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.

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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).

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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.

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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. 

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