Autumn colour

IMG_8164The lurid pink flowers of a naked lady, Amaryllis belladonna, rises up from parched ground and bone dry grasses in an unmown corner of my garden. These bold trumpets on the end of slender stems create for me an iconic image. A visual moment that long ago informed my gardener’s mind. For me they have always been associated with age and neglect, of the long abandoned garden of a farmhouse that has decayed, been destroyed or disappeared. A reminder that this space was once held separate from the cattle or the sheep or the arable fields, and was cared for. It is a reminder too that autumn, here in southern Australia, is a time for the ending of things and it is also a great time of renewal and replenishment.

The adaptation that gives the naked ladies their drama is the fact that they lie dormant over the hottest and driest part of the year. Then their flower buds emerge from the ground as though rising from nothing. Their leaves appear afterwards, growing after the flowers are spent, to gather energy over the autumn, winter and spring when conditions are more conducive for growth. They store this energy in their bulbs, which enables their dormancy and the great floral exuberance in Autumn. 

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These Nerine sarniensis are not intimidated by the strident Agave desmettiana variegata and the overhanging pomegranate. This part of the garden receives no irrigation.

And they are not the only members of the Armaryllidaceae to grow in this way. At least four species of Nerine are summer dormant. Although for Nerines the leaves usually being to appear with the flower rather than waiting for the flower to die down completely. Two of the summer dormant nerines are fairly commonly found in gardens here: the clear pink Nerine bowdenii and the brilliant and in my experience vermillion N. sarniensis. A less common variety, the modest N. pudica, whose white flowers bear markings of faded cerise, is also available in specialist nurseries. (I have no experience of the fourth,  N. ridleyi. I would love to know if anyone grows it here.) Also, there are countless cultivated varieties of summer dormant nerines ranging in colour from white, through pink and red.

Nerine pudica

Compared to the outrageous colour of some of the other nerines, the delicate colour and form of Nerine pudica show that its name is well deserved, ‘pudica’ coming from Latin, meaning pure or modest. 

All will grow in a well-drained soil and where they are not ruthlessly irrigated over summer. I have been growing the more common species in the ground in South Gippsland for years as everyone has and they are perfectly happy. Their love of good drainage means they are happy growing in pots too. I am slowly building up my numbers of Nerine pudica in a pot so that I can start to plant it out in the garden without fear of losing it.

Nerines and Haemanthus

Blood lilies (Haemanthus coccineus) harnessing the light of Autumn to bring it some attention from pollinators

The most stunning of the Autumn flowering South African bryophytes in my opinion is the blood lily or Haemanthus coccineus. Red goblet shaped flowers emerge from the barren ground at the start of Autumn unadorned by any foliage. Ross Uebergang used this species to great effect in his show garden at the Melbourne Flower Show (MIFGS 2018), emerging from a flawless mulch of granitic sand. As a child, however, I remember being more fascinated by the enormous, glossy strap-like leaves that emerge from the bulb once the flowering has finished. My most successful clump grows under a deciduous shrub. 

Lycoris aurea

Lycoris aurea is probably waiting for an upgrade to a more fabulous pot. I am waiting for it to produce more bulbs. We both know it doesn’t love being disturbed. 

Lycoris aurea the golden spider lily is another plant that grows like the above southern Africans. The Lycoris tribe, however, come from Asia: limestone country in China and Japan.  It has developed an almost identical form to the nerines and has similar adaptations to cope with dry summer conditions. They too arise in autumn with a display of  flowers that glows in the mid to light shades of gold, hence both its scientific and common name. After two years, I am still nursing this one along in a pot. Sources of information vary about how happy it is in more acidic conditions. Soon, I hope to have a few more bulbs to experiment with in my garden’s soil.

 

The bulbs of each species mentioned above do multiply over time, although not so rapidly that they ever become too much of a good thing. They are perennial; they persist. Each year they return to prompt reflection on the change of season, to consider what has passed and to contemplate what is to come.

Evergreen

The dry weather since Christmas has created a pale landscape of washed out paddocks. The eye is naturally drawn to vestiges of green, coming often from unlikely sources.  Thickets of blackberry the size of haystacks, erupting out of neglected pasture. The manifold shades of green shrubs shimmer below the canopy of the bush. The steadfast trees of shelterbelts and roadsides hold it all together, such as blackwoods and elderberry panax. This is the season of the woody plant, which has the resources to outlast the heat while many herbs and grasses fade slowly away. 

