The Garden at Akaunui

Day 14 of our New Zealand tour took us out of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and down onto the Canterbury Plains with its patchwork of agricultural fields. Here’s a bus window look at the descent.

In late morning we drove into Akaunui Farm Homestead in the countryside near Ashburton. As we walked down the long, hedge-lined driveway, we were greeted politely by the two family dogs.

The brick house was lovely, with its generous verandahs and covered balcony. Built in 1905 for Edward Grigg, a son of one of Canterbury’s pioneering colonial farmers, John Grigg, first president of the New Zealand Agricultural Society and a large-scale sheep and cropping farmer, it was originally part of the Grigg family’s massive Longbeach estate. But it has long been in the family of our host and hostess today, Di and Ian Mackenzie.

Di and Ian, below, share that farming pedigree with their predecessors.  Though their grown son now farms Akaunui’s 600 hectares (1500 acres) in vegetable and grain seed and sheep and dairy cattle, Ian has previously served as the national grain and seed chair of the Federated Farmers of New Zealand.

Di Mackenzie does all the gardening on a property whose landscape was designed originally by Alfred William Buxton (1872-1950). As the New Zealand government historical entry says, “Buxton’s landscape designs were typified by curved entrance drives, perimeter plantings of forest trees, water.…”  We saw that all here at Akaunui, the curved entrance drive and perimeter plantings of forest trees. ……

…… ….. a sinuous pond….

….. and a bog garden……

……with Gunnera manicata, among many other choice plants.

The pond curved around past Di’s vast collection of trees and shrubs, including bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) …..

…..and presented the most spectacular reflective view of the house.

There was a lovely tranquility about this pond, with its little rowboat.

I liked this combination, of a hybrid of native Phormium tenax with Verbena bonariensis.

Many of the specimen trees are very old, like this southern magnolia (M. grandiflora)…..

….. which was still putting out shimmering blossoms in mid-summer.

The lawns alone take Di Mackenzie 15 hours a week on her sitting mower, and clearly they had just been done before our arrival.

The beds around the house feature roses and perennials…..

…. and Di’s exquisite sense of colour is on display here, like this buff peach rose with Phygelius capensis.

There is a sweet parterre along an outbuilding wall.

Rain showers started as I made my way from the lovely swimming pool……

……(Canterbury’s summers can be hot and very dry)…..

…….. to the enclosed garden……..

….with its espaliered apple allée  and stunning focal point.

Outside, there were pears…..

….. and peaches…..

…..and figs……

……and more apples.

Di’s vegetable garden produces an abundance of produce…..

……which she uses for family meals. What’s left over gets preserved for winter.

I loved this flower border, with its pretty white-and-blue theme including Ammi majus and love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena).

And I liked the way Di mixes perennials with roses, making the roses earn their keep instead of segregating them in a rose garden.

We were walked up to the newest part of the garden: the 4 hectare (10 acre) native-rich designed wetland. Paradoxically, when John Grigg bought his 32,000 acre estate here in 1864, the property was said to be mostly “impassable swamp”. But for Di and Ian, turning part of it back into a designed wetland with a meandering, marshy swale……

….. bordered by native flaxes (and also some colourful Phormium tenax cultivars, below)  and grasses…….

….. like Cortaderia richardsonii, a New Zealand cousin to pampas grass…….

…. and native hebe,below, with a foraging bumble bee,…….

…. offered more than an embrace of modern ecological sensibilities. There are also family golf matches in this area, where the water hazards are clearly abundant.

Perhaps the dog has been trained to retrieve lost balls? Or maybe he just likes a dip.

That bridge above, in fact, was where Ian Mackenzie showed us something he’s very proud of, something that for him seems to have made the return of the wetland all worth it. Have a look at these, below. They’re Canterbury mudfish (Neochanna burrowsius), an amphibious species that can survive long periods without water by burrowing into the mud. And they’ve been making a big comeback here at Akaunui.

We returned to the picnic tables via the previously overgrown woodland, which Di has started to clear in order to plant rhododendrons and lots of shade-loving plants.

We were offered a luscious home-cooked lunch with delicious beets and greens, courtesy of Di’s garden.  Oh, and the best rhubarb cake ever!

