Monday, October 25, 2010


The little girls next door are world experts in “pink”- it is their favourite colour and it is not unusual to see them dressed in pink from head to toe, riding pink bikes.  I tease them, telling them I hate pink things.  I have not told them that pinks, Dianthus species and hybrids, are in fact among my favourite plants.  I cannot tell them now, or all my complaints about their colour will be ruined!
It has made me think about some other plants that have given their names to colours, in particular the lilacs and lavenders that are now in flower.
Of the two, lavenders are by far the more popular, but at one time lilacs were among the most planted of shrubs.  I guess their deciduous nature is now counting against them, as most modern gardeners are intent on creating gardens composed entirely of evergreens, but they are fabulous spring flowering plants. 
Botanically the 20 or so species of lilac glory in the name Syringa – brings unfortunate word associations with visits to the doctor does it not? – although in old books you might see that name attributed to mock oranges, Philadelphus.  If you hunt around you can probably find a few of the less common species, but in the garden centres you are most likely to come across forms of the common lilac, S. vulgaris.
I was staggered to see that there are about 1500 different hybrids and varieties available worldwide.  There is certainly nothing like that number around New Zealand – you would probably be lucky to find twenty or so varieties in most nurseries.  These are mainly older hybrids, and funnily enough, not very many of them are actually lilac coloured.  Perhaps the best of those that are actually ‘lilac’, is’ Madam F Morel’, a single flowered, fragrant pinkish-lilac.  ‘Alice Eastwood’ is a double flowered form with similar colouring, although it has a more spreading habit of growth.
I am not sure which “non-lilac” variety is my favourite.  I like ‘Charles Joly’, another older form but in this case with very deep reddish purple flowers, but I also like ‘Mme Lemoine’, a lovely white flowered form which seems to have lighter green foliage than most hybrids.
One of the most interesting forms is ‘Sensation’, which has rich purple single flowers with each petal edged with white and carried  in large semi-open panicles produced freely on a medium to tall shrub. This one is well worth seeking out.
If you are looking for something with a finer, lighter feel than the old lilac varieties you should keep an eye out for Syringa 'Bellicent’, an upright deciduous shrub which bears fragrant pink in panicles in late spring and early summer.  These are carried over dark green foliage often with light variegations. It is hardy and well suited to a shrub border or as a specimen.
Lilacs are not too fussy as to their growing conditions.  They certainly prefer a well-drained soil and a position in the sun or light shade. It is best if the soil is neutral to a slightly limey as lilacs grow very poorly in acid soils and heavy clay. For good flower production a moist soil, full of well-rotted compost or farmyard manure is recommended. In recent years New Zealand has discovered an export market for these flowers, and numbers of growers are slowly increasing.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It is Labour Weekend and that means we are all going to be exhorted to get into the garden centre and spend, spend, spend on our summer vegetable gardens.  In our cooler climes I think it pays to wait for a week or two before planting the most summery of crops, but I do not know about this year.  Even though it has not been very sunny, we have had a mild spring, with next to no frosts.  Even when we have had a southerly outbreak, we have dodged the icy bullet by having easterlies with their attendant clouds.
So, let’s just go ahead this year and get planting tomatoes, peppers and the like this weekend – or maybe next. 
This is all predicated on the soil being ready to receive the plants.  If you are a traditional dirt patch sort of gardener (as opposed to the newer “raised bed filled with potting mix” sort) you should have already worked your soil up, by adding some compost and fertiliser.  
 I have a slight problem this year.  As you will be aware we have had to dig a new garden, and I have made about half of it out of soil from the recycling centre.  This will have been made largely out of a mix of clippings from the local recycling centre and some treated soil, but the clippings present a threat.  They will almost certainly include some week-killed grass clippings and some plants, including tomatoes, absolutely hate even a trace of these chemicals.  I will have to take care to make sure I put the plants into the old soil.
I have already worked some fertiliser into the soil, but I will also add some dolomite to help keep the nutriment balance right and will add some slow release general fertiliser to the soil when I plant, as I know I am unlikely to remember to give the plants the amount of side dressings they ideally need. The next step is to put the stakes in place.  You do not want to wait until the tomatoes are already planted as you will damages the young roots as you hammer the stakes into place.
I am assuming you have not saved your own seed, and are going to have to buy some plants in from the nursery.  If you have been growing F1 hybrid plants (and I think you should be) then you cannot save your own seed as they will not come true to type.  If you have been growing an open pollinated variety you could have saved the seed last autumn, and have sown about a month ago, but it is probably a bit late now.
You will probably find a slightly bewildering array of plants on offer, with old favourites like ‘Moneymaker’ and ‘Grosse Lisse’ available, as well as a wide range of both heritage types and more modern hybrids.  Personally I think you should go for modern F1 hybrids for the bulk of your plants.  I know many people believe they are not as flavoursome as the old types, but I think that is a misapprehension based on supermarket fruit, which are picked before they are properly ripe.  Grow a modern type like ‘Taupo’ and you will never go back to the older ones.
Among the good modern ‘Moneymaker’ types you could look out for are ‘Taupo’, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Better Boy’, while larger fruited types include ‘Better Boy’, ‘Big Boy’ and ‘Big Beef’.  If you are a fan of Italian types you will probably prefer the old fashioned ‘Italiano’, which I think is as good as any, but you might struggle to find that. ‘Roma’ and ‘San Mazarno’ are two good modern types.

