awful weather we have been having. It will be interesting to see whether there are any results.


The American tradition of celebrating Halloween has slowly spread to New Zealand, although it is not the wide-spread community activity here that it is in the US. Here it largely celebrated by very young children, who usually only call on family and close neighbours. This year our adopted grandchildren called around, suitably attired and absolutely in character. I managed to snap Summer (above) and Emily(below) standing in our back porch. I think you'll agree they look very fetching!


It has certainly been a hard spring for horticulturists – the unseasonably unsettled weather has given growers all sorts of worries. Commercial outdoor tomato growers have been unable to get onto their paddocks because they have been too wet, and they must also be concerned about the likelihood of late frosts this year. A succession of southerlies that have swept up the country, leaving snow to low levels have also left their tell-tale white marks on the early morning garden.
I generally plant my tomatoes in the first weekend in November, but I am feeling a bit gun shy this year. The ground is still quite cold and I do not think the plants will be away to any great advantage, but on the other hand, I do not want them getting too leggy in the glasshouse. Perhaps next weekend.
Some plants seems to have relished the odd weather this year, none more so than the dogwoods. These often deciduous shrubs and trees hail from the United States and Asia, and they are among the most popular of all flowering trees in America. In fact, they are so popular they are the state tree for both Virginia and Missouri, although, bizarrely enough, the most popular is one called Cornus florida. There is a little pun at work here - the word ‘florida’ is a Latin one, meaning flourishing, or flowering exuberantly, and the American state and the tree were given the same name for this reason.
These dogwoods are ideal plants for our climate because they prefer cold winters and hot summers – in fact, as you venture further north they become difficult to keep alive. They prefer a sunny spot with only the lightest shade to do their best, and once established can cope with sustained dry periods.
This time of the year they are at their best with a magnificent display of flowers – although the flowers are strictly speaking coloured bracts that surround the true flower, in a similar fashion to Leucodendrons for example. There are generally four of these bracts around each flower.
Cornus florida is a widespread species from the United States (and yes, it does grow in the northern parts of Florida), usually with creamy white bracts in mid-spring. Needless to say, with such a wide range there is a fair degree of variability and nurserymen have been selecting this species for many, many years and have come up with a very interesting range of varieties.
Among the best of these is ‘Cloud 9’ which has large pure white flower bracts that appear in spring. This cultivar is more tolerant of heat than many other Cornus and is very strong and vigorous. Over the past few years I have noticed some landscapers have picked up on the value of this tree and I now sometimes see it used in multiple plantings in formal situations. It always looks great.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Irises - show time!

Late spring and early summer are one of the most exciting times in the garden. So many flowers choose this time to be at their best that we are spoiled for choice – Rhododendrons, roses, azaleas, and my favourites, the many glorious irises.
It is also the time of the year for flower shows, of course, and keen gardeners will be out picking and preparing their favourite blooms for display, and others will be popping along to the various horticultural society displays to see what is in fashion
I started out my adventure in the world of irises on my hands and knees, in my grandparents’ garden. My grandfather was a huge fan of the large flowered Tall Bearded irises, the ones that most people think of when you mention garden irises.
Despite my interest in some of the other types, I have to admit that these are the aristocrats of the iris world. They have multiple flowers on sturdy stems, with an incredible range of colours. If you have never seen modern garden iris, you ought to get along to these shows – I am sure you will be amazed at the modern bearded iris. The colour range is staggering – all colours except true red – and the form has also evolved, with tougher petals and lots of flounced and ruffles.
Of course Tall Bearded irises do have a potential flaw in our windy climate – they are tall and as such they can be prone to damage if we have a windy spring. There is a range of sizes in bearded irises, right down to ground hugging types, so it is possible to grow some that are nowhere near as susceptible to wind damage.
Almost all the bearded varieties need the same treatment – well drained, limey soil, and an open, exposed site. They will cope best if they are placed on top of the soil rather than being planted deeply. As long as those few simple rules are followed they are easily grown, and will give plenteously of their wonderful blooms.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tomato time again

