Saturday, 22 April 2017

Purple Haze

You know those happy chances, where plants conspire, it seems,  to flower all at once with colours complementing perfectly, in a way you couldn't have planned?
As I look out from my kitchen window, on this cold wet autumn day, over the path I'm seeing one of these little vignettes that give such joy. The flowers are purple, but all in different shades and tints.

Uphill is a large shrub: chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus, below), which is covered, just now, in tiny pale lilac flowers. Just below this is a perennial daisy on tall, firmly vertical stalks: purple Boltonia (last pic), which is oh-so-slowly forming a good clump, with intense shots of purple.

Next to this is one of my favourite of the ornamental sages, Salvia `Waverley': soft-lilac and purple blooms on a subshrub that doesn't spread (some salvias spread just a little too enthusiastically), along with a pelargonium I really like: one that tolerates half-shade, with leaves of silver-green, soft velvet, not dull, plebeian, rough felt (like many pelargoniums (or "geranium" in the Australian vernacular)). I have no idea of its name, but I love its effect: the handsome leaves year-round; the contrast to the flowers; the `volume' when some of the perennials slumber in winter (gardens need space and voids and volume).
There's a bit of a gap and I know exactly what is needed here: good old Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha, above): solid purple flowers that seem to be made of velvet. There's one further along the path and a couple more will - come next April - add some panache and continuity.
Well, that's the plan.
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, 14 April 2017

Autumn bulbs (remind me of Mum).

From dainty-looking ivy-leaf cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium, above), to  flamboyant white belladonna lilies (Amaryllis belladonna alba), for me, autumn bulbs each have a story to tell.
Mum used to tell me that she bought her first cyclamen tuber around 1960 or 1961 and from the 1980's on had a great sweep of them, under deciduous trees, along her drive. After a while, ants spread the seeds to the nearby lawn so the beautiful leaves were turning up everywhere - to Dad's dismay.
At Macedon Joan Law-Smith grew it in ''sheets of pink and white'' at her wonderful garden at Bolobek. She once described the autumn-flowering C. hederifolium, with its dark green leaf and silver mottling, as ''a perfect example of nature's artistry in matching leaf to flower...No two are alike in size, shape or colour."
Both Mum and I grew cyclamen species from seed (mainly from the UK) to get a range that would give us flowers over a long period. In my 20's I read `The Urban Woodland' (1986)  by Suzanne Price, in which she describes cyclamen flowering year-round (in SE Australia) by growing C. hederifolium blooming in autumn, C. coum in winter, C. persicum in spring and C. purpurescens in summer - although I prefer C. repandum for spring flowers. I grow C. purpurescens by the front door and visitors (if gardeners) are often puzzled by the summer flowers; occasionally I get a non-gardener saying `I've got that' and I can't help but reply, about this rarity, `really, are you sure?' Most (of the plants, not the visitors) have patterned leaves that are very, very pretty - and (for this species) evergreen.
Just now my Cyclamen hederifolium are starting to bloom really well, while my white belladonna lilies have finished for the season.

I had just started to really enjoy gardening in my early or mid-twenties when I visited a bulb farm in Gembrook, not too far from my parents new home in Emerald in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne. It was March 14th, my mother's birthday, and I bought 2 of these white belladonna lilies (above) - rare or uncommon bulbs - then, anyhow - (one for me, one for her) and was thrilled when the delightful farmer dug them up and left attached the perfect flowers, in enormous umbels, a heavy bunch on each stalk. I think he enjoyed my enthusiasm, too.
Most bulbs multiply well, which is part of their charm.
I tried counting my bulbs the other day. I'd picked 2 bunches at different times to enjoy inside and this left about 2 dozen flowering size bulbs (and many smaller). A good friend would be offering them around but I won't on two grounds: they are very top-heavy, making the pink one look elegant by comparison. I'll share that one. But also: I am using my white belladonna lilies for a massed effect, so I need the numbers. (Do other (lucky) owners of country gardens feel like this?) I love to share my garden plants, but some things I can't spare. (But I do give away hellebores, iris and obedient plant constantly.)

I still remember that day around 1988 driving into `Patnitop', as Mum and Dad called their property (after a mountain pass they loved in Kashmir), opening the boot, and delighting Mum with her showy birthday present, also called Amaryllis belladonna alba, with its heady sweet scent.

Then Dad sold `Patnitop' last year and we were allowed to dig up just a few of her bulbs - and it was autumn (see post 23/4/16).
My sister R 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 we oh-so carefully kept our unearthed treasures separate and labelled).
I've never had much success with nerines (yes, I know: the bulbs need the necks exposed, they need full sun, and the bulbs flower best when crowded). But Mum not only grew them well, but her magic lived on for several years and even into my garden - many are in bud, or flowering, now, despite my thinking a year ago - `should I really take these? - they won't do well!' It really feels like a bit of her green thumb wizardry is in the garden now that these are flowering. Some are bright raspberry pink, but with delicate slim petals that in no way dominate. They just add the tiniest spot of colour to the raspberry-and-silver bed, just as its perennials wind down with the cooler weather. Red ones (Nerine `Fothergilla Major', above) are further from the house but also add that welcome splash or dash of colour.
But what is this magic of Mum's gardening, that made nerines flower?
Well, Mum took her gardening seriously. (Plus she had good mountain soil.)
Maybe I just need to fertilise more regularly, garden, not just play and tinker.
There's a thought.
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 (

