She’s right – it’s amazing!

Wendy Begbie’s iris nursery, which features extensive stock beds of over 1000 varieties, is, she says, a hobby “that got out of control”.


Visitors enjoy the stock beds at the Amazing Iris Garden, south of Katikati. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Wendy has been growing irises for 13 years, the last five at Walford Rd, south of Katikati, and although tall bearded irises are her “mainstay”, the Amazing Iris Garden has expanded to include Siberian, Louisiana and Japanese types.

“It’s the multitude of colours that attracted me to them,” Wendy says of the bearded iris. “You buy one and you keep going – you can’t help yourself.”


The tall bearded iris Batik is a fascinating swirl of blue and white. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Wendy, who is a fulltime sales rep and product manager covering Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Hawkes Bay, employs three part-time staff and opens the garden during flowering each year.

“It’s actually harder leading up to opening because I like to make sure the garden is as pristine as possible – each visitor has the potential to bring in more customers.”


Thornbird has curved beards. Photo: Sandra Simpson

She produces an annual mail-order catalogue, which includes information about care of bearded iris and says the biggest problem in this area is the humidity and high rainfall.

“The rhizomes will rot if they stay wet so plant them above the soil a little bit so they can bake in the sun. They don’t care about the soil type so long as they have good drainage and some air movement around them.”

The Getty Villa gardens

The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried when Mt Vesuvius erupted in AD79, clearly made an impression on 19-year-old American J Paul Getty, soon to become an oil tycoon, when he visited Italy in 1912.

Almost 60 years later he built a museum at Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles to display his collection of antiquities – a replica Roman villa, right down to the gardens.

The outer peristyle garden – a peristyle is a covered walkway. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The 6000 square metre villa has four gardens, each featuring, as far as possible, plants that would have been available to a Roman gardener.

The outer peristyle garden is designed to impress visitors – 1.6km of clipped box hedging, a 67m pool, two rows of standard bay laurels and Damask roses. This garden is on top of a parking building with only 46cm of soil depth so anything needing a deeper root run is grown in pots.

The large European fan palms at the ocean end of the garden were 75 years old when transplanted here in the 1970s.

The outer peristyle garden has 1.6km of clipped box hedging. Photo: Sandra Simpson

An iris blooms in a bed of Achillea tomentosa Maynard’s Gold (woolly yarrow) – according to the ‘Iliad’, the Greeks used yarrow leaves to staunch bleeding on the battlefield. Photo: Sandra Simpson

As well as herbs, vegetables and fruit, the kitchen garden includes plants that do double duty. Olives, for instance, made cooking oil, medicine, cosmetics and lamp fuel; pomegranates were used for dye (flowers), scenting rooms (leaves) and tanning (fruit skins); and myrtle (Myrtus communis Boetica) for fragrant smoke (leaves), “ink” (seeds) and hair dye (berries and leaves).

Myrtle (Myrtus communis Boetica). Photo: Sandra Simpson

The inner peristyle garden (central courtyard) has a green and pastel colour scheme, while the private east garden includes a water feature, mosaic grotto and seating. A stroll here reveals butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus, the little ‘knobs’ on the leaves made them useful for cleaning), holly (Ilex aquifolium) and potted strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo).

The strawberry tree is a distant relative of the pieris. The striking fruit turns from yellow to orange to red but despite its bright colour is said to have a bland taste. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Mr Getty loved sycamores so this garden has Platanus acerifolia Columbia – but when the villa opened in 1974 he was in England and no longer travelling, dying two years later without having ever stood in his Roman garden.

  • Admission is free to the Getty Villa, parking $US15 (if you visit the villa and the Getty Centre in one day there is only one parking charge). The villa can be reached by public transport and offers free guided tours of the garden.

This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.

Bee flower

The bee flower was my name for this plant that I adored when I was growing up – the pink and purple flower combination caught my fancy as did the way it always seemd to be covered in bees and bumble bees. And, as you can see from the photo, butterflies love it too.


An early monarch butterfly (or one that’s overwintered) feeds on my Echium candicans. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It’s actually called the Pride of Madeira, a grand name, and is a member of the huge echium family (yep, just like those little milkweeds we’re forever pulling out round here), Echium candicans (or Echium fastuosum).