This weekend is garden weekend, Labour Weekend, the traditional time to get all sorts of summer vegetables into the garden. Whether that is a good idea this year is an open question – are the southerly blasts we seem to be getting every week going to stop now, or are we going to have a continuation of cold nights?
I cannot pretend to know the answer, but I think I will be hedging my bets, and waiting a week or two before I plant my tomatoes out, and probably a little more than that before thinking of peppers, zucchinis and squashes.
Having said that I have already paid a visit to my local garden centre, looking over the wide range of varieties available, and choosing a few varieties for this year. I have them potted up and sitting on the bench in the glasshouse, allowing them to grow on a little bit before I plant them out.
I met a friend in the tomato section at the nursery and we discussed the various types on display. There was a huge variety, over twenty modern types for example. We agreed that we would both be growing some Sweet 100, well known for their abundance of small sweet fruit. We both pretended that we were growing for the children (or grandchildren) but we also admitted that we mainly grew them for ourselves, and that only about 40% of the fruit even got into the house. If you are first time growers of tomatoes, this is definitely one you should have in your mix.
My friend’s taste runs to much more exotic varieties than the aforementioned, and he will also be able to find an incredible range of heirloom varieties about at this time of the year. I was talking to a nurseryman friend about the popularity of these varieties the other day, and he said that many first-time gardeners, as well as more experienced ones, are excited about growing these different types. He said they are usually a bit slower to come into cropping, but they do fruit well later in the season, and certainly give a great opportunity for some adventurous salads.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Carrots for fun

‘Purple Haze’ - Jaspenelle Stewart

One of the major delights of having a garden is the pleasure that can be derived from sharing the bounty produced. It is fun to be able to give little gifts of flowers and fruits, and it is even better when those gifts can be used as part of a gentle encouragement to induce others into trying gardening on their own account.
I take particular joy in sharing our garden with some little friends of ours, de facto grandchildren who visit regularly. They always ask if they can take some flowers home, and are always keen to inspect the raspberry patch, forever hopeful that a crop may have miraculously appeared overnight. These inspections are regularly carried out in the depths of winter when we are struggling to find a vase of flowers, much less a trug of raspberries.
They have another passion which surprised me at first – they often ask if they can pull some carrots. It is not something I would have immediately thought of as being extremely attractive to two young girls, but they love the sweet taste of garden fresh carrots – and I suspect, they like being able to get their hands dirty digging for the carrots too.
I have a little surprise in store for them this year.
I have been hunting my local garden centres looking for F1 hybrid carrots, as I find they do so much better than the older open pollinated types. I simply could not find any until late this week, when one nurseryman had the cheek to show me some new hybrid carrots they had received – ‘Purple Haze’.
I am of an age that ‘Purple Haze’ is a Jimi Hendrix song about smoking marijuana, but it is an American bred hybrid, a Nantes style carrot, and the breeders have managed to take carrots back to their original purple colouring. The purple colouring only extends through the skin and outer part of the carrot – the core is still orange.
I cannot wait to see the kids’ faces when they pull purple carrots out of the garden!
The purple colour dulls considerably with cooking so they are probably best eaten raw, or perhaps just lightly steamed.
There are, of course, quite a few purple vegetables that share this trait. I have grown purple pole beans that also go green when cooked, and even purple capsicum loses much of its colour when it is cooked.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Herbs for health

The television programme that has been playing on Saturday nights recently must have had a few young people very excited initially, as it seemed to be offering advice on growing marijuana and opium poppies.
They were to be disappointed, although I guess a few will have stayed and watched James Wong presenting Grow your Own Drugs anyway, and may have learnt something about the value of gardening and the place many garden plants have in the medicine industry.
The programme has probably come at a good time, as many young New Zealanders are having their first taste of home gardening. A combination of economic belt tightening and a hankering for a more natural way of food production has seen many installing their first vegetable gardens. Some will be also looking at more natural health remedies too.
It is claimed that 60% of the world’s population rely on medicinal herbs for their medicines. In New Zealand nearly one-quarter of all prescriptions contain plant-based active ingredients - aspirin is derived from willow and meadowsweet, for example, and you are gargling with thymol (the active component of thyme) every time you open that Listerine bottle. Even the common heart medicine digitalis originally came from the wild foxglove.
On a personal level, I am perfectly happy to use take whatever my doctor prescribes for me, but there are plenty of herbal remedies for those minor ailments that do not really call for a visit down to the medical centre.
Perhaps one of the most fashionable of these medicinal herds is Aloe vera. This is one species in a large family of succulent plants, whose more decorative members are very much in fashion in the warmer parts of the country. They mainly have stately architectural leaves, arranged in rosette form and armed with bards, set off by dramatic candelabras of flowers.
Aloe vera, which is more restrained than many of its kin, is known as the burn-and-bandage plant. Its gel-like sap helps to regenerate skin tissue in cases of minor burns, scrapes, wounds, and sunburn, and then dries into a natural bandage. This one is not totally hardy and is often grown as a pot plant, but can easily be cultivated in a warm frost-free spot outside. The dried gel is said to work as an oral laxative, but I am never going to try that!
If you have got yourself successfully bandaged with the Aloe, but you are finding it hard to relax, a dose of chamomile may be just what you need. The best form is the annual species Matricaria chamomilla which makes a delightful apple-scented tea that is said to help calm anxiety, soothe insomnia, and treat minor digestive upsets. The leaves have been used as a poultice to encourage wound healing as well.
This is very easy to grow. It likes sandy soil and partial shade and as it loves to reseed itself in happy situations, sit will soon be happily ensconced in your garden.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Orchid season

