Friday, 16 March 2018

A Challenge and an Opportunity

On a cool morning you'll often find me watering - by hand - the big pots of dahlias, hostas and (smaller) cyclamen around the front door (Dixter Midi, if you will).
We have tank water only so we need to be careful doling out the rations...and we've just had the driest month for 27 years; and a hot dry summer despite a La Nina system.

Last year when I watered I rebelled against the chore but for some reason, this year, as I irrigate I'm thinking about the garden with an eye on losses and looking at holes in the plant matrix as good places to pop in, say, a few tulips here (under a tough ground cover), some nice perennials there. But always, always, the question: how to make the garden or planting mix look better this time next year. Yes, I know: drought-tolerant plantings. Very.

Interestingly, some recently-moved Ajuga was wilting just when our electricity was off this week (after that gusty day, so hard on the garden) and water hard to access. I was able to dribble a little on the plant - hardly any! - but magically the Ajuga unfurled from its misery and looked around with a wan smile.

Speaking of drought-hardy plants (and flowering now, when it's still so hot and dry), recent visitors pointed out `Cauliflower Plant', a moniker new to me, for flowering Sedum (above, with tall Drimia maritima); and completely appropriate when the flowers are still in bud. Yes, it needs cutting back in late autumn. Yes, it looks insignificant in winter (when hellebores are doing their floral thing, so no problem there). But I love the freshness each year of perennials, usually in spring, but in this case, in summer-autumn.

I have a very attractive soft pink form of Sedum, which ages to pale pink-red, in that less-is-more phenomenon that happens when you slowly multiply lots of plants from just one original plant (so less types of plants through the garden). It's very satisfying (and cheap!) and as I've moved pieces about, it helps give the garden unity.

A friend offered me some Sedum a while ago; from memory, probably a colour closer to red than pink. Would it suit the garden, if kept away from the others (in fact near the sheds, so it would be far from the hose)? And in time, a big group of just that one, showy and enlivening the rather sorry, late summer garden. A stronger colour would work well in this part of the garden, too.
I need to ask myself around for a coffee while his Sedum is blooming, and eye off the plant, to see how much I like it. No garden is big enough for a plant you really don't like. Even a fantastically drought-hardy one that flowers when all else is dry, dry, dry.
I guess...

Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria. (

Friday, 9 February 2018

Mid-Summer Madness


Summertime. It's hot. And last night the temperature was about 34°C until Melbourne, anyway.
(`Only' 27°C in the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges where I hang up my sunhat and gum boots.)
We're on tank water only and I'm trying to hand water my rather dry garden and keep plants alive, not - so not - lush, full and (sigh) green.
So any plant that thumbs its (hypothetical) nose at the heat, and says hurrah with a flourish in January and February, has to be worth noting. And there's a few that are glorious just now.
A purple clematis (above) covered in regal flowers; a tall drought-tolerant bulb, Drimia maritima (Syn. Urginea, Sea Squill) with flower spikes reminiscent of white fireworks (I count the spikes with incredulity: 13 so far); perennial hibiscus (top, probably H. moscheutos) with large blooms of a pink-red that's somewhat like pale crimson (I said somewhat); it's a piece from my mother's plant, dug up in winter while dormant, now reaching a dramatic 2.5m height and calling out `I'm here'! Crinum bulbs continue opening large satin bells of palest pink, waist-high in semi-shade; and Cape hyacinths (Galtonia candicans) with spires of bridal bells (literally; Mum used to say that my sister's wedding bouquet - in January - included these pretty flowers. Did Mum make it? I wish I'd asked) in day-long sunshine. Stalks with heads of perfumed trumpets: pink and white belladonna lilies or naked ladies, rising, leaf-free, from (it seems) scorched earth. Huge heads of double white blooms emerging from green buds on Hydrangea quercifolia `Snowflake' are weighing down the branches. Dusky-leaf Dahlias (`Bishop of Llandaff', fire-engine-red, and, in a lovely copper pot from my mother's garden, sunny `Mystic Illusion') may require lots of irrigation in the hot months - they are from summer-rainfall Mexico, after all - but they are multiplying in their huge pots and adding colour just by the front door. (I have so many pots here that it's starting to remind me of this feature at justly-famous UK garden Great Dixter. (I don't dare say, for a moment, that my pots are of the same calibre!, but they - I hope - add to a welcoming atmosphere.). Dahlia `Mystic Dreamer' (below) in cherry and strawberry ice-cream colours over mahogany foliage is planted in the garden - which is usually preferable for plants - but these are going backwards. More water required! (High-Summer-water-needing plants might sound crazy to have - but these flower for months, and these dahlias have some terrific qualities: sweetly shaped blooms, not dinner plate-sized nor anemone-style, of which I am not fond; and a height - around 60cm (`Mystic Dreamer') to 1m or so (`Bishop of Llandaff' & Mystic Illusion') - that doesn't need staking but stands tall, erect and oh-so-handsome. But I have 3 types of Dusky-leaf Dahlias, all very distinct in colour, and therefore needing different places in the garden; and 2 dwarf ones, a sweet yellow, and one pure white, all carefully labelled. I must not buy any more! - or the garden will look unplanned and over-stuffed with plants (or more so), with a crazy mix of colours.
Even tiny autumn cyclamen (C. hederifolium) has white or rosy-lilac flowers appearing while a couple of my summer-flowering, evergreen lace-patterned-leaves C. purpurescens are simply gorgeous! Tiny autumn snowflakes (from my sister) have popped up and given a wink, too.
Did I cause this seemingly early phenomenon by watering (a bit)?
There's some lovely sight in almost every corner of the garden - and I haven't counted salvias or lemon Phygelius, alive with honeyeaters, amongst the floral show.
We've had the odd extra rain shower, particularly during spring, which must be enormously beneficial for the garden - although not the lawn, which is turning Australian-summer-brown. (Less mowing is the silver lining.) When we have rain, I almost do that (probably) Australian thing: go out and dance in the rain. (Sorry about your party or wedding - but I am getting life blood for my garden. I can't help but rejoice. Besides, with every good downpour, the danger of bushfire recedes further to the future).
Usually it' so dry in summer until the autumn rains come, that the garden can look terribly dry, even barren. But it's not as bad this summer. And so many plants are flowering just now; yes, I do like flowers.
So I'm wandering the garden, thinking: Is this the best summer ever?
I think so.
Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria. (

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Red-leaf Radicchio

What's not to love about a red-leaved radicchio (or Italian chicory), lettuce-like in shape, size and use? I've had four in one of my big pots near the back door, for simplicity when collecting a few leaves at dinner time.
Not surprisingly, the plants bolted when the hot weather really began, but were nicely upright - and I thought I'd collect seeds - until they started flopping over the path in a very undignified manner. They've now been tidied up.
Luckily there's more in the edible patch, where I'm happy for the plants to flower away, and where I'm less troubled by a bit of drunken falling over. I'm determined to collect seeds! (Blue flowers in the orange-and-red veg plot. Oh well. They are pretty.)

But for a little while we had, atop stems a metre high, unexpected, sweet flowers of sky blue just like the blooms of its brother, green-leaved chicory (Cichorium intybus, that so-called coffee replacement (bar humbug) in times of deprivation). Who knew they were related? (I knew that chicory has blue flowers, but didn't know that it was closely related to the red-leaved radicchio, so different in colour and shape.)
So I pulled out the errant radicchio, and topped up the potting mix in the large pot. I added lettuce seed, covered lightly, and watered well...especially during the hot days we've had (up to 41 degrees here, with northerly winds) and shaded them a little with bracken stalks.
Often I have a bit of fun with my you can see. Within the 2 round pots (the other two are square) are water-well pots, hidden when the lettuce grows.
Thankfully, these 4 pots, near the back door, only receive morning sun, hot as that is.
Planting lettuce seed in January might sound crazy, but I am an optimist!

Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria. (

Friday, 12 January 2018

Some Hardy Perennials

Both garden and I wilted on the recent oven-like 42°C day.
Well, most of the garden. Some plants are extraordinarily resilient, taking heat & dry soil with aplomb. (Here we have tank water the garden gets almost zero a Mediterranean climate.)
Blue salvia (probably Salvia chamaedryoides `Marine Blue', pictured above), is holding up well, and should flower right through the warm months (up until late autumn), like the rest of its tribe. Both the salvia and the nearby Phygelius are looking at me, saying, superciliously, `What Heat?' - and both attract myriads of birds seeking nectar. (Phygelius might be a bit messy to have near the house, but the constant avian activity that we can see through our windows makes it worth the pain.)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis, above) is surprisingly happy in pots - these are kept watered - and I'm looking at them afresh. I'm preparing a talk on poppies and, to my surprise, bloodroot is in the handsome poppy family. Every single species in Papaveraceae seems to have the prettiest of flowers (and sometimes, as here, wonderful leaves)! Like all the other wealth of poppies - which grow from the cold Arctic to the heat of South Africa - bloodroot produces a fluid - latex - which contains alkaloids (interesting ones in the opium poppy).
Cut a stem and out comes the fluid, orange in this case but fancifully named as blood-like.
Speaking of poppies, my Papaver `Lauren's Grape' (pictured in my last post) is setting seed and I've carefully cut off three seeds heads, as they've ripened, with the ring of pores open to release - it seems - thousands of tiny seeds from the pepper pot-like seed heads. Don't pick them green! - the seeds will not be ready. I've only had the one variety growing so the next generation may have, again, that wonderful purple.
 True lilies (Lilium, top), too, are flowering their heads off.
I love it when the garden gives you a truly wonderful  surprise.
Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria. (

Sunday, 31 December 2017

A sweet friend has asked for more purple flowers, so I've wandered the garden, camera in hand.
Now this is a woman with a serious purple-loving syndrome. (If she's only wearing one lilac or violet item I quiz her - only to be assured that hidden clothes are purple too. I always make it clear that I believe her and no, I do not need to see her underwear.)
Surprised, I find a few violet blooms - and foliage, too. Splashes of purple have come with the heavy rain.

Clematis are doing their spring-thing a bit late (above, no complaints from me), pentstemons (last pic) have started their warm weather flowering, and the saffron crocus pot has had its summer addition of opal basil (below). The tiny crocus are in this pot so that they don't get lost in the hurly-burly of the garden, but the pot looks too bare in summer...enter opal basil with its dark purple leaves. (Pop a sprig of this basil into a bottle of vinegar and voilĂ , you have a pink culinary treat or present.) My purple basil is joined this year with cinnamon basil, new to me, and with green leaves that, when crushed, have a basil fragrance with, after a few seconds, a strong hint of cinnamon.

I'm also enjoying the last of my Papaver `Lauren's Grape' (top), a tall and stately plant with flowers of fairly deep purple in that wonderful poppy shape that's so pretty and elegant, and beloved for this reason. I am preparing a talk on poppies and dang, I love the poppies with their delicate petals, particularly when the plant is single (4 petals), not double (8 or more). And, boy, I Love the effect and contrast with my Papaver `Lauren's Grape' amid loads of silver foliage (mostly Plume poppy (how apt!), Macleaya cordata). An effect to repeat, as I watch the poppy seedpods for ripeness, to collect before the fine seeds are tossed out.
(Speaking of poppies, several years ago, we saw carpets of red Flanders poppies (Papaver rhoeus, or Corn Poppy) in France; a feast for the eyes...and I forget that it's a symbol of death (& rebirth) and WW1, and simply enjoyed the scene for its colour, effect and joie de vivre - and also rejoice that this flower seemed plentiful, as various meadow species round the globe are pushed to the edge by farming and housing.)
Poppy seeds are tiny, and a friend tells me to scatter the seed over mulch (rather than shallow burying) in autumn, to get good germination rates - and sow thinly. Certainly planting seeds in situ is usually far more successful than transplanting plants or seedlings.
Great advice for autumn!
Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria. (

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Southern Summer Solstice and looking back at a Strange Spring.

