Friday, 27 December 2013

Spring seemingly continues…

All this fabulous rain has extended spring, or so it seems: wildflowers continue their colorful display, frogs are loud at night, and some garden plants are re-flowering (Philadelphus) or continuing like Fairy’s Fishing Rods (Dierama, one of my favourite perennials, above). Heck, we’re still picking peas (nibbling them, few reach the kitchen). Soon summer’s heat will sear the green but just now I am loving the profusion of little blooms, flitting birds and even the fleeting spring verdure of my tiny round lawn.

Jill Weatherhead  is horticulturist, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead  Garden Design (

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Happy Christmas

Jacobean Lilies (Sprekelia) have opened, as usual, just in time for Christmas – clever things. (A very British upbringing makes green and red the natural-seeming colours of Christmas for me. Holly was integral.) It’s a tough bulb for a sunny spot; mine are never watered but with few flowers, its time (more than time), after 10 or so years, to lift the crowded bulbs and replant further apart.
Yesterday I discovered that my sister calls them Scarlet lilies – a good name (although they are not liliums) but they are also known as Aztec Lilies in their home of Central America.
At about 40cm high Sprekelia  formosissima is great for picking for a vase and instantly the house looks like it’s joined into the festive spirit.
Happy Christmas!

Jill Weatherhead  is horticulturist, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead  Garden Design

Monday, 23 December 2013

Cruden Farm’s Avenue of Gums

Cruden Farm opened its gates 2 or 3 weeks ago and beckoned for one reason: I wanted to experience again (and carry away a good photo of) that sinuous avenue of whitish gum trees. Designed by Edna Walling in 1930, and one of her best legacies (along with the garden at Mawarra which has amazing bones), it is superb, yet I remember it was derided – by other students - when I was studying horticulture in the late 1980’s.
Hopefully they have changed their minds.
But are they lemon scented gums as claimed (and suggested on her plans)? They are beige, not white, and some very dappled, and not too tall; they look like the terrific spotted gum (Eucalyptus maculata). Surely lemon scented gums would be too tall and out of proportion (while these sit perfectly)?

Cruden Farm has some other good ingredients: the walled garden (nice within, but with some shade-loving perennials (like Lady’s Mantle) mistakenly placed in full sun), some huge trees, some cool green spaces, the placement in the landscape. But it’s a strange mish mash with its plonked-down walled garden (hard to relate to the rest) and most of all, that rose garden.
But is Cruden Farm a sacred cow? Am I allowed to criticize it?
(Critiquing gardens has barely begun elsewhere and is regarded as suspect if not terribly impolite in Australia; but how else to regard gardens as art?)
Actually it’s only the rose garden that really jarrs, sitting uncomfortably amongst the green, with some odd bits of hedge, indigestible with its surfeit of blooms. But…it’s the rose garden where people wandered most, intoxicated by colour, pointing out blooms to their friends. (`I used to grow that.’ `Do you remember that one?’)
And the relevance to my own little patch? Well, once I dreamed of a similar avenue to my house, but I have a cottage, really, a 2-bedroom cedar house (see below). It’s just not a good fit. A grand design may not be required, precisely, but a certain size and presence is; Cruden Farm has this.
(To fire another volley, in another direction, to another family who have very kindly opened their garden gates: Musk Cottage does not; anything called calling itself cottage looks silly in 10 acres of gardened grounds. Our wild bushland, by contrast, is anything but groomed.
And there is a self-conscious wooden cottage - with dormer windows - not far from here which is rather pretty but, as if the owners have had a windfall, a heavy rotunda, Victorian mansion-worthy, sits in the back garden where – sadly – all can see it. It’s a great reminder to keep it all pitched to the same level.)
So what if I was stubborn, and planted that avenue, what then?
I think the visitor would be let down, at its end, by the country entrance to the home and garden: carport, wood shed, small home. No stately home, no superb circle of grass (great for turning cars as well as beauty and saying here the purpose changes); and that small (if artistic) gate to enter the home garden. In time, I hope this person will not be let down by my vision of the garden: beauty, interest all year, and strong ideas underlying the garden.