And there was a little wine (actually a lot of wine!)

As we made our departure from this beautiful farm, I stopped to watch the dogs’ tails move through a big field of something green. Looking closer, I realized it was another of the Mackenzie family businesses: radishes on their way to ripening seed.  I read later that New Zealand supplies almost 50% of the world’s hybrid radish, carrot and beet seed. Next time you slice a radish for a summer salad, consider for a moment that it might have started its journey in Ian & Di Mackenzie’s pretty field in Canterbury.


A Visit (or Two) to New York Botanical Garden

World-class is an overused term, but it is not an exaggeration when describing what I consider to be the finest public garden in the United States: New York Botanical Garden.  In my two decades of visiting NYBG, I have seen it change its focus somewhat to become more ecologically attuned, as befits any modern botanical garden, but it has not lost its charm no matter what the season. And 2016 marks its 125th anniversary, a milestone to celebrate. So let’s celebrate with a photo  tour of some of the gardens on its 250 acres (100 hectares). Whenever I visit (via the Metro North Railroad from Grand Central Station, Botanical Garden stop), I head immediately to the Seasonal Border, designed by Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf.  When i visited this August, I noticed a new sign dedicating the garden to Marjorie G. Rosen, who chairs the Horticulture Committee and is Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors.

NYBG-Seasonal Border-August 2016

I love this border in all seasonal guises, for its inspiration for those thinking about making a naturalistic meadow-style planting. Here it is, below, in July 2011 with ‘Green Jewel’ coneflowers (Echinacea) front and centre.

NYBG-Seasonal Border-July 2011

I was especially fond of this combination of Lilium henryi and Scutellaria incana.

NYBG-Seasonal Border-Lilium henry & Scutellaria incana

This is how it looked in spring 2012. The bulb plantings were designed by Jacqueline van der Kloet.

NYBG-Seasonal Border-Spring 2012

They’ve even gone to the trouble of making a sign showing Piet Oudolf’s hand-painted plan for the garden.

NYBG-Piet Oudolf Seasonal Border Plan

It’s a short walk from the Seasonal Border to the Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden. This is what it looked like in August.

NYBG-Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden-August 2016

I loved these combinations: Colocasia esculenta ‘Blue Hawaii’ with zingy Gomphrena globosa ‘Strawberry Fields’….

NYBG-Salvia-Gomphrena-Colocasia-Perennial Garden

… and a more romantic look with Salvia guaranitica and a lovely pink rose.

NYBG-Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden-Rose & Salvia guaranitica

I spent a lot of time watching butterflies and bees nectaring on Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’, a late summer mainstay at NYBG.

NYBG-Black Swallowtail on Phlox paniculata 'Jeana'

This garden also offers lots of design ideas, whether you visit in spring (this was 2012)….

NYBG-Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden-Spring

…. or summer (2011).  If you sit on this bench with that gorgeous lily within sniff range, you’ll understand why designers recommend planting perfumed plants where you’re going to be walking or sitting.

NYBG-Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden-July 2011

I love the use of gold/chartreuse foliage in this part of the perennial garden.

NYBG-Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden-Chartreuse

The Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden and the adjacent Ladies’ Border were designed by New York’s champion of public gardens, the venerable Lynden Miller, below, right. When I was there in 2012, she and NYBG’s vice-president of outdoor gardens, Kristin Schleiter…..

NYBG- Kristin Schleiter & Lynden Miller-Spring 2012

…. conducted a tour of NYBG’s then brand-new Azalea Garden, below, with azalaes and rhododendrons arranged throughout the garden’s natural rock outcrops and underplanted with natives like white foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia). If you visit in late April or  May, this part of the garden is a must-see!

NYBG-Azaleas & Tiarella

I loved this spectacular pink cloud of azaleas!

NYBG-Azalea Garden

Speaking of spring, it was sometime in the late 1990s when I visited New York in Japanese cherry season. At NYBG, that means a stroll to Cherry Hill, where you’ll see pink and white clouds of beautiful “sakura” trees.  And there’s a daffodil festival bolstered this spring by a huge planting commemorating the 125th birthday.