`Solstice' (Latin: `solstitium') means `sun stopping' (and changing) as we celebrate the longest day.
For the English, summer starts on 21st June unlike us in Australia who consider the first day of December to be the beginning of serious heat; sun, surf and beaches; Christmas and summer holidays.
But I'd like to look backwards today, and think about the odd spring we've had.
It's been an extraordinary spring; every plant singing and so many birds and animals doing their spring thing in overdrive, from honey eaters (along with the usual suspects) collecting spider webs from under the veranda roof for making their nests (I've never see this before - usually they are `just' supping nectar from the correas and salvias, constantly) to wallabies boxing, and J's  straw hat used again, by scrub wrens for nesting.
We have a new resident: a kookaburra has decided - rightly - that the garden at Possum Creek is full of food (like the skinks we love) and magpies strut the little lawn. Both have such character and purpose.
Wood ducks spend a day or two at our dam before marching on, ducklings following closely behind. Also called maned geese, they are handsome and prolific (not rare, anyhow) so I don't worry about them (will dogs get to them? Foxes?) but can just enjoy these frequent visits.
Our resident wallaby has her usual joey, head just out, both grazing grass and indigenous herbs.
And what's spring without some new chicks? Yes, Freddie (above) got clucky again and, after an egg-free winter, we decided to add to our half-dozen strong flock of bantams. Does she think that she's a clever hen, just sitting on one egg for 2 days before 2 chicks, 3 days old, miraculously appear under her at night? And do the other hens think `Her again? - not fair'!
It may sound like I'm anthropomorphalising terribly, but Freddie seems happy being a mumma (and it snaps her out of her broodiness) and the chicks seem much happier, or more settled. Under a hot light they wanted to dive under each other's wings; now they have big wings to shield them - the natural way of things (and - who knows? More comforting). They also cheeped, it seemed, in distress more; now any sharp cries (`I'm cold') make Freddie sit down and fluff up her eiderdown so the chicks can dive under at once. Such a good mumma.
Now we have to figure out good names for the cute chicks. (How the heck do parents of real children get through this thorny problem?)
Our silver chick is developing fluffy slippers and the other's new coat is a rusty-rufus colour - so Fluffy and Rusty they are becoming. I love ridiculous names for the hens, so cat and dog names are not only tickling the funny bone gently, but also the 2 who arrived together have similar - or similarly absurd - names.
The flower power this spring has been stunning, both flowers in the garden and blooms of wild plants in the bushland, on our property and around my area in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne. Wattles, tea trees (see first pic)...covered, prolifically, in flowers (now or earlier).
But why - The `dry' winter? The cool spring with it's odd hot days?
I always like an explanation for weird events in the natural world but here I think I'm going to just sit back and enjoy the show - enormously.
Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria. (

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Late Spring Flower Fragrance

Don't you love the late spring garden, flower-filled, when suddenly you think - where's that delicious fragrance coming from?
Poet's daffodils (Narcissus poeticus varieties); mollis azalea; dwarf lilac; English roses?...or, probably most potent, mock orange (Philadelphus sp, the shrub named for brotherly love (cue `Ode to Joy')). One of my favourite of the mock oranges is good old Philadelphus coronarius (Syn. Philadelphus mexicanus) or evergreen mock orange (above).
All the Philadelphus species have these unusual squarish flowers - and usually amazing fragrance. Evergreen mock orange is so, so drought-hardy but so are the dwarf ones and the 3m+ P. `Natchez' (bought from Dicksonia Rare Plants many years ago) which flowers prolifically in spring in my unwatered garden. Some varieties have white, blushing blooms, although I prefer the many pure white ones, and most are deciduous.

There's also a tiny Osmanthus in the garden but I think it's too small to flower, and it's probably too late in the season for one of this genus, but it, too, has the reputation for such fabulous fragrance that people detect the perfume a long way from the plant...and then, irresistibly, follow their nose.
If my garden was a little larger I'd have at least 3 species (or cultivars) of Osmanthus to have them wafting their strong scent from about mid-autumn until about mid-spring (and much of the year).
Osmanthus x fortunei has white flowers in autumn, with a strong perfume, and reaches 2m high; Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Rotundifolia' (False Holly) for winter blooms; Osmanthus delavayi ` Heaven Scent' has perfumed white flowers winter-spring; and Osmanthus fragrans (`Fragrant Olive') for spring & late summer blooms (depending on climate). Osmanthus x burkwoodii, also, has perfumed white flowers in spring.
Then again I could plant them, keep them trimmed - and besides, they are slow growers.
Seriously tempting!

Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria. (