These remnants of green can be compared to the evergreens surviving a northern winter in a denuded wood. The colour green as a marker of life. The last signs of photosynthesis engendering hope that life will be refreshed when the season changes. The holly and the ivy celebrated in European winter carols. Similarly, in our gardens, the evergreens are holding their own in the face of the late summer heat. 

Prunus lusitanica

In a Melbourne garden the Portuguese laurel hedges belie the dry hot January they have just survived.

In clients’ urban gardens, I am finding myself rather thrilled by the stalwart Portuguese laurel, Prunus lusitanica. It has a very appealing deep green leaf with red stems. In one of the gardens we maintain, this laurel is grown as low hedging, dividing up the space and creating unity and cohesion. Here the laurels demonstrate a wide range of light tolerance: full sun, dappled light and deep shade, in which they are able to flourish albeit demonstrating some variance in habit. In the deep shade, they have deep green leaves and sparser growth; in full sun their leaves show a lighter green and carry much denser growth.

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Cherry laurel in a vibrant tapestry hedge in South Gippsland. The mown grass is nothing more than a ghost of the green lawn it was in December.

Its not too distant relation Prunus laurocerasus, the cherry laurel, is similarly tough, reliable and seemingly invincible. The glossy green oval leaves seem like a perfect antidote to the bleached mown grass that stands in for a lawn in my own neglected garden. And I would like to make more of this contrast, maybe with a portion of the hedge in which it grows, emerging from a swathe of washed out grasses and herbs, such as the spent blue devils (Eryngium ovina) and tussock grasses (Poa labillardierei, P. rodwayi and P. sieberiana).

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Late summer is the period of stillness and decay for indigenous grassland plants, as can be seen in this new planting of Poa spp. and Eryngium ovina.

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Prickly paperbark clipped into a hedge. The hottest weather brings its most vigorous growth.

There are many indigenous woody plants that clip well. My personal favourite is the prickly paperbark, Melaleuca styphellioides. Prickly tips to the leaves make them rather unfriendly to maintain and don’t try walking around them in bare feet. Even though this variety is grown often as a street tree (the white bark and broccoli form either loved or hated), I find that it can be cut into a marvellous medium sized hedge. Mine has been clipped for over ten years and is keeping its shape and size at just under two metres. I am yet to cut back really hard into the old wood to see how it would cope with a full scale renovation, which it might need eventually. They cope with all soil types including some compaction and come alive only once the weather has really warmed up, which means it sits for many months over winter in perfect shape.

Other tough evergreens include the lilly pilly, members of the Myrtaceae. The most common garden plants are cultivars of Waterhousea and Syzygium. These are quite versatile plants with forms being chosen in recent years to fulfil the demand for plants that will block out the sight of neighbouring properties in our ever diminishing gardens. Some of the Syzygiums,  such as ‘Pinnacle’, make excellent narrow hedges with glossy new leaves, interesting new growth, colourful fruit, and less need of clipping than similar types of hedging.  Their greatest drawback is the chance of being the victim of the incessant nibbling of the lilly pilly leaf eating beetle, Paropsides calypso.

Waterhousea floribunda, another rainforest tree of Eastern Australia, has attractive salmon new growth in late spring and early summer and is really wonderful, growing quickly and tall to block out neighbours and unpleasant views.

The other advantage of some of these glossy evergreens is that they can give definition to the delightfully diaphanous haze of plantings dominated by perennials and grasses. Solid masses of these trusty plants provide a solemn contrast to this effervescence and can anchor the composition, defining it and accentuating the diverse forms of the grasses and herbaceous perennials. I am reminded of the Escallonia hedge used by Simon Rickard as a boundary for his perennial borders in the central highlands of Victoria. 

High time for some changes

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The Gordonia axillaris, or fried egg tree, has begun the new season with a new look

High Summer has come along in fits and starts, as all the seasonal changes seem to do in southern  Victoria. The first day of December yesterday was a celestial day of heat, sunshine and endless blue sky. The changeability of our weather is legendary, so it was with no surprise that during the night we were woken by thunder booming directly overhead and a flood of rain that would lift the ark.

