Deep Winter

There is nothing like the silver light of a wet Melbourne day to remind us that it is winter time again. Most of the colourful leaves of deciduous trees have been raked and dealt with by now and although one or two trees wait until the very last minute to flourish in a fire of red, like Chinese pistachio (Pistacia chinensis), or smoulder in smokey yellow, like the liquidambar (Liquidambar styraciflua), the main event has passed us by for another year.

In this intermediate time, as the leaves fall, our gardens have been reawakening with colour since the Autumn break and are reaching a marvellous crescendo just now. Sasanqua camellias are stunning during May and throughout June. Their flowers bring life into any wintry garden scene. The white ‘Setsugekka’ is highly popular. Its petals undulate into a slight ruffle and are plentiful and suitably fragrant. How would you describe the scent of a sasanqua camellia? Powdery is always the first word that comes to  mind, whatever that means. Something alluding to vanilla and gardenia. Perhaps.

Camellia setsugekka

Some of the pale pink cultivars are worth finding a home for. You know the ones that look like the silk ribbon of a 1950s flowergirl? Or the icing on your grandmother’s sponge cake? I have one in my garden of this particular hue and it always lights my heart up when I see it. It seems to be particularly fragrant, or is it just that it is in a sheltered spot, where the air is trapped against a north facing wall. I call her Enid as mentioned in my previous ramblings and would love to know if anyone else grows her.

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There are other colours, the deep cerise of ‘Hiryū’ ( the flying dragon ) is loved by many and I have had it growing for many years happily in amongst a band of bossy buddleia. More deeply coloured again, the red of ‘Yuletide’, to me looks malevolent. I though this recently as I was eating a pie in my ute. I had bought the delicious pie from the bakery in a small country town that I pass through regularly on my travels. The windscreen overlooked the road and the neat gardens opposite and there, in full flight, were the dark green leaves and the bloody red flowers of this particular cultivar. It’s flowers are far deeper and darker than the tomato sauce on my pie. They seemed to confound the light and create shadow where light could have been.

As winter deepens, I prefer to keep things light. There is such a lot to do at this time of year and fewer hours to get all the chores done. Winter pruning, dividing, mulching and clipping all lie in wait and of course this must be balanced with time spent by the fire dreaming of the spring that is yet to come.

 

AUTUMN FLOWERS

I like to observe the renaissance in the garden caused by autumnal showers. Having a garden filled with flowers as the leaves change colour is not that hard to do. There are quite a few genera that choose this season to bring on the floral fireworks.

Salvia
Many of the ornamental sages are in flower during Autumn, such as the ever reliable Salvia leucantha, with it’s fluffy flowers and felty foliage. 

Plectranthus
Under the great shade trees at Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens in Cape Town, the gardeners make the most of their shade loving species of plectranthus, often planted with cliveas, a winning combination. In Melbourne gardens I have used some interesting new cultivars like Plectranthus ‘Velvet Elvis’. These seem to flower over a longer period than older varieties. Their mauve flowers glow from the shadey recesses.

My favourite plectranthus, though, is our native P. argentatus. It has delicate spires of white flowers each of which is marked with royal purple and supported by a redder purple in the calyxes and stems. It grows frighteningly easy from cuttings and seems to have a wide range of light tolerance.

Camellia sasanqua
The autumn garden is filled with the powdery vanilla scent of Camellia sasanqua cultivars. And the bright blotches of colour are welcome indeed as the strength of the light dims. The sasanqua camellias under my care seem to attract hordes of European wasps, which is a downside, for sure. The cultivar pictured below came with a label ‘Enid’ but I am not sure exactly what it is, as I don’t think it is the cultivar Enid-Alice with semi-double flowers. Maybe one of my readers knows?

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LEAF MOULD

 

And then there is the perpetual question of what to do with all the fallen leaves. In theory we should let them lie on the ground beneath the tree so that they can break down slowly over the years feeding the insects and microbes, and adding humus to the soil, all for the benefit of the tree itself and other plants nearby. A great theory if your garden is in fact a forest or a very large country garden where many square metres can be given over to this natural process.

In smaller, urban zones, there are other factors to consider. Roads, footpaths, driveways and buildings simply get in the way of this decomposition and ultimately plumbing gets clogged, byways become dangerously slippery and we have people upsetting themselves over the messy appearance of it all. Not to mention the garden beds and lawns, which, if covered in leaves, are soon smothered and starved of light.

Leaves must be dealt with.

