Sunday, December 30, 2012

Day lilies

At this time of the year our garden suffers a little from “Yellow Fever”.  I do not mean that the Head Gardener and I take copious weekends off and head over to Wellington to watch the Phoenix soccer team (although we do that occasionally) .  No, what I mean is that yellow starts to dominate the flowers in the garden, with many brightly coloured perennials coming to the fore.
Primary among these are the delightful day lilies, Hemerocallis, one of the most popular of all perennials in the United States, yet somehow neglected in this country.
Both the common name and the Latin name refer to the flowers’ ephemeral life span – literally here today gone tomorrow for these guys.  Hemero is Greek for “one day”, while “callis” means beautiful, so when the great plant classifier Carl Linnaeus was looking for an appropriate name for the genus in 1753 he hit on Hemerocallis.
Originally found in the wild in China, these plants have been hybridised for many years now and a wide range of plant forms and colours is available, although it has to be said that the yellow and orange shades probably still predominate.  Many gardeners have been familiar with the old thin-petalled yellow flowered varieties and are rather surprised when they see more modern forms, with their deeper colours, stronger texture, and much wider range of colours.  We grow a number of yellow and reddish forms, as well as one lovely deep mahogany variety, which we planted in our dark coloured border.
Daylilies are very hardy and will cope with anything the weather will throw at them in Wairarapa – they will bounce back from cold very well and will cope with drought reasonably well too, although they do like the occasional drink during the heat of summer.
There are two different growth habits among modern daylilies – some go completely dormant in winter, the leaves dying off completely for the colder months, while others remain evergreen right through the year.  I grow both forms and have to say the dormant forms are probably tidier in the garden as their dead leaves are removed as part of the usual autumn tidy up, whereas some of the evergreen varieties mainly shed their dead leaves in the following spring, and you can end up with a plant covered in flowers, but also with dead and dying leaves in the middle of the clump.  It probably pays to check which form any variety you buy is
Although day lilies will grow quite happily in most soil types, they do best in well fertilised, well drained light-ish soil.  We have some growing in quite stiff clay and although they are growing alright, they do not compare to those growing in better soil.  You can also grow these summer beauties in large containers, using a robust container mix.  If you do not have any, you could make up a variety of the old John Innes mix – equal parts of good garden loam, peat moss (or composted bark) and well rotted animal manure.
Day lilies are true long-lived perennials, with fibrous roots are varying from thin to fleshy and tuberous, extending from the crown, which is also where the leaves and flowers emerge.  They are very easy to divide and increase – just find where the fans are connected at the crown of the plant and carefully cut or pry them apart. You will find that some of fans are not properly connected and you will only need to disentangle their roots.  Try to be very careful when undertaking division because even though snapping some of the roots is very hard to prevent , it is important to keep as much of the roots as possible. If a fan snaps off of the crown without any roots you are doomed ­– the leaves will not grow new roots.   These are vigorous plants, so when replanting make sure you leave enough room around them for their expansion!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A new year's gardening and blogging

What with two books published in the past month, things have been a bit hectic here, and the blog has been suffering - so it is time to start all over!

There is a strange period in the vegetable garden around the New Year, as the first crop of vegetables and fruit, so carefully tended and carried through to provide special treats (new peas, new potatoes, strawberries and raspberries) for the Christmas table, has been harvested and there is a little lull.  It is time, though to start thinking and planning for the cooler winter months ahead, as well as continuing the succession of summer plantings.
I know it seems decidedly odd to be thinking of the dreary months that stretch out after May, but if you do not get under way with winter crops, there will not be a long enough season left for the plants to come to maturity.  In fact, it is probably a little late for some of these crops already, but we will push on and get these under way anyway.
The basic tenet we are working on is that most vegetable plants will stop growing over the winter.  If you have planted later in the season the crops will not have had long enough to mature into full size, and they will go into a holding pattern.  Once spring comes and the growing conditions improve, they will think it is time to flower and they will “bolt”, rendering them useless. 
Planting now (and keeping the newly planted seedlings moist) gives the plants the opportunity to take advantage of the extended growing season, when temperatures are at the most conducive for good growth.   It also means most will be approaching maturity when the temperatures start to fall in late autumn/early winter, and the colder conditions will hold them in a good state for months, enabling a protracted harvest.
One crop that needs to go in soon is a good supply of that winter staple, leeks.  I was thinking about these valuable vegetables the other day, out at ‘Brancepeth’ when we launched a book I co-authored with Alex Hedley about the Beetham family and their remarkable collection of buildings at ‘Brancepeth’.  There used to be very extensive kitchen gardens in years gone by, and I fondly recall the late Hugh Beetham coming in every year and buying multiple bundles of leeks for planting.
Nowadays it is not so easy to find field-grown leek seedlings – most of us have to be content with punnet-grown supplies – but if you can find plants that have been sown in the open ground it is far better to plant these.  They will be much thicker and more robust than punnet grown types which are usually drawn up and thin.  You could consider twice-planting these punnet-grown leeks if you have the space and time.  Just plant them out in small clumps in a nursery bed until they have grown on and made a bit of thickness, then plant them into their final spot.
Leeks like lots of humus in the spoil, so work some well-rotted animal manure (chicken pooh is great!) or humus-rich compost into the soil, working it in well.   If your plants are robust enough to be planted out now, trim the top of the leaves off, keeping about 50mm.  Plant by using a dibbler to make a hole into the well-prepared soil, and then drop one leek into each of the holes, which should be about 125 mm apart.  The best way to plant is to keep all of the bottom part of the leek in the hole, with just the 50mm of foliage showing, then just squeeze the top of the hole to keep the leek upright position – do not fill the hole – and water in very well.  Obviously you should keep the plants well-watered until the autumn rains arrive.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The spring blues

I do not know what it is about the colour blue, but it seems some people just cannot get enough of it in the garden – including the Head Gardener.  In fact, the first garden we made in our first shared house featured a blue and gold garden that was named after her beloved maternal grandmother.  It featured a few of her favourite plants, a few of which we also grow in our garden here.
One that did not feature in that first garden but is a feature of our garden here is a blue Corydalis, one of those unusual beauties that combine the ferniest-looking leaved with subtle blue flower I have seen described as “curious shaped”.  They certainly do have unusual shaped flowers, long tubes of mid blue, topped with white.   The first of these to become very popular in New Zealand was a variety called ‘Pere David’, named after the great missionary plant hunter.  There are lots of others varieties around, but they are all variations of the same theme – attractive filmy foliage, often with a silvery cast, topped with cool blue flowers.
These are natural woodland plants, and do their best in light shade, although I have seen them doing superbly well out in the open in gardens at the Dunedin Botanic Garden.  Either way, they need moist soil with good drainage to be seen at their best.  Although the blues are the most commonly grown varieties nowadays, there are other colours – yellow, white, pink and maroon types can be found, with the yellow and cream varieties perhaps being the strongest growing forms.
We have some forget-me-nots growing in the same bed as the Corydalis – no one could pretend that these are precious and delicate plants, but the softly-hued powdery blue flowers are surely as pretty as any.  They can certainly get away a bit, seeding with abandon, but they are such a pretty soft blue, and they are easily enough weeded out.
There are improved strains around, which are mainly smaller and more compact in growth while retaining the same blue flowers.  They look great in bedding situations but I think the taller varieties look better in the garden.
If you like forget-me-not flowers there are a number of similar but slightly different species and strains around.  I am a great fan of the lovely silver foliaged Brunnera ‘Looking Glass.’   This is one for the open garden with relatively large leaves of a shiny silvery hue, and makes a wonderful foliage statement in the perennial garden.  But at this time of the year, it has a bright bonus – masses of bright blue flowers, not large but carried in good numbers.  I have this in rich moist soil and it does very well, increasing nicely.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

