Thursday, 29 September 2016

Impossible Plants

I have gotten myself in a pickle.
It seemed so simple - dig up a couple of seedlings for my nieces - `the one plant they wanted to remember Granny by' said my sister - the Forget-Me-Not. (It was autumn and I was digging up a couple of tiny plants in Mum's garden for my sister, just after Dad sold the place.) I potted up 4 little plants, they all grew and one has put out stems with pale blue flowers - flowers that produce numbers of seeds, sticky seeds that attach to clothing, move to other locations...the perfect weed, in other words.
(And J works in...conservation.)

So why did Mum grow these? She loved the haze of soft blue they'd confer around the bulbs and above the old bulb foliage right through spring, in the front half of her country garden, on the outskirts of Emerald in the Dandenong Ranges. She used to say that they were easy to pull out and they were...but there were always legions of seeds in the soil, ready to germinate, so they were...pesky if you didn't want them. And her neighbour didn't. They were separated, rural-style (happy-days!) by a rough fence of wire (chicken wire?) so the seeds spread madly, of course. When the neighbour moved, it's not too surprising that the new one erected a suburban-style paling fence which gave privacy and would - whether they knew it or not - stop progress of weed seeds considerably.
But with paling fences, neatness, and that relentless cutting down of gum trees and the like, why, oh why, do the Dandenong's continue to become ever more suburban?
(Warning! Soap Box! Gum trees just aren't neat - accept it! (But they're so often the beautiful manna gum with snow-white trunk above a rough base; grey gum with smoky-ghost trunk or, as we have, those silver-grey gums with mature foliage so silver-blue that they're just - sensational.) Stop raking!

Must we clear every bush, raze every tree, trim every grass - or - there's 2 options: accept our natural beauty and take precautions; or move (back) to town. I have read people proposing, ludicrously, that every gum tree in the hills should be razed! - and I say: where do the lyre birds go to live?

I admit I've got that frequently seen human gene to try to be neat - but I limit it to the house and the garden (to a point - while still trying to commit to Mirabel Osler's `Gentle Plea for Chaos' (1989), too. I want my garden to look closer to a meadow than a series of plant specimens). The bushland needs mess or where do the insects live? - those insects that birds need for their protein intake. OK, off the soapbox.)
Completely different - in a terrific way - were the gardens around a group of houses in Castlemaine I saw recently, designed by Sam Cox: gently native - only occasional large domed stones reaching out from the soil, local plants, and wattles all gold. What I admired most were the lack of paling fences despite the normal, suburban size of the properties; privacy was conferred by plantings of shrubs giving a delicate look, and a taller effect to boot. And I fell in love with Nodding Blue Lily (Stypandra glauca) (another rare, true blue)! I was also impressed with the lack of nature strips - Sam discussed this with the shire, and created a couple of gravel spaces for car parking, with the result being more garden. Grape vine pergolas, gravel areas for sitting, vegetable patches (and only one small patch of lawn) were common themes. But other than productive plants, native plants seemed to be de rigueur.
Forget-Me-Nots would probably not be welcome here.
Nor at my home.
What to do?
I asked my Dad, who is 92, and pretty darn clever: do I give these plants to my nieces (upsetting J) or other plants Mum loved (maybe hellebores)? `Both!' he says without hesitation.
But I can't do it.
I hide the little plants of Forget-Me-Nots so when I'm giving my sister the plants I dug up in Mum's garden and potted for her - Solomon's Seal, nerines in 3 or more colours, lemon wild iris (Dietes), black mondo grass, a columbine and a foxglove - I cravenly Forget-Me-Do (sorry) - and feel a bit guilty for approximately 12 hours - and then, miraculously, I'm let off the hook. I go to stay with my sister, give a little garden advice, and darn it, she has a Forget-Me-Not growing in one of her pots - that I haven't given her.
It may be weedy for her, but it will also give her that haze of porcelain-blue in spring. (From it she'll all-too-quickly get offspring for her daughters.)
And remind us of our mother's garden - all too well.
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, 23 September 2016

Garden of Birds

A Mecca for birds? - well, I like to think that my garden welcomes all the little ones: fairy wrens that take cobwebs for their nests (a win-win all round); yellow robins following me as I dig in the veg garden; and red browed finches and white-browed scrub-wrens that hop through my little circle of lawn seeking grass seed. Not to forget tree creepers and the honeyeaters that come to the salvias throughout much of the garden. They all bathe in the numerous birdbaths, skipping through the upended wire hanging-basket baskets (that keep out Mr Blackbird) with ease; the tree creepers seem to walk in backwards.
There's also the pretty bantam hens, just starting to lay well again.
But there's also an avian theme in the garden which is, of course, not there by chance. I really do love birds. (They say you don't miss what you've never had; but I have darn bad eye sight. How I wish I could see birds in flight, especially the little ones! They are just grey spots to me. But planting the right plants and adding birdbaths brings many birds near the windows, so I am not complaining.)

