My Favourite Window

December 29, 2010

Willow Patterns

Surely there is no fragrance more heavenly than the balsamic scent of willow foliage. This morning the air was heavy with it,  wafting even into the house.  As I walked under this tree to fetch the morning post, I was struck by the many little vignettes of mystery that have appeared about the tree over the past week of gales and heat and rain. Coming down my front steps the little pool, barely ankle-deep after the recent heavy rain, sparked childhood memories of deep pools where the River carves into the banks creating cool, trout retreats and swimming holes. 
Then stooping past the collapsed bough, I noticed how its
are quickly yellowing and falling to carpet the ground, creating a Tom Bombadil miniature landscape, where the ephemeral stream has passed through.
Tranquility, reminiscence... 
devastation: the crown of the willow broken in the first day of the gales.  Through this spring and early summer I have been admiring the shapeliness of this willow and anticipating that sometime soon a gale would steal its perfection. I remember my father thrusting a Y-shaped twig, cast from the older willow tree, into the the ground beside the dry stream bed, maybe 30 years ago. The Y-shape is still there in the hefty trunk, but the tree is changing its character.

Weeping willow  Salix babylonica

December 26, 2010

Complements of the Season

Gale force winds tearing the willow tree to shreds; wild fires consuming the land,  haymaking to beat the weather; earthquake aftershocks. . .

"Christmas Day," Lady Mondegreen reminds me,"Wasn't it a beautiful day? Sunshine with a light breeze; lunch under the willow; family around you and gentle reminders of Elwin: the best Christmas Day for years."

December 21, 2010

Sweet Solstice

Not the kindest scent to assail a newly widowed woman with: the scent of man, the scent of his loving ... smell a sweet chestnut tree in bloom and see what I mean.  One is flowering now in the Secret Garden, attracting moths at night and flies and bumble bees during the day.
"On the other side of the world it is marrons glaces time," Lady Mondegreen remembers wistfully.  If New Zealanders can eat mince pies, roast turkey and plum pudding at Mid Summer, melt in the mouth sugar-saturated chestnuts wouldn't be out of place amongst the Christmas comfits. 
"Except that this is such a bountiful time in the garden," counters Lady Mondegreen. And she is right. How can we not celebrate the produce of the season when we plan our Christmas dinner?
Kitty brought home a huge cauliflower from her school garden and as I blanch and freeze this surplus, the first cherry plums are dropping, neighbours are showering us with their strawberry glut, blackcurrants are ripening and there are some precious gooseberries edible now.  There will be new potatoes on most Christmas tables, and asparagus too, though fresh garden peas have become a rarity as gardens get smaller and convenience dictates frozen. I would like to add cauliflower with mint somehow to the menu.
As a closing thought, for a more sweetly aromatic, flowering tree than the sweet chestnut, seek out the lime trees - often in street plantings - for their bee-loud, fragrance. 
I have been writing this as I watched tonight's lunar eclipse: easily viewed through the great new gap in the willow tree, where the Nor'west gales are tearing the branches away!

Sweet chestnut  Castanea sativa
Lime, linden  Tilia x europaea or T. cordata

December 18, 2010

Clover Fork

"That's a nice pitchfork," I said to Graeme. "I could do with one of those."
"It's not a pitchfork, it's a clover fork," he said.
Graeme was clearing the hedge clippings behind me as I trimmed the church hedge this morning.  He showed me the difference: five tines instead of three, and because this farmer comes from an old farming family he could also add some history to the usage of clover forks. Whereas pitchforks were used to gather sheaves of hay or straw to toss onto haystacks, clover was gathered loose off the field for stacking. The closer tines and broader scoop of the clover fork would have suited the nature of clover better than the widely spaced tines of a pitchfork.
And for my readers in frozen climes or even the city folk here in New Zealand, this is hay-making time. Gone the days of pitchforks and sheaved haystacks, but the tractor driven-mowers , tedders and balers are working in the rural paddocks, turning out deep windrows  of hay, fitting around the frequent rain and turning much of the grass into big round bales or baled sileage.  However...
"Not a good hay year," Graeme says, philosophically.

December 16, 2010

Knee-high Giant

Out of the blue and in the midst of the business of Estate management, car maintenance, and school break-ups, I came across something yesterday that made my botanical juices flow beyond all reason.  Where the tyre shop jostles up to the liquor-store, and in a border, which some developer once "landscaped," but which is now a tangle of weedy shrubs and piles of rubble I found not one, but two dubious characters. Giant hogweed and coltsfoot. Coltsfoot is on the NZ restricted plant pest list of plants not to be sold, propagated or distributed.  This is one of two sites in Rangiora, where I have seen it - surviving maybe from an old garden. In traditional herbal lore it was and still is used as a cough medicine.  According to Gerard: A decoction made of the greene leaves and roots, or else a syrrup thereof, is good for the cough that proceedeth of a thin rheume.  The botanical name  reflects this use in the element tussi from the Latin word for cough. 
   Giant Hogweed: to be able to stoop and take a photo of its  huge umbel is a novelty indeed,
since its normal habit is to tower above head height.  For any dis-believers, this is not the common hogweed, which has a more restrained habit of growth. This creature appears to have been felled either by the Nor'West wind or recent work men's incursions into the border. Still, the bent stem has continued to feed the flower head, and now it is poised for admiration and study at knee level.   The individual flowers in this great head can be seen in detail, the irregularity of the outer florets are easily discernable, and bumblebees forage greedily.
Growing giant hogweed bears a certain responsibility; to understand the effects of the sap on human skin.  It can sensitise skin so that it is extremely sensitive to sunlight provoking a sunburn rash.  Yet this same plant is fondly remembered by old Englishmen, who were once naughty little boys, for its hollow stems and their pea-shooter qualities.

