Friday, 24 March 2017

Delightful Dahlias

Near my front door I have a few pots, just now, with engine-red flowers, that I feel say `Hello and Welcome'.
These are the ubiquitous 'Bishop of Llandaff' and I probably just bought one of its tubers years ago, and now they have multiplied and I have 3 huge pots of these near the front door. (Five - I just split the tubers apart in one, and repotted into 3 pots - normally done in winter.) `Self-supporting' (I'm no fan of staking) at about 1.5m high, the bright red flowers contrast so well with its anthracitic foliage and with all the surrounding green foliage. I love them and I'm not usually a fan of red, so what's going on? I think it's partly the sweet shape of the single flowers, and their perfect size and their height. But I think it's also that, just like in winter (only more so), Australian summers are a severe season for plants, and any Joie de Vivre Is welcomed. Luckily these red flowers are just far enough from the sun-and-sky (yellow and blue) bed and the silver and raspberry-colour bed to not swear terribly.
Is that important?
Heck, yes.

But...wouldn't yellow ones look better - being near the dwarf sunny ones along the front path edge? Ones with the same height as 'Bishop of Llandaff', and lovely, simple, sweetly-shaped flowers. (There was a dahlia show recently and I popped in for a quick look - to be impressed by the range of flower sizes; remembering the dinner plate-size blooms vaguely (not my thing) but enjoying seeing the mini-bloom varieties.) Clear yellow - no suffusing with apricot please - and that dark foliage would be welcome. I aim to buy one in a pot to be certain that I get one with the height I'm after (I want it to look me in the eyes), and multiply the tubers over time to give me several pots-worth and lots of welcoming faces near the front door.
Next week I'll be looking out for the perfect one at the Melbourne Flower Show when I go with my sister (unless I see one in a nursery earlier, but I am expecting the specialists at the show to have the greatest range).
We have fun together at the show, S and I, although this year she says that she has no room in her city garden for more bulbs - or plants, for that matter. I, however, have a country garden...and, so far, space for more plants. (Lucky me.) I'll get there early, to see the gardens before the crowds (I hope), then S and I love looking at the bulb nurseries. She likes dahlias too, so I will be able to do that sister thing - `do you like this one?' which I can't summon up interest for in fashion shops, but boy do I like doing it at plant nurseries.
That's my kind of shopping.

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, 17 March 2017

Just Us Girls


A large, male black wallaby (or black-tail swamp wallaby, as I still like to think of them) called our patch of bushland his home when J & I started building our cottage 25 years ago. A few years later a female, that I like to think is, or was, his daughter took over the patch, eating my camellias and cranesbills and imported (expensive!) Epimedium (and everything else, too). Every spring we'd see a young head crown and disappear, then the new joey would hop in and out of her homely pouch as it grew.
The mature wallaby would wander the garden, munching, cocking an ear, wondering if crazy lady would run & flap arms today - or take photos of her. At last, 2 years (& 5 months) ago, the wallaby-proof fence around the garden resolved the political situation nicely: ½ acre garden for me, a few acres of bushland for her. Sounds fair; and no more crazy lady. Now we can walk to our cars and our resident wallaby barely looks up from grazing nearby. It's partly having no dogs, of course, or we wouldn't see her at all. But we do see her, `mowing' grass by our gates, every day; and we love it.

Down along the creek bed there's an old wombattery but wombats are rarely seen these days - so it's a joy to welcome a wild creature that's either new resident or regular visitor to the home patch. `Spike' is an enormous echidna who is the first one I've known to not curl in a ball, but to march towards me trustingly. (Perhaps with age, it has poor sense of smell; I hope not.) Its huge muscular limbs get him/her up and down our hill with amazing ease, plodding, but indefatigably; I've never observed one so close! There's loads of ants in the garden so he/she seems to come through when he/she needs a snack, and his/her minimal disturbances of the garden are a bit of a calling card that make me smile. (On the other hand, tall mud yabby holes, like chimneys, and rather plentiful, are a bit of an acquired taste...which I am trying, hard, to acquire.)

