Ewen's garden

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

Monday, September 24, 2007

Journey Through Landscape

Saturday September 15 found me lying on Palm Beach enjoying the first rays of spring, the following day I was off with a friend driving in sheets of rain through the lush North Waikato on our way to Taupo. The following day, Monday it was up to Mt. Ruapehu and a fabulous days skiing! By now you will be wondering where I am going with this other than to bring a wee bit of envy, well you’d be partly correct but what there were a number of things that struck me on this trip.
Firstly was a number of incongruities, from beach to mountain top, from subtropical to alpine: bilious clouds of steam erupting from green rolling pasture land and finally the mountain cabbage tree or broad leafed cabbage tree, toii, Cordyline indivisa. This tree grows on the lower slopes of Mt. Ruapehu, on the edge of the sub-alpine beech forest. The leaves are, as the common name suggests broader than the common cabbage tree and the whole looks rather tropical. As the access road to the ski field winds its way up the first cutting, you are faced with nearly a whole hill side of these trees, the snow capped mountain in the distance serving to underline the often incongruous nature of our landscape and possibly our lifestyle. Unfortunately this fine cabbage tree is unlikely to grow in our warm climate. The road nudges further up the hill, sub-alpine forest gives way to, alpine herb fields, masses of low growing plants, tussocks and scree. I always enjoy this journey, not apart from my excitement of getting the old boards back on the feet but these natural rock gardens are an inspiration!
Back down on the more level ground where flax, toe toe, and many forms of whip-chord hebes form vast herb fields up to the feet of the volcanoes. In amongst these larger plants are small flowering plants such as the mountain daisy in many forms, Celmisia sp. These flower generally from November to February but also in their company are small orchids and eyebrights, which make a short stop for a wander through worth while and there are many good walking tracks of varying grades all through the National Park. One thing which does disappoint, is the invasion of the heather, an import from Europe, lending the whole a reddish brown hue. Just an example of the many weeds imported to this country for and by what ever means over the occupation of humans in this land.

This brings me neatly to the book I took with me to read, ‘The Botany of Desire’ ’A Plant’s-eye view of the world’ by Michael Pollan. This book has been sent to me by an American friend living in Denmark. We had lively discussions about global warming and such like. This book explores the idea that it is plants which have cleverly exploited the humans developed consciousness to export their genes about the globe. The book takes as examples the apple, the potato, cannabis and the tulip, all of which have been extraordinarily good at spreading their genes to nearly every corner of the planet. In all cases humans have been the vector in their success. As flowers often produce shapes and colours to attract pollinators so have the apple and potato developed qualities we find useful in the way of food. As for the cannabis, it has properties that may alter the human conscience and so has been also spread far and wide. The tulip has piqued the human desire for beauty and so the tulip was catapulted to all parts as well. These are ideas not often explored, I think largely because of our habit of putting humankind above and apart from the natural world, a point many times underlined in organised religion. It occurred to me also, weeds could be considered in the same light. The view of the sub-alpine herb fields would look quite different without the heather. I feel a little sad thinking this will be the inevitable mark of our species on this planet.

Good luck to the Weed Busters out there today attacking the bone seed, seen with its yellow daisy like flowers all over the
Island at the moment. The book is well worth the read, thank you Charles!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Hedges (part 2)

Following on from my last column, I would like to talk about spacing of hedge plants and other cultural requirements. As to spacing, much depends on obviously the size and form of the plants used for the purpose. If, for example, the spread of the shrubs being used is three metres, then I would advise a spacing of 1.5 meters. This allows the plants to grow together and form a thick, compact ‘wall’. It is necessary for the spacing to be less than the over-all spread, to let the plants meet all the way to the top of your hedge and wind up with ‘ups and downs’. Another pointer is to slightly taper the side of the hedge to the top, in this way the bottom won’t be shaded by the upper part. When the lower part becomes shaded, it is likely the bottom will lose its leaves and look a little bare, ‘showing its legs’.
There is a plant which makes a good hedge, not likely to show its legs and is native, it is taupata, Coprosma repens. This plant is widely used in the lower North Island and particularly Wellington and the part of the world I come from Palliser Bay. Here growing right on the shore, it withstands salt laden Southerly gales and droughts of an aridity they would make us feel like we lived in an oasis. The plant in itself has bright green, glossy, oval leaves, so shiny in fact it is sometimes known as the mirror plant. Why it is not more widely grown here, I do not know. Certainly you will find cultivars of this species here, such as: ‘Marble Queen’, ‘Picturata’, ‘Silver Queen’ or ‘Variegata’, but not the common old C. repens.
Other natives to be considered for hedging could include many of the hebe genus. I fancy many could be grown and very rarely trimmed. If like me you are not fastidious about straight lines and tidiness, then a loose ‘humpy bumpy’ form of hedge might well suit. My pittosproum hedge is similar to this, it reminds me of the hills across the valley where I lived when I was young. There is of course no reason why a hedge must be entirely uniform, often in Europe beech hedges are planted of missed varieties, from purple to varying shades of green all in the one hedge. This style is known as a tapestry effect and works provided all are of a similar growth habit, which is of the same from and growth rate.
Another hedge widely grown in the lower North Island is the pohutukawa, Metrosideros exselsa, which, when pruned or trimmed makes a sturdy impenetrable barrier with the added bonus of flowers at Christmas time.
I once had a dream of having a large maze or labyrinth grown from pohutukawa, where there were dead ends, small outdoor rooms, mirrors and finally the goal in the centre. Well this isn’t likely to happen! It was nice thought and hedges are intrinsically linked to the maze but not often seen, ‘tis a pity in my mind, but what a lot of labour I guess! Still a small one is surely not too much, just novel and engaging part of the bigger picture. I think on a smaller scale one day I may have a maze, not exactly made with hedges but rather rocks and other low growing species like Raoulia australis, diminutive ground hugging plant native to river beds and other such dry places. Grown amongst the rocks it would form a small hedge like structure, never needing to be trimmed…..sounds good to me…..

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