A note for gardeners on the bending of plant stems. Gertrude Jekyll used this technique to bring tall colour down into the front of her borders and to fill gaps.  A conceit to revive maybe in this wind-torn region.

Giant Hogweed  Heracleum mantegazzianum
Coltsfoot  Tussilago farfara

December 13, 2010

Mixed Blessings

As white as milk,
And not milk;
As green as grass,
And not grass;
As red as blood,
And not blood;
As black as soot,
And not soot.

"Have you noticed that the blackberries are flowering?" asks Lady Mondegreen.  There is quite a lot I'm not noticing in the garden these days, like the first umbel of florets on the climbing hydrangea. After ten years of coaxing the plant out of long grass and up the walnut tree it is now living up to its name.  This spring I found the first tiny green buds and showed them to Elwin, who had been watching them develop with me.  But now I hardly have time to pay indulgent attention to the garden as the business of estate affairs has taken over. 
The blackberries - one of this garden's wild things - grow wherever there is protection from Me. In hedgerows, under overgrown shrubberies, in wood piles... And now they are flowering; their dainty, hovering white cups belying their vicious brambles, and promising a juicy feast.

Blackberry, bramble  Rubus fruticosus
Climbing hydrangea  Hydrangea petiolaris

December 10, 2010

Flowers by Air

Just when I have cleared most of the flowers from the funeral - how they lifted my spirits: both the garden-gathered posies and the florist-bouquets - I received a new delivery. From Ian in Wellington, came this posy of Iceberg roses, with a picking of French lavender. Ian hand-delivered them himself having miraculously transported them in his hand-baggage yesterday, on a flight from Wellington to Christchurch.  From his garden in Karori, Ian had precisely gathered each bloom at unfurling stage and packaged them in a careful elaboration of wet paper, cling film, cardboard toilet roll inner, and supermarket bag. The lavender came in a dainty side spray for use as I pleased.

A little note about the pink glass vase, which was just the right one for this offering: like many recent aquisitions this came from my mother's house. But unlike most of the treasures, which had been hidden for so long, this 1940s vase had sat on a window sill to be admired at every outside passing.  Visible but untouchable, since the room behind the drawn curtain was filled to the brim with the hoardings of an obssesive collector.  I was still working on clearing this room when the Earthquake struck, and when I was eventually able to reach the window, this vase was a reward in more ways than one.

December 2, 2010

Bobbie James

"You forgot to mention Bobbie James," chides Lady Mondegreen.
"I haven't seen Bobbie James," I reply in defence, but go out to look for this rose in bloom. No wonder I hadn't noted it yesterday. This rambler does not tumble but romps instead into high places to show its flowers. And the highest place available to our plant is the top of Nick's Pittosporum hedge behind our garage. This explains the lack of illustration today - I just cannot get close to the flowers. The flowers: those beautifully restrained semi-double, white saucers with their little boss of gold stamens flowering in multi-flora clusters. Sir Robert James' original plant grows massively against the front wall of his family home, St Nicholas House in Richmond, Yorkshire (England), but was covered with mildew, when I last saw it. I think Bobbie James' eponymous rose prefers the Antipodean climate as this Ashley specimen is always robust.
Sir Robert was a renowned plant collector and during his lifetime gathered plants in New Zealand, some of which were still growing at St Nicholas fifteen years ago. My favourite discovery was the stand of whipcord hebes grown above head height and flowering prolifically, their dainty blue flowers an unfamiliar sight in New Zealand gardens. About this time his widow, Lady Serena, asked me if I might be able to source some Mt Cook Lily seed, as Bobbie's original plants had died out, but being a fickle young traveller I never did get around to replenishing her stock.
But back to the rose! Seeing it's adventurous spirit, I feel inspired to take some cuttings and throw a few more around the Secret Garden: mingle it perhaps with the earlier flowering Cherokee rose up the gum trees or through the big pine hedge.

