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

 

 

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.

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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.

 

 

 

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

 

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.

It’s the wrong time to prune fruit trees

My biggest task in the garden I was working on in Boolarra last week was to bring to heel some rather exuberant fruit trees in an orchard that has not been pruned for quite a few years. I am not even sure all the trees are on dwarfing rootstock, so their capacity for growth knows no bounds. I chose to prune them now, the wrong time, in an attempt to knock a bit of vigour out of the growth of the trees. We will see how well that works. I will keep you updated.

Basically I cut out all the staunch upright growth with my handy little pruning saw and tidied up crossing branches and dead wood with my secateurs and loppers.

From the picture you can see it was a classic autumn day. The clippings went to the cows, who love fruit tree leaves (as well as fruit, apples in particular). The lopped branches will end up in a piece of rustic fencing at ‘Clear Springs’.

Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show

'Equilibrium' by Nathan Burkett Design

‘Equilibrium’ by Nathan Burkett Design

The Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show is an exciting celebration of the horticultural industry in Victoria and is adored by professional and amateur gardeners and garden lovers who flock in large numbers every year to see the latest design gardens, products, and plants.

'Quietude' by Cycas Landscape Design and Lisa Ellis Gardens

‘Quietude’ by Cycas Landscape Design and Lisa Ellis Gardens

The show gardens are my favourite thing to see. I am always astounded by the amazing planting and design ideas. And sometimes I just stand there wondering how they did it. How in a very few days are they able to assemble gardens that realistically would take months if not years to achieve in the real world? The skill involved in creating these show gardens is extraordinary. My favourites have been included above and below.

"Crossroads" by Ian Barker Gardens

“Crossroads” by Ian Barker Gardens

And the organisers of the Show realise that the show gardens are really unachievable for the majority of gardeners, or at least their budgets. Hence the other competition gardens that are much smaller and known as the “achievable” gardens. These were also highly inspiring. They are achievable in the sense that the home gardener would be able to create something like them, with reasonable budgets and readily available materials. My favourites were the ‘Rousseau Jungle’ by Heather Forward and ‘The Crossroads’ by Ben Newell.

'The Crossroads' by Ben Newell

‘The Crossroads’ by Ben Newell

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‘Rousseau’s Jungle’ by Heather Forward

Another category was the boutique gardens, which fits somewhere in aspiration and budget somewhere between the other two categories. I liked the winning entry ‘Pipe Dreams’ by Alison Douglas.

'Pipe Dreams' by Alison Douglas

‘Pipe Dreams’ by Alison Douglas

And of course there are the amazing flower arrangements in the Exhibition Building, which are amazing and creative and are inspiring to the gardener in many ways, including in the colour and texture combinations that the florists come up with.

There are also some great displays by businesses who are there to promote their products, including nurseries. These are always the greatest temptation and I see gardeners walking away with trolly loads of plants. This year, I was able to restrain myself and I only bought a few corms species tulips. Thankfully I had travelled to the show on my bike!

Phillip Johnson's field of poppies.

Phillip Johnson’s field of poppies.

Check out the winners and other information about the show at http://melbflowershow.com.au

Oh my word, it’s apple picking time…

“The ripe, the golden month has come again … and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run…” Thomas Wolfe

I don’t know much about York Imperials, but I do know that Cox’s Orange Pippin is one of the best eating apples in the world. It has a vivd sweetness that is relieved by a pleasant sourness that with the crunch and ooze of the first bite, brightens up your palate. Eating fresh apples is such a pleasure. I have eight different varieties growing in my orchard and I love moving from one tree to the next at this time of year munching and comparing sweetness and colour and texture and flavour of the Cox’s with the Snow Apple and the Jonathan and the Red Delicious. It’s not an expansive collection, but it is full of the varieties I love.

Adam picks with the help of Elaine, every single apple from the tree.

Adam picks, with the help of Elaine, every single apple from the tree.

There are eight apple trees in our orchard, which means a lot of apples. More than we can eat. More than we can preserve, store and eat. As the trees have slowly matured over the years, I have been noticing the increasing harvest sizes and have been wondering what to do with them. Giving them to a food charity is one option (and I plan to give some of the bounty to Open Table https://www.facebook.com/opntbl/info?tab=page_info). Cider is the other option.

The back of the old ute with our crop of Cox's ready to head to Margaret and Peter's.

The back of the old ute with our crop of Cox’s ready to head to Margaret and Peter’s.

My friends Peter and Margaret are excellent home gardeners and they too have some lovely apple trees such as ‘Lord Lambourne’ and we have been talking for a while about turning these luscious fruits into something a little bit more alcoholic than apple pie and apple strudel. This year, after discovering the most wonderful shop in Melbourne, if not the world, Costante Imports in Bell Street Preston, where we purchased the appropriate equipment (<http://www.costanteimports.com.au&gt; No, don’t check them out yet, we’ll never see you again), we decided that the only thing holding us back was inaction.

So we acted. The following photos tell the story of how we picked, cut up, scratted (i.e. crushed) and pressed all the apples from my Cox’s Orange Pippin and how eight hours later we put the caps on two carboys that contained all up 62 litres of apple juice ready to be fermented into cider. There are a few scientific sort of things we had to do after that. I will let you find out that stuff online, as we did, because I am sure that others can explain the process far better than I can.

The cows were very happy to feast on the apples that were too damaged to press.

The cows were very happy to feast on the apples that were too damaged to press.

The cutting of the apples.

The cutting of the apples.

The scratting of the apples.

The scratting of the apples.

The pressing of the apples. See the lovely juice flowing into the bowl. It took a lot of elbow grease. Margaret proved to be the best presser of the three of us, I will concede.

The pressing of the apples. See the lovely juice flowing into the bowl. It took a lot of elbow grease. Margaret proved to be the best presser of the three of us, I will concede.

This is Peter's photo of the carboys that contain the juice, which now, thanks to the addition of some brewer's yeast, is busily fermenting.

This is Peter’s photo of the carboys that contain the juice, which now, thanks to the addition of some brewer’s yeast, is busily fermenting.

So that’s one tree taken care of. I have good crops on at least five of the remaining apple trees. I am not sure if we will make another batch of cider this year, but I will definitely be storing a good selection of the rest of the apples in boxes in cupboards and sheds, to keep me going for the next five or six months (they keep really well in cool dark places in shallow boxes).

So the York Imperials might delight the cider makers of Virginia, but in South Gippsland, Cox’s Orange Pippins are our first choice for cider making. For now at least. We will be planting some actual cider apples this year. But that’s another story.

Until then, enjoy your apples and enjoy this poem by a Melbourne born poet who knew that apples, like all of us, can improve with age.

 “A dish of apples, two are large and smooth,

The third smaller. Its skin, my fingers learn,

Has just begun to wrinkle. So I choose it:

The fruit inside is likely to be sweeter.”

Philip Martin from Fruits of Experience

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