By the back door I am growing lettuces in 4 large pots which need frequent watering and there must be some residual, useful water left lying about (my theory), and maybe some slugs about (J's excellent theory), which have attracted an antechinus to call this area home. These are sweet-looking native mice (carnivorous marsupials, really) that are famous for, well, having lots of sex in spring; then the males die off; so, the theory goes, there's more food for females and young in the dry summer months. So ours must be female. She darts about, with a tail nearly 20cm long, defying any chance of photography. (We've called her `Scamp'.)
Russel, our resident rustling blue-tongue lizard has not been seen of late but skinks are still fairly common, sunning themselves on warm paving, and whisking themselves away as you approach.
Recently, J spent a night away from home and in the morning I was heading to my car when `our' wallaby just stayed nearby, munching indigenous bushes (thank you, less bushfire danger) in an act, it felt, of solidarity. Of companionability. And I thought: `it's just us girls'; I quite like that - for no good reason whatsoever.
My hens (all girls) give me this companionability, too, when I'm planting in the veg patch, and they are 50cm away, on the other side of the wire, clucking happily it seems to me, as they scratch and find food, but move towards food-lady...just in case she tosses something interesting their way.
On International Women's Day this week an Imperial Jezebel (or Imperial White) butterfly (last pic) sat obligingly on a white dahlia in the garden, as I took photos of her. (Or him - J's opinion.) J's seen a large white butterfly meandering through the garden, which could be this beauty, with its extraordinarily colourful underside.
`Our' current wallaby is less nervous of me (which makes it seem likely he/she is new)...and I didn't see a joey last spring. Maybe she's having a rest. (Good for her.) Or...maybe she died and a new male has taken over the patch. If so...I'll miss seeing those joeys growing up each spring. Even `teenager' (as we unscientifically called a year-old joey) teaching a young joey how to get under my wallaby-deterrent fence, as it was then, to munch the garden. (At last, I can smile about it. And tell you the 3 - yes three - species of plant they don't eat.)
Yes, females can be interesting.
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, 10 March 2017

Spring-like Snow in Summer

Summer heat has arrived but the local native shrubs, the indigenous plants, are still bedecked in lacy, white spring garb. (I have enjoyed this spring-like weather so much; plants, too, are growing, and flowering, like never before.) Tiny white myrtaceous flowers of prickly teatree and `cauliflower' heads of Cassinia are having a renaissance; Daisy Bush (Olearia) flowering a little but Bursaria (below) covered in its trademark odd triangular branches of flowers, but blooming more heavily than ever before (thank you rain!).
All this in mid-summer.

Add to this a favourite tree along our creek: Victorian Christmas Bush (Prostanthera lasianthos) which is covered in blossom of little white flowers touched with tiny purple and orange dots. The latter is an interesting case, as we mark our 25th year here in the Dandenong Ranges. Prostanthera lasianthos flowers at Christmas time, hence the common moniker, but of late it's begun to flower earlier and earlier, starting in November instead of late December. (Climate Change surely.) How odd, this cool spring/summer, to have it behave normally! Well, not quite. Flowering at Yule-tide, sure, but still covered in blossom 2 weeks later, with no hot winds blowing away the delicate blooms.
Until now, we've had rain every 3 days or more often (or it feels like it). A concerned brother asks me about the fire danger in my beloved Dandenong Ranges. How lucky am I, to say that, like my plants, the danger/heat doesn't seem here yet (although we've checked our dam pump, moved the door mats (replaced with the summer non-flammable ones) and so on. We leave on `severe' and worse days, early).
It's mid-February and the Bursaria flowers are still a lovely clean white; and with surprisingly few days of hot winds, the tree ferns on the roadsides are emerald-green with no edges burning off. Extraordinary.
Of course it's a different story to our north where extreme heat has led to bush fires in NSW. We are still - so far - very lucky in the Dandenong's east of Melbourne: rain at times, and few days of real heat - and doesn't the garden know it. We still have some clematis flowering (amazing!), roses, and early rain lilies (Zephyranthes) as well as what you'd expect: salvias (blues, purples, pinks), dahlias (all single: dwarf white and yellow; self supporting red ('Bishop of Llandaff')), tall white summer hyacinth (Galtonia candicans) and buds of Urginea maritima or sea squill (now Drimia maritima), that fabulous tall spire of little starry white flowers.
Bursaria flowers may be past their bridal best but Cassinias (third pic) have renewed their spring adornments; Banksias too; it's all topsy turvy. I was striding along Melbourne's central business streets on Sunday with my sisters and noticed the oddly, wonderfully green, not-tattered leaves of the street trees; what it's like when there's so few hot winds. At home some of the roses are still throwing out glorious flowers, and the Urginea/ Drimia maritima are looking handsomely stately.
Spring and summer have been slowed and blurred.
Today the garnet penstemons have all come out at once, with a cheeriness and here-I-am, so much better than the good manners of the demure mauve one (`Sour Grapes', I think), which is dull, quiet, and oh-so-boring. I must pull it out, every last one of it.
Seeding now are the snowy Galtonias (left) which Mum told me, for years, were in my older sister C's wedding bouquet (on 19th January) and now I wonder - did Mum make up C's bouquet?
Another white bulb is a dwarf, single dahlia (top); flowering exuberantly for months here and there in the garden - especially in this summer of moderate temperature and the rain that's like in its home climate of Mexico. 
The clematis are slowing down, of course, but still some blooms are out. And the cyclamen are just gearing up to go.
Loving it.
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 (

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Two Lovely Floral Gentlemen...and twenty thousand million flowers (approximately).

