In season

October 6

In now: Modi is an Italian apple bred for crisp, sweet flesh and excellent storage potential. The first Australian harvest, from the Goulburn Valley, has been held back until now to entice apple-eaters bored of the usual lineup. Find fruit at Coles.

Hold off: Peaches are in store, but flavourful, juicy flesh is still a while away.

Best buy: Yellow wax beans taste like a stringless green bean but that luscious colour meets human suggestibility to give a buttery hint to the flavour.

In the vegie patch: New growth on citrus is vulnerable to aphid attack. Look for little green or black sap-suckers and squash them.

What else:

  • make the most of Jerusalem artichokes, only at their best til the end of the month
  • broccolini is a broccoli/gai lain cross and it’s very good right now
  • lemons and limes are in their scarce phase. Did you freeze some juice when they were cheap? Or are you cursing now?
  • watercress and other leafy greens love the warm spring weahter
Plants I love

Plant sale

One of the big draws of the Growing Friends plant sale at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney next weekend is the cabbage on a stick plant, Brihamia insignis. The lure isn’t its good looks. The 1-2m tall succulent stem is topped by a rosette of fleshy, spoon-shaped leaves (hence cabbage on a stick). Clusters of tubular, yellow flowers bloom in winter and smell like honeysuckle.

Odd, rather than gorgeous, the real draw is this plant’s endangered status. Its only pollinator is a now-extinct moth, so the handful of individuals left on its native Hawaiian islands are hand-pollinated by botanists abseiling down the cliff faces. Introducing Brihamia into gardens is the backup plan to stave off extinction, and plant collectors are keen to help out. All proceeds from sales of the plant go to assist groundwork and conservation at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai.

Molokai from helicopter

I don’t have a shot of the Brihamia, so this is just to set the scene – Molokai from a helicopter. Great fun!

A rare find isn’t unusual at the Growing Friends nursery. It’s the go-to spot for gardeners hunting out the horticultural hard-to-find: a daily adjunct to the biannual plant fairs, Collectors Plant Fair in April, and Plant Lovers Fair at Kariong in September.

Growing Friends is not-for-profit. The money raised goes towards travel scholarships for Gardens botanists, research support and infrastructure. It is manned by volunteers who propagate plants from those grown in the public areas of the RBG. The plant list fills gaps in what is commercially available. “There are plants that have gone out of fashion but work well in Sydney, or tube stock sizes of plants you can only buy commercially in large and expensive sizes, as well as the rare and unusual and endangered stuff,” explains Greg Lamont. Lamont recently started working with Growing Friends as horticultural consultant. He comes from a background in plant research (he was first to launch garden-friendly varieties of Geraldton wax back in the ‘80s) and commercial plant and cut flower production, and his experience and expertise is improving propagation and growth rates in the Growing Friends stock.

Angel wing begonia and calathea

Angel wing begonia and calathea, Tropical Breeze, Seven Hills, Sydney

Best-sellers at Growing Friends include the myriad members of the begonia family, blue ginger, the silver-rimmed Japanese chrysanthemum, Ajana pacifica and rhipsalis, which is hipster-chic in hanging baskets, green walls and indoor plants. My personal favourites are the coleus. These foliage fillers for shade can be found in commercial nurseries, but not in the brilliant array of colours and patterns seen on the Growing Friends benches. Lamont says they have been working on the coleus collection, improving its uniformity and quality and increasing the range. Hunt up frilled, curled and ruffled leaves in solid burgundy and lime green, as well as complex variations of two or more colours in patterns mad enough to make a tropical fish look underdressed.

Coleus, solenostemon

Why I love coleus, more correctly now Solenostemon.

Joining them on the desirables list for the spring plant sale is a rare bronze form of Alcanterea imperialis. This grand bromeliad was popularised by the modernist Brazilian landscaper Roberto Burle Marx, and this form comes from his own garden. Like the Brihamia, this gem will have the enthusiasts arriving early.

