Sunday, January 27, 2013

Another kind of garden

Photograph of a bumblebee approaching a Penstemon - Dr David Winter

In the past have I written about the various kinds of gardens that we create – gardens that are filled with flowers,  those that are crammed with a multitude of unusual and rare plants, and those where the concentration is on the overall effect of the garden, with design being a strong component of the joy the gardener derives.
This holiday season I had an insight into a different kind of garden, thanks to the efforts of my scientist son, home from Dunedin. In December Radio New Zealand broadcast an interview with him as he showed their science correspondent Veronika Meduna around his garden – the link is here   I was intrigued to listen, as he had many admirable skills but top notch gardening is not one of them, and his hillside patch is an interesting mix of pioneer plants (weeds, that is) of various stripes, with a few garden patches interspersed.
Turns out he was not showing her around his garden plants so much as guiding her to various spots in the garden where different insects and other creepy crawlies were hiding out, and regaling her with details of how interesting it all was.
When he came home for Christmas he informed me he was going to be harvesting from my garden for the lab sessions he takes at Otago University, and I thought he was interested in the genetics of some of our plants, but again I was wrong.  He spent a part of each day while he was home gathering bugs of varying kinds that had been attracted to the death trap that is our swimming pool. 
There is a remarkable variety of flying critters of all kinds to be found in different states of swimming and drowning in the pool – cicadas, flies of various kinds, bees (both honey and native), bumble bees, a variety of beetles, and even a few spiders.
It made me see the garden the way he, an inveterate invertebrate lover, sees it – as a place where humans construct an environment to attract as many different kinds of wild life as possible.
He took me on a little tour of my garden, showing me some perfectly cylindrical holes (with piles of soil beside them) in the compacted mulch around the old vegetable garden, pointing out that these were the nests of the small native bees we had seen in the pool. We then went hunting to see if we could find the bees at work in the garden, and quickly discovered them at work on a flowering hebe – there were dozens of them zipping in and out of the small flowers on each raceme.  We also found them at work on a parsley plant I had allowed to flower, alongside native flies and honey bees.
When I spent a morning slowly filling up the wheelbarrow with weeds and trimmings from the garden, I took my time to unload it, looking carefully at the range of invertebrate life I had also accidentally gathered, and was surprised at the variety.  As well as the earwigs and slaters I had expected to find there, I could usually find three or four different species of spider, a couple of different ladybirds (including that lovely steel blue ladybird which has become more common in recent years), and a range of scale insects from trimmings, “fluffy bums” (juvenile passion vine hoppers) and even a few ants and aphids.
It was a bit of an eye opener for me, as I would have said I was an observant gardener who took notice of the environment I was gardening in, but I guess I have not quite seen the garden as such a source of biodiversity, and it made me think about some of the things we can do in the garden to encourage a wider range of wild life into the garden.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

'Con C Dor' the lilies

It seems that each summer has a theme in the garden.  It might be a cool and wet year, where the traditional summer crops like peppers, egg plants and tomatoes really struggle but green-leaved vegetables like lettuce relish it and flourish.  Or it might be a very hot and dry summer which gives the flower garden hell, meaning bedding plants shrivel up and roses drop most of their leaves by the start of February and look dreadful.
This summer will be the year of giant lilies in my mind.
A couple of weekends ago a gardener who is a friend of friends rang and asked whether I would like to help identify a large lily that had many, many flowers she had growing in a pot at her back door.  It was a little out of town in a country garden so I happily set out one evening to have a look, more or less expecting it to be an Asiatic or Oriental lily that had been infected with a virus, leading to a dose of fasciation.
Fasciation is a common side-effect of virus infection in many plants, causing “witches brooms” on deciduous trees and distorted growth on perennials.  In lilies it causes increased growth rates, flattened stems and a remarkable profusion of blooms, with literally hundreds of smallish flowers clustered at the end of the stems.  I was expecting having to explain that this had occurred, and that it was probably just a one-off and the bulb would recover.
But what I saw was a remarkably healthy looking lily, growing profusely in a huge terracotta pot, with lots and lots of flowers opened and opening,  and plenty of buds to come – with not a sign of fasciation anywhere.  The flowers were a very soft cream (almost white) with soft yellow centres, about 20 cm across and slightly scented.  These glorious flowers were borne on stems over two metres tall, making this a very imposing sight.
I was flummoxed as to what it was, thinking it was probably one of the hybrids between the Oriental lilies, such as the glorious Golden Rayed Lily of Japan, Lilium auratum, and the Asiatic species in the Trumpet group, including the likes of the Christmas Lily, L. regale.
When I got home I looked through my catalogues and thought I had come up with the answer in a catalogue from a South Island grower, a Oriental/Trumpet (OT) hybrid called ‘Con C Dor’,  only it was described as growing one metre high.  When I went delving into the on-line registration catalogue things got a bit murkier as I could not find any ‘Con C Dor’, but eventually I found it, under its proper name, ‘Consa d’Or’, where it was described as growing five feet in England, so I guess the extra foot can be put down to our better growing climate.
Then this week in the Times-Age I saw a photograph of another gardening friend (and ex-client of our nursery) Jean Farley standing alongside another giant flowering specimen of what appeared to be the same variety.  It was interesting that in both cases the plants had come from potted gift plants, suggesting they had perhaps been sprayed with chemicals to keep them small as I cannot imagine a two metre lily in a pot being a good gift for a hospital patient!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Hydrangeas

