Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Mister (Superb) Fairy-Wren, snapped through the window last spring as he defended his territory. Now the iridescent blue has faded and he has just the same dusky blue tail as his sons, and otherwise is as brown as his missus. A family of 6 hops through the garden at least twice a day, twittering over the lawn, scoffing tiny insects. It’s a nice change from a solitary blackbird which seemed to be on a mission to uproot each root of grass in the lawn – impossible, surely. Perhaps he has completely de-grubbed the soil; certainly he’s moved on. (It’s hard to be grateful to an exotic pest.) One spring I was enthralled to see a family of 6 Fairy-Wrens, hopping, seeking food. Mister was bright; Missus was frumpy-brown, as were her 2 daughters. What was entrancing was the behaviour: boys fighting (or practicing, anyhow) so Mister had to tell them off, again and again. Missus and girls? Eating quietly with no fuss. Gorgeous.
Clambering all over the hen run is a huge kiwi fruit vine which shades the jungle birds in summer and lets in some sunshine in winter. The fruit are hard to reach and a few are very ripe indeed; a magnet for king parrots of tangerine and dusty emerald. Why them? When the apples are turning alcoholic on the trees it’s the crimson rosellas that come.
Boobook and other owls will take up a favourite branch for weeks at a time but other visitors are more fleeting. Wood ducks call out as they swoop by the house, elegantly lining up for splash down on our dam. Come spring and they lead trails of ducklings to the dam each year but stay only a day before marching on; it works, they seem plentiful (one of the few water birds that still flourishes).  Perversely they congregate – when not breeding - on a neighbour’s large, neat lawn.
After 2 decades, the garden at Possum Creek has seen a new development in wildlife: a fat healthy antechinus (a brown mouse-like, carnivorous marsupial) is scurrying about the garden, digging, and even upsetting the hens. It’s a fraction of their size, but they have been squawking and flapping their dislike of the invasion. Maybe she is lonely? Antechinus are the famous (or infamous) animals for which, every year, all the males die after quite a lot of reproductive effort. Good on you, blokes! We’ve seen a sad, shivering male losing fur here once, but it’s hard not to think (wink, wink) that it was worth it. So our busy visitor is, I believe, a female; and hopefully pregnant (or with young in the pouch) to boot.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

If picking marigold seeds and scattering them around `my garden’ counts as gardening, then I began at 3. I watched them germinate and thrilled – I can think of no better word – when they flowered. They were yellow and orange, bright and brassy, big fat African marigolds. Between the careful decoration of mud pies and attempts to reach my 5 older siblings climbing up trees, I’d examine my garden. Ah, the 1960’s.
Sometimes, now, I pick up a pot with a flowering crocus, check the label, and note that I’ve grown this, miraculously, from seed; but I don’t get the thrill I got at 3. I was watching, learning nature’s tricks, and I was very impressed.
I shared my patch with 2 sisters for a time but – luckily for me – they lost interest after a year or two.
Mum was both botanist and gardener and this was her first large garden, about one third of an acre in Melbourne’s south east, on gray sandy soil. She established about 20 fruit trees, an ornamental garden and a huge veg patch but we had room here for playing, and for our play gardens. We had, not one, but 2 treehouses; what is more exciting? I progressed to growing peas later on (Yum!) but - in my slightly shaded spot – I couldn’t compete with Mum’s prowess so it seemed less satisfying. Surely I wasn’t yet a perfectionist.
African marigolds are Calendula (which I haven’t grown since) while French marigolds are Tagetes, usually shorter and neater. A French marigold called `Naughty Mariette’ – I am not making this up – is on the seed lists just now, tempting. This reminds me of a tale my mother would relate about her father, a gardener also. (I don’t remember my English grandfathers, alas.) He was a raconteur I’m told, a man who enjoyed shocking the vicar – just a little – and liked to say that he’d found a `Bachelor’s Button in Black-eyed Susan’s bed’; both flowers of course. (A gentler time, perhaps, or was the English middle class too easily scandalized?)
I loved hearing about his garden: that the veg patch was clipped-box edged and behind the box, along the main axis, was alternating Paeony Roses and Madonna Lilies. That he loved topiary and occasionally picked clove-scented carnations to give eyes to the peacocks of deepest jade. And how, at 13 or so, Mum was shown how to prune the fruit trees; suddenly, in the early days of the second world war, as the eldest child she was given this important task while the elders were too busy. This was the late 1930’s and I’d never anticipated seeing anything like this garden, had thought it’s like gone. But when I visited the garden of English plantsman Christopher Lloyd (below) in 2010 I felt an unexpected strong, visceral connection as if I was at last seeing in the flesh (or in the green) what I’d heard about, often, and imagined. This was just as I’d thought! And the owner, too, was just as difficult, or had been. As this happened 4 decades after the tale was told, it was a strong, unexpected echo which resonated deeply. This may, I suppose, happen to all children of immigrants when they visit their second country, the land of myths and tales.
From childhood Melbourne, fast forward 2 decades and we see my own first adult garden and attempts at my first (real) edible patch. I’d moved in with J and attempted to display my overwhelming love with this unusual use of lettuce seeds. I like fun in the garden and `J heart J’ (above) was a spontaneous experiment…which he didn’t notice.
