High time for some changes

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The Gordonia axillaris, or fried egg tree, has begun the new season with a new look

High Summer has come along in fits and starts, as all the seasonal changes seem to do in southern  Victoria. The first day of December yesterday was a celestial day of heat, sunshine and endless blue sky. The changeability of our weather is legendary, so it was with no surprise that during the night we were woken by thunder booming directly overhead and a flood of rain that would lift the ark.

The rain will keep the garden, and the paddocks beyond, green through until January, which is a blessing in a year that is still set to be named, El Niño. Who knows what the place will look like in Late Summer? For now we are thankful and revel in the green. 

And are busy keeping the green in check. Amazing spring growth has now to be taken in hand with the hedge trimmers and brush cutter being the tools of choice. And I have been busy too making a few changes in my garden.

For most garden designers, the best type of gardening is the creation of a new garden from scratch, approaching a tabula rasa with a grand vision and implementing it. I am no different. I feel the thrill of creating a place that did not exist before, the joy of giving a garden to a client when they had none.  

Nevertheless, a garden is a most ephemeral and fluctuating work of art. Time brings growth. It can also bring a diffusion of the original aim and vision. The care of the garden might have led it to a dead end; a cul-de-sac of neatness and despair. For, as managers of such a dynamic phenomena, gardeners need to do more than merely trim the box and cut crisp edges. We need to make ongoing decisions: to cull, to shape, to replace, to introduce. 

As has been said before, it is the people who maintain the garden who are the real custodians of any garden design. Good gardeners are able to tap into the intent of the garden’s original design. They are challenged by an ageing garden to decide with their client the best way forward: restoration, rejuvenation or reinvention.

I delight in refining an older garden’s design and planting plan to interact with the change that time brings to it. Particularly in my own garden. And I would say my approach is one of perpetual rejuvenation, where I try to get back to my original intentions but within the limits of what nature has decided will actually happen. 

Much of my ornamental garden is made up of mixed borders consisting of shrubs and trees growing amidst perennials and annuals. The conditions are constantly changing. Picture the Gordonia axillaris, which for many years was a slender exclamation mark in its bed surrounded by irises, Francoa, Campanula and Anthriscus.  Over the years it has developed a middle age spread, squeezing out the undergrowth. Furthermore, it was also making a mess of the lawn as its skirts billowed over edging, shading the grass and destroying the shapes of the bed and the lawn. 

Following a conversation with a dear friend whose own garden I have long admired, I decided to remove all the lower branches of the Gordonia, up to about 800mm, so that stone edging would be revealed, the lawn given a fighting chance and the overall form would dominate less. Interesting new opportunities also arose.

 

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Danae racemosa, the poet’s laurel with Iris foetidissima in the background

A great quantity of space under the Gordonia for shade loving plants came into view! Finally, a few impulse buys that had been languishing in the nursery were to find a home: a low shrub, Danae racemosa, the poets laurel, from Stephen Ryan’s nursery, with deep green glossy leaves should bring a rounded form to contrast with the scrappy leaves of the neighbouring iris; Polygonatum multiflorum or Solomon’s seal have been introduced so their elegant arching stems will draw the eye into this new garden beneath the canopy. 

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The naked limbs of the Gordonia with Polygonatum multiflorum getting ready to spread

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The newly revealed limbs catch the late afternoon sunshine, the lawn is yet to recover

The rains have helped all these late plantings along no end. But now I might just take a break from the renovations as new plantings really do have to stop now until we are on the other side of the long summer months ahead.

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.