No, this isn't metaphorical.
I've recently given 2 talks to garden clubs, both to people I'm pretty comfortable with (the first (on `Country Gardens' to my mum's old garden club); the second on `Anemone' (or Windflowers) to my own friendly club, the Alpine Garden Society), and on both occasions I came away with darn special plants that two lovely, dear men had grown and given me (or the group) as presents.
On Saturday night it was this sweet, dwarf Colchicum parlatoris (top), less than 3cm high, and adorable. A plant I don't want to lose in the hurly-burly of the garden - so it's perfect for one of my troughs. (And the group is making more troughs next month! Excellent!) A bulb (or corm, really) from Greece, so hopefully fairly tough and easy to keep.
Out of left field, the other plant (Creeping Monkey-Flower (Mimulus repens), above), from my friend F, was a total surprise (as I didn't know it was in cultivation) and a delight - rare (I think) and reminding me of a camping holiday with J in spring, 2009 through outback NSW. I wrote about it for the club journal (how labour is rewarded!):
` Outback NSW in early spring 2009:
Beyond the black stump in `Pring’ (if you believe Australia has 5 or 7 seasons); or, technically, `Back of Bourke’ in August and September, a season of its own – my favourite – when the garden holds its breath in anticipation of the glorious spring to come. We drove from Melbourne, via Mildura, to outback NSW with a tent, 2 collapsible chairs, many litres of water and a (borrowed) satellite phone. Who needs more? Oh, and binoculars because this was meant to be a trip to see Birds.
After much driving our car broke down just outside Tibooburra, within spitting distance of Sturt National Park in the north-west `Corner Country’ and we had just traversed 300 km of rough roads a third time, south, to have our car fixed in Broken Hill.
After a hefty dose of Art we progressed to the great  outdoors. And great it was. We headed east and out past White Cliffs to Lake Peeri (sic; it had 3 spellings according to different maps). This place was blissful and our highlight, for John saw birds aplenty and I overdosed (pleasurably) on flowers. We stepped out of the car and saw gray trees amid a smear of aqua over a sea of purple. As we approached, the aqua resolved into Lake Peeri while the purple carpet was, amazingly, a huge field of flowering Creeping Monkey-Flower, Mimulus repens (see photos). We identified these flowers with the assistance of Joanne, a local Parks officer who told us of the lake’s filling 18 months before, and the flowers were appearing as usual as the lake receded. With perhaps 2 square kilometres of flowers at more than 1 bloom per square cm, we were seeing over twenty thousand million flowers of mauve, yellow and white. (Appropriately, the lake had started to fill on 14th February, 2008; how serendipitous!) After lunch in the shade, disturbed only by a mildly curious emu, I read a novel for 2 hours while John enjoyed the birds: pelicans, corellas and various water birds. A possible sighting of Pink-eared ducks. True bliss.
Then we slowly meandered southwards, relishing the red soil through most of this area of mallee but not liking so much the small patches of gray: dusty gray soil, gray plants and gray buildings. We wandered through Paroo-Darling National Park, Lake Menindee and Mungo National all we saw at least 5 different sheets of wildflowers. In Paroo-Darling we found white paper daisies (possibly Rhodanthe, but hard to key out) with occasional starry blue, tall Whalenbergias. Rather Goodenia-like were yellow Velleias (new to me), white strawflowers (possibly Chrysocephalum) and lastly, as we approached Victoria, bright pink Pigface (Disphyma) which contrasted gloriously with the surrounding dull gray low-growing shrublets.
I was also excited to see Sturt’s Desert Pea (Swainsonia formosa) and another highlight was the sculptures in the Broken Hill and Living Desert Sanctuary, but best of all were the many birds, animals and sleepy lizards. And the flowers were nice.'
Sheets of wildflowers are a glorious sight in the wild; no wonder people replicate meadows and scatter seeds. The randomness has its charm and beauty; the simple colours give great effects.
How often, in my travels, have I thought, I'd love to grow that plant, achieve that effect, in my garden...but I thought I'd grown out of it, and learnt to appreciate nature, and `leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs'  as they wisely say. Even taking a few seeds can seem irresponsible, sometimes (or often).
And who knew that this Mimulus could grow in Melbourne?
And that my friend F would buy it, watch it grow, and pot up a piece for me, just when I'd give a talk to our group?
And what a wonderful gift, to remind me of a very special holiday?
I ask him for advice immediately! - and he says the plant needs sun, and moisture - so I'll keep it in a pot for now, near the front door, watered frequently, and watch for flower buds.
And don't I envy those lucky people in the Alpine Garden Society (and other garden clubs) who can remember (it seems) every plant name there is?
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 (