Sunday, October 03, 2010


I had a phone call from a friend the other day telling me that his wisteria was about to flower and asking if I would like to call and see it in a few days.  I was glad of the call as he and his wife have one of the most interesting plantings in front of a very appealing 1920s bungalow.  A wisteria is wound across the top of a verandah, underplanted with a pair of majestic weeping standard roses which grow above a mix of green and purple weeping maples, the whole bed edged with a clean row of box.  The overall effect is very sophisticated and looks attractive all year round, but it looks at its best right now.
The wisterias are Northern Hemisphere climbers, mainly from Asia but also with one or two species from America.  The ones we grow in the garden are almost without fail the Asian ones, especially the Japanese W. floribunda and the Chinese W. sinensis, both of which are firm favourite s with gardeners the world over.
The various forms of the Chinese wisteria are the most commonly grown forms.  It a very vigorous deciduous climber which can get to an enormous size if left unchecked and in spring has long racemes of lilac or mauve flowers, always heavy with a heady scent.  It flowers in the middle of spring with a big burst of fragrance before the leaves appear and always gives a dramatic show.
These climbers are usually grown in the way my friend has grown his plant – as climbers that twine their way across wires, pergolas and trellises, or sneak along fences, but they can be kept as handsome shrubs – even as weeping standards.  I have a friend who even has a small example in a large bonsai pot and the effect is amazing.
The most commonly available variety now is W. sinensis ‘Caroline’ which has fragrant lilac flowers.  This is a real weather tamer, seeming to flower through the worst of the nor-westers without being shredded, and also coping with the rain without marking too badly.   She will usually throw a second crop of flowers in summer – a lot smaller crop of slightly pinker flowers.
The other named varieties you are likely to come across are more likely to be from the Japanese species W. floribunda, and are almost certain to have longer racemes.  The longest of all are from the variety called ‘Macrobotys’, which has blue/purple racemes of pea-shaped flowers that can be as long as a metre, although in their home country plants have produced racemes as long as 1.8 metres!  The long racemes give a longer flowering season too as the flowers open from the base, slowly working their way along to the tip. Obviously, this plant needs to be trained high enough to take account for its long clusters of flowers.
There are the usual lilac coloured forms of this species too, ‘Cascade’ and ‘Lavender Lace’ perhaps being the best known,  but it  has also given rise to a wonderful range of coloured varieties as well.   W. floribunda ‘Alba’ and ‘Snow Showers’ are delightful white varieties, as their names suggest.  They both flower at about the same time as the new leaves open, but as the leaves are bright lime green the effect is appealing enough. 
At the opposite end of the colour range is the intriguing but somewhat misnamed ‘Black Dragon’ – do not expect to get jet black flowers.  In this case the flowers are actually very dark purple in the bud, but they open to deep violet.  The flowers are unusually doubled (the only variety I have ever seen that are) and very fragrant, so they are well worth having.
If you are like the little girls that live next door to our garden, you will be delighted to know  there are some pink forms too!  With both the varieties ‘Lipstick’ and ‘Pink Ice’ the buds are pinker than the flowers, but the light coloured flowers definitely have a pink cast.