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.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Autumn flowering bulbs

One of the ironies about this time of the year is that as well as being the main planting season for the wide range of spring flowering bulbs, it is also the time for the autumn-flowering bulbs to start putting on their displays. 
Probably the best known of these autumn flowering bulbs are the naked ladies, Amaryllis belladonna¸ their long-stemmed clusters of lily-shaped flowers being a feature of many older gardens, and a plethora of country driveways.  But my favourites for this time of the year are much smaller and altogether more delicate looking, and although they are related to naked ladies, they are respectably clothed in bright green foliage when they display their flowers.
I am talking about the bright yellow Sternbergia lutea,  often known by the common name of Lily of the Field, but you are more likely to come across it as one of the many “Autumn Crocuses”.  It has crocus-shaped flowers of daffodil yellow, but this charmer is not actually a lily, a crocus or a daffodil, although it is closest to being a daffodil as it is in fact a member of the Amaryllis family, as are Narcissus.  A native of Italy, it has been cultivated in Western gardens for many centuries, its bright autumn flowers, appearing with the first autumn rains usually, being much appreciated.
In our garden the flowers usually appear in about mid-March, perhaps a little earlier if we have been watering a lot, and they do look just like bright yellow crocus flowers.  They grow about 100 mm high, and have leaves that appear shortly after the flowers.  The leaves are flat like some daffodil leaves, rather than grass-shaped as is the case with crocuses.  They stay on the plant through the winter and into the spring then fall off for the heat of summer.
My clump is planted in well-drained soil in a very sunny site, and it has slowly increased over the years.  The original half a dozen bulbs have probably grown to about 20 now and we get a good succession of flowers for about three or four weeks. My mother used to have a large clump in very similar conditions, along a north-facing wall, and it thrived for her.  I suspect that, in the right place, this bulb might even naturalise, although I have never read of it happening in New Zealand.
This bulb takes autumn pride of place in a garden that is, more or less, devoted to yellow flowers.  I know lots of gardeners are a bit afraid of yellow, thinking it a bit too strident a colour, but I think it is hard to beat at this time of the year, and there are many, many yellow flowered forms of lots of my favourite plants.
Other yellows flowering with the Sternbergias include a soft yellowish dahlia with brown foliage named ‘David’, our older son’s name; some bright Gaillardias planted as annuals about ten years ago and still ticking over; a bright yellow Hemerocallis, and a cute dwarf red hot poker, Kniphofia.   I have lost its label but I think it the well-known older variety called ‘Little Maid’.  This has grass-like foliage that grows about 30 cm high and has a succession of having a wonderful display of soft yellow pokers which gradually age to cream, which gives the clump an appealing contrast as the flowers age.  The flowers grow to about 60 cm. I find it pays to cut the spent flower heads on these dwarf varieties – they usually look past their best before the very top flowers have faded, but they can easily be pulled off.  Doing this also seems to spark the plant into further burst of flowers, extending the season by a few weeks.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


A few years ago the Head Gardener and I visited our son in Dunedin at about this time of the year.  During the time we were in the south we ventured up to the Duntroon/Earthquakes area to look at some remarkable fossils and Maori cave art.  The landscape along the various valleys of North Otago was amazing, but there was a surreal quality to much of it, caused by the outbreak of intensive dairy farming in selected areas.  The region is largely very dry, with porous limestone and relatively recent  gravels forming much of the soil, and by the end of the warm summer most of the paddocks are usually mouse coloured.  But scattered among these burnt paddocks were outcrops of outrageously green fields, where the combination of irrigation and fertiliser betrayed the presence of dairying.
This year our garden looks a bit like that – the lawn have died off, except for a small margin of error at the edges where they receive some spill over from watering the gardens, and the only green is in the garden beds.
I am a bit worried about how dry even some of the flower beds are though, as I want to have a bit of a daffodil blitz this year.  Although I am a great iris lover I am also very taken with daffodils, and have a large number of different types growing in the garden and in pots, and this year I want to expand that number a lot – even aiming for a host of golden daffodils perhaps.
If good strong-growing yellow daffodils are what you are looking for there are a couple of older varieties you should keep an eye out for, ‘Malvern City’ and ‘Carlton’.  Both are gold on gold forms – they have both golden petals and golden cups – and are both very reliable flowering forms that are long lasting.  ‘Malvern City’ is very early in the season, and is quite tall, growing to about 50cm at full height.  ‘Carlton’ is a little later and is a bit chunkier, flowering at 40cm, but is perhaps a little hardier.  They will both do very well as cut flowers.