Thankfully, the days of setting fire to dampish piles of raked leaves and filling the suburbs with eye-stinging smoke have disappeared. Now we have our green waste bins, which strain at the quantity of discarded foliage they are expected to carry. The green waste bins are collected and processed into compost or mulch by such organisations as Back to Earth and The Green Centre

This is the most sensible way to keep green waste out of landfill and to ultimately reduce the progress of climate change, not only by reducing the amount of methane produced when green waste is sent to landfill, but also by putting the carbon stored in the green waste back into the soil, which is the best place for it. That’s a good thing to remember when you are composting and mulching your soil. Thumbs up.

If you don’t have access to  green waste collection or you want to cut out the middleman, there are a couple of options available:

  1. Run over the fallen leaves with the lawn mower and mulch them up a bit and compost them (the lawn clippings make up nitrogen rich ‘green’ component of the compost: the leaves, the ‘brown’). I make temporary piles of this impromptu compost at the back of shrubberies. Low and long piles that break down quietly while no one is noticing. Although, like with all compost, turning it regularly will speed up the process.
  2. Another option is to create leafmould. You might have the space to rig up a leaf cage (four star pickets and some old chicken wire will do the trick or a ring of stiff wire mesh) where you pile up the leaves and let them sit for twelve months or more to break down into a humus rich supplement for your garden.

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At the turn of the season

There is a certain purity about late summer. If we are going to get a dry spell in southern Victoria, it will be during late February and early March. That has certainly been the case this year with some parts of the country recording seven weeks or more without rain. Paddocks bleach under these conditions as the grasses, thirsty plants, shut down in protest. The colours of evergreens become more intense. The shelter belts of cypress or pine, the blackwood copses on the steep sides of gullies: the dark green leaves seem to turn black in contrast to the parched pasture.

We hope the Autumn break will come soon. Farmers will tell you that if we don’t get a decent downpour or two by ANZAC Day, we will be in trouble, as the temperature of the soil will have cooled and the amount of growth that we would normally expect will not be forthcoming. For late March to early May here is like a little spring. The earth becomes green again and, as well as the Autumn foliage, the garden is in full bloom: late roses, salvias, chrysanthemums, the bolder natives and many bulbs.

At the turning of the seasons, it is probably appropriate to talk about changing directions. As you will notice, I am returning to an old webpage, a blog that I have been writing off and on for the past three and a half years as the Town and Country Gardener. I decided to come out from behind this persona and to launch my new business, Matthew Henry Gardens. And with the demise of Mechanism Landscape Design, I will be continuing to work with many of our existing clients, as Emma goes on to pursue her other interests and to bring up her wonderful children. I wish her all the best.

When the break comes, the rain seems to reveal something that was always there: the germinating seeds, the reshooting of tufts of pasture grass, the mushrooms in wide paddocks.  Even though we know it will soon be winter and the growth will slow right down soon enough, we luxuriate in the growth that the change brings.

Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show 2017 Part 2

DSC_0036 (1)Maybe it’s a reaction against the glamourous outdoor lifestyle gardens of recent times, with their monochrome colour palettes, their outdoor kitchens hinting at a life of material ease (‘you wish’) and suggesting that at any moment one could dive into the oscillating reflection of the ubiquitous swimming pool, before retiring without a care to the professionally-finished powder-coated perforated metal arbour to look out and admire the polished bluestone pavement. Or maybe it’s a reaction to the overbuilt urban context in which so many of us live these days, accompanied by our anxiety for the destruction of the natural world. I can’t be sure, but this year at MIFGS the judges in each of the three categories, were very much rewarding a more natural approach. The winning gardens incorporated a rich diversity of plants, with an emphasis on indigenous species that will offer homes to native insects and animals. They uses natural materials and ‘improved’ them by adding intricate details to those materials.

As in the best in show garden,  Phillip Withers “I See Wild” (see my previous post), the theme of wild nature recurred in a garden produced by Stem Landscape Architecture and Design. Stem’s Emmaline Bowman’s ‘Wild at Heart’ was the winner of the Landscaping Victoria Boutique Garden Award and could almost be viewed as a companion piece to the winning show garden by Withers.

This was a sensual and experiential garden: the naturalistic water feature, the resident rainbow lorikeet, the pobblebonk soundtrack, the subtle interplay of colour of flowers and foliage, the swinging bench with cushions and throw rug inviting the visitor to the garden to rest and relax.  All combined to create for me the most engaging garden of all of this year’s offerings.

DSC_0039The planting was mostly indigenous, with exotic food and medicinal plants topping up the display. The designer created interesting artistic vignettes within the overall ‘wild’ feeling of the planting. From within what at first seemed a fairly routine interpretation of a native bushland arose the energetic tousling of the Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and Billy Buttons (Pycnosorus globosus), which was delightful in terms of both form and colour.  Nearby was an elegant study in creamy white, mauve and grey-green. White brachyscome, Ozothamnus diosmifolius, and the ground hugging native violet (Viola hederacea) were enlivened by some glaucous foliage of poa. The delicate beauty of Wahlenbergia stricta and Vanilla Lily (Arthropodium sp.) completed the picture with a few small blue and purple flowers. Such attention to detail seemed to be part of the winning formula this year.

These plants grew from the midst of volcanic boulders and interestingly shaped pieces of natural timber that gave the impression of a bushland scene as well. However, this garden made clear that it was not without refinement. The whitewashed timber of the ‘retaining wall’ and the structure of the swinging chair gave a hint that natural materials can be enhanced by artifice. I was particularly transfixed by what appeared to be handpainted geometric patterns on the risers of the recycled hardwood steps. Curvilinear patterns had been drilled into the recycled timber fencing, too.

Withers and Bowman are obviously part of a zeitgeist whose influence could also be found in the achievable gardens section.

There is much enthusiasm and passion spent by design and horticulture students in the Avenue of Achievable Gardens. ‘Awash with Nature’, a collaboration between Ross Peck, Liz Beale and Dale Johnson from Swinburne won the award for excellence. Here habitat for inscects was integral to the design as it was also in ‘Wild at Heart’. Bee hotels abounded. The pavement of sawn bluestone boulders embedded confidently in granitic sand created a calm feeling. This was reinforced by a restrained choice of native plants and the sparing use of recycled  and repurposed materials. Such discipline of design was a standout feature of this garden. But this time, the restraint did not mean boring lack of detail.

IMG_8745I can’t wait to see how this natural garden revival plays out over time.

Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show 2017

IMG_8704It seems to me that one of the many challenges of creating an instant garden at something like MIFGS 2017, is that the garden designer must strike a balance between including some showstopping features (ahead-of-the-trend hardscaping and furnishings;  intricate detailing and visual diversity; idiosyncratic and expertly composed panting schemes), while at the same time creating a calm space with a sense of unity of design that does not appear over-stuffed or over the top. And, of course, all within a week or so with all the other limitations of the show ground site.

For me this year the better gardens were those that were not only able to provide sensual interest, but also to create a sense of place within the few square metres at hand, that helped the viewer to dispel disbelief and imagine that yes, this is a distinct, integrated space, that looks like it has its own identity and that looks like it has been here for years, or could grow on as a real garden after the carnival is over.

The winners in all three categories this year in particular provided this sense of balance for me. All used natural materials and used them in a sophisticated way that showed the hand of artistry, without taking away from the intrinsic beauty of the natural materials used. I only have time to write about one today. IMG_8714

One of these was Phillip Withers’ ‘I see wild’ creation, which won the only gold awarded this year and the best in show. His use of bluestone here was interesting. He manipulated one material in a variety of ways. Sawn basalt paving was executed in strict geometric patterns next to some crazy paving in the same material creating a fascinating interplay of movement. There were whole pieces of natural basalt that grew into a serpentine drystone wall, which gave definition to the garden’s boundary.

The most stunning use of this material, was in the low benches or tables, which were sizeable natural pieces of stone that were sawn at the top and formed a seat or table top. This occurred three times and accentuated the stone circle that had as its focus the rusty steel fire pit. At different points in the garden, where the stone had been given a smooth surface, it had then also been etched with fascinating designs that added another element of interest, but did not take away from the overall unity that use of this material engendered.

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Hard materials were kept to a minimum and, overall, were used to excellent effect. Granitic sand proved a fitting backdrop to the bluestone and timber was used as well. The timber totem poles in a cluster were somewhat eye-catching, but lacked the drama such a feature should have set into play. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to see a cubby hut built into this cluster, barely noticeable from the various vantage points in the garden where adults might gather. What child wouldn’t love such a hidden spot?

The planting of Phillip Wither’s garden was a vibrant mixture of natives and exotics, edible and ornamental plants with some very stylish colour work that set glaucous foliage of Agave salmiana against mildly orange flowers of achillea, helenium and agastache. The rambunctious positioning of hoop pines, banksias, eucalyptus, podocarpus and grass trees gave a strength via their visual density and the tonal consistency across a very diverse planting selection. And I have to say, I was thrilled to see a lawn at the centre of this garden, happily and subtley dealing with an odd level change, while providing a purposeful void to balance the design.

 

Stay tuned for more words and pictures about the other gardens that caught my eye.

 

 

 

Another Autumn, another post about apples…

Every year the apple trees prove to be the most reliable of fruit and every year the Jonathon proves to be the most reliable of varieties. It was introduced in 1864 in the USA. It appeared in Australia at some point before I was born, because I remember this being THE red apple of my childhood.

The orchard in my garden is about fifteen years old. The apples are dwarfing rootstock and we keep the trees pruned so that ladders are not required to pick the fruit and so that they can be individually netted against the rosellas and the crows who would be happy to eat them all.

The Jonathon is my standout favourite allrounder. It is the one in the orchard that doesn’t miss a year. The one that we eat fresh in abundance and cook with the most. The one whose fruit keeps the longest in storage, where it retains its flavour and texture the best. I remember it fondly from childhood and now in middle age it contributes a delicate sweetness and character to the cider we make with it. An all round champion, for me at least.

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There is always an outer layer of apples on the tree that are ruby red, an eternal image of fecundity and good health. Then hidden in the silvery green leaves are the pale green apples. You would think they are a different variety. Because the skin has not been touched by light, the anthocyanins have not been triggered into action and so they stay green, but they are still sweet and they are still delicious, but I tend to bundle the green kind into storage and the bright red ones are served up fresh.

Apple trees can have a variety of fungal problems, the Granny Smith in the same orchard is a tragic victim of scab (Venturia inaequalis), for example, but Jonathon seems to be pretty much blemish free at least here.

Part of the regular orchard maintenance in the lead up to the harvest is to gather up windfalls, then after the harvest and throughout Autumn and early winter, the lawn is kept short, the clippings gathered up, with all the leaves that have fallen, and taken away to be composted. We probably should burn the leaves, to make sure any fungal spores are dispatched. But we are conscious of the problems of air pollution and make sure the compost made with the clippings from the orchard are used as far away from the apple trees as possible. Breaking the leaves down quickly can certainly reduce the numbers of fungal spores that persist into the following year to reinfect the tree.

The other great pest, for the apples is the European wasp. I have seen them in their hundreds attacking the ripe fruit, biting holes through the skin and then eating the flesh from the inside out until nothing is left but the papery skin, a shell, a husk. It is a sure sign that the fruit is ripe, however and a good alarm to say hurry up and pick them before the wasps do.

I’m protective of this tree as you might have learnt. And I know not everyone will share my passion. I wonder, though, whether particular apple varieties have this affect on other gardeners. What’s your favourite?

Oops, I forgot to write! Find out why…

The end of 2016 was a busy time for me. Finishing up 20 years of a teaching career, while at the same time getting a landscape design business up and running. So a few things fell by the wayside, this blog included.

The business I am talking about is Mechanism Landscape Design Erstwhile architect Emma Dry and I met during our garden design studies at Burnley campus of the University of Melbourne, where we were inspired by the amazing staff to launch into a career in the industry.

The times have been exciting. The business started off with all the fun and fluffy stuff like mission and vision statements, name choice and logo design. And since then the fun hasn’t stopped, but the stuff has become much more serious, with bookkeeping,  coming to grips with the design software, drumming up business and making sure our clients are happy. Each of them a full time job in themselves.

And it is such a joy, every last part of it. Even the stressful bits are amazing learning experiences for us as neither of us has been in business before. Even though we have plenty of gardening and designing experience between the two of us, there is a lot more to it than that, as we are discovering.

I am getting used to a job where I can fill my head with visions of paradise on a daily basis. How lucky is that?logo

Sunshine and succulence

 

Cotyledon orbiculata var. oblonga macrantha

So familiar that it has gathered around it an entourage of common names (pig’s ears, paddle plant, navelwort) this sturdy and humble succulent is a survivor. It can cope with South Gippsland winters (although only happily if it is kept safe from frosts and its root run is not sodden) and it thrives in Melbourne where I have it growing under the eaves where it flourishes on it’s thick stem and its fleshy, vibrant leaves shine. I find that if it gets too much moisture in the winter, its leaves can become spotty and its flowers are less strident. Hence the eaves, or maybe under trees as long as it has access to a goodly amount of sunlight. This makes perfect sense, when you remember that it comes from southern Africa, where it is found in hot, free draining locations, like rocky hillsides and cliff faces and in the sand of coastal flats. Check out the links below if you want to find out more.

http://www.amjbot.org/content/92/7/1170.full

http://www.thesucculentgarden.com.au/index.html

http://www.operationwildflower.org.za/index.php/albums/genera/cotyledon/cotyledon-orbiculata-var-oblonga-637