Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Creating the garden you love ~ and a look at some of mine

During the month I've written a series of articles about this which does have a sequence of sorts.  To make reading through them easier I've reversed the date order, meaning that they can now be read from the top down.  If you click on the month of November 2010 on the archive list at the right, it will display the first part of the group.  If you want to read the remaining ones click on the link at the bottom of the page which says 'Older posts'

Happy gardening, or dreams about gardening ~
whichever you prefer!

Lilac poppies

Monday, 29 November 2010

Gardens and gardening ~ as a source of pleasure

Gardening is one of my greatest sources of well-being and enjoyment, so it's surprising that I've  previously written so little about it.  I'm very interested in gardens as an environment, a landscape, if you like, so that's my main focus and what I want to talk about.  I'm not particularly technical about how I do gardening, or knowledgeable about methods as these are of much lesser importance to me.  In any case there are lots of other sources of that sort of information.  The thinking about gardening is perhaps less commonly talked about, and that's what I'm good at and keen to share.  

As I'm instinctively reflective in character, the question of 'why' is a common starting point in any undertaking, so I start here with the question of 'why have a garden?'  Why indeed - they can be a lot of work and commonly involve getting sweaty and dirty!  Oh but the joy of it!  Let's start at the beginning:

For a garden to be a source of pleasure it's important to give thought to what we want from it: do we want it to look out on it, or to spend time actually in it?  Do we want to grow vegetables or flowers, shrubs or trees, or a combination of all these?  If so what size?  Do we like a cottage garden look, or a minimalist one?  And perhaps most crucially, do we want to be able to do the gardening work ourselves or would we rather someone else did it?

I want (and get) a lot of things.  Reduced to essentials this is what I'm after:
I want a garden to provide pleasure though all the senses: contrast of leaf colours, shapes and textures; flowers, bees and butterflies; rustling of leaves, birdsong, and rippling of water; smells of the earth and leaf litter; and most important of all a sense of the natural goodness and harmony of the earth we live on.

All this provides refreshment for the spirit – definitely worth striving for!  The best gardens are a pleasure to gaze at, walk through or rest in, and maintaining them is relatively easy and comfortable. 

Does this sound like something you would like, or describe what you already have?  The wonderful thing about gardening is that it needn't be costly or elaborate to be rewarding and lovely.  

In my next gardening article I'll write about tools.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Gardening ~ tips about tools

There are many gardening tools available, some of which I've found more useful than others.  The ones I find indispensable are: a spade, a pair of secateurs, gardening gloves, and a long, fairly blunt knife.

Of these, the knife and the gardening gloves are my special allies.
I don't know what I'd do without this knife.  I'm very careful with it as it's potentially dangerous, so when I put it down I always push it into the ground, and when I come inside it comes in with me and is put away in a cupboard out of sight!  The shape of the tip makes it quite as sharp as need be.  Its fairly blunt blade makes it less likely to damage roots when I'm scratching around or digging with it.  I see other gardeners working with little hand forks and such-like and feel sorry for them.  They need a knife like mine!

A good quality pair of secateurs is a must:
For me these are definitely worth the higher price tag.  A good pair should last for many years.  This pair is German, produced by Wolfgarten.  They're made in different sizes to suit the user's hand, and even come in left and right hand versions.  I couldn't work out which was which, but found this pair suited my grip! 

A decent spade is also essential.
When buying one make sure it feels good to you, and ask the sales person for advice if at all unsure.  You can expect to have it sharpened before it's used as properly sharpened edges are considered unsafe in shops.  Thereafter mind your toes!  I always wear closed shoes or boots when gardening.
Note: I have since written an article about spades entitled A new spade ~ shopping carefully to get the best

Other tools such as rakes, forks, edge cutters and a wheelbarrow are valuable but less essential.

Thinking of buying a lawn mower?
You may be interested to read my article about hand mowers.

I have one other garden tool which is a special treasure - my grubber!
I was most fortunate to be gifted this by an elderly friend.  I'm very careful with  it as it's heavy and when in use is swung with force.  One lifts it upward with both hands, even above the head, and the sheer weight of it then sends it crashing to earth where it works wonders getting into heavy ground.  Look at that beautiful handle:

And look at the size of it!  Just so that we're clear about the scale, my feet are of average size to match my average height.  If you consider buying one don't be fobbed off with a smaller, light-weight model as it's likely to be close to useless.  And if anyone is good enough to give you one, I suggest you accept it with alacrity!

One last thing I have to have is a good hose:
Mine has modern click-on links and an adjustable spray nozzle which makes it easy and effective to use.
     Hoses have a second use for landscaping projects which I find marvellous: laid on the ground they can be used to describe nice, even, graceful curves which greatly simplifies the exacting work of figuring out and cutting a new edge to any garden. 

In my next gardening article I'll look at getting started, and in particular the challenge of gardening in rental situations which may or may not be short term, which has been my situation in recent years.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Gardening ~ possibilities & pitfalls, costs & rentals

Gardens differ so much - in setting, size and scope...

The garden I grew up with was a large, rambling, hillside garden tumbled with friendly rocks and cloaked with trees and shrubs.  It was a place to escape into, to take refuge in, which has provided an endless source of inspiration, but was also a lot of work.  Too much of it.

My loving regard for that garden and awareness of its high maintenance needs shaped the way I think about gardens in general.  Fundamentally, gardening has got to be a pleasure.  If it isn't it becomes a burden, however beautiful it may be. So when I'm thinking about developing a garden I give consideration to making it as easy as possible to look after - now and in the years to come.

A glimpse of my childhood garden

Other gardens I've been closely involved with over the years:
Three have been especially significant.  They include a small suburban garden in which I had considerable scope for planting and a reasonable amount of money with which to do it; a stream-side rental property of which I adopted the stream banks which were the responsibility of the local council and which I made into a wilderness garden; and the rental property where we live at present which had no plantings whatsoever when we came to live here, other than an unsatisfactory lawn and some bits of hedge.

The small suburban garden

Each of these gardens has presented a very different set of possibilities and constraints, just as each has been the source of much pleasure.  In the process of developing each of them I've learnt a great deal about compromise and to be more discerning about weeds and over-growth. 