As much as I love the arrival of spring with its attendant lift in the spirits as well as a rejuvenation of the garden, I also dread the arrival of the grass growing, and hence lawn mowing season.   The once-fortnightly ritualised scalping of the remaining green areas around the house becomes a more regular chore until it peaks at about a four to five day interval, then tapers off again as we approach summer.
You might sense that I am not a great lawn lover.  For me, they are a slightly annoying requirement to help set off the gardens that I am really interested in.  Over the years here, I have removed one lawn entirely and embarked on an insidious programme of slowly reducing the size of the others by making extra gardens, then widening them.  I think the lawns probably take less than half the time they used to take when they were at their full extent.
My lawns are not in great shape either.  I do try to keep the broadleaved weeds down (more about that in a second) and I spray for Onehunga weed, but in reality my lawn, like the vast majority of lawns is a MDW lawn – mowed down weeds.  It is a mix of various grasses, clover and any other low growing weed that can cope with being topped regularly.
I do spray the lawns with a selective weedkiller at this time of the year –I managed to get it down this weekend, taking advantage of the fine, calm weather. My primary aim to keep the Onehunga weed under control, as nobody likes having their bare feet attacked by multitudes of prickles in the dry summer months.
Onehunga weed is a real pest when it gets established in a garden but it can be controlled relatively easily if look after at the right time of the year. It is an annual that has small ferny leaves growing about 20 cm across, with tiny greenish-yellow flowers. It starts to grow with the first rains of autumn, but doesn’t really kick on until spring when it flowers and sets many seed heads.  It is a bad problem in Wairarapa, because it flourishes in dry summer areas – as the grasses die back in our usual summer drought, it provides room for the Onehunga weed to germinate and grow.  When the seeds are almost mature they are easily picked up and spread by animals moving across the lawn – especially, it seems, bare-footed children.  It is important to get some spray onto these weeds before they have set seed as the plants are harder to kill as they get older, and of course the seeds have already been set.  If you have any of these weeds in your lawn (they will also grow on other bare patches in the garden) it will pay to get onto this job straight away.
I generally use a product I used to know by the trade name of Faneron, although nowadays it is packaged as ‘Prickle Weed Killer’, which I guess is a simple enough name to remember.  This year, though I used a combination product which will also have a lash at the broad leaved weeds like dandelion, hawk bit and the like.  I usually just spend an hour or two each spring forking the worst of these out, but I decided to try the easier option this year.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

I was wondering around the outer streets of Masterton the other morning, relishing a day without too much wind and rain.  As always at this time of the year, my head was filled with gardens, because a stroll through suburban developments is an intriguing glimpse into people’s gardening fashions and passions, and is also an interesting history lesson in the sense that some gardens canbe very accurately dated by the plant palette that has been employed.
I could not help notice the number of very bad native gardens there are.  Some of them date back quite a while, before the more recent craze for indigenous planting, while others are newer.  Where these gardens fail (in my opinion of course) is that they do not appreciate that they are gardens, human constructs, not some bizarre attempt to make a fake New Zealand landscape.
In its worst manifestation, this style of garden is composed of lots of sedges, long past needing to be divided and replanted, some very scruffy looking New Zealand flaxes that have not been tidied since they have been planted, and a splattering of untrimmed Coprosmas, that have completely outgrown their allotted spaces.
But, I am delighted to say, there are also some inspiring gardens that are largely composed of natives and have been built in such a way they work as gardens, and still others where native plants have been cleverly incorporated into a wider planting.  Once combination was so clever and attractive I came back home to get my camera to take some photographs, and it was simplicity itself – a puawhananga scrambling through a red flowered manuka.
The puawhananga is the plant pakeha called the native clematis (there are others that we will get to soon!) and botanists call Clematis paniculata, and is undoubtedly the most beautiful, and also one of the most vigorous of the native clematis.  It can be found growing through forest margins and in bush land throughout New Zealand – there were plants in flower on the Rimutaka Hill road when I p[assed over recently – and is reliably hardy, although it can be hard to get established.
Like all the New Zealand clematis it is dioecious, a flash way of saying it carries male and female organs on separate plants.  This matters in the garden where we are looking for bigger flowers generally, and most of the varieties you can buy in the garden centre will have male flowers.
It is very difficult to transfer these plants from the wild.  They scramble along in the upper branches of shrubs and trees, and they flower a long way away from their roots.  To make things more complicated, the plant goes through a number of different plant habits too, making it hard to track back to the main plant.  On top of that they deeply resent being moved as well so you are best to buy a plant from the nursery.  .
When you bring C. paniculata into the garden you must remember to plant it the same say it grows in the wild.  It is a true forest denizen and needs conditions similar to its natural habitat - a cool root run, preferably in humus-rich soil, and good moisture.  It should be planted where it can clamber up a medium sized tree for best effect, as in the garden mentioned above where it was spreading from a three metre high manuka into a similarly sized cabbage tree.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Howling winds, scudding showers and slowly warming temperatures – must mean spring is just about here and it is time to start thinking about getting the vegetable garden kicked back into life after the slower winter months.
Despite the lousy weather I managed to get out into the kitchen garden for brief spells over the weekend, and pulled a few weeds.  I noticed the garlic and the shallots have made a great start with sprigs of leaves pushing through.

I spent a bit of time in the glasshouse too, mainly checking on my Iris seedlings, and the ungerminated Iris seed from Australia (they will germinate in the next few weeks).  It is very noticeable that the temperatures are rising in here too, and the once-weekly watering that sufficed over the winter will no longer do the trick and I will have to check on it most sunny days from now on.
The soil in the vegetable garden is in surprisingly good condition considering the rain, but we are very freely drained here, and I guess those who have heavier soil will still be wondering when they can get onto it.  It is very important not to work up soil if it is very sticky feeling, as it will help destroy the soil structure, and as we discussed last week, it is vital to ensure the best possible structure to the soil.  For gardens that are not cultivated often just adding some mulch annually will do the trick, but if you are turning the soil over frequently it is important to think about the way how you keep it healthy. 
I like to use home-made compost, and I try to dig in a good dose each year, but well-rotted animal manures will do the trick just as well, and some combination will probably work even better, as each component will have different mineral strengths.  If you are adding home-made compost it usually pays to add lime at the same time, as cropping tends to lower the pH of most soil and compost usually has low pH as well.  You can use a very fine horticultural grade, which will be released quite quickly, or you could get coarser agricultural grade (which is usually cheaper) and which will take a lot longer to release and thus can be applied at a higher rate but less often.
I managed to give my garden a bit of a going over the other weekend – just a rough digging really – so it is ready to have a final working up and then I can start planting some spring vegetables.  It is far too early to start thinking about frost tender summer-cropping plants like tomatoes and peppers yet (unless you have a glasshouse, in which case it is a good time to start with tomatoes especially) but as the soil warms up we can start planting and sowing some of the green-leaved types in particular.  Cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli, those cousins from the brassica family, should be well under way by now, but if you want to sow your own, there is still plenty of time to be doing that. 
Sowing and growing your own seedlings is a very economical way of doing things, of course.  It affords you the chance to grow a wider variety of cultivars and also means you can control the number of plants you buy at each stage of the planting season.  It probably also means you can grow just the particular type of seed you want rather than being restricted to the varieties your garden centre was to supply you.
When you go to buy seed you will probably be shocked at the discrepancy between the varieties on offer.  Older varieties, which are open-pollinated, are relatively cheap.  More modern varieties, produced by keeping two separate strains alive and then crossing between the two (called F1 hybrids) are much dearer.  In most cases it is worth paying the extra and getting the Fq1 hybrid seed, as it will almost certainly be stronger growing, will fruit earlier and will give a much sturdier product.  I think this especially applies to tomatoes and peppers – I would even think of growing an old open pollinated type of these.  

