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.