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Sustaining a Summer Garden

As any green-fingered friend will agree, getting your hands in the soil and watching the fruits of your labour spring into life does wonders for the soul. Usually. But at this time of year, when an invitation to step outside is a natural part of the summer ritual, what we know as ASGD (annual summer garden despair) sets in for many and may stonewall such spontaneity. Specially in the Bay when searing stretches of hot, dry days and nights can throw a garden seriously out of kilter.

Michal McKay29 January 2018

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No one would be more knowledgeable about nature’s quirks when it comes to gardening in these parts than Kay Bazzard, who spent some eight years writing the gardening column for Hawke’s Bay Today. 

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Though she modestly says that may not qualify her as a horticultural expert or even remotely a botanist, it certainly has given her an insight into what can be done if there is enough passion, creativity and energy devoted to developing a botanical bounty even when starting from scratch.

On the job, visiting some 300 gardens and listening closely to their green-fingered owners, she discovered secrets about gardening in the Hawke’s Bay climate, the types of planting and the limited water usage. She sums up summer very simply, “Do not try to fight against the drought in conventional ways; rather find ways of living with it.”

Personally she considers gardening one of her most creative activities. “I married an Englishman and my first garden was in Buckinghamshire. In the beginning it was a necessity, but it became a passion. We had children, so I was a shoestring kind of gardener – meaning you don’t throw money at plants that die. We lived for 15 years in Britain and in that time I created many gardens, gradually filling up spaces. Always with a great sense of achievement”.

Ultimately she and husband Charlie (whom she had met in Australia) felt that though ‘it had been a great life’ they wanted to come back to New Zealand. As a lawyer doing the courtroom circuit in South Buckinghamshire her husband was well known as ‘a character’. So full of optimism he took on the Bar in Auckland “and hated it” says Kay with a wry smile. “All I wanted was for him to be happy so we bought a vineyard in Kumeu – and he loved it, I loved it and the children loved it. And I created a lovely garden in the valley while we enjoyed growing our grapes and the product it produced!”

Eventually, with one daughter living in the Bay, “we didn’t want the physical stress any longer – it’s tiring owning a vineyard,” she comments. “So we sold up and bought in Havelock North (in a charming John Scott development).” Sadly, Charlie developed cancer, “so at 56 I began the next stage of my life. I didn’t know anyone so I started writing.

“And until 2015, almost nine years later, I covered so many gardens. A lot I went back to more than once to see the development. Gardens by experts like Graham Miller, John Purdie, Lenora Buchanan, Chris Ryan ( an adviser to the Guthrie-Smith arboretum at Tutira); specialists who were immersed in what they did. They were so knowledgeable and all have made huge contributions to the wisdom of others by sharing with groups and allowing visits to their gardens.”

Her own garden, she says, in some ways “reflects my life”.

As it is on the hill there are just some things you cannot persuade it to do. I love the trees, many of which were originally here … the house was 13 years old when we bought it. The shingle was here, and a bit of lawn, but it’s impossible to mow and the shingle is the perfect medium for germinating trees that keep popping up. Ivy and agapanthus are essential to stop the banks eroding. I put in the retaining walls early on and immediately the soil became viable. I learnt to let the rich humus from trees develop for the plants’ benefit. In fact the word ecosystem probably best sums up what develops over the years when the soil, right plants, mulch, dappled shade, insects, worms etc.etc. come together. And it’s my job to control the garden thugs,” she laughs. “I think being able to appreciate and celebrate the garden when it’s at its best and to accept it when it is not, are really important characteristics in a gardener, as one gives up fighting against nature and develops a more sustainable philosophy.”

With her encyclopaedic knowledge of what it takes to develop a sustainable garden in the Bay, there is none better than Kay to provide words of wisdom for the less weathered of us aspiring to achieve the supposedly unachievable when the sun boils high in the summer sky.

Here she dishes the dirt on how to sustain a garden in the Hawke’s Bay hills:

Factors to be considered:

Climate: 

• Hawke’s Bay is a winter rain area, however it’s not reliable, being dependent on moisture-laden weather systems bringing rain from the Pacific Ocean.

• Frost damage often comes in winter especially in gullies and low-lying sites.

• Summer is typically dry with hot temperatures from January to March or longer.

• Hawke’s Bay gardens require shade.

Water: 

• Water restrictions will become more rigorous as understanding grows regarding the limits of available water and priorities are placed on usage. Already water pressure on my own hill drops off alarmingly during the summer months due to usage elsewhere.

Soils: 

• Typically, light almost sandy, frequently underlaid by clay pan and influenced by the limestone geology … untreated, this is not an ideal growing medium for plants.

Sloping contours: 

• Not naturally conducive to lush growth because of rainwater run-off, and exposure to sun and wind. BUT – a garden is possible if a microclimate is created.

