What can we do?

Most New Zealanders are getting it – unless you’re an essential services worker stay at home. That does not mean going for a drive to the beach, even if you don’t get out! Take exercise in your neighbourhood and really, why wouldn’t you? It’s so pleasant without traffic. Stay 2m away from anyone not in your ‘bubble’. We often see people we know on our walks and stop and chat – social contact is important – but we all keep that 2m distance. And big thanks to the joggers who move out into the road and give us a 2m berth as we stay on the footpath. Everyone’s smiling!

While we’re being grateful … the neighbourhood is rich with tui song as they return to the big banksia trees along our block, and the dogs are quiet because their owners are home all day. I often wonder if people who own dogs and then leave the house for at least 8 hours a day, 5 days a week realise what noise polluters their pets are! (Says someone who always works at home and is surrounded by three barking dogs.)

I’ve spent the first full week of lockdown at my desk. Yes, the Escape! festival in Tauranga due to take place at Queen’s Birthday Weekend has been cancelled but the festival team has been working hard to produce an ‘arts at home’ programme for lockdown – the first step is replaying audio from the 2018 Escape!. If you couldn’t make it now’s the chance to enjoy some stimulating and fun conversations.

There will be regular posts through the week and starting next weekend we’re adding a surprise package in time for Easter starring some local arts supporters. Keep up with the conversations at the Tauranga Arts Festival website (also on social media).

Seed collected from our tasty Italian flat runner beans. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Yes, the garden awaits. The Vege Grower has been planting some seedlings, collecting bean seed for next year, and doing a bit of tidying, all the while still working fulltime from the spare bedroom. Lawnmowing Son has been mowing, trimming and weeding, and he’s working fulltime doing ungodly night-shifts at a supermarket. So I’d better up my game this week!

In fact, it’s probably never been a better time to start a vege garden or a flower garden if you don’t have one already.

Kings Seeds has put a temporary halt on orders to catch up on distribution but will open again (it’s an essential service, as are NZ Post and couriers). In their latest email newsletter owners Gerard and Barbara Martin say that from the end of March every day has been like their busiest day in spring. 

Their advice, given the warm days and cooling nights, is to sow beetroot, beets and brassica (Asian greens, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, pak choi, swede and turnip), chicory/endive, florence fennel, lettuce, mesclun, radish and spinach.

“But don’t be tempted to sow heat lovers any time soon. Beans, cucurbits (cucumber, melon, watermelon, zucchini), chillies, eggplants, peppers and tomatoes have their own special time for sowing and it is definitely not now.”

The Western Bay of Plenty Super Grans organisation has monthly vege planting and gardening advice on their blog. Read it here.

The Go Gardening website has heaps of information for New Zealanders on how to plant a vege garden, how to grow food in containers and small spaces, how to deal with pests, etc.

And Plenty Permaculture has put its Essential Gardening workshops online until further notice, with a discount for tuition. Read more here.

Social climbers

Climbers are a plant group that are often consigned to the “cover it up” category but can add colour and interest to a garden when other plants may not be doing so well – and are an easy way of camouflaging a plain or not-so-pretty fence or wall.

A climbing rose does a good job of softening and adding some colour to a wall in this Tauranga garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Vigna caracalla (snail bean or snail flower) is a scented, perennial climber that blooms in summer. A member of the legume family, Vigna caracalla grows like a scarlet runner bean (but is entirely ornamental) and will happily drape across other plants if it can reach them.

Vigna caracalla is a perennial climber with sweet-scented flowers. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The unusual curled flowers, which provide the plant’s common name, have a delightful perfume reminiscent of a hyacinth and are followed by bean-like pods. You can try growing your own from these seeds, but they don’t always take. King’s Seeds at Katikati can supply guaranteed seed.

Cut the plant back to ground level when it’s finished and wait for it to shoot back next season.

Tecomanthe (trumpet-vine) climbers are vigorous tropical plants, found naturally from Malaysia to New Zealand, with our one native variety being Tecomanthe speciosa from Three Kings Islands.

Botanists found one specimen in 1946 and all the plants we have today have descended from this plant. It needs a strong support, but has glossy leaves and attractive clusters of creamy tubular flowers in spring.

Te Puna Quarry Park has its pink-flowered New Guinea cousin, Tecomanthe venusta, twining up a pine tree in its orchid area with the flowers lower down on the vine as the climber blooms on old wood.

Tecomanthe venusta at Te Puna Quarry Park. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Clematis, like wisteria (read an earlier post about wisteria here), are a real signifier of spring. Some people find them tricky to grow – I was struggling with ‘ Mrs Cholmondeley’ until advised to bury the neck of the plant deeper and now she performs well for me every year.