Monday, September 03, 2012

A lot of rot - in a good way

One of the aspects of gardening that newcomers and young people in particular struggle with is the idea that any kind of cultivation depletes the soil of its natural nutriments, and that intensive gardening of any kind requires keen attention to soil fertility and structure.
For some kinds of landscape gardening the process of growing plants and allowing them to die naturally and return to the soil will keep things more or less in equilibrium – woodland gardens can be treated this way, and many native gardens will also function perfectly well in this manner.  But if we are constantly removing vegetation from the soil and not replacing it – as we do when we grow bedding plants in the same soil year after year, or in an even more pronounced way, when we establish vegetable beds – then we need to think long and hard about how we treat the soil.
One of the things we can think about is returning the spent vegetation from the garden back into the soil, by recycling it through a composting system.   Young people, used to the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ concept in computers (where bad data into the programme results in bad computing results) are always amazed that there is a natural system where ‘garbage in, brown gold out’ is the rule!
The value of well composted material is two-fold.  Compost returns valuable nutriment to the soil, in the natural forms of the valuable chemicals plants need to function – nitrogen, potassium and phosphate in particular.  It also functions as a valuable way of restoring humus to the soil, ensuring the soil structure is maintained or enhanced leading to a better fauna of microscopic animals that help break nutriment down, and also helps aerate the soil, meaning roots will develop better and more efficiently make use of the increased nutriment available.
Having decided upon a compost system, how does the tyro composter get underway?
Firstly, choose a receptacle for your compost.  There are many containers that will suit, including plastic bins, wooden crates, and even simple cages made from chicken wire.  The optimum size is probably about a metre square, and they should be placed away from the wind, sun and rain so you can control the moisture level in the bin.  Also make sure you place the container on soil rather than concrete – you are going to be relying on soil critters to make their way up into the bin to do the work for you.
Now you can think about what can be composted, and fortunately there is a wide range of suitable material – lawn clippings and leaves from the garden, as well as fruit and vegetable scraps, tea leaves, and coffee grounds are all useful.  You can also improve the way the system works by adding thin layers of animal manure or seaweed, and alternating with coarse layers of straw or the like.  You can also use sparing portions of wood ash.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

This little gardening story starts out in the living room of a motel in Dunedin on Sunday morning, where the Head Gardener and I were talking with our son and his partner about the difficulty of writing – theses in their instances, garden articles in my case.  Ana (the partner) asked if I had taken any photographs while in Dunedin that I could use for a story, and I said I had, but none for this week.
She then asked me what I was going to write about, and I had to confess that I had not really decided on anything – it had been a very hectic week, and I knew we were flying home later in the morning so I thought I would think about it on the way home.
As it turned out the flight offered no inspiration, and even a little gardening in our other son’s garden in Wellington did not give me any great ideas, although it might provide inspiration for a story soon.
As I drove home I was wracking my brains trying to think of something, without great success.  The weekend had been tiring, with celebratory meals and late nights, and my mind was not working very well.
But when I drove up our drive I caught a glimpse of the beautiful pink Magnolia ‘Sweetheart’ in flower down the back of the section, and I stopped the car, opened the boot, got my camera out and raced down to have a close look at it.
I planted this some years ago, but it was underneath the shade of a large lemonwood tree and it took an interesting growth path, one stem heading due north while the others clustered around the crown.  The removal of the lemonwood a few years ago has made all the difference.  It has enabled the smaller branches to grow out, and the whole tree, although rather lopsided still, now looks very Japanese.   And the flowers – well, if there is a prettier variety I have not seen it.   ‘Sweetheart’ has deep pink flowers, upright facing, with lusciously creamy interiors, the blooms being carried with abandon in early spring.  It is a New Zealand raised seedling of the popular British variety ‘Caerhays Belle’, and like most deciduous Magnolias, it requires a sunny spot with well-drained soil with plenty of humus.  It will need watering when fist planted, and in sustained dry spells, but once established is very hardy.
The pink Magnolia that many lust after is the wonderful M. campbellii, from the Himalayas.  When well-frown in a perfect spot, and in a season where we do not have any pesky frosts interrupting the flowering season, these are spectacular trees – there is one in the Palmerston North Esplanade gardens that I try to catch each year – but they can be a bit tricky in our colder inland climate.  They are also reluctant to flower early in their lives - it can take years before they bloom, so it probably pays to grow a more recent hybrid.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Fun in Cranbourne

I had an interesting garden day last weekend.  I had been on a flying trip to Melbourne to assist a  company developing a new computer system for the Wairarapa Archive.  It had been a very hectic couple of days with long hours and concentrated effort, and I was looking forward to a day off before flying home.  My hosts told me I would like the new botanical garden in the suburb of Cranbourne which I could easily reach by a short train ride and a quick walk.
I should have looked at the maps before I left, but I jumped on a suburban train and we took off south – for over 45 kms before reaching Cranbourne railway station.  I had not anticipated the train ride taking over an hour, but I was more flummoxed by the complete lack of signage telling me where the garden was.  To make things worse, Cranbourne is a pretty little town - about the size of Carterton I would say – with a six lane highway running through the town, and the first two people I asked had no idea where the garden was.
I eventually found a kind lady who pointed me in the right direction – through the town, past the racecourse, and a few country blocks further on you’ll find the gateway – from there it is another couple of kms!  Luckily I had put my walking shoes on so I set off, walking through a lovely crisp late winter afternoon – for about an hour and  a half.
It was worth it though.  After wandering along a road through bush land, and hearing and seeing all sorts of bird life and the odd bandicoot, I arrived at the heart of the 363 hectare area, the recently planted Australia gardens, with its marvellous concentration on the many indigenous species that make the island continent’s flora such an interesting one.
The centre of the garden is a huge red sand garden, designed to replicate the red interior, planted with circles of saltbush.  In spring there are flushes of bloom from wildflowers.  Arranged around the central feature are a number of themed gardens, with a dry riverbed garden, an arid garden, and a variety of Eucalyptus gardens, each reflecting a different aspect of the Australian environment.   There are at least five different Eucalyptus areas, with trees that have only been planted in the past few years, but it is already starting to assume a mature aspect.
I was interested to have a look through the various exhibition gardens, most of which are designed to educate local gardeners to use more plants that are suited to Australian conditions. 
There are some extraordinary plants on show, as well as a few interesting sculptures.  I particularly liked the electric blue sculpture designed to encourage people to think about how much water they are using in their gardens, and about ways to use water better.
Among the gardens I particularly liked where those that featured plants I knew we could grow in New Zealand.   Among those that were in flower (bearing in mind that this is not the best time of the year to go garden visiting!) was the rosy pink Grevillea ‘Sylvia’, a quick growing hybrid form that will grow to nearly three metres if left to its own devices.  These large flowered Grevillias have huge flowers that look like large racemes of stamen, quite unlike the spidery flowers of the smaller flowered types.
I had not seen ‘Honey Gem’ before, but was very taken with its large golden flowers, and its nice ferny foliage.  It is apparently not so hardy as ‘Sylvia’ and it also grows quite a bit taller, so it might be best left for the back of the border. 
It pays to give all Grevilleas a bit of a trim before you plant them, especially these taller forms which have a more open growth habit, as it tends to make the plant develop a thicker way of growing.