In these hot and dry days of summer it is good to have some indicator plants that will let you know when the rapid application of some cooling and quenching H2O is urgently needed, and few garden plants do that as effectively as hydrangeas.  Once they have been in moisture deficiency for a day or two they will quickly hang their flower heads and withdraw the water from their leaves, their dried-up hangdog look a sure-fire indicator that you need to get the hoses out and watering commenced.
The popularity of these summer blooming stalwarts has waxed and waned over the years.  Once very popular in New Zealand gardens, they fell from grace a little, with a generation of gardeners regarding them as somewhat common, but they seem to be having a bit of a revival at the moment, perhaps spurred on by the arrival of a number of new varieties, and the uptake of gardening by a younger generation.
Older gardeners will recall when all gardens had a dollop of hydrangeas, often planted on a south-facing wall and then neglected.  There they would provide deep green foliage throughout the growing season and, as long as they were not butchered too badly at pruning time, they would usually furnish a nice display of flowers over the summer.  My first garden had such a row of hydrangeas, all healthy growing, awaiting my first pruning, then failing to flower for a couple of years as I pruned them too hard and somewhat injudiciously. 
My clearest recollection of those hydrangeas is the role they played in my first attempts of growing plants from cuttings.   I took slips from a number of different rock plants I had in another border, and lined them out in freshly-turned garden soil, using hydrangea trimmings to mark the end of the rows.  The inevitable happened – the only cuttings that struck were the hydrangeas!

All these were the most common form of hydrangea, ‘mop heads’.  This slightly disrespectful epithet denotes that the flower heads are entirely composed of sterile flowers, with much larger florets than the fertile flowers.  These flowers can look a little heavy, and indeed can be more than a little weighty, especially after a shower of rain.
The lacecap types, which have a mix of fertile and sterile flowers, probably should be much more widely grown than they are as they are as easily grown as mop tops, but are perhaps easier to mix with other flowers as the lacecap flower head is looser, more graceful and more subtle in its effect.  Often it is composed of a ring of sterile flowers around a central core of fertile ones.
The common garden hydrangeas as referred to as H. macrophylla, and as I said before, there has been an interesting range of new forms coming on to the market in the past few years.

I have been impressed by the picotee-edged form called ‘Sensation’.  This is a vigorous growing mop top with bright green glossy leaves, and masses of large flower heads with the coolest flowers of rose-pink edged with white.   The new buds are greenish, and an opening head has the most amazing combination of colours.

The new You-Me series is even more interesting, with a range of pastel colours in doubles forms, quite unlike anything grandma grew in her garden. ‘You-Me Forever’ has intriguing balls of double blue blossom while ‘You-Me Eternity’ (sounds like ‘Forever’ to me, but then I am just a linguistic pedant according to the Head Gardener)  has the same form but in dark pink.  These are fabulous plants and worth seeking out in your local garden centre.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

