Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Tomatoes and other exchanges in the Edible Patch

I think this will be a tomato year.

Melbournites traditionally plant tomatoes between the Grand Final and the Melbourne Cup but as we
are cooler up here - a little - I am planting on the late side.

I’ve just planted cherry tomatoes: red Tommy Toe, Little Sugar Yellow, orange Sundrop and, our favourite, red Sweet Bite; these came together as seedlings which I potted on and which grew quite tall in my tiny polyflute glasshouse (made by J 20-odd years ago).
I’ve pricked out seedlings of Brandy Wine Pink and Digger’s 5 Colour Heirloom Mix tomatoes that I grew from seed and just germinated are seedlings from a black cherry tomato with unknown pollen parentage. This was all very exciting and far more than usual before a generous friend visited and now we have a `Digger’s Mix’ (large fruit I assume) and some from her Italian father, delicious she says, and known by their donors names, Costa’s and Bao’s.

Now this is truly crazy, I know, but the Black Cherry tomato seeds I’ve just received from Digger’s Seeds are calling on me to be sown: just a few. Black Russian has always been my favourite tasting tom and my chef sister says these are even better; these will be guaranteed Black Cherry tomatoes so one more plant seems reasonable in our patch of about 15 square metres available at any time (hens on one fifth and paths taking away some space).
Generally we have about 3 or 5 tomato plants; this year I will plant between 6 (cherry) and 10 (large) minimum to a maximum of 30 plants overall. Some plants will need to be tucked in amongst the beans and others just planted closely. I have no idea where the pumpkins will go.

This may be the season to follow the good life: to learn how to bottle, sauce, pickle, dry, semi-dry and maybe make chutney, with relish (sorry).

We seem to be having a cool spring right now; the tomatoes may have a very slow start (no fruit before Christmas this year), but we might extend the tomato season with a big plastic cloche and see how long we can hold off that cool autumn weather from our warmth-loving tomatoes.

Lettuces, though, are flourishing as this wonderful rain continues. (Lack of water causes bolting to seed, of course, and bitter leaves.) Our friend brought seeds of lettuces too, for sowing thickly and cutting as young buttery leaves, and a much-needed rosemary. She took away excess pumpkin plants, a tiny purple iris and a pink tomato; a wonderful exchange.

I really don’t think Melbourne is the world most livable city – the city limits are too bloated by far! – but our climate is desirable for gardening and tomatoes (along with other salad veg) grow well here for a few months each year; that is truly a blessing.

Jill Weatherhead is garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design ( working in Melbourne, the Dandenong Ranges and Victoria.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

An exciting weekend for our hens. (And us.)

Broody Freddie became a mother (with help) this weekend, and her sisters, Narnia-like, entered a new portal into the lushest vegetable bed yet. Over the years we’ve rotated our girls from bed to bed (we have 5, all with compost bins) and they’ve rewarded us with ever-deeper rich, lovely soil atop our Lysterfield clay; and vegetables growing well.

Fertilized eggs and one resulting rooster were not unalloyed joy earlier this year so when silver penciled Wyandotte Freddie became very broody again this spring we decided to introduce some more girls to our flock of now, only 4, bantams. On Saturday we bought 3 female day-old chicks (one light Sussex and 2 gold penciled wyandottes; just like their aunts) and watched over them all day.

On Saturday night, after dark, we took away Freddie’s precious 3 eggs (a peck here was very reasonable) and slipped the chicks under her warm feather quilt. Sunday was cold and we didn’t see the chicks until late morning – they are segregated from their tall aunts, of course – and then they came out and Freddie told them what to eat and showed them where to drink; an excellent little mother; and a huge sigh of relief was distinctly heard.

Jill Weatherhead is garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design ( working in Melbourne, the Dandenong Ranges and Victoria.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Pink dog rose (Rhodohypoxis)

Over the past week one after another of my little terracotta pots of Rhodohypoxis has begun to bloom, and now they are a mass of soft pink, deep rose, cerise and apple blossom. Spring’s warm breath has wrought its magic; now I know summer is on its way.

Rhodohypoxis is a small genus of tuberous flowering plants from south-eastern Africa, a region of summer rainfall with relatively dry winters. The little flowers, on stems barely 8cm high, have inwardly bending tepals so the centre of the flower is not visible, making this flat bloom quite different to all others, and its charm is matched by its ability to flower prolifically, right in the middle of spring, joining the clamour of the floral orchestra – now a cacophony.

A sunny spot with good drainage are the simple requests from this undemanding, diminutive but sweetly showy bulb.

Jill Weatherhead is garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design ( working in Melbourne, the Dandenong Ranges and Victoria.