Thursday, 6 April 2017

MIFGS 2017 - and More on Dahlias

Is there anything better than visiting a garden with a beloved sister? (Probably not.) Maybe going to a garden show, and looking at rare bulbs together? (Pretty darn good.) Or...looking at show gardens together at MIFGS - better than usual this year, don't you think? - and finding that you love the same ones, and heartily dislike the (one and only) same one; then investigating the rare bulb nursery stalls, each of us purchasing a few essentials - after a cup of coffee. (Well, no. It doesn't get much better.)
Last Friday was cool but dry when I met up with S at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. I ignore the cut flowers and race to the show gardens to take photos - before the crowds build up, and it still feels friendly, and less claustrophobic (but nothing on Chelsea). This year many had really lovely watery effects but our favourite was simple and understated, by MPF Garden Co. (above), based on the 4 elements: air, earth, fire and water, with a twirling stainless steel sculpture (air) (by The Garden Element) and perfumed plant material: massed gardenias and star jasmine.
Another outstanding garden, with two black oblong infinity pools and deflated box balls, was `The Husqvarna Garden' (above) by Inspired Exteriors. We liked the soft perennials emerging around the squashed, box balls which changes the intent, the atmosphere, of the garden markedly.

(I could see both these garden, too - they weren't perched up high, like many show gardens, with burbling water above my eye line (or that of any child, and many other women). This was my gripe last year too, this inaccessibility. Should all gardens be amenable to the wheelchair-bound? To the old and short, like I'm starting, at last, to feel? (I'm 158cm (or 5'2") high.)
Please, landscapers, take a step back, sit on a chair, and assess. We want to see your creation, enjoy your magnificent vision, all of it. (And we've paid a bit to get in, too.) But full marks to the young landscaper who encouraged us to step up - one step of eight - to see more.)

The huge green bamboo stakes at the front of `Illusory Forest' (Taylor Brammer Landscape Architects) created a semi-transparent wall so, surprisingly, I needed to go to the side to see the path properly to understand the layout...and I liked this garden that needed a little more work, that didn't lay itself open to the gaze too easily. And it used my word - `coolth'! - that precious feeling, so hard to achieve, so fleeting in summer.
Colour schemes were fine this year; often simple, elegant and understated; my favourite this year was in the award-winning garden `Let's Talk Plants' (below) by Phillip Withers Landscape Design, with silver, grey, blue-grey, orange, bronze and pale apricot.
`Achievable gardens' designed by students were of a high standard this year. I loved "`Twitter' - A Social Media Garden" (by Kazimirs Krasovskis) while my sister (a chef) was impressed that so many contained wine glasses, and good places for them. (Are students drinking wine with their smashed avocado? The cheek! I jest.) She also loved the (mermaid) tea garden (Anthony Coyle) containing many plants - like lemon verbena - that you can make a tea with.
The Award of Excellence here went to `Awash with Nature' (Johnson, Peck and Beale, above) which showed deep-seated values (encouraging nature with its elegant insect hotel and plant choices; sustainability, recycling and reuse), simplicity and panache. More eclectic, even funky, but with that same ethos, was `The Four R's' (`fun, reduce, reuse and recycle' with `one letter [changed]', below) by Paul Morland, with colourful city panels, gambion panel-seats, a central round fire feature and a boab tree - all in perfect proportion.
But first I'd shown S the little pots of dahlias I'd just bought (Dahlia `Mystic Dreamer': softly pink, either 30cm or hopefully a bit taller (who knew which label to believe?), over dusky foliage) (top; already planted in the raspberry-and-silver bed (now all colours of a summer pudding)); then we raided the rare bulb nurseries (`I've wanted green Galtonias for years!' and so on. I give lots of (solicited) advice on what to plant where to this sister who loves gardening too). A chat over lunch, more gardens, more nurseries, then it's time to beat the peak-hour traffic home - just.
Lots to plant on the weekend...and lots to think about.
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 (

Monday, 3 April 2017

Oh Dear, Candy-Pink Dahlias

When is a bargain not a bargain?
We-ell...I pounced on these dwarf dahlias in a nursery in early to mid-summer, and did something most uncharacteristic.
I bargained. What! Well, the tubers were very dessicated; at least one (in the pack of 3) was dead, and I thought I could resuscitate the others. Most of all - of course - I liked the colour on the packet: deep rose pink; and the variety - `Minikin Rose' - is a pretty single one with outward-facing (not drooping) flowers and was 35cm height: perfect for near the front in my silver-and-raspberry-coloured garden bed. Or Not.

So I plant and water my bargains, and underground the tubers swell with the moisture, then put up stems, leaves, buds, flowers...of bright candy-pink, garish.
Hideous, surely, wherever I put them? Near silver foliage? Nope. Amongst penstemons, half-hidden? Nup. In pots, to brighten up an area...only to scare away the sensitive eye seeking pictures in the garden, I'm sure.

Can you, ethically, give away a plant you hate, but someone else might like? Or, perhaps it's morally wrong to toss away a plant someone might like, wasting it. (I've done this: `You threw out pink lily-of-the-valley?' - wistfully spoken.) Plus, just because I think it's a hideous pink, I do get surprised at the high level of liking, no, love, for pink by some women...which I don't share at all. (I just like pink, purple and blue used harmoniously in the garden, and a small, controlled amount of silver foliage - with lashings of green. Yellow (with blue), in a separate bed, too.)

But tastes vary...
So if you would like this little plant, let me know soon (there are only two)!

And I must remember, I should buy plants - some bulbs, anyhow - in flower, not in packets.
Especially dahlias.

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 (