Recent Plant Honours

Chelsea Flower Show’s Plant of the Year for 2019 is Sedum takesimense Atlantis, discovered as a sport (naturally occurring hybrid) by Hortech’s Dave Mackenzie, who specialises in plants for ground cover, green roofs and walls, in a nursery on the shores of Lake Michigan.

It’s the first time in 10 years that a variegated plant has won the top honour. Sedum takesimense grows only on Ulleungdo Island (Squid Island), a volcanic outcrop 150km off the coast of South Korea. This is not a desert plant and it won’t take full sun in hot climates.

Runner-up to the low-growing sedum with yellow flowers was the hybrid foxglove Digitalis x valinii Firebird with “90cm high flowering spikes of warm reddish-pink with apricot tones”. Bred by UK plantsman John Fielding, Firebird is more winter hardy and generally a stronger garden plant than previous varieties

In third place was a miniature agapanthus, Fireworks which has flowers that are blue at the base and white on the ends. Fireworks is said to be the first reblooming evergreen bicoloured agapanthus in the world! In 2008 Quinton Bean and Andy De Wet from De Wet Plant Breeders in South Africa germinated 12,000 seeds and in 2010 picked out Fireworks because it was already showing its first flowers.

The three plants were honoured from a shortlist of 20. See photos of the winners here.

The rose Knock Out – hybridised by William Radler of the US and introduced in 2000 – was last year inducted into the Hall of Fame of the World Federation of Rose Societies.

Blooming every 5-6 weeks, from spring to frost, it creates a stunning show of cherry red flowers that do well in most climates. “The Knock Out roses are the most disease-resistant on the market,” the notes with the rose say. “All of the Knock Out roses are self-cleaning so there is no need to deadhead.” See the Hall of Fame here.

Last year Britons voted for their Tree of the Year in each of the four countries. Here are the results.

Each year the National Garden Bureau in the US designates various ‘Year of’ categories. For 2019 it’s the Year of the Snapdragon (annual); Year of the Dahlia (bulb); Salvia nemorosa (perennial) and Year of the Pumpkin (edible).

Chelsea Flower Show 2019

The Best in Show at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show in London has attraced the usual sort of controversy – too green and not enough flowers! It wouldn’t be Chelsea without some disagreement, though, would it?

Designer Andy Sturgeon – one of Britain’s top garden designers – says of his 2m x 1m Gold medal garden: “Inspired by nature’s power to regenerate, this woodland landscape will be interspersed with stone platforms and huge burnt timber sculptures representing natural rock formations. Populated by pioneering plants and jewel-like flowers, the landscape has been colonised by trees, ferns, primordial horsetails (Equisetum) and restios giving the garden an ancient quality.” See the planting plan here. Read what the naysayers think (although the author still likes the garden). Another Gold went to the Resilience garden, celebrating the Forestry Commission’s centenary, which also won the Best Construction award for the Show Garden category.

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Above: The Savills and David Harber Garden won the show’s only Bronze medal. Pictured are garden designer Andrew Duff and sculptor David Harber.

Designer Chris Beardshaw tried to get real about sustainability – a lot of money and effort is spent creating these gardens that are then demolished after a few days. He used an electric-powered excavator and grew plants in recyclable (non-plastic) pots. He has taken home one of the 12 Gold medals awarded this year. Read about some of the trends spotted at this year’s show.

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Above: The Art of the Viking garden and its firewood wall. No idea why ‘Picasso’ was there!

Other Gold medal gardens include The Art of the Viking garden, all about wetlands and water meadows and including a magnificent garden wall made from stacked firewood; Beyond the Screen, a coastal-theme garden, features plants from New Zealand, Scotland, Mexico and New England (which sounds like an unlikely combination) but this also won its category (Best Space to Grow) and the Best Construction award for its category; and two Asian-theme gardens also took Gold – one with a Japanese theme and the other with a Chinese medicine theme. The Best Artisan Garden is Family Monsters. See all the winning gardens here.

