Other people's gardens

Making space in the garden

I expected a visit to harbourside garden in Darling Point to tell me about the plants that deal well with the salt and water laden breezes coming off the harbour. And it did. Gingie’s owner briefly experimented with the English flower garden she’d always wanted and then made a sensible change to a subtropical palette.

seaside subtropical planting

She nominates her best seaside performers as agaves, bromeliads, gingers, cannas and sugarcane grasses. All great recommendations and I loved the way they gave great energy to the garden, especially through the repeated explosive forms of agave, alcantera and cordyline.

seaside subtropical planting

But what really struck me about the garden was how a garden lover ekes out space wherever possible to grow more plants. Like these:

Up the walls

Thunbergia grandiflora

The liver and brown brick of the front of the house is almost covered in climbers, notably the blue Thunbergia grandiflora, and passionfruit. The owner, who wishes to remain anonymous but who I don’t want to keep referring to as the owner, so let’s just call her Anne, told me she’d tried to have both the white and the blue thunbergia growing together, but the blue is more vigorous that the white and continually outcompeted it, until she gave in and let it take over. (A hint there as to how this lovely climber has become an environmental weed in the wet tropics, where it takes over disturbed watercourses and invades the rainforest smothering whole treee canopies!) Australian-Balinese designer Made Wijaya uses the same climber, in its less assertive white form, on many of his pergolas, for the great bead-like curtains of bloom it creates.

Anne also grows passionfruit up the north-facing walls, and gets plenty of fruit. She has started seedlings of a particularly tasty specimen she bought ‘from the side of the road’ and will replace the current vine when its productive life is over.

Under the terrace

Bromiliad and odontonema

Under the overhang of the terrace tough bromeliads revel in full sun, with more delicate ones further back in a bit more shade. From the deep shade at the back of the overhang, the red flower spikes of odonetonema reach to the light.

In the trees


For height in a garden with a view, Anne recommends palms, which don’t block the view (though in this part of the Eastern suburbs Bhutan cypress, Cupressus torulosa, are planted on most boundaries to stop the neighbours looking in, inevitably blocking views). A lillypilly that threatened Anne’s view has had its top cut off. Here it is, with its head just below a neighbour’s jetty.

Seaside subtropical planting

The big green mushroom has also been carved out from the inside, leaving a frramework of branches from which Anne can grow a range of hanging and trailing plants. Dendrobiums are tied to the stem of the lillypilly as well so that the tree has become a vertical garden.

Dendrobium on lillpyilly trunk

You can see Gingie for yourself on March 20 and 21, when it’s open as part of Behind the Walls, an Open Gardens Australia event. Tickets include access to the Gothic mansion Carthona, another privately owned garden and the National Trust property Lindesay, which also has some great ideas to inspire – see below!


In season

February 24

In now: The new season Jonathon apples will please those who love a mouth-watering tartness in their fruit. Check www.hawkesburyharvest.com.au for pick-your-own and farm gate sales. I made my first Bilpin apple-buying trip of the season last weekend and picked up Bramleys as well as Jonathons.  Bramleys are famous for the way they cook up into sweet-tart fluff – just perfect for crumbles, baked apples and pies.  I cooked pie following the recipe from Sister Rock restaurant at Borrodell winery in Orange where Borrie Gartrell grows 170 or so varieties of heirloom apples. Find the recipe here, and even better, come with me when we visit Borrie’s orchard on my Tastings: Orange tour in April. There will be pie! The full itinerary is here.

Best buy: Grape season is at its peak so there are great prices on seedless green and seeded black grapes. Currant grapes are a bit pricier, but are irresistibly pretty and tasty.

Bad news: Atrocious weather in Tasmania continues to wreck the leatherwood blossoms. Consequently honey harvests are expected to be 80% down this year.

In the vegie patch: Gardeners with zucchini need to pick every second day to avoid growing vegetable bludgeons.