There are some immutable constants in this universe; the speed of light never changes, pi is always the same, and each glasshouse, no matter how big it is, is always about 20% too small.
I thought I had addressed the smallness of my glasshouse (or polycarbonate house to be more exact) a summer or two ago, by expanding it by one fifth, but now I find, miraculously, it is still 20% too small.
Last weekend I pricked out this year’s crop of Pacific Coast Native Irises, and got the potted tuberous begonias out from under the glasshouse benches. They had spent the winter there, having a dry rest on their sides but it is now time for them to be kicked back into life by being watered.
I was scrambling for space. I had to shuffle around the various potted special plants, and even then could hardly fit everything in. I was especially keen to make some room because a friend had offered me some pots of one of my favourite plants, the little Australian Dendrobium orchids. As much as I tried, I just could not find any space at all.
That is a pity because this is the time of year for orchid societies to mount their spring shows. The Masterton show will be held on October 3 and 4, while the Hawkes Bay society will be holding their Sarcochilus show on November 7 in the Taradale Town Hall. The Masterton show will feature a large sale of very affordable orchid plants, and I was thinking I could expand my collection
I have a particular fascination with the Australian Dendorobiums – ‘dendrobes’ as orchid lovers call them.
They are derived from a number of epiphytic (growing on the bark of trees) and lithophytic (growing on rock faces or boulders) species, and they are smaller growing species (usually less than 30 cm) with reliable spring flushes of many flower spikes.
Again, they will do well in a special growing house with shade cloth walls and a solid roof to keep out the worst of the winter rains. Failing that, a nice north facing verandah will do fine. They enjoy the winter sun but need to be kept shaded over the hottest months.
I find they respond well to a small application of a long-term fertiliser. I know specialist growers go to all sorts of trouble, making up special feeding mixes for different times of the year, but for the average home gardener it is probably not that necessary – you will get perfectly fine results from the standard formulae.
Plants should be kept moist year round, although they can be allowed to dry oput a little in the middle of winter. Do not let them sit in water though, and make sure the pots are kept off the ground, as earthworms will enter through the drainage holes and make a mess of the bark mix.
The best-known species is he Australian King Orchid, Dendrobium kingianum, now officially Thelychiton kingianus. It is arguably the easiest Dendrobium to grow. It is the fastest growing and the most forgiving of all the Australian orchids, which makes it ideal for the novice grower. It ranges in colour from true albino white to a rich cherry purple, with bicolour shades of white with a rich violet eye. Breeders are currently working on lemon shades, true salmons and unusual sunset colours as well.
Take advantage of the opportunity to get along and see what specialist orchid growers are up to in their shows. Be warned though – you might find your glasshouse (or verandah) is about 20% too small.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I have been thinking about English playwright Denis Potter this week, as the first flush of Japanese flowering cherries hit their peak. In a famous interview with the novelist Melvyn Bragg, Potter, who had recently been diagnosed with the cancer that was to kill him, described the view out his window, looking onto a plum tree in full flower. He said what he saw was “the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be”.
The past few weeks have been brilliant for blossom lovers. The relatively warm weather of August pushed cherries into flower a little earlier than usual, and they somehow managed to flower through a week without any substantial wind. And the effect has been magic, with huge clusters of flowers gradually building to a crescendo, then slowly going past their peak, and silently dropping confetti-like petals on to the ground beneath. If only every cherry flowering season could have been like this!
No wonder the Japanese go to such trouble with the Cherry Blossom Festival each year, as they since the 7th century. The festivals are held throughout the country to celebrate the arrival of spring. They are so important the national weather forecast includes a blossom forecast leading up to the celebration.
These trees have it all. In the main, the foliage is clean and attractive through the main growing season, often with the bonus of interesting new leaf colour in the spring, and a correspondingly exciting autumn colour later in the season. Even in winter, many of the varieties have interesting branching patterns only made obvious when the leaves have fallen.
Most of us think the very full double pink cherries when we think of flowering cherries, but interestingly enough, it is mainly the single white forms the Japanese treasure. They especially value these for the midnight viewing sessions they participate in.
Probably the variety they most treasure is ‘Taihaku’. This forms a tall growing tree with a large rounded crown, and has the most spectacular large single white flowers. These saucer-shaped flowers are slightly fragrant, best noticed in the warmth of a calm afternoon.
‘Shirotae’ is the famed Mount Fuji cherry, which forms a flat-topped tree with tiered branches that often droop to the ground. The pure white flowers are sometimes single, sometimes semi-double, and are scented of hawthorn.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I took a lovely walk through our local park at lunchtime last week. My primary purpose was to go and check on the irises growing in the bed my grandmother donated to the town many years ago. I had weeded the bed a few weeks before, and knew the first of the flowers would nearly be out. Sure enough, there were a few flowers on the lovely gold and yellow form of Iris bucharica. This pretty species is the easiest of the Juno section – bulbs, but with persistent roots. It will grow in any well-drained soil and a sunny site, and is great for flowering in early to mid spring.
But it was not the irises that really took my eye – or my nos. It was one of the deliciously fragrant Viburnums wafting its delicious scent around the sheltered part of the park where it was growing.
I had been in a friend’s garden earlier in the week and was amazed to see four or five V. x burkwoodii growing around a relatively small garden. My friend loves scent and her garden featured a number of Michelias in heavy bud, so I can only imagine how fragrant her garden will be in a week or so.
V x burkwoodii is undoubtedly the most popular of the scented Viburnums. It has tight clusters of pure white flowers at this time of the year, with soft fragrance that I have seen described as being reminiscent of baby powder. It is certainly one of the few semi-deciduous shrubs that has retained its popularity over the years, and is perhaps among the top two or three scented shrubs grown in New Zealand.
It is a hybrid raised in Britain, between V. utile and V. carlesii. The former is an rare species in New Zealand, and I have never seen it offered. V. carlesii is usually findable and is a very fine deciduous shrub, growing about two metres high, although the specimen in the park was only just over half that. It was covered with the most delightful pink-budded flowers, opening to white, and scented even better than V. x burkwoodii in my opinion. It is hardy and, surprisingly, does well near the sea, but has never achieved the popularity of its child.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The spring vegetable garden