My plants are descended from some seedlings I dug out from around my mother’s plants (including from the driveway gravel) – their lifecycle is a little bit different in that the first year from seed they grow only their leaves, flowering in the second year. They flower for two years, then the plants die off, having set seed and it all begins again. The leaves are silvery-grey and attractive in their own right.

This plant is great for anywhere hot and dry, including coastal gardens, but you may need to watch that they don’t do a little too well (I weed out any excess seedlings). They are drought-tolerant, cold-hardy plants that don’t mind poor soil and part shade. The Vege Grower reckons ours grow to about 2m with the flowers on.

We have also had the very tall Echium pininana courtesy of a friend – a tall, single flower that soars off a tall, single stem and gets to some 3m.

Like most biennial and annual echiums I’ve come across they have hairy leaves and prickly stems so if you’re pulling out a spent plant it’s advisable to wear gloves.

Te Puna Quarry Park’s butterfly garden has the purpley-flowered plant and also one with a striking sky-blue flower.


The quarry’s park’s sky-blue echium (with Dendrobium speciosum orchids and bamboo behind). Photo: Sandra Simpson

As the common name suggests, the plants are native to the island of Madeira, a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, some 400km northeast of the Canary Islands.

Sunday digest

Mount Maunganui’s harbourfront Norfolk pines are suffering, possibly from a phytophthora, but the cure looks pretty painful, that is, if bark = skin! See a photo and read more here. Added to the “site disturbances” mentioned at the end of the story would be the swanky new boardwalk that’s gone in around the base of the some of the trees.

I’ve always lived in places where people mow their own berms so the whining from central Auckland hasn’t been very impressive and I suspect a lot of New Zealanders have been shaking their heads at the fuss. Some newspaper letter writers, columnists and talking heads on TV have suggested planting the grass verges in food crops. Abbie Jury has some sensible things to say, as always.

Abbie and husband Mark, a renowned plant breeder, have taken the sad step of deciding to close their Tikorangi garden to the public until further notice, feeling the intrusion of the petrochemical industry in their area is just too great.

The lecture programme of the World Federation of Rose Societies (WFRS) Regional Convention – being held in Palmerston North next month – is a good chance to hear international and New Zealand rosarians talk about what they love.

The programme, being organised by Hayden Foulds, comprises (click here for photos and short biographies):

  • WFRS president Steve Jones of the US who will speak on the history of American rose breeding
  • American Rose Society president Jolene Adams on the movement of roses between hemispheres
  • Irish rose breeder David Kenny on amateur rose breeding in the UK and Europe
  • Thomas Proll, from the famous Kordes rose company in Germany, on work to breed disease-resistant roses
  • Kelvin Trimper from Adelaide on maintaining the popularity of the rose
  • Anthony Tesselaar, the man behind the very successful Flower Carpet roses
  • John Ford, the nephew of noted Palmerston North rosarian and breeder Nola Simpson,on her life and work
  • Doug Grant, New Zealand Rose Society vice-president, on the roses of Dr Sam McGredy
  • Heritage rose enthusiast Fiona Hyland of Dunedin will speak on conserving old roses in New Zealand
  • Otaki rosarian and author Ann Chapman will speak about significant rose breeders and rosarians from New Zealand
  • Wanganui rose grower Bob Matthews
  • Panel discussion on “Where Roses are Heading” featuring Rob Somerfield (NZ), Matthias Meilland (France), Richard Walsh (Australia) and Murray Radka (NZ).

Tickets for the lecture programme are on sale until November 18. They are $30 each, including morning and afternoon teas. No door sales will be available. Purchase tickets here. The event will be held at the Palmerston North Convention Centre, Main St West on Monday, November 25, from 8.30am-5pm, and on Tuesday, November 26, from 8.30am to 12.15pm.

Someone else who dislikes variegated plants (yes, like me!) is Dr Tim Entwisle, director and chief executive of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens.

Ellerslie International Flower Show is moving forward on the calendar, a little – next year’s show will be from February 26 to March 2, a fortnight earlier than usual.

“Even though we’re moving the event less than a fortnight, we’re on the cusp of the seasons and the difference is quite dramatic. It will give designers a wider range of flowers to choose from, while the new date also boosts the already high chance of Christchurch turning on dry, sunny weather,” says Richard Stokes, Christchurch City Council’s marketing and events unit manager.

There will be 16 exhibition gardens – the most in the show’s 21-year history – of a minimum 100 square metres, compared with seven show gardens this year.

Jenny Gillies, an internationally renowned costume and fabric artist, will stage a new “Naughty by Nature” show featuring sumptuous floral artwear.

Tickets go on sale next month.

The Gardening World Cup in Nagasaki, Japan is on again and Kiwi designer Xanthe White has returned to try and emulate her success from last year – Best Design Award and a Gold Medal. Good luck!

Vege news

A single plant that grows potatoes under the soil while at the same time producing tomatoes may be a world first for a Katikati nursery.

Andrew Boylan, co-owner of incredible edibles with wife Fiona, says the idea is all about space. “With shrinking urban sections it makes sense to develop plants that help home gardeners grow more in less space.”


The plant, which has the trade name Potato Tom, combines Agria potatoes with Gardeners’ Delight cherry tomatoes – and is, Andrew believes, a world first commercial release.

Solanum tuberosum, Potatos growing on plant.

Potato Tom. Image: incredible edibles

“The idea of grafting a tomato on a potato is not new,” he says. “But it has never been commercialised and, as far as I can make out, we are the first to do it.”

Tomatoes are members of the potato family (Solanaceae) so the two are naturally compatible. Ian Duncalf of Te Puna, a plant breeder of some note, says he worked out the grafting technique necessary for Potato Tom and had “fun” doing it.

“I had one at a friend’s place, as a bit of a trial, and went round there one night and saw all his guests really taking an interest in the plant. That’s what it’s all about for me, making people excited about something.”

Potato Tom, which can be grown in a pot, produces cherry tomatoes through summer and when they have finished, it’s time to dig the potatoes.

Note: Since my story was first published in mid-September, a nursery in England is also selling a potato-tomato graft, TomTato (and despite the use of  ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘hybrid’ in the link story, it’s still just a graft).

Kings Seeds, another Katikati business, has been surprised this season by the popularity of a Dutch heirloom pea that features deep-blue pods.

“We generally know what will be our top sellers,” says Barbara Martin, who co-owns the mail-order company with husband Gerard. “But this has shot up the list and taken us all by surprise.”

blue pea

Pea Blue Shelling. Image: Kings Seeds

The peas, simply called Pea Blue Shelling, can be eaten pods and all when young or left for the peas to develop out and be cooked for eating. The purple flowers are also edible.

Another unusual vegetable from the new catalogue is the flowering sprout Kaleidoscope, a cross between kale and Brussels sprouts. “They’re pretty little things,” Barbara says, “and if they’re cooked lightly they keep their purple colour.”

The “flowers” look like kale and grow like Brussels sprouts and Barbara advises topping the stalk a month before harvest to increase sprout size.

This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.

Our native plants: kowhai

another bitter morning
and then –
the first kowhai

– Cyril Childs, 1941-2012


Kowhai blooms. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Despite its prosaic name – kowhai is simply the Maori word for yellow – a tree in flower means spring, doesn’t it? Oddly enough, the Bay of Plenty (where I live) is one of the few places in New Zealand where kowhai don’t occur naturally, thanks to the volcanic ash and pumice that covered the area from the Taupo “super-eruption” 27,000 years ago.

In a 2009 interview Robert McGowan (Pa Ropata), a rongoa Maori medicine expert, said this: “Anything with a wind-blown seed or a seed that will be dropped by birds comes back very quickly into a devastated landscape, but the seeds of a kowhai are generally carried back into a landscape by a flood and that will only happen after the rivers start to rebuild the landscape.

“Kowhai seeds can remain dormant for 100 years and need something to wake them up. The pod is very hard and needs to be cracked to get at the seed.” Read more about how to germinate kowhai seeds here.

In 1925 rugby great George Nepia had his career saved by the bark of the kowhai after injury threatened to end his playing days. Read all about the traditional treatment here.

