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.
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.
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).
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.