Sunday, August 25, 2013

Give peas a chance

Although it is just the very start of spring at the moment, it is the time to start thinking about the Christmas day meal, and to start preparing the vegetable garden for the fresh vegetables that form such an essential part of our season festivities.
As much as I love Brussels Sprouts, the iconic staple of the English Christmas feast, I certainly would not want to swap a plate filled to overflowing with potatoes dug freshly from the garden once the presents have been opened, and recently harvested and podded peas.
We do not grow peas every year, as we are now constrained as to the size of our garden, and wit only two of us at home we concentrate on other vegetables, but if you have young children anywhere in the vicinity,  you probably should grow some.  They are a great vegetable for encouraging young gardeners, as they are relatively easy, normally free from diseases, and can be seen growing by impatient youngsters.  And of course, and freshly picked and podded peas taste so much better than any bought produce.
In Wairarapa, early September is a good time to get sowing, provided you have a nice well-drained site that is not too cold.  Peas generally need to be grown through the cooler months as they are very prone to mildew, and once the warmth and humidity of summer kicks in, they will just get disease and fail to thrive.  If your soil is not already supplied with plenty of organic matter, it pays to add some well rotted compost  to it,  As well as adding extra nutriment it will also improve the soil texture, making it better for the plants to grow.  As you work the compost into the soil, make sure it is cultivated to about a spade’s depth, and worked to a fine tilth.
Peas are probably best sown rather than planted out from seed trays – they are certainly a lot cheaper if you sow directly as pea seed is relatively inexpensive – but there are some pea varieties that will transplant alright, and if you just want a few plants of sugar snap peas or snow peas to grow in a container (they do very well grown that way) it might be just as easy to get the head start that nursery-grown plants offer.  The kids will love having pots of peas near the house too.
If sowing, just make shallow rows in the well prepared soil, the rows about 45 cm apart, and each seed about 5 cm away from its neighbours in the row.  If you want to give their germination a kick start you can soak the seeds in warm-ish water for an hour or two before sowing, but this is not essential.
Newly germinated seeds are like magnets for birds, and to a lesser extent, slugs, so it pays to be careful and ready for the onslaught.  I like to use a roll of chicken wire, rolled over to form a tunnel, as this can be easily removed as the plants grow up and can be used as cover for other young seedlings.  You can also just keep the chicken wire in place and use it as a base for further support by adding bamboo stakes, or even just garden twigs.  Plenty of people just start off with twigs, and that system works well too.  Make sure to put some form of slug prevention down as the plants are just popping through the soil.
It pays to make sure the peas are not too crowded in by other tall growing vegetables as that will taken some of the sun off them and will also prevent good air circulation which is the best defence against mildew.  You should have few other pests, but aphids are sometimes a small concern – just use some organic neem oil and them and that should keep them under control.  I am not sure that aphids do too much damage to the growing plants on their own but they can help spread virus diseases and you do not really want that in the garden.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A wet spring weekend

Magnolia 'Sweetheart'
A wet weekend at this time of the year seems like a bit of a waste for the home gardener.  The imminent arrival of spring means all sorts of things are starting to move, and there are a few chores that need to be carried out.
I have been aware that the shepherds purse – Capsella bursa-pastoris to give it its Latin name – has been flowering in my iris beds, and this little member of the brassica family has many, many seeds, all of which will lie dormant in the soul to smother next early spring’s growth, so I knew I needed to get in and weed them.  They grow so quickly that leaving them for a week or two was simply not an option, so I grabbed the chance in between showers on Saturday afternoon, and got onto them. 
I was distracted in the work though, as our Magnolia ‘Sweetheart’  is just starting to flower.  It has been heavily budded for a while but the recent warm weather has made it rush out into flower and it looks outstanding on our back boundary.  I love the tree magnolias in general, and the pink shaded ones most of all. This variety has deep pink flowers, upright facing, with lusciously creamy interiors.  The flowers are medium sized (some varieties have very large flowers) and fit this tree perfectly.
I was also distracted by a planting of some new bulbs.  This year I spent my birthday goodwill on a selection of new bulbs, and they are just coming out now.  Two in particular have really impressed me, a soft pink hyacinth and a bright yellow lachenalia.
I have come to like hyacinths late in my life – I think I always regarded them a slightly fussy, overly formal plants, and associated them with the precise bedding the Dutch are so fond of, or the potted specimens you see in the supermarket.  One of my boys, after giving his mother a potted blue specimen for Mother’s Day, told her it reminded him of Dame Edna’s wig, and that image stuck with me, I suspect.
But we were given a handful of bulbs by my sister-in-law a few years ago, a mid-pink variety of great vigour that has slowly expanded and taken over a sizable container at our back door.  It looks fabulous at this time of the year with a succession of pink spires of flower giving great colour.
Over the past few years I have planted more varieties around the garden, and have a lovely yellow form (more like cream to be perfectly honest) called ‘Yellow Queen’ in the back border but this year I planted the softest pink flowered form called ‘China Pink’ and what a beauty it has been, with flowers of porcelain-like beauty of the softest cool pink, all with a lovely fragrance. 
Just across the pathway, in a bed filled with South African bulbs, is a new planting of the “Cape Hyacinth” (they are not actually that closely related), one of the new African Beauty lachenalias, ‘Romaud’.  This is a new hybrid and has flowers similar to the old fashioned ‘Pearsonii’ which has been grown for many years in New Zealand, with yellow tubular flowers, with a waxy texture, hanging from a strong stalk.  The difference is in the size – ‘Romaud’ is slightly taller but also much stockier, meaning you get a much better floral effect from the plant.

I also grew the blue form called ‘Rupert’, and I have to say that neither of these new forms are as hardy as the old types, so do not expect them to increase quickly in the garden, and give the mass effect that the old red form ‘Pendula’ gives in the garden, but they are stunning plants.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Scentational scene

Osmanthus 'Pearly Gates'

Many trees and shrubs that flower in the late winter (or early spring) have pale flowers, often highly scented.  Flowers use scent to attract pollinators, usually bees and butterflies in the day time, so in a sense brightly coloured flowers offer no advantage.
This week I saw, or rather smelt, two new white-flowering, highly scented shrubs.  The first of these was on the ledge at the workstation of a colleague.  She had picked some flowers off her Camellia transnokoensis and brought them into work.  In the warm work environment the few sprigs of flower were enough to scent a small room, with their spicy, heady scent.  To my nose it smelt slightly reminiscent of the once common winter-flowering, shrubby honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissimum.
This camellia species from Mount Noko in Taiwan is sometimes given the colloquial name of ‘transnok’, and has with dainty leaves, perhaps willowy, with a graceful upright habit. The pure white flowers open from tight buds marked with deep pink. This shrub is ideal for screening or hedges, and over the past few years has become very popular.  It will grow to about three metres ultimately but is easily kept much smaller by clipping.  Like most camellias it thrives in moist, humus-rich soils with a neutral pH.
The other new plant (to me at least) was one that was recommended by an old friend (the friendship is old, not the friend!) who had seen it growing in a local garden – the slightly scarily named Osmanthus variety, ‘Pearly Gates’. 
I have grown some Osmanthus shrubs in the past – larger, autumn flowered forms mainly, with overly heady scents, but I had not seen this lovely form of the smaller growing species O. delavayii.  This is of the most fragrant of all flowering shrubs, its usually insignificant flowers having ta rich heady, fruit-filled scent. Plant hybridisers have been at work on this species and in the past few years a couple of new varieties have been released, with much larger flowers, while retaining the exuberant scent.
The better of them, ‘Pearly Gates’ has not yet become grown widespread but when gardeners learn about its good points it will soon become a firm favourite, as it has a lot of things going for it.  It is a very hardy evergreen shrub, providing good clean texture, and the white tubular flowers give a great display at the time of the year when there is not much out in the garden.  It is quite slow growing and makes a perfect hedge as it is very suitable for trimming – one Masterton gardener has planted it along a contained area between a wall and a glass swimming pool fence and it looks stunning.
This is not too fussy as to soil conditions – it will cope even with quite poor soils – and looks at its best when clumped into reasonable sized groupings.  With the addition of the scented flowers, it makes a great basal planting for near a house.  Left to its own devices it might grow to two metres, but its compact growth habit, and its ready acceptance of trimming, make it easily kept to a much smaller size.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The camellia blight problem

At this time of the year – late winter but warming up towards spring – there is one shrub that should be coming into its own, a shrub that has been relied on to supply colour for the garden and flowers for the house for generations, that wonderful evergreen shrub, the camellia.
But over the past few years things have changed and gardeners need to be a bit more careful about how they plant and use this once ubiquitous shrub.  The arrival of the dreadful flower blight has changed everything.  This horribly disfiguring disease is caused by a very virulent fungus and effectively destroys the beauty of the blooms by browning them almost as soon as they open.  There is no sign of any effective chemical control yet, and those who passion is growing camellias must be throwing their hands up in frustration.  I know the New Zealand Camellia Society has been funding research into control of this nuisance, and overseas societies have also been throwing a lot of money at solving the problem of this scourge of camellias.
This fungous, Ciborinia camellia, lies dormant in the soil where it can live for up to five years, becoming active when a cool period is followed by warmer temperatures and moisture – does that sound like a Wairarapa spring?  It has been known in the United States for over sixty years, and has gradually spread through almost all growing areas.  It has not been in this country so long, being first reported in Wellington in 1993, but once it arrived it spread very quickly. In theory it mainly spreads incrementally, their spores moving only short distances in the wind, but I have friends who garden in very isolated places, and they all report that they have problems with this disease, so I think it is most places in New Zealand – certainly everywhere in the North Island.
There is talk about the way gardeners can be careful with hygiene among the fallen flowers, carefully picking up all infected flowers, even to the extent of taking the flowers that have fallen among the branches of a tree away, and burning them.   I am sorry, but this is wildly optimistic, and will never work in reality, as the flowers are so numerous and flower for months, and many gardeners have more than one variety.  I am no specialist in camellias, but I grow six varieties – too many to harvest the flowers.
There is also some talk of using neem oil to help control its spread, but I think even the most enthusiastic supporter of this wonderful organic spray would agree that it has not proven to be any use against this disease.
So what do we gardeners do?
There is some talk of being able to breed our way out of this conundrum, by finding resistant varieties and breeding from them.  Some recent work at Massey University suggests this might be feasible, but it looks like it will be a long way away before it is commonly available.
At the moment the only tactic to keep the pest at bay seems to be to grow varieties that flower before the disease really gets under way at this time of the year.  This will not please everyone, as some of the most delightful varieties flower in the middle of the season, or later, and the reality is that they are going to carry the horrid brown patches that typify this infection.
One obvious answer it to grow more sasanqua camellias.  These autumn flowering varieties look quite different to the more familiar C. japonica and allied species we are more familiar with.  They have a more open growth habit with narrower leaves and willowy growth in many cases.   They make wonderful wall shrubs, when allowed to splay out in one dimension, but some of the denser growing forms also make very good hedges.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A thought for my peonies

'Coral Charm'

Last weekend, when the weather was at its worst, and it was windy and raining heartily, I went down to my local garden centre to choose some peonies.  Not unsurprisingly, it was very quiet and I was able to take my time and look through the racks of packets on the shelves.  I was excited to see what a good range of varieties is available nowadays, but I did catch my breath a little at the prize of some of the newer forms – they were over $30 a packet.
I am used to looking through catalogues from various bulb growing firms and I am quite accustomed to seeing daffodils and irises reaching these sorts of prices, but their value quickly diminishes and a variety that was selling for $50 one year will be down to $5 within a decade.
Not so for these peonies – although the types I was looking at were certainly relatively recently introduced, they were also all at least twenty years old.
At first I was a little taken aback, but then I thought of how long-lived peonies are, and quickly came to the decision that I would still buy a few varieties as part of a revamp of a couple of flower beds out in the back garden.
The site I had in mind is absolutely perfect for peonies as it is both sunny and well drained in a bed that was originally part of a vegetable garden, then used for lining out bearded irises.  Over the years it had had a lot of compost added to it, and thus it is deep and fertile soil, soil that is ideal for peonies.   Although it seems counter-intuitive, peonies can still do quite well in relatively infertile soils, as long as it never becomes water-logged.
It is quite important to make sure peonies do not have too much competition from nearby trees and shrubs, as they do not cope with that at all.  In fact, they can even throw in the towel if they are under a lot of overhead foliage.  I suspect the flowers might also be a bit troubled by botrytis in that situation too.
When you buy plants at this time of the year you are getting divisions from larger plants, and will usually get some roots that look very much like the rhizomes of a bearded iris, with large buds about 3 cm long, and coloured bright pink.  It is quite important to plant these correctly as they can fail if planted too deeply or shallowly.  Unlike bearded irises which need to be planted on the surface of the soil so they can creep along in the sun, these plants actually need the rots to be slightly buried.  But they should not be planted too deeply – if they are planted too deeply the buds will be insulated from the winter chills which induce new growths.  The ideal depth is for the bottom of the new buds to be about 5cm below the surface. 
You do not need to add any fertiliser when planting – in fact it can be counterproductive as it may damage the new buds – and, despite their long-lived reputation for needing super-fertile soil, they are not gross feeders, and probably do not need a lot of supplementary feeding.  We have a large specimen of the pale pink, late-flowering form ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ which is grown in a mixed perennial border and has done fine for the past fifteen years without any extra feeding, and has slowly increased in size.

Some people think peony is slightly coarse, but I have no problem with my plants – I just plant other summer flowering plants around them, and their admittedly unexciting greenery is hidden for the summer.  It is important that you do not cut the foliage down straight after flowering, in the way you might with daffodils for example (you shouldn't really do it with daffodils either!) as it will stop any plant growth.  Instead, wait until the autumn, when it will slowly turn yellow and die off naturally.  I always cut the old, dead foliage at that stage and compost it.  If you wanted to, you could give the plants a quick spray with fungicide at that stage but I have never felt the need.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Cyclamen surprise

Cyclamen coum

There are plenty of plants that have lots of variety, with multicoloured forms and a variety of different plant shapes, but sometimes it is the singularly unchanging plants that capture out attention.  At this time of the year it is the humble cyclamen that grabs me, despite the inescapable fact that all cyclamen species follow the same basic shape, and they are really only available in white and pink, with a little variety thrown in with modern hybrids – purple and other shades that are not found in the wild being added.
And at that point I suppose we had better start making a distinction.  In most gardeners’ minds there is only one type of cyclamen, or perhaps two at most, and they are the florists’ cyclamen, early winter flowering plants that are very popular around Mothers’ Day.  In fact, when we owned the bedding plant nursery we grew these plants by the thousand, both traditional large-flowered forms, and the more recent miniature varieties.
In the wild there are about twenty species of cyclamen, although you would probably have to be a botanist to differentiate between them.  Just one species, C. persicum, has provided the basis of the florists’ cyclamen, but in the hundreds of years of selective breeding within this species, a wide range of forms has been selected, and the cyclamen now represents great value as a winter pot plant, providing many months of colour for a relatively cheap price.  For a price of about $10 you can have flowers in the house for months on end.
There are just a few tips to growing these plants as potted plants.  The first is that they need good drainage, but at the same time they like moist soil, so it is important to make sure they are in moisture retentive soil but not sitting in a saucer filled to the brim with water. When watering, make sure you water the soil and not the corm, and also ensure you let the water free drain. It also pays to water early in the day for two reasons; firstly, to allow the water to soak through the plant, and secondly, to let the corm dry out again before the evening.  If these steps are not followed the plants are a little prone to mildew.
When growing potted plants inside it also pays to be a bit canny about light levels as, cyclamen do best in bright indirect or curtain filtered sunlight – if they are exposed to direct, hot sunlight they will probably develop burns on their leaves.

Like most potted plants, it pays to give the pots a little feed every now and then especially if you are looking to retain them for more than one season.  The easiest thing to do is to apply a liquid fertiliser on a regular basis – perhaps once a fortnight. Remember to put this on in the early part of the day, and try and avoid the corm.

Once the plant has finished flowering there is no reason to discard it -  you can either plant it in the garden in a shady spot that is protected from frost, or you can put it in a cool spot for the summer months, reducing the watering, and then re pot it in fresh potting mix next autumn for winter.

Smaller and certainly less well-known are the dwarf species, found throughout the Mediterranean area. The best known of these is the diminutive ivy-leaved species, C. hederifloium, which is sometimes seem naturalised in extensive swathes in large gardens, its carpet of shining white and soft pink flowers always looking stunning in later summer and early autumn. I have grown this in pots in the glasshouse, along with its slightly less hardy cousin, C. africanum, which has marginally longer stems in my experience.
Among the other forms I have grown is the lovely winter flowering C. coum, with rounded leaves, usually deep green, but sometimes marbled with silver, and in some special strains, pewter coloured. The flowers, which are slighter stumpier than other species, are usually pink, of varying shades, with a deep maroon blotch at the bottom of each petals. 

This species is quite hardy – it is naturalised in parts of Great Britain, so should be perfectly fine in New Zealand.  It is also reasonable able to look after itself in the garden.  I grow moist of my small cyclamen in the glasshouse, not because they are not hardy, but because that way I can get too see them easier, and can appreciate their beauty better. Like all cyclamen species, they set deed readily, contained within a capsule that sits just above soil level, but is spring loaded.  When the seed is ready the seeds are rapidly dispersed, and germinate where they land, meaning I have pots that end up with more than one species.

Over summer my iris seedlings are grown underneath the glasshouse benches, each 100mm pot holding a separate seedling.  Imagine my surprise and my perplexed expression when I discovered some C. coum growing in the iris beds this winter.  I can only assume they must have been dropped into the seedling pots before they were planted out, and have germinated in the potting soil when it was placed into the iris beds.   

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Hebes out front

The combination of the week’s mild weather (despite it being the middle of winter) and a bit of time at home, led me to have a wander around, looking at what is happening in the garden.  As it is still very early in the season I was surprised to see a number of spring flowering bulbs out in flower. The tazetta narcissus (that most people call jonquils) are out, but as they can flower very early I was not shocked, but I was very surprised to see the little green and black flowered snake’s head iris, Iris tuberosa, in flower, at least a month early.
A clump of hyacinths I planted in the autumn was in flower too, the pale yellow ’Yellow Queen.’ I suspect that this might be a case of an imported bulb breaking cover early, and that it will revert to its usual flowering period next year.
I also had time to look at a couple of shrubs that I knew needed trimming or removing.  One was a seedling kohuhu, Pittosporum tenuifolium.  It was a lovely small-leaved form, with a shimmering silver colour, but it had grown up through the lower branches of a semi-mature Magnolia grandiflora, and was rapidly growing to be a nuisance, and really had to come out.
The other problem was of a smaller nature – a dwarf dark-coloured Coprosma, whose growth ambitions outgrew the space I had allocated for it. It was also very free with a crop of berries each season, and as such also had a crop of seedlings each year.  I am not normally too worried about seedlings appearing among my plants (it’s a natural consequence of using lots of mulch among shrubs) and often keep and propagate the seedlings I find, but not in this case.
I was very keen to add another hebe to the number growing in this bed, as they have proven to be very reliable in what is a difficult site.  The previous owners had altered the front of the house, and had added truckloads of soil.  Unfortunately it is of very poor quality – very much clay-based and sticky in the winter.  On the summer it dries out badly, and forms great crevasse-like cracks, and most shrubs struggle to grow in it.  However, hebes, of various stripes, have managed to cope with the soil, and in the main they have thrived.
 I planted a scattering of cuttings from the strongly coloured ‘Wiri Prince’ a few years ago, and they have flourished.  This is one of Jack Hobbs’ Auckland-bred hebes, but seems very hardy here and quickly forms an upright, evergreen shrub reaching at least 1.5 metres high. The rich violet-purple flowers are mainly carried in summer to autumn, but the shrubs seem to have a flower or two at most times.
We also have a plant or two of the deep rose pink flowered ‘Wiri Charm’, which is a very tidy growing form (tidier than ‘Wiri Prince which needs to be trimmed annually) and grows to about a metre high, forming a dense shrub.  ‘Wiri Cloud’ is smaller, with crisp green leaves and pale pink flowers.  This one makes an interesting alternative to a box hedge.
We also have a number of the grey-leaved species, as I love the foliage contrast they offer.  Perhaps the best of these are the form of Hebe albicans known as ‘Red Edge’, and the stunning (and very well-named) ‘Quicksilver.’ ‘Red Edge’ is descended from a species mainly found in the mountains of Nelson province, and is very hardy.   It has a compact growth habit with a grey leaf of its parent species, but its point of difference is the pinky-red edge around the leaf. In summer the foliage colour intensifies giving the shrub a pinky hue. 
‘Quicksilver’ is a form of H. pimelioides, with an open arching habit. The small grey leaves, each with a red edge, contrast well with the dark branches. The flowers are small and light blue-mauve, carried in the early summer, and although they are attractive, it is the foliage that is the winner with this plant.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mid-winter ramblings

For the past couple of weeks I have been on annual leave, having what I believe young people call a ‘staycation’, when you are on leave but remain at home.  Mid-winter is certainly an interesting time of year to be on leave, and the days have alternated between cloudy and cold, and frosty and fine – and cold.
On one of the finer days I swept the dust off my old golf clubs, packed them in the back of the car and went out east, to gently hack my way around the Castlepoint Golf Club at Whakataki. It was an interesting round, where I was accompanied by the sounds of yarding from a neighbouring farm, with the usual sound effects from a mob of sheep, a pack of barking dogs, and the whistles and shouts of the farmer.
On the side of nature, I was also delighted to have the company of a large troop of tui as I moved from hole to hole.  Over the years the golf club must have thought of winter feed for honey gatherers as they planted out the fairways and byways of the course, and the tui were greedily sipping from the red flowered gum trees that were scattered throughout the course.
The most common of the red flowering gums, and by far the prettiest, is the Western Australian native E. ficifolia, now called Corymbia ficifolia by botanists, if not by gardeners.  This is a small but densely-growing tree with large racemes of tightly growing flowers, and at its best in the summer, is a vibrantly dramatic tree, sometimes confused with pohutukawa.
It is slightly frost tender, but will grow in inland Wairarapa as long as it is given some protection in the first few years of its life – there is a spectacular tree in Opaki Road, nest to the Mormon church. In warmer areas, such as on hills or nearer the coast, it makes a wonderful small tree, and is frequently planted as a street tree in towns further north.
It is easily raised from seed, but is very hard to graft, and therein lies a slight problem. This tree does not come true from seed, so there is a risk in planting out a seedling – it may not give the wonderful orange/red colour the gardener looks for.  The flowers can be paler, right through to soft pinks, and even pure white.  A few years ago I ran along an avenue of these trees on the other coast, and there was no unanimity at all – no two trees seemed the same colour.
The winter flowering species, which is so useful at supplying feed for honey-eating birds, glories in the names of Eucalyptus leucoxylon ‘Rosea’, and is a form of a South Australian species, known as Yellow Gum in its homeland, although it also has a number of other common names.   It grows in a more open manner than E. ficifolia, displaying its light coloured bark.  Although the species is variable as to flower colour, the bright red form commonly grown for ornamental purposes is generally fairly true to colour.  Having said that, I have to say that it is not uncommon for pink forms to appear when these trees are grown from seed.

