Once we have passed the shortest day of the year, it is quite usual for some plants, associated with spring in cooler parts of the world, to begin to flower. Snowdrops and snowflakes, paper white narcissus, other types of jonquils and some daffodils, come to mind. They begin to flower despite the fact that here in southern Victoria the weather will remain wintry for another couple of months.
Once August hits, we really start to see the emergence of flowers and birds start to nest on a scale that prompts people to rush to announce the beginning of spring. Which it isn’t really. Not yet. It is a transitional season: it carries the hallmarks of spring while still wearing a winter coat. Silver wattle brightens the margins of the creek. By the end of the month, the very worst of the winter weather will be over.
I refer to August as pre-spring. Other people might have other names for it. The Kulin calendar calls it Guling or Orchid season, which follows the wombat season of Waring, our deep winter season and comes in advance of true spring, Poorneet, the tadpole season.
I am fascinated by the subtle changes in light and temperature, the behaviour of animals and the growth of plants, which signal the seasonal shifts. The observation of these deepens our understanding of our environment and gives us a point of connection with indigenous people who have been noticing these changes over thousands of years.
There is nothing like the silver light of a wet Melbourne day to remind us that it is winter time again. Most of the colourful leaves of deciduous trees have been raked and dealt with by now and although one or two trees wait until the very last minute to flourish in a fire of red, like Chinese pistachio (Pistacia chinensis), or smoulder in smokey yellow, like the liquidambar (Liquidambar styraciflua), the main event has passed us by for another year.
In this intermediate time, as the leaves fall, our gardens have been reawakening with colour since the Autumn break and are reaching a marvellous crescendo just now. Sasanqua camellias are stunning during May and throughout June. Their flowers bring life into any wintry garden scene. The white ‘Setsugekka’ is highly popular. Its petals undulate into a slight ruffle and are plentiful and suitably fragrant. How would you describe the scent of a sasanqua camellia? Powdery is always the first word that comes to mind, whatever that means. Something alluding to vanilla and gardenia. Perhaps.
Some of the pale pink cultivars are worth finding a home for. You know the ones that look like the silk ribbon of a 1950s flowergirl? Or the icing on your grandmother’s sponge cake? I have one in my garden of this particular hue and it always lights my heart up when I see it. It seems to be particularly fragrant, or is it just that it is in a sheltered spot, where the air is trapped against a north facing wall. I call her Enid as mentioned in my previous ramblings and would love to know if anyone else grows her.
There are other colours, the deep cerise of ‘Hiryū’ ( the flying dragon ) is loved by many and I have had it growing for many years happily in amongst a band of bossy buddleia. More deeply coloured again, the red of ‘Yuletide’, to me looks malevolent. I though this recently as I was eating a pie in my ute. I had bought the delicious pie from the bakery in a small country town that I pass through regularly on my travels. The windscreen overlooked the road and the neat gardens opposite and there, in full flight, were the dark green leaves and the bloody red flowers of this particular cultivar. It’s flowers are far deeper and darker than the tomato sauce on my pie. They seemed to confound the light and create shadow where light could have been.
As winter deepens, I prefer to keep things light. There is such a lot to do at this time of year and fewer hours to get all the chores done. Winter pruning, dividing, mulching and clipping all lie in wait and of course this must be balanced with time spent by the fire dreaming of the spring that is yet to come.
The days are getting longer. But it is still winter. The plants grow, but slowly. Broad beans (Vicia faba) have been growing steadily since we planted them in May. And they are flowering their sweet, cream flowers that promise the fruit that is to come. I planted the broad beans in three rows, fairly closely together so that the plants support each other as they grow. Nearby I grow a small crop of garlic, another of my favourite winter crops. All in a bed of rich red soil that I have tried valiantly to keep weed free over the course of the winter. I wish I could keep the whole garden like that. Elsewhere the cape weed and blue pimpernel are also thriving. That will be a job for another day, when the days get longer still.