What to do?
Our sweetly curving drive is just right as it is, of course. It appears to wind through rough forest – a little thinned – and then our 2-storey cedar cottage is a welcome sight, sitting tightly on the slope, and our purple gate is a beckoning portal into the garden.
To add a grand avenue would be downright silly.
On our slope we have a small turning circle and it’s filled with mature gums and indigenous plants; good habitat on our Land-for-Wildlife property; this links home to property nicely.
Our scotch egg of home garden – pretty flowers and seats near the house; hens, edible patch and orchard below; surrounded by bushland with creek lower still – works perfectly. Birds dart in, echidnas wander through, skinks make a home about ours. Yes, wallabies eat my plants but the tranquility of our spot is wonderful.
I wouldn’t swap it for the world – or even that avenue.

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

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Flowering Fringe-Lily

It can be a roller coaster ride of emotion when you care deeply about your area. Today we celebrate 8 flowers of Fringe-Lily (Thysanotus tuberosus), a perennial herb in the bushland above our drive while moods plummeted last Saturday as we oh-so-carefully poisoned leaves of Nectaroscordum, an onion relative far too vigorous and spreading – everywhere! – hoping we were not harming little skinks, birds and frogs, but catching the bulb before it reached the forest.
Our long wet spring has lengthened the flowering season of many a plant and may have delayed the onset of this Fringe-Lily, which I generally find starts to bloom just when I want to mow the grass below the house prior to the hot summer season, as bushfire fuel reduction. These flowering ones, however, are safe: there is no grass, just dirt and a few herbs where horses trampled more than 20 years ago before we arrived. Suddenly it’s a positive: we can leave the little lilies to seed.
Like their colour, which stands out, I’ll go imperial for a moment: they stand at one foot high (almost 30cm) and while the flowers last one day, they are replaced by another and another…
This delicious little lily seems to love this sunny spot. Fringe-Lily may not have the vanilla scent of its cousin Chocolate Lily (Arthropodium) but I think it prettier and, frankly, any plant that can flower into an Australian summer has earned my admiration. (I am in the foothills of the Dandening Ranges; it’s just as hot as Melbourne in summer.)
Fringe-Lily is available from Kuranga Native Nursery and would be nice in a Christmas stocking, so to speak. After all, the tuberous root is edible – although that would be a waste.

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

Sunday, 15 December 2013

White flowers at dawn and dusk (Part 2)

Another white flowering perennial to catch the eye at dawn and dusk is the statuesque Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) with huge lace cap blooms on stalks that can dwarf a man. Also known as cartwheel-flower, giant cow parsnip, hogsbane, giant cow parsley, wild parsnip, or wild rhubarb, it self-sows gently, seemingly into just the right places.

Its size renders it formidable throughout the day; this one is not missish in the harsh light of day. But one magnificent plant is flowering near my kitchen window and gleams wonderfully as dusk descends, just as all the rest of the garden retreats from the eye and colours become invisible. I don’t remember planting this here; I think this one plonked itself there with a cheeky grin; a happy accident in this rather too-wild country garden.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Kangaroo Grass

Kangaroo grass is flowering right now, elegant brown heads on arching stalks, along our road and here and there in our bushland in sunny patches. Birds will come to eat the seeds, Red Brow Finches probably most of all. Many birds love grassy woodlands and lizards need it too.

I visited a new client this week in Upper Ferntree Gully and on her one acre property was a wild corner, an eighth perhaps, with a climbing gum tree for her children, a few golden wattles and quite a bit of kangaroo grass (Themeda australis) - here, where I thought I was in suburbia. With kangaroo grass and other undisturbed indigenous plants, it's very likely there are little orchids and lillies in spring too: a fabulous place for children's play and for retaining important habitat. Moreover, it reminds me of Mirabel Osla’s Gentle Plea for Chaos (1989).
It’s not what she meant, at all; a gentle, soft garden is a far cry from actual untamed bushland, but both, I would argue, are preferable to a super-neat garden over filled with colour-packed flowers at the expense of green. That can be an abomination which somehow wins garden club awards. I don’t understand that – the latter - at all.