This tree is slightly bigger than E. ficifolia, especially when grown in a position sheltered from the worst of the wind – conditions which do not apply to the Castlepoint Golf Club I have to say.  That size, and the propensity of gum trees to shed branches, probably means that this tree is not really suitable for growing in smaller sections, but larger gardens can easily cope with one of these.
And the golf?  Well, I enjoyed a walk in the country, and sounds of a working farm coupled with then bird song in the bright clear skies made for an enjoyable morning. The less said about the golf, the better.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Schlumbergia - what?

Among our favourite plants there are many with such ugly names that we prefer to call them by their old ones.  The fabulous winter flowering iris is known by most people as Iris stylosa, surely a much classier name than the now correct, Iris unguicularis.  Similarly, the winter flowering cactus that I always knew as Zygocactus has now been renamed with the un-euphonious Schlumbergia. I think I’ll stick with the old name, or perhaps use a common name.
In the Northern Hemisphere these plants are known as Christmas Cactus, rather obviously because they flower in the middle of winter.  Here in New Zealand they are sometimes called Crab Cactus, from their unusual flower shape, or more commonly, chain cactus (although there are other cactus known by that name) or inch cactus, from the fact that the leaflets grow an inch at a time. 
As a matter of botanical interest, these “leaflets” are actually the flattened branches of the plant – it does not actually make any leaves, but carries out photosynthesis through the branches.
These wonderful plants, given their “new” name in the 1890s to commemorate Frederic Schlumberger, a French collector of cacti, but it never became popular, and to be honest, most modern nurseries do not use it now either. 
Although these are true cactus plants, they are not desert plants as you might expect - they originate from the jungles of Brazil, where they grow as epiphytes on the trunks of large trees.
 I am sure that most people will be familiar with these cute little winter flowering plants, usually from ones that have been handed around among the family, as they are so easy to propagate.  Once they have finished flowering, the “leaflets” can be detached and popped into potting mix where they will quickly grow new roots and start all over. 
I have a small collection of these in the glasshouse where they can happily sit on a bench until they start to flower.  The most magnificent of these is a lovely light pink flowered form, which I started some years ago as a cutting from a plant that a workmate’s mother brought in to work for us to share the flowering.  I do not know that she thought we would also pinch one or two leaves!
The other plants I have are some I bought a few years ago from a nursery, and they were very modern ones with quite different colours.  These are very popular potted plants in the northern hemisphere, as you can imagine for a plant that flowers at Christmas, and breeders have got to work on them, expanding their range from the older forms which tended to be in the cerise pink range.  I have to say that these new ones, which have orange, bright red and even yellow-ish, have not been as vigorous as the light pink form but they are still very attractive.
As you would expect from an epiphyte (a plant that lives attached to another) these guys need really good drainage.  I think you could probably grow these in an orchid potting mix but I have just used a standard mix with some orchid mix added to it, about 60/40. That does not mean they like to dry out – they do not, and it is important to keep a steady supply of water.  If allowed to become too dry they will quickly withdraw water from the leaves which will shrivel.
 If you want them to do well it pays to give them some food every once in a while – I just sprinkle slow release pellets on the surface and it does the job well.  They prefer semi-shaded conditions, as you would expect from a jungle plant, and the leaves can easily burn if left in full sun.  If you have a really warm spot, you could even try growing them on the branches of a tree.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Pitching in

Sometimes my two jobs interconnect in interesting ways, and this week gave a great example.  A local landscaper came in to see whether I could tell him about the sort of plants that were in use in the 1920s, as a client wants to re-establish an authentic garden around a beautiful workingman’s cottage from that era.
Interestingly, his client wants to use camellias, natives and evergreen Magnolias to supplement to laurel hedge which has already been planted.  Luckily, we have an old Robinsons catalogue from the 1920s at work, and I was able to show him that the wonderful Magnolia grandiflora¸ with its large bay-like leaves and bowl-shaped scented flowers was a favourite in the 1920s, and that there were a few old Camellia varieties around too, although there were none in the catalogue that were commonly grown now.
It was in the native tree and shrubs area that things have changed the most, with the 1920s catalogue being very sparse on varieties that we would think of as commonplace.  There were no Hebes or Coprosmas, and even very few Pittosporums.
This was a little surprising as Laurie Robinson became well-known a little later on as one of the most ardent garden fans of native ornamentals,  and as the introducer of quite a number of variegated forms of some of the shrubby Pittosporum species, especially tarata or lemonwood,  P. eugenioides  and silver matipo P. tenuifolium.
Robinson’s nursery, no longer in family ownership, continues to grow new forms of these popular native shrubs, and in the past year or so has released two new dwarf forms of P. tenuifolium. Over the past few years a number of different dwarf forms have been released in New Zealand, including a lovely silvery/green leaved form from Clareville Nursery called ‘Elfin’, which we have in the front garden.  They all share a naturally compact growing habit, with the ability to be clipped to be kept under control. 
Perhaps the best known of these is ‘Golf Ball’, a fast-growing dwarf shrub that can easily be kept to about 30 cm high with a similar width.  These are quite often used as a replacement for  box hedging, having a lighter look while being just as easily kept under control.  A few years ago the nursery industry was promoting the use of some Hebe varieties for formal hedges, but this makes a much better choice.
Recently two new coloured forms have become available from Robinsons, and a few other selected nurseries – a golden form and a silver one, called, you will not be surprised to read, ‘Golden Ball’ and ‘Silver Ball’. As you would expect, these varieties have bright glossy foliage, and form naturally rounded shapes, with foliage of golden and silver hues respectively.
I have been intrigued by another relatively new selection, a semi-dwarf form called ‘Reflections’.  This selection I immediately noticed in the nursery stocks as it has a very tidy form with clean high gloss foliage and striking colour. The small leaves are green with a curiously wavy edge, coloured yellow on the central rib and veins.  As if that was not enough, the stems are red and the new growth is right creamy-yellow.  This makes a nice com pact growth, perhaps a little more vigorous than the truly dwarf forms, but also much more compact that the willowy larger forms.
Like all Pittosporums, you need to be a little bit careful about insect infestation, especially the pesky little native psyllid which can pucker the leaves of left unchecked.  A quick spray with an insecticide will soon sort the problem out.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