Foundations:

• Plant with the long-term intent of creating a microclimate in which plants thrive, by ensuring there is shelter from the wind. This creates a nursery environment for young plants; adding humus helps absorb and contain rainwater in the soil.

• Change and improve the soil structure by regularly adding humus, especially during the early years; in time the trees and plants compound the humus by their contributions of vegetable matter, falling leaves, decomposition and root systems.

• Avoid introducing large areas of heat-attracting surfaces such as concrete or tarmac.

• Keep existing trees where possible – established trees create dappled shade, cooling the air around them from convection movement and shelter the environment from the drying effects of strong winds.

• Hillside gardening is significantly improved by building retaining walls as this contains rainwater run-off and very quickly improves the soil structure.

• A water supply for new young plants is essential, but is less so once the garden is fully established as a mature and sustainable garden.

• First plantings must be hardy and drought resistant; less hardy plants can be introduced later once those hardy types are established.

Personal observations: 

• The privacy and ambience provided by a selection of mature deciduous trees on all boundaries. In winter the bare branches allow in the sun and light and require the arborist’s skills every two years to keep them in shape.

• I love the trees, green on green, shade and shelter they provide and I don’t mind about the leaf fall, as that comes with a treed garden.

• To walk in my garden appreciating developments or sit with a cup of tea, listening to the birdsong and absorbing the greenness around me.

• Low maintenance and no lawns – I do not want to spend a lot of time and energy on garden maintenance. I still manage to fill a large wheelie bin once a fortnight.

• I value the naturalness of the combined tree and understory plantings. Most plants are allowed quite a bit of licence and could be described by some as ‘untidy.’

• The flowering plants are not the primary feature, but are welcome points of colour amongst the green.

• The glimpses of long views to the hills and short views of the garden … sloping contours add to the interest and bring an element of surprise.

• I love having fruit and nut trees in the garden.

• The spontaneous germination of native plants and trees in the shingle edges of the garden from the seeds dropped by birds.

Lessons learnt:

• Soil structure also improves over time, adding to a holistic and sustainable community of living things; plants, bugs, bees and birds.

• Over time the plants that survive learn to cohabit, developing a symbiotic relationship; the ones that were the correct choices of course.

• Shingle on driveways acts as a mulch allowing water to soak into the soil and keep the wider environment moist.

• To manage my expectations of what can be grown on a hillside garden in this climate.

• To live with the fact that I may choose the wrong plant for the site and it will therefore die when water is short and the temperatures soar.

• A ‘weed’ is a plant in the wrong place and can sometimes be pretty, and that some ‘weeds’ have their uses, e.g. ivy and agapanthus on banks.

• That a garden is constantly evolving and over a period of 10 years a newly planted garden will go through a complete transformation.

Helpful hints: 

• Mulch twice a year and feed with animal manure and compost. Soil will develop a rich biomass if kept moist and mulched and not exposed to the baking sun.

• Ideally grow a mix of trees and shrubs suited to the location and climate; consider size when mature (which includes the root systems); specimen trees need space to be appreciated. Avoid drought sensitive varieties – many Australian trees are incredibly hardy and provide fabulous food sources for native birds, so include them in the mix of exotic, deciduous and NZ native evergreens.

• Lawns are unsustainable and require work, water and expense to be kept looking beautiful year round. Think about expanding the general plantings and creating lawn paths between the beds – the plants help to shade the grass.

• A concrete surface prevents rain soaking in, causing run-off into waterways and even flooding, be creative with driveways, use shingle or permeable surfaces.

Water conservation: 

• Irrigate intelligently. I hate to see fan sprinklers going for hours with water falling on footpaths and pavements and running into the gutters.

• Take a ‘minimum water use’ approach and water just the essentials. Use a timer or don’t water at all – many drought tolerant plants will survive a drought and perk up again when the rain falls in autumn.

• Let the lawn dry off in hot, dry conditions. It will recover by autumn.

• Mulch around plants to contain soil moisture using organic material, home compost, mushroom compost, bark, pea straw, shingle and/or groundcover plants.

• Irrigate when the temperatures are cool and there is less evaporation – at dawn, dusk and on cool days; even during light rainfall, watering boosts the effects of rain on soil moisture. Wait until the wind drops to irrigate.

• Winter soak during dry spells to maintain moisture levels ready for spring growth. I have often underestimated how dry the soil can get in winter.

• Trees and dense understory planting helps protect soils from evaporation in windy conditions.

Note: In 2004 Kay did a course in Art and Design at EIT, discovering a passion for pastels and sculpture. These days she spends much of her time in her studio where she has a kiln and is a practising ceramic artist whose work can be found at VIVA Gallery in Napier. www.kaybazzard.co.nz 

Michal McKay29 January 2018

BB39

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