The east coast drought finally broke with a chilly vengeance, and twice in the past month I have had to leave my Port Levy garden early on Sunday afternoon, for fear of being shut into the valley by snow. But at least the soil is finally damp enough to plant trees, and I am making progress with establishing a little woodland and a 'bird orchard'. The woodland is a small arboretum, designed for showcasing some choice trees and shrubs in a natural way. It will include native trees that are not native to Banks Peninsula, or my part of it, such as tawa and its cousin taraire, puriri, kokekoke, kamahi, hinau and red beech. Also exotic trees and shrubs that grow happily in the somewhat acid soil environment created and preferred by natives (such as michaelia, eucryphia, rhododendron, camellia, fothergilla, cornus and stewartia). Among these largely evergreen species will be some deciduous trees chosen especially for the beauty of their bark and/or their autumn foliage. These include the Persian ironbark (Parrotia persica), the scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) and one of the best white-barked birches (Betula jacquemontii), planted in a group of three.
The main entrance to the woodland is via an evolving shrubbery that so far includes spiraea, hebe, viburnum hybrids, azalea, camellia sasanqua and transnokoensis, tree peonies, mahoe, tarata, philadelphus, the 'very refined raspberry' Rubus tridel 'Benenden' (big single white flowers with gold centres - like a single rose), the Sydney Christmas bush, and the rather special evergreen hydrangea relative, Dichroa versicolor, which has dramatic blue flowers.
Bark paths running through the woodland from three directions lead to an oval central 'clearing', where one day shady picnics will happen. As the grass is eventually shaded out and replaced by leaf litter (or as I get time to clear spaces in advance of this) shade-tolerant groundcover species will be introduced. Already there is the wonderful flowering comfrey, Symphytum grandiflorum (a great spreader), the first plantings of what I hope will eventually be a 'Persian carpet' of Cyclamen neopolitanum (syn hederifolium), some 'wild' strawberries (edible as well as beautiful), hellebores, meconopsis, pulmonaria and omphalodes. (If you want to know what any of these look like, see my Perennial Gardening in New Zealand book.)
Lurking beneath the ground at present are bluebells, daffodils and three pricey (hence only three) but to die for Himalayan lilies. In December they will be two metre towers of scented creamy white trumpets, emerging from lunch plate sized leaves.
Separating the woodland from the (also evolving) orchard there is a dip in the land that I am planting as a 'bird orchard'. This is to encourage birds closer to the house, and sustain a larger population of berry-eating native birds. As well as the native food provided in the woodland and also in the ecological restoration project going on beside the creek, I am planting rowans, bird cherries, shad bushes (amelanchier), elderberries, crab apples and other 'wild berry' species. These will be left to grow in a wild sort of way, to become a thicket where birds feel safe and happy. But with their spring blossom and autumn leaf and fruit colour they will look good to humans - and I might just help myself to a few apples for jelly or elderflowers for cordial.
But what is the coffee connection, you may be wondering. The best coffee berries are grown in a forest environment. Organic, fair trade coffee currently available in New Zealand is grown naturally in Latin America and East Timor. Growing coffee in the shade protects biodiversity - birds, bees, bugs and trees - which in turn promotes natural checks and balances to pest and diseases and makes organic growing possible.
The extra value in organic coffee means better returns to growers, which are desperately needed at a time when coffee prices (to producers) are at a fifty year low.
This morning, as usual, I fortified myself for the day's work with a bowl of organic latte - beans grown in East Timor and dark roasted in Christchurch for my favourite wholefood shop. There was an international Starbucks Day of Action on June 26 - a campaign to get the global Starbucks franchise (rapidly spreading across NZ) to sell a fairly traded, GE free brew. Coffee is second only to oil as a globally traded commodity. We can't grow it commercially in New Zealand, so it's really important that we support organic growers in the Third World to ensure that our caffeine hits are safe, sustainable and just.
For more on the organic, fair trade coffee campaign go to www.purefood.org