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)

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