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.

IMG_7644

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).

poa-and-eryngium.jpg

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.

IMG_6530

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. 

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.

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).

IMG_1350.jpg

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

 

 

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.