Plant a tree: Mountain lacebark

Winter is optimum time to plant trees, so how about this deciduous New Zealand native? Hoheria lyallii, found naturally only in the eastern part of the South Island, and the dryer parts at that, comes into its own in summer and autumn when it covers itself in cherry blossom-type flowers that bees adore.

Hoheria lyallii, or mountain lacebark. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The ever-reliable Laurie Metcalfe writes that the tree grows and flowers well in cultivation and will succeed in almost any well-drained soil with plenty of added compost and mulch. “Being a tree of the forest margins and open country, it will grow well in full sun or light shade.”

In the garden Hoheria lyallii will grow to 3-4m tall (up to 6m in the wild) and may be more spreading than in nature. Both Metcalfe and Muriel Fisher mention that it may be only semi-deciduous in Auckland. Apparently, it’s very like H. glabrata which grows on the wetter, western side of the South Island.

The botanical name for the tree, part of the mallow family, uses the Māori name houhere and that of David Lyall, who found it in the back country of Canterbury. Lyall (1817-1895) was a Scottish naturalist and surgeon with the Royal Navy, who explored Antarctica, New Zealand, the Arctic and North America, and was a lifelong friend of Sir Joseph Hooker.

The common name refers to the laced fibre of the inner bark (the tree was called ‘thousand jacket’ by early European settlers).

There are seven species in the family. Read more here.

Alive with possibilities

“A park with reading material,” is how volunteer gardener Susan describes the historic Te Henui Cemetery in New Plymouth, a place where she spends many hours every week.

The tidy plantings are a far cry from how the cemetery looked even 5 years ago, Susan says. She started work there 11 years ago and for 7 years was the only volunteer. “You can imagine how much of an impact I made,” she laughs. “I decided to just do what I could and not worry about the rest.

“We’re all a bit obsessed,” Susan says of the four volunteer gardeners – Susan, Mary, Nick and Susan’s husband Rob – who turn up every day, putting an average of 300-400 hours a month. “If it’s wet I stay in bed, otherwise the exercise is too good to miss.”

Susan and Rob at work in the cemetery. Photo: Sandra Simpson

There are a few casual volunteers too, while the council provides lawn-mowing, arborists and green waste removal.

Susan found the cemetery, which is in the central part of New Plymouth, by accident, wanting to know what her then-college-aged son was doing there for an art project. “Like so many people in New Plymouth, I had never been here. But it’s an absolutely fascinating place – so many stories on the headstones and so many that leave you wondering what happened.”

A colourful couple of plots. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The first burial in the 9.7ha site dates from 1861 and by the 1950s there were only a few plots left for relatives of those already buried there. From 1984 the cemetery was planted with a wide variety of trees, courtesy of the council’s parks director Alan Jellyman, a keen plantsman.

Those trees today provide the bones for the work the volunteers do, including planting to provide colour at all times of the year, even in midwinter. “It’s not tasteful,” Susan says. “And there’s no plan. It’s supposed to be something like a granny’s garden, lots of plants and lots of colour – and if we don’t like something, out it comes.”

Rosemary surrounds this headstone. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Volunteers scatter seeds, divide bulbs and take cuttings. They’re sometimes gifted plants by garden groups, they purchase some and the council also provides some.

“It’s easy in Taranaki to have good spring and summer colour,” Susan says, “but we’re getting there with autumn and winter now too.”

This kererū was one of several feasting on a lillypilly tree. They were flicking the berries off so occasionally the photographer got pelted! Photo: Sandra Simpson

The odd swan plant has made its way into the plantings and Susan raises caterpillars over the summer, bringing them to the cemetery in chrysalis form. “We want people to change their perception of the place – this is a cemetery that’s alive with birds, bees and butterflies.”

Te Henui Cemetery has been in two Taranaki Garden Festivals and Susan was pleased to hear the volunteers had inspired visitors from another town to tackle their historic cemetery.

