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.

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.

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.

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