Sunday, 24 April 2016

Colourful (and Otherwise) Avian Visitors in the Garden


Christmas brought this water garden (a fab present from J) and already it's looking fairly settled in. Ground covers and little shrubs around it, water lily leaves and fallen pink salvia flowers float on the surface. The bowl is nestled into a dwarf Philadelphus or mock orange, pure white flowers in spring, gorgeously fragrant; salvias, correas and fan flowers (Scaevola) snuggle around the base. At first we had a new white water lily weekly but the weather has grown too cold now. Then, yesterday, a crimson rosella visits; joy.

Today, a newcomer visits around the other side of the house: a Bassian thrush, brown-backed, speckled (or so it seems to my poor eyesight; actually horseshoe-shaped dark markings on the breast) and very handsome. I'm hoping he has replaced the blackbirds: he's their size, in their area, and he's scratching the mulch down the slope just as they do, tiresomely, sure, but a bit less vigorously. And he's native; what a difference that makes.

Should it?
(Warning: Soapbox!) Briefly, the more weeds (animal and vegetable) flourish, the less room there is left for our wildlife, already frequently precariously on the edge of extinction or near that point in the remnant wild places. And so I growl at the blackbirds and the deer and the blackberries (I pull out the latter of course)...and whisper hello to Ms Wallaby as she nibbles grass near our carport (outside my garden!) every dawn and dusk, and try not to disturb her young, but growing, ever-present, joey.

(Two dozen years ago we made it clear that how ever welcome our favourite people are, their dogs are not. So, wildlife is not scared off, and we are lucky enough to see skinks and wallabies and frogs daily; and echidnas and antechinus and wombats sometimes; and I think I can hear lyre birds - maybe. The area used to have goannas, snakes and koalas too but people and dogs have scared them away, which I think is a pity. But wallabies seem very at home.)

Each year there's a new joey; we watch the growth with awe and enjoyment, from first appearance of tiny snout and ears to `teenager' pushed away to...where?

We love the little birds too, flitting daily in the birdbaths and salvias and correas. Then a crimson rosella visits with its candid gaze and voilla...the garden is complete.

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, 22 April 2016

Saying Goodbye to Mum's Garden

It's a strange thing, to gather up your mothers old gardening tools, and venerable watering cans, and an old wheel barrow, too good to throw out. Packing  up the minutiae of gardening equipment after a gardener has hung up her galoshes and trowel.

A terrific contractor has kept the Emerald garden looking neat during Dad's guardianship and, in places, as lovely as Mum had it; you can picture her stepping out to admire her sweep of autumn-flowering cyclamen (C. hederifolium, below) at any moment.

But the house is sold and at last Dad has given us permission to dig up a bulb or two; even her granddaughters want a reminder of this garden (aptly, (weedy) forget-me-nots - to J's horror) made by a plantsman and botanist (and science graduate of Bristol University in the 1940's when women rarely attended university).
A while back I found some white dwarf gladioli (Gladiolus `The Bride') that I love; not rare, but a beauty, and with a little history. Mum planted this one before the house was built and it was admired by one of the older builders. She loved retelling the story of explaining that this plant he'd never seen before was `a gladiolus before the breeders improved them' and he said, wonderingly, `why did they ever bother?' (Amen.) Perhaps, like Mum and me, he preferred small flowers to large.
Do I take a cutting of pink `Cottage Rose' (as Mum called it), which reminded her of wild roses, rambling roses, from her English childhood years? (This rose grows gloriously through a crab-apple, flinging its arms about, laden with little single flowers in late spring; it's pictured in `Country Life Yarra Valley and Ranges' Magazine, Winter 2012.)
After offering to help dig up and pot up a few plants for a sister (her garden just now on hold), she and I spent a lovely hour in Mum's garden where the autumn bulbs had decided to put on one last hurrah; especially nerines in shades of red and pink, neon-lit and traffic signal-hot (and oh-so carefully keeping them separate and labelled). The new owner bought the house unseen; would he miss a few garden bulbs?; heck, no. (But in the interest of fairness, and the hope that he does like gardening, we left some nerines (and lots of other bulbs) behind, of course.)
I found something interesting when I got home. I had thought that I was so clever about colour but this sister, who creates ceramics, could discern `coral pink' (as she called it) from bright pink, and believe me, they were nearly identical...until I sat them next to the pinks in my raspberry and silver bed and found the luscious slightly `coral' swearing amongst my pinks (which matters to me) while the bright, fuchsia pink, with smaller, spidery flowers, which I realised was Nerine rosea, sits perfectly against the silver, complements the pink Dahlias and gives a shot of brightness in these shorter days.
A `fire garden' to the north end of my garden (the probable direction of impending bushfire) is something I've contemplated for years and to this end I'm multiplying my Dahlia `Bishop of Llandaff' (a non-staking dahlia - very important) with its handsome single scarlet flowers over burnt-black foliage which will be an asset here. Now I've come a step closer, by digging up several red nerines (planted for now by a colourful `kooky' bird from friends) and also black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus `Nigrescens'); I like the idea of grey foliage here too.
One plant I really want to dig up, which may prove difficult, is an old tree peony which Mum planted to sit perfectly just outside her sitting room window; as she sat in her comfortable chair she used to gaze out through the window at her P. suffruticosa ssp rockii when it was flowering in late spring; a perfect focal point. (When the new owner arrives, as winter approaches, will he chop down this leggy, woody looking plant? Likelihood - high. Will he recognise this special plant? Likelihood - very, very low.) I feel a strong impetus to `save' this treasure.
So I'll heave up this hefty ancient plant with a huge root ball and pop something in its place. And think carefully about where to plant this aristocrat that my mother loved so much.
And then say goodbye to Mum's final (and, I think, favourite) 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 (

