Our most important tools

The most important tools a gardener has are eyes – those and a notebook, according to Fergus Garrett, head gardener at the renowned Great Dixter in England. He urges gardeners to always be looking at their garden, keeping notes of what works and what doesn’t, and “editing”.

Great Dixter in East Sussex came to prominence under the late Christopher Lloyd who, in turn, had inherited the garden from his mother, Daisy. Fergus, a trained horticulturalist who was born in Turkey, worked alongside “Christo” for 15 years,  taking on the role of guardian since Christopher’s death in 2006.

“We make rules, break them, experiment all the time,” he says of the 2.4ha house and garden that attracts some 50,000 visitors a year.

A view of the long border at Great Dixter. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“One of the philosophies that underpins what we do is to contrast plants to get maximum effect from them, but plant combinations change as the space changes and the plants themselves change as they grow.”

Great Dixter comprises several garden areas, including a walled garden, meadows, mixed borders and the well-known exotic garden, which was created after Christopher decided he no longer wanted to have roses in his garden. Great Dixter is also famed for its succession planting, particularly in the long border – as one group of plants dies down, another is springing up to take their place.

“Not everyone wants to do that, it is pretty labour-intensive, but we should all be looking, analysing and editing,” Fergus says.

Christopher, who wrote Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners, always had a notebook in hand when in the garden, and Fergus has adopted the same habit.

“Colour is important and so is contrast, but one thing that people underestimate about us is that shape comes first – shapes make a garden interesting.

“The visual effect of a planting is highlighted by different textures, shapes and colours and then, when you put seasonal layers on it, it becomes very exciting. As long as it is different, it catches the eye and that makes it work, instead of the eye just sweeping past.”

Great Dixter is about “ebullience” and “abundance”, Fergus says. “We make sure we plant some tall things up front. Why? So you have to brush past it, which then makes you part of the garden.”

He admits that not everything works, but that he and his team try to learn from their mistakes – and their record-keeping means they won’t make the same mistake twice.

“We don’t change everything every year – we’re not fidgety. We have one bed that’s been the same for 10 years. But we try and make the flowering season last as long as we can, and that’s down to planning and choosing good plants.

His advice is to “look a plant up and down and be critical” before you buy. “Think about the stems, foliage, structure, seed heads and, finally, the flowers – and remember that just because something is common, doesn’t mean it’s not useful.”

Further reading: Tim Richardson on Great Dixter and Fergus Garrett (2009).
Further listening: Fergus Garrett interviewed about Christopher Lloyd and Great Dixter (part 1 of 3, 13 minutes 27).

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

Flowering now

Thought I would share some pictures from the past week, taken in the Western Bay of Plenty.

Dendroseris litoralis. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Dendroseris litoralis is a little-seen plant in this country, native to the Juan Fernandez islands off the coast of Chile. Pat and Ron Howie in Te Puke have had a plant for a couple of years, but this is the first time it has flowered.

Nick-named the cabbage tree, the plant apparently helped keep Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk alive during his five years on the island of Mas a Tierra. Selkirk was the inspiration for the novel, Robinson Crusoe. Pat has tried cooking it and reports that it tastes like sweet silverbeet. She cut the central spine out of the large leaf and otherwise prepared it and cooked it like silverbeet.

Armenian basket flower (Centaurea macrocephala). Photo: Sandra Simpson

Also in the Howie garden was this flower, which actually looked like it might be related to the plant pictured above, or maybe even be a member of the Sonchus family. However, it turned out to be Centaurea macrocephala or the Armenian basket flower (the common name coming from the “baskets” the buds are held in, which feel quite papery).

Now here’s one from my garden, the flower of Tillandsia lindenii which is, I am assured, particularly easy to grow. Unlike many tillandsias which have grey leaves, this has smooth, green leaves. The purple flowers have soft petals and look like a flower, unlike many of the bromeliad blooms, and open one each side of the pink spike from the bottom up. The flowers below have to be finished before the ones above come out.

And despite the link above, I just have mine wrapped into a piece of regular wooden trellis with nothing around where you might expect the roots to be.

The flower of Tillandsia lindenii. Photo: Sandra Simpson

And finally a buddleia from a garden at Omokoroa – the flower is almost insignificant, unlike many buddleias. It’s the foliage that makes Buddleia Morning Mist (or, as the Europeans seem to have it, Buddleja) an unusual garden plant, soft and silvery. Buddleias have a reputation for being weedy in this country, but not all of them are and Morning Mist is a well-behaved one.

Buddleia Morning Mist. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Small-town style

This gardener may not have a lot of plant range, or even a very big planted area, but he does have a lot of bright colour. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I stopped and took this photo in Bulls last week. The town has the tagline, A Town Like No Udder!, and has public buildings that carry signs saying, for example, Consta-bull (police station), Cure-a-bull (medical centre), Social-bull (hall). The town was actually named because of James Bull, who had a general store on the banks of the Rangitikei River (I suppose the phrase “going to Bull’s” turned into the town’s name). The garden is in the urban area along SH3. The bright front border stretches right along the garden edge, which would have to be about 40m as I think it’s a double section. One of the flags flying is that of Canada, not sure about the other two.

