Other people's gardens

Chelsea 2015

Is this your idea of the perfect garden?

Chris Beardshaw's 'Healthy Cities Garden, sponsored by Morgan Stanley

Chris Beardshaw’s ‘Healthy Cities Garden, sponsored by Morgan Stanley

Vibrant flower borders encased in perfect hedging, with complementary and sophisticated architectural bits and pieces.  Or does your heart pull you more in this direction?

Chelsea 2015 James Basson

James Basson’s gorgeous landscape for L’Occitane was called A Perfumer’s Garden in Grasse.

Subtle, manipulated ‘naturalism’, slightly unruly and chaotic but with the promise of a relaxing afternoon in the shade of the olives?

Both approaches to the garden – sophisticated control, and controlled chaos – were on show at Chelsea this year. While I was in awe of the plantings and the designs of the more traditional gardens –

Chris Beardshaw's 'Healthy Cities Garden, sponsored by Morgan Stanley

A closeup of the fabulous planting in Chris Beardshaw’s ‘Healthy Cities Garden, sponsored by Morgan Stanley – aquilegia, geum, camassia, euphorbia, lupins, iris, verbascum and salvia.

– it was the naturalistic ones that evoked a more nuanced emotional response (usually manifesting as a desire to move in immediately!).

l'Occitane garden by James Basson

Don’t you want to be here?

While I appreciated the skill and beauty of the former, I wanted to be in the latter. Unusually, I was on the side of the judges this time, who awarded the big  naturalistic Chatsworth garden designed by Dan Pearson for Chatsworth and Laurent Perrier, the Best in Show gong.  This garden was big in the physical sense, but also in its grand concept. This is what I had to say about it in the Sydney Morning Herald this week:

Chatsworth garden by Dan Pearson, Chelsea 2015

Rocks, trees, stream – all gave the sense of having been there for much longer than a week.

Pearsons’s design purported to reproduce some of the lesser-known, wilder areas of the famous Chatsworth estate, namely the rockery built by the brilliant landscape architect-engineer-garden publisher Joseph Paxton in the early 19th century, and the ‘trout stream’, a little creek that loops through the top of the property.

Chatsworth garden by Dan Pearson, Chelsea 2015

The only thing missing from the trout stream were the trout!

Neither of these parts of the garden at Chatsworth is actually ‘natural’ in the sense of being unmanipulated, and of course their reproduction on a corner block in Main Avenue at Chelsea for a week is even less so. But while the other Chelsea gardens celebrated the hand of the designer and its power to produce images of great beauty, this garden wanted to make the designer invisible, to create the illusion that a section of the Chatsworth estate, naturalised over centuries, had simply been transported, Harry Potter-style, into Chelsea.

Chatsworth garden by Dan Pearson, Chelsea 2015

Part of the appeal of a natural landscape is its evocation of time, captured here in dry teasel heads and a burnt-out tree.

The illusion was a fabulous paradox. The more natural and timeless the garden appeared, the greater the art (and science) in making it appear so. Paxton’s rocks were shifted from their actual spot at Chatsworth and repositioned in Chelsea so carefully that the moss on their surfaces was undisturbed. A complex mix of wildflower plantings were grown in trays and laid along the stream edge, under the shrubs and trees and around the rocks like squares of carpet. Even the crevices were planted up, with wild strawberry and lily of the valley.

Chatsworth garden by Dan Pearson, Chelsea 2015

The detailing of the planting was just amazing.

Gardens always exist on a continuum between chaos and control. At one end a natural landscape, at the other the kind of Tidy Town garden that never lets a fallen leaf rest. The control end of the spectrum is always well-represented at Chelsea. The control of space, of points of view, of planting and timing is all masterful. Pearson’s Chatsworth garden sat in a serene point of balance between control and chaos, artfully producing a perfected image of nature.

Chatsworth garden by Dan Pearson, Chelsea 2015

It wasn’t easy to photograph the wonder of this garden as it was surrounded by crowds on all sides. But hopefully these images give you a bit of a sense of why I loved it.


In season

May 26

In now: Honey pears have the cinnamon colouring of a buerre bosc with a wonderful perfume and creamy texture.

Hanging on: The grape harvest is over and the fruit for sale is coming out of cold storage. Flavour is still good.

Best buy: Cauliflower is so versatile and such a good keeper that a whole one is the best buy.