I had a special treat during the past week.  A regular reader of this column rang me to say she had a special present for me from her late mother’s garden – a big pot filled with oxalis.
I know most of you will be appalled at the idea of such a gift, and anyone who has struggled with any of the few pestiferous members of this widespread family of bulbs will throw their hands up in horror at the thought of a gift of such pernicious, unwanted plants.
But those of you who are fans of small bulbs will have shared my excitement at the offer, especially as it was a pot of the intriguing O. versicolor the creatively coloured little plant with barbers’ pole flowers.  This little charmer has a slightly different habit of growth to most species as it forms a very low-growing sub-shrub with almost woody stems, only growing a few centimetres tall.  At this time of the year their flowers are in evidence, and what funny little flowers they are.  The plant produces crimson striped, funnel shaped buds like tiny striped old fashioned barbers poles.  They open to reveal pretty white cup-shaped flowers with crimson margins.   
We grew this plant years ago in a warm garden in front of one of the glasshouses in the nursery, in a bed where one of our sons grew his miniature roses, and it flourished, which gives a good indication as to the sort of conditions it requires – warm soil, a sunny open site, and a bit of watering over the summer.  It is reportedly half hardy but it coped with anything our climate could throw at it.  And it did not spread at all!
I have a bit of a thing about the whole group of these lovely little bulbs and have a number of pots growing in full sun underneath my office window, many of whom have been in flower over the past few weeks.
I think my favourite of these might be the delightful South African species, O.  massoniana.  This is a strong growing and very free flowering form, ideally suited for growing in containers.   It has the most amazingly coloured flowers – sometimes called ‘bright orange’, but really more of a warm, light terracotta colour with bright golden centres.   Unusually for Oxalis, this species can be propagated from cuttings of the tree-like shoots.  I find this one is not as strongly-growing as some of the other species I grow, but it is startlingly beautiful when in flower in its terracotta pot.
The various forms of O. pupurpea that I grow are now just slightly past their best.  This is wildly variable South American species, and is grown for its attractive winter flowering habit, and their attractive cut foliage.  There are a number of forms available in New Zealand, and an even wider range on sale overseas. 
Among those I grow, the one I like most is a deep purple foliaged variety which I have seen described as ‘Nigrescens’.  Naming of these plants can be confusing as nurseries have confused similar looking types, and it may be possible that it is the same variety grown in the rest of the world as ‘Garnet’. The deeply coloured, clover-shaped leaves are wonderfully offset the glowing pink flowers.  These flowers are very difficult to photograph effectively as they have a shiny gloss and the flowers always appear lighter in photographs than they do in the garden.
I grow two other forms of O. purpurea,  both having (oddly enough) green leaves; one with glowing white flowers, the other with the same shining pink flowers of the dark-leaved variety.  There are yellow and cream forms of this species too, but I have never seen them on offer in New Zealand.

This species increases very well in the pots, and, even though there are plenty of species I would happily plant in the garden,  I think I would be hesitant to plant any of these varieties in light well-drained soil as they might get a little too territorially ambitious and could multiply a little too quickly.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Pineapple guava or bad medicine?

In a well-known poem devoted to autumn, the English Romantic poet John Keats, whose relatives live in Masterton, called the season a time of “mists and mellow fruitfulness.”  Writing in the early 19th century, Keats would have had apples and pears, medlars and other old world fruits in mind, but here in New Zealand in the early 21st century, an entirely different set of fruits scent our misty season.
Perhaps the most uniquely New Zealand fruit is the Feijoa.  I am not claiming this as a native plant, but New Zealand seems to be the only place in the world that the fruit is grow on a large commercial scale, and the only place where it is a common garden fruit.
Botanically, the feijoa is member of the vast myrtle family, and thus is a distant cousin to our rata and pohutukawa, a kinship that can be appreciated by looking at the flowers.  They occur in the wild in highland parts of different countries in South America, and are now grown as a crop in New Zealand and a few other temperate countries.
They were introduced to New Zealand in the 1920s, and quickly became very popular as a reliable evergreen shrub that could be used as a small feature tree, but was also well-adapted for use as a shelter tree, and was often grown as a tall hedge.  Even under these conditions, the feijoa will crop, and most of us will have eaten these fruit as children, usually from trees that bore so many fruit that the owners could not cope with it all.
Opinion is divided on exactly what the fruit tasteslike.  Some say the flavour is reminiscent of pineapple, guava and strawberry, while other catch hints of mint.  Those who do not like the flavour usually say it tastes like an unpalatable medicine!
When I was first involved in horticulture there was a very restricted range of varieties available, and they were not that much better than the seed grown plants offered for sale for hedging.  That has changed in the past few years and there is now quite a range of different varieties available.  Some are self-fertile (‘Unique’ is the most reliably so) but most will do better if there is another variety growing nearby.
I have grown ‘Unique’, and it is a very reliable cropper, with medium to large fruit which it carries from an early age but there are many others around.   ‘Pounamu’ is a newer smooth skinned type, with fruit that ripens early in the season – they should be edible by the end of March – while ‘Opal Star’ is a later fruiting form with strong flavours.  ‘Gemini’ and ‘Apollo’ are also reliable forms, although both need another variety nearby for pollination.
Feijoas are very easily grown, but they do best in well-drained moist soils, rich in humus.  They will cope quite well with periods of drought but need abundant watering during fruit maturation if full sized fruit are to be enjoyed.  They need little trimming or pruning, but can easily be shaped and trimmed if that is needed.  Give them as much sun as you can, but they will also cope with partial shade.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Made in Japan

This year’s long and very warm summer has been followed by an equally protracted autumn.  It is nearly the end of May and we have not had a significant frost, and there has been comparatively little wind.   The result of that has been a wonderfully drawn-out autumn display by the many deciduous trees that abound in Wairarapa.  At the weekend we went over to Wellington and the poplars in the Abbotts Creek valley were in full golden glow, while on the other side of the hill the avenue of American oaks opposite the Birchville entrance was glowing rusty red.
We have a fiery purple Japanese maple putting on a show halfway down our drive – or, more correctly, our neighbour does, but the tree comes over the fence and gives at least as good an autumn display for us as it does for them.  I know there are two much-divided schools of thought on autumn leaves.  One hates the very thought of them, and tries to catch them before they land, and sweeps them away to oblivion instantly.  On the other hand, there are those who relish the changing seasons they herald, and delight in crunching through piles of discarded leaves.  I am very much in the latter camp, and am never worried too much about fallen leaves.  It might be different if I had huge London Plane growing outside my front door, but Japanese maple leaves  are airy and ephemeral and any inconvenience of their falling in autumn is more than compensated for by their on-going beauty through the year.
I think Japanese maples are the perfect small deciduous tree for the home garden, with their elegant shape, and their year-round attractions.  In the winter most varieties have an attractive ball-headed shape of interlacing branches.  In some cases they also have very attractive bark, especially the coral bark maple, Acer palmatum ‘Senkaki’,   which has coral pink young stems which carry bright lime green foliage in the spring.  Come winter the exposed red stems are an attractive feature, although it has to be said that the bark darkens as it ages, and it is only the outer part of the tree that carries this coloration.
Many of the purple foliages varieties also have deep red/purple stems as well, offering another level of enjoyment.  There are very many red varieties around but perhaps the best is ‘Bloodgood’, which holds its bright colouring well into the summer, before darkening and then turning bright crimson for the autumn.  This is quite an upright growing form that spreads nicely as it matures.  Like most purple varieties, it has tiny little purple flowers very early in the season – hardly noticeable unless you go looking for them but very pretty – as well as purple helicopter seeds in the autumn.
If you want a smaller version of this there is a new variety called (rather unattractively) ‘Skeeter’s Broom’.  This arose as a witch’s broom on ‘Bloodgood,’  a tightly growing mass of smaller branches often seen on silver birches but rarer on maples.  It means that this variety has much twiggier and denser growth than its parent, while retaining the same colouring.  It also means its ultimate height is more restrained, growing perhaps two metres tall and about half that around.
Another cultivar that supposedly originated as a sport of ‘Bloodgood’ is the shrubby ‘Shaina’, which forms an outstanding small globe-shaped tree with very dense purple foliage.  As well as being great in the garden this one also makes a tremendous patio plant, and for those who are so inclined, a great bonsai as well.
If you want to go even smaller you are in the realm of the dwarf, weeping maples – among the most desirable of all dwarf trees.  I think ‘Crimson Queen’ is as good as any, with its finely dissected foliage slowly turning from bright crimson in spring, through to deep, dark purple for summer, then switching to scarlet for the autumn.  Like most of the dwarf varieties, it has naturally arching growth that will fall to the ground if left, and looks spectacular at any time of the year, including winter when the clear, clean outline looks very attractive.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Thinking of Daphne

