My first visit to this outstanding UK garden was in the 1980s as it’s not too far from where friends lived in Lancashire so when we found ourselves more or less passing right by it in 2018, we decided it really was worth seeing again.
The site of Levens Hall has been occupied as a family home since 1170, and the land around the home has been developed as several types of garden but most visitors will be here because of the topiary which dates back to the 17th century, making it the oldest in the world!
It’s rather mad topiary though, in that most of the more than 100 pieces are just whatever shape a gardener, at some point in time, has decided to clip. It gives that part of the garden something of an Alice in Wonderland vibe (for me, anyway).
Some of the trees and bushes are 300 years old and the guidebook reveals that the layout of this garden has changed little since its planting in the 1690s. “Then it was really fashionable to have a garden in the Dutch style with clipped greens set in a pattern of formal box-edged flower beds. Fashions changed by the 1730s, however, and most similar gardens were ripped out to make way for the new trend of natural landscaping. Amazingly, this garden survived that purge, was enhanced in the 19th century, and continued through even the economic pressures of the 20th century.”
A gardener told me they’d had box blight in their little edging hedges so had pulled out 1.7km of them, replacing with Japanese holly. But then that developed rot in the fine feeding roots so they researched blight-resistant box and have come up with the ‘John Baldwin’ cultivar (apparently available in New Zealand) which they’re taking thousands of cuttings from. They also mulch the ground, believing it provides an infection barrier when it rains.
The parterre gardens beneath some of the topiary are changed twice a year with more than 15,000 annual bedding plants, all grown on site, used each time. The topiary itself takes months to trim but is done only once a year, starting in September (late summer-early autumn).
She may not have been a household name but Megan Wraight achieved some groundbreaking moments during her career in landscape design, including in 2013 being the first landscape architect to be named as an Arts Foundation Laureate.
Wraight, who died on Monday, is being remembered for her influence on several of the Wellington’s landmark public spaces, and her tenacious, collaborative attitude towards design. Read more here.
Wraight was a pioneer in the creation of dynamic public space: designing spaces that boldly balance the restoration of environment and heritage with the need for people of all ages and backgrounds to explore and creatively play.
Among her designs are the visitor centre at Waitomo Caves and the 6ha urban Waitangi Park on the Wellington waterfront.
The Wellington City Council has a fascinating glimpse into the history of this land: Waitangi Stream once fed an extensive wetland used for centuries by Māori for food-gathering, as a source of fresh water, and as a place to launch waka. European settler plans to turn the stream into a canal ended when the 1855 earthquake lifted the land by 1.5m. After land reclamation, the stream became part of an underground stormwater system. Over the last century the park has been a number of things including the site of a morgue, a bus park and a huge incinerator.
Today, the park park has a large grassed area, skateboard park and an innovative playground, but its most distinctive feature is the re-created wetland – the vegetation and gravels are designed to filter and cleanse the Waitangi Stream, which has been released from its pipe.
On the other side of Te Papa is the well-known Taranaki Jump Platform (named for the old Taranaki Wharf), an award-design by Wraight + Associates that has given so much joy to both jumpers and spectators.
Re-reading information about the The Alnwick Garden in northern England revealed a gem I hadn’t noticed during our summer visit – the cherry orchard with 329 trees is claimed as the largest collection of Taihaku trees in the world. But how could that be? After some enjoyable time following internet rabbit holes, it turned out to be quite a story.
In her 2019 book, The Sakura Obsession, Naoko Abe says that whereas in ancient Japan cherry blooms had been seen as a metaphor for new beginnings, by the 1930s official propaganda had turned the blossoms, which had a short and beautiful life, into a militaristic symbol (click on the link to read an extract).
The trees cultivated had changed over time too, and from the late 19th century, the newly developed Somei-yoshinotrees predominated, thanks to how quickly they grew (from sapling to maturity in about 5 years), ease of propagation, and their beauty with the masses of pale pink flowers appearing before the leaves. Most significantly, it was a cloned variety which meant that all the Somei-yoshino trees bloomed and lost their petals within the same eight days – a startlingly dramatic reminder that millions of citizens could at any time be called upon to sacrifice their lives for the emperor.
