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Gardening with Gael - Goodbye to an old friend



thumbnail Pepper tree MBS-874The first tree I plant when I start a new garden is a Schinus molle commonly known as Pepper tree or False Pepper tree. Although not grown for culinary purposes, the tree does produce red drupes which are sometimes mixed with commercial peppers. Here in Mangawhai it makes an ideal specimen tree because it tolerates saline soil, that is, it grows in sand and droughts. I planted one in my garden on the Tara which is volcanic, followed by one at the school back in the 70s when my children were there and I was in charge of planting.

Schinus molles grow rapidly, up to a metre a year, which is very satisfying from a gardener’s point of view. At the school the playground was completely bare and I thought the children could well do with trees for shade and protection. One of my favourite attributes of Schinus molle is the way even a young tree appears old. Bark on the tree and limbs appears gnarled and aged when the tree is relatively young, and the spreading nature of the trunk invites tree climbing activities.

This week I went down to the school to say goodbye and take a last photo of it before it disappears under the new classrooms.

“I too am sorry to see it go,” school principal Aaron Kemp assured me. “Our school roll has now reached 513 children and we are desperate for new rooms.”

Apparently the school roll will peak at 800. When I planted the shade trees there were four classrooms and under 150 on the roll. Even then the school roll was on the rise.

More plantings are planned. Each syndicate will have an area to plant and the plan is being researched by the school enviro group supported by Lance Coker and Jackie Fanning. Predominantly natives, I will look forward to seeing them.

A young kauri which was near the entrance died in the drought this year. It has been trimmed and cut in half to make two posts. There are plans for some of the Year 8 students to carve these posts and they will become pouwhenua at the entrance to the school.

The Schinus mole (see photograph) has reached its mature size and is the largest of the trees I have planted. The height can be six metres and the width at least five metres. I planted one here at the cottages in the 80s. There was no height anywhere else in the garden and the first year it grew higher than I anticipated in spite of growing in straight sand.

I did what I always do. Removed a barrowful of sand, lined the hole with newspaper and added compost mixed with a little sand. I mulched well around the base and have done nothing to it ever since.

My next garden will be around our retirement house and once again I plan the first tree to be a Schinus molle. The graceful branches and the weeping form of the leaves

are reminiscent of willow trees and because there will be a distinctive Japanese flavour to this garden I think it will be the perfect specimen. It will also help hide the tanks. I no longer have 20 or 30 years to watch trees grow, so one that performs as well as Schinus molle will give the garden immediate structure and the illusion of age.


A Pepper tree I planted at Mangawhai Beach School in the 70s must make way for new classrooms. PHOTO/GAEL MCCONACHY

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