In season

September 29

In now: Pomelos have been part of Sydney backyard orchards since colonial days when they were called shaddocks. Mostly jammed by cooks in previous centuries, we now prefer them in salads. Enjoy the local harvest.

Almost gone: The New Zealand-grown gold kiwifruit are coming to the end of their run.

Best buy: Artichokes are the bargain. Buy by the box to pickle or preserve.

In the vegie patch: Choose a sunny spot to sow basil, or plant seedlings, for summer pesto. The best-flavour is from ‘Sweet Basil’, though the purple forms, such as ‘Dark Opal’ and ‘Purple Ruffles’ look great. Use some more seed to thickly sow an empty strawberry punnet. Harvest the baby leaves as microgreens: excellent on thinly sliced sashimi tuna!

What else:

  • broccoli and bunches of broccoli side shoots are cheap
  • the best of the brussels sprouts will be over soon so enjoy them all ways now
  • Queensland-grown eggplant is at its peak
  • there are a a few bunches of Australian-grown grapes around but the main season is still a way off
Other people's gardens

A cool garden

Penrith is the hot spot of the Sydney basin. Partly that has to do with geography, but at least as important is land use and urban design. Thermal imaging of the city taken on a February morning showed land surface temperatures ranging from 40-49 degrees with localised hotspots another five degrees hotter than that. You could melt the soles of your shoes walking across the road!

Penrith recently released its Cooling the City Strategy, which aims to make summers more pleasant by reducing the city’s Heat Island Effect. The Heat Island Effect describes the way hard surfaces prevent water soaking into the ground and evaporating to cool the air; how non-porous, non-reflective surfaces on rooves and at ground level soak up heat and disperse it all night; and how warm air from cars and air conditioners increases the heat, causing more people to turn on their air conditioners in a cycle that just gets hotter.

What’s this got to do with gardening? As anyone who has sat under a tree in the summer knows, gardens are part of the answer. Those thermal maps of Penrith showed that areas of vegetation were up 20 degrees cooler than the hot spots. Penrith’s strategy involves increasing reflective surfaces, making ground surfaces permeable wherever possible and making the best use of the urban water cycle, but it also stresses the need to look after and increase what planners refer to as green infrastructure, and the rest of us call plants.

The Heritage Garden, Clare Valley

All cool in Walter Duncan’s Heritage Garden in the Clare Valley, South Australia

With a monster El Nino maturing in the tropics, now is the time to institute your own strategy for city cool. First off, reduce hard surfaces. Bring back the lawn; choose stepping stones rather than hard paths, or compressed gravel rather than concrete. Grow plants up walls and over fences. Make sure the water tank is operational and the pump works. If you don’t yet have a tank, choose from myriad space-saving options, from bladders that sit under the deck, to tanks that are literally the fence. Next, add shade. The best choice is a tree, but only if you choose one that suits your space and conditions.

Living Pergola in Nathan Burkett

A ‘floating’ pergola beneath a living pergola of plane trees in Nathan Burkett’s gold-winning garden at this year’s MIFGS. Photo: John Wheatley

New to the glamorous tree boutique are the living pergolas grown by Warners Nurseries in Melbourne, and showcased in the gold medal-winning garden designed by Nathan Burkett for Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show this year. The trees are deciduous plane trees, grown to 2.5 metres high, so that there is plenty of room to sit or stand beneath them. The growth above 2.5m is trained to lie flat across a bamboo frame or is trimmed off, so that the tree becomes a flat plane of dense hand-shaped foliage, atop slender pillars of mottled grey. Put four together and you have a living pergola. It’s not a no-maintenance option; new growth will continue to attempt to grow vertically and need to be trimmed back all through the growing season. But in a formal garden this is a really elegant way of combining architectural form and organic life. And it is cool.

Living Pergola in Nathat Burkett garden for MIFGS_IMAGE 3

One more look. Garden by Nathan Burkett, Living pergola by Warners Nurseries. Photo by John Wheatley.

In season

September 22

In now: Mulberries aren’t a big commercial crop because they don’t store well so are hard to transport. Fans without their own trees can find them in punnets now.