I was taken with a couple of Banksias too, especially the startling B. menziesii, which I hesitate to write about as I know it is hard to grow. Like all the best Banskias, it grows wild in Western austrlia, and demands very particular growing conditions – perfect drainage for a start, dry summers and the warmest place you can find to grow it.  It bears lots of fabulous pink and yellow cones through autumn and into winter.  It is a very popular plant for the cut flower trade, and you will see it in lots of overseas television programmes.     We used to sell a few of this plant to discerning Wairarapa gardeners, and I have seen some that have established well in stony places, and if you have the right conditions, this would ,make a spectacular addition to the garden.  I noticed that it attracted lots of honeyeaters too, so I guess the tui would like it.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

What a silly season!

This is the best time of year in some ways - the start of the year for Maori, as the rising of Matariki in the sky indicates that start of the climb out of the depths of winter towards the planting season.
For us Iris lovers it is the start of the flowering season, with the delightful I. stylosa in flower, and some lovely I. reticulata hybrids popping out.  This is in flower in my garden at the moment:

There are other delights - the sombre I. tuberosa is also in flower in my garden.  This is a special flower to me as it was the flower I took my wife Jill out to see by torchlight on our first date, not knowing it had come third hand from her mother's garden (via her aunt and a nursery!)
As if that was not enough excitement for one day, some packets of seed have arrived from John Taylor in Australia, filled with the progeny from his fantastic breeding programme with PCIs, with a lot of hand crossed seeds from his fabulous award-winning variety withe the breeding name of A44 - see below. I sowed these today.

Then, while I was out and about I noticed a PCI in flower in my garden.  This is ridiculously early - they should still be about ten weeks away, but what a nice bonus!

Sweet smelling winter

This weekend has been a bright one here in Wairarapa, and it has been a great chance to get out and about in the garden.  Despite it being relatively cold, I was able to work in most of the garden beds without causing too much damage – wet weather, sodden soil and gardeners stamping all over the spoil leads to compacted soils and poor growth.
I took the chance to prune the few roses that I have around the garden, as they are showing signs of popping their leaf buds. I also cleaned up a lot of the perennials, some of which still had dead foliage from the autumn hanging on.  I was naughty – I really ought to have got onto this earlier as dead and rotting leaves look awful in the garden, and can harbour pests and diseases that are best banished from the garden.  I threw some extra compost on the soil surface too, to help keep the weed seed from germinating.
I went for a walk the other evening, and walking along a deserted country road in complete darkness I was surprised to small the sweet heady scent of wintersweet, Chimonathus praecox, wafting over from an unseen garden. This is a deciduous woody shrub with a slightly plain growth habit, and slightly coarse foliage, so it is not one that you would have in the most prominent sight in the garden.  When winter comes the plain theme continues, as this small tree (or large shrub) carries very insignificant flowers (usually – more anon) but what they lack in sight appeal they more than make up for with the most amazing heady scent.  There is a yellow form called ‘Lutea’ with slightly (and it is only slightly!) more coloured flowers, with the same spicy scent.
To be honest, although I absolutely love the scent of this shrub (and it shares part of its name with me) I have never planted it, as I do not like its scrappy growth, and would need to have a bigger garden before I found room for it.  But I am, delighted that my neighbours have a shrub in the garden, with branches that come across our fence, so I get to relish in its scent.
Although it is an element that is often forgotten about, a garden without scent would be a fairly sterile place, and I will always find room for a good range of highly fragrant plants.  I adore the clove spiciness of the various members of the Dianthus family, and love it when a border of pinks or carnations is in full flower, and I always have pots of Freesias for the patio near the back door.  One of the highlights of summer is the evening swim in the darkness, when the Lilium auratum is in bloom, the decadent scent enlivening the evening air.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Mid July is a funny time in the garden.  In reality, in most year there is little to do apart from a bit of cleaning up work.  If you have a large fruit tree or rose collection it is a good time to get cracking on with the pruning and tidying that winter brings, and it is also a good time to get some clean-up sprays on.
It is also a time when we get a hint of the coming of spring, with a few spring precursors putting out their first flowers.  I have the first of the spring irises in flower – the oddly coloured (green and velvet black flowers are unusual!) Iris tuberosa, sometimes called Hermodactylus tuberosus.  It is a sun-loving Iris from the shores of the Mediterranean, sometimes called the “snakes head iris) from the odd shape of the tubers, which have a hood-like effect at one end.
The first of the snowdrops is flowering too – the lovely double form called ‘Lavinia’, a present from a good gardening friend at the time my daughter died.  Like most snowdrops it flowers after the turn of winter, often popping out of the snow in gardens in the northern hemisphere, hence the common name.
I even found a delightful clump of very early daffodils (not jonquils or tazzettas, proper daffodils) flowering under a fence in Boundary Road the other morning.  They are tiny plants – not more than 15 cm high – but they looked so fabulous I went back later to photograph them.
There is something else out at the moment – the first of the flowering Prunus trees, the delightful Japanese apricot, P. mume.  The most popular variety by a long way is the sweetly fragrant ‘Geisha’, rose pink and single but so filled with stamen as to appear double flowered.  This species is very popular in both China and Japan, for ornamental reasons, but also for the fruit.
There are other flowering Prunus trees that are not grown as much as they used to be, but which are among the most beautiful of all flowering trees and shrubs.  I have always been very fond of the flowering almonds, especially the double forms of Prunus gladulosa. The best of these is the pink form, called ‘Rosea Plena’ – literally pink double.  It is a small-growing shrub with extensive branching.  In the spring it covers itself with bright pink flowers, and then in autumn it throws a display of reddish foliage.  At its best, this is one of the prettiest flowers in the garden, and usually sells on sight in the garden centre.
Its white counterpart, ‘Alba Plena’ (I am sure you have worked out that means white double!) has heaps of pure white flowers along the stem in spring.  Both the white and pink forms make wonderful subjects for cutting – they flower right along the length of the stem and look spectacular.  Cutting them back also encourages the best shape for the shrubs too.
I am also fond of the flowering plums, especially those with the dark foliage that gives such a good contrast to lighter coloured trees and shrubs throughout the summer growing season.  The old favourite ‘Blirieana’ has slightly double rich pink blooms in August, and is the result of a cross between P. mume and P. cerasifera ‘Pissardi’. It has slender arching branches and reddish purple leaves which turn purplish green in summer.   For those who are put off flowering plums by the tart fruit that some flowering forms also produce, this hybrid is sterile, so does not produce fruit.  It makes a good street tree and is used for that purpose both in New Zealand and in Australia, as it only grows to about four metres.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