The rain will keep the garden, and the paddocks beyond, green through until January, which is a blessing in a year that is still set to be named, El Niño. Who knows what the place will look like in Late Summer? For now we are thankful and revel in the green. 

And are busy keeping the green in check. Amazing spring growth has now to be taken in hand with the hedge trimmers and brush cutter being the tools of choice. And I have been busy too making a few changes in my garden.

For most garden designers, the best type of gardening is the creation of a new garden from scratch, approaching a tabula rasa with a grand vision and implementing it. I am no different. I feel the thrill of creating a place that did not exist before, the joy of giving a garden to a client when they had none.  

Nevertheless, a garden is a most ephemeral and fluctuating work of art. Time brings growth. It can also bring a diffusion of the original aim and vision. The care of the garden might have led it to a dead end; a cul-de-sac of neatness and despair. For, as managers of such a dynamic phenomena, gardeners need to do more than merely trim the box and cut crisp edges. We need to make ongoing decisions: to cull, to shape, to replace, to introduce. 

As has been said before, it is the people who maintain the garden who are the real custodians of any garden design. Good gardeners are able to tap into the intent of the garden’s original design. They are challenged by an ageing garden to decide with their client the best way forward: restoration, rejuvenation or reinvention.

I delight in refining an older garden’s design and planting plan to interact with the change that time brings to it. Particularly in my own garden. And I would say my approach is one of perpetual rejuvenation, where I try to get back to my original intentions but within the limits of what nature has decided will actually happen. 

Much of my ornamental garden is made up of mixed borders consisting of shrubs and trees growing amidst perennials and annuals. The conditions are constantly changing. Picture the Gordonia axillaris, which for many years was a slender exclamation mark in its bed surrounded by irises, Francoa, Campanula and Anthriscus.  Over the years it has developed a middle age spread, squeezing out the undergrowth. Furthermore, it was also making a mess of the lawn as its skirts billowed over edging, shading the grass and destroying the shapes of the bed and the lawn. 

Following a conversation with a dear friend whose own garden I have long admired, I decided to remove all the lower branches of the Gordonia, up to about 800mm, so that stone edging would be revealed, the lawn given a fighting chance and the overall form would dominate less. Interesting new opportunities also arose.

 

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Danae racemosa, the poet’s laurel with Iris foetidissima in the background

A great quantity of space under the Gordonia for shade loving plants came into view! Finally, a few impulse buys that had been languishing in the nursery were to find a home: a low shrub, Danae racemosa, the poets laurel, from Stephen Ryan’s nursery, with deep green glossy leaves should bring a rounded form to contrast with the scrappy leaves of the neighbouring iris; Polygonatum multiflorum or Solomon’s seal have been introduced so their elegant arching stems will draw the eye into this new garden beneath the canopy. 

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The naked limbs of the Gordonia with Polygonatum multiflorum getting ready to spread

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The newly revealed limbs catch the late afternoon sunshine, the lawn is yet to recover

The rains have helped all these late plantings along no end. But now I might just take a break from the renovations as new plantings really do have to stop now until we are on the other side of the long summer months ahead.

Cutting back, letting go

Spring in the garden is an ongoing unfurling of new petals, the bursting of rounded buds, the seemingly endless succession of novelty, freshness and delight. It is so easy to become  intoxicated by this fragrant cocktail. So easy to wander around taking photos for Instagram. So easy to forgot there are still chores to be done. Space needs to be made for the growth that is coming.

This is really the perfect time for the clearing of the decaying old growth from last season that has been pleasing the eye all through Autumn and Winter with its warm earthy tones. Now, amidst the green flush of spring, these tones are out of sorts and the new growth at the base of the herbaceous perennials such as Miscanthus, Kniphofia and Nepeta and the similar subshrubs like Pervoskia and Agastache, is keen to get on and grow. The cuttings make excellent mulch. I have stock piled all the miscanthus for use in the vegetable garden over the coming months. Other, less pliable, more twiggy cuttings have found there way to the slow compost heap, where they will sit for the next couple of years before being put back on the garden. If I had a mulcher I could speed up the process.

