Tuesday 8 February 2011

Humbled by Harakeke or Weaving with Flax

Many of us grow Phormium tenax or Phormium cookianum plants in our gardens.  The coloured cultivars are almost ubiquitous now in many a planting scheme and have been arguably 'over-used'.  Also, the big guys are notorious for being difficult to remove once they have grown to full size and need to be positioned carefully. But how many of us know the spiritual connections they hold for the Maori people of NZ or the amazing things that this tough evergreen can be used for? I have long used it in my coastal planting schemes but have grown to love and respect it for both its toughness but now for its spirituality too.

Prompted by the many stunning wall hangings and sculptures I saw in NZ homes and their seaside Baches, I determined to learn this skill for myself. So, as my penultimate day in New Zealand arrived I turned up for a flax weaving workshop with Ariana Millward at Matapiti (arianamillward@xtra.co.nz), a sweet looking
(or should I say, sweet az) gallery at the top of the hippy-surf town of Raglan, North Island.

My session began with a Kara kia - a prayer of thanks to Papatuanuke, the earth. Now in my time I have  been to many workshops which begin with all sorts of introductions from the mildly embarassing to the deeply contrived.  But there was something so seriously genuine about Ariane that I immediately found myself smiling in deep contentment and recognition at this wonderful approach to harvesting plant material.

Ari told me that the plant material is never picked when it is raining, in the snow or at night.  Women do not cut the flax when they are menstruating but they can weave. Weaving materials must be kept separate from the food areas and when working on it it is respectful to walk around the plant materials and not to step over them.

 She had learnt her own weaving skills from a group of Maori mothers as part of a total immersion programme in one of the local schools. But she also explained that she had an uncle in her Maraii who was an especially good weaver and she had learnt a lot from him. Clearly flax weaving was culturally very important to the Maori people.

I was absolutely entranced by her simple combination of spirituality and good horticultural common sense. The story-telling approach to good practise resonated especially with me.  As a trained primary school teacher I had often used this technique myself  to aid with learning and the training of memory.

The harvesting of the flax leaves involved choosing the best material and making a clean 45o clean cut with a stanley knife.  The most important lesson was not to 'harm the infant', the emerging young bud guarded either side by the protective parents( the outer leaves) but to select older outer leaves instead.  Thus of course, ensuring the continuing life of the plant.

Tidying up as you go, rejecting the diseased or damaged leaves with any waste material going back into the compost bin for recycling was also explained to me.  I nodded in approval and swopped some of my own tales of compost making back in England.  I was loving this approach and we hadn't even begun to make a thing! Imagine  if every child experienced just this simple  giving thanks to the earth before harvesting a plant what a difference that would make to an understanding of the worlds resources.

The flax, or Harakeke was great to work with.  Strong yet supple, soft on the hands yet easy to tear. Whilst making my own humble weaving my eyes were drawn to other intricate weavings that adorned the walls. Particularly impressive was a contemporary ceremonial cloak which had feathers and embroidery woven into it.

My own woven basket was quick to grow and I was as proud as an infant with its first emroidery sampler when I stepped out of the Studio some two hours later, clasping my green basket in my hands. The fact that I lovingly carried this back as hand luggage over thousands of miles and that it now sits amongst my personal treasures is enduring testimony to that special lesson.

But beyond the physical reminder in the form of my little basket I carry the spirituality of the flax with me and a continuing fondness for New Zealand, it's special plants and it's people. No wonder then, that I have several planted in my southern hemisphere garden and why it continues to have a special place....

Friday 4 February 2011

A flowering Spring Meadow or The Lawn must go!

What a difference a day makes! Glorious sunshine yesterday and warmth on my back. Set out  an outdoor potting station as I couldn't resist the feel of the sun on my face.  Caught up with the last of my bulb planting( I know very late!) and then whilst furking around amongst my old terracotta pots stumbled upon the pots full of snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis that I had hastily planted last year.  Whoops! Nearly forgot these little beauties...

As the 'Galanthophile' season approaches I was feverishly kicked into action by my little pots of joy. Carol Klein's atmospheric new gardening programme, Life in a Cottage Garden, was also freshly imprinted on my mind.  I've lusted after great swathes of snowdrops for eternity and have been slowly, slowly dividing and re-planting just as Carol demonstrated so enthusiastically.  This year I ordered 500 bulbs to hasten my painfully slow process. So, quick change of gardening strategy for the day ( ever thus!) and I was off to plant these little rays of pure white hope.

I have decided that the large green expanse at the front of my house needs attention.  It is far too boring.  To the left, under the big old sycamores I have a great wildflower scene developing but the right hand side has remained that sterile bastion of masculine pride and joy, a lawn!  What better way than to start with some bulbs and create an early flowering mead.

 I had also potted up some later flowering Snowflakes, Leucojum aestivum  which I also admire for their clear fresh foliage and taller, nodding bells of pure white.  Scattered around my borders I have some random plantings of primroses too.  I decided to lift and divide these, planting them en masse through the turf at my gate will make more of a statement than the isolated groupings at present.  Division was easily done and the ground was superb for this job, soft and wet, easy to just split the grass and literally poke the plants in, folding the lifted turf around them.

In my small nursery area I remembered that I had some left-over pots of sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum.  How can you not love a plant that is also known as 'Sweet Baby's breath'? Once destined for my front door, but now relocating to my flowery mead were some terracotta pots of  Naricissi Hawera and then I spotted the fantastic marbled leaves of a rescued Cyclamen hederifolium. All ideal plants for naturalising in this area too.

I was really getting in my stride now and decided to plunder the colony of wild violets that also grow at my hedge bottom, dividing those also and inserting them into the turf.  I know I have a mixture of white and purple violets so will have to wait with anticipation to see what colours I have introduced.

Wish now that I had ordered some crocuses to complete the scene but that will have to wait for next year unless I can source some in flower in pots.  Living close to an Orchard I have had big problems with mice taking crocus bulbs in another bulb planting initiative of mine several years ago. So, at least I will have time to see if this planting will work.

I  was feeling very empowered  reducing my patch of sterile verge. As I gathered my tools into the wheelbarrow my gaze extended down the road . There at the junction  of the two roads is  a fairly large triangular patch of grass ( a small allotment size!). One of those sterile, no-mans land areas that occasionally gets slashed by a strimmer-welding neighbour. It is in my sights now......