New Zealand Daphnes

Pimelia longifolia on the slopes of Mount Holdsworth

There are a few New Zealand Daphnes, although I have to say the most common of them in the garden does not look anything like a Daphne, and is a scent free zone.  Interestingly though, it is a plant you will find on rocky places on the Wairarapa coastline – Pimelia prostata, a small silver leaved shrub with small off-white flowers.  If you have ever tramped up the pathway to see the Castlepoint Lighthouse you will have walked past these plants at the bottom of the track, and on other rocky places on the reef.
There are some cultivated forms available in the nursery trade.  Perhaps the best of these is ‘Silver Ghost’ which is an attractive silvery groundcover. The flower heads are much larger than any other groundcover Pimelia and will also get around 30cm.  It is a great plant for walls or the edge of the border, but also looks great cascading down the side of a large pot.
There is another Pimelia that graces Wairarapa, P.longifolia, and it also grows alongside a track, but in this case you will have to climb a bit more, as I have seen it at its best on the track to the Mount Holdsworth summit.  Its common name is Taranga, and oddly enough, it looks a lot more like a Daphne than its sister the New Zealand Daphne.  Go figure! 
It has comparatively long leaves (as its name suggests) and bears lots of pink-flushed white flowers on the end of its stems.  The individual flowers look very much like Daphne odora, but they are larger.  They are said to be slightly scented, but I have never caught a hint of fragrance, but then again, I may have been too exhausted to notice.
This is not too easy to grow in the garden – it requires quite gritty soil and it does not like to get too hot over the summer.  It is hardy, as it does not seem to occur on Mount Holdsworth until Pig Flats, but it is found almost all the way to the summit.  It flowers in the early summer, but altitude makes a big difference as there are weeks of difference between the lower and higher plants.
If you are really interested in native plants you might be aware of the recently named Pimelia mimosa, found in the wild only on the steep, south facing cliffs of Te Mata Peak, high above the Tukituki River.  It is another silver leaved variety (like P. prostata) but unlike its cousin it is an upright growing form, with an attractive tight growth habit that means it forms a mounding shrub, which will grow to 40cm high and 1m wide within the garden. It has particularly silver foliage, set off by the white flowers are carried over a long time in summer, sometimes in great profusion.
Unlike some of the other forms of this plant, this one has evolved in harsh dry conditions, and will cope with most things a Wairarapa summer will throw at it, so should become a popular garden plant in our region, as it has in Hawke’s Bay.

Daphnes - sort of

Last week we looked at some of the evergreen Daphne plants that are grown in New Zealand.  For keen Daphne growers there are a few varieties we did not cover, but they are mainly species that are designed for the specialist shrub growers, those with an interest in growing the unusual or weird.
There are some fake Daphnes that are worth looking at though, plants that have the common name of Daphne but are not too closely related to true Daphnes.  
Firstly, there are the Japanese Daphnes, Edgworthia species, which unlike many of the false Daphnes are actually quite closely related to the true Daphnes.  The most common species is E. papyrifera, the yellow Daphne. It has a scent reminiscent of its more popular cousins, but it is nowhere near as powerful so you will need to get up close to appreciate its fragrance. It is a wonderful shrub for the late winter/early spring period, with handsome deciduous branches, each one tipped with a ball of white buds, about the size of a cricket ball.  As the season progresses and warms, these buds open to show off a glorious bunch of golden flowers. 
If you are really keen you might even make your own paper from this species.  The specific name refers to the fact that the Japanese make high quality art paper from the bark of these plants – they must grow acres of them to do it though, as they do not grow to two metres.
There is a rare evergreen species sometimes seen in specialist nurseries, the pretty E. gardneri.  It is not something I have ever grown but I have admired the small specimen of it in the special scented garden at the Wellington Botanic Garden, and taken a few photographs of it there, thinking that if I saw it on offer, and I had some space in the garden, I would like to try it.
It has waxy golden flowers – more colourful than E. papyrifera, but each flower ball is much smaller – perhaps more the size of a table tennis ball.
Neither of these species is especially hardy – they will cope with our winters but both probably need as warm a spot as you can give them.  They prefer humus-rich soil and like slightly acidic conditions.  Both have lots of nectar and the tuis will soon find them and pay visits to take some kai.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

In the time I have been involved in gardening, tastes have changed dramatically.   Roses, which were once the staple standby of almost every garden, have suffered a sad reverse in popularity, as have many flowering plants.  The days of rows of gladioli lined up, all clearly labelled and staked have long passed, as have the rows of glorious gerberas stashed into dry areas under windows, their glorious, and sometimes gaudy flowers, flaunting themselves summer long.
But some plants have somehow managed to sustain their favourite status, albeit in a reduced state, and perhaps those decadently-scented evergreen shrubs, the various members of the Daphne family, have managed it better than most.
I was walking past a garden centre the other day and they had a barrow of Daphnes, “pink and white” lined up for sale, all looking healthy and happy, with deep green glossy leaves.  They were all forms of the most popular of Daphnes in New Zealand, the almost-hardy D. odora.

This has been a favourite of New Zealand gardeners for many generations, with its clusters of extremely fragrant flowers in early spring earning it a deserved place in most gardens.  Only the most curmudgeonly of gardeners could fail to be impressed with its heady scent.  They could legitimately complain about their longevity however – these are notoriously short-lived in the garden.
Things have actually got better in the past few years, as the removal of debilitating viruses and the subsequent production of plants from disease-free stock using tissue culture has definitely helped keep these beauties a lot hardier.

There are a few little tricks you can do to help keep your plant healthier and happier – and hopefully, keep it thriving longer in the garden.
Firstly, it is important to remember that they are very fussy about where their feet are.  They do not like being in very moist conditions and they are very particular about having their roots disturbed –they hate their feet being touched, dug into or uncovered.  They will do far better in a shrubbery where they are able to be left untouched than in a traditional mixed bed, with cultivation of the soil around their roots.

You need to be a bit canny about feeding them too. Firstly, they prefer a slightly acidic soil – they will not grow in areas that are limey, so forget about planting them with lavenders, irises and rock roses.  And they do not like too much nitrogenous fertiliser either – too much N in the NPK fertiliser rating and they will bid your garden farewell.  All they really need is the occasional touch up with a low dose of acidic plant food – something like Azalea food would suit them fine, or perhaps a few prills of a slow release fertiliser like Osmocote.  If you think they are growing a little unwell due to acidity not being right, you could try a touch of Epsom salts – it seems to help often.

It has to be said that some Daphnes are not the tidiest of growers – they tend to get a bit twiggy as they age.  It is a good idea to keep them slightly trimmed as they grow – do not try and give them a hard pruning or cut them back hard – they simply will not take it.  Instead, only lightly prune after flowering.  Picking the flowers is a great way to do this!