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The before shot of the large centre bed at Clear Springs that has glowed warmly all through winter and is now ready for its annual prune

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The after shot. Cutting back the chrysanthemums has revealed an unruly clump of Narcissus ‘Erlicheer’ and the last three flowers of the champion Kniphofia ‘Winter Cheer’

This is the last chance to get plants in the ground to have a chance to be established before summer. Usually October is the cut off mark for me, but this year I think we are having an earlier season. My friend Peter at Hill Top Hives has already collected a swarm of bees for his apiary, a clear sign that spring has truly arrived in South Gippsland. I have planted many new plants this year already and am keen to see how well they do over the coming months and years.

I still have room for some more plants. Especially after the clearance of a few dead or dying shrubs that have lived out the term of their natural life. One of them was a very robust and vigorous Grevillea victoriae. A great section had started to die back last year,  and I had been hoping it wouldn’t spread, but other branches were dying, so I decided it was time to let go of what had been a very successful shrub for a dozen years or more. I have little success with the bigger grevilleas for any longer than that. They blow out or die back. Live fast, die young seems to be their motto. I would love to know if anyone has any longer living favourites in the medium to large shrub range? The smaller varieties, like the stalwart Grevillea lanigera ‘Mt. Tambouritha’ (sometimes marketed as Mt. Tambo), G. baueri, which strikes readily from cuttings and is worth growing for the foliage alone, and my favourite G. rosmarinifolia, shown below in its broad leaf form.

Broad leaf Grevillea rosmarinifolia, Clear Springs

Grevillea rosmarinifolia (broad-leaf form)

None of these will suit the purpose of the new gap in the native hedgerow along the western boundary of the garden. Maybe it’s a chance to put in a different type of native flowering shrub. This is a bird friendly section of the garden that is alive with wattle birds  for much of the year sipping nectar from the banksias and with black cockatoos ripping Hakea sericea fruits to pieces for the seeds within. These seem to be more long-lived in this climate. I had better make up my mind soon. In the meantime, I’m off outside with my camera.

The brightening

Cold days persist. Snow may still fall in the hills and on the tablelands. But as anyone who is spending time in the garden will tell you, things are starting to move. It is pre-spring, that brief period between deep winter and true spring when Muyan, the silver wattle (Acacia dealbata) blooms. The lemon yellow and silvery green of its flowers and foliage are colours bright in my mind’s eye, which I see through still, chill air, beside flooding creeks and rivers. An early plant that stirred me to awe: how I wondered at its flowering amidst the bleakest of days. It is far too large for any garden and is prone to fall apart or just drop dead full of borer, but you might be lucky to see it flowering along the river still. The photograph below was taken along the Yarra River (Birrarung) as it flows somewhere through Kew and Abbotsford. Penleigh Boyd painted this yearly phenomenon further up at Warrandyte and elsewhere. Someone once referred to them as scrambled egg paintings. I can see why.

Acacia dealbata

For if there were any colour that could represent this season, at least in my garden, it would have to be yellow. The first daffodils, the other early flowering wattles, some of the Kniphofias, even the Aeoniums, all send out striking yellow flowers at this time. Less stridently, but still apparent in late July and throughout August, there are primroses and phebalium and bulbinella, all cheerfully proclaiming the season. I lost my primroses during a few hot years when I didn’t water the ornamental garden. I lament their loss, but don’t pine for them.  Phebalium squamulosum, the forest phebalium (not much of a common name, I’m afraid), on the other hand, a small shrub native to south eastern Australia, has proven to be much longer lived in comparison. Tucked in amongst Mahonia, Phormiums and Plectranthus, it holds its own against theses bigger brutes; its bronzy foliage waiting quietly for its moment of sunshine: stars bursting from brown buds.

Phebalium

You might not be like me, confusing the native bulbine lily (Bulbine bulbosa) with Bulbinella (Bulbinella spp.). Both members of the Asphodelaceae, they are bright and cheerful and can cope with less than favourable conditions. I am growing the former in a client’s nature strip in Northcote and the latter in my unkempt ‘meadow’ in South Gippsland. Bulbinella is a much showier beast, with more gold in the flower and the composition of the flowers seem to make them vibrate with colour, a stunning display on a smaller scale than a Kniphofia, a plant it usually reminds me of. The little bulbine lily in contrast is a clearer yellow and more modest, but no less delightful, especially amongst the kangaroo grass and the vanilla lilies of a grassy woodland. I hope to grow more of it.

