All posts by sarahnorling2014

Bringing the Garden Inside

Hyacinths grown indoors
These hyacinths are now flowering after a couple of months in their bowl with just water to keep them going. It worked!

I saw pictures this week of the 2015 New Zealand Home of the Year, and went right back to the 70’s. There were the split levels, raked ceilings, and exposed timber, and to complete the vibe, there were the indoor plants. Macrame plant holders holding Tahitian Bridal Veils. Vines creeping through the house. I loved it. There was not a single white phalaenopsis orchid to be seen – what a relief! For at least a decade there seems to have been a law saying that expensive white orchids were the only plant allowed inside the house of anyone with a modicum of good taste.

I’m glad to see indoor plants returning, as I got started on my ‘indoor garden’ some years ago and have found it very rewarding. It started with a small potted palm from the supermarket, bought to put in front of an unused fireplace. I added a couple of ferns, a streptocarpus and some begonias. Then I needed an African violet because I’ve always loved their sparkly flowers. My daughters brought home tiny cacti from school fairs. I went to an orchid show and brought home 3 large cymbidium orchids…and so it went on.

Cacti & Elephant's Ears
These three tiny plants lined up on a windowsill have so much character – they always make me smile.


These look less like hare’s feet and more like a giant tarantula climbing out of the soil.

I just repotted the hare’s foot fern, and gleefully showed the family the ‘hare’s feet’ which now look more like alarming hairy legs. Another eccentric member of the collection is the stone plant, which after 3 years has managed to double in size, to 4.5cm across.

Our stone plant is doing its best to blend in with the pebbles around it..
This stone plant is doing its best to blend in with the pebbles around it..

Last year I came across a lovely book called ‘The Unexpected Houseplant’ by Tovah Martin. (Timber Press, 2012). I highly recommend it – its full of fresh and inspiring ideas. Following one of her suggestions, last year I planted Iceland poppy seedlings into individual pots, and when they reached flowering stage I brought them inside, along with some primulas, and they lived happily on the coffee table for several months. Gorgeous. Tovah is American, so all the seasons and directions are back to front and upside down for us down-under. You just have to remember that when she says a plant should be near a south-facing window, she means the warm side of the house, not the Antarctica-facing south windows we have here.

As winter approaches and we retreat indoors, I’ve started planning the next round of indoor garden projects. The poppies have been potted and are living outside for now. Hyacinth ‘Delfts Blue’ bulbs are sitting in their special bowl in the cupboard under the stairs. They’ll come out when they start sending up shoots. Last year they got off to a flying start, then the flowers failed miserably, possibly due to being too warm, so this year I’m trying again and will probably just turn off the heating and tell the family to put on extra jumpers….seems fair.

Hyacinth bulbs in their bowl, ready to go into the dark until they start sprouting.
Hyacinth bulbs in their bowl, ready to go into the dark until they start sprouting.

I have filled a trifle bowl with gravel, water, Daffodil ‘February Gold’ and Crocus ‘Purity’, and will hopefully get a bowl full of flowers in a couple of months. The process may be known as ‘forcing’ bulbs, but I’m happy to just ask politely and hope they respond.

Daffodil and Crocus bulbs starting off in a trifle bowl
Daffodil and Crocus bulbs starting off in a trifle bowl

If the trifle bowl experiment doesn’t work, I have a simple fallback plan. Bunches of daffodils from the local dairy.




How to make pots work

Pots are a bit like roses. You know – popular, pretty much everyone has at least a couple sitting somewhere in the garden, terrific when done well but often a bit sub-par. I do see lots of examples of pots being used beautifully, but all too often one also sees collections of mismatched pots with half-dead plants – begun with the best intentions but somehow never quite working. So what goes wrong?

Here are a few of my thoughts on how to make pots work. I’ll leave out the whole ‘keep them fed and watered’ lecture, this is more about using them for good visual effect.

1. Go LARGE. Get the biggest pot/s you can afford. Large pots don’t dry out as quickly (therefore improving your plants’ survival rates) and provide more nutrients over time through their increased volume of growing media. Yes, your upfront cost will be much greater, including needing more potting mix to fill it, but think of it as an investment – they look great and your plants won’t die. And, relevant to Wellington readers, they don’t blow over, at least if you stay away from tall, narrow ones!

Lightweight planters
This sort of planter is good for decks or balconies, as it is in a lightweight fibreglass material, and won’t topple in the wind.


