Plants I love

Lemon time

Lemons are weighing down the trees at my place, so this weekend I made the 16th century classic – syllabub.  It seems supremely unlikely, but if you put the juice and zest of a lemon in a bowl with 75g sugar and 100ml of white wine, let the flavours infuse for an hour or two, then add 250ml pure cream, whip it to soft peaks, spoon it into little sherry glasses, and chill it in the fridge, it will taste like the most magic and dreamy lemon mousse.

As it’s lemon time, here’s the story I wrote recently for Spectrum in the Sydney Morning Herald.

 

Potted lemons at Villa Gamberaia

Potted lemons at Villa Gamberaia

The famously large collections of potted lemons in the Renaissance villas of northern Italy were shifted indoors during winter – pot by back-breaking pot – to purpose-built glasshouses called limonaia. The effort of lugging hundreds of trees led lemons to be designated by how many men it took to shift them; an average tree was a six-man job. (I learnt this in Helena Atlee’s riveting book on the history and culture of citrus in Italy, ‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’.)

I don’t know how many men it would take to shift my two potted lemons, because as an essentially lazy gardener, my lemons have not been moved for the 20 or so years I’ve grown them – nor have been re-potted. Instead, following advice given to me by a nurseryman years ago, I keep the leaf canopy pruned to not much bigger than the diameter of the pot. My man told me that cutting back the plant would trigger it to naturally trim its feeder roots in response, keeping everything in balance. It seems to have worked.

The potting mix is replenished each year as the level drops and a mulch helps keep the surface roots moist, but I think my success is mostly due to the spot the two pots have against a north-facing wall. Lemons like lots of sun; at least six hours of direct sun a day. Less than that and the tree becomes stressed, allowing all the usual pests and diseases to hop aboard.

Not re-potting does mean you have to pay a bit more attention to feeding and watering. I aim to fertilise four times a year with an organic fertiliser, and because time passes so fast and it’s easy to get behind, I also give a liquid feed of something organic whenever I get a chance.

Watering should be regular and deep. Potting mix shrinks if it dries out causing water to run down the sides of the pot or down some other well-established channel. To prevent this I use a soil wetter whenever I think the pots aren’t taking up as much water as they should. Watering lemons in pots is not a job for the impatient. A quick job is a bad job. The hose should be a gentle spray like an Irish rain that slowly soaks the potting mix.

Fortunately there’s plenty to do while you’re standing there. You can diagnose any problems, notice growth habits, breathe in the fragrance, count the bounty – about 70 lemons on each tree this year – and dream up what you’ll do with them. In memory of those Italian lemon-lovers perhaps a lemon risotto this weekend.

Espalier citrus, Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore, italy

Not potted, but Italian and gorgeous nonetheless – the espaliered citrus at Isola Bella, on Lake Maggiore, Italy.

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Plants I love

Chasing cherries in Japan

Chasing cherries in Japan with a Ross Garden Tours group was even better than I thought it would be.  And it looks like I’ll get to repeat the fun next year!  If you’d like to join me, call Ros or Royce at Ross Garden Tours on 1300 233 200 and register your interest.  Be quick  – that tour sells out fast. Meanwhile, to give you a taste of what it’s all about, here’s the story I wrote for Spectrum in the Sydney Morning Herald on my return.

I’ve been away chasing cherry blossom in Japan, where it is famously celebrated. We drank plum wine with cherry blossoms floating in the bottom of the glass; ate pickled and salted cherry blossoms and cherry blossom ice cream; watched people lay out their turquoise tarpaulins under the trees in the morning to save a space for that night’s blossom-viewing parties and stocked up on cherry blossom Kitkats and cherry blossom sake.

Party under the cherry at Kanzawa

Ready to party under the cherries at Kanazawa

But before it was a festival of eating and drinking, revering cherry blossom had a spiritual element. The beauty and brevity of the cherry blossom is a metaphor in Japanese poetry for the beauty and brevity of life. Its blooming serves as an annual reminder, both of the passing of time and the renewal of hope.

And it works: I was alternately, and sometimes at once – delighted to the point of laughter and moved to the edge of tears. I had been expecting pretty and pink, and got so much more. Partly this has to do with the cherry that is most seen in Japan. It is not bright pink or candy pink, but the palest pink, just on the pink side of white – a sunrise reflected on snow, that kind of pink.

Yoshino cherry Japan

Yoshino cherry,

This cherry is known in japan as yoshino, Prunus x yedoensis. Almost as magical as the blossom itself is that fact that the yoshino is a hybrid that occurred just once, but has been cloned and grafted and is now grown all over Japan. (In Australia, it’s best in a cool to cold climate, moist, fertile soil and full sun.)

We started the cherry chase in Kyoto, where only a few buds were sparking on the branches of the yoshinos leaning over the canal. A few days later and further south, the avenue of yoshinos on the top of the moat around Nagoya Castle were in peak bloom. It had just stopped raining when we arrived. The sky was heavy and white and the air carried the subtle sweet scent of the cherries. We were enveloped in blossom, overhead in a veil of palest pink and across the moat, where branches leaned down like a frozen waterfall of white. The light under the flowers had an opaque quality as if we were floating underwater, embraced by the fragile delicacy of the blossom.

Yoshino cherries at Nagoya castle

Yoshino cherries along the moat at Nagoya castle

In Kanazawa, the blossoms started falling in a confetti of petals drifting into our hair. In Tokyo a strong warm wind blew up and the yoshinos along the banks of the Meguro River let their flowers fall and the river was covered with petals and the pale pink icefloe drifted downstream. The next day it was all over; streetsweepers cleaned up the browning, slippery mess.

Cherry petals on Meguro River

Cherry petal ‘ice floes’ on the Meguro River

Time is always expressed in gardens, and flowers are the ultimate markers of its passing. So plant breeders are doing us a disservice – though it’s we one demand of them – by producing plants with every-increasing periods of flower. Urged on by gardeners keen for year-round interest and low-maintenance everything, they are trying to banish the ephemeral from our gardens. But I’m voting for more change, reminded by the cherry blossom of the beauty of things passing.

Fallen cherry blossom

Fallen cherry blossom

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Other people's gardens

A subtropical garden – fast!

Peter Nixon’s wonderful garden Seachanger at Forresters Beach on the Central Coast is one of three local gardens open on Saturday April 29 for Planty Fierce.  Get details here or search Planty Fierce Facebook. Meanwhile, here’s the story on the garden I wrote recently for Spectrum.

In the winter of 2104 garden designer Peter Nixon swapped the closet-sized courtyard of his inner city terrace for a corner block 10 minutes from the beach on the Central Coast. His new garden offered a typical suburban layout – a patchy lawn bordered by straggly shrubs expiring quietly along the perimeter fencing – and a big opportunity.

Not even a ghost of that hard-scrabble past remains. The garden spills over the fence with blue gingers glowing under the shade of the mature callistemons on the nature strip and bulky aloes contrasting with fine-leafed lomandra in the sunny areas. Inside the gate, all is lushness and colour, with Nixon giving reign to his enthusiasm for unusual plants from the world’s warm-temperate-coastal regions.

Seachanger, design by Peter Nixon

Around the house the deck is edged with easy-care, sun-hardy bromeliads. A large mirror, framed with a vertical garden, cleverly adds depth to the deck by giving the impression of an entrance to another part of the garden. There is more seating in the garden itself, on a floor of organic concrete shapes bordered with a cushiony groundcover, and roofed with a wavy bamboo screen. From this shady, relaxing den, the garden is all colour and texture, movement and change.

Seachanger, design by Peter Nixon

 

The key to this speedy transformation is, paradoxically, patience. Eschewing the urge for instant effects, Nixon’s first move was to spray the grass with glyphosate, let it dry off a bit, then lay the cardboard from his packing boxes over the top. On top of that he piled 300mm of an organic mix that included spent mushroom compost and composted manure and then he waited.

