Monday, 31 August 2015

An Early Spring Gem

Remarkably, one of the tree peonies,  Paeonia suffruticosa ssp rockii (above) has flowered already, as we usher in spring.
Large, luscious blooms with petals of white satin unfurl over a day or two from bronze-cupped buds as new leaves, too, display copper tones as they begin to mature.
I peer into the centre of each flower at the exquisite maroon inner parts of the flower before the wind and rain blow them away. How old is my plant now, I wonder? It's wallaby-grazed, tall and slender; maybe 10 years old, and relishing the banishment of the hungry herbivores. I've had 4 or 5 flowers now; riches.
Peonies hail from China where they are known as the `king of flowers', symbolizing honour, wealth, and aristocracy, as well as love, affection, and feminine beauty. Zhao Chang of Song Dynasty (960-1279) painted this picture (left); he was known for drawing life-like flowers after walking around his garden early each morning. (What a great routine.)
My botanist mother comes to mind every time I see these Chinese beauties in bloom: she planted Paeonia suffruticosa ssp rockii exactly where she could see it through a picture window from her comfortable chair and the glorious flowers gave her joy every spring.
Cyclamen hederifolium at the feet of my tree peonies seem to work well: pretty marbled leaves now; pink flowers in autumn; leaves through the winter months while the peony is dormant.
Good plant combinations like that were her forte; I think she would approve of this one.
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. (

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Annuals: To Plant or Not to Plant

Many years ago I started gardening with annuals, planting from seedling punnets. At least whatever died hadn't cost much.

Slowly I tried perennials, then shrubs. We were blessed, already,with a marvellous scarlet-flowering gum tree and a shade-giving walnut tree. Shrubs and trees are scarily permanent to a new gardener.

Later I joined a garden club full of the cognoscenti, and any annuals but the rarest were frowned upon, ever so gently. (There's a good reason for this: the gardens full of colour are rather like a meal of only butter and sugar; great gardens have masses of green too: the meat and vegetables. Wall-to-wall flowers can be indigestable.) But my garden is, of course, for my enjoyment, not theirs.

My new silver-and-raspberry bed is a bit bare this winter, not withstanding the 2 new Guichenotia (pink winter flowers on a silver-grey leaved shrub, a near-perfect match) towards the back, and several winter roses (Helleborus), some `red'-flowered, some with silver-traced leaves.

My love affair with perennials from the late 1980's will, I fear, never fade; I just love their fresh new growth each spring; it's like a dose of ice (I imagine), a hit, a natural high as the plants surprise, each time, with their woosh of wondrous growth and fascinating flowers and foliage.

The bed is a little bare just now, but I think next winter will be better; I'll prune the silver Tanacetum and wormwood less severely; and there'll be more evergreen cover - cranesbills, purple-leaf Queen Anne's Lace, dark-flowered Bergenia. (They'll be bigger clumps, or i'll have divided them and there'll be more plants.)

So when I saw some bright, near-ruby Primula  I thought of this bed; and yes, the 3 clumps look just right. (The nurseries were also selling a hectic pink form that made me turn green.) The plants will need pulling out towards the end of spring but this is, I find, easier than cutting perennials.

I like a 4-season garden so I might add Primula every year to this bed; but it's interesting how far a little bright colour can go, even on the coldest, wettest days. So even though it's tempting to add another couple, maybe 3 clumps is enough.

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. (

Friday, 21 August 2015

Spring is waiting, stage right, at this, my favourite time of year.

Spring is waiting, stage right, ready for its huge entrance at this, my favourite time of year. My favourite week. Just about my favourite day of the year.
It’s mid-August: late winter or early spring depending on your perspective.
The race has already begun in Melbourne and the cold still has its icy hold high on the mountain but here, well, it’s sublime. I love it just now.
It still feels cold – and we had loads of hail the other day, with snow a little higher in the hills, but maybe it’s the longer days that have wrought the  massive changes in some of the neighbors gardens where the floral wattage has been turned up to high: gleaming gold wattles, fluffy blossom trees and screaming pink rhododendrons.
In our own bush: heavy golden wattles, soft myrtle wattles, dainty cinnamon wattles; all different and lovely; all heralding the changing seasons.
Jonquils (mainly perfumed `Erlicheer’) fill vases.
Some hellebores are starting to fade to green , but so elegantly, back almost to a leaf colour, a background hue, saying `pardon me, I won’t interrupt the show.’ Likewise handsome Garrya catkins, so softly green through winter (why did I cut it back hard in autumn?) are going dull green (not brown) before dropping off - like the most polite elderly guests, making no fuss (`I have to go - just as the party looks like getting really started...but I enjoyed being here – go, enjoy your your other guests’).
In my own garden it’s the nodding buds and just-open daffodils that please; it’s what says `the show is beginning’, others stil  pushing up through mulch. Not one old brown flower head in the garden, only new flowers and buds full of promise of things to come.
A few snowdrops still holding pristine teardrops and crocus glowing amethyst. Cyclamen – little Cyclamen coum – holding bright cerise little dumpy flowers over round leaves.
Spiraea and Kerria shrubs covered in buds about to burst, even roses with tiny red new leaflets. It’s all flowers or buds other than sleeping beauty perennials, still under their magical winter spells.
And the flowers are all bulbs.
A quick count shows 3 kinds of crocus flowering, 3 snowdrops and one or 2 cyclamen. And – lucky me – jonquils (as Australians call the tazetta group of Narcissus) here and there – a few eggy `Soleil d`Or’, plentiful creamy `Erlicheer’ and a lovely white jonquil, maybe the first of the `Silver Chimes’. (I love the way Narcissus flower for over 4 months if you choose the right ones.) I had a bunch of `Erlicheer’ in my car yesterday and the fragrance was a delight.
(Wordsworth famously wrote of a host of golden daffodils and I can see his point; bright angels heralding divine spring. Where does that leave us atheists I wonder? My wonder and joy at the world and universe is no less. So...a swarm? A horde of daffodils? It doesn’t convey  the delight you feel.)
And why are bulbs so special?
Is it their ability (timing and chutzpah) to welcome spring so well – and brave the odd icy winds; and their knack and bright colour for helping us to say, comprehensively, goodbye to winter?
With the daffodils flowering, I am wrong: Spring is not waiting, stage right or otherwise, ready for its huge entrance; it has strode to centre stage to great applause.

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. (

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Mad keen venerable vegetable growers

I’ve met some mad keen – and venerable -  vegetable growers in the past year. And sensed a theme.
First, though, they seemed almost taciturn, even grumpy. Then with the turn of a spigot I unleashed their inner passion – unwittingly.
I am very bad at small talk, but in the past 12 months I met these 3 wonderful – and elderly – men, all from the north-west Mediterranean area, and I uttered seemingly magical words...`do you like to garden?’ Abracadabra – we have entered a code word: Oh yes, and it always seems to be for vegetables, madly, keenly for vegetables, with a lifetimes experience and a wealth of knowledge which they are keen to share.
One explained how he was the first person to grow kale in this country (he wasn’t impressed with my Tuscan kale by the way, saying it doesn’t do well through winter (I’m not sure if I agree)); the next told me how to protect my broad beans from wintry winds (corrugated sheets upright around them if I remember correctly) then the other day another quiet man lit up as we began to chat. He’d grown a huge tomato last summer  - `how big do you think?’ he demanded. `A kilo, half a kilo’ I ventured hesitantly. `Two and a half kilo’ he replied with enormous satisfaction. `No! Did it taste nice?’ `Yes’ `How? water, manure?’ `Lots of water’.
So I told him about how high my pea plants were...and we agreed that we preferred growing summer vegetables.
Great stuff.
(And why, by the way, are vegetables seen as blokey while flowers are more likely to be grown by women?
Just asking.)
I may be bad at small talk but now I’m going to ask everyone: `Do you like to garden?’
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. (

White Daphne and Variegation

`One swallow does not a summer make’.
And a garden patch with 4 types of white-flowering plants (with a good dose of green) does not make an homage to that holiest of grails, the White Garden at Sissinghurst Garden (`English dream made flesh’ – Monty Don I believe) in Kent, UK.
There’s a white (non-variegated*) daphne surrounded by dwarf single dahlias (possibly Bambino, and definitely non-staking) and white sedum (recently divided into more pieces and replanted) all anchored by several  Helleborus x sternii `Ashbourne Silver’ with delicate silvery tracing on the leaves; with a sweep of double white hellebores on the other side of the path.
In fact I’m not sure how it happened.
It may sound pallid, or restful, or in need of spice; but with plenty of green this little area sits well between the pinks of one garden bed – cyclamen, colchicum, trout lilies and peonies under trees; and the next, which has blues mainly – camassias and scillas (and daffodils) under white dogwoods.
Apart from a bit of messy late-autumn dahlia down time and – rare! – lack of interest in spring (easily solved by planting some of my countless potted bulbs) it’s a garden with something happening most of the time. Right now it’s that daphne, just good old Daphne odora alba, lemon-touched scent pouring from the flowers, a plant recovering from unfortunate wallaby-pruning.
Daphne – when larger than mine – like to be pruned, and this is so easy – just trim some for a vase every week or 2 for a magical posy and voilĂ ! - the pruning is done.
It was a bit hard to find, actually.
*Every white daphne in the nurseries seems to be variegated, with a ribbon of white around each leaf; to my eye this just looks fussy as a shrub (although just acceptable in a tiny bunch; these blooms (above) came from the plant in my mothers garden, an English botanist’s garden, full of treasures). In the UK variegated leaves brighten up dull winter gardens, so they are more popular. (It’s hard to imagine a winter garden without showy camellias, but our winter gardens `seem a bit make-believe’ – British Professor James Hitchmough.) Australians, if you’ll forgive the generalisation, are said to dislike variegated plants (although this is changing). So much so that at a landscape design conference some years ago one of the Brits actually said that he realised he couldn’t use the `V’ word! Hostas and cyclamen are the clear exceptions.
And we don’t need the variegation – with good planning, there’s always interest in the garden, so the receding daphne (for example) is not a problem; rather it’s a good backdrop to new interest (flowers, leaves) as the seasons turn.
I gardened for my parents-in-law for a time about 2 decades ago or more and I think the best thing I introduced was a sweep of pink daphne, just Daphne odora, curving nicely with the shape of the garden bed (fortunately raised in their appalling clay).
But if I were to make an homage it would be – somehow – to Villa d’Este at Tivoli outside Rome: the level with little fountains, moss and stone. That’s my favourite garden (to date) and it reminds me how unimportant flowers are – but how vital (masses of) green is to any landscape that calls itself a garden.

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. (