Postcard from Melbourne

Melbourne’s weather is notoriously changeable so we were hoping for some respite from the heat and humidity we’ve been experiencing here … not to be, as it was hot, hot, hot in Melbourne too.

Too hot to wander the Royal Botanic Gardens so the best thing to do, we thought, was spend time in air-conditioned shops and buildings. Hurrah then for the National Gallery of Victoria, which has a branch on Federation Square (the Ian Potter Centre). We’ve seen the indigenous art before but it’s so interesting that we happily visited again.

What does this have to do with gardening? The photos I’ve chosen all incorporate plant life in them somehow. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Stringybark gum (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) trunks, painted. The gum’s bark is also used as a canvas (see below). Photo: Sandra Simpson

‘Para’ by Kunmanara Pompey (also known as Tali Tali, Pompey c1947-2011) shows the trunks of ghost gums and desert gums. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read a short biography of the artist (a woman).

The name “ghost gum” can be applied to several trees but the tag with the painting identified these as Corymbia papuana (Eucalyptus papuana). Ghost gums shed their bark to show the white trunk underneath, hence the common name.

Desert gums (called Para by the local tribes) are also known as Marble gums. In this image you can see some of the mottling the artist has depicted.

In the 1970s Nyapanyapa Yunupingu was attacked by a buffalo in a wild apple orchard. Here is a painting of the orchard done on the bark of a stringybark gum. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read more about Nyapanyapa Yunupingu here. And here is a description of how the bark is taken from the tree (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) and turned into a surface for painting. E. tetrodonta and E. miniata are also the most commonly used woods to make didgeridoo.

Also in the gallery is a collection of 19th and 20th century Australian art. On show are paintings, furniture, silverware … and this gorgeous thing:

An Olga Munro ‘lounging robe’ with hand-embroidered wisteria. The donor’s great-aunt travelled to Sydney for the opening of the Harbour Bridge in 1932 and it’s thought this was bought then. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Olga Munro was an active fashion designer in Sydney from 1926-42. Go here to see a similar kimono-style robe and some embroidery detail. (The blog was started by Munro’s great-granddaughters but hasn’t been updated since 2013.)

On the road: The Herb Farm

Having a herb-based business is “80 per cent fabulous and 20 per cent challenging”, according to Lynn Kirkland, founder of The Herb Farm at Ashhurst in Manawatu.

“We were regarded as a bit alternative when we started 21 years ago,” she says, “and there was certainly a period of resistance about healing from a garden but now people are thirsting for it.”

Monarda didyma, commonly known as bergamot or scarlet beebalm. The plant is a North American native and its flowers and leaves are used for tea, although it is no relation to bergamot orange that flavours Earl Grey tea. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Lynn says the business, which includes a 0.8ha show garden, marries her teaching background, love of gardening and herbal knowledge. “I didn’t see having a clinic as my future,” she says of her herbalist training. “I love working with plants on a practical, first aid level, things that are good for the family.”

Family is a big part of The Herb Farm with Lynn handing over as managing director to daughter Sarah Cowan, while she concentrates on research and development, taking groups round the garden, doing her share of gardening and caring for Sarah’s young son while his mum works.

Although the plants used in the company’s products are grown off site, the  garden gives visitors some idea of the ingredients used. “It’s the essence of what is in our products,” says Lynn, who lives next door to the garden.

A butterfly enjoys a valerian flower. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“The Manawatu clay has been challenging,” Lynn says. “The herbs have to work hard to grow so we know they’re high in phytochemicals and essential oils. There’s an intensity of scent in the flowers that you don’t always get in easier soils.

“Manawatu is fabulous for growing. We get distinct seasons. I love our gardens in the winter when there’s not so much looking for your attention.”

There’s a distinct sense of fun at work in the garden – lots of things for children to find and enjoy. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Visitor comments about weeds are met with a smile. “Some, like dandelions, are wild herbs but people aren’t used to seeing them in a garden,” Lynn says.

“This is a very self-caring garden – it isn’t watered in dry spells but is mulched – so sometimes it will be a bit messy but we get help from nature, like the thrushes who take care of the snails for us.”

  • The Herb Farm, Grove Road, Ashhurst (near Palmerston North), open daily 10am-4pm, includes a café doing good food and shop. For more information see the website or phone 06 326 8633. There is a small charge to enter the garden.

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

Dahlia delight

Twenty-one years ago Jennifer Chappell, a founding member of the Waihi Dahlia Club, was given some dahlia tubers and enjoyed the plants so much she asked a club member to spend $30 for her on a range of varieties and colours.

“From then on I was hooked,” she says. “I’ve met lots of nice people and made lots of nice friends through dahlias and our club.”

Jennifer Chappell in her Waihi garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Jennifer will be busy on Friday (January 16) at the annual Waihi Dahlia Club show, hoping her carefully tended flowers will catch the eyes of the judges.

“The Waihi show is the first for the season so we always get good entries,” Jennifer says. “People are raring to go. It’s a lot of fun because we all grow the same sort of flowers so it’s whoever has the right flower at the right time. Sometimes the judges  get into the nitty-gritty to award a prize.

“I’ve won prizes at national level but I haven’t got the top award – yet.”

Dahlia Rhanna Tammy is classed as a giant flower. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Jennifer has umbrellas over her show plants to protect from damaging sun and rain but says that, apart from show preparation which includes disbudding stems so they carry larger flowers, dahlias are an easy plant to grow.

“They’re one of the longest-flowering summer plants you can have,” she says. “If the tubers are left in the ground they can start flowering in late October and go right through to the first frosts in May.

Dahlia Lauren Michele is a waterlily type. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“Dahlias do well on a regular dose of general garden fertiliser and they like a bit of manure now and again, water when it’s dry and they’ll flower better if you dead-head them, but that’s it. No spraying – they’re a lot less work than roses.”

Taller varieties are best staked and tied, Jennifer says, but there are also miniature and smaller types suitable as border edging or for growing in containers.

Dahlia Sweetheart is a low-growing ‘border’ dahlia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

And while Jennifer gardens on a double-size section in Waihi, she says her numerous dahlias – she thinks she has about 150 plants – don’t actually take up much room.

She lifts all her tubers each winter, divides any that are ready, and has them all replanted by Labour Weekend.

Read some tips for growing great dahlias in New Zealand and some more here.

  • Waihi Dahlia Show, Friday, January 16, 12.30pm-3pm, Waihi Memorial Hall, Seddon St, free admission; includes plant sales. See a map here. Inquiries to Jennifer Chappel.

Parts of this article were first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appear here with permission.

Our native plants: Giant umbrella sedge

I’ve been seeing Cyperus ustulatus around wetland areas in Tauranga for a few years, but was never sure if it was a “desirable” native or a self-seeded weed, maybe a member of the papyrus family.

Turns out I wasn’t far wrong! A profile of the plant on the Tiritiri Matangi website reveals that it is a cousin to Egyptian papyrus and also known as coastal cutty grass.

The clumps are used as habitat by lizards and ground-nesting birds. And yes, the leaves are sharp edged so a planting of these is a horticultural “keep out” sign that is well heeded.

Cyperus ustulatus. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Maori call it upoko-tangata and used the leaves as an outer thatching for their whare (dwellings); or, stripped of their sharp edges, for weaving mats and baskets and for kite making. An upoko-tangata kite featured on a set of matariki (Maori new year) stamps in 2010, given the $2.30 value.

Olga Adams in a 1945 article for the Auckland Botanical Society Bulletin noted that in North Auckland districts the pith was boiled with water, strained and bottled and used to ease kidney trouble.

The word upoko means “head” while tangata is “people” so perhaps Cyperus ustulatus got its te reo name from its use as a thatching material.

As a garden plant, this one comes with a warning as this website notes: “Easily grown from fresh seed, and often self sows in gardens. A quite attractive plant now popular in cultivation. However it should be planted with caution, the leaf, margins are very sharp and can cause very deep cuts.”

It prefers damp areas (hence all the wetland planting), full sun and doesn’t mind a touch of frost. It is described as “vigorous” and certainly looks it.

On the road: Zealong Tea Estate

The perfect cup:

  • Warm the teapot with hot water then empty before putting in the leaves
  • Zealong Pure should be made with water just boiling, the others with water at a rolling boil
  • Oolong leaves can be used up to eight times (for a small pot) – the second and third brews are judged the best as the leaves are “awake”
  • Black tea leaves can be used four times
  • Do not stir or mash the tea leaves, this releases bitter tannins
  • To make oolong iced tea, let the tea cool in the fridge for a few hours and mix with sparkling water
  • Enough tea is drunk annually to reach to the Moon and back 12 times.

Paddock to plate doesn’t get much better than at Zealong Tea Estate near Hamilton in New Zealand where visitors can drink tea made from the bushes surrounding the tea house.

Taiwanese immigrant Tzu Chen suggested to his son Vincent that tea might grow well in the Waikato region after seeing a thriving camellia shrub in his neighbour’s garden and, like any good Kiwi, Vincent decided to give it a go.

In 1999 he went to Taiwan and collected 1500 cuttings from Camellia sinensis, the Chinese tea bush (Indian tea is made from Camellia assamica) which then went into MAF quarantine.

Ten months later there were only 133 plants but, thanks to the help of plant experts, by 2003 Vincent Chen had 4ha of thriving tea bushes. Six years later he opened the Zealong Tea Estate where today there are 1.2 million tea bushes on 48ha.

Zealong guide Grace Linton prepares tea for a Taiwanese tasting ceremony. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Only the top three leaves of a stem are used to make tea – they are the closest to the sun, therefore the most nutritious and flavoursome. The leaves start to wilt immediately so the process to dry the leaves begins quickly.

Plants are harvested in November, January and March, although the March picking in 2013 was cancelled because of drought.

“The plants need a lot of moisture,” Zealong guide Grace Linton says, “and that’s why tea-growing areas are also high rainfall areas. It’s more of a challenge here but we have our famous fog and the bushes seem to like that, plus we have that all-important difference between the day and night temperatures.

“In Asia tea is grown up to 2500m – here in Hamilton we’re 40m above sea level.”

The dam on the property could be used for irrigation in an emergency but holds only enough water for three days. Instead, the water is used for frost protection.

About 20 tonnes of tea are produced annually and made into four types – Pure, Aromatic and Dark (all oolong) and Black. The four types of tea all come from C. sinesis, it’s the processing that creates the differences.

Tea pickers at work. Many in this group were from Cambodia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“Oolong is the most complicated to make,” Grace says. “The leaves are rolled into balls and as they are repeatedly infused with hot water, the balls unroll a little more each time. It’s beautiful to see the leaf unfurl.” Oolong means “black dragon” as the unfurling was likened to a dragon waking up.

Grace also explains the origin of the word “tea” – if the product was moved overland to be sold it was called “tea”, whereas if it was moved by sea it was known as “cha” – and adds that tea is the second-most popular drink in the world, after water.

Twenty percent of the estate’s pickers come from overseas with the women helping train local employees. They wear small blades on their fingertips so they can work quickly and cause as little damage to the plant as possible.

High tea at Zealong includes all sorts of delicious tea-flavoured treats – highly recommended. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Zealong also has its own “tea master”, Ming-Hsun Yu, who is the processing manager and who, Grace says, works by “sense”. The company, which is becoming organically certified, is ISO22000 certified, unique among tea producers, and is able to claim to be the world’s purest tea. Harrod’s department store in London began stocking Zealong tea last month.

  •  Zealong Tea Estate is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm. Tours can be combined with High Tea, other meals also available. Bookings essential. For more information see the website or phone 0800 932 5664.

This article was originally published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission. It has been expanded.

Award for Hamilton Gardens

Hamilton Gardens has won the 2014  International Garden of the Year award from the annual Garden Tourism Conference, last year held in France.

The conference’s Garden Tourism Awards are presented to organisations and individuals who have distinguished themselves in the development and promotion of the garden experience as a tourism attraction. See the full list of winners here.

The gardens, on the outskirts of the city, are always worth a visit – and with five new gardens planned (the Tropical Garden is the first to have opened, that took place last year, with the Tudor Garden well under way and the Chinoiserie planted) in four years there is plenty going on to draw repeat visitors.


The new Tropical Garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson


The sculptures in the Tudor Garden are by Anneke Bester, who lives near Auckland and has worked for the ruling family of Dubai. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read more about Anneke Bester here.