Seachanger, design by Peter Nixon

That’s not strictly true. Nixon is a self-confessed plant addict, so he didn’t only wait, he also scattered some annuals around to give himself something to look at. By the start of the New Year, the worms and microorganisms in the soil had broken down the cardboard and softened the soil. He boosted the mycorrhizal action with diluted worm castings, making the nutrients more available to his plants and finally started planting.

Seachanger, design by Peter Nixon

Nixon loves seasonal change in the garden, especially the ephemerality and dazzle of flowers. So first to go in were large flowering shrubs, including a Rademachera called ‘Summerscent’, which gets to about 2.5 m high and wide, with glossy green leaves and large bell-shaped flowers in palest lavender with a gold veining at the throat. This shrub does what murraya does, but without needing as much clipping.

 

The smaller shrubs and groundcovers came next, and given the importance of change to Nixon, there are annual and biennial treasures scattered all through the garden as well. So while the fullness and the well-smudged borders and edges make it seem much older than its two and a bit years, there’s still the freshness and thrill of the very new.

Seachanger, design by Peter Nixon

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Other people's gardens

Arylies

Regular readers of this blog might be wondering where I’ve been. What happened?   I crashed into the technical limits of the entry-level blog support I bought when I started. To keep uploading images I would have to upgrade and spend more money. This roadblock decision brought on a crisis of meaning. What is this blog for, how much time and money should I dedicate to it? I’m still puzzling over these questions – feel free to send me your thoughts! – but meanwhile let me share this piece I wrote a little while ago for Spectrum about the wonderful Arylies (I ditched some old posts to make room).  

And while I work out if I want to keep this up, I am experimenting with Instagram as an alternative way to share what I see. You can follow me there @robinpowell60. I’m off to Japan today with a group of Ross Garden Travellers – expect cherry blossom!

 

Swimming pool, Arylies

What makes a great garden? Beverly McConnell, whose creation, Arylies, just south of Auckland, is widely considered to have made the grade, reckons it requires three distinct skills: a landscaper’s eye for place and the ability to shape a garden sensitively within it; a knowledge of plants, their history and natural habitat, forms and needs; and the art of plant association to create pleasing patterns of colour, shape and texture.

McConnell is a master of all three, and what was once a wind-swept paddock on a bald hill is now, half a century later, 16 acres of intensely gardened landscape and 40 acres of wetlands and native forest restoration. Her sense of space and scale, and her always interesting plant combinations are expressed through the whole expanse, from the waterfall and pond gardens, to the wilderness areas, lurid perennial border, rose walk and the vast wetlands – but let me narrow down the focus to show how those skills come together in something much more domestic: the swimming pool.

Leaving the tennis court through a wrought iron gate I suddenly came upon the surprising sound and sparkle of water, a dazzle of colour and an abundant sense of the sub-tropics. The pool was constructed in the ‘70s with a naturalistic, rockpool aesthetic that seems modern all over again. It nestles into its space, embracing swimmers and sunbathers with warmth and protecting them from the wind. This is designed rather than fortuitous, with McConnell’s first garden adventure – a rockery – providing the backdrop to the pool.

Swimming pool, Arylies

Water tumbles down the rock face. Five tall queen palms add majestic height, and a big fat dragon’s blood tree, Dracaena draco, forms a sculptural element picked up in the repeated forms of tree aloe, Aloe aborescens x ferox. The aloes flower through mid-winter with bright orange candelbra blooms, making this space a vivid lure even when swimming would be the last thing on your mind.

McConnell was inspired by the golden yellow spring and autumn tones of a gleditsia to create a kind of waterfall of hot-coloured flowers in contrast to the cool cascade of the pool. The tree is underplanted with Helichrysum petiolare ‘Limelight’ with a variegated fucrea providing a big full stop. Crucifix orchids flower in yellow, orange and red throughout the year, russellia dangles its red-flowered fingertips into the water, succulents and bromeliads nestle into spaces between the rocks, and ferns add textural change.

Beyond the stone-flagged terrace at the other end of the pool, a long breezeblock-backed gazebo offers protection against the chilly south-easterly. Fringing the gazebo is the subtropical climber Thunbergia coccinea, whose racemes of flowers hang down like beaded curtains, with apricot blooms held in burgundy bracts.

Thunbergia coccinea, Arylies

The space feels intimate and calm but also lively and vibrant. I didn’t want to leave, so sat at a wooden table looking out at the pool from behind the gently swaying trails of thunbergia, and regretted only that I hadn’t brought lunch.

 Ayrlies is open by appointment, so call ahead to let them know you’d like to come. Entry $22. Tel. +64 9 530 8706. www.gardens.org.nz

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Other people's gardens

English style in the highlands

Perennial Hill in Mittagong is one of those rare blooms – a garden open in summer. Most gardens around Sydney open for a spring bonanza of roses and blossoms and fresh new growth on trees or for a fiery blaze of autumn colour. But for Julie Hulbert, who with husband Craig makes Perennial Hill, summer, when the perennials she loves are at full tilt, is the best time in the garden.

The garden slopes from the road to a two-storey house whose burnt-red render makes a striking backdrop for the plantings. Paths wind past densely planted flower borders and a room of richly textured and coloured shrubs to the house. In front is a tear-shaped bed of herbaceous perennials that in winter is totally bare save for a blanket of mulch and a lick of frost and in summer is a towering mass of colour, with dahlias, heleniums and monardia interweaved among tall grasses. Even standing by that massive growth spurt is invigorating.

Around the back is a cypress-hedged room with deep mixed borders where cardoons, buddliea and plume poppies looms over shasta daisies and phlox. A terrace looks over blowsy flower borders towards a shady walk where more than a dozen varieties of hydrangea nod massive heads of bloom.

The Hulberts are both professional plantspeople, who live to grow things and who can’t stop themselves collecting. Craig’s current passions are for cuphea, hard-working little shrubs with cute but not showy flowers; his more than 15 elderberries; and oxalis, not the weedy ones, but the striking hybrids with odd flowers and fabulously marked foliage. Julie loves her perennials, and has developed a passion for salvia. There are now more than 120 varieties in the garden, including several rare treats.

The garden, created over the last decade and a half, and open since 2015, is in a constant state of assessment and alteration. Despite her horticultural credentials, Julie describes herself as an L-plater, always seeking to improve the garden and its plantings, inspired by visits to great English gardens, such as Bressingham, Hidcote, Great Dixter and the Royal Horticultural Society gardens.

The Hulberts do all the work in the garden themselves, and also propagate plants that are sold in the onsite nursery and at the Bowral markets. Julie does most of the propagating, Craig takes responsibility for structures and has built the stone walls, welded the metal supports that keep the lounging perennials in order and woven the brush fences from Lombardy poplar prunings and the cones and tripods from willow.

It’s impressively industrious as well as beautiful, and as in any lovely garden, there are plenty of good ideas to souvenir. Here’s just one – the Herberts use iron doormats where one garden leads into another. The iron frames become embedded so are only visible as you step on them. They prevent the green entrance to garden rooms becoming compacted, worn-bare eye-sores, and stop the spread of gravel from one part of the garden to another. Clever.

 Perennial Hill is open Saturday and Sunday, 10am-4pm, until the end of March. $8 entry. 1 Nero St Mittagong.

It’s time to
Enjoy gum blossom
Remove spent gum blossom from flowering gums so that the tree doesn’t put all its energy into producing gumnuts.

Get more paws
Prune spent stems on kangaroo paw to just above the tiny flower buds noticeable halfway down the stem to encourage more flowers.