2. Be CONSISTENT. Your pots don’t necessarily all have to be the same size or shape, but choose a unifying theme and stick with it. Generally, where the pots will be seen together, I would select one material or colour theme, and keep to that. Set them up in clusters if they are of differing sizes, or space them at regular intervals if they are identical.

Collection of terracotta pots
I love the unstudied air of this arrangement of terracotta pots in my friend Sally’s Sydney garden. Lovely choice of foliage colours as well.


3. Keep it SIMPLE.

Buxus is one of the most forgiving of container plants. The classic simplicity of a clipped buxus ball will always look good, plus it will take all sorts of hardship. Mine is on the south side of the house and gets no sun at all for several months in winter, and no additional watering in summer, poor thing.

If you want colour, put your pot/s somewhere sunny and work out a scheme.

Lime nicotiana
Lime nicotiana. They did well all summer but had to come out this week after finally getting covered in caterpillars.

This was a punnet of lime nicotiana seedlings which I planted in early summer. Great on its own, this also looked lovely amongst a group I had going, including herbs, a lemon tree, white geraniums, white verbena, yellow polyanthus, and a lavender ‘Sidonie’. (As usual a few interlopers arrived – but were allowed to stay if they didn’t spoil the effect).


You need a decent size pot for tulips, as they need to be planted at about a spade's depth.
Tulips for spring – what a welcome sight.

I have worked out a simple year-round plan for the large green pots on the deck, which involves minimal work. In early summer I plant the perennial petunia, ‘Bubblegum’, which flowers non-stop for about six months. Then ‘Bubblegum’ goes into the garden bed for a rest over winter, and the tulip bulbs go in. I don’t mind at all that there are a couple of months where the pots look bare. As winter ends I enjoy scanning the soil for the first sign of the growing leaf tips.

Petunia 'Bubblegum'
The same pot in late summer. This is 2 plants of Petunia ‘Bubblegum’, which for me has been a star performer.


4. Move them around.

Pots at Alnwick Garden
I took this photo last year at Alnwick Garden in the UK. The delphiniums had all been cut back to encourage a second flush, so the bare spaces were filled with these pots of Agapanthus Tinkerbell.


Pots don’t just have to sit either side of the front door. Try putting them into the actual garden beds. You can cover a bare spot, create a lovely focal point, or highlight a plant that might otherwise be overwhelmed in the border.

Mind you, in relation to point no.1, big pots do get very heavy. I once persuaded my husband that all our large pots needed to be rearranged, and its a wonder we didn’t both end up being carried away on stretchers. Since then I have invested in a trolley, which makes things much easier.

So, I hope I have persuaded you. If you have lots of small, mismatched pots, choose a couple of your favourites and bring them inside for houseplants. Give away the rest and start again! And finally, please, use premium quality potting mix!

Three Accidents in the Garden

No, I didn’t run over my foot with the lawnmower or get poked in the eye by a rose bush (although the latter has happened). This is about how a garden can surprise you on the upside, especially if you don’t mind letting go of things a bit. It can be great fun when things turn out unexpectedly. Here are three of my garden ‘accidents’ from this summer:

1. ‘Merveille Sanguine’ turned into Papal Purple.

Merveille Sanguine was the name of the dark red hydrangea that I planted a few years ago. Due to no-one being able to pronounce it, and the English translation of ‘Bloody Marvellous’ being just too much for us polite Kiwis, it now seems to be sold under the name of Raspberry Crush. But as my soil has a ph of 6, which is on the acidic side, the red flowers try to turn blue. I suddenly realised that I have these amazing deep purple hydrangea flowers, which a friend dubbed Papal Purple.

The deep purple colour is the result of a dark red flower meeting acidic soil and trying to turn blue.


Hydrangea 'Merveille sanguine'


Hydrangea 'Merveille Sanguine'


2. The ‘potager’ turned into an installation: The Exploding Vegetable Garden.

For anyone who has gazed longingly at the luscious photos of perfect Allium flowers that seem to be in every English garden currently, I have a suggestion. Grow leeks.

The Exploding Vegetable Garden

Yes, it’s not exactly the grand potager at Villandry. It’s leeks and parsley going extravagantly to seed. I planted the leeks last autumn but I didn’t thin them out enough. They turned into supermodel leeks, very tall and skinny, so I gave up on the idea of leeks sauteed in butter and cream and decided to let them flower. The bees absolutely love them – you can see in the photo how I had to mow around the flowers the other day because there were so many bees, looking quite intoxicated, all over them.

