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.

 

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.

Sweet Daphne

Daphne was a water nymph (Naiad) who caught the eye of Apollo. He chased after her. To avoid God knows what injury, she sensibly turned herself into a bay tree (Laurus nobilis), which Apollo mooned over thereafter. This is an archetypal representation of the pursued and the pursuer in relationship: if they’re running away from you and never turn around to chase you back, then they’re probably not that into you, as the saying goes.

When it came to giving a common name to this family of precious shrubs from Asia, it was no doubt decided that as the leaves of some of the species resembled the bay leaf and as the beauty of many of the species resembled an irresistible Naiad, that this is after whom it should be named.

A favourite of home gardens in southern Australia, the sweet daphne (Daphne odora) outshines all other winter flowering fragrant plants. Its spicy citrus fragrance is distinctive in the cold air and when brought inside in a generous bunch the warmth empowers the scent. Whenever I catch a whiff, I am transported back to my grandmother’s South Gippsland garden.

The inflorescences come in bundles of white flowers and each flower is made up of four tepals (petal and sepal combo), and each petal is backed with cerise. They are usually borne amidst the leathery green foliage from July to September. There are varieties that have variegated leaves and some with pure white flowers.

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They are known to be a little bit fussy. I would say good drainage in acidic soil with an easterly prospect, if you can find the space, is best. Others suggest dappled light. And give it a very light tip pruning every year and pick many bunches as gifts and to cheer up the house. This will help it to stay in some shape. For they can become unruly and untidy if left to their own devices. It will need to be fertilised too, so that the leaves stay glossy and green and not lank and yellow. A regular supply of water in dry weather will help it to stay strong and resist attack from such pests as scale.

In design it is best used in a mixed border. It is not a very interesting plant to look at for most of the year, so it is good to have something more fascinating to look at in the vicinity, but don’t let the daphne be overpowered by other plants in the summer months, as it will restrict its growth and flower production the following season.

And have them growing somewhere where you walk past them every day, so that its scent can astound you each day of winter and transport you to the moment you were first aware of it as a garden plant.

Boxes of Dahlias

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Where do you stand on box hedges? Do you view them as a classic staple of formal gardening or a lamentable gardening cliche that were old hat when Vita Sackville-West was a lass?

Probably, from the above photograph, you have worked out where I stand. My vegetable garden at Clear Springs is defined by these rustling lines of deep green. Box although haling from the Old World are as tough as any native in my garden and will forgive me when I don’t get around to clipping them. I can hack back inches and still they reveal glossy green foliage that look like I had planned it this way all along. It looks great all year round and is happy to take the supporting role to the more spectacular floral offerings, like the dahlias, calendula and artichokes that you can see in the photograph.

And now allow me to mention the dahlias. My grandmother grew them: a great big fat row of them that ran the full length of one of Pa’s vegetable gardens. No two plants were the same variety, the flowers all astounded me as a child. Their colours and shapes absorbed my fascination.

I grew some myself in my first little garden. Dainty white pompoms. I thought they were a miracle.

And as I grew up, I realised that they were not terribly fashionable so kept my interest in them quiet, unless it was for the giant tree dahlia, which was somehow ok according to the horticultural fashion police of the time.

But in my wonderings and observations of old style productive gardens of the inner urban migrants of multicultural Melbourne, I noticed that these proto-cottage gardens were usually adorned with a splendid example of a dahlia. Usually the most garish and strangely coloured dahlia known to science. There might be quite a few plants, but of the one variety. Frugal gardeners dividing and multiplying a specimen that they love. Makes sense.

And thus my own little row of dahlias. One variety that I acquired as a gift fifteen years ago. It has grown in the same place pretty much since then and unlike my industrious grandparents, who dug and stored away the bulbs every year so that they wouldn’t rot, mine have remained untended and undivided. That is, until now. Only a few months ago I divided and replanted about half the bulbs in a little row, expecting them to grow into great big shrub like creatures before flowering in the late summer.

However, the division must have somehow stimulated their urge to flower and low and behold I had a lovely little display for Christmas. The combination with the calendula pleases me greatly and not just for the serendipitous nature of its creation. What would the fashion police say? Hopefully, by now I have learnt not to listen too much to the pronouncements of these mythical creatures.

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Happy New Year!

Torches, torches

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The thyrsus was a symbolic implement from ancient times made of a rod with a pine cone fixed on the top. It was associated with Bacchus or Dionysus, and in the midst of this silly season and the Spring Carnival in Melbourne, when Dionysus’ bacchanalian cult seems to be active at every Cup Day barbecue and racing event, it is quite fitting to be reminded of it by a rather upright planting in the Fitzroy Gardens this sunny spring afternoon.

The radiant golden racemes of the Wachendorfia thyrsiflora (where the thyrsus reference comes from)  are in full splendour at the moment. The timing of this planting to coincide with the stunning Doryanthes exelsa’s flowers (towering above on their immense stem) is impressive.

Both are fairly tough plants as long as they have adequate water (I find the Wachendorfia won’t flower if it dries out). If you want to find out more, check out the links below.

http://www.plantzafrica.com/plantwxyz/wachendorfthyrs.htm

http://www.anbg.gov.au/gnp/gnp12/doryanthes-excelsa.html