The Back Yard
Justin Newcombe's tips for creating a gorgeous and productive garden

Three steps from winter to spring

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A simple plan to sort out your winter garden and get it ready for the annual burst of growth and colour to come in the months ahead.

Cyclamen are leafy plants with bright colours.     Photo / Greg Bowker
Cyclamen are leafy plants with bright colours. Photo / Greg Bowker

Every garden needs its downtime and many plants have wound down for winter, opening up scruffy gaps in your garden you didn't know were there. This is the best time for you to get busy and prepare your yard's spaces, ready for when your plants wake up and burst forth with new foliage and colour in the months ahead. By concentrating on structure, highlights and borders, your garden will be elegant and trouble-free all the way through spring.


Good structure provides a strong sense of balance and the lovely fine bones on which to hang the rest of your garden. It might consist of three or four large, permanent elements spread out evenly around your garden, such as the same type of palm, or large topiary in pots. (Topiary is the art of trimming a perfectly good shrub into a shape such as a ball, corkscrew, poodle or duck and may sound a bit wacky, but you will be pleased with this eccentric addition to your garden when you're looking at it through the rain.)


Highlights catch the eye and add interest to large drifts of plants which would otherwise look a little boring. During winter, when most flowers have gone to bed, astelia can be relied on to raise their cheery heads and say hello from the gloom. These alpine natives range in colour from mint green to ruby red, and their leaves have a silvery sheen which catches the light. But watch out all you shady gardeners out there - astelias are sun lovers, so make sure to plant them in a bright spot. They'll just need a bit of a tidy up once a year.


Strong borders give definition to the overall shapes that make up your garden. Framing the lawn brings out the best in the entire garden. A classic way to achieve this is with small shrubs or ornamental grasses. Cyclamen double as leafy plants that also produce terrific shows of hot pink and red colours through the shortest months. They like leafy, crumbly soil and shade or semi-shade. An evergreen option is the reliable mondo grass. Its thick mane of smooth fronds not only looks great but also reduces your weeding work by smothering the little blighters.

Winter Gardening Tips

* Your garden structure sets the tone for the style or theme - if you want a native garden you might choose nikau palms, placing three or four around your beds. If you want a cowboy garden, go for cacti.

* A winner in the highlights competition is the cycad, which throws up thick, strong, glossy fronds forming a heavy crown above a stout trunk. The most common of these is Cycas revoluta, or the Sago palm. It sends out a new circle of fronds all at once which are at first delicate, but harden to a plastic-like texture over a couple of months. The position of the fronds are set according their angle toward the sun. Sago palms can be expensive but can turn the most dowdy wasteland into a true bravura of garden design.

* Mondo grass ranges in colour - from dark aubergine to light green - and in height. Once you've chosen your variety, it's easy to propagate. Just rip a bit off an existing plant, make sure it's got a few roots attached, and plant. If in doubt about the quality of your soil, add some potting mix prior to planting. Otherwise just keep it watered and the babies will grow.

Three of the best heirloom fruit trees: Bred over generations for New Zealand conditions. See

Captain Kidd apples
This tree produces streaky, bright red fruit which are very sweet and juicy with excellent flavour.

Dan's Early plums
Sweet and tasty red-fleshed plums. The fruit ripens through December on a tree that is a vigorous, heavy cropper - plenty to share with the family over Christmas.

Kaeo figs
Large, long figs which have two crops, at Christmas and in March. This variety has green skin which turns amber when ripe and has a light red flesh. It comes from the Kaeo area and has been on the radar since 1832.

* Justin Newcombe is a landscape gardener and Life's Back Yard columnist. For more information see

- NZ Herald

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