Rosa 'Bobbie James'
Cherokee Rose  Rosa laevigata
Whipcord hebe  Hebe cupressoides
Mt Cook lily  Ranunculus lyalli

December 1, 2010

Of Cabbages and Roses

I have been overwhelmed with gifts these last few weeks, amongst them the most beautiful fat cabbage. This was a neighbourly gift from Nick-next-door and I am eagerly making coleslaw from it.  But while I haven't been looking, the roses have been coming into full bloom.  This little village of Ashley Bank sits on heavy silt deposits over old river shingles. The overlying loam is likewise heavy, although where the Secret Garden dips into an ancient river terrace, sandy soil laced with sea-shells is only a spade-depth away.  Gardeners may curse the loam, sodden in winter and baked hard in summer, but roses thrive in these soils.  In years like this one, blessed with La Nina weather conditions, they spill over fences ancient and modern, in barely governed display.
One day I will have a good camera to express detail, colour and depth of field well. In the meantime I can at least show you this serendipitous  association of a lusty hybrid tea rose (which may be Royal Dane) growing up through indigenous kanuka.  The fine needle-like foliage of the kanuka offsets the robust blooms and glossy rose leaves.
Other roses flowering around the garden are Sombreuil, Albertine, Cecile Brunner, Blanc double de Coubert and an old climber heavily laden with white pompoms. This last, I rescued from the old station-master's house site during a council drain clearing, but it can also be seen spilling out of a big macrocarpa hedge further along the road. I realised when Nick was admiring the roses flowering along our common boundary, that here is another one of my long-standing dreams come true - old-fashioned roses tumbling all over the place.  A little sadness surfaces, that Elwin didn't quite see the flowering of the hybrid tea cuttings I struck a year and a half ago along the front of our veranda. This is the rose that I call Dad's Rose, and which could be Royal Dane; Elwin was full of awe that I could poke some sticks in the ground and have them grow into bushes before his eyes. He had been watching the first plumping buds with interest and now they are revealing their colour and scent.

Rosa spp
Kanuka, tea tree  Kunzea ericoides

November 26, 2010

More From Historic Oamaru

Whitestone Belle
"I thought this post was going to be about trugs," says Lady Mondegreen, with an air of disappointment... or possibly disapproval. It is. But I couldn't resist this illustration of what happens to children, who are dressed from the age of three in pinnafores and bonnets for heritage recreations: they develop their own historical personae.

But back to gardening: Bill Blair of Coppice Crafts makes trugs and other wooden garden tools using traditional methods, at his workshop in the Portside area of Oamaru. There, during the evening for a spot of penguin viewing, I was taken with Bill's spare but lovely plantings around his workshop. A mass of vibrant red geraniums (of the Pelargonium kind) warm the foot of a cabbage tree in full flower. I absorbed the trim hedge around the chimney piece without noting whether it was Corokia or Teucrium and maybe it was neither, but the effect of these plantings is whimsical as well as respectful of the area's character.
Bill takes orders for his products and offers a mail-order service.

November 25, 2010

A Change of Scene

Call it escapism; call it meeting a commitment.  I left the Secret Garden in the care of Lady Mondegreen and went on a road trip to Oamaru last weekend: a journey with three girls eager for the dressing-up opportunities afforded by the Victorian Heritage Celebrations; a journey to dance with fellow morris dancers; a journey ... without my Musician.  Although Kitty and I explored every little bridge and walkway and gazebo in the Botanic Gardens one damp evening, the garden that charmed me most was the little Harbourside Garden right next to the national Steam Punk Headquarters in the historic precint. It meanders down amongst plantings of seaside tolerant shrubs and perennials to a suggestion of a wharf just before the river passes out to sea. At this time of year almost all of the plants are in showy flower including a very light coloured Pride of Madeira and a shrub rarely seen in its wild form in New Zealand, the Guelder Rose.  The Harbourside Garden is a little oasis of refinement and colour under the looming fantasy of the Steam Punk HQ, and opening into the loneliness of shingle reaches populated only with wild fennel and rusting rolling stock.  Solitude whichever way you look.

Pride of Madeira  Echium candicans
Guelder rose  Viburnum opulus
(The cultivated form Viburnum opulus sterile commonly known as the Snowball Tree, has been evident in many of the floral tributes we have received over the last few weeks).

November 15, 2010

The Not-So-Secret Garden

Elwin's funeral on Friday 12 November, was a true celebration of his life. On a hot sunny day in our Garden, family and friends from near and far, wept and danced and sang. Sorrow and Joy writ large.

November 7, 2010

Death Comes to the Secret garden

Elwin died yesterday mowing the lawn on the new mower.
It was very sudden and we had so much to do together.
The Secret Garden has had more attention today, than we could have given it in a week. The lawns, which Elwin had just begun have been dealt to by a team of mowers and a whole daunting border full of cocksfoot has been weeded. I shan't post for awhile but intend to be back...

November 5, 2010

No Drama

The Earthquake inspectors came and prowled around the house in the pouring rain, peered into roof cavities and under the double-layered floor that Elwin cut open last night. With a little torch, the man with the practised eye explored all the cracks, noting their age by dust, cobwebs and even paint adhesion. Historical cracks aggravated was his diagnosis. In other words there will be no insurance payout, and really we are back to where we were before 4 September, except that the chimneys will probably have to be demolished and rebuilt. Time now to hire a structural engineer.

November 3, 2010

Wild Things

The Secret Garden is full of wild things: I mentioned the hawthorn a few days ago and competing for attention is the broom. In solid blocks of yellow it dazzles in unkempt places. Our roadside is one long strip of vivid yellow but I manage its ebullience in the garden.  Another wild plant that runs rampant in this garden is the native vine, pohuehue. Here it has formed a companionable association with a Cherokee rose, both of them scrambling over an old acacia stump and flowering together: a lovely balance of the strong white roses couched amongst the soft green sprays of the pohuehue. Already the new growth of the vine is thrusting out from the flowering mass and will overwhelm the rose, but by next spring the vigourous habit of this rose will have benefitted from the vine's leaf-fall and redressed the balance.  Inside, the accumulating tangle is a haven for birds, the rose thorns providing protection from cats and the wiry vine a ready made base for nests.  Cats visit the Secret Garden. Lady Mondegreen occasionally threatens a predator-proof fence, but mostly we live around each other.  The visitors always remain aloof.  The Siamese cat considers us beneath him - I can tell.  How dare we expect to sun ourselves on the veranda while he is basking there. How dare we expect him to pose for photos while he is stalking lizards.  Doesn't he have a home to go to? In spite of statistics and the presence of cats, the bird life is rich and varied - no kiwi - they will have to wait for the predator-proof fence.   A few days ago a blackbird found its way into the kitchen: as it panicked against glass, I too felt a panic for its safety; gasped in dismay as it flew into the big front window and dropped to the floor.  For this blackbird has an identity and I have watched it and its forebears about the garden over the years. The White Family they could be called as there is always one with a patch of white feathers somewhere on the body. This latest one has a flash of white on one upper wing.  I had no idea that I felt so protective towards it until I thought it was going to kill itself. But it lay in my hand, as I carried it outside, and then flew off and I saw it the next day going about its business. Just about where the thrushes crack their snails open.

Broom  Cytisus scoparius
Cherokee Rose  Rosa laevigata
Pohuehue, Wire weed  Muehlenbeckia australis

October 28, 2010

St Simon and St Jude's Day

A project realised today: to celebrate the laying of the foundation stone for the Church of St Simon and St Jude, on this, its Saints' day, 140 years ago. I am home now satisfied with the Anniversary Thanksgiving service, many months in the planning. The Right Reverend Victoria Matthews, Bishop of Christchurch took the service: She has a magical touch with children  - inviting young Kitty to be her chaplain and carry her crozier - as well as an easy manner, conducting the service with a light hand and a sense of humour but ultimately commanding our attention with an astute and thoughtful reflection on founding institutions in new societies.  

A village woman  prepared the lovely floral arrangement setting it in the sunny window for the light to filter through vivid irises.

The Church of St Simon and St Jude at Ashley. Originally consecrated as an Anglican church , it now operates as an inter-denomonational church and is known as The Ashley Community Church. Catergory II Historic Place.

October 26, 2010

Illicit Pleasure

May. Hawthorn. Quickthorn. A Restricted Plant Pest here in New Zealand - not to be propagated, distributed or sold. And with good reason! Here in North Canterbury this hedgerow escapee is distributed by birds and resistant to our punishing summer droughts. Around Ashley, and indeed, within the Secret Garden, it is blooming now - a May Queen in October.  I took this photo in the churchyard of St Simon and St Jude, where I have been gardening lately. These specimens are remnants of a double hedgerow that formed a walkway behind railway land. I can remember its overgrown tunnel in my childhood, and even now some of the plants including oak trees that made up the hedge, show signs of old-fashioned hedging techniques.  Lady Mondegreen gives some of the wildings space to grow into shapely trees, arching their garlanded boughs and providing safe nesting places for birds.  But I have planted other members of the family too.  Stinking to high heaven at the moment, and wearing its stunning white flowers in small groups amongst the almost evergreen foliage, is the Mexican hawthorn, and my pink may is just beginning to blush.  I watch eagerly three of its seedlings growing in tubs outside my kitchen window. Undoubtedly the parent has crossed with the wild hawthorn, but the seed is hard-won. One seedling flowered for the first time a couple of years ago - a double white - and another will flower for the first time any day now: a touch of pink showing in its buds.

My mother - an Englishwoman - introduced me to Bread and Cheese.  "You can eat the leaves if you are hungry." And being a child, I would eat them whether I was hungry or not. And if you enjoy making the most of wild harvest here is a way to make a meal of hawthorn leaves!  It is a recipe collected in Dorothy Hartley's fascinating history 'Food in England.' 

Make a good light suet crust, season it well with salt and pepper, and roll it out rather more thinly than for a jam roly-poly, and as long in shape as possible. Cover the surface smoothly with the green buds, patting them down lightly. Now take a rasher of bacon and cut it into very, very fine strip, and lay them over the green. Moisten the edges of the crust, and roll it up tightly, sealing the edges as you go. Tie it in a floured cloth and boil or steam it for at least an hour, longer if very large. Unroll it on to a hot plate and serve it with gravy. Like all very simple dishes, it must be made very nicely, seasoned with care, and the crust fine and light, then I think you will be surprised how good it is.

May, hawthorn  Crataegus monogyna
Pink may  Crataegus laevigata 'Rosea Flore Pleno'
Mexican hawthorn  Crataegus pubescens (correctly mexicana)

October 22, 2010

A Little Chaos...

Following my last post about flowery meads comes a reminder from NZ poet Brian Turner to look after the insects: a healthy and diverse eco-system depends on them. And we depend - though too many of us ignore this truth - on a healthy and diverse eco-system.