Gardening needn't be costly.  
Rather to my surprise I have to acknowledge that the less money I've had to spend, the more pleasure has resulted.
     Gardeners tend to be friendly and to enjoy sharing cuttings, seeds and surplus plants.  Masses of plants get discarded all the time.  I abhor waste and love plants, and have found that expressions of polite interest have resulted in being offered more plants than I have places to plant them!  When I'm given something I make an effort to give something in return, whether it's afternoon tea, some baking, or a hand in someone else's garden, it's all part of the reciprocal generosity that keeps us all thriving.
     Nature epitomises this generosity in its abundant growth and seed dispersal.  Many of the plants in my present garden originated elsewhere and have been carted about in pots and carefully planted.  I always have heaps.  However much I vow I'm not going to have anything in pots any more I inevitably find I fill them up again with something else which needs a home or which needs to be put somewhere else, sometime, some day.  I have enough for myself, and plenty to share.  A box in the garage is packed with envelopes of seeds of one kind and another, most of which I've plucked from seed heads in various gardens over the years. 
    Occasionally I actually buy things but mostly have no need to. 

What do you like?
In thinking about your own garden, I suggest you think about what you best like, and then start with what you have.  Having said that, what do you want to look at?  What are your favourite flowers, shrubs and trees?  Are they suitable for where you live?  If you start with the bits that you know and feel sure about you'll very likely find that other things fall into place over time.

Gardening, like anything in nature, takes time:
For me the pleasure is often as much in the creation as in sitting back and admiring it, so a garden in progress can be very satisfying. It gives a sense of belonging, and delight in the land like nothing else.  Allowing a garden design to unfold and evolve over time provides a lot of scope for experimentation and adaptation, for some plants to prove their suitability and for others to fade away or be removed.  If you follow this approach you'll get a richness of planting and layout which is unique to you with which you have a very personal connection. 

The challenge of gardening in a rental situation: 
This is a big topic, which I'll touch on briefly here - to give encouragement rather than discuss in depth.  I've found it immensely worthwhile as well as frustrating.  I've had to compromise considerably in comparison with what I'd do with properties if I owned them, and bear in mind that I may not be there long, as well as the chance that when I leave no one else will bother.  However, I've still found it worthwhile: I get to enjoy it while I live there, and if it's pleasant and easy to maintain it may inspire others to continue on with it in their own way after I've gone.
     Taking this into account I use plants that grow easily, are easy to trim and remove if wished, and  am clear that some personal plants go with me.  I've got irises in the garden here that originated in my childhood home, and a rose which has travelled with me from place to place over the last twelve years, and various smaller plants for which I have a fondness.  By extraordinary good fortune I've managed to propagate the rose, and the irises have now filled up an entire border, so whatever I take with me, there will still be plenty left.  And while they've been in the ground they've done well, given me much pleasure and made the place special to me.  They mark clearly the place where I belong - for the present.

Permanent only ever means 'for the foreseeable future', which may be long or short.  
We never know what the future holds or when we may need to uproot ourselves and go elsewhere.  To put off starting a garden because we are unsure is to put off life.  Enjoy it, do it, and spread the love!  Ripples spreading out...

My wilderness garden

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Gardening ~ maintenance, weed control & organics

Ease of maintenance is vital.  
For gardening to be enjoyable it needs to be well within our physical capabilities and the time we want to spend on it.  Some work can be expected to be heavy-going at times, but most should be straightforward and reasonably light.  The way a garden is set out, our choice of plants, the use of mulch, and the way we choose to control weeds are all part of this.

General layout considerations:
When I'm in the garden I want to be able to move about freely, without having to avoid branches or worry about where to place my feet.  Even more, I want to be able to get at the garden to do things in it without struggle.  To do so, it's helpful for borders to be of a width that's easy to reach into, or to have stepping stones in them.  I don't in the least mind bending over, but for some people this is difficult, in which case raised beds are a good idea.

Choose plants suited to local conditions:
These will require minimal work and care.  If unsure, look at what thrives in your neighbours gardens or ask at your local garden supplies shop.  Local websites such as those provided by your council or gardening clubs are likely to be a source of useful information.   
     In New Zealand our many local native plants have evolved to fit their location precisely so may be an excellent choice.  However, regional variations mean that not all natives do equally well in different parts of the country. I'll write a separate article with links to some lovely examples so you can admire them for yourselves.

Ease of access for removal of garden rubbish:
This requires access-ways of a suitable width and gradient.  Steps that are too steep and gates that are too narrow are frustrating and waste valuable effort and energy.  Yes, I've been there!  Think about walking a wheelbarrow full of anything and possibly heavy, and you'll get the idea.  In a large garden think of trailer access or the width you'll need to drag a tarpaulin bearing a load of weeds and prunings. 

You'll need room for your compost and other debris. 
Even if you don't compost your kitchen scraps, you'll still need somewhere to put lawn clippings, fallen leaves and general weeds.  Of course you can pay someone to take all that sort of thing away, but wouldn't you rather have the benefit of it?  While some of the debris is likely to need to be disposed of as rubbish, most of it will rot down nicely and be able to go back into the garden again. 
     It seems nutty to pay for waste removal and then buy compost and fertilizer when with a little time and almost no effort a simple composting arrangement in the garden can enable Nature to do it all for you at zero cost! 
     Compost heaps require very little work.  At one place we lived we had a black plastic tower with removable gates near the base.  I never thought much about it, but after a time discovered that Nature was magically transforming our scraps and garden litter into rich black earth which I could scoop out from the base by the bucketful!  Over time there were many bucketfuls, rather in the manner of Mary Poppins extraordinary carpetbag!

Mulch, mulch, mulch: 
Adequate mulching keeps in moisture, introduces fibre to the soil, and reduces weeds dramatically.  Some people layer newspaper under mulch to increase the effect.
     It needn't be costly.  Close to where I now live a local fencing company sells trailer-loads of light wood chips for $15.  It's not ideal but it works.  When searching for a provider be sure to check that the wood or other products are chemical-free.
     In New Zealand, land of many sheep, sheep pellets are widely available and can work wonders.  These are made from the waste wool shorn from around the sheeps behinds so it's not fit to use in the ordinary way, but is wonderfully nutritious for the garden and the wool content conserves moisture in the ground.  Be sure not to confuse the garden product with the stock feed as I've found both listed with the same descriptor!
    Before applying mulch water the ground thoroughly as you want to keep moisture in rather than out.