Abraham Walley (Wali) Mahomed Salaman (1885–1941), an India-born herbalist, was buried in a large Islamic-style tomb that at the time cost about as much as an average home. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Burials at the cemetery include Frederic Carrington (1807–1901), a surveyor and draughtsman who chose the site for New Plymouth; Monica Brewster (1886–1973), a women’s rights advocate, and founder of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery; Lieutenant Bamber Gascoigne, his wife Annie, and their three children aged between five and one – killed during the NZ Wars in 1869; and Muriel, Kathleen and Gordon, ‘Grannie’s Darlings’. Every one a story.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

On the shady side …

Looking back through my archives, I found this piece which is still worth posting even though Debbie and Lee Miller, who operated Millhenge Ferns for 25 years, closed the business in 2013.

They’re one of the most ancient plants on the planet with fossil evidence dating back some 400 million years but longevity isn’t translating into popularity for ferns which seem to have fallen out of favour with gardeners.

“I think we take ferns for granted,” Debbie says. “They’re in the background in this country all the time, whether it’s ponga species or ground ferns.”

Ponga frond. Photo: Sandra Simpson

At its peak the nursery offered 35 varieties of fern, including exotic species, but the year before it closed was growing about 25 varieties, all native and including four tree ferns – Cyathea dealbata (silver fern), Cyathea medullaris (black tree fern or mamaku) and two wheki types, Dicksonia fibrosa and Dicksonia squarrosa.

“People tend to lump all the ponga together and think there’s only one or two,” Debbie says, “but there are about 12 commercially available and each one is different. Tree ferns are great for adding height to a garden without adding much shade.”

Shady areas are where ferns come into their own – the south side of a house, an often wasted garden space, is tailor-made for ferns, according to Debbie.

“They don’t like to be in the dark but most do need shade from heavy sun, although some will tolerate even that.”

The only must-have is a damp root system. “If that is sorted they can put up with a lot on top,” Debbie says. “If you mulch them and keep the roots happy you can grow them in full sun.

Hen and chickens fern (Asplenium bulbiferum), a plant that produces spores as well as plantlets on its graceful fronds. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“Ferns are especially good in the Western Bay because they give a tropical look to a garden without being hard to grow – Asplenium oblongifolium, for instance, is very glossy, while Asplenium haurakiensis is very finely serrated.”

Ferns don’t flower, instead setting seed, called spores on “fertile” fronds – the spores are distributed by wind but need to land on a damp surface for germination to take place.

The fertile fronds tend to go “off” once the spores have been released but apart from perhaps tidying these, the plants need little maintenance.

Fertile fronds on Microsorum pustulatum (hound’s tongue), a fern that thrives in the driest of spots. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This piece, first published in The Bay of Plenty Times, appears with permission.

Walking the permaculture talk

When Catherine Dunton-McLeod left her job as an image consultant in San Francisco to follow her heart to New Zealand she had no idea that her future held gumboots, compost and seed saving. “I was a city girl who’d never grown anything,” she confesses.

Catherine Dunton-McLeod and her dog Heidi in the new herb garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Catherine’s husband, Kiwi Neville Dunton-McLeod, wanted to return home so Catherine, also a trained acupuncturist and holder of a master’s degree in Oriental medicine, prepared for a new phase of her life. Initially, the couple lived in Tauranga but Neville began to ponder their personal resilience in times of upheaval and in 2011, after a 4-year search, the couple purchased a 4.1ha property at Whakamarama, in the foothills of the Kaimai Range.  

To prepare Catherine had been doing courses in “anything I could about growing” and while visiting Hamilton Gardens spotted the “superb” permaculture model garden – and a flyer for the APW permaculture course in Auckland. She and Neville enrolled, making the 410km round trip 12 times to complete their Permaculture Design Certificates which in 2014 led to them establishing Plenty Permaculture and sharing permaculture design with others.