In the vegie patch: Sage collapses in the cold so enjoy a final fling before it goes. Fry clean dry leaves in olive oil and sprinkle with salt to eat as a snack, or to top roasted vegetables, bean soups, or pan-fried chicken.
What else:

  • curly kale has been unavoidable all year, and now that the cool weather has started its sister kale, cavolo nero, has joined the party
  • all the apples are at their sweet and juicy best
  • there are bargains to be had in bagged carrots
  • those who like a tart start to the morning should hunt around for the increasingly rare ‘Marsh’ white graefurit
In season

May 19

In now: Grate fresh horseradish direct onto steak or fish, or lighten its punch by mixing through crème fraiche, or sour cream and natural yoghurt.

At its best: Delicious, fat-bottomed packham pears are ripe when just starting to give to gentle pressure. Use firm fruit to poach for dessert; or slice, roast and add to a salad. Roasted pears and roasted parsnips are especially pairs with roasted duck.

Best buy: Green capsicum are usually unripe red fruit (one variety stays green when ripe). That unripe edge lends a bitterness that works perfectly with a spicy stuffing.

In the vegie patch: For a constant supply of peppery radish sow a row every fortnight. The first harvest will be ready to eat in a month.

What else:

  • friends were struggling with a nutcracker on fresh walnuts last week. As regular readers will know, the easiest way to open a walnut is to insert a butter knife into the dimple where the nut was attached to its branch. Apply a small of pressure in a twist to split the nut into two hemispheres, then use the knife to prise out the two halves of the nut.
  • poached quinces on porridge for breakfast this week?
  • celeriac is a versatile buy – use it grated raw, cooked into soups, or roasted in chunks
  • try a big, creamy pink mammoth custard apple



Plants I love

Hardy perennials

Chris Cuddy describes himself as a plant nerd. What might that mean? Here’s an example: his current favourite plant is an ancient survivor of the Namibian and Angolan deserts, Welwitschia mirabilis. This Jurassic-era plant produces only two leaves in its entire life. And it can live 1,500 years. Over the centuries of wear and tear the leaves split and fray so that the plant ultimately looks like a huge mound of seaweed washed up in the desert. It’s generally only grown by Botanic Gardens, but Cuddy came across some seed and now has 20 plants. “It’s a bit of a folly,” he admits, “I don’t even think I can plant it out in the garden, but I heard about it at uni as an example of a really ancient plant, so when I came across the seed, I couldn’t resist. True plant nerd behaviour.”

Cuddy grew up in Lane Cove, but fell in love with the countryside around Canowindra, and started his own nursery there, Perenialle Plants (www.perennialle.com.au), in 2010. His focus is on drought-tolerant and frost-hardy plants, mostly perennials. The majority of the catalogue is from southern Africa, the Mediterranean and New Zealand, and he says all do well in Sydney, though gardeners on the coastal fringe will want to ensure good drainage.

Perennialle Plants nursery

The nursery primarily operates as mail order, though it is also possible to drop in, shop and see the plants growing in the garden. Particularly impressive last week was Salvia leucantha. It might not have the rarity, history or nerd value of the Welwitschia but it’s much prettier! It’s commonly called Mexican velour sage, referencing its Mexican origins and the fabulous felty feel of the long spires of flower. Cuddy grows both the purple-flowered original, and the South African-bred white and pink-and-white forms. They all perform really well in Sydney, and are at their best from March well into winter. Cuddy grows five or six plants together to form a really impressive mass, but they also work in smaller spaces as individual plants. In Canowindra the frost knocks leucantha back in mid-winter; in Sydney gardeners have to play Jack Frost by cutting the plant to ground level in August.

Salvia leucantha

Also featuring in Cuddy’s late-autumn garden is Phlomis ‘Edward Bowles’. The commonly grown phlomis, Phlomis fruticosa, is commonly known as Jerusalem sage. ‘Edward Bowles’ is a hybrid if it and of P. russeliana, which has lovely wide leaves. The result of the marriage is the best of both parents. The large evergreen felty leaves form a low mound from which spires of yellow flowers like claws arise in summer. When the flowers die, the stems become dark brown spires holding tiers of the whorled seed heads. “The seasonality of the plant is great,” enthuses Cuddy. “You get such different effects at different times, and all in a tough plant about 1.2 metres high and a metre wide.” Not just for plant nerds.

Perennialle Plants nursery

In season

May 12

In now: The Australian kiwifruit season is short. Indulge now in gold and green varieties.

At its best: The flavour in persimmons builds as the difference between night and day time temperatures increases. Try a salad of sliced crisp persimmon with fennel and black olives.

Best buy: Jerusalem artichokes are harvested once the daisy-like flowers die down. They are in peak season now. They oxidise fast when peeled or chopped so if you need them pale, drop immediately into acidulated water.

In the vegie patch: Collect fallen leaves to add to the compost and balance the green material provided by kitchen scraps and garden clippings.

What else:

  • Chokos are often around in autumn in limited supply, unless you know someone who still has them in their garden. The traditional way to enjoy their very mild flavour  is to steam them in slices then drench them in butter and pepper.
  • Citrus are back on the breakfast menu – choose oranges or grapefruit.
  • Beetroot are a good buy. Roast, boil, or pickle.
  • Put some quince in a bowl to scent the kitchen.



Plants I love

Big old shrubs at Vaucluse House

When did tall flowering shrubs become the shoulder pads of horticultural fashion – derided and discarded? Now uncool and rarely seen, they used to provide essential structure to a garden, as well as doing what shoulder pads never did well – star in their own seasonal show. The glory of the flowering shrub is gorgeously expressed in the pleasure gardens of Vaucluse House, the early 19th century home of William and Sarah Wentworth.

Vaucluse House

The deciduous flowering shrubs are growing in the pleasure garden below the fountain. Paths wind through garden beds planted out with 19th century favourites. It’s a great walk through garden fashion history!

The shrubs growing now aren’t original plantings, but have been selected from lists of colonial plants derived from Sydney’s 19th century nursery catalogues. Some of these old favourites deserve some modern love. Anita Rayner is head gardener for Sydney Living Museums, whose properties include the important gardens of Vaucluse House. Rayner nominates three durable and desirable flowering shrubs worthy of a fashion resurrection: dombeya, eupatorium and Hibiscus mutabilis.

Dombeya cacinium

This is Dombeya cacininum, which is not the same as the one at Vaucluse House. I photographed this one at Stringybark Cottage at Eumundi last year. You get the idea though – gorgeous heads of flowers.

Dombeya, (also called tropical hydrangea) has big heart-shaped leaves and show-stopping balls of bell-shaped flowers. These are white, pink or red and smell of teacake in the oven. They can be left to form a 4m tall shrub if views need to be hidden, or trimmed to let winter light in. Rayner goes in hard and cuts them to metre in late autumn.

Hibiscus mutabilis

Mutabilis comes in a double form, but I prefer the open simplicity of the single flowers.

The hibiscus looks a bit like the dombeya (they’re from the same family, Malvaceae) with big heart-shaped leaves, but the extraordinary double or single flowers of this plant bloom white and age through pale pink to deep rose. It too gets a big chop in autumn, which controls its size – and its weedy potential. (The down-side of plants that don’t need much assistance from a gardener is that they will grow anywhere. H. mutabilis has become a minor problem in southern Queensland.)

Bartlettina sordida

Looks just like ageratum on steroids – eupatorium, now Bartlettina sordida.

Imagine the little blue floss-flower annual called ageratum, scaled up to something from Land of the Giants. That’s eupatorium (now Bartlettina sordida). Huge blue flossy flower heads appear in September, and when they are finished, Rayner cuts the plant to the ground. This routine allows the new growth to harden up enough to support those huge flower heads in spring.

Lucullia grandiflora

The leaves are just starting to brown off, but that rim of red and the red veining isn’t just autumn colour. That’s part of the appeal – along with the sensational fragrance of the white flowers.

You’ll have to be quick to see these shrubs, as well as the fragrant white flowers and red-edged leaves of luculia, the blue trumpets of iochroma, and other old favourites, before Rayner’s autumn cut-off. But if you miss these, you’ll catch one of the flowering shrubs that has never slipped off Sydney’s must-have list – the camellia. The first camellia brought to Sydney was Camellia japonica ‘Ameniflora’, also called the waratah camellia. Horticulturist and plant-nut William Macarthur (son of sheep farmer John) brought it in from China in 1831. The original plant still grows and flowers by the house at Macarthur’s Camden Park. An 1850s cutting from that original is in the gardens at Vaucluse House, and is about to put on a brilliant show of red flowers.