Some native grasses such as Kangaroo grass employ chemical and morphological mechanisms for photosynthesis that are very efficient under hot, dry conditions and low nitrogen availability - the so-called C4 carbon fixation process in which an intermediate molecule with four carbon atoms is created before sugars are made.  This method of capturing carbon and converting it to sugar requires more energy than the C3 pathway (which creates an intermediate molecule with three carbon atoms) utilised by most other species but releases far less water into the atmosphere. It’s a great adaptation to our hot dry summers.

My client’s wild patch wasn’t free of weedy exotic species (which she will work on) but I recognised many indigenous plants. And it won’t be useful for habitat alone. Humans will enjoy it too.

What a place for children to grow up in! A patch of wilderness where they can pick up sticks to make things, or throw a sheet over a branch (a tent, a house, a fortress), or use their imagination in a hundred other ways. Or search for skinks, or watch birds and butterflies, or look for flowers in early spring. Or go for solitude, peace, bird song. Truly idyllic.

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

Sunday, 1 December 2013

It’s dawn and I’m peeping out the window; the only flowers to be seen are white ones. Generally it’s at dusk that I see this phenomenon of advancing white blooms when all else retreats from the eye, in this quiet light.
I love white flowers: their purity, their contrast to green, and their ability to lighten a garden picture if used carefully. (Pop them in with red flowers and you’ve got a council bedding scheme. That’s fine, you should be allowed to love your garden however you want, just don’t ask me to admire that particular brash colour scheme.)
Even with green I think the ratio needs to be 10% white to 90% green and it’s with interest that I look at my photos of Sissinghurst’s white garden – the first and best – with its touch of grey and, I think, silver, and modify my ratio to 10% white, 10% grey/silver, 80% green – but still, importantly, lashings of green. (And here I may annoy some – who dearly love this garden – by commenting that the central climbing rose tips the balance when it flowers: all those blooms! But walk beneath and fix the eyes on the green hedges and they recover.) 

Just now the super-tough mock orange (above, Philadelphus) are flowering, flinging perfumed joy about the garden. My only evergreen one (P. mexicanus) has creamy blooms but just now they look almost white, gleaming in the early diffuse light. Tallest P. `Natchez’ has nearly finished flowering, a lovely thing but a bit embarrassing a week ago: so covered in flowers, 2 of them just touching and with a pale pink deciduous azalea at their feet, now over a metre high, sadly power-flowering at the same time, and popping out Jack-in-the box style between them; all too much, like wearing a wedding dress to a barbeque. (Or too much tattoo displayed at...a christening.) What to do?
Dwarf ones are pretty, but `Silver Showers’ and`Belle Etoile’, Im high, are less fragrant.
Other early morning treats include Orlaya (top, like a Queen Anne’s Lace on steroids and a favourite since seeing it in gardens in the UK and, more importantly, growing wild in the Mediterranean area), silver-leaved Lychnis (which self-sows; never introduce the handsome magenta one to your garden if you care about virulent pink next to orange, red or…anything) and the last of the dogwoods (Cornus `Eddies White Wonder’, a great plant with a less than great name).
Oak-leaf hydrangeas will provide white flowers in summer (wallaby-willing) and a packet of white Cosmos is sitting in the laundry awaiting sowing (scattering, really) for autumn flowers of the tint some say is not a colour. 

At this hour the change in perception is quite magical; in daylight a brightly coloured flower may be most noticeable (see Flanders poppies, above) while white retreats. At dusk, in moonlight, the colour disappears; white flowers become luminescent and stand out like glowworms. Make that white flower a perfumed one – star jasmine, bouvardia, mock orange (generally a large shrub – use with care in city gardens), Mexican orange blossom or a gardenia in a pot – and then plonk a chair by it at dusk. It’s another way to love the garden (or courtyard or balcony); just add some mosquito repellant (and I don’t know yet how well these work really): Pelargonium citrosum `Van Leenii’, fennel or Balm of Gilead (Cedronella canariensis) and voila.

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