Bumblebee on a leek flower

Anyway I think its very beautiful and more of an art installation than a boring vege garden! I’m putting it in for the Turner Prize this year.

3. A ‘weed’ in the path turned into Campanula ‘Burghaltii’.

I had noticed rosettes of pointed leaves growing out of a paved path through my ‘woodland’ area, and decided to leave them there because a) they might turn into something interesting, and b) they were too hard to pull out.

Good decision. The plant turned out to be Campanula ‘Burghaltii’, a cross between Campanula latifolia and C. punctata.

Campanula 'Burghaltii'
Campanula ‘Burghaltii’

The flowers appear on long, lax stems, with purple buds opening to pale mauve flowers spotted on the inside a bit like a foxglove. It has been flowering away for weeks now, in the shade, and untroubled by our very dry summer.

I admire formal gardens, for their qualities of balance, symmetry, and restraint, and can design them for clients. But I am simply unable to impose a ruthless control over my own garden. There is certainly underlying structure and considered design, but I also enjoy allowing things to happen by chance. If I like the effect, it stays!

A Touch of Mt Arthur in Mornington


NZ native grasses in terraced garden
February 2016

This garden in the Wellington suburb of Mornington was one of my most interesting challenges in 2014. High on a ridge with great views of the harbour and south coast:

‘You can’t beat Wellington on a good day…’

the house sits well below the road and is approached by a series of concrete paths and steps in true Wellington style.

These photos taken in August 2014 show how the extensive concrete work dominated the site.

P1020297   P1020294

The hillside faces south, so lacks winter sun. Drainage in some of the beds seemed to be poor, with the soil presenting as claggy clay.

Our starting point for the planting was the native NZ grass, Carex testacea, not only for its suitability for the site, but because it reminded the owners of a favourite place, the high country of Mt Arthur in the Kahurangi National Park. A deceptively simple plant palette followed, with a combination of plants that work well together in colour, size and habit, that suit the conditions of the site, and meet the important requirement that the garden be very low-maintenance.





I wanted to de-emphasise the concrete and to allow the warm red brick walls to feature, so the concrete walls were painted in a soft colour complementary to the new scheme on the house.

P1020946 (2)
After just 4 months, and despite a dry summer, the design is starting to take shape.


Around the back a flight of steps was transformed using the same elements.

P1020293   P1020942


Give these plants a couple of years and the journey down to the house will feel completely different. The hard surfaces will have all but disappeared behind a sea of rippling grasses that will take you, just briefly, out onto those sub-alpine grasslands of the South Island.



In this instance it was amazing what could be achieved with plants, pots, and paint. This is a total transformation, achieved on a modest budget.

February 2016
February 2016
February 2016
February 2016

The Roses of Tinakori Road

Rosa ‘Souvenir de Mme Leonie Viennot’ at Katherine Mansfield Birthplace

Is it just me, or have Wellington’s roses been really great this season? Its hard to see why, given the lack of sun and continuous gales we had all through November!

One place you will find a fantastic display of spring roses is Tinakori Road, Thorndon. Whether by accident or design, a good number of the historic houses that line this road have roses in their front gardens. So in late November I decided it was worth photographing as many of them as I could. I had to battle a lack of parking (curse you, Residents Parking spaces), roadworks, a protest march, and a howling northerly, but here is the result – a gallery of the Roses of Tinakori Road.

R. Alberic Barbier

I’m fairly sure of the roses I have named, but would welcome any help with the unknowns!

R. Crepuscule


The pink tinged bud of this lovely yellow rose has got me at a loss to name it!




R. Dublin Bay


This might be R. Anais Segales….thoughts?


R. Graham Thomas with R. Mutabilis


R. Pierre de Ronsard.


R. Pierre de Ronsard – exquisite.




R. Iceberg




This one is growing in a strip about 6 inches wide, between the house and the footpath.



Roses can be the most infuriating plants to grow, like when you find them covered in aphids or black spot, and you feel guilty because you haven’t fed them in ages, or forgot to prune in July. But as these pictures show, whether you tend them with loving care or leave them completely alone, they will reward you with persistent loveliness.

So mark it in your new 2015 diary – late November – take a walk down Tinakori Road!