What else:

  • two new plums to try. Dapple Dandy is an American-developed plum-apricot hybrid. It has a freckled skin and ruby flesh with a beautiful ombra effect. It doesn’t really taste like a plum as the skin doesn’t have that zingy edge to it, but it is delicious.  Don’t let them get too soft. Queen Garnett is an accidental discovery from Queensland ag department. After 10 years in development the plum is now available (at Woollies). As well as tasting great, it boasts unusually high levels of anthocyanins, the antioxidants that colour fruit red and purple. So those of you who love the idea of a superfood know what to do.
  • okra is plentiful
  • prices on tropical treats like mangosteen, dragonfruit, lychees and rambutans have rocketed with Chinese New Year. They’ll be back to normal in a few weeks.
  • the locally-grown sweetcorn is terrific.


Orange tulips
Plants I love

Tulips in Sydney

It’s tempting to believe that the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century was a result of a passion for fantastically coloured and twisted tulips. I like to think about a society so into gardens its citizens will pay almost anything for a single glorious bulb. (At the market’s dizzy height the particularly rare ‘Semper Augustus’, which bloomed with burgundy-streaked white flowers, was worth the cost of a handsome canal-side house!) Of course investors were after fantastic blooms in their bank accounts rather than in their hothouses. When the bubble burst and the bankruptcies mounted, the tulip emerged less valuable to speculators, but no less desirable to gardeners.

The desire persists, and most of the covers of the new bulb catalogues depict tulips. The tulip is native to the snowy mountainous regions of Turkey but its cultural home is the Netherlands, where tulips are in every garden, on every kitsch souvenir, and deeply integrated into the economy.

Sydney’s climate is not a match with either Turkey or the Netherlands, but that has never stopped Sydney gardeners desiring tulips too. The limiting factor is our pleasant winter. Tulips prefer climates where beanies are protective headgear rather than fashionable accessory. Our mild winters delay flowering, which then occurs just as spring springs a surprise heatwave and ruins the show.

To beat that double whammy, gardeners need to choose early-flowering varieties, and chill them before planting. Order or buy now, and put the bulbs in the crisper for at least six weeks before planting out in May. The chilling speeds flowering, and will help ensure blooms in August. The bulbs should be stored in a loose brown paper bag, or an onion or orange net, in the crisper. They can share the space with vegetables but not with fruit, as the ethylene released by ripening fruit will rot the bulbs.

Even with these strategies tulips grown in Sydney won’t reflower, so are best considered as annuals and used in the same way, in a highly visible area of the garden that is often changed, or even better, in pots. Pots allow for the best show because you can pack the bulbs in thickly, and place it for maximum impact. Cram them in just a centimetre or two apart. (Because bulbs need to be planted at about twice the depth of their length, you can cram bulbs vertically as well as horizontally: plant the bulbs of different species at different levels of the same pot, depending on their size, with a couple of centimetres of potting mix between each level of bulbs.) If you’d rather not leave the container bare until spring, sow or plant winter-flowering annuals such as violas, or primula over the top.

Less showy, and less effort, are some of the South African bulbs, such as freesia, sparaxis, babiana, tritonia and ixia, but none of them has the cultural clout of the tulip.

In season

February 17

In now: Fingerlimes are picked from January to early winter, but now is peak season. Different varieties have different coloured vesicles, but all have a citrus bite. Use in sweet and savoury salads or sprinkle over sashimi ocean trout.

At its best: Pumpkins that grew over summer are now great eating. The best buys are in whole fruit.

Best buy: Figs don’t ripen once they are picked and don’t store well either, so buy soft fruit to eat soon. Check www.hawkesburyharvest.com.au for local fig farm gate sales.

In the vegie patch: Pick pumpkins with stem attached to prevent rot. Store somewhere dry and airy.