The lost tribe of the Inca

Being a basically conservative sort of gardener, things can creep up on me a little.  A plant may be getting a little large for its space, or perhaps suffering from dieback or another ailment and I will not notice it usually.  But the Christmas/New Year period offers a chance to keep on top of those sorts of things.  I have more time to spare to just wander around the garden instead of rushing from plant to plant, and from weed to weed!  And I can also wander around with the Head Gardener, listening to her very subtle offerings about the suitability of various plants.
This year there are a number of overgrown trees that will need to be carefully thinned out, especially a large silver matipo, Pittosporum tenuifolium, which is growing hard against the back fence, and has spread its arms just a little too wide.  A crested iris, probably I. confusa I think, growing at its base has also had territorial ambitions, expanding to cover a large portion of the back border, and intermingling with a similarly-minded red Flower Carpet rose. These will all be trimmed, pruned and perhaps removed, to make room for some more interesting and exciting plants.
While I was sizing them up I also looked at a couple of patches of Peruvian lilies, Alstroemerias, which I planted about 12 years ago.  They were red and golden forms of the Inca series, and were a gift from their New Zealand agents. The Inca Alstroemerias are bred by one of the world's largest breeders, Konst BV of the Netherlands, specifically for use as garden planst.
I confess I was a little suspicious of these plants when they were given to me, being sceptical about the claims of that they were true dwarf varieties, and that they would behave themselves in the garden and not run all over the place.
I have had bad experiences with Alstroemerias before.  We had a patch of the unusually coloured A. pulchella, (also known as A. psittacina) from Brazil, which has flowers that are dark red marked with green and blotched dark purple. It was growing in very well-drained sandy spoil and it was a nightmare to get rid of – it took a few years of assiduous digging to finally get all the little tubers out.
We had a similar problem with a hybrid we bought for one of the back gardens.  A tall form, obviously derived from the energetic old species A. aurea which you will find romping around a lot of old gardens,  this one decided it liked the part of the north-facing bed it was in so much that it would take the whole bed over.  We have been digging it out for the past seven years and it still managed to throw a shoot up every year.  I think I would need to kill everything in the bed, remove all the soil, sieve it all and taking any tuberous remains away, before we would finally get control of it.
So you can imagine my caution about planting these gift plants, but I have to say they have been very well-behaved plants, both eventually spreading to about a metre across after many years, and both giving a great source of cut flowers, albeit with short stems.
Quite aside from their value as bright and cheerful garden plants for sunny parts of the garden, they are also one of the world's most popular perennials for use in bouquets as a cut flower, happily lasting for weeks.
But the time has come for a change, and I have been looking around at some of the newer varieties, including a number of the newer Inca varieties.  One that has taken my eye in my favourite garden centre is ‘Inca Joli’, which has a mass of deep orange-red flowers with a yellow striped throat, on a compact plant.  ‘Inca Pulse’ is similar, with bright and luminous warm red flowers with a bright yellow throat.  If you like more subtle colours, or you are a bicycle fan,
 ‘Inca Avanti’ might be your choice, with soft peach/pink flowers with yellow striped throats.
I was also rather taken with a couple of other forms.  ‘Bryce’ has unusually-coloured flowers – they are a jumble of apricot and peach, with yellow throats, speckled darker, and I would imagine that would look great planted in a terracotta tub or planter.
So it was a sunny day, and I was under strict instructions that I was not to go into the wilds of the Upper Ruamahanga River on my own, looking for the hidden lake that lies between the aforementioned river and its tributary,  the Ruapae.
So what to do.  It is still, calm and cool at 7.30 but I know it is going to get nicely warm.
Of course, I'll go up Taratahi/Mr Holdsworth.  All the time my son David was home, especially when his lovely partner Ana was here too, we hoped to go for a bug hunt/tramp in the hills, but it never happened, usually because the weather was too wet or too windy.
Of course, now that they have gone it was fabulous!
The tramp was delicious!  The first of the Thelymitra are in bud at Rocky Lookout, and there are a few in flower in the Pig Flat swamp.  And there are those who say our wild flowers are dull!

I wish I had David for the walk though.  On the alpine part of the walk I saw what appeared to be three different species of grasshopper; a large green, a large brown, and a much smaller green form as well.  There was a collection of moths fluttering around, mostly too ephemerally for me to be able to identify them, then as I wandered (or more correctly staggered) across Pig Flats on my way back down a beetle (?) landed on my arm - about 2 cm long, dark and slender with four prominent spots on its wings.
And for the life of me I cannot find anything that looks like it online.
Might have to get that macro lens for my camera after all.