NYBG-Cherry Hill

But back to the perennial garden area. Adjoining it is the Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden, a formal knot garden.  This year, the parterres were filled wtih artichokes….

NYBG-Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden-2016

…. but a few years ago, there was a charming planting of clary sage (Salvia horminum).

NYBG-Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden-2014

The perennial garden also sits in the shadow of the spectacular and historic Enid Haupt Conservatory.

NYBG-Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden-Sign

Here is how that magnificent dome looks from the perennial garden.

NYBG-Enid Haupt Conservatory Dome

I always make a point of visiting the conservatory in order to see the season’s themed show, as designed by Francisca Coelho (they run from mid-May to mid-September). This year, it was all about American Impressionism, and the long gallery in the conservatory featured plants that represented that art movement, such as Celia Thaxter’s Garden.  Here’s what it looked like from the entrance….

NYBG-Impressionist Garden Plants 2016-Francisca Coelho design (2)

…. and from the far end of the gallery.

NYBG-Impressionist Garden Plants 2016-Francisca Coelho design (1)

I loved the 2014 show, which was titled “Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and the Women Who Designed Them”. The conservatory show was titled ‘Mrs. Rockefeller’s Garden’, and was a nod to Eyrie, the Maine garden designed for Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in 1926 by Beatrix Farrand.

NYBG-2014-Mrs Rockefeller's Garden


But my favourite was 2008’s “Charles Darwin’s Garden”.

NYBG-Darwins Garden1-2008

They even created a little study for him, complete with desk and rocking chair.

NYBG-Darwins Study-2008

Adjoining glasshouses contain stunning displays of tropicals…..


…..and another has cacti and succulents.


Behind the conservatory is the wonderful courtyard pool.


Here you see sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)….

NYBG-Nelumbo nucifera

…sometimes with resting dragonflies….


…and luscious waterlilies, like Nymphaea ‘Pink Grapefruit’, below.

NYBG-Nymphaea 'Pink Grapefruit'

Walking through the garden (or you can take a tram), you’ll come to one of my new favourite places: the Native Plant Garden.  On August 16th, despite the lack of rain in the northeast this summer, the meadow portion was a symphony of prairie grasses, goldenrods and flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), among other late season plants….

NYBG-Native Plant Garden-Outcrop

….. and buzzing with pollinators, as promised in the interpretive signage for the garden.

NYBG-Native Plants-Signage

Have you ever seen a glacial erratic? This is what happened in this very spot when the glaciers retreated from Manhattan thousands of years ago, leaving this massive boulder behind. Geologists identify these behemoths as erratics when they do not fit the mineral profile of the underlying rocks.

NYBG-Glacial Erratic-Native Plant Garden

The meadows are beautiful, but the new native wetland is also a revelation. Imagine, coming down this boardwalk…..

NYBG-Native Plant Wetland

….. and looking over the edge to see a huge collection of carnivorous pitcher plants (Sarracenia species and hybrids), along with orchids.


Keep walking and you’ll find a bench where you can contemplate the waterfall.

NYBG-Wetland-Lobelia cardinalis

All around you are native plants that are fond of damp conditions, including cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis).

NYBG-Native Plant Garden-Cardinal Flower & Ironweed

We’re not finished touring, so rest your legs until you’re ready to cast a glance over the rosy cloud of Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium) before heading back up the slope to the meadows.

NYBG-Wetland-Joe Pye Weed

Keep walking – you’re almost at the best place in New York to see roses: the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. In June, there’s even a festival – and it’s worth the extra cost to add it to your general admission.

NYBG-Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden

There are many other gardens, of course, including deep botanical collections of trees and shrubs. I usually pay a short visit to the Louise Loeb Vegetable Garden.

NYBG-Louise Loeb Vegetable Garden

And I sometimes pop by the Pauline Gillespie Plant Trials Garden to see how the new plants are faring.

NYBG-Pauline Gillespie Gosset Plant Trials Garden

But I never visit New York without making my way to the front gate of the New York Botanical Garden!  Happy 125th birthday, NYBG. Still humming along after all these years!

NYBG-Hummingbird-Ladies' Border