Tuesday, 24 March 2015

A Flight of Fancy

Stand aside Lizzy Bennet, Heathcliff’s Cathy, and Jane Eyre.
I want be like Sookie Stackhouse of the True Blood series. No, I don’t want to date a vampire, or have witches stay with me, but dang, to have a fairy great grandfather wish upon me a magical garden where the plants suddenly grow as if on steroids, flowers unexpectedly bloom prolifically and the tomatoes are heavy on the bushes. (And the lawn grows fast, but every blessing is mixed.) Sookie doesn’t enjoy the minutiae of gardening – and I’m with her there (weeding and mowing are mentioned) – but when weeding she uses an iron trowel and uses it in self defence against a fairy – who is susceptible to iron and lemon juice, of course. (`Did you really kill a fairy?’ ask her vampire friends admiringly.) OK, it’s only her garden I want, not all the adventures.
Sookie’s garden in Louisiana had been battling the climate (dry summers are implied); mine has battled soggy winters, bone-dry summers and my bete noir (apologies to any regular reader out there who may be tired of this topic), wandering wallabies. 
Now I feel a little like Sookie – but without dating a vampire, alas.

The garden has grown for nearly two seasons. It’s pretty exciting. Five months have passed with growth unimpeded by munching marsupials, now really respecting the garden fence. (Some rain during summer has been terrific too.) Is it too good to be true? If crunching critters don’t laughingly leap over the fence when the grass is certainly greener, during summer, then I think it is a success. After 20 years, I have my garden, and I can plant tulips (their favourite snack) with confidence. At last!

Some plants survived the depredation over the years with wire baskets or plastic prisons. Now it’s time to fling off the corsets and gussets and upturned hanging basket guards. They kept some roses and treasures alive – just – through the years when we had an old, large male wallaby here, who seemed very much at home. With his good memory, he’d return to graze on the same plants repeatedly. About 6 years ago – after his demise no doubt – a sweet little female moved in and we watched her raise a joey each year; each seemingly more bold than the last. But a turd by the front door mat (under the veranda)? That’s just bad manners.

Was it 3 years ago that J enclosed about a quarter of an acre with the wallaby-proof fence (leaving over 12 acres for wildlife) – that quickly became – the somewhat wallaby deterrent fence? We’ve slowly closed off all the gaps including adding 2 rings to our pretty purple gate. Seeing wallabies leap out through the gate was quite a sight.
Last spring saw the last of the incursions; I remember it well. Often when our resident female wallaby has a young joey, last year’s joey is still hanging around. (There’s Gen Y for you.)  J and I call the older one `teenager’ though I am sure a zoologist would be horrified by the nickname. Anyhow, on a sunny spring day in October, `teenager’ was hopping – or scrabbling - under the fence, back and forth, showing younger joey how it’s done. J (a true conservationist) was delighted; I saw red. I had a sore back but went out with a mattock and drove in the last of the required stakes...and it worked!
(J’s been ambivalent about the whole project while I’ve longed for my garden; so it’s a true joy to see the wallabies almost daily now, cropping grass near our gates on one side of the garden or the other, but always on the other side of the fence.)

As if fairy Niall had put a spell on it, immediately the garden started to grow and the most pleasure was, I think, from roses: a pink one near the kitchen window bloomed and bloomed (rich pink `Gertrude Jeckyll’ with her old rose fragrance); and from the living room, in time for a family lunch, was a show-stopping scene of yellow David Austin roses (including `Graham Thomas’, top) under-planted with several clumps of deep blue Siberian iris – such a great colour combination. (Pink roses in the pink-and-burgundy-rose garden were, of course, sporadic. But, oh boy, I am looking forward to seeing them all bloom at once this coming spring.) A few like `Jude the Obscure’ with divine fragrance continue here and there. I can envisage the delight my imaginary heroine feels when her great grandfather Niall `blesses’ her garden; it feels like it’s happened to me.
This autumn I shall rejoice by planting abundant tulips (which hungry herbivores really love to nibble): pink ones, white ones, black ones. Clumps of black tulips amongst the silver shrubs and perennials; pools of pure white along the front path; and in the pink and burgundy rose garden around the circular lawn: pink tulips in all hues from softest powder puff to hot cherry and everything in between – where I’ll see them from the house, even on those wet spring days, as the garden wakes up.
Autumn-time, planning a beautiful spring garden. Is there anything more pleasurable?

Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria (www.jillweatherheadgardendesign.com.au)

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Autumn Activity and Blood-Red Bulbs

These cold autumn nights and cooler days have drawn me into the garden like some siren is calling.
So many potted plants to be popped in the ground, rooted cuttings to be potted on, vegetables to be planted...
But first, the red Kaffir Lilies are flowering and I promised some to a friend – long ago. Seeing the engine-red flowers was a huge relief and while they usually bloom for months – my pink one has -  the red Hesperantha coccinea (Syn. Schizostylis)  lurking in a shady corner have only now waved a bright flag to say `here I am’. These bright perennials will complement her orange and red and – importantly - green garden wonderfully, near an area of orange flowers underplanted with a little blue for a soft contrast.

(Rather like Grass Trees (Xanthorrhoea) being called, in the past, `Black Boys’; and the weedy `Wandering Trad’ or `Trad’ (Tradescantia) which used to be (and still is too often) called `Wandering Jew’ (yuck to both) I read that `Kaffir Lilly’ is similarly disliked – in South Africa (its origin), anyhow. `Crimson Flag’, as its also called, is not quite right to me, as the red is closer to vermillion, but I’ll try to remember the name. `Blood Lily’ sounds closer to describing the flower and is a short, punchy moniker fitting to a showy plant – but it’s taken already, of course, by the worthy Haemanthus coccineus (below, coincidentally flowering right now) Maybe Scarlet Flag?).

Now it’s autumn, instinctively I find myself making a list: sow peas (sugar snap or snow pea) and broad beans; mulch the cut-flower beds; pull down an old sweet pea plant (a lovely `blue’, its seed has been collected (dang that’s a new fun and free hobby which results in such fresh seeds so that germination rates are high)); pull out a low purple salvia that’s just too floppy and replace with cherry pie (heliotrope) and neat culinary sage (I like the flowers); and weed, weed weed.  Then mulch, mulch, mulch.
I’ll sow the pea seeds in pots and toss them in my little glasshouse because I can’t sow them in the ground. This is a dilemma at the start of each autumn (before the soil gets too cold), although dwarfed by early and mid-spring’s quandary: the need to get vegetables going (before the soil dries out too much); but just now I can’t bear to pull out tomatoes fruiting or other mature veg like eggplants – grown for the first time this year.
Mostly for fun, but also thinking I could – maybe – pull out some tomato plants, I arranged a blind tomato taste test the other night. (A strange entree.) Which of the big red toms was nicest, number 1(College Challenger, as it turned out, a plant bred at Hawkesbury Agricultural College in the 1950’s), 2 (Burnley Bounty, a cold-tolerant variety) or 3 (Rouge de Marmande, a French heirloom variety)? Number three! Number 2 was least flavoursome to both of us and 1 was sweetest. Black Russian is still my favourite though; J dislikes the colour while I adore the flavour. (We ate our first sweetcorn that night too; we’re still collecting loads of apples and of course I collect eggs each day, so I felt a little like (an older) Barbara Good from The Good Life (without the snooty neighbour; and similarly (if memory serves) - we’ve found that we can’t eat our old hens either; certainly couldn’t shoot them!).
Now we can concentrate on which tomato plants to keep seed of, which is so much fun (realising the pollen parent may be very different; do we pull out yellow toms, large and small, and tomato Burnley Bounty so that plants from seeds collected later will be great? Yes, I think so) and which plants to buy at Kallista market (first Saturday of the month) next spring in that pretty hamlet in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne.
I am loving the late summer produce and the cool autumn gardening weather. But will someone teach me how to cook eggplants please?

Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria (www.jillweatherheadgardendesign.com.au)

Thursday, 12 March 2015

A Truce with the Hens.

A peace truce has been called - I surmise.  Or maybe I clarified the expectations of the landlords?
It's early autumn and chook after bantam chook has been seriously clucky: zealously, furiously sitting on sterile eggs, attempting the impossible: a magical metamorphosis from pocket of goodness into chicks (if they think that far ahead).
Take away an egg from one of these frenzy-eyed, peckish creatures at your peril. (I exaggerate of course; I always do. Barely a peck from the girls we’ve raised from day-old chicks (above) themselves.) And who could blame them? Recently I've started picking up the overheated hen and bathing their tummies in cool water - which they seem to like - as well as keeping them in a cooler spot for two days when it happens; it does the trick. Then I check them each night: are they sitting on the perch, or huddled in a cosy boudoir?
Closing off two nest boxes left only 2 and this - somehow - has changed everything. Magically. Ah (they seem to think) they're for laying in, nothing else! Eggs are to be left for collection!

On the perch at night the cool air under their bellies keeps the hens less broody. And the culprits? Mainly the beautiful wyandottes (one silver, 3 gold), of course, and only one (of 3) of the light Sussex bantams (including the Blondies, Debbie and Harry, left). Worst of the lot is friendly little Freddie, but she is a simply gorgeous bird (who always runs madly to the food lady) and I think I'd forgive her anything.
Now they are back to scratching the veg patch and pecking at kale and finding insects; and we are rewarded with 2 to 4 eggs per day.
Does anyone want eggs?

Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria (www.jillweatherheadgardendesign.com.au)

Thursday, 5 March 2015

`Ruby’ Flowers and Repetition

“Repetition in a garden provides structure, flow and impact”  writes Nick Turrell in The Garden (January 2015), comparing creating a beautiful garden to crafting a good speech. He writes that "successful repetition in a garden context can be just as memorable... [because] a memorable planting composition carefully placed around a few times, pulls the whole scheme together. But don't overdo it. No more than three times. Once is an event, twice is a pattern; it's the third time that it sinks in." 
It’s great advice.
In my jardin d'jour, the silver and raspberry (and cherry and plum - we are talking colours here, by the way) garden bed where I've been playing with colours and textures and form (including some upright foliage of iris and Dierama) but...forgetting structure. It's a bed reminiscent of Christopher Lloyd's long border (a bold claim, I know) at Great Dixter, but without, yet, a firm path in front. In any case J would prefer an informal, slightly winding path so - when we have these mud and mulch paths made gravel instead - they will not confer much gravity.

Coreopsis rosea `Sweet Dreams’ (above) is bright yet deep pink at its centre, bleeding into near white at petals edge - cheery but not overwhelming. It's not quite the colour I'd planned for my raspberry and silver bed...but I think it adds zest in a close hue. As the bed was planted late, it was one of the first perennials to bloom here, in early summer; now cut back, I thought its flowering season was over...but things aren't always that simple.
Like many other perennials lately I must have, on planting, taken off a couple of pieces with roots and shoots and potted them up. Then they were flowering merrily with glowing cherry-pink daisy heads up above all surrounding foliage amongst the pots by the back door - in February’s heat - no mean feat. So when I needed a medium height perennial (about half a metre high) and one with raspberry-coloured flowers at that, I had one at hand with almost exactly the right shade and into the bed it was thrust.
Raspberry Salvia, deep pink paeonies, silver artemisias are all repeated, and at the rear, pink-mauve Phlomis too, which tolerates the severe dry. Agastache `Aztec Rose’ (above) is a near-raspberry perennial on 1.2m stalks I’ve repeated too, 3 clumps, weaving around the silver Tanacetum
Sedum `Ruby Glow’ (first picture) has begun flowering over glaucous leaves and this is the best chosen perennial for the bed yet. Its repeating element is other sedums (like S. `Red Setter’, its reddish leaves an interesting addition rather than beautiful – so far) as I want to see which looks best along here – although I am probably happy to keep each, slowly dividing over many years for several clumps.
My garden beds usually have bearded iris (if in full sun) or another plant (often another iris) to give upright foliage for contrast and texture. I really don’t have enough in my silver bed and so a couple of black bearded iris is a tempting solution as there are no true pink bearded iris (adding an apricot one here would give me apoplexy. Seriously) and the blacks are glorious; the grey leaves would fit nicely here too. (Dieramas are too messy - near the front - when the clump is a little aged, and just too tall.)
Meanwhile Alexandre Thomas of Les Jardins Agapanthe in Normandy (The Garden, May 2011) says "I am a plantsman and a garden designer and an architect and a decorator. You need all this to make gardens." 
Good gardens, yes.
Great gardens? I think you need an artist at the helm along with the design, along with - ideally (but not necessarily) plantmanship, and constant evaluation.
I don't know if I am an artist although I certainly have aspirations in that direction. If colour was the only critirion of import (if only it was that simple!) - then I might qualify.
But I've just had a reality check. All those perennials and subshrubs; not enough structure.

It crashed down on me yesterday that here was a long border of (mainly) soft perennials with nothing – nothing! – to hold it together in winter bar some well chosen and carefully placed hellebores (either red-flowering or silver of leaf). (I am being pretty harsh – those mounds of Tanacetum will give form all through winter too.)
I could add statuary but I have enough in the garden. (“Once is an event”... it’s too easy to overdo features and my front garden, in particular, is nearly over-tizzed. “Don't overdo it” writes Nick Turrell and I will try to take his advice here too.)
An alternate and more satisfying structural device will be a regular placement of green spheres.
I've always loved circles and spheres and the two - however much each is an artifice (just as is the garden) they are somewhat less so, after all, than squares and cubes.
I'll place them on one side of the path, amongst the raspberry perennials; the other side of the path is filled with Hydrangea paniculata (and pots of this and that, cuttings and seedlings near the back door hose, and the big pots of cut and come again lettuce).
 This decision is satisfying because it will link the double row of green balls of Tiny Trev lilly pilly flanking the front path (giving the sun and sky bed more structure), with the ones flanking paths around the rondel (or circular lawn) on the other side of the house. But I don't think I'll use Syzigium `Tiny Trev’ again for a few reasons, particularly its propensity to outgrow its advertised height. Looking for a shrub for my large Cretan terracotta urn I came across Escallonia Pink Pixie, a little toughie that grows to 80cm. It has small leaves (important if clipped); the small pink flowers are acceptable here; and it will, I hope, stay very neat.