This Secret Garden, Lady Mondegreen points out to me, is becoming more and more important as a haven for invertebrates, birds, lizards and frogs as the surrounding land is drained and developed for housing. The hedgerows and meadowy verges of my childhood have disappeared and while older suburban plantings have matured and provide rich nectar sources and shrub cover, the trend is more and more to so-called easy care gardens: paved and fenced and planted with a limited palette of commercially available shrubs.

So, a new responsiblity is dawning here: to retain some chaos and make changes thoughtfully.

The spirea hedge is flowering now. Hedge? Once it was, and how I enjoyed the clipping of it as a child - the controlling gardener in the making. Look at it now spreading wide and rampant, taunting me as I wonder at its botany. Is it Spirea x vanhouttei, or is it Spirea cantoniensis? Whatever its name, it is a deep tangle for nesting birds and a rich food plant for pollinating insects as well as being heart-lifting to look at.

Brian Turner's distinctive love of language, his reverence for the places of his heart and his expression of the human condition can be found in his latest collection of poems, Just This, from the Victoria University Press, Winner of the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry.

October 20, 2010


At this time of year - late spring - in wild and unkempt places, look for these bejewelled mixtures of wild flowers. In this part of the world they are considered unsightly by many, examples of lazy husbandry, to be sprayed or mown down. Certainly they seed profically, and in arable land some cause more than a nuisance, but for me they are always a pleasure. Their flowering is brief and I find most of them easy enough to weed out of garden borders or from under hedges once they grow rank. In the Secret Garden they are a prized asset. Common associations include red henbit or dead nettle, speedwell, shepherd's purse and chickweed, which is the tiny white flower in the photo. Flowering amongst it is oxalis and common wintercress. Other leafy textures are provided by cleavers, yarrow and puha.

Chickweed  Stellaria media
Common wintercress  Barbarea vulgaris
Oxalis latifolia

October 19, 2010

On Shaky Ground

Out of 2000 earthquakes since the 4th September I have not felt any while I was outside on open ground - though they have certainly happened around me. Until this morning: I was planting trees with Project Iva in Charlesworth Reserve and the salt marsh quaked like a bog as a 5M aftershock shook the area, rattled the city and set Cathedral bells ringing. I had planned to have a photo or two of the tree planting but what with the distractions of the morning, including a medical emergency, there are none.

Charlesworth Reserve near the Heathcote-Avon Estuary is reclaimed farmland and landfill and an important feeding ground for migrating birds. From Alaska, godwits fly here for summer feeding before returning to breed near the Bering Strait.  Our group was planting locally sourced coastal shrubs to offset our carbon footprint incurred during air travel to and from Samoa in August.

Project Iva was, and still is, an exciting project which came out of a journalism class at  Unlimited Secondary School in Christchurch. The students aged from 12 to 17, raised funds, collected school equipment and delivered it personally to the children of Iva Primary School on the island of Savaii. It was a privilege to watch my daughter and her friends finding new strengths in themselves and to eventually be hosted by the warm and hospitable people of Iva.

Some salt marsh plantings

Coprosma propinqua
Dodonea viscosa purpurea
Astelia fragrans
Phormium tenax

October 17, 2010


How I love the quince blossom. In this garden, so full of spring blossom, it is always the quince that speaks most deeply to me. This year I realised how tantalising its buds are: plump cones of pink tipped promise. And now - the blossom. What is it that appeals to me so much?  Is it the restraint of the cupped flowers compared to the thickly clustered blooms of plum and apple and pear? Is it the way the flowers open against fully formed foliage while all the other trees leaf-up after petal fall? Whatever the reason, from a distance the tree presents a silvery arabesque, and makes me think I should plant more.

Many years ago my father planted a quince tree on this spot, and 14 summers ago his quince tree survived the disasterous wild fire that swept this land. Months later when the fire-damaged pines, which hedged the garden, were being felled, one of them fell across the little tree: I watched in dismay the falling pine and the quince tree, bounce into the air and shatter. That was the first year that the tree had produced a worthwhile crop and they were ripening nicely.

So Elwin planted another and we enjoy its blossom and its scented fruit every year.

Quince Cydonia oblonga 'Giant of Gascogny'

October 15, 2010

New Tools

"A rubber shod pony would be less intrusive," remarks Lady Mondegreen in consternation at our new purchase. "With a gently clacking mower hitched behind. But I suppose this makes mowing the grass easy for Elwin, doesn't it."
Yes! But he will have to reign in his enthusiasm for creating a racing green ...

Husqvarna Rider 16 C
(and a nifty little garden trailer - ah joy).

October 13, 2010

Growing Up

My infant dresses: "We'll save these for your children," my mother would say, so I rediscovered them a couple of weeks ago, neatly stored in a polypropylene wool sack, my daughters well and truly grown beyond them.

We grow through childhood to a point where we can dream of the future - make plans even. It takes a bit of ageing to realise though, that we can't direct every detail of our dreams, but it takes ageing too, to realise that some of our dreams have come true without even noticing.