Clematis vitacella ‘Kermasina’ seen at Alnwick Castle garden in Northumbria, England. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The entry for Clematis viticella ‘Kermesina’ at Vibrant Earth, a New Zealand wholesaler, reveals that the viticellas are “extremely cold hardy and more wind tolerant than large-flower types” and are resistant to stem-wilt (my problem with ‘Mrs Cholmondeley’). Viticellas tend to be single stemmed and spindly growing in the first year or two.

How about this beauty? Clematis ‘Viennetta’ is a double-flowered variety with a long blooming period period, up to 5 months in the northern hemisphere. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be available in New Zealand.

Clematis ‘Viennetta’. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Creepers and climbers can also be positioned to scramble through and across other plants, adding extra seasonal interest – when one plant’s in full swing the other may be less obvious, later reversing positions.

The Scottish flame flower (Tropaeolum speciosum) scrambles across one of the many old yew trees at Levens Hall Gardens in Cumbria, England. The scarlet flowers are followed by blue berries. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The photo above is truly an instance of right place, right plant. In New Zealand Tropaeolum speciosum is known as the Chilean flame flower and considered a weed! Read how to eradicate it here.

Fruit & Vege Wisdom

Scooted off and heard Andrew Boylan of incredible edibles give a talk on Thursday night at Palmer’s and then up to Katikati on Friday morning for some more good advice from Gerard Martin of King’s Seeds at the final open day for the year that had a summer/Christmas theme.

Some of Gerard’s tips for a stress-free summer garden:

Mulch – supresses weeds and retains moisture in the soil (but you can mulch a plant too deeply; keep it at a maximum of about 50cm to allow the soil to breathe).

Water – a plant that keeps flowering will keep fruiting and a mulched plant that is watered regularly is more likely to stay free of disease and insect attack. Water thoroughly in the evening.

Stay on your toes – stake plants before they need it; remove seed heads to avoid treasures becoming weeds; watch for insects on the underside of leaves; remove diseased plants; deadhead to prolong productivity; train plants; sow every 6 weeks for a continuous harvest.

Bolting – some plants naturally bolt. Coriander and watercress won’t be under stress, they’re reacting to day length. Successive sowing will get you over any bolting.

Eggplants (aubergines) – when the plant sets its first fruit, take it off. This encourages other flowers to grow equally and produce better fruit. Put your plants in the hottest part of your garden.

Whitefly – Mix 4 tbspns bicarbonate of soda to 1 litre of water and add a drop of detergent. Spray on plants affected by whitefly, but keep the mix agitated so the bicarb doesn’t sink to the bottom.

Gerard conducts his own germination trials – a current one for beans has seen him remove a line of seeds from the shelf as they didn’t strike well.

And some of Andrew’s advice:

Blueberries – are surface feeders so have a shallow root system. Acidic soil is vital and they don’t like wet feet. Blue Magic will overcrop the first year so you need to remove the emerging fruit. Blue Sapphire, to be released next year, is the same.

Fig – Let the tree grow to the height you want and cut the top off. Keep cutting it back to encourage sideways growth. Mosaic virus (mottled leaves) doesn’t affect fruit but keep the tree fed (especially if it’s in a pot) and it will recover.

Feijoa – Don’t use them as a hedge as they fruit on last year’s wood (or trim alternate sides each year). The flowers are pollinated by big birds such as blackbirds, mynahs and starlings. Waxeyes may be in the tree but they’re not pollinating. In urban areas it’s not necessary to have 2 trees to achieve pollination but in the country it’s probably a good idea.

Passionfruit – Full sun and lots of water. Spray with copper in spring and summer as a curative for greasespot. “The fruit will look awful but it still tastes good,” Andrew says.

Avocado – Never plant another tree where one has died from root rot (Phytophthora). When planting a new tree, carefully extract it from the bag and under no circumstances disturb the root ball. incredible edibles is next year introducing a (they hope) dwarf avocado called Cleopatra that flowers heavily. The Hawke’s Bay breeder has a six-year-old tree that is 3m.

Casimiroa/sapote – Can be planted in the place where an avocado has died.

Pine nuts – It’s 8 years before you get a crop, 18 months before the cones have ripened … and then you have to get the nuts out! Andrew says he has nice, big pine trees.

Chilean guava/NZ cranberry – Keep trimming it and the bush will keep flowering and fruiting. Cut young plants 3-4 times a year to develop their structure.

Coffee – Grow inside in a pot in the hottest place you have. The bushes hate cold wind. Andrew this year cropped 500 beans from a plant in his office. Fiona roasted them in the frying pan, then the oven and smashed them up in a blender. They made a delicious brew, says Andrew.


Chilean guava trained as a topiary. Photo: Sandra Simpson


Getting fruity

Labour Weekend is the traditional time to get tomatoes in, at least in warmer areas of New Zealand. In her Sunday newspaper column this week Lynda Hallinan mentioned Bristol Seeds of Wanganui, stockists of a wide range of heritage tomato seed. So I thought I’d share the link with you. Owners Frank and Joy Bristol have been working with Mark Christensen, the man who discovered Monty’s Surprise apple, on a project to analyse the health benefits of various heritage tomatoes.

Mark is director of the Heritage Food Crops Research Trust which has also been looking at beans and plums and peaches. Hear an April 2015 interview with Mark on National Radio.

Some of the Vege Grower’s 2014/15 crop. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Ecoseeds is another New Zealand company with a list of heritage vegetables, including tomatoes (to see the list, click on the down arrow to the right under ‘Product’). See also the Country Trading Company, King’s Seeds heirloom tomatoes and the list at Koanga Institute (including coloured corn).

Growing from seed isn’t difficult – it just takes some planning to get things in at the right time so they crop when you want them. You can always go to a garden centre and buy a potted plant that is partially grown, but if price is a factor, seeds are definitely a great way to grow food and flowers. And remember to chat to your neighbours. There’s many an excellent seed swap to be made over the fence.

We moved our small Blush Babe apple tree to the back lawn this past winter and are now excited to see more blossom than it’s ever had so hope our busy worker bees are converting flowers to fruit. I mentioned a juicy and delicious apple my dear old great-uncle used to have (both long gone, alas) to a friend last week and in researching the name for her found the terrific website of Mana Whenua Apples. Stayman’s Winesap is the apple Uncle Percy had – a late apple, according to the Mana Whenua list, and a tree that originated from the US in 1866.

Rangpur lime. Photo: Sandra Simpson

My friend showed me an interesting fruit tree in her garden, labelled as ‘Rangpur Lime’ but which has orange skin and orange flesh. A little research reveals that it’s not a lime at all but a cross between a lemon and a mandarin, although because it’s so acidic can be used like a lime. The leaves are scented like kaffir lime leaves and can be used in cooking. The fruit seems to have come from the Indian subcontinent but is also known in China and Japan. Here’s some growing information (remember to alter the months for the southern hemisphere), while this website includes some recipes. It should be noted that the Rangpur lime also grows quite long thorns!

Green manure crops

Green manure crops are used in winter to replenish soil ready for planting in spring, keep weeds down and protect fallow beds from erosion.

Gerard Martin, co-owner of Kings Seeds with wife Barbara, says gardeners should grow green manure every year and rotate crops every two years.

“This breaks the cycle of goodness being sucked out of the soil and the build-up of pests and diseases,” he says. “Green manure is a natural way of putting goodness back in. [Read more by Gerard on the topic here.]

“At this time of the year you need a cool-germinating seed and I like to mix different species – such as peas, oats and lupin – together. The mix is a good nitrogen fixer and breaks down quickly.”

The pea-oat-lupin green manure mix from Kings Seeds. Photo: Kings Seeds

Crops should be cut (a lawnmower set on high can be used) and hoed in before they flower, or the bed can be turned over by spade. “I like to dig it in,” Gerard says, “because you incorporate a bigger biomass.”

Phacelia tanacetifolia is a vigorous grower that breaks down quickly when dug in and has the advantage of being unrelated to any other vegetable. If left to flower it will attract honeybees, hover flies and other beneficial insects.

“If you’re not planting until early to midsummer you can grow two manure crops and I would recommend the mix and phacelia.”

Phacelia tanacetifolia. Photo: AnemoneProjectors (Wikimedia)

Broad beans grown in winter can be used as green manure once they’ve cropped, while frost-tender soyabeans and buckwheat are good manure crops for summer.

Mustard will take about 30 to 45 days from sowing to cutting, while the pea-oat-lupin mix will take 50 to 60 days. Although he knows a lot of people use mustard, Gerard prefers to give his ground a rest from the brassica family (read about club root here).

“Growing a green manure crop is much better than, say, fumigating the soil with a spray when you’re killing the bad insects, bacteria and fungi, yes, but the good ones too – and 95% of the bacteria and fungi in soil are good.”

Read more on the topic here and here (both English websites).

Gerard and Barbara have owned Kings Seeds, which opened in 1978, for 15 years and operate from the countryside south of Katikati.

Barbara and Gerard Martin. The warehouse at 189 Wharawhara Rd (museum is on the corner) is open to the public every Friday until noon. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Each year Kings Seeds sells (to commercial growers and home gardeners):

  • 5 tonnes of peas for shoots
  • 5 tonnes of purple radish seed for spouting
  • 3 tonnes alfalfa seed
  • 2 tonnes of wheatgrass for sprouting
  • 1-2 tonnes bull’s blood beetroot seed
  • 1 tonne coriander seed.

“A home gardener will buy 500g of seed at a time,” Gerard says. “A commercial grower will take 300kg every second month.”

There are 10,000 seeds per gram for watercress, while a single broad bean seed weighs 2-3g.

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

Our native pantry

As we scatter round the country on our summer holidays I thought it might be fun to let you know about some of our native wild food plants.

The native spinach, Tetragonia tetragonioides, is a useful plant in the vege garden over the summer as it tolerates hot, dry conditions when other Spinacea species are prone to bolt.

Native plant expert Mark Dean of Oropi, who founded the renowned Naturally Native nursery, says the easy-to-grow scrambling plant was included in salads and broths for Captain James Cook and his crew of British explorers and has been cultivated in New Zealand since 1809. The Terrain website says that for two centuries it was the only cultivated vegetable in England to have originated from New Zealand or Australia.

Native spinach, pictured at Te Puna Quarry Park’s herb garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Naturally Native website (which includes a recipe) says it can be eaten in much the same way as English spinach. Pick it when you need it though, as the leaves will wilt within a couple of hours.

The plant is also native in Australia (and Japan, Chile and Argentina!) and this interesting article wonders why it hasn’t been recorded as being a staple part of the Aboriginal diet in the Botany Bay area – a mistake by the locals or a mistake by ethnobotanists?

Cook was a great experimenter with foods in his determination to beat scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency that in the 18th century killed more British sailors than enemy action. Although Cook spent three years at sea in the Endeavour, there was not a single death due to scurvy.

Native celery growing just above the tide line on Tiritiri Matangi Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Apium prostratum or native celery is another plant used by the English explorer. It has thick, grooved stems and a thick, deep taproot and can be found growing wild along the coast. The leaves and stems are able to be eaten raw or cooked and the seeds can be used for flavouring.

Cook’s scurvy grass, Lepidium oleraceum, was thought to have been grazed to extinction until a significant colony was discovered on an island off the coast of Waikato in 2006 – the link at the start of this paragraph notes that 11 new species have recently been identified, although that doesn’t make the plant any less threatened! Here’s another article about the plant and some of the threats it faces.


Cook’s scurvy grass grows in the Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Other native wild foods include native cress (Rorippa divaricata), puha (Sonchus oleraceus, a member of the sow thistle family) and horopito (Pseudowintera colorata). Find a pork and puha recipe here (watercress can be substituted.)


Horopito is a useful ornamental garden plant too. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Horopito was used by Maori as a herbal medicine but more recently has been promoted in its dried form as a substitute for pepper or chilli in foods.

It’s also a useful ornamental plant to brighten up a shady corner. It will grow in deep shade but the more light the plant gets, the brighter its red splotches. The Red Leopard hybrid has a deep-red colour that is maintained well in shade.

Native spinach seeds are available from Kings Seeds in Katikati or Yates; native celery plants from Oratia Native Plant Nursery and horopito from garden centres.

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

Vege news

A single plant that grows potatoes under the soil while at the same time producing tomatoes may be a world first for a Katikati nursery.

Andrew Boylan, co-owner of incredible edibles with wife Fiona, says the idea is all about space. “With shrinking urban sections it makes sense to develop plants that help home gardeners grow more in less space.”


The plant, which has the trade name Potato Tom, combines Agria potatoes with Gardeners’ Delight cherry tomatoes – and is, Andrew believes, a world first commercial release.

Solanum tuberosum, Potatos growing on plant.

Potato Tom. Image: incredible edibles

“The idea of grafting a tomato on a potato is not new,” he says. “But it has never been commercialised and, as far as I can make out, we are the first to do it.”

Tomatoes are members of the potato family (Solanaceae) so the two are naturally compatible. Ian Duncalf of Te Puna, a plant breeder of some note, says he worked out the grafting technique necessary for Potato Tom and had “fun” doing it.

“I had one at a friend’s place, as a bit of a trial, and went round there one night and saw all his guests really taking an interest in the plant. That’s what it’s all about for me, making people excited about something.”

Potato Tom, which can be grown in a pot, produces cherry tomatoes through summer and when they have finished, it’s time to dig the potatoes.

Note: Since my story was first published in mid-September, a nursery in England is also selling a potato-tomato graft, TomTato (and despite the use of  ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘hybrid’ in the link story, it’s still just a graft).

Kings Seeds, another Katikati business, has been surprised this season by the popularity of a Dutch heirloom pea that features deep-blue pods.

“We generally know what will be our top sellers,” says Barbara Martin, who co-owns the mail-order company with husband Gerard. “But this has shot up the list and taken us all by surprise.”

blue pea

Pea Blue Shelling. Image: Kings Seeds

The peas, simply called Pea Blue Shelling, can be eaten pods and all when young or left for the peas to develop out and be cooked for eating. The purple flowers are also edible.

Another unusual vegetable from the new catalogue is the flowering sprout Kaleidoscope, a cross between kale and Brussels sprouts. “They’re pretty little things,” Barbara says, “and if they’re cooked lightly they keep their purple colour.”

The “flowers” look like kale and grow like Brussels sprouts and Barbara advises topping the stalk a month before harvest to increase sprout size.

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

Sunday digest

Pacific Connections is a project being undertaken by the Washington Park Arboretum in America’s Washington state. Phase 2 of the project is being opened on September 15 (kind of today our time) and is a $US1.2 million New Zealand Forest.

The forest, modelled on a South Island mid- to high-country area, covers 0.8ha (2 acres) and expands on the New Zealand High Country Exhibit, dedicated in 1993  which was the arboretum’s first “ecogeographic exhibit”. The Forest includes mountain beech (Nothofagus cliffortioides) and silver beech (Nothofagus menziesii), as well as three open areas – a Phormium (flax) Fen, Hebe Heath, and Griselinia Bush, plus two tussock grasslands. There is a long article about the design of the garden here (pdf format).

The New Zealand Film Festival is doing the rounds and included is a documentary on Sister Loyola Galvin, 90 years old and the main gardener at the Home of Compassion in Wellington. Gardening with Soul (the link includes a trailer) is directed by Jess Feast. Read a review here.

You may recall that Sister Loyola was NZ Gardener’s Gardener of the Year in 2008.

This is the busiest time of the year for mail-order plant companies – and for gardeners there is much joy to be had in reading through the catalogues, even if it’s only to compile a wish-list.

Here are some links that you may find useful:

This isn’t an exhaustive list and nor is it intended to be – these are some I know of or have come across that I thought may be useful. If you want to search by particular plant types, then this website looks pretty good. It also offers an alphabetical list of mail-order nurseries.

Happy reading!

Sunday Digest

Vicky Schulze of Rotorua wants to start gardening classes including for those who live in flats with small or no gardens. “You will be amazed what you can grow in pots … you don’t need a huge paddock to grow vegetables,” she says.

Classes will include how to save seeds, how to grow from seed, how to care for plants and how to save the harvest, including freezing, preserving and making jams and chutneys. To find out more call or text Vicky on 027 782 9145.

There are a couple of local garden events coming up – the BOP Bromeliad Group Open Day is on February 13 and on February 15 Gerard Martin at Kings Seeds is looking for some human guinea pigs to help him choose some new microgreen mixes for spring. Full details on the Events page.

Flaming Petal is the blog of Jane Wrigglesworth, “writer, editor and grower of cut flowers”. You may know her name from NZ Gardener magazine or NZ House & Garden. The blog features to-die for photos and short posts.

Federated Farmers, bless their corduroy trews, have decided there is nothing wrong with pesticides containing neonicotinoids, saying there is no evidence the artificial compound has anything to do with the alarming fall in our honeybee population.

Meanwhile, this week three major British companies have taken products containing neonicotinoids off their shelves – prompting a call for chemicals to be banned in agriculture – after studying scientific evidence.

This article quotes Lord Peter Melchett, Policy Director at the Soil Association, as saying: “A recent EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) report labels neonicotinoids as an ‘unacceptable’ danger to bees.” However, British farmers are also denying a link.

Another report on the subject.

And while we’re on the subject of sprays and their use – a Roundup-resistant grass has been found in a Marlborough vineyard.

So here are some home-made natural sprays for the garden from Justin Newcombe, until last week the garden writer for the Herald on Sunday. Click on the “sprays” photo for a printable list of recipes (Adobe reader required and watch out for typos).