At work I have been helping a lovely lady called Daphne with some research, and I guess my subconscious has been hard at work as my mind has been filled with thoughts of those sweetly fragrant favourite plants all week.
I suppose it could also be something to do with my first real acquaintance with the newly-arrived (in New Zealand at least) hybrid that glories in the name of D. x transatlantica, although in our country it is usually met with in the form of ‘Eternal Fragrance.’
This plant is a hybrid, the result of a naturally occurring cross between two species seldom seen in New Zealand,  D. collina and D. caucasica, combining the small stature and strong fragrance of the former with the fragrance and long blooming period of the latter. It is sometimes possible to find D. collina in New Zealand – usually further south than here – and there is a lovely pink-flowered hybrid called, somewhat bizarrely D. hybrida, that can be found in some garden centres.
Daphne ‘Eternal Fragrance’ is a compact, semi-evergreen, mounded shrub that blooms with gusto in early spring, then continues from October to the first frosts of winter with small clusters of fragrant, pink-budded white flowers.  This plant has become very popular overseas and looks likely to be as popular here, being longer-lived than the more commonly grown forms of Daphne.  It is also a very tidy growing form, and will grow well in pots – in fact, I have even seen overseas magazines that have shown it used as a hedge, but that may be taking it too far!
Overseas there is a variegated form called ‘Summer Ice’, with a lovely white rim around the edge of each of the fine leaves, but I have not seen it offered for sale in New Zealand yet.
I am looking forward to planting ‘Eternal Fragrance’ soon, as over the years I have grown more kinds of Daphne that I care to remember - at least ten forms I would think.
The most popular of these are the various forms of Daphne odora, the daphne that most people know as the common variety.  Nowadays this is usually encountered in the form of the strongly upright growing form known as ‘Leucanthe’, and its white counterpart, ‘Leucanthe Alba.’  These are both lovely shrubs that carry superbly fragrant flowers in great abundance in later winter and early spring.  The scent is very heady and spicy – some have described it as being reminiscent of jasmine, another heady-scented shrub.  However, like many Daphnes they can be slightly temperamental, and it does not pay to get too attached to any one of them, as they are prone to slowly slipping away.
They are a bit fussy as to soil – they need slightly acidic conditions, with humus-rich soil that does not dry out in summer, or become waterlogged in winter.  They can cope with full sun, but I think most do best if they are grown where they will get some shelter from the worst of the afternoon heat.  They do not like being replanted, and are best replaced with container-grown stock.  They are not too fussed about heavy pruning wither – it is best to nibble away at them throughout their life.  I find one good way is to remove the flowering buds, either when they are in flower (they are great in the vase) or shortly after they finish.  It helps keep the plants compact too, as they can get a bit straggly.
There are a couple of other forms of D. odora that are with looking out for.  The old form, ‘Rubra’ has the deepest coloured flowers, although I have to admit it is a slightly untidy grower, the branches dipping off at their own behest.  This is the form our grandparents grew.
As a general rule variegated plants are not as hardy as those that are fully green – it is obvious when you think about it as they have less chlorophyll and as such are not so efficient at growing as their more complete cousins.  But this does not seem to be the case with daphnes, as the classy ‘Aureomarginata’ seems to be tougher than its green counterpart.  I love this lovely plant with its lively yellow rim around the edge of each dark green leaf, and it does seem to survive longer in the garden than the plain-leaved types, which can be a little transient.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Camellia 'Little Liane'

As winter approaches most of the garden goes into a slow decline.  It is the time of the year to take care of the perennial garden, cutting back last year’s growth, dividing where necessary, and applying a little bit of fertiliser for the upcoming year.
This is also the time of the year that the autumn/winter flowering shrubs kick into their blooming season, especially those wonderful autumn flowering sasanqua camellias.
The arrival of camellia petal blight has seriously curbed my enthusiasm for the majority of camellias.  The way their flowers turn brown almost as soon as they open has driven even the most ardent camellia growers to rethink their passion.  The trouble is a fungal one, and it seems there is no chemical cure for it.  It spreads very rapidly,   and survives through the summer as spores in the ground, only to reappear as the flowers open in late winter early spring.
The sasanqua camellias seem much less prone to the disease, although I suspect it is largely because the fungal spores are not about at this time of the year.  Either way, it does mean we can enjoy these lovely camellias before the blight strikes.
We currently have one in flower, the very compact growing ‘Little Liane’, one of the Paradise range of sasanqua camellias, raised in Australia and released onto the New Zealand market in the past few years.  It is small-leafed, compact shrub growing to around a metre tall, although our’s has assumed a rather odd shape.  When freshly planted it was knocked over and, it being of sight, I did not notice for a year or so.  It grew almost horizontally before sending up some vertical branches, so it is now wider than it is high.  The flowers are small white, of loose informal peony form and supposedly with a faint pink margin, although my spectacles must not be rosy enough because I have never noticed that.  The flower centres is a scramble of stamens, petaloids and small petals, making for an interestingly informal flower. Because of its dense compact flowering habit, this variety was specially selected suitable for low hedges and topiary.
It is probably most like the older form ‘Mine Yo Yuki’, which was once the most common white sasanqua camellia, and still has many fans.  It is taller growing but is still quite compact in form, and is often used for hedging.
The other white sasanqua often seen in older gardens is the fabulous ‘Setsugekka’, which carries an abundance of large wavy white blooms with prominent yellow at this time of the year, each bloom being softly scented.  This makes a great sight in the garden, growing taller than the other white varieties mentioned above, getting up the three meters after many years.
Perhaps the best-known the sasanqua camellias is not one – the old favourite ‘Hiryu’ is actually a form of the closely related species C. hiemalis, but looks for all the world like one of its cousins.  It has masses of beautiful, large deep rose semi-double flowers, shading to red at the petal edges, and is as hardy as can be. 
Another old form to keep an eye out for is the venerable variety ‘Plantation Pink’.  This has been grown in gardens for many years now, but it is still as popular as ever, with its cheerful clean and clear pink flowers providing such good garden value at this time of the year.
Among the Paradise varieties that are worth looking out for are ‘Belinda’, with large, glowing pink flowers; ‘Blush’ with flowers that open from deep pink buds, to become almost white with a pink reverse on the outer petals; ‘Gillian’, which has delicate semi-double blooms, white faintly edged with soft pink; ‘Glow’, which is basically  an improved version of ‘Plantation Pink’, with large deep glowing pink, single flowers with a centre of bright yellow stamens; ‘Joan’, which has very showy large red loose informal double flowers, and ‘Vanessa’, with very large brilliant white flowers which have a pink flush on the outer petals.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Medlars and Chinese quinces

The Head Gardener and I wandered around Eastwoodhill Arboretum one morning recently   while on holiday in Gisborne, delighting in the various coloured trees – mainly oaks at this stage, but also many other types of deciduous trees.  It was quite dangerous in places, because the pathways were strewn with thousands of acorns, and I kept imagining those with less steady footing falling over easily.  We had the obligatory map but were quite happy to just follow our noses, usually following Robert Frost’s dictate about the road less travelled.

We came across an area that seemed dedicated to edible plants of the more unusual kind, included a medlar, Mespilus germanica, in full fruit.  I have seen the fruit before, and have seen trees before, but have not seen a tree laden with fruit before.  It is an interesting subject, being a member of the vast rose family (as are many edible fruits) and seems to fit somewhere between the pear species (of which there were many at Eastwoodhill) and the hawthorn. 

It makes a small tree, growing about five metres high, with a similar spread, and looking not unlike an apple.  It also has the great habit of colouring up well in the autumn, usually taking on yellow and orange shades.  Before then, though, the fruit become ready for picking.  They are unusual-looking fruit – sort of like oversized rose hips in a way, brown and with a calyx on the crown.

This southern European fruit was once quite popular but has fallen from favour, probably because so many similar fruits, such as apples and pears are readily available, and you do not have to wait until the fruit is rotten to eat them.   The technical term is “bletting”, but it amounts to the same thing.  After two to three weeks in storage,  the fruit becomes soft, mushy brown, and is said to be both sweet and tasty, with a hint of spicy applesauce.  If you do not fancy eating rotten fruit, perhaps it would be better to make a jelly from the fruit – it is also said to be delicious.

Before we left for holiday I had someone come in to see me at work, holding what at first appeared to be a semi-ripe mango.  When they explained it was growing on a tree in their garden in Masterton I soon worked out it was not a tropical fruit of any kind, but was a little puzzled.  I cut the fruit open and could see lots of seed inside, and could discern very little scent– but there was just enough for me to realise what it was. 

What I was looking at was a fruit of an unusual deciduous shrub from China, fruit I had not seen for about twenty-five years.  It was from Pseudocydonia sinensis, another aromatic fruit tree from the rose family, and another that is basically inedible!

This is an attractive small tree – only about three meters tall – and is closely related to both the quince tree of Europe, and the ‘japonica’ of the garden – Chaenomeles species. In spring it has pale pink flowers, which are later followed by the ovoid fruit, about the size of a large pear.  They are green for a long time, then take on reddish hints before turning butter yellow as they ripen.  They have a wonderful aroma, and a bowlful of them will scent the whole house.

These fruit are very astringent and very hard, and no amount of bletting will make them edible (at least not in my estimation) but they do have a use – they make the most wonderful conserve, not unlike quince conserve but much more aromatic.  We had a specimen of this tree in our nursery, probably about fifty years old or even older.  It only fruited once for us but what it lacked in regularity it made up for with enthusiasm, being heavily laden.  A young student,  who was working for us on work experience, decided he wanted to use the fruit and took some home to make the conserve.  I’m not sure if he or his Mum made it, but it was superb – it went really well with stewed apples.

I think I’d prefer a jar of that to some freshly bletted medlars.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Feeling seedy

I have been following some interesting threads of discussion on the internet over the past few days, after receiving a number of invitations to sign a petition against the American chemical company Monsanto, probably best known as the inventor of Round Up.  The petitioners allege that Monsanto has gained patent rights on all vegetable varieties and will enforce a ban on gardeners and farmers saving their own seeds.
It has certainly vexed some people and there are some outraged people, posting all sorts of strange stories on-line. Needless to say the story is more interesting, and less alarming than that.  Monsanto has bought a number of seed companies over the past few years, including Seminis, a large supplier of commercial strains of vegetable seeds.  Monsanto does not have a monopoly on seeds, and only has any patent rights on vegetable seeds that were patented through Seminis.
So what are plant patents and how do they affect gardeners?
All of our vegetable varieties have been derived from wild species, usually by many generations of gardeners saving seeds from varieties which are an improvement over the wild kinds.  In that way beans and peas were cultivated for their sweetness and the increased size of the seeds, while carrots were changed from pale-rooted vegetables into the (usually) orange vegetable we are familiar with.  Perhaps the most remarkable series of changes has taken place within the Brassica group of vegetables, where one species has been, through patient selection, turned into kale, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, broccoli and collards. 
That process of careful selection meant that a century ago seed companies were able to offer their own strains of most vegetable types, and employed breeders and manual labour to ensure their varieties were true to type, and to also instigate new varieties.  This would be achieved by hand crossing two differing varieties, each with a particular point the breeder was interested in -  early cropping, better colour, larger size for example – then the resultant seedlings would then be reselected until the best traits were combined in a stable strain.  This was usually achieved by growing the vegetables in large numbers, keeping only the very best for seed and ruthlessly rouging out any plants that were not true to type. Then, and only then, would the strain be released onto the market.  This type of seed is pollinated by insects and is referred to as Open Pollinated, or OP.
But once it was released, any seed was fair game, and could quickly be bulked up and grown and sold by any competitor, thus denying the original breeder of the full fruits of their labour in developing the variety in the first place.
That all changed with the introduction of the Plant Variety Protection legislation in the United States, and later in other places, especially when that was extended to seed strains as well as cloned cultivars. 
In a local sense, this idea of being able to patent a plant variety came too late for Robinson’s Nurseries who bred the phenomenally popular Photinia ‘Red Robin’ in the 1940s.  Nowadays they would be able to license such a variety and would be able to secure a payment for every plant sold around the world, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.  Then they only had the introducer’s bonus, of being able to bulk to a sufficient number of plants before they were released onto the market.
In recent years plant breeders have concentrated on producing F1 hybrids, with interesting results for gardeners.  These are strains where two different parent strains are kept going, and crossed with each other, thus producing hybrid vigour, and much better uniformity.  This is a similar technique to that used by farmers for generations where they cross Romney ewers with Southdown rams to produce vigorous lambs.
The seed company only sell the seeds resulting from the first generation of crosses, thus the home gardener cannot replicate the strains, and is forced to buy seed fresh each year.  This is worthwhile for some varieties, but of less value for others, as F1 seed is usually exponentially dearer than OP seed.  I would never grow OP broccoli as F1 plants are much better, and the same applies to cauliflower, tomatoes and peppers.  On the other hand, OP lettuce and cabbage are generally fine – in fact, F1 hybrid cabbages tend to be too big for the home gardeners and older varieties, such as ‘Derby Day’; are probably a better bet.
Monsanto, and other chemical-producing firms have taken plant breeding a step further – a step too far many people - by using human genetic modification to breed plants with specific traits not found in nature, especially so in the case of Monsanto, which has released a Round Up resistant variety of soybean to the market, and has quickly captured the majority of the seed market.  They have also bred strains of maize and other crops that are also Round Up resistant.   They are remarkably popular as they allow farmers to sow seeds much closer as they can use Round Up as a post-emergence spray thus obviating the need for mechanical tillage between rows.
There is an inherent risk in this, of course, that being the possibility of the gene for Round Up resistance passing to a weed, this removing Round Up’s efficacy.  So far that does not seem to have happened.
The other area of concern for some is the issue of ‘terminator seeds’, varieties where the seed produced is sterile and cannot be used for a second generation.  This is obviously an issue for poorer farmers in less developed countries, and although it is claimed that such seed is produced, in fact it has not been commercially produced by any company. 
So, in short, Monsanto is not going to try and patent all vegetable varieties, and does could not if it wanted to, so you will still be able to grow ‘Great Lakes’ and ‘Webbs Wonderful’ lettuce,  ‘Moneymaker’ tomatoes and ‘Nante’ carrots without adding to the riches of the shareholders of Monsanto.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Couch in the border!

