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A Garden Tour with Christine Dann

by Tracy Miles
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The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic

Christine Dann has written an organic gardening column for Organic Pathways. She is the author of Cottage Gardening in New Zealand, The Cottage Garden Cook Book and Perennial Gardening in New Zealand.

Gardening author Christine Dann spends many a busy day surrounded by her own Secret Garden.

Her garden may not actually be a secret, but it is enclosed by a tall macrocarpa hedge that makes it feel sheltered, private and reminiscent of a secret garden. With virtually every inch of the property in garden - except a small piece of lawn (ie, "no more lawn than can be mowed with a handmower in 30 minutes") - it seems like an expansive wilderness to be explored. If not by Christine or her partner Martin Oelderink as they garden, then by the three cats who also live there.

Christine Dann

Dry Garden Encyclopaedia

Taking a guided tour of her organic garden is not only a pleasure for garden lovers, but may also, especially for learners, be an encyclopaedic introduction to many plants suited to the dry Peninsula environment (including correct spellings, for Christine holds them all in her head).

Christine, the author of Cottage Gardening in New Zealand and Perennial Gardening in New Zealand, as well as the Cottage Gardening Cook Book, makes an interesting note on plant names in Cottage Gardening in NZ:

"Are these scientific names just a bit of unnecessary bother, or does knowing them really help us to be better gardeners? Sorry, but the answer is yes. If you know a person only by their nickname 'Ginger' you won't be able to look them up in the phone book."

Scientific names also get around the problem of variation in common names from place to place and the fact one common name can be applied to several quite different plants, she says.

Cistus Bennett's White

Cistus, the Prolific Bloomer

On that note, the informal garden tour for Organic Pathways started with her Cistus collection. Every evening, the mass of flowers which have covered a bush all day fall off, to reveal another mass of buds, already for the next day. On a still evening, you can hear the petals drop, she says.

Cistus do well in most soils but are at their best on poor, well-drained soils. When Christine and Martin started their Diamond Harbour garden nine years ago, they spent time improving the soil for the vegetable plots and the raspberries, but the flower garden was planted fast, and Christine says she learnt the hard way what she could get away with.

Hebe hulkeana

North Facing Eave? Try Hebe Hulkeana

Another plant which does well in her dry Banks Peninsula garden, where the rainfall is 55 millimetres lower than neighbouring Christchurch, is the Hebe, a plant she says is under-rated in New Zealand while being sought after in Europe. Organic Pathways captured her Hebe hulkeana in bloom, a plant native to Marlborough, and which is "the most drought tolerant thing you could wish for", surviving even under north facing eaves. She cuts it back once it has flowered to reveal lovely, unusually broad, shiny leaves. Another native which is a 'terrific plant" is the Marlborough rock daisy, which has adapted to grow in rock crevices, and is common along the Kaikoura coast.

Tulips are also well suited to her self-sufficient garden, and many were blooming the day OP visited. "Tulips love it and I love Tulips", she said. While favouring perennials, Christine does have annuals, including cornflowers (Centaurea), but any annuals need to be self-sowing. Wallflowers (Cheiranthus) are valued for their scent, while the giant Echium pinninana is spectacular, and relatively unique in a town where one of the dominant roadside wildflowers is Echium candicans. The pinninana grows to three or four metres topped with closely packed mauve to blue, tubular flowers in summer.

Aguilegia Nora Barlow

Aquilegias Thrive

Aquilegias thrive in the area, and Christine's garden has a sizeable population. She says they are promiscuous plants, producing an abundance of seeds, but with a tendency to revert to a dominant purple variety - fortunately one which pairs well with the white honesty (Lunaria), another of her prolific breeders. One Aquilegia which does remain true is the dainty and antique Nora Barlow, a survivor from the 16th Century, which she grew from seed.

Climbing Roses Are Better

Another antique is her Bourbon rose bush, Mme Pierre Ogier. By January, her bush roses tend to be looking sick from the heat. "I keep thinking it's cruelty to roses and I should give them a better home," so a forthcoming solution will be to move them to a new Port Levy garden. Another survivor from another century which grows in her garden is the Damask, Mme Hardy, while a double white banksia, A species rose native to China, is happy and healthy.

Madame Pierre Ogier (Bourbon)

She says climbing roses are better than bush roses where there is not much water, perhaps because their roots go deeper or because they more effectively funnel water to their roots. Two roses which frame her garden shed are Great Maiden's Blush, a rose dating back to the 15th Century, known to the French as 'Cuisse de Nymphe' - Nymph's Thighs - and the rambler, Albertine - early 20th Century but old style.

Attracting the birds

Christine puts in a lot of plants for the birds, as well as for herself. Blackbirds come for the slugs and snails - they may mess up the mulch, but it's worth it. Native pigeons, grey warblers, wax eyes, bellbirds and the odd kingfisher also visit, with the plum tree and natives including mahoe (Melicytus ramiflorus) and wineberry or makomako (Aristotelia serrata) being part of the attraction.

Five year rotation

The vegetable garden consists of five plots, triangular in shape to match the section. Vegetables are planted according to a five year rotation, so among other benefits, pests and diseases are not repeated, and legumes return nitrogen to the soil. In contributing to plant health, rotation works really well, she says.

Nasturtiums provide a living mulch, while fruit trees which are "fairly self-sufficient", add another layer to the vege garden environment. Saving space are the apricot and plum, which just happen to grow out of the one tree.

The vegetable gardens

The garden lends itself to the hunter-gatherer approach, with something green or some kind of root vegetable, always to be found. The standard horticulturist thinks an organic garden looks messy, she says. But the organic gardener does not see weeds - instead a herbal medicine, or potential compost. At this house, anything from old socks and rags (natural fabrics like wool or cotton) to torn up toilet rolls are ultimately destined for the compost heap.

Grassy Wilderness

In one corner of the property, sheltered from the easterly winds which come whacking up the harbour, is a little seat meant for restful moments. It overlooks a grassy wilderness accented by flowering peas, sprung up from the peastraw mulch, while geraniums and chamomile sweeten the air. A fig tree, a quince and a cherry tree are planted here, and a bit further on the garlic bed.

Almost hidden from sight beneath a Coprosma (Taupata) which planted itself is a little patch of native spinach.

The organic way, she says, is more fun, more pleasant and more rewarding than anything based on mechanistic monoculture. "Far from this being the hard choice, this is the easy choice. It's slavery trying to fight pests. Insects are infinitely more resilient than humans. Fruit flies breed a new batch every day. We've got to stop the elimination mentality and get into some co-operation."

Don't eliminate the bad bugs, she says. Just keep them in their place.


The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic