Friday, 25 July 2014

Snow in Selby and wildflowers from the arid centre

Only ten days have passed since I went away but it seems I’ve missed quite a bit of drama. Snow in Selby - twice! We are at an altitude (and attitude) of only 170m in a Mediterranean-like climate so this is big news. But if I hadn’t heard about the cold snap (at the shops) I would have suspected warmth, because, in just a few days, wattles have begun to flower – not daintily, but with gusto.
Golden wattles (Acacia pycnantha, big-leafed), silver wattles (A. dealbata – tall, feathery and handsome), showing off bright yellow blooms; and myrtle wattle (A. myrtifolia) covered in buds; surely a couple of weeks early (see post 6/8/12)?
The garden looks untouched – by cold or warmth. A neighbour’s tree dahlias are still flowering – unscathed, somehow, from the cold.
We were camping in Australia’s red centre and a honey-scented wattle caught my nose, then my eye. Amongst the many plants we found flowering after the good rain - 60mm - the area received back in April, was this wattle, Acacia melleodora (pictured, below). What I really liked, though, were the silver – snowy, at a stretch - leaves, created by a crust of resin, which could be scratched off with a stick, and clearly comes off readily in the wild. When first looking at the leaves, I’d thought I’d found a compound like the powdery whiteness found on the trunk of the stately ghost gums of the area, (Corymbia aparrerinja, pictured at King’s Canyon), and which comes off with a hand sweep to reveal handsome olive-green below – yet unlike the wattle, remains mainly white, powder in place, so dramatic against red rock and soil, and blue, blue sky.

As we explored we couldn’t help but hum the lyrics to the iconic Midnight Oil song:

`Out where the river broke
The bloodwood and the desert oak
Holden wrecks and boiling diesels
Steam in forty five degrees
The time has come
To say fair’s fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share
The time has come
A fact’s a fact
It belongs to them
Let’s give it back...
How can we dance when our earth is turning
How do we sleep while our beds are burning’

Finally to see, recognise and know these plants that we’ve sung about, myth-like, for decades: bloodwood (Corymbia, many of the eucalypts or gums that we saw) and desert oak (Allocasuarina decaiseana), a bizarre tree which grows tall and straight into a 4m-high feather duster before branching out, eventually, into a normal looking tree; we saw many.
Carpets of wildflowers exceeded our dreams and the loveliest may have been the pink Tall Mulla Mullas (Ptilotus exaltatus, top) and Regal Foxtail (P. nobilis, last picture). (Flowers brought out the bees and butterflies, too.) As on many holidays, I dream of growing these wild beauties at home; and yes, I do know these are from an arid region, one of the driest in the world. But then, so is my north-facing veranda. For budgetary reasons, I could grow some from seed, sowing late in spring in my little glasshouse, and hopefully have flowers before the cold autumn nights set in - treating them as annuals, alas. I’d need a long hot summer for this to work, probably, where I live. A fun experiment, anyhow. And that is gardening, surely?

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

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Clematis catalogue fever

A sister dropped by yesterday, one who takes gardening as seriously as I do. It’s a joy to pore over a catalogue together and work out which clematis will flower when, to have flowers – nearly – all year long with these beauties, but more importantly (to us, I hasten to add) which colours will look divine together, she with her small pergola outside a room decorated in yellow and blue; me with my 2 new metal tripods, each placed centrally in the cut-flower beds. (Cane ones looked terrific here for years until they collapsed.)
I’ve always loved the little Clematis viticella hybrids (like Clematis viticella alba luxurians, below) which bloom in late spring and summer, so I’m planning a couple of white and lilac ones on the tripod in the semicircular bed amongst my pink and white cut-flowers – paperwhite jonquils, Ismene, belladonna lilies and liliums. Adding Clematis texensis `Etoile Rose’ (my aunt’s favourite, incidentally) for sweet little autumn (and spring) flowers will extend the season.

The other tripod might look quite different because I’ve fallen in love with some of the large flowered jackmanii hybrid clematis (top) in the violet range - `Rhapsody’ (indigo), `General Sikorski’ (mauve) and I will add `Huldine (white); these bloom (I read) from spring to autumn. Here they will look down on blue Dutch iris, yellow jonquils, and – as the only place for them – red Jacobean lilies (Sprekelia) which flower for Christmas.
Looking at my new, winter-bare tripods (below), I might add C. cirrhosa `Lansdown Gem’ – an old favourite for burgundy bells in the coldest months, but there’s loads of white jonquils at their feet, too. I get tempted to pick them all; so why do I want my picking garden to look nice? I suppose I want every corner, every niche, of this garden, to be beautiful, all the time. It’s a big ask!
I already have a Clematis jackmanii hybrid, a delicious soft mauve one, growing up a dogwood tree, striking in spring. I think it’s one of the best. Unfortunately, long ago I told my sister its name (`Prince Charles’) and…she knows I want Australia to be a republic. Lots of fodder for good-natured teasing, but then, also a source for great lines (`Yes, Prince Charles is up that tree’…).
Not all clematis are climbers and it’s tempting to buy a couple of the new, interesting hybrids of herbaceous Clematis integrifolia (1m high with blue or violet flowers); a small one for clambering over a statue; 2 short herbaceous pink ones for my silver and raspberry bed, which would then need pretty little growing frames…No, stop! Maybe just climbers this time.
My sister pointed out to me Clematis ternifolia which, my catalogue says, has `fragrant white flowers…autumn to winter’. I am running out of room, other than, as they say, `tossing them up a tree’ (planted first, at the foot), an informal style I like. I’ve thought about colours this year. Maybe I’ll think about seasons next year.

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

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A little row of pansies – what was I thinking?

Oh no, I've created a council style bedding scheme! No, it's not that bad at all, just odd to see a row of pansies - all a delicious lemon I hasten to add - every time I walk from house to gate, which is pretty often. It seemed like such a great idea. Let me explain.
After ridding the area of bulbous Nectascordum, a ferocious spreader in my climate, I replaced some casualties which included some evergreen spheres of Tiny Trev Lillypilly. (Sigh.) While I had some cranesbills to return between them - wonderful ground covers - there were also - joy! - some white tulips to go in. Now this area gets very waterlogged in winter and I wanted to keep a close eye on my half price (but beautiful) tulips. (I always wait for the May sales.) So I planted them in pots, sunk into the soil, each topped with a little pansy for showing the spot, and in 2 straight rows, one on each side of my front path. If I want to lift the bulbs I can, but probably won't.
I’ve done this before and when the white tulips flower they contrast with my balls of green nicely.
Most summers thoroughly dry out the soil here and so as long as the bulbs don't over heat they'll be fine. At 170m we are as warm as Melbourne in summer but distinctly cooler in winter, enough to leave tulips in the ground all year and they can still flower well.
Most important though, is that the macropod munchers are slowly retreating from the garden. It's partly the greener grass (on the other side of the fence), it's partly our fence improvements; slowly the garden feels like it’s mine. (I do wonder, though, if the roses will completely recover.)
After I planted the pots of tulips I mulched well and some of this mulch was scratched - daily - by blackbirds onto the path. I think I've solved this with an edging of Ajuga `Jungle Beauty’, taking pieces from elsewhere in the garden. It's a great plant, quickly forming a ground cover without taking over, with a texture that feels rich when you compare it to its flat cousins. I like its profusion of deep, subtle blue flowers in spring, too.
I won't use this bugle (as it’s also known) everywhere in the garden but I think I will plant it around the circular lawn. Here, too, the soil is incredibly wet in winter and very dry in summer. I've tried Bergenia here (too wet), cranesbills (true Geranium, too delicious to wandering wallabies), and even Helleborus argutifolius (the soil was way too wet). I think the bugle will be more successful but I am going to be much less laissez faire; raise the soil if need be; water occasionally in the driest summers; even consider adding water crystals to the soil. Near the house, this area deserves to look nice, as we look out at it from large windows and we traverse it each day, some days several times, to visit our hens.
So I planted my 10 pots each of 5 white tulips, 4 one side of the path, 6 on the other, each with its tiny viola plant as sentinels. But just a couple of sunny days later each violet proudly bears a standard, no, a sail of bleached cotton, sweetly primrose - all in a row. I wanted the tulips regimented but I'm not sure about the ground covers - flowering ones, anyhow - they remind me too much of council bedding schemes and whilst this sounds prejudiced, it’s for a good reason: their 2 dimensional gardens lack depth and character. The Victorian era bedding-out style of annuals twice yearly has been incredibly tenacious in this state and I can’t find a single redeeming feature in them. For me, gardens need height, even if it’s to a metre, but preferably with trees, vine-clad pergolas, or even a clich├ęd rose-covered arch so that I am interacting with the garden, and not just looking at it.
Tall iris behind my tulips and pansies take away the 2 dimensional effect really (and soon I’ll have my green spheres again); perhaps I’m being over-critical. When I’ve added those yellow Phlomis and deep blue Salvia (see post 16/5/14) up and behind my pansies, the dynamic will change. But I like to look, constantly, at my garden with a critical eye, so that it can always get better. I hope!

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