Both the navy and the army incorporated Somei-yoshino blossoms into their insignia and, whenever Japan had something to celebrate, this was the only variety planted.
Above: A bird’s eye view of the Taihaku cherry orchard at The Alnwick Garden.
In 1926, English cherry blossom enthusiast Collingwood Ingram (1880-1981) was invited to Japan to give a lecture to the Cherry Blossom Society. While in Japan he met Seisaku Funatsu, an elderly man he described as ‘the fountain-head of cherry lore’, at his home outside Tokyo where he was shown a 120-year-old scroll painting of a particularly prized variety of cherry tree which had been lost to cultivation in Japan. Almost unbelievably, Ingram recognised the tree. His polite host didn’t question this assertion but his doubt was evident.
Ingram also learned that the tree he called Taihaku (big white) was known in Japan as Akatsuki (daybreak/dawn).
Ingram had acquired his tree from two cherry fanciers in Sussex who had first heard about it in 1899 from a grower in Provence, Robin Lane Fox writes. They had then ordered like-sounding trees from Japan. Their own ageing tree was in poor condition but Ingram took pieces for grafting and soon had it growing well.
Unfortunately, the first grafts he sent to Japan arrived dead – killed by heat at the Equator or rotted. Finally, in 1932, he tried pressing the bottom ends of the grafts into cut potatoes and sent them via the trans-Siberian railway, a cooler route than by sea. Success!
The Taihaku tree Ingram helped grow is still flowering in Kyoto and all of the Taihaku in cultivation around the world today are offspring of that one tree in England.
Ms Abe describes Ingram as a cherry-tree colossus for besides saving other varieties from extinction, he also had in his garden in Kent the world’s biggest collection of cherry trees outside Japan, more than 120 varieties, many gathered during that 1926 trip.
He is said to have been the first person in the world to create new varieties by artificial hybridisation, including the Kursar tree, a fusion from northern and southern Japan; and his 1948 book Ornamental Cherries resulted in widespread plantings across Britain. Among the plants named for him is Prunus ‘Collingwood Ingram’, bred from Prunus Kursar. Ingram introduced about 54 new varieties, with 15 receiving the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society
On his death, Ingram’s collection of Japanese art was bequeathed to the British Museum. Read more here, including an ‘entertaining’ account of his driving skills.
The Taihaku cherry tree is available from several nurseries in New Zealand.
Two years ago I was in Europe having the most marvellous time. Which is strange to look back on now, in this year of upheaval and restriction. But I thought, for all of us who are unable or unwilling to leave our own shores for the foreseeable future, it was a good time to share some of the gardens I enjoyed back then.
The Vasa Museum in Stockholm is Scandinavia’s busiest museum – on my first visit in 1982 the warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 was still being preserved and was behind glass with only a walkway on one side for viewing. Now, however, the ship is the centrepiece in a multi-storey gallery, allowing viewing from top to bottom on both sides.
Outside the museum is an interesting small garden, free to visit, that many visitors probably walk straight past. It is laid out as a potager with beds for those vegetables, medicinal plants and flowers grown in early 17th century Sweden by both nobility and peasants. Separate beds were dedicated to hops, linen flax (Linum usitatissimum; also used for its seeds and to make linseed oil) and Virginia tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). No chemical pesticides are used in the garden.
Among the vegetables were broad beans, blue peas (Pisum sativum ssp arvense), onions, white and yellow carrots (Daucus carota ssp sativus; orange carrots came later), cabbages (including red and kale), turnips and Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), or poor man’s asparagus, a vegetable not grown much these days and now more often considered a weed.
Hops were used to flavour beer for the navy and this beer, together with bread and dried peas, were the most important provisions for ships’ crews. A sailor had a monthly pea ration of nine litres!
The barber surgeon prepared herbs to treat the dysentery and scurvy that raged on board, as well as for treating the many injuries that occurred, and the garden includes poppies, rose, lily, sage, mint and tormentil (Potentilla erecta), garlic, St John’s wort, balm and hollyhock.
The Museum has been as authentic as possible when choosing plants for the garden, finding seeds through Swedish Seed Savers, an arm of the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, and tracking a variety of cabbage to a gene bank in St Petersburg, Russia.