If we are having a cold winter the plants can sometimes be a bit slow to come into flower – do not worry about this as it is entirely natural and the plant will not be suffering any long term damage.  Similarly,  sometimes when plants are laden with flower buds, the leaves can turn yellow and drop off. Again, do not get too stressed about this – the plant is just dropping some leaves to put its energy into producing flowers, and new leaves will soon enough grow where the old ones were. 
There are a few choices when it comes to D. odora. The most commonly grown is probably the longer-leaved and more robust ‘Leucanthe’, which has ruddy flowers.  Among the type species, with shorter leaves and more compact growth, there are white and pink forms as well as one marked as apricot and called ‘Cameo’.  I have to say whoever named this variety was looking through apricot coloured glasses!
Regular readers will know I am no fan of variegated plants usually, but the form known as ‘Aureomarginata’ as a delight, with a delicate band of gold around the edge of each leaf.  Mine has proven to be short-lived but I will replace it if I can find another plant.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

I was quietly tilling the soil in the vegetable garden during a slightly fine break at the weekend, preparing it for a mid-winter planting, when it dawned on me that I was getting ready for one of my favourite genera (that is a flash way of saying my favourite group of plants).  This is a group of plants that forms a significant part of my vegetable crop rotation, is also found in my little herb garden, and yet is also one of my favourite flowering plants as well.
In case you had not already worked it out I am talking about the wide Allium genus, home to onions, garlics, leeks, spring onions, shallots, and chives as well as innumerable glorious flowering bulbs as well.
At this time of the year it is the garlic and shallots that are occupying my mind, as mid-winter is the traditional time for planting them.
Shallots are small perennial onions I guess – usually sweeter and less pungent than true onion, and usually grown from divisions of an extant bulb rather than from seed.  I grew a good crop of these last year and have kept some of the bulbs aside to use for planting this year.  I found that each bulb I planted grew about five or six new bulbs, and as they are very much a “no fuss“crop they are ideal for the new gardener.
It is best to fertilise you soil well, with a general fertiliser – make sure it is not too nitrogen rich as that will lead to soft growth and potential disease problems later one.  I worked the soil up to a fine tilth and then planted the shallot bulbs about 1-2 cm below the surface.  Some people say it helps start growth if you soak the bulbs in some cool water for about 15 minutes before planting, but I figure that is unneeded as they are going to be soaked soon enough!
The theory is that the plants will have grown to maturity by mid-summer, but I found last year they needed a little longer in the ground.  We had a terrible summer of course, so that may have been the problem.  Anyway, it is the usual onion trick of waiting until the tops start to fall over, then twisting the tops to let the bulbs dry out naturally.  The bulbs store well without sprouting and can be used right through the winter for extra flavour.
Garlic grows in a very similar manner, although a garlic bulb has more divisions (“cloves” as cooks call them, although they neither taste not look like the spice cloves.)  Garlic is very tough and hardy and remarkably easy to grow for the home gardener, although it must be stressed that it does best in good soil.  If grown in poorer or damp soils it tends to be more reluctant to fatten up very much.
Again, plant the cloves with the blunt end down, and just push gently into the soil, which you will have pre-fertilised. They will take a little while to pop into life, but soon enough they will be racing away.  If you have grown your own previously, you can just keep some cloves for planting out, but it probably pays to buy in some fresh stock every few years, just to make sure you have vigorous plants.
If you have a bit of room to play with, and lots of cloves to play with, you could grow some “garlic greens” by planting a clump of cloves quite closely in fertile soil and harvesting them through the spring and summer, leaves and all, and using them in stir fires.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


The last week has seen the arrival of real winter, with snow piled up on the peaks of the Tararuas, and a succession of cold days – really cold days – that remind us that Matariki is here.  The traditional Maori New Year is a goodtime for taking stock, and celebrating the turning of the year back towards summer time.
Although that is true in a literal sense, it is also (unfortunately) a little fallacious.  Due to the effect of the sea warming and cooling more efficiently than the land, we have a drag between the “real” mid-winter, which is today, and the coldest days, which are ahead of us still – July is usually the coldest month.
A bit of time out in the garden this weekend was enough to drive the message home – it was bitterly cold and I was more than happy to get back inside.  I had been tidying up a patch in the vegetable garden to plant some garlic and shallots (more about that next week) but I also had a prowl around the garden, looking at how things were progressing.  I had the tedious chore of picking up the large leaves from the Magnolia ‘Sweetheart’ which is a feature of our back garden – and stands in the middle of an iris trial bed.  The leaves have to be removed as they make a terrible mess as they rot down, and they are wet and cold at this time of the year.  But the recompense is in the buds - beautiful silver-coloured buds to give a subtle reminder of what will be in store in a few months.
I feel the same way about the lilies that are scattered throughout the garden.  Some of them leave ugly stems in early winter, and they have to be carefully removed, while one other species, a Lilium martagon seedling tries to flower out of season in the early winter.  The frost usually gets the flowers.
I am a relatively late convert to the beauty of the lily – it was not until we came to this garden about 15 years ago that I grew anything other than the Christmas Lily, Lilium regale.  This heavily scented treasure, such a traditional favourite for some families, did not feature much in our family, but the Head Gardener’s mother and grandmother were both huge devotees, and we now have two or three clumps around here.  It is always a welcome component of the Christmas house decoration, although one allergy-prone son does not appreciate it so much.
My own mother was a keen gardener who tried to get by without spending too much on the garden – she had no money to spare – so we were always aware of her special purchases.  I have fond memories of the special attention she paid to her favourite highly scented lily – the golden ray lily from Japan,  Lilium auratum.  You would probably be hard pressed to find the species in New Zealand now, but its blood runs through the Oriental Hybrids that are in the garden centres at the moment.
They can be slightly tricky growers - they are gross feeders for a start, and need good humus enriched soil.  You could use organic matter as light mulch, and then fertilise in the spring and just before flowering.  They must not be allowed to dry out but you must also have excellent drainage as they cannot tolerate wet feet.  I have them is raised beds, the ground covered with other plants.  In really hot gardens they would probably benefit from light shade.
I have a couple of glorious plants which I have to pass when I go for my evening swim in the hot nights of February, and their heady, almost decadent, scent is at its best at that time of the night – I luxuriate in the cool water and soak up the fragrance.
They are available in shade of white and pink, through to almost red.  The flowers can be single-coloured, but some of the best have golden or red bars on the petals.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Outrageous good fortune