Kill weeds
Two new weedkillers for organic gardeners: Yates Natures Way, based on clove oil, and Slasher from OCP, which also uses plant oils to kill other plants, including moss and algae. For weeds in paving, the no-spray organic solution is boiling water.

Watch for lily caterpillars
Check undersides of leaves on liliums and crinums for hoards of tiny caterpillars that will turn into big fat striped eating machines that decimate clumps overnight.

 

 

 

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Other people's gardens

Dream gardens

What does it mean to make a garden? What longings do gardens fulfil; what dreams do they satisfy? These are the question at the heart of a new gardening show, Dream Gardens, launching on ABC TV this week. Eschewing how-to tips on growing plants (done so well by ABC’s other garden offering, Gardening Australia), this is a show that looks instead at what we want from gardens and how clever garden design can deliver it.

Michael in a publicity shot from episode one of Dream Gardens

The host is the ebullient Michael McCoy, a garden designer and writer (and, full disclosure, my friend.) McCoy has a degree in botany, long experience as a hands-on gardener and sought-after garden designer, and a passionate curiosity about what makes good garden design work. He’s empathetic, enthusiastic and opinionated – the perfect partner to lead viewers around these eight gardens-in-the-making.

McCoy insists that the ‘dream’ in Dream Gardens is verb not adjective. This is not about ‘ideal’ gardens but about the vision that gives gardens a unique personality. “A garden is dream-driven from Minute One,” says McCoy. “The way gardening is often presented in the media is as a problem-solving exercise, as if the challenge was only to conquer pests and diseases, whereas the quality of a garden is a function of the quality of the dream behind it. So we are definitely about the verb – come dream gardens with me!”

Dustbowl to salad bowl? That’s the dream here in Toowoomba, in episode 1 of Dream Gardens.

The dreams featured in the eight-part series include the transformation of a dustbowl paddock into a self-sufficient kitchen garden; a garden to banish the memories of the Black Saturday fires of 2009; a happy ending to a construction nightmare that saw the desire for a pool become a $200,000 hole in the ground; and a longed for resort-style garden in a longed-for location.

Each story starts with the vision and follows its interpretation and creation by some of Australia’s leading garden-making professionals, including Sydney’s Michael Bates, Christopher Owen and Matt Leacy. Side trips to some of Australia’s great gardens, such as Paul Bangay’s Stonefields and Fiona Brockoff’s ground-breaking seaside garden Karkalla, allow McCoy to explore relevant design principles and show off some really beautiful garden photography.

McCoy says the beauty of the show is that it reminds us “how incredibly enriching a garden is and how expressive it is of the character of its owners. Gardens are as diverse as the people who make them and we see how wonderful it its when the life and personality we are used to seeing expressed in our houses leaks through the walls into the surrounds: we see the kind of nurturing a great garden provides and the longings it satisfies.”

We’ve been waiting a long time to see the quality and diversity of Australian garden design explored on television. I won’t be missing a minute.

Dream Gardens screens on Thursdays from February 9 at 8pm on ABC TV and iview.

It’s time to

Visit cool gardens
Lynn McGough started her mail-order rare plant nursery, Lynn’s Rare Plants, so that she could grow what she wanted in her garden. See the results when the garden, Foggy Dew, opens for its first summer viewing, this weekend, February 4 and 5 and on March 4 and 5. 10am-4pm, 20 Northcote Road, Leura, entry $8.

Deadhead aggies
Cut and compost finished flowering stems of agapanthus to prevent seeds falling into the clump or spreading elsewhere.

Order bulbs
The spring bulb catalogues are out. Make a plan.

Manage trees
Judy Fakes has spent close to 10 years arbitrating disputes between neighbours about trees. In an illustrated talk for the Australian Garden History society she’ll outline how the Trees act works to protect both trees and neighbourly relations. Wednesday February 15, Annie Wyatt Room, National Trust Centre, Observatory Hill, drinks 6pm, talk 7-8.30pm. Members $20, guests $30, bookings Jeanne@Villani.com.

 

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