Gardening: Group effort

By Meg Liptrot

A walk on the wild side will allow nature to show you how it's done, says Meg Liptrot.

A native garden featuring Pratia angulata as groundcover (with tiny white flowers), nikau, Carex virgata and flax. Photo / Meg Liptrot
A native garden featuring Pratia angulata as groundcover (with tiny white flowers), nikau, Carex virgata and flax. Photo / Meg Liptrot

Next time you're out for a walk in wild Aotearoa, and you're interested in having a garden which has a native feel to it, take a closer look at the plant groups along the way.

What is covering the ground? If you're on a bush walk, you'll see low-growing, sprawling groundcovers combined with ferns, vines and seedlings growing in damp leaf litter beneath the air-conditioned tree canopy.

On the coast, in hollows where moisture collects behind sand dunes, clusters of plants co-exist in a harsh desert-like environment.

Lengths of driftwood and large stones are often the only things providing shelter, under which plant roots get a chance to gain a foothold and take up precious moisture and nutrients from organic debris on the beach.

Coastal forests have their own interesting range of salt-hardy shrubs, grasses and groundcovers, sheltered by pohutukawa, manuka and often nikau.

Walking the coastal cliff track from Karekare to Mercer Bay and on to Piha, you sometimes get a glimpse of turutu (Dianella nigra) when the path deviates into the bush. It's one of my favourite native plants and has olive green, strap-like leaves with delicate branching stems of bright blue berries. Really gorgeous. I think this and the Chatham Island forget-me-not are the only New Zealand native plants with blue in their colour palette.

I have photographed turutu covered in berries on a walk to the hot springs at Great Barrier Island. The plants were growing in the open bush beside the boardwalk which meanders past raupo (bulrush) and bracken wetlands.

There are some striking grasses and sedges around the country, such as Chionocloa flavicans. This looks like a miniature droopy toetoe but is native to colder parts of New Zealand. This plant is out of place and unsuited to the humidity in the upper North Island.

A good alternative is the small-growing native toetoe, Cortaderia fulvida. This feathery-plumed grass is found throughout the North Island and shouldn't be confused with the larger invasive exotic pampas grass which hails from South America, the one Kiwi kids wave as flags on the beach, innocently spreading more seed to out-colonise our native variety. Our small native toetoe is in great demand by landscapers and often sells out at native plant nurseries during the planting season.

Many of our groundcovers have secret charms, some are internationally unique. Fuschia procumbens, for example, is the only fuschia in the world whose curious yellow flowers point up instead of hang down. For added interest, it has small oval red berries and rounded green leaves about 10mm in diameter. This is a hardy groundcover, suitable for full sun or dappled shade.

Plant groups in the wild will give you clues as to how a garden that is evocative of our wild places could work.

Become familiar with what grows in your region and which species have evolved to suit the conditions in your area, be it an exposed hillside, harbour edge or damp lowland near a stream.

There are some good native plant specialist nurseries which can help you. Take in photos and a staff member will help identify the plants and advise you on the conditions you need for your own "wild New Zealand" native garden.

Natural groupings

Coastal/harbour side* (exposed, copes with salt air):

Canopy (tall-med trees): Pohutukawa, Karaka, Kanuka (P), Karo (P), Nikau

Subcanopy/small trees: Kawakawa, Melicope ternata*, Manuka (P), Akeake

Larger gound cover plants (full sun): Flax (Phormium tenax and the smaller P. cookianum), Oioi/Jointed Wire Rush, Toi toi (Cortaderia fulvida - also found near sunny stream banks), Taupata

Creeping groundcovers: Pohuehue (Muehlenbeckia spp), Horokaka (native ice plant), Coprosma acerosa, Libertia peregrinans (a golden leafed native iris), Fuchsia procumbens, Euphorbia glauca

Feature plant for rockery/permanent pot: Poor Knights Lily

Inland, but near coast:

C: Kohekohe, Karaka, Taraire, Nikau

SC/tall shrubs: Tree ferns, Kawakawa, Houpara (Pseudopanax lessonii), Hangehange (P), Red Matipo (P), Coprosma spp.

GC: Turutu (Dianella nigra), Renga renga lily, ground ferns

Inland, rich fertile lowlands, damp stream/river banks*:

C: Puriri, Tarairi, Tanekaha, Ti Kouka/Cabbage tree, Putaputaweta, Kowhai*

SC: Tree ferns, Nikau, Hangehange (P), Red Matipo (P), Kiekie

GC: Pratia angulata, ground ferns, Libertia ixiodes* (green leafed native iris), Carex virgata, Astelia spp.

Key: (P) = Pioneers (plant first as shelter, before canopy trees)

C = Tree Canopy, SC = Subcanopy, GC= Groundcover

Ask for ecosourced native plants (selected from your region) where possible.

* Meg Liptrot studied sustainable horticulture and is a garden designer specialising in organic edibles and natives.

- Herald on Sunday

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