Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Autumn, Vegetables and a New Hydrangea.

Autumn has swept in with gusty, decisive coolness in what one comedian has called Melbourne's (famously) bipolar weather, and the sudden cold winds have transformed the edible patch overnight. A friend reminds me that only last week we had 25 degrees at 6AM yet it is almost winter now - well, relatively - with house fires lit, coats piled on and the mercury dropping to 4.5 degrees - seriously cold - this morning. 
Summer gave us loads of cherry tomatoes, our best year yet (the (likely) key? We remembered to water well nearly every day, with a timer, this summer). How can all those ruby droplets vanish overnight? - birds? All that's left are tiny jade pear-shaped fruit. (Do we net next year?)
The zucchini plants have fallen into a limp mess a month early, and beans - missed ones - are drying, deep amethyst pods, all over the tripods.
All this is good; it gives me space to plant some winter veg in mid-autumn. The cold-tolerant vegetables need a month or two, ideally, to get their roots get down well, into the soil before the really cool weather hits. They don't normally get it: I can't bear to pull out productive veg until late autumn; and then plant winter veg that sit miserably small all through the cold months.

So after a hot, dry February and March - so, so dry - some gum trees are dying along with one or 2 shrubs in the garden, although the garden isn't looking as miserable as you'd expect. A tiny dollop from the hose (from tank water) occasionally really has made a difference.

And then this sudden heavy rain of the last couple of days: a lifeline to shrubs sitting in parched soil, barely breathing as they longed for happy times. I don't know who or which is happier about the glorious rain: me or the thirsty plants. 

So I look out and see the late autumn garden: subtle salvias (with Lucy, our fabulous bird-like, silvery creation by artist Daniel Jenkins; turning with the winds, above), the summer vegetables saying adieu and the dwarf, round lilly pillies covered in fresh green shoots.

Enormous Hydrangea paniculata has flowers dulled to soft apple-green and pale rose in those elegant panicles (a long way from the mop-head varieties). So tall (3m or so) that they give me a little shade on hot mornings when I'm potting up near the back door (and I'm starting to plant Epimedium and cyclamen at their feet).

A new variety, H. paniculata `Sundae Fraise' (above) is flowering now, with panicles of white blooms turning, yes, a soft strawberry pink. Best of all, it only reaches 1.2m high and spreads the same. (I'll plant it when the rain has really soaked into the ground.) The late blooms are very welcome.
At the same time I found, at last (I'd seen it in a friend's garden), Laurus `Baby Bay', a truly dwarf Bay tree (or shrub) to 1m high; not the `dwarf bay tree' you often see, which reaches 3m - a very different prospect. Let alone the species bay tree (Laurus nobilus (the first Latin name I learnt!), meaning `noble') which reaches 7 or 8m - too big for most suburban gardens. Recent history has gardeners placing bay trees in herb or vegetable gardens only to replace them every 10 years. I prefer a permanent solution!
My new bay will be perfect in a pot, hopefully producing a good sphere if I trim it well. If I had a formal herb garden, then this shrub, planted in a large handsome pot, would be perfect for the centre, where the paths meet.
Our herbs are near the back door - great for dashing out while cooking - but our garden is probably too sloping for a formal herb garden.
As J dislikes formality so much, I must tell him how he dodged a bullet on that 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. (www.jillweatherheaddesign.com.au)