As a horticulture student, before I owned a home of my own, I decided that one day I would have an old wooden villa, with a wisteria-draped veranda. Well, I'm onto my second villa and the wisteria I planted here nine years ago has grown up. It's worth reminding ourselve of the small or easy advances we have already made in our lives, when cracks appear in our bigger dreams.

Wisteria sinensis 'Caroline'

October 11, 2010

Of Steam Trains and Cowslips and other Dainty Things

"Your web log yesterday was tasteless and unnecessary," Lady Mondegreen rebukes me. "People don't visit my secret garden for helpings of gore and self-pity." But she glances at the dressing on my lip and softens. "What about the plates Marilyn gave you yesterday? Surely they are worthy of mention.?"
Mmm. I knew nothing about Mason's Ironstone until Marilyn piled a stack of it into my arms.
"For your old house," she smiled, and I thought once again of the crack in its Being.  So here is one of the little saucers, adrift on the ephemeral stream. A feature of Mason's Ironstone is that international retailers applied to have their own stamp added to the back, and this one bears the mark: John Bates and Co Ltd, Christchurch.N.Z. John Bates had a well-regarded china shop in Cashel Street and is buried in the Waimate Cemetry.

"And you haven't shown them the cowslips that you mentioned on 27 September," Lady Mondegreen reminds me. So here they are. I had imagined them to be woodland creatures but remember seeing them flowering on a steep and sunny bank, densely massed and mingled with forget-me-nots, somewhere in Northumbria (England).  Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix in Perennials-Volume I point out that they are meadow plants. And maybe I'm wrong...  and they are oxslips not cowslips after all. These are nestled at the foot of the walnut tree, thriving with a mixture of woodland plants in open sunlight till now, when the walnut begins to open its leaves.

So this day draws to a close - a day that began dynamically, with a view from my bed, of snow on Mt Grey, a passing steam train and rainbows threading the stormy sky.
Cowslip Primula veris

October 10, 2010

Take Care

It has been bitterly cold and very wet today, though Elwin managed to mow thoroughly before the rain came. So this evening as the ephemeral stream rises, its dark flow is clear to see as it runs through its closely mown channel. Right now I'm nursing a split lip - and gum - a result of over-eager pruning! This morning while I was trimming some low branches ahead of the ride-on mower, I used my body to brace the loppers against, while cutting a face-level stem: and my mouth took the full force of the steel arm when the branch gave way. I carried on working with a mouthful of blood and the wound has continued to ooze all day. I've done this sort of thing before, using my body as a brace for a face-level cut. As a council gardener perched in a street tree - a vigourous London plane - with my arm wrapped around an upright branch and drawing my pruning saw through it towards me, it was my cheek that caught the saw teeth as the blade finally sliced through the wood. I bore a string of tooth marks up my bruised cheek for a few days. So I ought to have learned my lesson by now - must make sure I don't do the same thing with a chainsaw...

October 8, 2010

Spring Flowers

I am so tired: too tired to write much after a day of weeding a shady border, so here are some pictures to speak a thousand words while I savour my aching limbs and retire very satisfied with progress in the garden.

The red tulips and the white came from a fundraising catalogue in the autumn. Because they weren't what I'd ordered, I carelessly mislaid the varietal names, but I am pleased to see them in flower, and I especially like the delicacy and shape of the white ones.

October 7, 2010

Another Garden

This morning I visited Breedenbroek Gardens, nestled low on the Ashley Downs and owned by Kay MacLachan and Rudi Steyn. The Ben McMaster design provides the English inspired structure, with it's avenues and axes, its hornbeam hedges and perennial borders, but Kay and Rudi actively develop and cultivate this lovely space. It pleases me as a gardeners' garden, but within its discipline there is room for friends, and children, and their animals. I was surprised that the details that pleased me most were not the little clump of wood anemones flowering amongst a mound of bugle weed, nor the eager drifts of creamy-flowered comfrey, nor even the large clump of Astelia 'Silver Queen' under the swamp cypresses in the middle of the pond (which pleased me very much) but the thoughtfulness and evidence of habitation threading through the grand design. I liked to find, at a point where a garden path nudged the farm fence, that a little gate stood open - as if by chance - inviting the visitor to walk beyond the garden across a bridge and back in from the farm by another gate. I liked to find a lamb's feeding bottle on a seat in the transept of Rudi's magnificent hand built pavilion. I liked to find a hen run that was not worn to dust, but planted with fowl-proof tussocks, star jasmine and a crepuscule rose scrambling over the chicken wire.
I liked to come across my children and theirs laughing together in the formal spaces.
Visit: at least the website for more details and good photographs.
Wood anemone Anemone nemerosa
Bugleweed Ajuga reptans
Ground cover comfrey Symphytum tuberosum
Swamp cypress Taxodium distichum
Fowl-proof tussock Festuca glauca
Star jasmine Trachelospermum jasminoides

I'm writing about yesterday this morning, because yesterday - well yesterday was a day for lazing in the sun, and eating ice-creams and admittedly making a few observations. One of them a view from inside - looking out of that little window that I showed you on 2nd September. I have recently cleared the space at the bottom of the Skudder House's stairwell (it was crammed with carpet offcuts, ancient NZ Listeners and cardboard boxes) and now that it is clear, I am enjoying looking through to this space and beyond: it is both a step towards the unknown and a portal to the Secret Garden.