September is a busy time in the vegetable garden, as the main planting and sowing season kicks in for most of us. By now you should have the soil well prepared and ready for the upcoming season. I generally do not use green crops, preferring to add a lot of compost to the soil but either way, you should have all this humus well dug into the garden by now. Make sure to keep the pH level up at the same time, by applying a good dressing of lime. The bacteria that break down the humus also tend to lower the pH, and frequent applications of compost can quickly diminish the pH level. I find a good guide is to use about a handful of lime to the square metre each year. If you have any doubts about the pH level of your soil, most garden centres have kits which you can quickly check it with.
It is also time to start sowing carrots, parsnip, beetroot, silver beet, peas, swedes and turnips. Most of these need a relatively high pH and lack of success with beetroot in particular is often caused by lack of lime.
We have very free-draining soil in the vegetable garden, created by years of composting. This suits most root crops very well, but it also seems to suit the carrot rust fly perfectly. Over the years I tried various advertised chemical remedies, but I have to say we did not really get the problem under control until I started using a blocking method. I created a large cloche, but instead of covering it with glass or clear plastic I used some white shade cloth. The cloche is made to fit snugly in our garden beds and has proven very effective at protecting our carrots.
Last year I decided to lift the cloche a little higher, as it had been constraining the tops of the carrots. I built a small wall (about 100mm high) to sit the cloche on. Later in the season I lifted the cloche, thinking the rust fly time had passed, but alas, I discovered that the flies found the carrots and severely damaged our winter harvest. I will not be caught out this season.
Most vegetables taste much better when just picked from the garden, but that seems to apply much more so for carrots – they are sweeter by a long way, and also far tastier. I like to grow one of the smaller types – a Manchester Table type – but last year trialled a couple of F1 hybrid varieties from my local garden centre. I have to say they both performed very well (until the rust fly found them) and I will be repeating the trial this year. If only someone could make a variety that was rust fly resistant.
Beetroot is a very reliable growing vegetable that that has a number of uses in the garden. The young leaves can be used in salads; slightly older leaves can be boiled or steamed, much the same as silver beet; the young roots are delicious when roasted whole, and of course, the mature roots have a delightful taste of their own. Those brought up on canned beetroot will find the taste quite different – not as sweet and slightly earthy - but they are very easy to grow as long as the pH level is high enough. There are lots of varieties to choose from now. As well as the cylindrical red type most of us are familiar with, there are cylindrical varieties, and there is a good range of coloured forms – orange, yellow and white for example.
Some garden centres sell beetroot seedlings now. Make sure you have enough soil depth to plant the entire root (it is quite long for such a small plant) and this will work fine. If you do not have a lot of garden room, the round varieties can easily be grown in a container.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


There are quite a number of things we share with our Australian and South African cousins. As well as ancestral links to Great Britain, we also have a joint passion for cricket and rugby. We also share a love of gardening, and a love of the various members of the vast protea family.
It is one of those families that stretches across the southern latitudes, although it is centred on Africa. In New Zealand, are at the very edge of the distribution, our sole representative being the New Zealand honeysuckle, the rewarewa, Knightia excelsa.
As might be expected of a genus named after a king who had the ability to assume a wide variety of shapes, the proteas come in many different sizes and forms. The most familiar, though, and the most commonly planted, are those that the various forms of the shrubby Protea neriifolia, and its near relatives.
An old gardening friend of mine was a fiend for the various members of this family, and I always think of him when I see them in the garden or in the nursery. This weekend I came a cross a shipment of new plants in one of our local garden centres, and had a pleasant half an hour looking at them and making the acquaintance of a few new varieties.
One that took my eye was a new hybrid called ‘Margarita.’ This has quite large flowers of red, tipped with white beards. The flowering season is almost over with this one, but it still looked very attractive. Once the flowering has finished the old flowers are best removed, as this will allow the plant to make more growth and better flowers the following season. It is similar to the older ‘Pink Frost’, but the flowers are much more deeply coloured.
‘Frosted Fire’ is another in that vein, with rich red flowers with white frosted tips. It is more compact in its growth habits, perhaps only reaching 1.5 metres. It is very free flowering and very reliable in the garden.
Most of use are more familiar with the usual P. neriifolia type, with pink flowers tipped with black, and ‘Ruby’ is a selected form in this range, with deeper coloured flowers than usual.
I was really taken with the subdued colourings of ‘Peach Sheen’. This hybrid has flowers like a large P. neriifolia, but instead of being pink the flowers are a most unusual light peachy-orange, with a delightful shininess. The flowers are tipped in traditional black.
The last of the new varieties that took my eye was the somewhat risqué ‘Burgundy Nipple’ – and yes, that is what it is called, but for the life of me I cannot see why it has such a suggestive name! The flowers are not nipple shaped (or should I say, not like any nipple I have ever seen!) and they are not burgundy either. They are pink with the usual black tips, and look very attractive. I guess the name derives from the buds, which seemed to be darker coloured, but I cannot imagine what made the breeder give the plant such name.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


The two little girls next door have a new kitten, 'Tinkerbelle'.
She has visited us irregularly, but seems to be able to hear when our adopted granddaughter Emily visits, as she immediately comes over to check her out.
Yesterday Emily kept 'Tinkerbelle' happy b y racing around with a bamboo stake which the kitten was happy to chase.
Today Emily was not here,but Tinkerbelle still visited. She was slightly amused by my gardening, but when I made it clear I was not fussed about her playing in the recently weeded soil, she got the huff and stalked off.
Until she found a bumblebee.
She then spent the next half an hour harassing the poor thing until it died.
Despite my well-known aversion to cute and cuddly kittens, I did find this amusing, so..........


It is still late winter for vegetable gardeners. Most of the summer cropping plants are only just being sown – tomatoes and the like – and many vegetable gardeners will only start to think seriously about their garden in two months time, at Labour weekend.
For us flower gardeners though, spring has well and truly arrived. The daffodils are in flower or heavily in bud, and even the tulips are showing buds. The plum blossom is at its height, and golden forsythias are flowering everywhere.
In my garden my sweetheart is putting on a great show in her bed – and I do not mean the Head Gardener. I mean my Magnolia ‘Sweetheart’. This is one of the best of the hardy Magnolias, bred by the Jury family up at Tikorangi, north of New Plymouth. A few years ago Mark Jury showed me the original seedling tree of ‘Sweetheart’, now a large specimen in the standing out area of the nursery. It is certainly a spectacular sight with big beautiful bowl-shaped flowers held erect on the branches. The flowers are rich pink on the outside and pale pink on the inside. The tree is absolutely stunning, and a feature of our backyard at the moment.
Just as spectacular is a beautifully scented tree just around the corner from us. A friend who writes a very interesting blog about her children and her craft activities wrote about the tree, as she and her children had stopped to admire it on a walk. She called it a Magnolia, and I gently corrected her, telling her that it was in fact a Michelia, one of a large family of plants very closely related to Magnolias.
Imagine my horror when I went to look up for some information on a new plant I am considering planting in my garden, and finding that the botanists have changed their minds, and have now included Michelias among the Magnolias.
It is a good idea for gardeners too, as the differences between them seem minor And inconsequential for those who want to grow them. The most commonly commented on Michelia is the large shrub/ small tree Michelia doltsopa. This is a late winter/early spring flowering treasure, with large strappy white flowers (perhaps like a Magnolia stellata but bigger) with the most interesting lemony scent, which will waft across the garden on a warm day. The tree is slightly reminiscent of Magnolia grandiflora, and the fragrance is similar.
There are a number of forms of this plant, some of which are grown from seed and as such are uncertain as to flower type and quickness to flower. I think the best bet is to obtain cutting grown plants of the variety called ‘Silver Cloud.’ This is very floriferous from an early age, the shimmering flowers popping out of furry cinnamon buds.
This tree will eventually get up to ten metres in the right conditions, so make sure you leave it a bit of room, but it is a rapacious grower.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Asian greens

The long warm and dry entry to spring seems to have come to a bit of a halt, with a wet and cold weekend. I was recovering from a nasty head cold so I was only too happy to spend most of the time inside. I had some special seed delivered by a friend, which made me venture into the glasshouse, where I tried not to look at the huge crop of iris seedlings I have steadily germinating. I already have more than I can cope with, and they are still popping up through the soil. There will be some difficult decisions to make in the weeks ahead!
I also spent some time in the office in the main street, and walking around a back street to find some food for lunch, I came across a number of what appeared to be fish trays standing in the middle of a concrete yard behind one of those Asian-owned discount stores. I sneaked a look, and was surprised to see they were each filled with potting mix, and there was a rapidly-growing crop of an Asian green of some kind in each one. In the main they appeared to be one of the bok choy/ pak choy/ choy sum varieties, but there also seemed to be some Asian chives or garlic chives.
I was intrigued to see some a great little vegetable garden in miniature, and tried to talk to the proprietors of the shop about which varieties they were growing, and why they had chosen them above others, but I failed miserably to make myself understood. As a result, I am not absolutely sure which they were growing.
Bok choy and pak choy are perfect plants for growing in containers, as they need to be grown very quickly. They can be grown almost year round in New Zealand provided they are grown in full sun, and are kept well-fed and well-watered. In such conditions they will reach maturity in about six weeks. They are often available as seedlings in garden centres but they do seem to perform better if sown in situ rather than being transplanted – I have found the shift sometimes makes them bolt into flower.
They are a little prone to slugs and snails, especially when young, so make sure you protect them against these slimy pests.
Most Kiwis will have had some experience with eating these once exotic vegetables. They are sort of like a cross between a cabbage and a silver beet – if that sounds at all attractive – and are best suited to quick cooking techniques, like stir frying or steaming.
These green are members of the Brassica family, and as such are prone to the same caterpillars etc. in the summer season, but at this time of the year they should be relatively free from attack.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Lily of the Valley

There is something very satisfying about the hanging bells effect you get from the various plants that are called ‘Lily of the Valley’. From the tiny little ground-hugging perennials that most deserve the epithet, through to the various trees and shrubs that share the name in common usage, the appeal of the small white campanulate flowers is undeniable.
The true lily of the valley, Convallaria majalis, is a deliciously scented herbaceous perennial that favours shaded and cool spots. It belongs to the lily family and carries small rounded pure white bells on single flowering stems in spring, the stems arriving at the same time as the bright green leaves. The flowers are fantastic for picking - they last well in water and give their scent generously.
I have found this can be a funny character to get established in the garden. It seems to prefer semi-shade, and definitely likes deep, humus-rich soil, but even when provided all these, can still be temperamental about establishing itself. Perversely, once it is happily growing it will proliferate prodigiously, almost becoming a pest.
My mother had this charmer growing in a damp east-facing garden and it flourished, in the same conditions as Cannas and even the dreaded ginger lily, now declared a noxious weed. The garden was certainly very scented for much of the year, with a large tree honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, nearby as well.
I only have the pink form (imaginatively called ‘Rosea’) in my current garden, which is a bit odd, as it is nowhere near as vigorous as the white form. Now is the right time to find ‘pips’, as the dormant rhizomes are called in the trade, for sale in nurseries and garden centres. You should plant these ‘pips’ with the growing tips just showing and about 5 cms apart, in soil with added animal manure.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Which hazel?