Front Entrance – Before And After

I was asked a while back to do something about this client’s front entrance. Here is how it looked then:

ridley-smith (2)

And here is how it looks now:

A new entrance porch with new fence and gate made a huge difference to the previously cramped and overgrown  entry of this client's house.
A much smarter, more welcoming arrival space.
  • The generous steps and landing make the area feel much larger and lighter.
  • The new wrought iron side gate offers a nice glimpse of the garden beyond, and also allows the owner’s dog to see who is arriving.
  • The wheelie bins now have their own purpose-built ‘cubby house’ and don’t need to live at the front door.
  • The new porch roof gives plenty of shelter, and its large skylight means there is no compromise on light levels.

Finally, due to deep shade thrown by neighbouring trees, our plant options were limited, but the ferns and clivias have thrived. The touch of orange from the clivias works well with the new cedar slat fence and front door.

A Grand Day Out at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

Magnificent clematis display in the Floral Marquee

In July I had one of the best possible days out with my great friend Libby, visiting the Royal Horticultural Society Hampton Court Palace Flower Show near London.

I admit getting to it was a bit of a mission. Being in London in the first place meant a 27 hour flight. To reach Hampton Court Palace on the day we took the Underground, a mainline train to Richmond, then a boat up the Thames. We ran late for our train, so did the London Dash – sprinting up miles of escalators, surging through the ticket barriers, galloping onto the concourse at Waterloo whilst simultaneously looking to see what platform to head for, then pounding down the platform and throwing ourselves onto the train with our lungs bursting, expecting the doors to slam shut behind us. Then naturally were informed that due to a signal failure at Clapham Junction, the train wouldn’t be leaving for half an hour.

The only method of transport we didn’t use was this horse and cart.

Never mind, it was well worth it. The show is on a mind-boggling scale with hundreds of tantalising exhibits. The show catalogue alone runs to 200 pages!

Have realised that what I really need is a large bronze apple in my garden…


…no, make that a huge Dodo..


First, we found the Show Gardens. After the minimalist look that was so fashionable a few years back, it is great to see the return to an emphasis on plants rather than hard surfaces. The Jordans Wildlife Garden looked like it had been growing there for ages rather than just brought in days earlier.

Look at that lovely colour scheme of soft yellows and purples in the Jordans Wildlife Garden… this combination of colours was popular throughout the show gardens.





‘The Forgotten Folly’ garden, below, came complete with ruined Gothic archway, which incidentally you can buy to order from

Above & below, views of The Forgotten Folly, designed and created by Mark Lippiatt & Lynn Riches of Horticolous.
I love everything about this photo: the planting, the colour scheme, the rusty gate and drystone wall, and the marquee beyond which says ‘Champagne, Pimms, & Seafood Bar’.


‘Halo’ garden, designed by Stuart Towner for Hambrooks.

The ‘Halo’ garden, above, won the prize in the RHS competition ‘Your Garden Your Budget’, for a garden with a budget of £13,000. The designer took his inspiration from a traditional Greek island, hence the blue halo which references the domes of the Greek Orthodox churches. This courtyard garden featured a great selection of drought-tolerant plants.

Next, the Floral Marquee, which seemed to be about 800 feet long and held 96 plant exhibitors. I envied the lucky locals who were buying all sorts of treasures!

Lavender, anyone?


An award-winning display of alliums and lilies from the Netherlands.


I was very taken with this Hydrangea ‘Pink Annabelle’, which sadly doesn’t seem to be available in NZ. Does anyone have one? Let me know!

It was a grand day out, quite inspirational and loads of fun. My one piece of advice is to get there as early as possible – the crowds built up steadily as the day went on until it got difficult to get a good look at the displays. I guess that’s when it would have been a good idea to find that Champagne & Pimms tent again…

The hidden roses of Pauatahanui

From front to back: Blanc Double de Coubert (1892), Veilchenblau (1909), then Felicite Perpetue (1827).

I have just visited the Pauatahanui Burial Ground, next to the Historic Church of St Albans at Pauatahanui village. Now is the best time to go – from October to December there is a wonderful display of old roses. The area is hidden from view from the road, and even on going up the drive to the church, you still can’t see the Burial Ground. So when you walk through the gap in the hedge and see the roses for the first time, it is quite breathtaking. Great billowing mounds of roses tumble down the slopes, hugging the lichen-encrusted tombstones of young and old.

P1020798 (2)
The view from the Burial Ground out across the wetlands to Pauatahanui Inlet.