October 5, 2010

Home and Away

Lady Mondegreen had the Secret Garden to herself today: the roaming dandelions and the drifting daisies, the winging kingfisher and the nesting starlings - all these delights were hers to enjoy undisturbed.
And me? I escaped with school holiday Spirits, to Hanmer Springs, to bask taskless in the sun around the hot pools or wander with Elwin in the cool forest on Conical Hill. I was intrigued to hear the bellbirds chortling in the Douglas firs high overhead, these nectar feeders thriving, it seems in exotic gymnosperms.
I don't usually enjoy watching children chase birds, but today I couldn't help admiring the tolerance of a chaffinch being chased by a little girl: round and round an oak tree at a toddle she chased it, while the bird kept his distance without lifting a wing. Later while picnicking I noticed the chaffinches scavenging tourist leavings, so no wonder they can deal with a little human interaction.
In these higher altitudes the wild plums are flowering in pastoral groves and the ornamental cherries - spent in Christchurch now - are still lovely in the alpine village.
So I return refreshed - and delighted that one of my attendant holiday Spirits has helped me find my way back to posting photos!
Douglas fir Pseudotsuga menziesii
Wild plums and ornamental cherries Prunus spp

October 2, 2010


Another glorious day, which I must convey in words only. The strong Equinoctal winds have abated and the last few days have hung perfectly in blue skies or a moist haze. I have been weeding, planting (delphiniums today) listening to a blackbird opening a walnut on the veranda; I am entranced by the cascade of apple blossom showing through the green veil of the weeping willow. and I am dazzled by the late flowering of the kowhai.  At least one bellbird has been attracted to its nectar bearing blooms. Their bright yellow is bold against the blue sky, and harmonious beside the coppery leaves of the big plum tree.

Kowhai Sophora tetraptera
also S. microphylla

September 28, 2010

Unexpected pleasures

Although there are no flowering cherry trees in the Secret Garden, they are in full bloom in suburban streets and amenity plantings. Today I noticed unexpected but harmonious pairings of cherry trees, with shrubs and hedges also in flower. Laurestinus, Mexican orange blossom and prostrate rosemary all added their own delicacy to the cherry blossom extravaganza.

At home plump red tulips have opened amongst the broad beans, and I spent the morning weeding and tidying the little nursery area under my kitchen window. 

Laurestinus Viburnum tinus
Mexican orange blossom Choisya ternata
Prostrate rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus'

September 27, 2010

A New-Mown Day

"Look at the pear blossom." Lady Mondegreen reminds me to look up: look up from a weekend spent clearing rubbish from the ground floor of the old house. So much stored by different family members with the idea that something might be useful again one day... One of my favourite finds, washed and hung to dry today, is a sheet sides-to-middled.  The centre seam which was originally the sheet's outer edges is beautifully felled, though how comfortable it is to sleep on I don't know.

This day: a day to dry sheets, to smell the pear blossom carried on the warm air, to note the apple blossom on the cordons, to make time for tending the garden, and to realise that I need to wear my reading glasses for hand-weeding!

Also a day to find that there is a new method of posting photos and to be foiled by it. Sunlit cowslips are what I would show you if I could. They'll keep.

September 22, 2010

Spring Blues

 Today, for the first time since the Earthquake I ventured into the centre of Christchurch. Although city life seemed normal, the impact of the September 4th earthquake was evident block by block; the damage arbitrary in its intensity.  Yet the day itself was perfect for this equinoctal time of year - the gales abated for a day - fresh snow on the Port Hills, dazzling sunshine, a swathe of daffodils the length of one of the Four Avenues, cherry blossom and voluptuous magnolias presenting a contrite bouquet for Mother Nature's savagery.
But in the Secret Garden the sweet progress of Spring is untempered by any vengeful aspect of the Earth Mother.

Forget-me-nots and grape hyacinths vie for attention in a wild corner, and winter purslane flowers in its eccentric way: the tiny white flowers spraying from the centre of the leaves. Also known as Miner's lettuce it provides welcome dietary greens during the winter months.

Claytonia perfoliata Winter Purslane,   Miner's Lettuce

Myosotis sylvatica Forget-me-not

Muscari botryoides Grape hyacinth

September 16, 2010

A Reason to Smile

These tulips have bloomed under the window in the old house's overgrown  front garden. For the first time in years the buds have unfurled and lasted for days due to this cool and mostly overcast weather. Previous springs have proved too hot and the Nor' West winds withered the buds before they opened. So this is a celebratory photo.  I found, by chance, while emptying my mother's many handbags this last week, a bulb label from a bag of  'Smiling Queen' tulips. I set it on the inside window sill to compare the picture with the flowers as they opened, and although the printed label shows a more lurid red and white image I think that these are they.

September 15, 2010


I have been clearing and sorting my mother's belongings. Her old house - my new house - is 48 years-full of one family's life. There are all sorts of treats; some sentimental like the congratulatory telegram to my mother on the occasion of my birth, others gratuitous like this Paragon fine bone china set - Gainsborough meets Clarice Cliff. Lady Mondegreen thinks she would like to use this  delicate trio at one of her garden parties. Would it be safe in the hands of the Mad Hatter?