Just down the road in Sanson I’ve been admiring for a few years a fun approach to the front yard – especially with the SH1 traffic going past.


Having fun in the front yard. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The old phone box below was pictured in Athenree, near Waihi Beach (north of Tauranga). You have to wonder if there’s anybody in there under the grapevine.


Don’t have an enclosure for your grape vine? No problem! Photo: Sandra Simpson

And, finally, a garden found as we passed through Owaka, in the deep south of the South Island. The sign says “can you count the fairys” (sic). Blimey, I was so dazzled by the tea-pots I didn’t see any fairies. Here’s a small story about the garden and its owners.

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Owaka teapot garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson


This & that

Sorry to report that gardener and sculptor Terry Parker has passed away recently. In 2012 I visited the garden he and wife Margaret had created from an unpromising site of gorse and “other rubbish” and which they had named “Pig’s Ear Park”.


Terry Parker with his stone carving of St Fiacre, patron saint of gardeners. Photo: Sandra Simpson

They were opening their 2ha country garden for the biennial Tauranga Garden and Artfest in 2012, the last time they were doing so as Margaret was facing a period of treatment for ill health and Terry was just going through the diagnosis process.

He good-humouredly described himself then as  “the donkey” when it came to the garden. “Put it in, take it out … that’s a tree.”

Terry, a former member of the Royal Navy in Britain, took up sculpting in the 1970s and eventually worked in stone, wood and recycled materials. One of his pieces in the garden was of St Fiacre, the Irish saint who lived in France, and is patron saint of gardeners (and cab drivers in Paris).

When I was in Palmerston North around New Year I dropped in at the national Rose Trial grounds to catch up with the winners of the most recent awards, given out in November as part of the regional conference of the World Federation of Rose Societies (the roses generally aren’t named at this stage).

Gold Star of the South Pacific (rose of the year): A red rose bred by David Kenny of Ireland. Mr Kenny is an amateur breeder.

Certificates of Merit: Rob Somerfield of Te Puna won two for two different roses.

Nola Simpson Novelty Award (the first time the award has been given): Chris Warner of England for Bright as a Button, a pink floribunda with a darker centre.

The major results from the national rose show, held at the convention:

Champion of champions decorative miniature: Glowing Amber shown by Derrol and Helen White (Whangarei). Champion of champions large rose: Reflections shown by Janice Walker. The rose was bred by the late Nola Simpson of Palmerston North.

The Groups listing has been updated to reflect the fact that Tauranga has lost its branch of the Cactus and Succulent Society. The group decided to close at the end of last year, demoralised by not being able to attract new, younger members.

Dahlia show

Of the 150 seedlings Te Puke dahlia breeder Peter Burrell starts each year, he normally saves three or four, although last year retained eight.

“I’ve been involved with dahlias for about 25 years,” Peter says. “My wife Val was the keen one, I just drove her to the shows.”

However, it wasn’t long before the former MAF employee decided to use his horticultural knowledge and began his quest to breed new varieties.

“I saw a champions table where 90 per cent of the blooms were white or yellow,” Peter says. “I swore I would never see that happen again and ever since I have been aiming at new colours.”

Peter Burrell with Kotare Noah, named for a grandson and released last year. Photo: Sandra Simpson

He imports breeding stock from England, which costs him something like $200 for six tubers after biosecurity inspections and certification.

Every dahlia breeder in the world adopts a breed prefix and Peter has chosen Kotare (kingfisher). Plants that make it through his selection process are grown for three years and constantly reassessed. The best tubers are released for sale in year four.

He used to lease part of the section next door and had 360 tubers all up but that land stopped being available so Peter has looked to extend the plantings around his home.


Dahlia Rural Fanfare. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Peter, a past president of the national Dahlia Society, formerly co-managed the North Island dahlia trial grounds in Rotorua (now defunct), while Val is the current national treasurer. Son Mark is now the show driver and also helps in the garden which is blooming umbrellas to protect flowers from sun and rain in preparation for the show season, which in the North Island traditionally begins with the Waihi show.

For last year’s Waihi show Peter took along blooms of Hillcrest Candy from England, the first time it had been seen in this country.


Dahlia Hillcrest Candy growing in Peter Burrell’s Te Puke garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Peter is a member of the Hamilton, Rotorua and Te Awamutu dahlia groups after the Bay of Plenty went into recess. “We’re hoping some young ones might come through and it will pick up again,” he says. “It’s all there waiting.”

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

Norfolk Island hibiscus tree

Does it ever happen to you that you see a plant, finally find out its name and then “suddenly” you’re seeing that same plant all over the place? Happens to me all the time.

The latest addition to my gallery of these types of plant is the Norfolk Island hibiscus tree (Lagunaria patersonia). There is one growing right next to the public toilets at the base of Mauao (Mt Maunganui) and when I noticed its pink flowers last summer I resolved to find out what it was … but didn’t, apart from vaguely thinking it might be a ngaio (Myoporum laetum). A quick look at some pictures of ngaio flowers proved that idea wrong.