I can tell spring is approaching – the first of the irises and daffodils are out. ‘August Gold’, a lovely dwarf daffodil with golden flowers managed to open on 31 July this year. I guess that makes it ‘31 July Gold’ this year!
I am excited to see these first spring flowers out, but I am less pleased to see another harbinger of spring – sex-mad ducks. At this time of the year the overspill from the nearby reserve cruise the neighbourhood, looking for likely pick-up places. They invariably for a paddle in our swimming pool until shoo-ed away. It must be time to get some sort of cover arranged I think.
A friend sent me a message about a tree she had found when out for a walk, and wondered if I was aware of it. She had spotted an upright growing small tree covered with creamy-white flowers, the branches arranged in a tier-like fashion. She was sure she recognised the flowers as being similar to a plant she grew as a groundcover at her back door, so she hunted through her notebooks to find the name. She came up with Loropetalum chinense. It seemed to her the tree might be a form of the same species she was growing, and she did what we all do nowadays when faced with such a dilemma – she asked Mr Google for his assistance. The tree and the ground cover were soon identified one and the same, forms of a Chinese species.
As it happened I was familiar with the very tree she was writing to me about, as it was growing in the garden of an old gardening friend of mine. His great delight was growing rare and unusual plants, and then bringing them down to the garden centre where I worked to see if I knew them!
This was one he could not fool me with. I had first seen a mature example of this tree in the Massey University gardens when visiting for a course one August. It is a late-winter flowering close relative of the old fashioned favourite Witch Hazel, and has similarly strappy petals, from which it takes its Latin name. In the wild there are both pink and white flowered forms, the white forms having the additional bonus of an attractive scent which seems missing in the pink.
The white flowered form is an elegant shrub which tends to be wider than high. Cuttings taken from lateral branches keep this sideways habit of growth and this trait has been fixed in the ground covering forms.
Over the past decade or so there has been a huge increase in the availability of the pink flowered and purple foliaged, forms of this plant, and the white flowered varieties, infinitely more subtle than their slightly raucous brothers and sisters, are much less seen.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cool weather bulbs

At this time of the year a few fine days make all the difference to how we feel. After weeks of being cooped up in our houses it is really great to be able to wander around the garden, and maybe even accomplish a little desultory weeding. And there are always little treasures to be found as some plants seem to shake themselves out of their winter slumber at the first sign of any warmth.
It should not be a surprise that the snowdrops are among the first bulbs to appear, as their name gives an indication they flower in the middle of cold times. I have often seen photographs of Galanthus, the botanical name for these white beauties, flowering through a break in a European snow drift, but I have to say it is not something I have seen in real life in our more temperate clime.
Early this morning I snuck down to my garden through lawn-crunching frost, to see what the snowdrops in flower at the moment looked like with frost (as close to snow as I am going to get in Wairarapa) but the effect was rather disappointing. I was up earlier than the flowers – they have enough sense to stay closed up in the cold of the early morning, only opening when the sun is warmer later in the day.
There are relatively few species of Galanthus – only 20 or so – but there are many different forms and varieties which are especially popular in the Northern Hemisphere, where their hardiness and ability to flower when no other bulbs are out, is treasured. There is even a name for those who love snowdrops – Galanthophile!
By far the most popular species is the Common Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, This is a very widespread species, with wild populations from Russia across to Spain and Sicily. It is also found in the countryside in Britain but these plants are thought to be naturalised rather than naturally occurring. In the wild they mainly grow in woodland and alongside streams, an indication that they prefer humus-rich soil and do not like to dry out.
Florally all snowdrops are remarkably similar – they each have three outer petals that splay out when open, with a ring of smaller inner petals in a tube, each of these inner petals marked with a prominent green spot. There are variations on the theme – in some species the spots are almost contiguous – and many interspecific hybrids.
With some a small amount of variation to play with it is remarkable that plant breeders have played with these plant so extensively, but there are over 500 varieties registered, a truly staggering amount. I cannot imagine how anyone could say with certainty which variety is which without extensive knowledge

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Even in the depths of winter there are joys to be wrought from the winter garden. There are the subtle flowers of winter sweet and Daphne bholua, whose charms, very much in a minor key, would be lost in the cacophony of spring. There are the subdued colours of those under rated perennials, the Winter Roses, members of the Hellebore family. There are also the tiny bulbs that grace the coldest months of the year – the perky little Crocus chrysanthus hybrids, with their sparkling little flowers, and the joyous little reticulate irises, their bright flowers popping up among the grassy foliage.
Then there are the exuberant winter flowering bedding plants – the pansies, poppies, primulas and polyanthus – all of them valuable tools for bring a bit of cheer to what can be a drear time in the garden.
Pansies have been on a roll for the past decade or so, and have surely taken over as the prime flower for this time of the year, and they are deservedly popular. Be careful though – there are many dark forms and the flowers just seem to disappear among the foliage in these darker times of the year. Stick to the lighter colours – the yellows, the pinks and the light blues.
The bedding primulas, mainly forms of the fairy primrose, P. malacoides, are extra valuable as they provide a light effect with their tiers of small flowers. I would not be without some of the white forms in my garden each winter. Poppies I could not live without – their simple flowers also seem to be somehow sophisticated.
But polyanthus hold a special place in my heart. They are one of the plants I remember best from my mother’s garden, and over the years I have grown many varieties, both commercially and for my own fun.
They were originally bred from the simple yellow primrose that grows wild in the hedgerows of England, its light yellow flowers of good size held singly on each stem. It is likely the polyanthus is derived from the oxlip, a hybrid from a primrose/cowslip cross. The cowslip is also yellow flowered, but each stem holds a head of smaller flowers. The oxlip is an intermediate form, with flowers in clusters, each flower between the cowslip and primrose in size. Other Primula species have been involved in the complicated breeding of these winter treasures, resulting in a bewildering range of colours and patterns.
The strongest growing polyanthus I remember from my mother’s garden was the old pale yellow form with deep yellow throat. It was so vigorous the foliage almost looked cabbage like. It was not perhaps the most attractive colour but en masse it looked wonderful. It also had the delightful scent that only yellow forms seem to have.
The big breakthrough with polyanthus came with the introduction of the Pacific Giants strain, originally bred in California. They were uniformly large flowered, had a good range of clear colours and were great performers – for their first year. Perhaps they would perform as perennials in their homeland, but in anything other than the mild climates of California, they struggled to live through for a second year.
From there things only got worse, at least in terms of perenniality. The breeders took up improving Pacific Giants until they came to dominate the seed and bedding markets. Almost all the plants sold in punnets in New Zealand are Pacific Giants, usually from Japanese-raised seed strains. They are good, reliable plants, and you can be sure you will get a good garden display. The bigger garden centres will have these single colours if that is your preference.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

PCNI seedlings

This is the time of the year I love. The Pacific Coast native irises (PCNI) – native to the United States, that is – are germinating.
It is always exciting to see the little children that one has carefully planned popping up through the soil. As always, I have far more seedlings than I can possibly plant out, so I will have to do some culling at the time I prick the seedlings out. At this stage, it is just fun to look at the grassy foliage of the new seedlings, and then come back here and look up the breeding books, that will give clues as to why particular crosses were made.
Just as importantly, this year’s divisions seem to have worked well too. I have been under some pressure to start naming and releasing some of my seedlings, as PNCIs are so difficult to find in New Zealand. I am keen to ensure they are plants that will shift well, as the PCNI have a bad reputation of not shifting easily. I divided my ten favourite plants, with at least ten divisions of each, about three months ago. So far, all seem to be going well, so I have my fingers crossed.

Yum, yum -yams and other oxalis

Unlike most gardeners, I have a love/hate relationship with Oxalis. Most of us have an out-and-out hate relationship with the many species of this widespread genus. We find them forever trying to take over our vegetable gardens by burying their many corms deep in the soil, or we find them steadily encroaching underneath the fence from the neighbours garden. Other species are persistent weeds in acid soils in lawns, while yet others make pests of themselves in container-grown plants.
So how could I have any kind of positive relationship with them?
There is one species I could hardly live without over winter – Oxalis tuberosa. This is an interesting plant from South America, where very many Oxalis species are found. It has the shamrock shaped leaves that many members of the family are blessed with, and it is a reliable grower throughout most of our region, although the tops are slightly frost tender.
It is, of course, the vegetable crop that most of the world calls oka, but which we Kiwis call the yam – not to be confused with the tropical crop that is also known as the yam.
As you might expect of an oxalis, this plant is relatively easy to grow, even though it does need a long growing season. The little tubers are best planted once the weather has warmed up, perhaps in late October or early November, at the same time we are all planting our other summer-growing tender crops. They are best planted in raised rows, similar to potatoes as they flourish in light, free draining soil. They are good feeders so it pays to work in some potato fertiliser at the time of planting, but they prefer a slightly acidic soil (you will not be surprised to learn, as they do, of course, contain oxalic acid) so you can go easy on the lime.
They need to be grown as long as possible; the bulbs are not produced until the night length is the same as the day length. They will require watering over the driest of our eastern summers, but seem to be relatively pest free. They will be ready to harvest when the tops dry off, usually in late March or April.
I have a small collection of some of the many decorative Oxalis species, largely in terracotta pots. At this time of the year the various forms of O. pupurpea are at their best. This is another South American species, from Chile, and is grown for its attractive winter flowers. There are a number of forms available in New Zealand. The one I like best is a purple foliaged variety (which I assume gave the plant its name) which I have seen described as ‘Nigrescens’ but I am not sure it is not the same forms grown in the rest of the world as ‘Garnet’. The deep leaves are wonderfully offset by the glowing pink flowers. These flowers are very difficult to accurately capture – they have a shiny gloss and the flowers always appear lighter in photographs than they do in the garden.
I grow two other forms of O. purpurea, with (oddly enough) green leaves, one with glowing white flowers, the other with shining pink flowers. There are yellow and cream forms of this species too, but I have not grown them.