Some years ago I got myself caught in the middle of an argument with a plant breeder from a scientific institute from the South Island, by suggesting that sometimes scientists might not be the best people to be breeding plants for the commercial horticulture business, and further saying I thought they may have other scientific ideals that got in the way.
One scientist responded, and we corresponded for quite a while, swapping notes about the various plants we shared a common interest in.  He was particularly interested in native plants, and was excited about a cross between a manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) and a kanuka (Kunzea sinclairii), found on an offshore island, which was duly registered and made available to the plant trade, under the less-than-sexy name of Kunzspermum hirakimata ‘Karo Hobson Choice’.   And since then it has disappeared without trace.
Meanwhile, nurserymen have been fiddling with manukas for years, since the first pink flowered forms were found in the wild, then the red forms were also discovered and the double flowered forms were crossed with the coloured ones and a range of coloured and doubled forms were introduced – from California and Australia mainly.
Interestingly, the manuka, a quintessential New Zealand plant you would think, is actually quite a new migrant from Australia, where there are over 80 species.  Both manuka and kanuka are thought to have arrived within geologically recent times, their spread throughout much of the country having been aided by human intervention in the form of fires.  There are many different forms, and some variation in flower colour.  In Wairarapa the upright white flowered form is most commonly seen, but anyone who looks at these plants in the wild will have noticed there are some bushes which seem to have aberrant flowering seasons.
The most interesting array of wild plants I have ever found was on the heads of the Hokianga harbour, where light pink flowered plants in a variety of forms abound.
Australian nurserymen seem to have become  a lot more interested in raising some hybrid Leptospermums from species other than our native one recently – I am not sure that you could call them manukas as they are not indigenous, so perhaps we’ll call them hybrid tea trees, after the name Captain Cook originated when he made an infusion from their leaves.
One I noticed in garden centres this weekend is ‘Outrageous’ – and I mean that is its name.  It is one of a number of colourful cultivars developed at Bywong Nursery at Bungendore, New South Wales, a cross between two Australian species.  It is a medium shrub which grows to about two metres high with drooping branches and narrow leaves about 15 mm long, with a more green tinge than our manukas usually possess. 
The five petalled, deep red flowers are larger than usual for a manuka, being about 20 mm diameter, and have a have a green centre which contrasts well with the red petals.  Its parent species are said to be hardy so this could be an interesting addition to the range of Leptospermum varieties available in this country.
One of its parents has mauve flowers, so if ‘Outrageous’ was crossed with New Zealand forms we might be able to extend the range of colours found in the cultivars already on offer.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Where have all the flowers gone?

Over the weekend the Head Gardener and I had some time in that most dreaded of environments for a middle-aged man – a big city shopping mall filled with bright lights, trawling teenage girls and shops filled with garish colour. Seeking some respite, I went into a bookstore and had a look at the gardening books.  I was astonished to see that about 80% of them were about edible gardening – fruits, vegetables and herbs.  There were a few books devoted to design – mainly of the “Making your edible garden look good" kind – but there were precious few about growing flowers, and apart from one on roses, the only books on  specific plants were one each about Cycads and bromeliads!
I am as keen as anyone on the resurgence of interest in cultivating edible plants, but I am greatly saddened by the demise of flower gardening.  When I was growing up it seemed to me that most people had a favourite flower they cultivated assiduously  – various family members were fans of irises, roses, camellias, fuchsias and orchids, while organisations devoted to gerberas, carnations, dahlias and cacti all flourished. 
Famous New Zealanders were passionate flower growers. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was famed for his lilies, but few know that NZRFU president Ces Blazey, best known now as the name who guided the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand, used to devote his spare hours in summer to growing exhibition quality Gladioli.
This was brought home even stronger to me when I left the bookstore, drawn to a florist’s shop by the heady scent of some greenhouse lilies, and came across vases filled with spider chrysanthemums, in unnatural chartreuse shades.
At one time Chrysanthemums were ubiquitous garden flowers, treasured for their late flowering season, and appreciated especially for the autumnal shades they are often found in.  Apart from the potted plant version, popular with florists and supermarkets, they are seldom met with now, but can there be any plant with so much flower power at this time of the year?
I suspect that the few chrysanthemum plants that are grown in the home garden today are actually potted plants that have been planted outside when they finish flowering.  As long as a bit of care is taken with have a long life in the garden, but expect some changes!  In the nursery your potted mums will have been given a dose of growth retardant, and once they are out in the garden they will grow a lot more exuberantly – they will probably be about 1.5 metres high when they flower rather than the 60cm they managed in their pot. 
They will also tend to be a bit straggly growing – nothing terrible but a bit floppy, so it pays to grow them near a fence of some other support. You can pinch them out as they start to grow, and then once again as they have grown a little, which will result in more branching and more heads of flowers, although the individual flowers will be smaller.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sports day

I was cleaning up my office the other day, as a consequence of our recent refurbishment of much of the house, and I came across a photograph I put aside a while ago to form the basis of a column about the way new plants are produced and introduced to horticulture.
It is one I took in the Queen Elizabeth Park rose beds some years ago, when I stumbled across a chimera flower – one where the signals to determine flower colour had somehow got their wires partly crossed, the result being a strange bloom that could not quite make up its mind whether it wanted to be red or yellow.  The decision was obviously so difficult the flower simply gave up on trying to resolve it – one half of the flower stayed the same red as all the other flowers on the bush (and indeed in the bed) while one half decided to go yellow.
This sort of flower genetic shift or change, albeit normally associated with the whole flower or habit  changing colour, is more common that you might imagine at first, and has led to some interesting new varieties, especially among those that are grown by the millions, such as roses.  
Sometimes the shrub-sized plant ends up a climbing shoot, which remains stable and can be reproduced.  Perhaps the best examples of that are the climbing forms of ‘Iceberg’ and ‘Peace’.  Sometimes the sport can be a change of colour – ‘Peace’ rose, that doyen of big flowered hybrid tea roses, has given rise to a number of sports, including the wonderful ‘Kronenburg’.  There is a bed of this at the new Queen Elizabeth Park rose garden, and it has its gigantic flowers that are an interesting take on the pale cream and pink shades of ‘Peace’.  It has two main colours - the petals are claret red with straw yellow reverse. It is impossible to ignore and ostentatiously beautiful.  And, although I have never seen it, it has also re-sported, by sending up a climbing shoot, which is available on overseas websites.  And I know of at least one re-sporting of this in Masterton.  A lady came to see me once about a gardening matter, and mentioned in passing how disappointed she was with her ‘Kronenburg’, saying she had cut a whole branch off because the flowers had all turned deep gold! 
Perhaps the most common of all ‘sports’ are those that give rise to different coloured foliage, with variegations of various sorts, and sometimes even changes in shades of the entire leaf.  Some plants seem particularly prone to his habit.  Anyone who has owned a large Cupressus macracarpa will probably have seen tips of old branches with golden foliage.  The vast majority of the many golden forms of conifer you see will have originated this way.  The surprising thing is that some plants seem very prone to doing this, while other, such as the ubiquitous Pinus radiata seem very reluctant to do so. Apart from one or two golden forms, which I think were actually seed sports and thus slightly different, there are not too many ornamental forms of the Monterey Pine around.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Maples in autumn

May is a funny month in the garden.  Summer is well and truly past, and autumn is approaching its peak in some ways, but in other ways the winter has already arrived.  

