Tough cus­tomers

Hawke's Bay Today - - Digest - By Leigh Bramwell

Com­frey is not ex­actly the belle of the ball but a tough cus­tomer that’s easy to grow and hard to kill.

THE MOST suc­cess­ful plant in my garden is a com­frey. I planted it a few years ago when I was on an eco-mis­sion and I’d read some­where that it should be planted at the base of your fruit trees, and then cut back and dug into the soil at the end of the sea­son.

I man­aged the plant­ing bit and the cut­ting back but by the time I got to the dig­ging in part I was over ecomis­sions and on to the next thing, so the com­frey re­mained.

Since then it’s been half­way up the trees and de­spite be­ing whacked down ev­ery three or four months, it lives to fight an­other day, and an­other, and an­other . . .

So it was no sur­prise to find it turn­ing up in a list of tough plants for dif­fi­cult ar­eas, along with a few oth­ers that seem to love it in our garden.

In ad­di­tion to be­ing shade tol­er­ant and gen­er­ally un­fussy, it has two other good points. Firstly, it’s a min­eral ac­cu­mu­la­tor, which means it mines the soil for good­ies and feeds the plants around it and se­condly, it makes an im­pen­e­tra­ble weed cover. How­ever, since it looks pretty much like a weed it­self I’m not sure whether there’s any ad­van­tage in that.

An­other shade-tol­er­ant type is Gera­nium no­dosum which, like com­frey, is un­fussy and will also grow in full sun. Un­like com­frey, it’s pretty with at­trac­tive, mid-green leaves and lovely, lilac/blue blooms in sum­mer. It looks frag­ile and del­i­cate but it’s very hardy.

And back to the weedy looka­likes, there’s Per­si­caria am­plex­i­caulis (I hope for all our sakes it has a com­mon name but as yet I don’t know what it is) which has spiky flow­ers above dock-like leaves and grows al­most any­where. Its pref­er­ence is for moister soils but it’ll do drier con­di­tions pro­vided it’s not too sunny. Oth­er­wise, ei­ther full sun or part shade will do the trick. If you don’t mind its dock-like leaves, you can re­gard it as tak­ing a sup­port­ing role in the garden, its tall spires adding an up­right di­men­sion that won’t block the view of other plants.

I’m pretty sure it was Maggie Barry who, decades ago, said in a gar­den­ing pro­gramme that she was eu­phoric about eu­phor­bia. (I think that’s called a homonym but don’t quote me on that.) I speed­ily in­tro­duced my­self to a few eu­phor­bia but no eu­pho­ria en­sued and I still don’t like them. How­ever, you can’t go past them for dry, partly shady, in­hos­pitable con­di­tions where noth­ing else will grow. They’ll form dense car­pets of eye-sear­ing sul­phur yel­low um­bels above blue-grey fo­liage in the spring and then, thank­fully, die off in au­tumn.

I do have a soft spot for Cean­othus (California lilac) though. My mother grew this suc­cess­fully on a dry, rocky bank in Dunedin in full-on sun, rain, wind and frost and it pro­duced dense clus­ters of blue flow­ers ev­ery spring, no ques­tions asked.

The ones I’ve seen here in the Far North have re­mained quite low­grow­ing (Mum’s be­came a me­tre-tall shrub) and they look great hooked up with some of the blue-green grasses from the Lo­man­dra fam­ily.

These Aus­tralian grasses have won the hearts of land­scape de­sign­ers and gar­den­ers all over New Zealand with their com­mend­able be­hav­iour in wind, sun, drought, part shade, hu­mid­ity and even cold con­di­tions. We’re spoiled for choice with an ever- in­creas­ing range of sizes, colours and fo­liage style.

Cal­lis­te­mon (bot­tle­brush) is an­other tough Aussie that will tol­er­ate wind as long as it’s not salt­laden. Well-drain­ing soil is a bonus, and lots of sun will en­sure plenty of flow­ers in ei­ther white, pink, red or pur­ple — you pick.

And go­ing one bet­ter is the olive tree — it’ll tol­er­ate wind even if it is salt-laden. De­spite their del­i­cate-look­ing fo­liage, these an­cient trees thrive in windy, coastal sit­u­a­tions and all they ask is per­fect drainage. They make great screens be­cause they don’t block the light, they grow nicely in groups, or singly as spec­i­men trees, and they’re pretty in­dif­fer­ent to be­ing whacked down to size when­ever the mood takes you. They’ll sur­vive in con­tain­ers, you can stan­dard­ise and to pi­arise them, and if you’re re­ally, re­ally mo­ti­vated, you can har­vest the olives, process them and eat them.

Left, this Aussie bat­tler is as tough as old boots and sur­vives well in wind, sun, drought, part shade, hu­mid­ity and even cold.

Don’t be fooled — it looks del­i­cate but Gera­nium no­dosum is very hardy and a pretty ad­di­tion to the garden.

Com­frey is not ex­actly the belle of the ball but a tough cus­tomer that’s easy to grow and hard to kill.

The an­cient olive can thrive in windy, coastal sit­u­a­tions pro­vided it has good drainage.

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