I’ve repeated this recently although why I thought a mix of old seeds would germinate in the shade in late autumn was purely due to my usual ridiculous optimism. Watching and waiting…so I planted broad bean seeds, large, collected from old plants last year (free!), and each one sown in May now enthusiastically waving about young leaves. So now…not one up! June’s cold seems to have seeped into the soil and whispered sleepy, narcotic lullabies to the keepers of DNA.
So we trim back the kiwi fruit and consider judicious pruning of eucalypts to the north of the veg garden. Maybe we need cloches? Cold frames? Or just patience? And where does one go to buy patience? It’d be rare and expensive
 now, that’s for sure.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

It’s still cool July weather, with nights down to 1.6 degrees, but various little bulbs – snowdrops, crocus and some tiny Narcissus - are popping up with a grin. Woodland crocus (Crocus tomasinianus, below) is tough and petite with silvery buds opening to show lilac within; a lovely form with outer petals purple (not silver) is maybe `Lilac Beauty’. There is a very pretty pure white form too; tiny, great in pots and brought to the front door to enjoy when in bloom. From Bulgaria, Hungary and former Yugoslavia, Crocus tomasinianus is said to self-sow (hence sheets of it in some gardens and its popularity as a bulb to naturalise in lawn) but sadly my garden is not cool enough for this.
New for me is Crocus sieberi ssp sieberi (above), opening in the weak sunshine. Barely 75mm high, this subspecies hails from the White Mountains of Crete above about 1000m altitude so I’ll treasure it, keep its roots cool, and hope it flowers again next year.
Crocus grow from Spain to western China and so far some crocus have thrived for me but I don’t take them for granted, particularly in my garden at an altitude of only 170m. Larger Dutch hybrids may be more reliable but I prefer petite flowers – to the bemusement of some of my sisters.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Set to look superb early this spring was a double row of Euphorbia wulfenii, chartreuse-topped; almost the only structure in my Sun and Sky bed, holding all the herbaceous softness back into some kind of order. At the end is my metre-high rusty treble clef; a suitably subtle garden piece which fades into the stringy-bark gum tree background.
I am privileged to (1) live metres from unspoilt bushland – with numerous wild orchids and other precious wildflowers - and (2) be married to a conservationist with excellent botanising skills. So when a couple of unwanted euphorbia seedlings were noticed, they were all removed; another plant to join the long list of vegetata non grata. As the colour palette is strictly narrowed to blue, green and yellow, I decided that a double row of Corsican Winter Rose (Helleborus argutifolius) would do, particularly as I had some in my shade house. Will they be large enough to give structure to this admittedly small, human-scale part of the garden? I think so. Will they be neat enough? Probably not!  They’re still small but I hope for mass (and void) by next winter when their wonderful apple-green flowers appear. Besides, they will start to bloom in June, rather than August (as do the other Helleborus) - a distinct advantage in chilly Selby.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Some plants entrance one week and exasperate the next. Rather like many loved ones really.
More than any other, the superb smoky blue of Siberian Iris (Iris siberica – what else?) displayed in profusion each spring captures the heart (how could I ever criticize it?) then subsides into a rough stack of straw in late autumn (how could I ever tolerate it?) and really, really, this time I shall dig it up from amongst all the irises near the front gate, leaving behind only well-behaved, evergreen species and varieties. I love their upright sword-shaped foliage, so important for textural contrast, but the few evergreen iris that will tolerate this oft-soaked spot (near the present unfortunate `moat’) seem to be not-quite blues but tend towards purple; beautiful, but not reaching that perfect note that soars. Amongst them the moisture-loving Japanese Iris flower fleetingly in spring but with a huge presence; their leaves, while deciduous here, don’t remain standing like some unfortunate ghost come winter; they’ve earned their keep.
Behind the iris, sky-blue Bog Sage (Salvia uliginosa) will have to go too; the flower colour is incomparable but the wandering perennial is messy; intolerable near the entrance and probably only a plant for a really large garden. Even then…while a desirable quality in others (at times), it’s too diffuse, really.
I do want a good height of shrub or perennial, though, behind the iris; something more substantial, to enclose the area to make it intimate: to say: `this is an oasis, a human-scale garden you’ve entered from the rough bushland; a deliberate attempt to tame nature where (as says Hugh Johnson) `the essence is control’. In my country garden, though, I also heed Mirabel Osler who famously asked us too-neat gardeners to consider `a gentle plea for chaos’. (As a lazy gardener I take comfort from the latter.)
 I haven’t searched far literally or figuratively: in wet years Salvia guaranitica –try saying that after a few drinks! - (Syn S. ambigens) reaches over 2m and throws up its dense stalks to fill an area quickly, and displays deep blue flowers (a mecca for honey eaters) from late spring until frost arrives.  From South America, it’s also known, sometimes, as Anise-scented sage or Hummingbird sage and it does not like droughts.
It’s the cheaper option, pulling up a bit of a perennial here and tossing it there, but it helps give the garden a little much-needed unity and also I know it will grow fast in that moist area; I shan’t be trying something new here – I’d rather know how it will grow. Of course there’s no real certainty in the garden but relative certainty is a lovely feeling. And I admit I love a plant that flowers for 6 months; it’s hard to trump that – often overlooked - virtue.