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.