Natives tell their story

NATURALLY NATIVE: Alpine plants Celmisia incana , centre, Pentachondra pumila, left, and Phyllachne colensoi, top, make a dramatic composition.
NATURALLY NATIVE: Alpine plants Celmisia incana , centre, Pentachondra pumila, left, and Phyllachne colensoi, top, make a dramatic composition.

I love this photo of alpine plants, taken by a friend on a winter tramp. It tells so many stories on many levels and, for me, is a good reason to Love Your Parks, the theme for Conservation Week, starting this Sunday.

Our parks, particularly our national parks, always seem to me like the lungs of the country, the breathing space for and repository of our natural world, the counterbalance to human impacts elsewhere.

It's not that we don't have to value and care for the rest of the environment where we live and derive our income. Call it recognition of the intrinsic value, but I like the way life continues in remote places, regardless of what we're up to elsewhere.

But I also love the inspiration we can derive from such remote and wild nature, particularly that from our native plants, as captured in the photo by keen Nelson tramper Jennie McGuinness.

For those who aren't familiar with the plants, the dramatic grey foliage in the centre is Celmisia incana, or mountain musk, surrounded by frost-covered Pentachondra pumila, on the left and dark green Phyllachne colensoi to the right. Although the photo was taken high on the slopes of Mt Brown, near Hokitika, Nelson botanist Shannel Courtney says it could have been taken anywhere around the alpine regions of northwest Nelson, where the Celmisia is common.

The botanical names of the plants are just one of many stories the photo tells us. There are also the ecological stories about the habitat of each plant, something all gardeners should be keen to learn when cultivating plants - not just indigenous species - at home. The botanical and ecological stories are those that need specific, scientific information, the informed or "cognitive" response.

Many native plants, depending on how prevalent or significant they were, also have Maori names and meanings.

But, probably the first story in the photo we respond to is that of the aesthetics, a simple subjective or "affective" response. Some people will like the plants and others won't.

Then there is the story about the composition of the plants and their visual characteristics, which, when understood, can be applied to good effect at home in the garden. These are the characteristics of line, form, texture and colour that contrast in the photo with dramatic results. This is plant materials 101 of garden design, where any plant can be described according to its line (say, vertical line of libertia or fan shape of flax), form (rounded hebe or flat, spreading coprosma), texture (big and bold griselinia or small, fine kanuka foliage) and colour (anything in the rainbow, from red rata flowers to yellow kowhai and purple dodonea leaves).

Every plant exhibits the four characteristics to a greater or lessor degree and, when juxtaposed in garden compositions, can be used to greater or lessor effect.

Analysed this way, it's apparent the contrasts between colour, form and texture of the plants are what gives the composition its dramatic effect. The silver-grey colour, spiky rosette form and bold texture of the Celmisia is what gives such a dramatic contrast to the dark green, low spreading form and fine texture of the Pentachondra and Phyllachne.

Now, if all this is sounding a bridge too far for most gardeners simply wanting to know how to grow native plants, or any plants, the lesson here is simple. It's about understanding the plants you look at and why you do or don't like them and, regardless of whether they're native or not, knowing how to use them to best effect in your garden.

So often native planting is what can be termed as the "naturalistic" approach, using native plants in combinations that simply copy those found in nature. Rather than simply copying nature though, we can draw inspiration from it and create new, unique combinations and designs.

The copycat approach may be legitimate and appropriate in ecological restoration and revegetation projects, but, when applied to the cityscape, seems a lost opportunity to do a lot better.

It lacks creativity and that other essential element of garden or landscape design, the acknowledgement of context. Replicating wild nature in copycat compositions seems out of context in the relative sophistication of an urban setting.

Instead, give me a selection of our native plants used in creative new ways, combining or contrasting their lines, forms, textures and colours to complement the built urban environment.

What plant combinations or compositions you might choose in a design is personal preference.

Understanding the visual characteristics of plants means you can also observe closely plant compositions you see elsewhere, in the wild and also in other gardens and understand what it is you do or don't like about them. Once you understand plants in terms of line, form, texture and colour, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities in your garden design, remembering, of course, you also need to find the right place for the right plant.

It also offers the chance to live dangerously. Try getting over the purist, naturalistic approach to plant composition in the urban garden and combine native plants with exotics to embrace an exciting, pluralistic approach.


September brings the warmth of the spring sun to hurry life along in the garden but also means timing is crucial to ensure you make the most of the growing season as it unfolds.

Make sure you finish all your tree and shrub planting as soon as possible to give your plants a good start in situ. Dig and divide any summer herbaceous perennials before their growth advances too far.

Sow or plant spring greens of lettuce, radicchio, silverbeet, spinach and pak choy, bok choy and mizuna. Sow also onions (spring and main), radish, parsnip, carrot, peas and broad beans for early summer crops.

Sow vegetables close together in the rows to allow for thinning and harvesting as baby veges for spring eating.

You can sow or plant rocket or florence fennel for spring use before they bolt to flower and seed in mid-summer.

Sow or plant outside cornflowers, pansies, primulas, statice, honesty, Californian poppy, cosmos and lobelia this month but wait until October to sow your tender summer annuals of marigold, petunia, begonia, impatiens and sunflowers.

Hard as it is, pluck the first flowers off new strawberry plants early this month to boost vegetative growth before they produce flowers and fruit.

Hand-pollinate stone fruit flowers to make the most of dry, sunny days and ensure fruit set.