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.