Sunday, 13 October 2013


I am not going to Silvan again!
Along the main road to Silvan is Marie, a great gardener who sells rare and interesting bulbs and other plants. Enticingly, the sign beams Trillium and I’m hooked. There’re also tree peonies and clivias and lilies but I just go to the polyhouse with Trillium in pinks, whites and burgundy and I, well, I drool. Marie tells me she only got seed, years ago, of T. chloropetalum and T. ludovicianum and all of her plants are derived from hybrids of these; some are quite short at ~20cm, so seem more similar to T. ludovicianum, and with corresponding wonderful dark leaves or dappled; others are tall at ~45cm with paler leaves and these are the only ones with white flowers (and some pink, some burgundy); these seem close to T chloropetalum giganteum.
Wonderful woodland plants for some shade. Glorious but expensive.
Last year I started moving my pots of Trillium out from the shadehouse when they flowered, so that pollinating insects could fly about and I might have seed set (not all that successful, actually). This year a gardener said to me that wallabies shouldn’t eat them; now I’ve heard this before and I’m wary. But that’s easy; I pick out one with a muddy-coloured flower that I won’t miss and I leave it where the wallabies will roam as an indicator plant. So far: not a nibble. I might dare plant a few out – not my favourite ones! – in the shade of the white deciduous dogwoods. Imagine a drift in a few years…
Josie’s Joy, Rare bulbs & plants,

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Mediterranean Gardens - Louisa Jones at Melbourne’s Landscape Design Conference 2013

Melbourne’s landscape design conference this year comprised lectures by writer Anne Latreille (`Garden Voices’: Australian designers both past and present); American landscape architect Ken Smith (`Sky to Ground’); US tropical garden designer Raymond Jungles (water in the garden), Juan Grimm from Chile and Australian Paul Bangay (with photographer Simon Griffiths), Professor Toshio Watanabe (Japanese gardens), Aniket Bhagwat from India; – and I found particularly relevant (in our climate and with today’s enthusiasm for edible patches) – Canadian-born French-based Professor Louisa Jones’ Mediterranean Gardens with her fresh (to me) examination of these gardens born of use but not shorn of beauty.

Louisa Jones’ comparison of Mediterranean gardens to English was particularly instructive when we still see the hangover of the latter here, and yes, I am guilty of that, with my British-born parents. (Growing up in a large suburban garden of perennials and of perfumed shrubs not clipped into perfect cubes, I heard the comment that my mother’s garden was `very English’ when I was a teenager.  I had no idea what it meant then, of course, (and bristled when I overheard it called messy) but thought I did now. Jones’ clear views have helped me rethink completely – always a bonus, surely; and reassess my own garden, of course.

What is most unsettling is the odd notion that J, my partner of 29 years, as Australian as a white person can be, seems to like notions of English gardens (E) – as Jones expiates – where I, child of very British ones, seem to want elements of a Mediterranean garden (M). Could this be?

So, to some obvious differences: English-style gardens (E) are floral, mainly ornamental; Mediterranean-style gardens (M) are a mixture of use and beauty, containing plants that produce fruit, leaves and roots for consumption. (See above: red poppies under olive trees in spring with buttercups and Queen Anne ’s lace)
Jones argues that the latter (M) are a moving mosaic, too, with year-round interest for the 5 senses while English gardens peak in summer (or spring here, I surmise) and only the visual sense (E) is considered; that was certainly true the decade that roses began to lose their wonderful scent, and continued, I’d say, when people derided David Austin for bothering to breed his roses with their sensational fragrance. But I digress.
[Here J and I are roughly 1 all. I care about flowers but believe in spreading them out year-round; he cares about the orchard and he planned the edible patch that mainly I plant. I buy vegetable seedlings each spring and autumn and also try to grow some interesting veg from seed each year.

I care greatly about the visual but love to brush a herb for its fragrance and sensuous softness (it’s almost immaterial if it’s used in the cooking pot too, see below); we enjoy fresh tomatoes, sweet corn enormously; we love the flutter, splash and song of birds, so the garden is multi-sensual; but I’ll be honest, visual is by far the most important to me. I am the granddaughter of a painter, after all.]

Louisa Jones argues that Mediterranean gardens are herbal and botanical compared to horticultural (E) and immersive (M, below) rather than a series of pictures (E). They are site-specific (M) with local logic of place while English gardens are often fitting many places, she says, and, interestingly for me, open lawns edged by borders (E) – which I have (in part) – rather than gardens with layers and views (M) – where I long for vine-clad pergolas (M) in summer and trees to cast shade on the hottest days – where J prefers wide open spaces. Here, on this point, here, suddenly, J is English! Just a little bit, but way too much, I reckon, for our hot summers, which I dislike so intensely.