Other weed suppressants: 
  • Plant, plant, plant: the earth seeks to cover itself.  If you leave earth bare it will grow something.  Give it something to grow that you like, at least mildly, in the places in between your more valued plants.  For these cover plants it's sensible to choose those which can easily be removed once they are past their best or as your other plants fill out.  Marigolds and forget-me-nots are two plants I use for this purpose.  Both flower well for a time attracting bees and providing them with food.  Marigolds also attract ladybirds which are valuable as their diet  includes smaller insects such as aphids.   Both plants self-seed from year to year.   
  • I'm sure that weed matting has its place, but I don't choose it.  I should think that to be of use it would need to cover a reasonably substantial area.  In a narrow bed the weeds still grow underneath and then push out sideways and are harder to remove than if there was no weed matting in place!  If I were to use weed matting anywhere it would be underneath a paved area if it was large enough for it to be effective. 
  • Don't even speak to me about black plastic polythene which I find totally disgusting.  It kills life in the ground underneath it turning it to black glug and is difficult to dig out if unwanted - yuk!
Let's not dramatise about the presence of a few weeds here and there!
Letting the weeds grow just a little gives seedlings you might value a chance to show their faces and be recognised.  I've got loads of seedlings this way, and enjoy the mystery of seeing what's coming up.  By weeding too carefully too often you miss all that, just as you do if chemical sprays are used.  In any case I don't want my garden to look too controlled or like one in a magazine; I want it to look like my own.  Too smart and tidy is like a smart house one dare not comfortably live in.  Relax!

Know your weeds, and for heavens sake don't plant them!
Weeds are unwanted plants, particularly those which tend to take over space needed for the plants we do want.  In New Zealand's temperate climate plants which are valued in other parts of the world are not welcome here: Buddleia is a good example: this shrub is popular with butterfly enthusiasts, but there are other plants on which butterflies can do well.  Privet, blackberry, broom and oxalis are other examples which spring to mind.
When we lived in Christchurch I made good use of a brochure produced by the local council - most of the plants which had made themselves at home on the stream banks which I had adopted were on it!
Finding the on-line version proved strangely difficult, but here it is.  The average New Zealand gardener needs more of this sort of thing.  For me it was good to have a print version to hold in my hand which meant I could wander about with it.  There are plenty of websites that give more sophisticated information about weed control in the wild which is a huge topic and not what I am looking at here.
Dock root
     Not all weeds should be composted: some, such as ivy, need to be burnt or to go into the rubbish.  Here again, your local council may be able to provide useful information.  Your local gardening club is likely to be a source of information.
     Removing invasive or difficult weeds, such as dock, when they are young, or at least plucking off seed heads before these disperse are good preventative measures.
     At the left you can see how extensive the dock root becomes if left to its own devices!  From memory it was at least ten inches long.  It had grown in the middle of a clump of daisies which I dug out in order to remove it.  Once this has been accomplished I was able to gift the daisies to my neighbours - a happy result for everyone.

Consider an organic approach to weed and pest control: 
Many people control weeds by using poisonous chemical sprays.  I do not.  There are other choices.  For example, the Christchurch City Council now does all its kerbside weed control not with chemical sprays but with steam!

For me this is about fostering life rather than death, of respecting the right to life of the local birds and creatures who give so much and take so little.  Nature left to its own devices is very economical and has its own checks and balances.  The problem is that the existence of humans means that nature is not left to its own devices; we have introduced all manner of plant forms and situations in which pests are out of balance with what we need and want.  Organic methods seek to minimise toxic interference in our environment. 

The approach with organic treatments emphasises deterring pests rather than killing them.   It can be helpful to remember too, that insect pests such as aphids and flies can be an important food source for  beneficial insects such as ladybirds, as well as spiders and birds.  They all work together, and if you eradicate one sort it's going to affect them all.  There's a balance.  We have to be prepared to share a portion of our garden bounty with other creatures.  That, I think, is fair.

Here are some useful web links for organic products and methods: 
These are all New Zealand sites.  For those readers living elsewhere, some of information provided on them is sure to be applicable.  Topics covered include both weed as well as pest control.  While this article is more focused on weeds the two topics are closely linked.  I hope what's provided here encourages readers to consider an organic approach.
Toxins in our environment:
I'm well aware that using 'weed wands' can minimise bending and hand-weeding and save time but the use of poisons is worrying.  Quite frankly, I don't want to have to think about it.  Manufacturers of conventional pesticides and herbicides can say what they will about the safety of their products but the long term effects are unlikely to be known for many years to come.  DDT, once widely used throughout the world including New Zealand, is now known to be residual in our food chains long after its use has been stopped, as are other contaminants. 
     Given that there are other choices why are chemical treatments still so widely used?  I expect there's a great deal of money being made from their manufacture and sale.
The correlation between pesticides and other environmental contaminants and human disease and medical dysfunction is not speculative - it's real.
For those wishing to read more about it I list these articles.  The last one is particularly readable and wide-ranging:
On a happier note here are the links to:
  • my article about an organics farm near Gisborne which featured on television last year.  This is one of my most widely read articles.  Organic farming in New Zealand is gaining wider publicity these days thanks to the television show Country Calender.  The link takes you to their collection of eleven episodes featuring organic farms.
  • my article about the documentary "The real dirt on Farmer John".  John Peterson grew up in a farming family in the American mid-west, and after a series of crises both personal and agricultural, chose to farm organically.  The crises didn't stop there.  This is a story of endurance and ultimate triumph told with refreshing candour. 

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Gardening ~ New Zealand natives on show

I've been writing a series of articles about garden design, and want to pause here to share with you the delights of some of our native plants.

Look at this glorious kowhai:

It's one of my favourite trees. Every part of it is beautiful, and the birds love it.

Kowhai tree trunk

For a long time New Zealanders have been somewhat blasé about having native plants and trees in their gardens as on the whole they are less showy than many popular exotics but attitudes are changing.

