Sunday, April 26, 2009


I think it was the poet John Keats who referred to autumn as the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – a wonderfully evocative description of the time of the year when the sun’s powers diminish and the air cools. This cooling is usually accompanied by an increase in rainfall, but this year late summer and autumn have been marked by a prolonged settled and dry spell, nowhere more evident than on the East Coast of the North Island.
The Head Gardener and I made a trip up to Gisborne in the last week or so, stopping for a while in Napier. The fruitfulness was evident everywhere; Feijoa trees laden with their fragrant swelling fruit; mature persimmons hanging like Chinese Lanterns on trees with colour-changing foliage, and even ripening pomegranates.
Pomegranates are not the easiest of plants to grow in inland parts of New Zealand – they like cool winters and hot summers (which we provide very well) but they are also frost tender, and a good winter chilling will see them struggling.
We have sometimes grown the dwarf form, Punica grntatum ‘Nana Pleno’ in our gardens. This has double orange flowers, looking rather like a bright carnation and was once a very popular shrub, as its dense twiggy growth habit, and the summer-long smattering of flowers made it welcome in shrub borders. Today its deciduous nature has made it less popular.
The double flowered forms do not fruit – you need a single-flowered variety for that. In the Mediterranean, where this is a treasured fruit, the trees can grow to about eight metres high, and look spectacular when in flower. They are a challenge to grow well in New Zealand, but in a warm, sunny position in a sheltered area, where the frost will not be a problem, they should fruit well and given a normal East Coast summer – long and hot – they should have enough time to ripen.
The fruit should be harvested when it has turned bright red, and gives off a metallic sound when tapped. They will keep well at normal house temperatures – in fact, the flavour intensifies as they mature.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sweet, sweet peas

I am not sure what made me think of sweet peas in the middle of Easter.
Perhaps it was the arrival of some special seed (not sweet peas!) from that doyen of New Zealand plant breeders Dr Keith Hammett. A friend generously shared some Amaryllis belladonna seed he had received from the good doctor, and perhaps it made me think of Keith’s work with sweet peas. I was also cutting back some Hammett-bred dahlias, and taking cuttings from some of his pinks, so perhaps that was what caused it.
Or maybe it was removing the last of the climbing beans from their frame. It may have spurred me to think about planting sweet peas along the frame as a crop for late spring/early summer. They have flourished on the frame in years past, although it has been a few seasons since I planted them there.
Then, of course, there was that wonderful edition of Country Calendar showing the Gisborne ladies who grow crops of sweet peas for seed, on contract to British seed merchants. The sight of row after row of gloriously coloured flowers might have been the trigger.
It could just have been guilt though.
I normally pick out some special sweet pea seed from one of the seed companies that sell by individual colours, and then sow them in the glasshouse on March 17. That date is easy to remember – it is the Head Gardeners birthday – so I nearly always remember. But this year, with lots of running around with other things, it slipped my mind. So I made a special trip to the garden centre to pick up some punnets of ‘Fragrant Cloud’ sweet peas and carefully planted them in the soil under the climbing frame.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter gardening