The Burial Ground dates from 1860, but by 1991 had become overgrown and neglected. A group of local volunteers decided to clear and plant it, with a focus on rescuing heritage roses. Cuttings were collected from roadsides, cemeteries, and old gardens. Now there are hundreds of roses, nearly all of them labelled. You can find detailed information about the history of the Burial Ground, and every one of its roses, on the Porirua City Council website.

Buff Beauty and American Pillar.

Roses have now been in New Zealand for 200 years. It is quite touching to imagine who might have set off on that one-way journey halfway around the world, carefully carrying a small cutting or plant of a favourite rose, and keeping it alive on a small ship for many weeks. Perhaps arguments were had – ‘We’re going to need an axe – did we put in the toolkit?’ – ‘No, but I’ve got a marvellous specimen of that pink rose we had by the front gate…’

Great Western (1838).


American Pillar (1902).


Seafoam (1964) in the distance.

Other cemeteries I have visited are always either completely neglected, or immaculately tended. This one strikes a very happy medium. The paving is cracked, the fences and gravestones have assumed the patina of age, but clearly gentle hands are maintaining this semi-wild rose garden.

William Lobb (1855).


Alberic Barbier (1900).


Veilchenblau (1909).


Indica major (date unknown).

So a big thank you to all of the people who have worked so hard on the Burial Ground over the years – you have created a treasure garden.

P1020822 (2)
I’ll give the last word to the wonderful simplicity of Rosa Agrestis Canina (1878).







Keeping up with the Kalmias



Some years back I was chatting to a long-time nurseryman (Hello, Peter at Twiglands) and he was lamenting the loss of plant diversity in people’s gardens these days. So many people want the same low-maintenance plants, and by narrowing the range of plants we buy, all sorts of ‘old-fashioned’ plants are at risk of becoming unavailable. He is quite right, by the way. A lack of demand plus pressure from large retailers means that small growers of exotic shrubs and perennials are closing their doors and the lesser-known plants are getting harder and harder to find.

Anyway, I was intrigued by Peter’s use of the term ‘old-fashioned’ plants and asked him to give me an example. He thought for a moment then said ‘Kalmias’. Everyone’s granny used to have a Kalmia, or Calico Bush, in their garden. I had a look at a catalogue and immediately ordered one, out of solidarity, and because it looked lovely, and because there was one called ‘Sarah’.

Kalmia latifolia is the botanical name of the Calico Bush, from North America, and it is grown for its very distinctive clusters of flowers which appear in late spring to early summer. The tightly closed buds look like something you’d find on a coral reef, then the open flowers are like tiny umbrellas. They are absolutely fascinating to look at, and a lovely thing to show to children. The colours range from a pale pink to quite a deep pink opening from red buds. There is even a cultivar called ‘Carousel’ which has purple-striped white flowers.

I planted my Kalmia ‘Sarah’ as advised in a cool, moist position in part-shade, amongst hostas, maples, and rengarengas. Sarah immediately went into a long sulk and did nothing for about 3 years. I was on the verge of pulling her out, when she suddenly decided to start growing and flowering. But I wouldn’t call Sarah pushy. After about 7 or so years, she is still only about 1.2 metres high! I don’t know whether she gets too much sun, not enough, or if there is anything wrong with the soil conditions. But it doesn’t matter. She sits there quietly minding her own business, then at this time of year, you get this:

Here are the buds still tightly closed, very hard to make out the individual petals at this stage.

and this:






Worth the wait, I would say.

An Herbaceous Border In Te Aro

Back in February I was so pleased when my clients showed me a photo of a classic English herbaceous border, filled with colour, and said that they would like a garden like that. It is a style that suits their heritage-listed home, and the site is warm, sunny, and sheltered. I knew we could make something special.

The existing raised beds had been taken over by shasta daisies, so the first step was to clear them all out to make way for a more varied planting. We kept the standard Iceberg roses, lavender, and a couple of nice fuchsias.

The raised beds form an L-shape, with one end more shaded and against a wall suitable for climbers. We pulled out the struggling climbing rose and replaced it with jasmine, potato vine, and Chinese star jasmine. Underneath I put hostas, hellebores, white foxgloves, and white Japanese windflowers.


P1020585 (2)


Down the long sunny side I planted repeating groups of perennials, including penstemons, snow-in-summer, limonium, verbena bonariensis, thrift, and gaura. Balls of evergreen pittosorum ‘Golfball’ provide accents and are repeated in pots.

After only about 6 months the garden is coming on beautifully. As it matures this summer, my clients will have their English flower garden.

October 2014

November 2014

November 2014

November 2014