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.