Friday, 1 April 2016

Planning and Planting the Edible Garden for Winter - My Meg Ryan Moment

I had a little Meg Ryan moment yesterday, about the garden, and I wasn't even in the garden. A shiver, a surge of happiness.

We have 5 veg garden plots around the large hen run and it was time to move our 7 pretty bantams along, even though the zucchini plant might produce one or 2 more fruit, and the tomato vines were strung with jade beads. (But I dug up the ruby chard (or pink-stemmed silver beet, third picture) that's self-sown, in shades of shining ruby, candy-pink and fairy-floss, and immediately replanted in the new bed where the hens had been scratching and adding their own special fertiliser.) It's getting late in March, we're in the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges, and I wanted to get some winter veg in the ground while the soil is still warm.
As serendipity often has it, I was digging the new bed over next to the old; my `girls' are happily looking for bugs and worms on the other side of the fence and so I had their company, and their contented low clucking filled my ears. Now and then they come and watch what I'm doing; `anything in that seed packet for me?'; `a plastic bag! Oh the excitement! Any food in it for us?'
Slowly the compost bins are adding to the soil in the best way, and I added a new row of old bricks left here thoughtfully by the old owners 24 years ago. Extra soil from the hen run added more still, on the higher side where the soil is still too shallow; and wood mulch from a huge heap was used to form a topping for the central path.
What to plant? Broad beans - so in go some tea tree stakes, cut from the property, rustic and gnarled, for supports (I'll add string as they grow); and tall wigwams of tea tree stakes for tall-growing snow peas.
It's Easter Sunday so I can't buy veg seedlings, but let's see what seeds I've got in the cupboard.
Let me just say (as I often do) - I care about colour - in the house, and in the garden - passionately. (Especially in the garden, where you can make magical pictures. I also need to mention that those ruby chard (below) weren't planted willy nilly; no, they were placed first burgundy, then candy-pink, then softest-pink in a swish of rainbow colour.)
In the box I found my seeds of `Crimson-flowered Broad Bean' I'd bought from the Diggers Company some time ago; a strong pink with burgundy (below) are the colours I attribute to these flowers. (I don't mind double podding the beans now and then in front of the TV news.) But how did I forget the `Purple Podded Dutch Pea' (top, with `purple-pink flowers followed by purple pods with green peas inside') also from Diggers? I saw this plant at (Digger's) Heronswood last spring - with my sisters - and was delighted, at the time, to discover that they sold seeds of it. With both these precious cultivars, I could only bear to plant seeds from one each of my 2 packets of seeds. (The purple peas (`Dutch Pea') need podding - something I swore I'd never do again as I left the familial home at 19. I think I'll write to UK seed company Chiltern Seeds for their pea `Shiraz', a snow pea with `very dark purple pods' - and purple flowers. No podding (or cooking that turns the pods from dark amethyst to jade) - and how great will this look in a salad!)
I have `Red Russian Kale' (last picture) growing in the garden; I grew it from seed that I imported a while ago along with 3 other varieties (`Dwarf Green Curled', `Scarlet' and `Winterbor' from Chiltern Seeds). It's more pinkish-purple than red, a handsome plant climbing to higher than a metre. I collect quite a lot of seed from the veg garden so it shouldn't have been a surprise to find home-collected seed of this `red' kale. The surprise was my reaction: a little wave of joy. Because I can make a garden picture with all these plants...
and then...while looking for purple-sprouting broccoli `Santee' plants in another bed (found only one, which I'll cut back hard and transplant) to add, to my astonishment (how did I forget this, it can't be a second childhood, not quite, I'm only just over 50) I discovered some gleaming pink-purple Brussels sprouts called `Tasty Red' (below), probably from one plant (which is all I'd plant; J is not a put it mildly), but shaded by Jerusalem artichokes and fallen over, and forming roots where it's touched the ground, and so now I have 6 little plants for my new pink and purple veg patch, cut back hard and looking like fat little candy sticks in a neat curve.