Bulbine Lily

I have grown many wattles over the years, many of them have flourished and passed away. One of my favourites is the sticky wattle Acacia howitii, which lives up to its name having leaves rich with a gum like secretion. I haven’t found it to be very long lived. On the other hand Acacia floribunda, I can’t kill. Even when I chop it down with a chainsaw, it will burst back to life vigorously from whatever stump I leave behind. The most successful wattle in my garden though is the Snowy River Wattle, Acacia boormanii, which has become a relatively long-lived thicket ( it must be about eighteen by now) that shows no sign of weakening. It suckers, hence the thicket, but in such a gentle and unprepossing way. It is probably only a bit over two metres tall where I have it. It comes out a little earlier even than Muyan, a yellow froth of blossom amidst the dark, dark green foliage. A perfect plant to edge a country garden with to provide protection and create a microclimate amenable to more fragile plants within.Acacia boormanii.jpg

So much yellow, it’s hard not to be cheered by it and the lengthening days.

Erysimum

Deep Winter is cold and wild and wet. This year in particular we seem to have been plunged into the worst of the season, even before the winter solstice has passed. One of the benefits of winter is the rain, which prompts the growth of some of my favourite plants in the relatively mild climate of southern Victoria. Globe artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus), giant honey-flower (Melianthus major)  and honeywort (Cerinthe major) are some of the plants I love to see come to life in the wetter months. They all have glaucous foliage, and it is one of the marvels of winter to see water pooling in the valleys formed by leaves and by stems, like quicksilver, glinting in the morning light.

Another of these winter treats is the wallflower. Once known as Cheiranthus, the genus Erysimum is a long favourite of gardeners who like maximum effect for minimum input. You might remember seeing them in London used as a bedding plant, with magnificent tulips emerging from their froth of colour, if you have been there in spring time.

 

There are scores of cultivars in existence, some with descriptive and exotic names like ‘Cloth of Gold’, ‘Apricot Twist’, ‘Vulcan’ and ‘Persian Carpet’. The names might give an indication of the range of colours available, burnt orange, pale lemon, canary yellow, all sorts of purple and some might say red.

I have four varieties that I have experience using. I only bought one of them. That is the wildly popular Erysimum ‘Bowle’s Mauve’, which you can find out all about with a quick google search. It’s foliage is dense, made up of lance-like leaves, the shrub is compact and it flowers in a very pleasing shade for months on end, as they all do. Starting with the autumn break and continuing until early summer.

The other three have landed here so many years ago, I have forgotten their provenance and even their cultivar name, if ever I knew them. Most likely they came from friends as cuttings in moistened newspaper. For they strike very readily from cuttings and they grow well from seed. However, I find they are a rather enduring shrub in my gardens so I don’t need to renew them very often. I prune them back after flowering with the hedge trimmers to keep them shapely. They tend to hibernate over summer: they stop flowering, their foliage shrinks and becomes more glaucous to cope with the drier conditions.

As I said, I am not sure of the exact names of my cultivars, in fact I have a feeling one of them is an unnamed seedling anyway. But the three I have demonstrate their great colour range.

The most vigorous is the one that looks like it could be ‘Artists Paintbox’, which is a feast of divers colour all on its own. One website describes the flowers of this variety as exhibiting all of the following: ‘yellow-orange, salmon, purple-pink, and reddish-purple’!

The variety known as ‘Early Sunrise’ is multicoloured too, but possibly in a more refined way, leaping between pale lemon yellow and lavender. The plants I have in the garden that look like this cultivar might actually be seedlings of the above mentioned ‘Artists Paintbox’ that have popped up on their own in the gravel and mulch.

My all time favourite is the burnt orange variety that closely resembles ‘Fire King’. I have grown this cultivar from the earliest days and in multiple settings. It always impresses with its brilliant, warm tone.

The great value of these plants on top of their reliability and impact is the way their strong winter growth blocks out the innumerable wet season weeds that rise up throughout the garden (cleavers, fumitory, capeweed  and to name a few).

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Erysimum cultivar at the end of the season, this is usually when I give them the chop

 

 

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.

 

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.