September 14, 2010

Return to the Garden

How glad I have been for these soft Spring days in the aftermath of the Earthquake. The aftershocks still come, few and far between now, and the early anxiety seems to be receding. I have been pre-occupied with the old house, and with so much rain, I have merely passed back and forth through the garden this last week.
In spite of all the rain, the weather has been mild and even warm, and all sorts of little delights are appearing - wild and cultivated, like these brilliant polyanthus under the walnut tree.

September 7, 2010


I thought that we got off lightly, and really we have. But after a night of aftershocks, two of which were magnitude 5.4 I have joined the ranks of the anxious. Everyone it seems, whether their initial losses were great or small, came through last night -the third since the big quake - nerves jangling with dread.
In the City, buildings assessed as safe are having to be reassessed. Here I no longer feel so confident that this humble cottage will stay strong. I took this photo on Saturday when the sun shone as brightly on ruination as it did on this tranquility.

The beauty of the Secret Garden has been almost unbearable in the last few days. Plum blossom is everywhere and its scent is heavy on the air, even on cool damp days like today.

Do you remember the daffodils at the opening of Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden?  The buds thrusting towards Spring - well here they are in bloom.

September 4, 2010


After being jolted awake at 4.35 this morning I am barely awake at the keyboard.
The sun shone today, and all the plum blossom seems to have unfurled at once: clouds of white against the blue of the sky. The chimneys on the old house still stand. The cracks in the walls from previous earthquakes seem no greater than before this morning's quake. A cracked window is all that my heritage building seems to have sustained. Unlike the devastion of Christchurch's gracious built heritage. But unlike other earthquakes of similar magnitude - 7.1 - in populous places around the world, we have been lucky that there have been no deaths as a direct result of the earthquake. The aftershocks continue as I prepare for bed. We have been lucky here in the countryside, not so far from the City, to have stored water, a septic tank and continued power.  Elwin and I have got on with cutting up the firewood gums that he felled last weekend. So there's a bit of honest fatigue mixed in with my long day tiredness.

September 3, 2010

The Skudder House at Ashley Bank

The Skudder House at Ashley Bank, circa 1890
Today's inclement weather, cold, wet and windy, was more winter than spring, and no fun to be out in. A spot of delving in my archives rather than the garden was more appealing. Here's a view from the same end of the house as my September 1st post, but taken about 120 years ago, before modern extensions had been added.  Hannah Skudder and her daughter Frances are standing in front of an early extension. Thomas Skudder, a London stone mason, built the original two up and two down cottage from  poured concrete, but within ten years and maybe disillusioned with this method, he added a kitchen in brick. I love the simplicity and balance of these two elements, and wonder what it would be like to restore some of this simpicity.

September 2, 2010

While I was out with my camera this morning I photographed this scene. A circular sweep can just be seen marked by the lawnmower. Long before a wild plum seeded here, this was my first garden. My mother encouraged me with this roundel planted with polyanthus, a few daffodils and not as many marsh marigolds. Together we collected cuttings from her friends' gardens and grew them there in a joyful muddle. These days I like the way this sunny circle appears each spring, a vestige of my first flower bed.

A Good Wall

This wall has always captured my imagination, with its solitary little window facing the afternoon sun: a 19th Century failing of Northern  Hemisphere builders and planners to adjust to the Southern Hemisphere's solar sweep. And now this space is poised between picturesque dereliction and agressive takeover by wild plums.
I have plans...  But I will let the trees bloom once more before I take to them with my new chainsaw!

September 1, 2010

South Elevation

A photo! Not taken today, but on a fine day last week. The willow tree has leafed-up since I took this shot, a view from the south of my new old house, The early 1880s stucture rises centrally from later extensions.

August 28, 2010

Just when I thought I'd grasped how to post photos, this tired computer of mine foils me. So the last few days in the garden must remain a visual mystery for now. That's a pity because we have been blessed with fine warm weather, which is breathing life into the early leafing and blossoming trees. Two big weeping willows are veiled in green and already scented with honey, though I can't see any catkins yet, and the early plum blossom is also adding its strong scent to my garden walks.

Today was a brutally productive day in the garden, as Elwin tried out our new chainsaw and felled overgrown coppiced gums for next year's firewood. This is the right time of year to promote new growth after cutting, but it's rather sad that the tips are thick with flower buds, and we have deprived the bellbirds of a rich source of nectar. Still there are more trees untouched for them to feed on.

August 22, 2010

Early Days

The sun came out today: welcome after so many drear days. With its light I can see the flush of green on the weeping willows and the first Iceland poppy bloom. The hazel catkins create rich texture and Lenten roses lavish attention on an abandoned space.

 Hazel Corylus avellana  The catkins are the male flowers which release pollen during winter.  By happy chance my little grove of four hazel trees, produce female and male flowers matched for pollination, and we get a good crop of nuts.

Lenten Rose Helleborus orientalis  I no longer have the variety name for these, but they thrive on neglect!