Courses begin in May, after the harvest, and from last year, as well as a 12-month Permaculture Design Certificate, Plenty Permaculture has also started offering Gardening Essentials, a year-long series of courses run either on-site or, in 2020, online, that include propagation, soils, pests and diseases, and fruit-tree pruning.

Silvia Maffra harvests organic salad greens. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The couple share 0.14ha of their land with Brazil-born Silvia Maffra, whom Catherine met at a cob-building workshop. Silvia, who owns Abundant Backyard organic market garden, uses rainwater or creek water for irrigation and has embraced the property’s ethos with his harvester for leafy greens – powered by a cordless drill charged off solar power.

“Some of our tools are made by the Crafty Gatherer in the Pāpāmoa Hills,” Catherine says, “but one time Silvia wanted a particular weeder so made one on site with strapping wire, rubber from an old tyre and a bamboo pole our neighbours grew, which is perfect permaculture –  see what’s needed and make it from what’s available.”

Having a diversity of ages and use on a property is another permaculture key – Silvia grows veges, Catherine teaches and grows fruit (and has last year oversaw major house renovations) and Neville, when he finishes paid employment, will look after stock on the 3.2ha that’s now leased for grazing, employing holistic grazing techniques.

“There are simple permaculture ideas that a lot of people probably use, such as putting your vege and herb garden near the kitchen,” Catherine says, “but other things may take some working out which is why permaculture says ‘small and slow’ – don’t go too big too fast and make big mistakes.

“The first step is to understand the people who live on the land.  How do they really want to live in their heart of hearts, and how might living on this property bring that about?”

Teaching tools are deliberately low-tech. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Then it’s about observing and understanding your property, whether it’s a backyard or a farm. “By looking with both a scientific eye – for rainfall, prevailing winds, sunlight, soil, etc – and an intuitive ear for what wants to happen, such as curving a straight path to make a daily walk more charming, you’ll have much more success.”

Permaculture also aims to create “closed loop” systems that are waste-free. For example: Grow a food plant from seed, harvest its produce, let it go to seed, collect the seed and compost the plant to enrich the soil for the next growing season. “As you scale up, closed loop systems start to require design nous and sometimes it’s just not possible but you shouldn’t sweat that,” Catherine says.

Her dog, Heidi, for instance, isn’t a closed loop – yet. “She catches rats and mice, is an alarm for us and a companion. But until Neville has time to care for cattle we have to buy in her food.”

Nothing goes to waste in a ‘closed loop’. After Catherine stewed apples for preserving, the peelings and cores went to compost or cows. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The sloping site has required retaining walls and Catherine has used rocks from a nearby quarry – herbs have gone in pockets between the rocks, which hold heat and release it into the night. A wooden wall, by contrast, would have been barren and “treated with all kinds of stuff” to make it groundproof.

She’s also pleased with the solution to time spent on summer watering by making her own wicking beds.

“A simple solution for a small garden with a thirsty plant is to cut the bottom off a plastic bottle and bury the neck end close to the roots,” Catherine says. “You’re probably saving water and you know it’s going where it needs to be  – and you’ve created the solution with something you had to hand.”

She acknowledges complete self-sufficiency would be difficult in suburbia but says neighbours could work together. “One might grow veges, one might look after chooks and one could have fruit trees – and everyone works, shares and enjoys.” Retrosuburbia, a new book by David Holmgren, has a wealth of suggestions for suburbanites.

“We all sit in our own homes with our own stuff when a lot of the time what people want is to connect meaningfully with others. Permaculture is about the interaction of a whole series of natural systems that include everything from humans to the billions of critters that live in our soils.”

  • Permaculture was developed in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as a response to environmental destruction. It prefers low-tech solutions, aims to reduce stress on the environment (including humans) and approaches each piece of land as unique. Permaculture seeks things that have more than one function – for instance, a creeping plant should go next to a small tree that can provide support. Work with nature, not against it.

This article was first published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission.