Friday, 26 July 2013

Goethe, Golden Fruit, Colour in the Garden & the best Marmalade

 Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?
Im dunkeln Laub die Gold-Orangen Glühn

` Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom;
Amid the dark foliage the golden oranges glow?’
(Goethe, 1749 – 1832) 

Goethe ‘s poem "Mignon's Song" alludes to Italy but its famous first lines sum up our climate well; it seems so apposite just now as our cumquats and other gold, amber and orange fruit nestle in the night-green foliage of the citrus trees in the lower part of the orchard. (Below the septic run they receive neither watering nor fertiliser; the cumquat – closest to the competitive gums - is generally the most forgiving and fruitful - if fitfully this year.)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832) was a German writer, artist and politician who studied law in Leipzig and wrote treatises on botany, anatomy and colour; and four novels.

All I knew of Goethe yesterday was his poetry but he also theorized on morphology and his ` “analogie", was used by Charles Darwin as strong evidence of common descent [of mammals and] of laws of variation’ and he was interested too in meteorology, formulating a theory of plant metamorphosis; he has been called the first physicist of his time. What a man.

But I’m most interested in colour – especially in the garden.

In 1810, Goethe published his `Theory of Colours’ and his observations on the effect of opposed colours led him to a symmetric arrangement of his colour wheel, 'for the colours diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye’.

Unlike Isaac Newton, Goethe's concern was not so much with the analytic treatment of colour, as with the qualities of how phenomena are perceived. Philosophers have come to understand the distinction between the optical, as observed by Newton, and the phenomenon of human colour perception as presented by Goethe who influenced artists including the Pre-Raphaelites.

Others theorized and wrote about colour but I was unaware of Goethe’s theory.
At last, too, I know where other garden writers get their 7-colour wheel from: Isaac Newton and the scientific rainbow of prism-split white light; but this doesn’t help us plan our garden pictures appropriately, nor in the best way.

[It seems that the magic and mantle of science must be applied to all. I’m a science graduate myself, trying to learn about art, so going to Newton’s colour wheel when planning a garden artfully seems ludicrous.]

How the human eye perceives light is a more useful way to look at our art critically. The artistic-minded Goethe’s 6-colour wheel (above) makes far more sense and works in our gardens; it’s also how I learnt about colour when I studied horticulture.
As we all know, primary colours (red, yellow, blue) are mixed to create the secondary colours (orange, green, purple).
Complementary colours are adjacent on the wheel: yellow with orange; blue with green; red with purple…and still should be used with care together in the garden.

Green and yellow are neighbours and used together can create wondrous garden of interest, peaceful to the eye, restful but still charming; here the leaf textures vary but so do the shades of green: soft, hard, glaucous, chartreuse; marrying well with blooms of soft gold; all bound within hedges of firm green.

Contrasting colours are on opposite sides of the colour wheel, which is why Goethe’s wheel works and Newton’s does not.
So for complete contrasts we look to red with our green, blue with a little – just a little – orange, or yellow with purple if you must.

But just a little history for a moment.

However formal or natural-looking the garden, for it to come together and satisfy, modifications must occur; `the essence is control’ says Hugh Johnson.

Good design entails unity and repetition, proportion and perspective. Sympathy with the site; form and function. Some upright foliage and change in texture. Most of all, for many, consideration of the use of colour: contrasting or complementing, jarring or gentle, obvious or receding.

I don’t just mean flower colour by the way, leaves are important too. If I ever garden in Queensland I’ll need to be careful to choose my plants wisely: so many large leaf tropical plants available seem to rival the rainbow and I’m just not used to that; I like my leaves in the green range until autumn arrives (although this may be pure prejudice or habit).

But look to a master like Laurence Johnston who first considered colour in his garden at Hidcote Manor (above), c1902, and see how he combines purple Prunus leaves with bronze Phormium, deep red roses and scarlet Geum all backed by crisp emerald hedges. Tall wisps of fading Rogersia in ruby and bronze give accent along with bronze-leaf red-flowering Dahlia and Salvia officionalis purpurea.

Johnston, who gardened in Gloucestershire, influenced poet Vita Sackville-West; she wrote a gardening column for the British Observer newspaper and when she shared her ambition – in print - to commence a white garden she began a quiet revolution. In January 1950 she wrote `I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight, the pale garden that I am now planting under the first flakes of snow.’ Poetry indeed; I think we need to remember the importance of emotion and magic. White flowers gleam at dusk and recede with the ascendency of the sun; some emit fragrance, too, at dusk, and placed near a window or an outdoor chair extend the garden experience by hours. (Just add an anti-mosquito plant like Pelargonium citrosum, or Balm of Gilead (Cedronella canariensis).)

Sackville-West’s garden at Sissinghirst Castle in Kent, created with her husband Sir Alfred Nicholas, also contains the noteworthy so-called cottage garden which is filled with flowers in every shade and hue of yellow and orange; a delicious sight, all comfortably kept below knee height.

From this I like to remember that while a one colour garden (or two; her `white’ garden is of course filled with green also) can be very exciting to behold the first time, 2 colours or shades of (say) pink-mauve-blue or if you are braver magenta-purple-indigo can be more satisfying and probably a little easier; how many bad imitations of Vita’s white garden have been made? Too many! They need lashings of green (and arguably a little silver to soften), they need vertical accent, punctuation, some white notes (flowers generally; these need to be a pure, even dazzling white, not cream) through the seasons without swamping one (remembering some in summer and winter, don’t be lazy), some focus, and a definite structure to convey the message that this is all planned.

Those above (yellow and orange, or blue and purple-mauve) are of complementary colours; that is, the colours are neighbours on the colour wheel, or on the rainbow. If they are pale like pink, mauve and lemon, they are a tint of a colour on the wheel (white has been added). But why not invigorate your garden with contrasting colours, those from opposite sides of the wheel? This teams secondary colours with primary thus: green with red, orange with blue, or purple with yellow; I’ll admit I’m not a fan of the latter. But a field of red Flanders poppies amongst the green grasses in spring can be a stirring sight! Colour can of course be separated by time, as well as space. 

And so, when my mother’s orange tiger lilies thrust up stalks with look-at-me vigour in summer, I enjoy teaming them with tall sky-blue Salvia for a month or so, when little else peeps above the ramparts. Cranesbills are – reasonably – wilting along with bugle and other spring performers which exit, stage right, with summer’s parching winds.

My current project is a Sun and Sky bed of about 20 square metres on the south side of my house, and here I am trialing sunny and buttery roses, Geum, Coreopsis and lemon Phygelius with cool blue Salvia, sky-blue Veronica and delicious smoky Orthrosanthos (Native Iris or Flag); a more golden-hued version of the picture above.

More exciting can be gardens of silver with raspberry-coloured flowers; pale green and purple; or those with leaves of gold and silver with flowers of white and chartreuse. Endless ratios can be played with; such fun.
Or, as Jekyll writes, why spoil a blue garden because you have called it that – if it needs some pale lemon (or gold) to contrast then add that.

Here in Melbourne the Botanic Gardens have a long perennial border, gardened in the 1980’s by Donna Somerville according to the ideas of (another Brit!) Gertrude Jekyll, author of `Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden’ (1908). The border was a symphony beginning with blues, lemon and grey leaves and then the flowers warm up to yellow, orange and a little red at the centre of the border; then the colours cool, slowly and gently receding to mauve and violet-blue, not true-blue (there is a difference) at the other end. I saw it and absolutely fell in love: with colour.
Jekyll also advocated a gold garden, and a grey garden, and other ideas that I don’t like (I think her gold-leaf hedge backing is too much and I have seen a grey-leaf garden and may I just say that despite my love of green flowers, I lack the subtlety to appreciate greyness); but the context must be remembered: the silver & grey are placed to refresh the eye after seeing a border of orange flowers, and after the grey, `entering the Gold garden, even on the dullest day, will be like coming into sunshine’. It’s a clever artist who can manipulate emotion without words.

A lot of Brits fell in love with colour after Sackville-West’s writing forced colourism into the public’s consciousness; but while these days they aim for `tasteful’ gardens, I think our naïve enthusiasm is preferable – just.

So just as some Australians began flirting with colourism in the 1980’s, gardener and writer Christopher Lloyd threw the cat amongst the pigeons in Britain by planting red lupins with yellow, purple Allium amongst gold-leaf shrubs and pink and red poppies together where they reflected the russet Tudor house rising behind. He annoyed his readers when he pulled out the roses in his mother’s rose garden and again when he claimed he’d planted yellow flowers with purple; the Brits must be easy to shock. (This reminds me so much of my first client, a lovely gentleman with a city courtyard, who informed me he wanted, and I quote, `an orange wall’. It transpired, after discussion, that he desired what I would term a terracotta-coloured wall.) For those of us so fortunate as to have attended the last landscape design conference in Melbourne, images of delicious colour are still burnt to the retina after a lecture by head gardener to Lloyd, Fergus Garrett. Lloyd’s yellow was no such thing! It was lemon, and lime, and soft green, and
chartreuse. It wasn’t paired with purple Allium alone, it was joined with some bronze fennel, and grey-leaf mullein, and orange-leaf Sisyrinchium. Dwarf lemon-and green-leaf bamboo and light, airy sweetly lemon Aquilegia made it all sing. Delicate choices, not crude!

Where to see this in our wide brown land? In our own Yarra Valley at Cloudehill Garden and Nursery Jeremy Francis has created long cool and hot-coloured borders with panache, along strong linear axes. Like Lloyd, he fills the beds with bulbs as well as perennials, and has some shrubs backing as well: mixed borders. But here I find many people are drawn to the cool borders, those of pink, mauve and powder-blue, and they eschew the fabulous hot borders that dare to throw strong beams of red, orange and yellow in the midday sunshine. This is part predjudice, part habit, part not looking properly: when the light is strongest, it’s the strong colours that stand out while the pastels fade away. It’s safety, and lack of courage too.

Another landscape designer whose planting schemes I admire is Peter Cooper of Wychwood at Mole Creek in northern Tasmania. Where Francis’ design outline is, however, formally rigid, Cooper’s is sinuous, but both show skill in placing plants for textural and colour impact – and harmony.


After a hot Melbourne afternoon all I want is to be refreshed in green: the grass is cool, the leaves grant merciful shade, and the colour gives relief.

Green itself can make a wonderful picture, if texture is planned well, and here there are tints and shades (black added) of green creating a restful mixture, certainly not dull, but sublime.

Do city dwellers miss the colours of the bush, of nature, of green in particular? And is that why lawns are useful in the city, even on the coldest, wettest of wintry days: just to be seen (or for remembrance of sitting on them in summer as well)?

I think we all need to see something of the natural world each day, and while highly clipped lawn or skeletal deciduous trees are poor surrogates, the soul can take nourishment from these, a vase of roses or a fine gum tree until we next enter a garden or a place of more natural trees, shrubs and possibly flowers or water; and most Australians, I think, prefer an area of less rather than more ordered beauty.

I believe city folk can be deprived of green; trees are ideal but at the least a little patch of lawn, to sit on come the summer months, is necessary for our emotional health.

Green and orange

Green and orange are nearly opposite on the colour wheel but share some yellow; the contrast on my citrus trees is cheery on these cold winter days. Visually, it’s a pity to pick the fruit but I’ll collect some cumquats for the best marmalade known to woman. As an impatient person, fast microwave marmalade (and 10 minute raspberry jam) is my style; no stirring for hours here. I’ve adapted an old recipe to make more (and to use an easy 1kg bag of sugar) and I overcook it a little to give a caramelized flavour which I love.

Jill’s Quick Cumquat Microwave Marmalade Recipe
(I often add a lime or 2 to the mix.)

Pick 1kg Citrus fruit, mulch, I mean blend
Add 2 ½ cups water and stir
Pop in the microwave for 10 minutes on high, stir occasionally
Add 1kg sugar and stir well
Then 30 minutes on high, stirring occasionally
Cool a little.  Taking care with the hot marmalade, pour into sterilised jars (about 4 or 6)

Within 1 hour from fruit on the tree you have delicious marmalade!
And while I’ve made marmalade with Seville Oranges (my Dad’s favourite), Honey Murcott Oranges and many odd mixtures of citrus orange and amber, it’s Cumquat, which was my Mum’s favourite, that is the finest.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Is Kale Edible (to a soft Melbournian)?

Somehow Tuscan Kale got into the veg patch this year and as a handsome plant with height and brooding presence I’ve been loath to harvest the near-black leaves, rugged and rugose.

On the contrary, imagine growing Tuscan Kale among the superb silver, cut-edge leaves of globe artichoke (below); what a contrast. Would you do it formally? Alternately (no!)? Checker board-like? With care this could make a stunning and, I hope, a beautiful picture.

But a few yellow flowers probably mean imminent demise if other brassicas are any guide. I’ve heard of chopped, raw kale used in salad (`dreadful’) and traditional use requiring – before cooking - massaging of the leaves, but who has time and patience for this? Well, not me, obviously, I have no patience; this simply reminds me of peasants desperate for anything edible whether animal, vegetable or mineral; and, to draw a long bow, my mother’s stories of Britain during World War 2 when – while she was a girl at boarding school - nettles were regularly picked to eat.

 Luckily my sister is a chef (living with her one year was amazing) and she recommends chopping kale and frying it with some chopped onion in, I think, a knob of butter; I might add toasted pine nuts too. Prego!

And `ornamental’ kale (below)? I’ve been told that it’s edible too although I don’t think I could bear to pull up an attractive plant (or spoil the garden picture) just to cook it, until the kale looks far-gone and would presumably taste old and bitter. (This is my problem with the current enthusiasm for edible gardens: dismantling the pretty arrangement biannually just when it’s looking good.) But it’s tempting to experiment and I may pop a couple in some out-of-the-way spot.

Is Kale Edible Part 2?

