Winter can fail to wow us. Wall to wall greyness might be our impression of the season.
But ask Taranaki gardeners about top picks for midwinter flora magnificence and there's no shortage of suggestions.
Luculia, jonquils, leucadendron, violas, dianthus, hellebores and the yellow daphne all rate. Magnolia buds, rosehips, crab- apples, citrus trees and silver birches also get the nod for structural elegance or colour.
In Manaia, well-known gardener David Self looks out upon primulas, pansies, dianthus and violas. His one-acre of garden is home to an array of bedding plants sold at the Saturday market in Hawera, so he has no shortage of cheerful material.
"There's yellow and blues in a big patch but I like them mixed - some have blotched flowers, some are a clear colour.
"I tell you another thing that is very popular. Violas. 'Penny Lane' or 'Sorbet Mixed.' They have beautiful little faces. Like little pussy cats."
In his garden the low-growing dianthus 'Magic Charm Mixed' proves reliable despite its status as an annual. "You can trim them back after flowering and they will last a couple of years or more. They're a particularly good one and reasonably priced for people."
In Hawera, David Bruce loves luculia. The deciduous shrub is a star right now for its clusters of highly scented pink or white flowers. David, South Taranaki's parks curator, explains the strong local connection. Charles Goodson the man responsible for Goodson Dell in Hawera, introduced luculia to New Zealand from Asia. (He also introduced a whole bunch of daffodils to the country, including those in famous spots like Hagley Park - but that's another story). Given the luculia links, King Edward Park in Hawera boasts its own collection of about 20 pink hybrids as well as the white version Luculia grandiflora.
It's a relatively easy care shrub but a bit frost tender "which is a bit of a pain as you are dealing with something that you hope will flower in the period when it's most likely to be hit by frosts. It's definitely not salt hardy and not wind hardy."
There's another caveat. It needs a sheltered spot but not somewhere so airless that a gentle breeze can't shift Jack Frost along.
His other recommendation is to cut luculia down to about knee high each year to stimulate new growth.
Crab apples appear in June. The small red and orange orbs are striking. "You get the double whammy of being able to pick them and make crab- apple jelly - the best thing for a crumpet on a Sunday morning."
Other things worth a slot for midwinter include Chimonanthus praecox or wintersweet, another flowering shrub with a thicket of stiff stems. Flowers appear on bare branches and petals are pale yellow to off-white.
Then there is witch hazel. David likens the spiky flowers to shavings of plastic, with colours ranging from reds to oranges.
Clivia are popular but they're not usually flowering now. Bucking the trend however is Clivia gardenii with its tubular drooping flowers, notable for lime- green tips.
In central Taranaki, long time festival gardener Betty Brunton hones in on hellebores when asked what's a standout in her winter garden.
Hellebores argutifolius, Hellebores orientalis and Hellebores foetidus populate her garden with several hundred blooms. She lets them seed, saying they're not keen on being moved. Unfussy flowers, they receive a yearly dose of nitrophska blue and maybe a couple of handfuls of blood and bone. "I cut the leaves down to ground level - I did that about two months ago. That way you get to see the flowers."
In Betty's garden, called Mountside, a sneaky salmon pink rhododendron, 'Sneezy' is also putting on a show. "It's out of kilter a bit," she says of the species that usually blooms later on.
About 30 different varieties of fuchsias remain a feature - some are out in the open, some in her sheltered green house - while azalea blooms are appearing on branches.
"The thing I like most about the winter is the way you see the design of the garden coming through. I have a lot of buxus topiary and when the snow lands on them, it's quite special."
In the north, Joyce Young's small town garden remains vibrant despite the chill.
Leucadendron 'limelight' is looking brilliant in her New Plymouth festival garden. "As it gets colder they lighten up," she says of the South African native notable for its leathery leaves and its flower-like collar of bracts. Leucadendron 'red fireglow' is another star. It has rose-coloured, not lime green flowers.
Ericas boast bright tones in winter while vireya rhododendrons offer maximum impact month after month. "They flower about four times a year."
Gerberas used to be viewed as indoor gems, with a hard to grow reputation but Joyce raves about the new-generation Garvinea series. The daisy-like flowers are small but prolific. "Some plants have had 20 blooms at one time."
For growth up a wall, Joyce suggests the climber hardenbergia. Its dainty, pea like flowers and tangle of foliage is sprawled across a fence. "Gee, they look stunning for a climber at this time of the year."
Dainty also sums up Catherine McKay's midwinter favourite. A self- confessed daffodil person she says Narcissus papyaceus or paperwhite is something that's colourful and floral when little else is around. Originating from France, the snowflake-like flower is the earliest narcissus to appear. Plant the bulb at twice its depth and let it be.
Magnolia stellata are the earliest magnolia to flower; catch the first of them in some gardens, including the Sir Victor Davies Park in central New Plymouth, advises Catherine, president of the New Plymouth Horticultural Society.
Mike Mansvelt digs the yellow daphne Edgeworthia papyrifera. It's not actually a daphne but an Oriental relative.
Like the common Daphne, its yellow flower is fragrant - although not as intense - while its leaves are long and its branches thick and upright.
"I really rate it because it's quite ethereal. Like many deciduous things it's more suitable for a sheltered garden."
Mike, a New Plymouth landscape designer, is generally a big fan of other daphnes. "We use quite a few different varieties but I like using them for woodland gardens and under deciduous trees. They give you a long flowering period, they are a nice compact shrub."
Mid-June is quiet time depending on your perspective but July is just around the corner, and as magnolias begin to stir there's a sense of a new period emerging. In Taranaki midwinter doesn't signal inactivity.
"The nicest thing about winter is the anticipation of magnolias," says Mike. "To me, they start to give you a bit of hope that it's not all doom and gloom."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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