More of this hardy diminutive shrub punctuating the silver bed – say every 2.5m and a metre back from the edge – might save this border from becoming an amorphous mess (which is a little easy to do when you are a plant enthusiast painting a picture with – mainly - perennials). These will lead to the box-ball-like Syzigium pairs at every path end around the circular lawn on the other side of the house. The repeating element will give the garden some unity but I won’t do it throughout the garden. (Now I am licking my lips in anticipation for winter and early spring when the balls stand out and the perennials are cut back...and just a few bulbs are gleefully adding some colour.)
Changing that repeating element declares a change of tempo; that a new garden area has been entered, even as they are linked.
Nick Turrell says of repetition: “don't overdo it” (“No more than three times” rings in the ears) and while he is referring to a planting composition – and he must be referring to large gardens!  – I am taking it to heart with my spheres of green too. Three areas containing this gentle formality, and symmetry of sorts amongst the ephemerals, soft or exploding (such as Eremurus fireworks near the back of the border), will be enough for our country garden, and more than enough for the lover of informality, J. The rest of the garden becomes wilder as you move away from the house, seemingly unplanned, soft, naturalistic.
My silver bed merges gently with greys and greens; and purples, pinks and blues, into its surrounds.
On one side is the front garden’s sun and sky bed – all blues and yellow – which leads gently to blues and purples with some grey foliage: a dwarf blue English lavender teamed with purple-leaf sage, a silver bush with white flowers (Convolvulus), deep blue-purple of rare perennial Strobilanthes atropurpureus, Russian sage (Perovskia), lots of purple iris, Salvia `African Sky’ and best of all, Sydney-sky blue Salvia patens, this one a large flower form from Sunnymeade garden, gorgeous. (I must take cuttings!) I want to add some blue-violet cranesbills here. Then the blues and purples merge with pink-lilac – penstemons and hefty Madeira Germander (Teucrium betonicum) before the silver garden roars into life with its raspberry flowers and yes, its pinks and plums too.

Beyond: a Pitcher Sage (Lepechinia hastata, left), 2m high, slightly more green than grey, and – as recently planted – just beginning its display of bright but highly saturated, or dark, pink-lilac salvia-like flowers; some bearded iris, grey sword leaves thrusting skywards; pink oriental poppies for spring; and, near the front, sweet pink Californian poppies, their grey ferny foliage perfect for this spot. (Called `Purple Gleam’ they are a lovely pink, see above).While this area seems to be pink rather than purple, it’s near the herb patch by the kitchen door. I’ve a spare purple-leaf culinary sage and I think this will link these areas a little, especially when the culinary sages all show off their pretty blue flowers in late spring.
Over in the (new) herb garden near the kitchen I feel like my perennials are being pushed further and further away. This is mostly a problem because the heights of the plants look all wrong. I know J doesn’t like iris but one could say, surely! – that the iris from which orris root is produced, similar to this bearded iris I photographed along Italy’s coastline in the Cinque Terre (above) – this belongs amongst other Mediterranean coastal herbaceous plants (like sage, thyme and so on); habitat, not use linking the plants (for me: I haven’t used orris root to fix the perfume in home-made pot pourri for a long time) – but I think it fits. My plant is Iris pallida `Amethystina’ (below) from (again!) Lambley’s and is a particularly lovely soft lilac. A compromise is clearly required so I’ll move some, but maybe not all, of the iris.)

A similar size shrub, heliotrope, would look nice along a bit and add structure amid the perennials; its purple flowers are scented sweetly of vanilla and bloom through the warm months - even longer when the shrub is in full sun. It’s tempting to add more perfumed plants: fragrant herbs opposite the culinary herbs, especially ones that could be picked for say, an old fashioned pomander, seem very apt. White Bouvardia, chocolate cosmos (not quite the right colour), Nicotiana sylvestris and some of the unusual daphnes immediately flood the imagination too. Perhaps a perfumed-leaf geranium (as us Australians call Pelargoniums); there’s one in a pot of course, a rooted cutting of one which, when you crush a leaf, has a scent somewhere between mint and gum tree leaves. Some green-leaf cranesbills (true Geranium) in the shadehouse would be a great addition here, as well; too much grey is dismal, for me, anyhow.
There’s a pink-lilac penstemon along here and through the warm months, at least, it links these pink-purples to the nearby pink and burgundy roses around my circular lawn.

It will be interesting to see this garden area evolve. And a whole lot of fun.

Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria (www.jillweatherheadgardendesign.com.au)