In the garden we are lucky enough to have a sandstone kookaburra (made by Folko Kooper, before he became famous), surrounded by a big evergreen shrubby Garrya with its pale jade tassel-flowers in winter and double white hellebores at her feet. (Oddly, my sandstone kookaburra has no name but `kooka'. I think she was my present from J when I turned 40; I love those milestones!)
In 2013 more birds flew into the garden - and roosted. For my half century J gave me a wonderful patinated repouss√© copper creature, flying, twirling, almost duck-like, we call Lucy (above). Lucy is a creation of the wonderful artist Daniel Jenkins - she has delicate ribbons in place of mane, wings, and tail; silvery, fantastical. Turning with the winds, she is somehow perfectly reflecting, almost replicating, rippling grey leaves of our nicest nearby gums, the silver grey gums. (Daniel made a sculpture – only superficially similar - that my parents enjoyed in their garden for over 20 years. As they called theirs `Leunix’ (a pet name combining a phoenix and revered cartoonist Michael Leunig), so did we until she was ours and then...she was shortened, of course. Ours is arguably more aquatic and is delightfully curly - but I think of her as a bird.) (Read more on post 13/4/13.) Lucy usually has salvias under her (hiding her spike) but this second picture of her (below) is from one or two years ago when I decided to paint the tree dahlia circle, after the cold weather had cramped their style, into `blue poles'.
Soon afterwards I gave J a crazy flying duck windvane (below)(which I have called Luigi; J hasn't agreed to this name); a  magnificent duck, out of control; most of all he is handsome and, important to J (I think), in the subdued colour to be expected of copper. Sculptor Jim Curry makes pieces of great charm and whimsy (read more on post 9/6/13), and our smirking duck is near our entrance, along with many pots, and probably way too many features (like my red-high-heels-and-Echeveria-plants). But Luigi was more than just a present to J; it was also a tribute to my darling sister Caroline who would, I think, have loved it.
Luckily keeping this garden colour palette to yellow and blue flowers, and structured with a row of paired vegetable balls, so to speak, has simplified this area...a little. I have planted Pittosporum tobira next to Luigi's metal post to disguise it, the perfect height, and we'll enjoy the perfume of the spring flowers...but I'm impatient with its understandably slow growth in the clay soil. So I'm going to add two clematis to train up the pole: C. macropetala `Pauline' (double blue flowers in spring) and golden-yellow C. tangutica (lovely single flowers from late summer to autumn) - the latter a plant I've been given by a friend.
Large birds may scare away the little ones; and sulphur-crested cockatoos - those nibblers of cedar houses (like our cottage) - are not welcome here; but it's hard not to feel affection for kookaburras - real ones - with their likeness to their diminutive relations, the kingfishers; their jovial, raucous call; and their head on one side as they listen hard for prey to find and wolf down (if they are a raptor, they're probably my favourite). Maybe too, if you grow up as a child in Australia - and, importantly, visit the bush (and leave the screens behind!) - you encounter that laugh along with gum tree leaf fragrance and either can bring you to tears if you've been gone away too long.
So a kookaburra landing on Lucy was a welcome sight. I'm still planning and planting ever more Correas (native fuchsia) for the cool months and Salvias for the warm months for honey eaters (above) by the house. And right now I'm off to find an old hat - J has thrown out his precious old hat-nest that the white-browed scrub-wrens nested in, by the back door last spring. This one I will try to make a little more robust in spring gales and husband tidy-ups.
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, 10 September 2016

Tree Peony Developments

The circus has come to town; the brass band is playing its jauntiest tune. The big fat cymbal-clashing trumpet-blowing moment has come on a windy sunny bright spring day, all gusts and blustery and warm get the picture, I was pretty excited that a metre-high stick was alive (alive!), sprouted leaves and now covered in luscious white blooms. We're talking Mum's tree peony again (Paeonia suffruticosa, or Moutan (or Mudan (which means `male red' in its home of China where it's been used in gardens since around the 4th century but in medicine for longer)), and counting the annual growth spurts, it's about 35 years old. But I'm still pinching myself that this huge branch (with its little rootball attached) has not just survived the move - luckily in the cool months - but thrived, developing 9 fat buds with these five fine satin-sheen flowers opening on a day warm enough to be Melbourne Cup Day.

Mum loved to sit in her comfortable chair and gaze at her flowering peony (as elderly Chinese gentlemen were wont to do, gardening legends have it), its silky milk-white petals opening to show the crimson blotches, lordly, not ugly little marks like the blemishes on most Cistus, but lovely, proportional features rendering this aristocrat ever more elegant.

Maybe I need to pop a chair near this magnificent plant...and sit...with gratitude.
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 (