Northern Hemisphere friends often comment on how odd our southern Christmases seem. They cannot imagine a yuletide festival where the only branches burning are driftwood logs on the beach, under the shade of a pohutukawa tree, with sausages roasting rather than chestnuts.
I suspect they would be similarly bewildered over our Easter. For them it is a festival of regeneration and resurrection, where the community celebrates the arrival on new life, in the form of spring. Here we are almost completely in the opposite position. It is our harvest festival time, although we fill it with images of rabbits, chickens and lambs.
This Easter was even more confusing, with rumours of frosts, snow-clad mountain ranges, and four days of brilliant weather. I guess I would not have been alone in spending most of the time in the garden, doing some storage, some regeneration and even a little resurrection.
I had to attack a large clump of the wonderful Iris sibirica ‘Windward Spring’. This is a stunning blue flowered Iris, with grass-like upright leaves. It dies right away for the winter, but in spring sends up stately blooms, but I have been naughty, letting it alone for about eight years. That has meant it has not had the rejuvenation it needs to bloom as prolifically as it should. I dug the whole clump up (I needed and axe to break through it) then split it up carefully.
Gardening books often talk about using two garden forks, to break up clumps of perennials, placing them back-to-back among the clump, then wedging them apart, using the fulcrum.
Sounds like a good idea, but I can tell you it does not work for any strong growing perennial, such as this iris. It took a spade and a lot of effort to separate it all, replace the soil and fertilise it, and then replant a tiny fraction of the original plant. I bagged up some divisions for friends too.
I also took cuttings of some of the perennials I was cleaning up, including a lot of different Dianthus cultivars. These also get very woody of left alone, but they are easy to strike from cuttings at this time of the year. I simply take a piping. These are shoots cut from the plant at the second or third joint and inserted, close to each other, in a pot filled with pumice sand. They will strike within a three or four weeks, when they can be potted on. They will be ready to plant out in the spring.
I also took cuttings from my Penstemons, as, although they are best cut down later in the year, they have such wonderful wood for propagating at present. These are again taken as stems with about three or four leaf buds, and placed in pumice propagating sand. I do not bother with rooting hormone. I think the hormones really help those cuttings that were going to strike anyway, but have no affect on those that were not!
Last autumn I crossed some red Chilean bellflowers, Lapageria rosea with the exquisite white form. The seed set and germinated. I pricked out those seedlings this weekend, and also sowed some precious seed of new hybrid Amaryllis belladonna, from one of New Zealand’s best plant breeders.
All-in-all a very exciting Easter.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Apples ...

The Head Gardener and I had a very pleasant afternoon recently, walking through a well-established orchard that friends have planted on their lifestyle block on the outskirts of a Wairarapa town, crammed with apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, quinces, feijoas…. almost any hardy fruit you care to name, including more unusual varieties, such as medlars. It was a slightly humbling experience to walk among the many different apple varieties, choosing fruit to sample from those later fruiting types.
Any what types! Fruit glorying in a range of seemingly eccentric names – Kentish Fillbasket, Peasgood Nonesuch, and Merton Russett – and displaying a great variety of colours, sizes and – as we found out – flavours.
Not everyone is going to have the space and the inclination to grow such a wide range of apples but most gardens can fit in one or two varieties, either on dwarfing rootstock, or as espaliers.
I am a great fan of the Greytown fruit breeder James Hutton Kidd, who was breeding apples a century ago. His ‘Gala’ variety is in the background of most recent New Zealand varieties, so his work has had huge influence of the apples we export.
Among his once-popular types are a few that fell out of favour for a while, but are staging a comeback. ‘Kidd’s Orange Red’ is a reliable late-season fruiting variety, similar to Cox’s Orange Pippin, with a rich, aromatic taste with a good balance between the tart and sweet flavours.
‘Freyberg’ is a greenish-yellow fruit with hints of russetting, so it does not look the shiny red apples we have come to expect in supermarkets. But the fruit has a much more complex flavour than modern types, with nuttiness combined with sweetness. It ripens in the mid season but will keep on the tree developing further complexities of flavour.
“Laxton’s Fortune’ is a variety bred in England in 1904, but a famous nursery family. It has lovely colour, with red stripes over green/yellow skin with a little russetting sometimes. It has a lovely sweet flavour, again more complex the later it is picked.
‘Sir Prize’ has yellow green skin and tender flesh. It is an excellent keeping, late fruiting, ‘Golden Delicious’ type. It was one we were able to pick from the orchard, and both enjoyed eating.
If you want to keep yourself even healthier than the traditional “apple a day” will, try another surprise, ‘Monty’s Surprise’, a good crisp, late-ripening apple that is shiny red over light green. It has been shown to have enormous potential for prevention of disease, and is regarded as the best anti-cancer apple in the world. It was found as a wild seedling in the Manawatu, but is now available throughout New Zealand.