Ewen's garden

A collection of columns, paintings and photographs about gardening on an offshore island in New Zealand.

Friday, May 19, 2006


With rain coming at us by the bucketful I find myself with my nose tucked into books on gardening. Out come some of the old favourites, not glanced at for many years. One of these books is that of Vita Sackville-West, V. Sackville-West’s Garden Book. This book is a compilation of her 14 years worth of articles written for the Observer newspaper. They have been put together according to the months of the year, which would only seem the most natural way to approach a compilation on gardening. Vita was the doyen of the cottage garden from the early 20th century, the larger part of which was spent creating the iconic garden at Sissinghurst. It would have to be said though, she had the benefit of coming from a very wealthy aristocratic family, being brought up in the vast Palace of Knole in Kent. Vita’s writings are insightful, but must often to be taken with a grain of salt, as they are written for the English audience. An example of this is the way in which she expounds on the delights of jasmine, Jasminum polyanthum. She describes it as being a recent introduction from China, by Major Lawrence Johnston, creator of Hidcote. “As it strikes very readily from cuttings a home-grown stock may be raised within a very short time if wanted” she states. Well, I am sure we are now only too well aware of how well it does in this climate, being classified a weed! Still her ideas on colour, structure, and form are applicable where ever we may be. It is important to keep in mind our local conditions when indulging in these books.

Over the years I have collected a substantial library of books on the subject of plants, gardens and gardeners and it is this time of year when I am most likely to find myself thumbing the pages of these books, unable to tip myself into the tasks out in the garden for the weather. Books can be a great source of knowledge and inspiration, whetting the appetite for the promise of things that may be. I have, in between the showers planted a good number of bulbs this season, hoping to add a different aspect to my newly planted yellow, cream, silver, blue and purple border. You see it is about anticipation; I can’t wait to see what effect they will produce. It seems this time of year is more about anticipation, than realisation, as the tempest rages outside.

I have in the garden at the moment a tropical passion vine just coming into bloom, the fat buds of which I have been watching for a couple of weeks now. These rather strange but beautiful flowers I anticipate will produce lovely fruit come the spring, after all the regular passion fruits have long finished fruiting during the autumn. This specimen is called Passiflora ligularis or sweet granadilla and comes from Central America. The main attraction of the vine is not just the flowers and resulting fruit but the rather exotic heart shaped leaves up to 25cm in diameter.

Another vine I wish to get growing is the golden rain vine Pyrostegia venusta from Northern South America. It smothers itself in orange-yellow flowers during the winter. I anticipate planting this in conjunction with another vine, purple wreath vine, Petrea volubilis. This vine flowers in spring and early summer producing arching racemes of purple-blue flowers. My hope is the flowering of these two will overlap, fingers crossed. Maybe a better bet would be the purple flowered purple coral pea Hardenbergia violacea, as this flowers during the winter. Either way the purple and orange combination should look great. The location? The sunny side of my garden shed, I can only wait and see!

Monday, May 01, 2006


The other day while looking about the garden after the down pours I couldn’t help but notice the explosion in the population of snails and slugs in the garden. The poor kowhai, only just starting to recover from the onslaught of the kowhai moth caterpillars, is now under attack from a veritable army of baby snails. Further up the up the ornamental passion vine similarly had divisions of the slowly munching beasts! I turn around, and there in the vegetable patch yet more collateral damage to the newly planted cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli. The dahlias and Dutch iris in the end of the same bed were being devastated too. It would be only a matter of very few days and I would have nothing left! In my mind there was only one course of action, slug bait. I know some people will not be keen on this path and there are other alternatives, one of which is to use beer as bait. This entails filling a saucer with beer and submerging it in the soil up to the brim. The snails consequently, in their undying thirst for the amber nectar, slide on in and drown. Alternatively a beer bottle may be placed into the soil at an angle so the mouth of the bottle is just at soil level and again the snails are lured into the waiting beverage. I have never tried this approach mainly due to the fact the beer has usually been imbibed before it has had the chance of becoming snail bait! I would be interested if people have actually had god success with this method.

In another part of the garden I have a couple of bananas with fledgling fruit bunches on them. To encourage ripening of these bunches over winter I intend to wrap them with some blue plastic. This seems to help the fruit to ripen, by what exact mechanism I am not sure but I will certainly give it a go. Another trick is to cut off the flower bud once it has finished producing ‘hands’ of fruit, this lets the plant concentrate its energies into making bigger fruit. Over our back fence is an Abyssinian banana Musa ensete, this species of banana does not set edible fruit. The plant dies once the flower is finished and unlike the edible species doesn’t produce suckers so it is important if you want to keep these plants you must save their seed. As this particular specimen is leaning right over our fence I think it may be for the chop before it brings down the fence with it!

As for the rest of the garden, it is a case of cleaning out the detritus of summer and keeping on top of the seeds, frantically growing with the extra rain of late.