At its best: Sydney-grown greens are at their peak, so add spinach, kale and peas to the week’s menus.

Best buy: TPP is an early season Australian mango variety with an elongated shape and low-fibre orange flesh. Because it’s not as familiar as Kensington Pride it can be picked up at bargain prices, unless you’re shopping in Cabramatta, where the locals love its sweet flavour.

In the vegie patch: Empty space at the bottom of the garden? Plant a melon.

What else:

  • loving the fat asparagus
  • the warm weather will speed local fennel to seed soon, so indulge in some pickling now
  • the topless pineapples are sweet
  • look for chervil, which loves spring weather


Daffodils at Rydal
Other people's gardens

Daffodils at Rydal

William Wordsworth wrote that he was wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’ when he came upon the famous ‘host of golden daffodils’. Let‘s call that poetic license. He was actually out walking with his sister Dorothy. It was she who recorded in her journal the memorable image of the daffodils dancing and laughing in the cold spring wind. Wordsworth wrote the world’s most famous ode to the daff a few years later, and by the time NSW Governor George Gipps came to the job of renaming the town of Solitary Creek, Wordsworth was Poet Laureate.

Solitary Creek was on the western edge of the Great Dividing Range, a dramatically beautiful spot that must have struck Gipps as sublime in the romantic sense, as he renamed Solitary Creek after Wordsworth’s home, Rydal Mount. Rydal had its heyday when it was the last stop on the train line but now the train doesn’t even stop unless you ask, and the village is a pretty but little-made excursion off the highway just this side of Lithgow.

Daffodils at Rydal

Definitely qualifies as a host! Mass planting by Lindsay and Laurie Green at Bark Ridge

Every year the village (population 80 if you count city-country commuters) celebrates the Wordsworthian connection in a festival called Daffodils at Rydal. The daffodil show improves and grows each year, and this year an extra 5000 bulbs were planted by the hard-working festival committee. There are daffodils glowing under bare birch, and glittering with golden wattle at the edges of town; and down the tiny main street they bloom under the gentle rain of white blossom falling from Manchurian pears.

Of the private gardens open for the festival the unmissables are Bark Ridge and Chapel House. At Bark Ridge, Lindsay and Laurie Green have thousands of daffodils in pots and troughs, along the lichen-strewn post and rail fences and in a great paddock where different varieties are cheerfully laughing and gossiping in the wind that whips up the hillside.

Daffodils at Rydal

Daffodils and post and rail fences at Bark Ridge, jut outside Rydal

After decades of planting with a plough Lindsay says she now knows that the secret to a less-back-breaking host of daffodils, is a no-dig method. Put the bulbs down then add the soil, she says.

The bulbs are fertilised each year after flowering and in the week before Christmas, when the foliage has died down, the whole paddock is mown. In winter the spears of foliage reappear, often through a blanket of snow. After a few years the clumps become overcrowded and need to be divided to ensure good flowering. So after this year’s bloom the Greens will mark out bare patches that can be filled, and start the hard work of dividing the clumps.

Daffodils at Rydal

Jo Maxwell at Chapel House lifted and divided her clumps this March, and the renewed daffs, plus 500 additions of new varieties, are blooming brilliantly, complementing blossom, and bulbs and the bow-like new foliage on the willows around the lake. Chapel House incorporates the old Queen Victoria Inn, built in 1932, which now operates as B&B accommodation, and a house built as a Franciscan seminary in 1920. John Olsen owned the property for a decade or so and put in the two lakes, and since 1989 Jo and Mike Maxwell have been expanding and adding to the complexity of the gardens. For the festival Chapel House hosts local artists, plant stalls and music, including a pipe band which marches around the big lake. Visitors can bring a picnic or grab a sizzled sausage. Bark Ridge too, is catering for sausage lovers, and also sells locally handmade jams, chutneys, pickles and mustards.

Daffodils at Rydal

Spring flies on fast-forward in Sydney, but at Rydal it’s on slo-mo, so if you feel you haven’t had your spring fill, wind the clock back and see the daffodils at Rydal.

Daffodils at Rydal