Here in Australia we don’t have that soft, moist light Jones speaks of (in English gardens), no, we have some days of 40°C and over, in some summers in our Mediterranean climate; we should garden accordingly. More shade, please.

Jones also spoke of Mediterranean gardens being strongly sculptural and an unusual notion, that `formal and wild are not opposites’. While her images of untamed, harshly wind-swept and salt-sprayed shrubs of lavender and rosemary were indeed looking clipped, (see wind-pruned Euphorbia arborea and Pittosporum tobira, below, at Cinque Terre (my image)), I don’t think the idea would translate either to blousy rain-soaked perennials and shrubs in the UK, nor to arid Australian gardens where many native plants, if left unclipped, become dreadfully straggly. It’s the wind of ocean or mountain that that is needed for this – or man’s sheers.

In Mediterranean Gardens, a Model for Good Living, Jones writes of house, garden and landscape:  the climate encourages open-air living during much of the year, and indoor and outdoor spaces intermingle: courtyards, balconies, gardens are extensions of the living areas inside. We are seeing this here in Melbourne more and more with our opening walls of fold-out glass panels and our al frescos. Climate management leads to refined living. Jones cites Jean Giono about Provencal dwellings: “…sunshine is the enemy! Their rooms are cool, their shadows soft” and Jones adds that a southern arbour with grape vine, wisteria or both, cools the house and links indoors and out (see second picture).

Climate management is important too, and water distribution, use of local stone, and summer shade with pergolas, trees, light in winter through a tracery of branches of deciduous shrubs and trees (such as the Judas tree in the last picture). How I long for some huge deciduous trees. (My mother grew wisteria on her north pergola to shade living room and kitchen in summer and deciduous clematis up the west wall to shade her bedroom similarly; a good plan.)

Arguably a Mediterranean garden is set apart too, by its clipped broadleaf (as well as fine leaf) evergreen shrubs along with that vital summer shade, as seen, above, in a little café in Venice. It seems pretty simple to get that Mediterranean-style garden but it has the right colour wall, of course, the bright light, the terracotta pots. Importantly, retractable shade. Spatial definition with those pots in nice proportion to the small area. Varying heights, clipped shrubs. Peaceful colours.
But it’s not easy to maintain.
What bothers me is that so many of my landscape design clients say to me that they will plant in pots and it will be easier. Say what!
No, it will need much more watering. Plants in the ground are much easier in Melbourne’s Mediterranean climate.
Jetlagged in Rome, I saw the waiters outside cafés watering all those pretty potted plants at 7am on a Sunday morning. On a hot day I am sure that they had to do it again at night and maybe in the middle of the day too. Do you want to be a slave to the look? Never have a weekend away?
Instead I am growing balls of a dwarf lilly pilly (Syzygium `Tiny Trev’) in pairs down my front path for structure and in pairs occasionally elsewhere too. (Four pots for accent have the same in protected shade but, if facing the heat, pots have been planted with agave or succulents…with reluctance.)

More importantly, we have terraced our hillside garden a bit (for my little lawn, straight out from the house veranda) as so many Italians have (like at the Cinque Terre, below), and created a harmonious setting for our outlook (view is probably too ambitious a word for our pretty vista across our little valley, of Eucalypt-topped hillside). I always wanted to walk straight out from the house to the garden and not have a deck. It turns out that this, too, is Mediterranean! 

So I make it J 2 and me 4 in the Mediterranean stakes; me 1 and J 3 in the English garden style; quite surprising. (Perhaps I can consider myself European-influenced?)  I wonder what he’ll say.


Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Peas, Leeks and Borecole

Winds above 100km/hour blew down the sugarsnap pea tripods overnight. So now they are tied up to the chook fence and growing beautifully amongst the leeks and the last of the flowering Tuscan kale – hopefully I can collect seed from them. With Red Russian kale just planted, maybe I’ll get some of the different kinds of kale (or borecole) to add to the collection here; lots of attractive foliage.
So I visit Chiltern Seeds and after a few clicks I’ve ordered various kale: `Dwarf green curled’, `Scarlet’ (tall, red-grey), `Redbor’ (purple, frilly), and `Winterbor’ (deep blue-green). It transpires that Tuscan kale is also named `Nero de Toscana’; how romantic!
My record with leeks isn’t great, but forgetting to water `em induces some serious flower heads. Is it an edible patch if it’s largely pleasing to the eye (or mine) and little is harvested?
Don’t worry, I will definitely eat the peas.