And it was while looking at the photos I took of the tree by the toilet on Christmas eve this summer that I noticed the very hibiscus-like “stamen”, which helped enormously with Google search terms and I had it quick-snap.

Norfolk Island hibiscus tree (Lagunaria patersonia). Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Lagunaria Page records that: The genus was named in honour of Andres de Laguna (d. 1560), a Spanish botanist (and physician to Pope Julius III), and the species in honour of a Colonel W. Paterson who first sent the seeds of the species to England.

Lagunaria patersonia is native to Norfolk and Lord Howe islands, while Lagunaria bracteata is native to Queensland – and that’s all the Lagunarias there are.

The hibiscus tree also has the common name “pyramid tree”, which gives an idea of its tidy growth habit, as well as “cow itch tree”, apparently thanks to the fine hairs in its seed capsules, although most websites seem to agree that they probably cause more human skin to itch than cow hide.

And now that I know what it is, I have seen Lagunaria patersonia at Te Puna Quarry Park, along Chapel St by the sewage treatment plant, in private gardens …

This link reveals (towards the bottom) that it is “the biggest tree” that is able to be grown on limestone (as well being good in coastal areas).  And here’s some information about its allergen potential.

Just for fun here are some links to information about Norfolk Island (where the pines come from) and Lord Howe Island.

Snow in summer

People just getting into gardening (or even some old hands – you know who you are) often wonder what all the fuss is about botanical names. Why memorise a complicated name in a foreign language (Latin, a dead language at that) when you can use a simple name in English?

Well, here’s a good example of why those pesky botanical names are so important. Both the plants pictured below share the same common name – snow-in-summer.

The tree called snow in summer. Photo: Sandra Simpson

One is a tree that grows to about 8m, the other is a perennial groundcover that grows a few centimetres high. Going into your local garden centre and asking for snow-in-summer may cause some confusion, if not embarrassment.


The groundcover known as snow in summer. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The tree is Melaleuca linariifolia, one of the paperbark family native to Australia, while the groundcover is Cerastium tomentosum and is native to Italy.

I photographed the tree at McLaren Falls Park recently and, intrigued by its fluffy white flowers, came home and did a bit more research. The groundcover was photographed in my own garden – the original plantlet came from a (now-gone) motel in Whitianga where, I am sorry to say, I sneakily pulled a bit out of the garden (I’ve grown up now and don’t do that sort of thing any more, honest).

I’ve found that my grasp of botanical terms is aided by understanding what some of the Latin (or Greek) words mean. Kiwi writer Tony Foster is here to help with his illustrated Botany Word of the Day website (and he has an iPad book available too). The link to Tony’s great website is permanently parked in the right-hand menu under Blogroll.

The second half of the botanical name is often what tells you something about the plant and in the case of our groundcover “tomentosum” reveals that the silvery-grey leaves have lots of fine hairs or are “woolly”. (The first half of the name is the general family the plant belongs to.) A number of plants with hairy silvery-grey leaves have “tomentosum” in their name, for instance Pelargonium tomentosum (peppermint geranium), Eriogonum tomentosum (wild buckwheat) and the seaweed Codium tomentosum.

Interestingly, the poison curare comes from the South American vine, Chodrendron tomentosum, which has a silvery underside to its leaves.

Sometimes though, the botanical names just turn back in on themselves and it’s a question of memorising or writing it down – linariifolia means “with leaves like Linaria” referring to the narrow leaves which resemble those of Linaria (toadflax). Another common name for this tree is flax-leaved paperbark.

The tree really did look as though it had a mantle of snow. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Text and photos copyright Sandra Simpson and may not be reused without permission.

Our native plants: NZ iceplant

When you’re wandering along a seashore this summer you might spot some of our native iceplant (Disphyma austral syn. Mesembryanthemum australe, horokaka) – although it’s easily overlooked if there are any of the louder, brighter non-native iceplants in the vicinity.


Disphyma australe growing at Aramoana in Otago Harbour. The flowers aren’t fully open because it was an overcast day. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The flowers of this creeping groundcover are pink to white and smaller than those of the South African Carpobrotus edulis (described as “unwanted” by Biosecurity NZ). Found around most of the country and the larger offshore islands, it grows on rocky shores, as well as in dune areas and can tolerate a wide range of soils. Apparently our native iceplant isn’t fussy and in some places has hybridised with Carpobrotus edulis.

Lawrie Metcalf in his 2009 book Know Your New Zealand Native Plants (New Holland) records that Maori would squeeze out the juice from horokaka’s succulent-type leaves and apply it to boils and abscesses to reduce inflammation and draw out pus.

The Reverend Richard Taylor wrote in A Leaf from the Natural History of New Zealand in 1847 that ‘This plant produces an insipid fruit which can be eaten, and also the leaves which make a very good pickle’. (Reference source here, and the book appears to be available for free download here.)

Disphyma species are also found in Australia and South Africa.

Text and photos copyright Sandra Simpson and may not be reused without permission.