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.

IMG_5511

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

IMG_5513

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.

Sweet, deep winter

Being a gardener in winter is quite a privilege and a lark. For sure, there are mornings when you think your fingers will turn black from frost bite, or afternoons when you count down the minutes until you can get home to change your rainsoaked and filthy clothes. But then there are days like today when the sun shines, albeit weakly, and the fragrance of the winter flowers floats in the gentle breeze and reminds you of the times you have caught that scent before. 

Scented plants that are flowering in the gardens I care for at the moment are many and varied. In one garden, parts of the birch wood have been colonised by the ground hugging violet. Viola odorata flowers come in different shades of purple and there are white varieties as well. I never have the time to pick them, but they make a great little bunch for a small vase. If there are children within earshot, I usually ask them to pick me some, their fingers being better suited to picking the filament-like stems, on which these symmetrical flowers grow. 

Other wonderful scented plants for winter are sweet daphne (Daphne odora), which everyone knows. Maybe less well known, but still fairly widely grown are the native daphne, once known as Eriostemon myoporoides and now called Philoteca myoporoides. Like daphne their flowers are white with a hint of pink on the outside of the petals, and they have sweet scent, although I would say quite different to the exotic daphne. 

Daphne

I am reluctant to use jonquils in planting plans as once you have them, you will have them forever (I have been trying in vain for years to vanquish a clump of scrambled egg yellow jonquils from one of my beds and no matter how many times I claim to have dug up all the bulbs, there are always some left behind). However, if you have a garden that doesn’t already have some, they will grow well in a pot and have a great winter scent in the garden. 

There are so many more scented plants, but the last one I will mention is Lonicera fragrantissima, the winter honeysuckle. The small clear cream flowers are small but the scent is large, a spicy lemony version that would be familiar to lovers of the spring and summer flowering varieties. I don’t often see it about, but it is on my wish list for must have plants.

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?

IMG_3800.jpg

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.

IMG_3771.jpg

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

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.

IMG_8707

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.

IMG_4675

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?

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

 

Autumn Break

It might feel like winter, but it is only really autumn and the weather over the past few days in the Strzelecki Ranges, relentless rain and wild wind, have been the archetypal Autumn Break, the point at which the rains come to punctuate the progression of the seasons. It seems late this year. I was recently told that if we don’t get the break by Anzac Day we are in for a dry season. However, it might have been later than usual, but the Break’s heavy downfalls over the weekend could only herald moist conditions ahead.

The images below are classic autumn fare: Gingko biloba against a background of evergreens; a seedling Acer palmatum that steals the show despite its humble origins; Liriodendron tulipifera, whose Autumn foliage is even more spectacular than its marvellous flower; Fly Agaric growing under the Castanea sativa, Mespilus germanica fading away brilliantly in the veggie patch, Punica granatum fruit stranded on bare branches.

These photos were all taken at Clear Springs, Mirboo, where despite the gloomy skies, there was enough colour coming from the changing foliage and the flowers of camellias and chrysanthemums to remind us of the sun, hidden somewhere, up there behind the clouds.

IMG_5051 IMG_5052 IMG_5053 IMG_5054 IMG_5056 IMG_5057 IMG_5058