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.

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.