I have done the deed, and the answer is yes!
I followed my chef-sister’s advice and chopped a little kale, fried it with some chopped onion in a knob of butter; I added toasted pine nuts but I wasn’t happy. The kale was a little bitter and I didn’t like the taste.
Then I had a brainwave (as Mum would say).
I found some white wine in the pantry (I always cook with wine; sometimes I put it in the food - anon) and slurped in a standard British dash (as Dad would say) then cooked it until the wine had evaporated. Delicious!

My slapdash recipe:

One large stalk of Tuscan Kale, chop top half, fry in a knob of butter
Half an onion, chopped, fry
Add a shake of salt
About 100g pine nuts, fry
Toss together; add about 30 or 40ml of white wine
Stir until the wine evaporates, serve
As a side dish, serves 2
Bon appétit! 

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Tree Dahlias, Short Days and Cold Nights

A week of icy nights finally put the garden to bed for its annual, relative, hibernation.
Winter roses (Helleborus) and other miracles – little snowdrops, hoop petticoats and so on - are just starting but the giant autumn-flowering tree dahlias (Dahlia imperialis) have every lilac or double white (above) flower shattered into sodden valentines.
Where, a month ago, the circle of lilac ones (see post 17/5/2012) grew like a monstrous birthday cake topped with crazy-angled candles, now it’s all green atop stalks more bare each day; but hop inside the circle and the canes curving inward enclose like a delicate hemispherical cocoon.
Each year the buds develop pretty late in autumn and I wonder if I’ll see flowers before the frost nips them. Checking my books I read that `this species is fast-growing, the growth spurt being linked to shorter daylight hours, and usually comes into flower in autumn before the first frost’ so let’s manipulate next year, let’s pop some old black pots over the tubers in, say, mid-spring and see what happens. Could we induce a long flowering season? Do we really want one? Heck, yes!
More weather musings…..
Can I be apolitical for once? Well, no!

I have British parents and half my siblings (almost `my sisters and my cousins and my aunts’) are from the cold isles north so my giggles over English weather news are pretty unkind, I admit. But climate change seems implicated again when we expect 20 °C here in Melbourne next week mid-winter and England expects the same temperature (for the first Ashes test) in mid-summer. It is very odd.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Hoop Petticoats and Australian Politics

Narcissus Glenbrook Ta Julia 1/90 (above)

Hoop Petticoats are the name of a sweet bunch of dwarf daffodils from the Mediterranean; the little flowers sit at barely 20cm high with the corona (the cup in other daffs) funnel-shaped like a whalebone hoop petticoat of a Victorian lady amongst the grassy leaves. Gold hoops flower in early spring (Narcissus bulbocodium) but close relatives, paler and rather flatter, bloom in winter: milky-white N. cantabricus and lemon N. romieuxii, the latter from the Atlas Mountains.

Narcissus Glenbrook Ta Julia 6/91 (above)

 This past fortnight I have found some pots of delicious hoops near the shade-house, first ivory-white hoops, then citron, all labelled `Ta Julia’ from Rod Barwick’s great crosses from (I believe) the 1990’s.
Rod lives reclusively (he says) at his Tasmanian Glenbrook Bulb Farm and created the Glenbrook Ta Julia Group of Narcissus, a grex (`flock’: Latin) from `Tarlatan’ and `Julia Jane’. Racehorse-like, the name borrows from the parents’.

Narcissus romieuxii JCA 805 'Julia Jane' is, I read, a `superb selection that was originally collected by Jim Archibald in the early 1970's. Large pale lemon flowers with an open flaring corona, 15cm tall’ while Narcissus `Tarlatan’ is probably a bulbocodium hybrid which is `tall, pale lemon-coloured’ and blooms early – mid winter. Tarlatan is a cotton fabric mentioned in Alcott novels.
With this grex we are looking at, basically, brothers and sisters, and this is most evident comparing primrose Narcissus Ta Julia 1/90 and near-white Narcissus Ta Julia 6/91. But look closely at Rolled-edge Narcissus Ta Julia 1/90 (above, tragically this pot belongs to a friend, can I beg a bulb?) and the fraternal shape is different even while the colour is so similar to the other Ta Julia 1/90, below, unfurling.

So I pick up a pot and place it near the door to enjoy and then our Prime Minister is deposed and I look afresh at my label and I think, well, Ta Julia, and I mean it.
I mean that Thank you to Julia Gillard most sincerely.
Reducing Aboriginal child mortality, introducing the Disability Scheme, NBN, parental leave, carbon tax, Murray-Darling Basin Plan, reforming education; all under unbelievable levels of attack and abuse.
Gillard goes and I’m holding a little pot (with a womanly flower standing tall in the deepest cold) that says Ta Julia. Amazing.     
 Narcissus Glenbrook Ta Julia 16/90 (above)