If you are looking for more contrast you could try one of the varieties with white petals and golden cups, as the colour contrast makes them stand pout very well in the garden.  For early in the season you should look out for ‘Moneymaker’, which has cream petals and a large golden cup and always looks bright in the garden.  The petals are probably a little misshapen if you are trying to win medals at the local flower show, but for garden value it is great.
I have grown ‘Ice Follies’ for a few years now – a lovely white daffodil with white petals and cream cups.  I have found it to be a reliable flowering form, growing about 35 cm high and very hardy in the wind and rain.  If you wanted more colour from this kind of form you should try ‘Orange Ice Follies’, which despite its name is not really orange-cupped but rather deep gold toned.
Small flowered double daffodils are, of course, very popular, none more so than the exquisitely scented ‘Erlicheer’, which can even be in flower as early as May in some gardens.  To be brutally honest it is no great shakes to look at, but it more than makes up for its lack of elegance with the powerful scent it carries.  At the opposite end of the season,  ‘Cheerfuless’ provides much the same scent on a slightly tidier flower.  ‘Golden Cheerfulness’ is even better I think, although the colour is a little light to really be called golden – at times it is almost chartreuse, but this moderately-sized daffodil is one of my favourites.
The Head Gardener is a great fan of the pink-cupped daffodils, and we grow a few of them.  My favourite among these is probably ‘Accent’, even though it is not the pinkest (certainly not the luscious pink you find in tall bearded irises).  The cups are more properly called salmon pink, or perhaps even a peachy orange, but this plant is just so reliable and the flowers hold their colour so well that I would not be without this in my large border.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The long summer has continued unabated, despite the Metservice confidently predicting we will have southerlies and showers at least once a week.  You will have no doubt noticed that these are dry southerlies, with a bit of heat relief and even some cloudy periods, but they have been marked by a complete lack of moisture.
I had to tell the Head Gardener to keep a look out for me at the weekend when I mowed the lawns – well, the bits near the edge of the borders that end up getting accidentally watered.  The front lawn has developed such large crevasses I thought I might get lost down one of them and need rescuing!
The hot weather and relentless lack of moisture have suited some shrubs though, and even though some garden plants are literally shrivelling up this summer, there are a few that have been seen at their best this year.
Probably the best performing among these is a plant that is seen surprisingly little in Wairarapa gardens, as it can provide one of the brightest and most floriferous displays in the middle of a sustained warm spell.  I am talking about Lagerstroemeria indica, the Crepe Myrtle, a small growing deciduous tree from Korea and Japan, with many relatives in the warmer parts of the world, including Australia.
In the wild this is a small growing tree that distinguishes itself by amazing displays of crinkled flowers that have earned it the ‘crepe’ part of its name.  These flowers are borne from summer into the autumn and at their best they can smother the whole tree giving a very dramatic effect.
The type species, and the one that is most commonly seen, has lots of lilac-pink flowers, but in over 200 years of cultivation, a wide range of hybrids have been raised.   Overseas this shrub has become a very popular potted plant and dwarf varieties have been released, some of which are now available in New Zealand.  They make fabulous plants for the patio as they can cope with a little bit of benign neglect.
‘Flamingo’ has flowers that, despite the suggestion in the name that they might be pink, are in fact a deep red, while ‘Soire D’Ete’ is a lovely soft pink.  Funnily enough, ‘Petite Snow’ is a dwarf white form, but I don’t think it works as well as the brighter coloured varieties.
These plants are not too fussy to grow in our climate, but they do not like being in the shade, and they do best in well-drained soil as well.  Their ideal spot would be in the full sun in a relatively warm position, where they should flourish and provide lots of summer colour for many years.
I guess that they have not become more popular because people think they are a little tender – and they certainly do look as though they are slightly tropical but they will cope with any frosts that the Wairarapa winter will throw at them.
The other reason they are not commonly planted is, I am sure, the current prejudice against deciduous plants.  The compensation with so many shrubs and trees that lose their leaves in fall is that they often have pretty autumn colour – and this species does – or they have attractive bark – and this does that too!