(The label shows Brussels sprouts more red than green but the leaves are green and the leaf veins and tiny heads I'm looking at are purple - what's going on? - and what's in a name? I think the word `red' is short and sharp, an easy moniker to sell. But as well, I think the majority of straight men aren't passionate about colour or aren't good at describing colours...and for some consumers it's a problem. Again and again, I buy a plant (for example) labelled `Ruby [insert interesting word]' to be disappointed with brown flowers (I kid you not) or a dull red or blood red, which scream horribly with my pink, raspberry, cherry and plum tones in the raspberry and silver bed. And recently I gave a talk about bulbs, with a good question afterwards about monbretia (Crocosmia)...but the man asked me about `the red flower you see everywhere in the Dandenong Ranges, like a weed'; yes, orange monbretia, it can be termed no other colour, even by me, who sees red very strongly, and blanches at the sight of a red coat. Please, men, think about colour more carefully!)
So there's four plants with some pink in their stems or flowers, and three with purple in stems, sprouts, flowers or pods.
Too much? Well, there's an edging of dwarf curly kale (below) as well (or will be - from a sowing of home-collected seed, so fresh it germinates beautifully and a variety I like in our frequent omelettes) and normal leeks (are there purple ones? Probably not) between the pea wig-wams, planted in the easiest way imaginable: by placing a mature seed head (from a nearby gone-to-seed leek plant) onto the soil and giving it a scrunch; that's my kind of lazy gardening. There's also some `ordinary' green snow peas. (Two varieties of peas sown just increases the chances of germination and peas to eat sooner, I reckon.) The leaves of the ruby chard are a deep, almost forest green to tie it all down.
Later, I am chatting to 3 relatives and my mind wanders. Suddenly I have an idea that's maybe been niggling at the edges of my thoughts all day. Chives! Ordinary chives have mauve flowers in those pretty globe-shaped heads (second picture). (Garlic chives have white flowers and won't work here for the effect I want.)  Have I got room for chives as well? Let's push back the leek seeds and pop in some chive seedlings nearer the front along here. 
As I dig I collect old buried seed labels, and I see `Mustard Greens' written on one, and my mind sees the handsome green leaves, made bronze-purple where the sun's rays touch them - too dark?; and is the 4m by 2.5m veg bed getting mighty full? Heck, yes. Maybe for another bed another time. Perhaps one with near-black Tuscan Kale, and red or orange flowers. 
I'm happy with my little plan.
A feast for the eyes and the taste buds in green, pink and purple. And, oh, how satisfying.

I can't stuff another plant in; even though I'm tempted as I find in a catalogue: red raddichio and `red' oak-leaf lettuce (both perhaps too red/russet) and carrot `Deep Purple' which `retains its deep colour all the way through to the to the core' (would the colour bleed up to the leaf stalks? Probably). Let's not forget how lovely eggplants, opal basil and purple beans would be, too, if this wasn't a winter planting. Purple-bronze dill, too, if it wasn't a weedy plant here.
Or can I? Cardoon (globe artichoke) `Rouge d'Alger' (`Heirloom') with blushing stalks (and silver leaves for accent and those purple flowers too) is just too to the seed merchant. (Or will just the one or three plants I can squash in look silly?) Diggers, too, sell seeds of `Purple Artichoke' `from Northern Italy...[with] fat fleshy hearts' of pink-violet and green.
This sounds like the edible garden is going to be thought out far more carefully in future, doesn't it? J sighs a little as he realises that of course, in future, the veg garden always has to be beautiful. No, I say, just pretty. 
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 (