Intriguing garden plantings

By Gareth Winter

It has been one of those springs - weather-wise, but also weirdness-wise as well.

It all started when our ex-neighbour asked me to identify a bare-stemmed tree in her new garden. I was a bit flummoxed, as it was a deciduous tree with no special defining characteristics, so I told her to come back to me when it flowered. When she did it was immediately obvious what it was - the wonderful flowering crab apple, Malus ionensis 'Plena'.

This double-flowered crab must be the most commonly planted of all the flowering apples in New Zealand, perhaps because when in flower it looks so much like a flowering cherry. Also known as the Bechtel Crab, this is a beautiful small-growing tree with a fabulous floral display in spring - masses of fully-double, light-pink flowers, tinged with deeper pink are carried for weeks on end. When in full flower the mildly fragrant flowers cover the tree - it is a wonderful sight.

My ex-neighbour should have recognised it - we have a 15-year-old specimen of this tree in our garden - it is one of the highlights of our back garden.

Then a few weeks later I was visiting an auntie in Wairarapa Hospital and she asked me to pull back the blind and tell her what kind of tree was growing outside her window.

Even though she is a great gardener, she could not work out what the tree was. She thought it might be a flowering cherry. Needless to say, it was the Bechtel Crab again!

I had a wander around the hospital gardens while visiting her, then had a better look the other day. The gardens are going to be open for tours on Sunday, so it might be a good chance to look through the gardens and hear from designer Lin Eglinton some of the thought processes that have gone into the construction of a very interesting set of plantings.

Most of you will have seen the plantings at the main entrance, where beds of rengarenga lilies, Arthropodium cirrhatum, are currently popping up their flower heads, alongside clivias, azaleas and euphorbias, in the fullness of their flowering with giant masses of flower. This bed features topiary in the shape of children, giving a very dramatic feature to the garden.

One of the features of the garden as a whole is the use of clipped hedging, often quite low. In the entrance garden Lin had used the Wairarapa native Muehlenbeckia astonii, a coastal plant that had strongly divaricating branches covered with small green, heart-shaped leaves. It is threatened in the wild, but has become a favourite of garden designers with its unusual growth habits and bright clean look.

Alongside it a bed of the dwarf Agapanthus 'Streamline' is just thrusting up its pale blue flowers. It will look stunning in the next few months.

In the body of the hospital are two large courtyards, one containing a children's playground, and a long rill of water. It has box hedging and an interesting mix of hydrangeas, with an intriguing twist in the selection of varieties. One variety is the double, white-flowered 'Trophy', first found in his Coromandel garden by Tony Owens. The other is the oak-leaved American species, H. quercifola with its wonderful conical shaped flowers semi-covered with a mix of fertile and sterile flowers giving the lace cap effect so beloved by Hydrangea fans.

There are also some other intriguing plants in the beds in these two courtyards, with even some brightly flowering convolvulus to treasure. Most people are horrified at the thought of deliberately planting some convolvulus, their only experience being with the terrible bindweed that is so difficult to eradicate but there are some lovely shrubby members of the genus that should be treasured. I was pleased to see the wonderful silver-leaved, white-flowered C. cneorum. This is a lovely little dwarf shrub of tidy habit that can easily be trimmed to form a small hedge, but if left untrimmed it will flower for months from late spring. As you might expect from a silver-leaved shrub it can cope with hot and dry conditions, and generally prefers a well-drained soil, making it great for elevated beds and containers.

Its mauve-blue flowered sprawling counterpart, Convolvulus sabatius (syn. C. mauritanicus) 'Blue Lake', is also planted and thriving. It is a brightly-coloured, long-flowering cultivar of a popular groundcover from Italy and northern Africa, bluer than the type species but still hardly blue! It has great value though, as it can cope with those tough dry conditions that try the patience of most gardeners, and will happily weave its way through other plants.

As I wandered around I was happy to find the crab apple trees I had seen through the window, happily flowering in the chapel garden and even though it is weeks since I saw them in flower there were still a few flowers and buds. There was a lovely border of the exuberant rose 'Sally Holmes' in full flower, and a pair of the wonderfully eccentrically shaped Robinia 'Lace Lady' flanking an entrance. I was also interested to see some very healthy 'Burgundy Iceberg' standard roses standing proud in a box-lined bed.

Nearby is an intriguing planting of another New Zealand-raised hybrid, an interesting dogwood. Cornus 'Greenvale', hybrid between the Himalayan strawberry tree, Cornus capitata, and C. kousa chinensis, which forms a small tree with greenish cream flowers, similar to C. capitata but tidier growing.

These are planted as a very formal grid on a gravel covered bed and would look very smart if whoever is driving the small vehicle over it could be persuaded to change their route.


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