Category Archives: My Garden Diary

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'

Magnificent.

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!

Keeping up with the Kalmias

 

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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:

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

and this:

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Worth the wait, I would say.

Tulip Time

Tulips 'Angelique' and 'Pink Diamond' against a spring sky
Tulips ‘Angelique’ and ‘Pink Diamond’ against a spring sky

Welcome to my garden diary! My garden is such a happy place that it’s time to share it. Starting with one of my absolute favourite flowers: Tulips.

My tulips looked amazing for weeks, even surviving gales and a couple of hail storms. The two pink varieties I chose this year worked so well when the crab apple tree started flowering at the same time. If you want to grow tulips, get hold of some next March, put them in the fridge for about 6 weeks, then plant at about a spades depth and sit back. Unless you have really nice garden soil, I think it’s better to use premium potting mix in a decent sized pot or tub. In Wellington the bulbs are usually discarded after one year. I experimented this year and let some of last year’s bulbs come up (they seemed to want to) but the flowers weren’t as good. So from now on I will be ruthless. Out they go! New bulbs next year!

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