Through the last few months I have been watching a piece of couch grass make its way out of the back lawn and into the end of the large mixed border in our backyard.   It had made its way into the middle of a clump of variegated Solomon’s Seal before I noticed it, then it spread its runners out into a couple of clumps of lungwort.  I have been waiting for the soil to freshen up before tackling it, knowing that digging in the hard soil would only snap the runners.   I was probably the only person in the region who was happy to have a wet weekend, and to have the chance to deal to this pesty grass before it got too far out of control.
The first task was to carefully take the perennials growing in this area out.  I wasn’t unhappy about that as it was more than time to do that as some of the plants had been in large clumps for many years.
The variegated Solomon’s Seal had been nibbled away at last year, when I took some rhizomes off the edges of the plants as part of my contribution to the new border in Queen Elizabeth Park.  They are now well established down there, and part of a wonderfully refurbished border that is a credit to the Friends of the Park, and to Doug Bailey and his team.
Variegated  Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum', has great foliage value, having arching stems which carry lance shaped, green leaves with white margins but it also has delicate, creamy-white, fragrant, bell shaped flowers dangling from the stems in mid to late spring.   I love this plant in spring, when it is quite light green, as it makes a good contrast to the iris seedlings that grow alongside it.  It is a little bit of an expander – it spreads by finger sized rhizomes – but in all the years that it has been here it has only grown to about 60 cm across. 
The pure green form is just as good in the garden although it is a big more vigorous, growing perhaps a metre tall as opposed to the 80 cm the variegated form stays at.   Either form will grow well in full sun, but I think they are both best with light shade, and slightly moist soil.
Growing among these rhizomes in my garden, and slightly difficult to tell apart from the nodes on the couch, were a few clumps of the pink form of Lily of the Valley, Convallaria majalis ‘Rosea’.   The white form of the plant was a major favourite in my mother’s garden – she grew masses of it underneath the living room window in a very damp spot, and it always thrived.  I have a few measly plants of the white form struggling along in the garden, and an equally small number of buds of the pink form, also struggling.  I am sure my failure to grow these well is simply that I do not have a wet enough spot in our largely dry garden.
It is, of course, like a miniature version of Solomon’s Seal, with hanging bells of white (or a slightly muddy pink) pretty enough to look at in their own way, but mainly grown for their outstanding sweet scent.  For those of you who are royal fans, they featured in the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding bouquet.
The two biggest clumps in this part of the garden were both lungworts, Pulmonaria.   These are outstanding foliage plants, doing especially well where conditions are a little less than ideal – in slightly shady areas, or those that are a little dry.  They derive both their common name and generic names from the supposed similarity between the leaves and the inside of lungs.  Personally I hope my lungs are not bristly haired and green – I cannot imagine that would be good for my health – but I accept that the name largely derives from the spotted nature of the leaves.  As a result of this look-alike perception, herbalists believed that the leaves were good for alleviating lung problems.  Science does not back this claim.
These are lovely garden plants, with some older forms having a mix of blue and pink flowers on the same plant, but modern forms tend to be coloured with one colour only, and the spots have been developed to become more dominant.  One of the clumps in the garden that I divided this weekend  is of the modern variety ‘Raspberry Splash’,  which has slightly more pointy leaves than average, all covered with lots of white spots.  The flowers are deep reddish pink, and carried in late spring mainly, although there will be sporadic flowers later.  This has made a sizable clump in my garden, and always looks tidy.
‘Majeste’ is the other variety I grow – and this is something special.  The flowers are pink and blue, but to be honest they are not the attraction for this one, it is the magnificent (or majestic) solid silver foliage, covered with fine hairs.  Again, this has been in the garden for a long time and always looks fantastic.  

Monday, April 01, 2013

Blooming good at Easter

Was there ever an Easter like this Easter?  One when the sun shone unremittingly throughout the whole weekend?  Although we are all hoping the drought will break soon, for a variety of reasons, most of us were secretly  happy that it did not happen through the long weekend.
The Head Gardener and I managed to a little time away to catch up with family, and spent some time on family history matters, but there was still a spare hour or three in the garden, with some lawn mowing and garden tidying carried out.
I loved working among some of my favourite plants that flower at this time of the year, but they are almost all plants the Head Gardener has no time for – at all. 
Take the wonderful paintbrush lily that is flowering its head off in a large container on the patio.  This was originally a gift from a gardening friend about twenty years ago, but it has still to arouse the enthusiasm of the Head Gardener.  It is one of the many South African members of the Amaryllis family, and like many of its relatives it flowers on naked stems before there is any sign of leaves.  But unlike its kin the naked ladies and the wonderful Crinum, this one has a short stem, about 15 cm long, and relatively squat flowers, with small petals. 
The species in flower at the moment is Haemanthus coccineus, probably the most common of these plants in New Zealand gardens, although none are really found that often.  It is totally summer deciduous (a pointer to its coming from winter rainfall areas of southern Africa) and the first signs of life in the autumn is a colouring at the lips of the large bulbs, which sit slightly above the surface of the soil.   These orange-scarlet buds slowly creep upwards, until they are about 15 cm high, when the tightly sealed lips of the lower open to reveal an astonishing ball of golden anthers, looking for all the world like a big red shaving brush.
The Head Gardener is even less impressed with the white species H. albiflos, which flowers later in the year, but I would not be without these charming and slightly oddball South African bulbs.
And I would not be without a toad lily or two either, although again, the Head Gardener is less than impressed with them too.
These are Tricyrtis species, members of the Lily family, generally from Eastern Asia, and they are perennial plants that grow naturally in the moist soil on the edge of forests, so they are ideally suited to semi-shaded places in our gardens.  I guess that it because they live in damp places they are called toad lilies - I cannot think of any other reason.  The flowers are certainly not toad-like, but rather like refined orchid flowers, usually with curious markings on the petals.
They flower at this time of the year when the garden can be a little barren of colour, and even though they are not extremely showy they are attractive perennials.  They are at their best in the same sort of conditions that hostas, hellebores and other moisture and shade loving plants thrive in. 
I grow a couple of different forms but T. hirta, one of the best, is probably the most commonly found species in New Zealand.  It has white flowers generously splashed with purple.  The leaves in this species are also attractive – clean, mid-green with ribs reminiscent of hosta leaves.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

I was standing at the counter at the weekend, with a few bulbs, thinking I was a bit crazy to be thinking of planting daffodils in such a sustained dry spell, when I noticed a young woman coming towards me, pushing a trolley loaded up with shrubs.  I thought she was really going to struggle with keeping her new plants alive in the drought, and felt rather superior.  You know the sort of thing I mean – experienced gardener smiling at a greenhorn who was going to make an elementary gardening mistake.
Turns out I could not have been more wrong.  As she got closer I could see that plants she had chosen, and it became very apparent she was very much more switched on to environmental concerns, and aware of the certainties of climate change, as she was clearly planting a grey garden for a sunny and dry situation.
She had started out with some lavender.  I could not see what variety they were (I did not want to pry too much) but they were English forms, with flower spikes hovering over the bushes.  There has been a huge upsurge in interest in these plants, and there are probably hundreds of different forms available in the market, ranging from deep purple through to sort-of-pinks (although you need rose coloured glasses to really think of them as pink), to a neutral shade sometimes called cream or white, as well as all sorts of mauves and soft purples, and even greenish hues.
I have found these will cope with growing in almost no soil – we have an area alongside the driveway that is simply compacted fill, and has little or no nutriment.  I popped a lavender in among the few other things that will tolerate it, and it has flourished, even casting seeds that germinate in my near-by iris seedling bed.  I suspect the less the food lavenders get the hardier they grow, and the more concentrated their scent becomes.
The French lavender, L. stoechas, is probably the best for the average garden, having large flowers with the characteristic rabbit’s ears petals on the spikes, and again is available in lots of different forms.  With all garden lavenders, it pays to make sure they are trimmed each year after flowering.  It pays to trim back by about a third to encourage new growth.
Among the other shrubs in the young lady’s trolley I noticed a silver-leaved favourite of mine, Convolvulus cneorum.  This is a prolific flowering, low growing shrub growing probably 50cm high and about a metre across.  It has evergreen (or should I say eversilver) foliage that covers the plant all year round, then starting in spring  starts a crop of cup shaped white flowers which  and continue throughout the summer and autumn months.
Like most silver-leaved plants it does best in a sunny free-draining position – it hates damp feet and does not tolerate shade.  It does not like severe frosts as it is establishing, but after that will cope with anything a Wairarapa winter throws at it.  It is not often used this way, but it makes an interesting small hedge, providing a great contrast for larger-leaved varieties.