Websites listed here provide a range of images and information:
And one more look at the kowhai tree, this time at its foot:
Look at this tiny nest:

It is composed almost entirely of horse hair and thistledown.  Fancy raising your family in that!  My guess is that it belonged to waxeyes like the little one on the left:

    Tuesday, 23 November 2010

    Gardening ~ paths, frontages & fences

    Even before planting is begun a garden should look good and function well.  I have found this to be true both with gardens I've extensively altered as well as those I've started up from next to nothing.  The principle of form being based on function is sound.  Certainly it's helpful in deciding what we want, and a good principle to check while working on any project.

    These are a good place to start.  If you do nothing else in your garden get the paths working properly.
         Paths to and from entranceways are of particular importance.  They should be wide enough to walk on comfortably without the need to consider where to place your feet and should be free of obstacles such as uneven paving stones and bushy over-growth.  Most of us have legs the same length, so paths should be level across their width.
         Steps need to be stable and of a gradient and depth that is comfortable and safe.

    If your paths already exist cleaning or weeding them will smarten the place up immediately.  Are pathways wide enough?  Trim growth back from their edges.  If they go through a garden define the edges by digging the earth back a little from them.  If set into lawn, make sure they are even with it.  Build up the lawn if need be. 
         The entrance pathway pictured to the left was awkward to say the least, with an odd turn in at the gateway which made it was too narrow for a pushchair to be easily manoeuvred through it, and a drop of an inch or so from the edge of the concrete to the lawn on its other side made it awkward in other ways.  The solution was found in some concrete blocks lying idle elsewhere and some barrow-loads of earth.  It took a while to place the blocks evenly but was a good result. 
         If paths have yet to be formed decide where you want them.  The way I decide this sort of thing is to walk backwards and forwards and observe where my feet go, then I lay the the hose along one side of it and maybe put in some pegs.  Food skewers are good for this sort of thing.  Then I try it out some more.  Does it feel right and does it look right?  Bear in mind anything else you are likely to want to do with the area.  When your path is well placed it's likely to look satisfying from every angle.
         Whatever you use to construct your paths, whether it's flattened earth, paving stones, or slabs of rock, make sure  the resulting surface is nice and firm and as even as possible.  It will take time and effort, but it is a good place to start.  If left until after you've done other landscaping it's likely to be disruptive to your carefully laid lawn or nicely planted border.  In any case you may find you've run out of puff and motivation!

    Frontages and letterboxes:
    These are often neglected aspects of the garden and make such a difference to the look of a place and indeed, taken collectively, to the whole neighbourhood.  An attractive frontage also provides a good welcome when we come home.
         When we came to live here one of the first things I did was petition our landlord to remove a particularly ugly and unnecessary segment of fence and to remove the letterbox so I could paint it.  This was successful.  Digging up and mounding additional earth just behind it was a secondary consideration and done later.  These simple tasks took relatively modest effort and transformed the look of the place immediately.  A few cheaply purchased annuals put in to get that part of the garden going added to its freshness.  Our landlord was so impressed he bought brass numerals for the letterbox!
         Most letterboxes in this country are of an appalling standard which is surprising considering that New Zealanders take pride in being capable with practical things.  Many letterboxes don't even fit a standard envelope and are just rubbish!   Our present one, although it required a coat of paint, actually is properly functional and now looks proud of its job.
         Our landlord and his wife live next door.  The summer after we moved in their half-hearted frontage annoyed me so much I made it over for them while they were away!  I have to assure readers that permission had been given for me to do so, but it still made for a nice surprise on their return.  The cost was zero as I filled it in with bits from our own garden.  It has continued to bush up well since then and requires almost no maintenance.     
         If you have a gate it's important that it's hung properly and is straightforward to open and shut.  It's surprising how many are not! 
         In establishing and keeping up a pleasant frontage we do ourselves and others a good service.  

    Fences, hedges and defining boundaries:
    To fence or not to fence, that is the question!  Fences are good for a number of things: firstly, to contain or exclude animals and small children; secondly, to define boundaries and give privacy.  I completely understand the former and have reservations about the latter.  Fences are certainly the best choice in some situations, but in my view hedges and border plantings are often far better. 
         Too many fences in small places close together can too easily make properties look like stock yards.  Furthermore, they create deep shadow especially in winter, and the ground on the dark side then becomes over-wet and plants or lawn situated in their shadow don't grow as well. 
         Hedges and planted borders, on the other hand, are full of interest, provide places for birds and insects to have their homes, and take up excess water.  In summer they provide pleasant shade.  And they filter the wind far better than a fence.  Lastly, a hedge is live wood, whereas a fence is dead.  I'd rather have live things around me!
         In a rental situation one often has little choice, but it can be worth stating a preference.  Our landlord is a keen fencer.  He finds them satisfying to build, and I must say I'm glad of some of them: a fence between our shared drive and the neighbour of a different property provides a welcome screen from a very untidy section.
         However, on our side of the drive I resolutely opposed even a partial fence to continue on where the hedge ends.  Instead I planted a border.  It's a very long border, some 50 feet or so.  After we moved in I did a lot elsewhere in the garden and it seemed too big a job to undertake, so I left doing anything about it for about a year.  But I couldn't help thinking about it:

    I considered where a border might best be placed.

    Finally I couldn't stand it any longer and launched into this major project.  It was made possible by my trusty grubber!  The use of two hoses, a measuring stick and a packet of food skewers helped me get the curving edges nice and even.  Once the ground was ready I planted it very simply with self-sown seedlings and tussocks which I'd potted 'just in case'.  A sprinkling of marigolds and other hardy annuals also from saved seed helped to fill it in.

    Early 2009

    Although it took a considerable amount of labour to establish it, it cost me nothing and is a lasting source of pleasure and interest.

    Springtime - October 2010

    Usually I favour garden beds being mounded up with a scattering of rocks and lots of additional earth, but in this case I chose not to do so.  Neither I nor my landlord were sure what the future of that particular border might be.  Given that it's possible it may be removed after our departure I wanted to make taking it out as simple as possible - and its loss the cause of least regret!  With the passing of time its future seems more assured.  It will continue to put on height over the years as the shrubs grow up and there is plenty of room between them and the edge of the drive.
         A fence can go up in a matter of days whereas a hedge or a garden border is certainly a long term undertaking.  In many instances planted borders can define a boundary as much as it needed if you have the interest, energy and patience.

    Later note: One last look at that border:
    Early on the morning we moved from that place I took this photograph. 

    It was June 2011 and a heavy frost lingered.  The plants had filled out well and I was sorry to leave them, but life goes on and I'm taming a new garden now which presents new challenges.  I'm pleased to have a couple of seedlings of those big grasses though, which were so successful, the original seed having come plants on a stream bank in Christchurch.  My happy memories of the parent plants live on.

    More about letterboxes:
    Entries in a recent competition for quirky letterboxes show that some New Zealanders do have a high regard for this oft neglected household object.
    • NZ's quirkiest letterbox - article published on 'stuff.co.nz' on 18th November 2010.  To see other entries click on the 'Next' link underneath the photograph of the winning entry.
    • Canterbury letterboxes stay home - article published in the Press on the 17th November 2010.  These letterboxes weren't entered into the competition but could well have been.

    Monday, 22 November 2010

    Gardening ~ contours, shifting perspectives & plant selection

    The underlying contours of the garden are best determined early on with paths cut, terraces constructed and boulders placed as desired.  Any natural contours can be emphasized at this time by heaping up earth, arranging rocks, or adding other garden structures such as archways or pergolas. 

    Once pathways and the means of defining property boundaries have been worked out it's time to consider what else you want to add to your garden in terms of structure.

    When these structures and shapes are right our garden will look satisfying even before we start to plant in it.  Planting is then pure pleasure, and the growth that follows will encourage our gaze to wander from one thing to another and find ease and contentment in the shifting perspectives that result.

    I like my gardens to have as much naturalness as possible.  In the landscapes of the countryside I find the mix of predictability, variation and gentle chaos very restful.  With a little consideration the qualities of natural landscapes can be echoed in the sorts of choices we make for our gardens whatever their size or location. 

    The contours of the natural world are full of curves in the form of pleasing mounds, hollows and pathways.  Our perspectives shift and vistas change as we move.  These photos show this point well:

    The approach to one of Canterbury's inland mountains

    Same mountain, same day, different standpoint.

    Garden beds that are heaped into mounds are pleasing.  I avoid stiff board or log edgings as I don't find them necessary in a garden any more than they are on a hillside in the country.  While retaining walls are necessary in some gardens this is not usually the case.  Getting the slope and height of a mounded bed right can take a bit of working out, but is satisfying.  Plants are then well displayed and the garden looks as if its meant to be there.

    In beds which are flat rather than raised contours are created by edges which are well defined and by the plants themselves.  The good effect of a shallow but clear furrow just inside the edge can be formed by digging the earth back from it a little.  The curved border featured in the previous article was a flat one.  The edges look just fine and the plants provide good height perfectly well without the addition of extra topsoil.

    The smaller the garden the more important it is to have continuity.  This can be achieved by borders which continue on around corners and the repetition of certain plants.  Good continuity is a bit like having the same carpet throughout the house: the effect of having different carpet in every room tends to make a house seem disjointed and bitsy; it's the same in gardens.  We want each part of the garden to have its own character while clearly belonging to the whole.
         In this view of the back garden you can see the strong curves and connecting borders which help both to enclose and reinforce the back boundary with pleasant greenery:

    As the shrubs grow variations in height will become more apparent.

    This is an important aspect of continuity.  My present garden is relatively small.  While each part of the garden is distinctive I've used lots of plants repetitively: I love hebe shrubs, and have about a dozen of them in my garden: some are the same as each other while others are different varieties.  These are good for smallish gardens in that they can be trimmed to scale or left to grow overhead, also they flower well and the birds and insects love them. I've interspersed these with native grasses which are tussock-like and which give the plantings a certain rhythm. A small part of the driveway is planted on both sides, and I've put familiar plants used elsewhere on both sides so that they look harmonious and as if they belong to each other.
    If you have rocks to add to your garden so much the better.  Rocks add character and interest like nothing else.  When arranging them consider how they can best be used so they are in keeping with other aspects of your garden.  When putting in a new garden in the middle of my front lawn I tried putting a stone edging around it.  I roughed it out like this to try the effect:

    After looking at it for some weeks I decided it was incongruous with the rest of the garden which doesn't have any rocks in it.  I rearranged the stones in what turned out to be a star shape, thus:

    This formation had the added advantage of allowing me to get more height than I could get with the previous arrangement.  It was much more difficult to get the stones comfortably placed but I liked it much better, and have planted each of the segments with various small plants.
         I'll write about making the birdbath shown in the top image in a separate article.
         When placing your rocks you'll probably find that they have a top side and an underside.  If this is so, you'll no doubt find that they look best with their topside uppermost.  When I'm working with rocks I often find  that much of their bulk ends up being submerged.  This is likely to be how they were in their original setting.  I like my rocks to look as much as if they have always been there are possible.  My arrangement above is clearly contrived by human hands but is pleasantly jumbled, as if shaken into place. 

    Preparing the ground for planting:
    It's vital to do this properly before you plant anything, and doing so will pay big dividends in the long run.  A garden that is set up properly will not only enable your plants to grow much better but will also be much easier to maintain.
          Below you can see a corner of the garden as it was when I was beginning to work on it.  I had crashed about in the stony ground with the pick end of my grubber to break up the ground, expanding the width of the existing bed and incorporated good strong curves in the edges.
         It was a very unpromising beginning, but there were good resources available: a large mound of topsoil out the back which had been formed when the drive was put in, and an excellent supply of horse manure from a horsey place down the road.  Both were free of charge and required only my labour and the means to carry them: I borrowed a ute with a serviceable tray-back and got three loads of manure, and the trusty wheelbarrow has now carted about a couple of hundred loads of topsoil which were used to mound up the beds and level the lawns.

    You can see the effect of the extra height and the layer of manure I spread before adding the topsoil.  I had a long way to go and got slimmer!

    The garden responded with gusto!  Here it is again a few months later:

    The mounded earth and thriving plants are the focus of the attention rather than the fence, a much more restful view!  

    Planting and perspectives:
    Natural perspective can be emphasized by plantings of differing heights and sizes, and by placing them at varying distances from the viewer.  This creates a pleasing sense of distance even in a small garden.  One has a foreground, the middle distance and the background.  The eye moves naturally from one to the other which is restful as well as good for our eyes. 

    Choosing plants:
    For the best results and greatest ease of care choose plants that are suited to local rainfall and other conditions.  Native plants are ideal in this respect as evolution has designed them precisely for local conditions over the millennia.
         In considering what to plant I often spend hours looking through gardening guides to determine which ones are likely to do best.
         Planting needn't be done all at once.  Initial plantings made up of blocks of plants which are simple and hardy and provide basic shape and cover for a new garden are a good start.  At a later stage these can be adjusted and added to with other more subtle plantings as the structure of the garden becomes established and can support them.
    A plea for trees:
    Please, please, please give consideration to the long term height and viability of plants, especially trees.  It's important to be realistic.  If they are going to grow too tall in the long term they should not be considered.  Otherwise they have no future and all the years of getting established and growing up will be completely wasted.  And for heavens sake plant them a reasonable distance from any fences or boundaries.
         I am constantly dismayed to observe seedlings which will grow to substantial proportions being planted perhaps twelve inches from a fence or boundary.  This means that they will grow up very lopsided and very probably be removed within a few short years - what a waste.  Think of your own arms and how we need to be able to extend them in all directions, then think of your tree and its branches.
         Hedges in particular need to be considered in terms of their space requirements: unlike fences which occupy only a narrow width and are finite a hedge needs to be planted well back from your driveway or other plants.  It needs room to spread out each year without the need for constant trimming, and you will need the room to get at it from all sides to do so.
         There are plenty of trees and shrubs which can be either pruned or kept low enough to manage, or left to their own devices to grow more naturally.

      Sunday, 21 November 2010

      Gardening ~ more about contours and rocks

      Described below...
      In earlier articles I've outlined principles of garden design that I've found useful, showing examples of how I've applied these in relatively small gardens.  In this one I share an example of how these same ideas can work in a more substantial setting with some photographs taken yesterday.  I've numbered the principles so that you can easily see what I mean.

      Earlier in the spring Rachel and I discussed problems she was having with her lawn.  Most of it needed to be cleared and resown which was a big job, and, given the problems of the past, was not guaranteed to be a success. 

      First: form should follow function:
      I asked her what she wanted from that part of the garden.  The family like to be able to sit there from time to time and to have their lunch out of doors.  The lawn slopes fairly steeply and was never going to be suitable for garden furniture, and anything else had always been a matter of balancing cups and trays while lounging on a rug.  This is all very well in its way but maybe it was time for a change.  

      It's fun to play with ideas.  If the lawn was likely to struggle, why bother with it?  I suggested cutting a terrace into the lawn where they could enjoy sitting and replacing the lawn above it with a simple garden filled with easy-care native grasses and so on. 

      Ideas are free.  We went outside to pace it out.  Where did they sit, I asked.  They liked to sit just above a small garden situated in the middle of the lawn.  I have a great fondness for what might be called sit-upon rocks, which invite you to sit on them.  How about a terrace edged with these sort of rocks, nothing too rigid in shape or style?  These can look great and garden furniture is then optional.

      I could visualise the effect clearly although I wasn't certain about details.  We seemed to have enough to go on - nothing venture, nothing win!  We decided to put our best efforts together and have a go.  
      Second: getting the paths right:
      At the top of the existing lawn the family walk to and fro to another part of the garden along a barely formed track.  A proper path was needed there and that's where we started our work.  This path marked the edge of the new garden.  A carefully laid hose was helpful with getting the curves even as was the pick end of the grubber.  

      Third and fourth: defining edges and beginning to develop contours
      The next thing we did was to excavate directly into the lawn to form the edge of the new terrace.  Gradually the rest of what was necessary started to became clear.  We went on to incorporate the existing circular garden into the scheme and began to work out the placement and height of some comfy stones.  These stones were placed in the exact best spots in relation to each other and the view.  Once more that useful hose helped us see the best curves and get them right.   

      After this big burst of work the garden sat there waiting for some weeks while we were both busy with other things.  

      Then yesterday we decided to have another go at it.  Here it is when we were starting our labours:

      Fifth: preparing the soil:
      By this stage quite a bit of new topsoil and manure had been added to the upper garden and we were evening it out and getting the mounding effect we wanted.  You can see the path running behind it.  

      Sixth: those wonderful rocks!
      Getting the remaining stones placed just where we both wanted them took several hours and some tact!  At the time I remembered that just earlier in the week I had written that lugging earth and rocks around soothed my soul, and thinking what a gross exaggeration that was!  We both got some nasty bruises from handling the rocks, and were mighty glad to go in for a hot meal.  But what a happy result.  At that point my sometimes savage soul relaxed and opened like a new rose.  It is satisfying:

      Seventh: settling those contours and mounds:
      Above the right hand end where the rocks diminish in height we've pushed the earth back and scuffed a fairly level area before mounding the earth back in a bank.  There are likely to be a few more rocks placed on that slope in a separate group.  The little circle garden, dismantled for the time being, will need to be reassembled in a new arrangement.  So there is a lot more work to be done, but for the present the bare shape is dramatic and pleasing.  

      It looks good from all angles, which is my measure of structures that are successful.  

      The bed at the top is ready for short term planting.  It will be filled with easy, no-fuss plants which give it immediate cover.

      More substantial planting can be done in the autumn when manure has rotted down and the time is right for more substantial planting and transplanting. 

      Ninth:  VoilĂ !
      Time to get out the tea tray, load it up with all manner of goodies and begin to enjoy it!

      The next day planting began:
      Rachel set to work getting a selection of plants in to provide some basic cover.  The spiky, grass-like plants are Libertia, a charming native which has small white flowers. 

      Further refinements can now be carried out at leisure. 

      Saturday, 20 November 2010

      Gardening ~ sourcing your plants and getting them planted

      Buying them:
      Even the most resourceful of gardeners is likely to buy plants from time to time.  When you do so you may wish to consider the following:
      • Check the base of containers when picking them out.  Look at the relative height of the seedlings and the size of the pot or bag they are in.  If the plant is disproportionately tall, or if there are roots coming out of the bottom of the container they may be pot-bound so it could be sensible to look for others which are not.
      • Plants which are being sold cheaply are likely to include those which have become a bit pot-bound!
      • Make sure you choose a good healthy specimen which you really like the look of.
      • Staff are there to help and can provide helpful advice.
      • A number of gardening shops offer loyalty cards which provide worthwhile discounts over time. 
      I always remove plant labels as I don't want my garden to look like a shop but I keep them all together in a folder.  The date they've been planted can be written on the label or it can be stapled to paper on which details can be jotted.  These can be surprisingly useful in years to come.  

      Planting from pots and containers:
      Allow plenty of time for this.  I invariably find that planting takes far longer than I expect or find reasonable.
      • Choose cool day and a time when there is good cloud cover or its close to evening.  This will give your plants time to recover before having to deal with heat and direct sunlight. 
      • Line up your plants along with a spade, large fork, small trowel and secateurs, scissors and a bucket of water with a scoop in it.  I always have my trusty gardening knife to hand as well.
      • I place my plants out on the garden to get a sense of where to situate them. 
      • Dig a hole which is larger than your plant's container. Place the plant in its container into the hole to check that it's big enough.
      • To get a plant out of its container squeeze the container gently and grasp the plant carefully around its base and then turn it on its side.  If it's small and fragile, place your fingers on either side of the plant to support the earth around the roots rather than grasping the plant itself.  Hopefully it will then come out fairly easily.  If the plant or seedling is of substantial size and seems stuck place the container on the ground on its side and roll it firmly while pressing the topmost side as you do so.  This will loosen the plant which should then come out without difficulty.  If it's still stuck I poke my knife in through the holes in the base of the container and give it a good push.  If a plant has been in a bag for a while the simplest way is often to cut the bag off them. 
      • Examine what you can see of the roots and snip off any that have made a shape around the sides where they've been confined to their containers.  I often loosen the roots a little with the point of my gardening knife.  New root growth needs to be able to grow outwards as well as downwards if it's to be able to grow vigorously.
      • Decide which way around the plant looks best. I'm very fussy about this as I've found it does make a difference, sometimes a big one.
      • Fill your hole with a scoop of water.  I was taught to do this but have never known anyone else to do so.  Most people leave watering until after planting is complete which I find surprising.  This initial pool of water drenches the roots and the earth they are going into and helps the earth and the new plant to get properly in contact. 
      • Fill in the hole with earth, adjusting the height of the plant as you go to make sure that it's right: planting it too shallow can leave it unstable and with upper roots vulnerable to becoming exposed during watering; planting it too deep can cause it to rot around the base of the stem or developing tree trunk.  It's easier to put your plant in a little deep than to have it too shallow.  This is where your fork comes in handy as you can gently ease it up to the right height without straining the base of the plant.  Once you're happy with the height pack the earth in around the roots firmly.
      • Press the top of the earth down firmly.  If it's a young tree you can tread the earth down. A seedling which is likely to be affected by wind can be supported by a couple of stakes on either side and some carefully tied garden twine.
      • After you've completed planting water the whole area with the hose.
      • In the first fortnight or so they will need more water than usual while they are getting their roots in right relationship with their new home.  Be careful to ensure that there is sufficient moisture without the ground being soggy.  
      Transplanting whole plants: 
      First decide on the plant's destination and prepare the site, then move the plant from one place to the other as swiftly as possibly, taking as much of the original earth as possible.  For those plants with long trailing roots careful digging all the way round can be not only helpful but necessary.  Often it's fine to trim excessive trailing roots somewhat as it won't help them to bury the extra length awkwardly.  With some plants the earth simply falls off and one has to make the best of things.  In either case get the roots into their new location in as natural a placing as possible, following the same routine as given for planting above.

      Other ways of filling up your garden:
      Without the interference of sprays and excessive weeding seedlings of plants you are likely to find useful will pop up fairly often.  These sorts of seedlings have provided the bulk of the plants I have in my present garden, along with a fairly large proportion of plants that other gardeners didn't want.
           The following notes on how to manage these are just that - only notes, and I encourage you to find your own sources for fuller guidelines.

      Dividing plants:
      Again, replant the separated parts immediately if you can, rather than leaving them sitting around or moving them into a pot.  It can be helpful for the divided pieces to have any flower heads or excess growth snipped off at this point so that the root system has an economical amount of work to do adjusting to its new state while it draws up the necessary moisture. Straggling roots can also be trimmed a little.

      Many plants can be grown from cuttings.  I've found  planting cutting directly into the ground the most successful approach - far more so than placing them in jars of water and the like.  Again, plant these as soon as possible.  Different sorts of plants require different methods of propagation.  The most common method is to cut a portion perhaps six inches long from the parent plant, snip the main stem diagonally and pinch out the growing tip leaving only two or three sprouting 'branches' or leaves.  You will need a number of inches of stem to place into the ground in most instances.  Roses and climbers require a different technique.

      Re-potting pot plants:
      Do consider completely re-potting once a year.  When you do so, remove as much of the earth as feels safe.  You may wish to trim the roots to some degree.  Even so, a larger pot may be needed.  There should be room enough in the bottom of your pot for there to be an inch or so of potting mix for the plants roots to grown down into, and a similar amount of space around the sides.  Your pot plants will thrive on the extra care and nourishment and give you much more pleasure than if left in stale earth year after year.  If your plants are fragile or too large to tip upside-down and manage the process by yourself ask a friend to help.  As with plants in the garden tamp the earth down firmly after you're done.

      A word about potting mix:
      It would be natural to assume that bags labelled 'Potting mix" would be ideal for potted plants.  This is not necessarily so at all.  Possibly the best use for this product is in getting very young plants started, but for anything else it's too porous and light.
           I use 'Shrub and tub mix' for all the plants I have in pots, including those which I'm holding for some later project.  While most plants do better in the ground this isn't always practicable, and if they have to be in pots  tucking them up with Shrub and tub mix works well.  It's much more satisfactory than earth from the garden which, in my garden anyway, is too heavy.
           These details are particular to New Zealand products.  Elsewhere knowledgeable sales people will be able to advise you.

      Seeds - saving and sowing:
      Seed saving is the topic of one of my earlier articles.
      The best way of sowing them will vary from plant to plant.  My own rule of thumb is attempt to stick as closely as possible to how they are likely to germinate if left to their own devices, and to consider what degree of water saturation is likely to help.  Fine seeds such as one finds in poppies require only to be sprinkled, whereas larger seeds such as beans or corn kernels may benefit from soaking before being tucked in at the depth stipulated by seed producers.