What else:

  • I read today that cauliflower is the new kale. I’m not sure what that means – cauliflower smoothies coming to a cafe near you? To my way of thinking cauli is way more versatile than kale. My go-to – toss florets in olive oil and a sprinkle of Murray River salt and roast to just this side of burnt. You won’t believe how delicious this is.
  • are you enjoying the childhood flashback of the Golden Queen peaches? They taste like canned peaches, but better cause they’re fresh.
  • lots of USA pomegranates in stores. The locals are still a few weeks away.
  • it’s pesto season with plenty of big juicy leaves in garden beds, pots and shops.
Plants I love

Angel’s trumpet

Plant common names are annoyingly imprecise but they often capture the appeal of a plant better than their real names. Take Brugmansia, better known as angels trumpet. For once this isn’t a case of common hyperbole. The flowers really are the size of a trumpet, albeit a small one, and have an elegance about them that is quite angelic. Some even have petals that curve upwards in slender ribbons that are very wing-like. The flowers are so lovely that it seems a shame that their real name remembers a Dutch physician, Sebald Justinus Brugmans, who was an expert in the treatment of gangrene.

Brugmansia, angels trumpet

While Brugmansia have nothing to do with gangrene, they do serve as medicine for indigenous people in their native central and South America. There they are used as medicine; in negotiations with the spirit world; and in what ethnobotanists describe as chemically-triggered ethno psychotherapy. All parts of the plants are poisonous, and they contain psychoactive substances. When the conquistadors arrived in what is now Bogata, Colombia, in 1537, the locals drugged them with a brugmansia-laced drink, and sent them all into wild hallucinations. Attempts by Australians to experiment with this aspect of the plant (median age 18, 82% male) have led to hospitalisation for tachycardia and delirium, with associated accidental injury.

The history and cultural uses of the plant are fascinating (find out more in ‘Huanduj: Brugmansia’, written by Australian expert Alistair Hay, with Monika Gottschalk and Adolfo Holguin, published by Florilegium) but the best reason to grow them is that they are fantastic garden plants for Sydney. Every drenching rain is followed a few weeks later by an amazing show of flowers that covers the whole plant. In my frost-free garden, brugmansias flower all year, or until I prune them. They are apt to drop leaves and flowers when the chill sets in and are at their dramatic best now and into autumn. The most common form is apricot, though there are also white, gold and any number of shades of pink. Bees love them and a big shrub in full bloom is abuzz with action.

Brugmansia, angels trumpet

Brugmansia can be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub, or trained to a single stem like a small tree. They can be pruned and kept to a desired size, or left alone, save for the removal of dead growth and rubbing branches. You can arrange for a canopy of flower atop a border, or for flowers right down to ground level, depending on how you use the secateurs from early in the plant’s life. They need sun for good flowering, and though a hot summer afternoon will make them limp they’ll bounce back at dusk. And as night falls they will start to release their perfume, which given their common name, I just have to describe as heavenly.

Brugmansia, angels trumpet

In season

February 11

In now: Williams, the world’s most cultivated pear, is the first of the new season. Let it ripen at room temperature and eat it as soon as it turns golden, or get it into the fridge: it speeds from unripe to mush in a flash. I’ve experimented with all kinds of ways of making edible goodies out of mushy pears, but basically you’re looking at smoothie territory.

At its best: This late in summer most of our carrots are from Tasmania, and they are delicious, and cheap. Hard to go past a simple grated carrot salad, dressed with lime juice, mixed with sugar and allspice. Let the carrots soak in the dressing for a few hours in the fridge before serving. Top with chopped pistachio or roasted hazelnuts and fresh mint leaves if you like.

Best buy: We honour the Lombardi gardeners who hybridized the modern summer squash in the early 19th century by calling it zucchini, Italian for little squash. It’s now at its summer peak.

In the vegie patch: Scale insects target citrus and bay trees stressed by heat and dry weather. Spray with horticultural oil in the cool of the evening.

What else:

  • apple growers at Bilpin are picking Jonathon as well as Gala, and a few Bramleys. Pie makers take heed and plan a daytrip.
  • the Honey Gold mangoes are back. So good.
  • there are a few pine mushrooms around. The supply of these is always weather-dependent so not reliable. Buy them when you spy them.
  • if you’re planning to cook plum cake or tart, choose the little oval sugar plums as the skin won’t go bitter when baked.