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Above: ‘Granny’ and Wills visit the garden co-created by the Duchess of Cambridge. While giving Chelsea marvellous publicity this year, it was unplaced.

Please note that I can access only those Getty images from Chelsea which are free to use, hence the lack of photos of the winning gardens – hopefully they will be added to the ‘free list’ soon. At present it’s a lot of ‘celebs’ on the opening evening.

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Chihuly Garden and Glass

In 2012 Dale Chihuly, one of North America’s most respected glass artists, realised his dream of a hometown museum for his work – with, as he always intended, the exhibition flowing into a surrounding, living garden.

Mille Fiori (2003, Italian for ‘A Thousand Flowers’) was inspired by memories of his mother’s garden. About 20m long, the installation takes up a whole room. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Built at the base of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the museum section of Chihuly Garden and Glass is linked to the outdoors by a double-height 30m-long pavilion known as The Glasshouse. This contains a suspended sculpture of large glass flowers, comprising about 1340 individual pieces – one of his largest suspended sculptures.    

Part of the suspended floral art in The Glasshouse. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Chihuly, by the way, hasn’t been a glassmaker for a while. He lost the sight in his left eye in 1976 after a car crash in England and had to give up full control of his glass-making due to loss of depth perception, becoming a team director. Then, just 3 years later, he dislocated a shoulder while body surfing, and lost the ability to gaffer his work. Since then he’s made drawings to show what he wants and others blow the glass for him.

The garden is built in the shadow of the city’s futuristic symbol, the Space Needle. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Seattle museum’s outdoor garden is also a work of art in terms of its plantings, colour schemes, texture and year-round interest – all carefully chosen to complement the glass art, which has been made thicker and heavier to cope with being outside.

Seattle has a typical maritime climate – wet and cold in winter (but not too cold and, more importantly, no snow) and dry and hot in summer (but not too hot).

Staff gardener Rachel Millard, who was quietly working in the garden during my visit and who landscape designer Richard Hartlage calls “one of the most talented gardeners” he’s ever worked with, had a rocky start when plant growth was affected by the soil which had been compacted during the building’s construction. The solution was a dose of mechanical aerating and today the garden is floriferous enough to attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees.

A 500-year-old log of Western red cedar, collected from the nearby Olympia Peninsula, is a feature of the garden. The daisy is Osteospermum ‘Blue Eyed Beauty’. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Hartlage says the only dictate from Chihuly was that plant material should not exactly match the colour of an artwork nor completely contrast with it, which means subtle colour combinations pleasing to the eye. Hartlage has been quoted as saying that five and seven changes of colour were wanted in each square foot of bed.

Snapdragons, dahlias and coloured flax with candy-striped orange glass. Photo: Sandra Simpson

There’s also a small bed of the Dale Chihuly rose, the petals of which are streaked yellow and orange to resemble the master’s own use of colour.

Released in 2004, the Dale Chihuly rose was bred by Tom Carruth , one of America’s most successful rose breeders (Fourth of July, Scentimental and Absolutely Fabulous). Tom is now curator of the Rose Collection at the Huntington Library & Botanical Garden, near Los Angeles. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Leading the eye … and the feet!

I don’t have many paths in my garden but I very much like the idea of how a path leads the body and mind on a small, mysterious journey – a path in a garden makes us want to follow it to find out what’s at the other end.

This woodland path at Wairere Nursery is part of a pond-side path. There was nothing in particular at the end but it was a pleasant place to be on a hot day. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Wairere Nursery, near Gordonton in Waikato, is a fun place to visit as the owners – Lloyd Houghton and Harry Janssen – live right next door and open their own garden to customers for ideas, inspiration and sheer enjoyment. They have been developing the 3ha site (which had some serious weed issues when they bought it) for almost 30 years.

It’s all about wanting to go round the next corner. Clipped hedges aren’t really my thing but I always admire them in the gardens of others – someone at Wairere had done a fine job. Photo: Sandra Simpson

If you’re planning a trip to England, be sure to factor in at least one of the famous gardens – a visit to an acknowledged long-established, well-tended garden is heaven! Last year we made definite plans to take in a couple and added a couple more when we realised how close we were going to be and regretted not a moment spent at any of them.

Further pre-trip research will help you decide whether a National Trust Touring Pass is a sensible purchase (note that English Heritage is a different organisation and has a separate pass). We should have bought an NT pass, but didn’t … and then visited more properties than we thought we would, so ended up paying more than necessary in entry and parking fees. Many gardens are, of course, privately owned but a surprising number fall into one of the two categories above.

The hazel arch at Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire, a National Trust property. Photo: Sandra Simpson
The long border at Levens Hall (Cumbria) and a path through two hedges to … an irresistible path! Photo: Sandra Simpson

Japanese garden pathways are masterful efforts of understatement, while subtly making a statement!

A bridge made of two stone slabs in Rikugien Garden in Tokyo adds the fascination of a mid-bridge step-change. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Or what about this tempting ‘bridge’ of stepping stones in the Heian Shrine Garden, Kyoto? Photo: Sandra Simpson

Rare bulb flowers

One of the rarest bulbs in cultivation is Worsleya rayneri (also known as Worsleya procera), the Empress of Brazil. A very green-fingered gardener in Omokoroa, near Tauranga, has recently had it in flower but says she doesn’t do anything special to encourage it.

Worsleya rayneri in flower in an Omokoroa garden. Photo: Barry Curtis

Jean Richardson has a garden full of interesting plants, and this one is no exception. In fact, she has two sets of bulbs, both sourced from Auckland plantsman Terry Hatch (Joy Plants). “My mother bought the first one about 30 years ago and she had that for 10 years but unfortunately didn’t live long enough to see it flower,” Jean says. She took that bulb on and the very next year it came into bloom – and has been flowering ever since.

Abbie Jury has written that it took her bulbs 13 years to come into flower, so not a plant for the impatient. The largest plant in the Amaryllis family, Worsleya rayneri is unfortunately disappearing rapidly in Brazil, according to the Strange Wonderful Things website.

Jean later bought her own Worsleya rayneri bulb, so has two tubs of them. She keeps the bulbs in a warm spot “under a roof”, either in the open end of a shed or under eaves.

This year the mother plant in the tub pictured above had 10 trumpets on one stem while the ‘pup’ that’s pictured had 5 trumpets. “I had one large bulb that never flowered,” Jean says, “but it made lots of little plantlets so I took them all off – but it killed the main bulb. So that was a hard lesson learned. Apparently, you can take one or two of the pups off, but not the whole lot.”

In their native Brazil, the bulbs grow on steep granite cliffs (ie, well drained), fully exposed to wind, rain and sun, and constantly subjected to mist from waterfalls. It produces large clusters of gorgeous lilac-blue flowers, speckled mauve within, blooming in mid-summer on stems up to 1.5m tall with flowers lasting up to 10 days if not pollinated. Read more at the Pacific Bulb Society website. Tauranga plantsman Bill Dijk notes that Worsleya rayneri is very exacting in its requirements, which makes it rare in cultivation.

Jean has read all this but modestly describes her own care of the bulbs as minimal, feeding and watering them “when I’m passing or remember to”. They get a handful of what everything else gets, generally blood and bone or Nitrophoska Blue. “Occasionally I’ll throw water over them to try and mimic nature and so far, it hasn’t done them any harm.” When the bulbs are almost in flower, she moves the tubs more into the open.

The book, Bulbs for NZ Gardeners and Collectors by Jack Hobbs and Terry Hatch, recommends watering sparingly in winter, gradually increasing moisture as temperatures rise until flooding regularly in midsummer before the bulbs flower in late summer. “This will produce rapid growth and one, occasionally two, flower spikes per bulb.” An annual application of acid fertiliser in spring is recommended.

Established plants will produce a few offshoots each year but these are slow growing. Root rot can be a problem if the bulbs get too wet in winter and the greater bulb fly will hollow out larger bulbs causing them to produce offsets but reducing flower production.