Parts of the garden look a mess - the perennial beds look very ragged, with ugly foliage on peonies and hostas requiring looking after, and less than happy-looking daylilies also need a clean-up.
The vegetable garden loos decrepit as well - tomatoes have long since stopped growing, and basil and eggplants need removing.  The last of the unripened tomatoes have to be gathered for placement on a sunny shelf, and the empty space where the summer vegetables once grew needs turning over and mulching.
And then there are the autumn leaves.
There seem to be polar opposite views on the question of autumn leaves.  Some people seem to find them an abomination, and need to clear them daily - if not more often - while others take a much more relaxed attitude to them, perhaps even harvesting them for children to play in, or regarding them simply as a good source of roughage for the compost.
I firmly belong to the latter school, although I must say I nearly changed my mind when the large and resilient leaves from the large flowered Magnolia hybrid fell among the grass-like leaves of my Pacific Coast Iris seedlings.
We do not have a lot of autumn coloured trees and shrubs in the garden - the Head Gardener does not entirely approve of deciduousness - but there are one or two I would not be without.  
We have a mature Japanese weeping maple at the edge of one of our shrubberies, and I wonder if there is a small tree which gives as many different highlights during the year.  In the winter it has a slightly gaunt aspect, devoid of leaves as it is, but it also has wonderful architectural shape, the gently tumbling branch habit catching the eye.  In spring our form, which is the plain green Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Viridis’, pops out the most amazingly bright green leaves, accompanied by very delicate little flowers, like very miniature ballerinas.  They need to be seen up close the be noticed, but they are stunning.  Later the leaves mature to a more sombre green, which the hold nicely over summer, but as winter approaches again, they kick in with a lovely display of yellow, orange and red. Even when that is all over, and you think there is nothing more to come, there is a little encore performance from the ‘helicopter’ seeds, which are light brown against the dark brown of the old leaves.  
These little beauties, which are reasonably expensive, add so much to the garden that they should be on almost everyone’s list of top shrubs.  There is quite a range of them available nowadays - more than when we bought our one, when there was basically one green and one red form around, with a number of different red (or purple) varieties to choose from.  ‘Crimson Princess’  has red stems and foliage right through spring and summer, but as autumn approaches it turns bronze then bright scarlet. ‘Crimson Queen’ is slightly more subdued, but has similar habits, while the old variety ‘Inabe Shidare’ has lacy purple foliage that is tougher than most, enabling it to cope with more sun than most other varieties.
If you want a totally different form try the new ‘Orangeola’.  This has orange tinted leaves when it first opens, but the leaves then turn deep rusty brown before becoming green for the main growing season.  But the show does not end there, as a supply of new orange leaves is produced over the summer, the new foliage looking like flowers. In the autumn all the leaves turn dark red before finishing off back again as orange.  A superb weeping variety that is quickly becoming popular overseas.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

We were in Melbourne recently, and I had promised the Head Gardener that I would take her to the most interesting garden she had ever seen – bearing in mind the Head Gardener is a Kindergarten teacher.  Accordingly, on Monday we made our way by tram out to the Royal Botanic Garden, entering at the opposite end to the entrancing garden I had promised to show her, and for the next few hours we meandered through the beautifully landscaped gardens, looking at the trees and shrubs (and the few plants that were in flower) and enjoying the sights and sounds of the Australian avifauna.
As we made our way up the literal highpoint of the garden, I promised her that the allegorical highpoint, the marvellous Ian Potter Children’s Garden, was not far away.  And sure enough, after tours of cactus gardens, cannas gardens, fern gardens, herbs gardens, and even New Zealand gardens, we found ourselves outside the Ian Potter garden – which is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays!
Wednesday morning saw us catching a different tram and making our way directly to the Ian Potter Garden, which was indeed open, and in full use.  The garden is a great example of what can happen when a child-centred garden is created, with lots of opportunity for exploration and discovery.  Most of the plantings are of Australian natives, but interestingly, some clipped creatures in the front of the garden are made from the New Zealand native Muehlenbeckia complexa, under planted with the New Zealand sedge Carex comans.
One of the first things you find inside the garden is a wonderful plant tunnel, evocative of the Australian scrub country, which leads to a pond and a series of little streams, constructed to enable children to get their feet wet.  Further into the garden is a jungle-style garden, with stone structures and thickets of bamboo, and a playhouse, brown by planting willow stakes and allowing them to grow.  The horticultural highlight to an old man was the red flowering gum, Eucalyptus ficifolia ‘Summertime’, but the many children in the garden were far more entranced by being able to run around in the spaces created.
To one side, but integral to this garden, is a child-scaled kitchen garden, which was being visited by a succession of school parties while we were there.  The kids were entranced by the wide variety of plants growing there, and there were signs that some school parties had been allowed to make a contribution – a row of recently geminated peas was labeled with a suburban school’s name. 
The range of plants growing (bear in mind this was in mid-April) was a little strange to our eyes.  Freshly planted lettuces were cheek by jowl with a shrubby chili, laden with curious small bell-shaped fruit.  In one bed a lovely crop of leeks was growing alongside some maturing capsicums, while just over the pathway a large bed of tropical fruit included pepinos and sugar cane.  It was interesting top overhear the lessons being carried out in the garden, and to realize how few of the children knew many of the fruit and vegetables on display in the elevated beds.  They did enjoy playing in the sand pit that was also part of the garden!
Interestingly, the adventure part of the garden was mainly peopled by younger pupils, largely at play, while slightly older children were being instructed in the kitchen garden.  

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Narcissus 'Thalia' 

As much as those of us who love and grow bulbs may want it to be otherwise, for the majority of people spring flowering bulbs means one thing – daffodils.  My guess is that the daffodil probably accounts for nearly half of total bulb sales in the autumn. 
For us in the Wairarapa the daffodil has another special meaning as it is the floral symbol of Carterton, derived from the wonderful ‘Middle Run’ open days, dating back to the 1930s.  There the late Alfred Booth bred daffodils and spread his resulting seedlings and many other varieties he purchased through the paddocks at the front of his farm, creating a five hectare wonderland of yellow and white in the spring. 
Most of us are not privileged with that amount of land to dedicate to naturalising daffodils and have to settle for some clumps in parts of the garden.  If you have an extensive backyard, with perhaps a small orchard, you could consider establishing your own little naturalised area – just grab some bulbs of the hardiest varieties (usually sold as “farmers’ mix” or something similar) and broadcast them by hand, planting them where they land.
For myself, I have a bit of as thing for the smaller varieties, growing some in pots and containers so I can appreciate their subtle beauty, as well as scattering them about the garden – almost anywhere there is room.
One of my favourites is the pretty little ‘Jetfire’, often found in supermarkets in the middle of winter as it one that responds well to being forced into flower. The happy little flowers betray their origins in the cyclamen shaped Narcissus cyclamineus with their bright yellow backwards curving petals and a long orange cup.  The cup becomes deeper as the flower ages. This is a very reliable little plant and has steadily increased in our garden.
Another with reflexing petals is the prettily named ‘Tete-a-tete’ , a tiny variety with one to three very small delicately scented with long yellow cup and reflexed petals.  As the French name suggests, the flowers are borne in pairs facing each other.  This is another very reliable variety, being more elegant than ‘Jetfire’.
‘Rise and Shine’ is another pert little scented flower, with backwards curving white petals and small cups.  They open slightly orange then fade to yellow – another great garden plant.
My favourite of these little flowers is the wonderful white ‘Thalia’, a very old hybrid of the delightful Narcissus triandrus , the Spanish species sometimes called ‘Angel’s Tears.’  The flowers in the species (and this hybrid) hang down, softly suggesting sadness.  ‘Thalia’, nearly four hundred years old, is surely one of the loveliest of its hybrids with its pure white, pendulous flowers, two or three flowers on each stem.  I grow mine in a pot and delight in bringing them up onto the back porch where I can catch their wonderful sight and subtle scent each morning.