Signs dotted around the small garden are full of interesting information gleaned from the period including from a 1660s Swedish housekeeping handbook: “Medicinal plants must be reaped at the proper time. In springtime, when the root is most potent, or in autumn, when everything withers, and strength returns to the root”.
Came across this ‘giant Peruvian daffodil’ last weekend at the Winter Gardens in Auckland. A knowledgeable gardener I was with recognised it and Winter Gardens horticulturalist Nick Lloyd kindly gave us a bit more detail.
Strangely, there are two forms of this bulb – the one that flowers in summer and has a winter dormancy come from above 3000m in The Andes, while this one flowers in winter, has a summer dormancy and is found at sea level. Both are deciduous
It is scented, something like a lily, but on a cool day I detected only a light spicy fragrance, barely there. The large flowers nod on their stems, but if you look into the trumpet, the green markings at the throat can be seen quite clearly.
The stems are about 500cm long and the flower as large as an adult hand (15cm in diameter), so yes, ‘giant’.
The bulb is named for where it comes from in Peru, the coastal area of Paramonga, which has a mild year-round climate (10-26C during the winter-spring growing period). It should be planted deeply to help keep it cool in summer and when dormant is should be almost completely dry.
The next part of its name honours German botanist August Weberbauer (1871-1948) who explored Peru extensively for new plant species, first arriving in 1901.
The bulb, part of the Amaryllidaceae family, was first described for science in 1949, although had been collected in 1874 and again in 1931 (this latter collection by Weberbauer). A 1975 article in the American Horticulturalist magazine describes seeing in 1965 some 500ha of these bulbs blooming in the Peruvian Andes. However, the author had not been able to simultaneously flower large numbers of these bulbs at the same time once they were in pots in the United States. Instead, they behaved more like Hippeastrums with irregular flowering over an extended period. Read the article here.
Returning from a recent driving tour of the central North Island, my invaluable Mobil guidebook by Diana and Jeremy Pope (Reed, 2009) alerted me to Pouakani, the oldest known tōtara (Podocarpus totara) in the country – and so the world – and noted that it was a short walk from the main road and sited within Pureora Forest Park, between Mangakino and Barryville on SH30.
Thought to be about 1800 years old, Pouakani is about 42m tall (measured with a drop tape in 2014) and a girth of a touch over 12m (measured 2018).
I’ll excuse my photo of Pouakani by saying that trees as big as this are always difficult to photograph to give them any meaning in their context, and that the day was very overcast so quite dark.
But there was something else going on too, the least of which was that the track through the bush to the tree was completely unmarked, odd given that the tree supposedly attracts visitors, and we had to do the best we could in figuring out which way to go next – and hoping we’d be successful on the way back too.
Call me over-sensitive, but I had the strongest feeling all the way in and out (20 minutes either way) that we weren’t welcome. Normally, entering the New Zealand bush is a pleasant experience – a feeling of calm resides there. Not this day and not in that place. Over the years I’ve come to trust instincts like this so we turned back with me, at least, sending mental apologies to Tāne Mahuta for whatever we’d infringed.
The Te Ara Encyclopedia of NZ entry for Pouakani says, “Around the base there are fissures and deep cavernous holes which suggest the original ground level is several metres below where you stand… Looking upwards, one sees what could be a bough but in reality is a series of broken-off smaller trunks surrounded with branches, many of which carry vigorous new foliage. A few of these branches have grown vertical again to surpass the broken-off tops of former upper trunks.
“The last major volcanic eruption showered the Pureora district with ash about 1800 years ago, which is the age of Pouakani itself. Various lesser showers would have occurred later, but this part of the Volcanic Plateau seems to have had a more stable recent geological history than the Central Plateau, further south.” Read the full entry, and see a full-length image of the tree.
Tōtara were harvested for the durable, easy-to-work timber by both Māori and, more devastatingly, by European settlers who preferred it for fence posts on farms. It is now grown for timber in sustainable, managed forests.
At the other end of the scale to Pouakani is its cousin the snow tōtara (Podocarpus nivalis), a plant that forms a creeping mat in the mountainous areas it inhabits.
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.
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).
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
This piece, first published in The Bay of Plenty Times, appears with permission.
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’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.
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?”
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.”
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.