      Finally: take photos!  Keep a journal even!
      These can be very helpful for record-keeping and useful to look back over in years to come.  You'll be able to see how far you and your gardens have come.

      Additional resources ~ how other people do it:
      I find 5 min.com fun and a good resource.  I didn't find exactly what I was looking for to add to this article but the video below is a good one and linked to other how-to gardening videos which you might find useful:
           My irises are flowering fit to bust just now, and over the past three years have formed dense roots. They certainly will need to be split and re-planted after they finish flowering so I was pleased to find these guidelines which show how to go about it:

      My next article is about experimenting with hypertufa and making my birdbath.

      Friday, 19 November 2010

      Gardening ~ birdbaths and an experiment with hypertufa

      I must begin by saying that my experiments with this are as yet incomplete.  I relate them here to encourage readers to consider experimenting with hypertufa as it's fun, ingredients are relatively cheap and it opens up a range of possibilities for garden ornamentation. 

      Hypertufa first came up as a possibility when I was wondering how to make a birdbath since I couldn't afford to buy one and 'hypertufa' was suggested.  Please note that the Wikipedia link provided includes not only a definition but also some useful web links.

      Searching on 5 min.com I found the video clip below which gives very helpful information, not about bird baths but about making plant pots which was enough to get me started.  They make it look straightforward and enjoyable which it is.

      I include the direct link to the video as posted at the 5 minute site as well in case you want to browse around the site.

      Here is a WikiHow article based on this same video if you want to look at the content slowly step by step

      The ingredients are Portland cement, peat moss, perlite and water.  Of these perlite is the most costly, but the sum of the ingredients was vastly cheaper than buying anything I might make with it ready-made.

      Perlite isn't all that commonly known or stocked in New Zealand hardware or gardening shops, but a 'proper' gardening shop did have a supply as it's used in hydroponics as a root bed.  It's also used in some concrete slab construction.  It looks and behaves very like polystyrene, so open your bag in a draught-free spot!  It is a naturally occurring substance however.  I used the contents of a five litre bag and could have done with about half of another one given the size of what I was making.

      My birdbath worked out well.  Being new to the technique and unsure of how to best work out the details of my mould I put off getting on with it for some weeks.  I ended up breaking through what I call perfection paralysis by deciding that it didn't greatly matter if it didn't work out and if that was the case experimentation should eventually lead to success.  I also decided that simplest was best!  Here are some photos I took during the process:

      A dis-used glass lampshade I got second hand for five dollars was the exact size and shape I wanted:

      I covered the glass first with glad wrap and then with aluminium foil to keep it stain-free.  I then covered the garage bench with builders plastic to keep it clean and dry and set up my mould face down on it.  The plastic also gave me something to draw on!  The pen marks and rolled circle of aluminium foil were to help with getting the rim where and how I wanted it. 

      Mixing up the brew was straightforward.  I was glad to be doing it in a well-ventilated space due to the cement dust:

      You can see it below all packed on to dry.  I realised too late that I hadn't anchored my mould to the plastic so it shifted a bit making it slightly uneven as you can see!  The edging was made out of a strip of heavy cardboard.
           The suggested thickness is one to two inches.  I measured the depth of coverage with a skewer stick which had a piece of tape fixed around it to mark a depth of one inch and then smoothed over the holes.  In retrospect it would have been better if I'd made it nice and chunky with a thickness of two inches.  To do that I would have needed twice as much of the mixture and a higher edging.

      The drying time is seven days.  After a week had passed  I carefully unwrapped it, fearful it might fall to pieces.  It didn't, but what I didn't expect was that the foil disintegrated, presumably in reaction to the lime in the cement.  Having vacuumed it carefully I had to scratch the last bits of it out of the finished form with pointy skewer sticks.

      The rim did turn out to be somewhat lopsided, but I decided I liked it!

      I learnt three significant things from my efforts:
           The first is that the birdbath is somewhat porous.   I should have expected this as the instructions do mention it.  This makes it ideal for outdoor planters, but unsuitable for a birdbath unless it's sealed.  Without this it needs to be topped up each day.  I realised I needed to paint it with some kind of sealant.
           The second was that I became concerned that the unsealed cement might make the water a little toxic which was another reason to seal the surface.  I'm still not clear  as to whether or not a degree of toxicity is an issue but consider it best to settle for painting it - with something non-toxic(!) - to be on the safe side.
           My third realisation was that it was, wait for it, too deep for the birds.  It was perfect for a fairly large bird to get right into for a good splash as one blackbird did, but the rim was too smooth and the water too deep for birds to perch on the rim and bend in.  The simple solution to this last issue would have been to place rocks and possibly sticks in it, but essentially it was still a design fault.  So I did learn a lot. 

      However, I enjoyed it just as it was for a few weeks before it suffered a disaster - Rewi tripped when turning and landed on it.  It broke.  Oh dear!  Just as well it was the birdbath and not him.  I have yet to attempt to repair it.  When I do, I'll ask at the hardware shop about suitable sealants and paint it some pleasantly subtle colour.  It seems a pity to have to paint it though, as I like it's rough finish and stony appearance.  Even if repair is successful I expect to make another one as it's fun. 

      When I take my experiments further I'll add to what I've written here and note that I have done so on my Updates page.

      Later note about sealants:
      I have yet to continue with this project.  I have however, purchased the sealant necessary to make it watertight once I've finished other work on it.  Staff at Mitre 10 were characteristically helpful, and recommended Micara PondPaint, described on the label as "elastomeric waterproofing membrane: tough flexible coating, UV stable" and designed for "water features, fishponds, birdbaths, concrete, etc."  You do not need paint as well.  I'm delighted about this as I very much like the the look and texture of the hypertufa.  This part of creating your birdbath is not for the hasty, as the object has to be left to cure for a minimum of four weeks before sealant is applied.  The smallest pot contains a whole litre and is relatively costly, so look forward to using it on an array of hypertufa objects, which I'm sure you'll enjoy creating, or consider sharing a pot with others doing similar projects.  In saying so I'm setting myself an agreeable challenge!
      P.S. I love Mitre 10 shops I pass on the Mega versions which are more like hardware supermarkets, but love the local ones in which staff actually know their products and provide first rate service.