The kowhai belongs to the Sophora family, Sophora being the Arabic word for a leguminous tree, which itself is part of the pea family (not suprising when you look at the leaves and flowers). It is said that when the kowhai came into flower, Maori knew it was time to plant their potatoes.

The Field Guide to New Zealand Native Trees by John Dawson and Rob Lucas (2012) lists seven separate types of kowhai, many of them hybridising with one another where their territories overlap. The trees aren’t seen in the bush (forest) but grow on open ground and some are semi-deciduous.

Dennis Hughes of Blue Mountain Nurseries in Southland is trying to create better kowhai for the garden, read about his work here. He has a vast selection of kowhai  available in the nursery catalogue (click on catalogues and then natives).

And why would we have a kowhai in the garden? As well as bright yellow flowers at what can still be a dull time of the year, there is also the bird life the nectar-filled flowers attract – tui, bellbirds and waxeyes.

Clivia carnival

Most clivia breeding in New Zealand is done by enthusiastic amateurs, which means plants with commercial potential can be slow to come on to the market, if they make it at all so visiting a clivia show is a good chance to obtain some of the more unusual and interesting flowers.

Judy Shapland and Ian Duncalf had a stall at last Sunday’s Spring Fling at Te Puna Quarry Park.

“It’s great to see more growers getting excited about the potential of clivia,” says Ian Duncalf of Te Puna, himself a plant breeder of some note.

He has several new clivia hybrids flower each year and last year was particularly pleased with his crop of peach-coloured blooms, while this year he is just as excited about a new, red flower – red being the holy grail for clivia breeders.

Ian has been studying it closely and reckons the colour is pretty right, being more red than orange. “It opens more orangey and deepens in colour as it ages,” he says.

Peach, a new colour for clivia, is proving popular with buyers and there are more clivia being bred with green throats.

Clivia Enid, bred by Ian Duncalf and named for his mother.

Ian has noticed that men “often” go for the more vivid-coloured flowers, while women are “a bit more open-minded”.

Read more about clivias at the New Zealand Clivia Club website. These plants are great for dry shade – mass planting under big trees or under eaves. They look good all year with their green strappy leaves and in spring have bright flowers.

Trailing clouds of glory

Wordsworth wasn’t thinking of wisteria when he wrote the words I’ve used for the title, but they are equally apt for this beautiful spring bloomer.

What do plant nursery owners do when they retire? In the case of Christine and John Nicholls, the answer was simple – grow their beloved climbers but this time for pleasure alone.

The Nicholls have some 500 plants growing on posts – including honeysuckles, native jasmine and clematis – and planted in sight of the house is a collection of about 20 wisterias.

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Wisteria sinensis. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The couple opened Tendrils Nursery at Pyes Pa, on the outskirts of Tauranga, in 1978, specialising in climbing plants and later including the mail-order company, Courier Climbers, and co-authored the book Climbing Plants, published in 1995.

“We specialised in climbers because no one else was,” John says, “but Christine had one stipulation – that we didn’t grow anything with thorns so we had only banksia roses and no bougainvilleas.”

John, who has been involved with horticulture all his working life, is an avid collector of plants and knew the late Trevor Davies, the son of one of the founders of Duncan and Davies, who tried to sort out the mess of wisteria naming, work that has since been carried on by Australian plantsman Peter Valder.

“So many names have been attached willy-nilly to wisteria plants that it’s almost impossible to know what’s what,” John says.

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Wisteria floribunda Rosea. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Christine adds the problem is compounded by many wisteria being grafted. “Sometimes the graft dies and the understock comes away so the name is perpetuated on the wrong plant.”

And growing from seed is no help. “They’re fairly promiscuous plants,” Christine says. “You can get a vast range of colours from just one cross and can’t be sure of what’s what.”

There are two main types of wisteria – floribunda (Japanese, longer racemes of flowers, but often unscented; flowers and leaves at the same time), sinensis (Chinese, shorter flowers but well scented; flowers come before the leaves) and frutescens (native to the United States, slightly scented).

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Wisteria Caroline. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“The only problem they seem to suffer from is the weather,” John says. “Just as they come in to flower we get the equinox winds and spring rain. But part of their beauty is that they are transitory.”

This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.