Other people's gardens

Chelsea 2018

Hello all,

I find myself still thinking about Sarah Price’s delicate garden at Chelsea this year. That’s it at the top of this post. It’s such a wonderful illusion – a deceptive simplicity and apparent lack of effort that belies the enormous amount of work it takes to produce in the viewer a feeling of ease and relaxation  – magic! I got to see it – and all the other delights of the Chelsea Flower Show – as leader of a group of lovely travellers with Ross Garden Tours. You may have seen all the images you want to of the Main Avenue gardens at Chelsea this year, but in case not…here’s the story I wrote for my column in Spectrum in the Sydney Morning Herald. If you’d like to join me on a tour sometime, keep an eye on my Travel with Me page, or, even better, as I don’t visit this blog as often as I intended, follow me on Instagram @robinpowell60.

The horticultural skills on display in the specialist exhibits in the Main Pavilion at the Chelsea Flower Show were dazzling. A bulb company’s catalogue miraculously flowering at once; towering delphiniums; a battalion of lupins; an arbor of fragrant roses blooming a month early and a wall of perfect daffodils, each different and at its peak six weeks after finishing everywhere else in the country. Outside in the show gardens many designers used those horticultural skills in the service of gardens that looked like natural landscapes.

The most naturalistic of all was the Welcome to Yorkshire garden, designed by Mark Gregory, which recreated a romanticised slice of Yorkshire. A tumbling ’beck’ (creek to you and me) ran down a hill of wildflowers and grass and past a stone bothy (cottage), and its little flower and kitchen garden. It was a charming postcard brought to life with the detail of a photo realist painting.

Sarah Price, renowned for her painterly planting plans, designed a garden for M&G, inspired by dreams she had after seeing an exhibition of paintings by Monet. Monet’s layered splotches of colour, applied in comma-like swishes, combined in her dreams with memories of Mediterranean escapes where respite was promised by a stone wall, a seat and a tree.  The layout of the garden was as obtuse and fragmented as a dream and the very diffuse planting – the opposite of the usual floral-dense Chelsea style that crams plants together – had space in which to catch the light.

Diaphanous heads of grass and weedy-looking, yellow-flowered mead floated over the top of more solid mounds of very diverse plants planted into gravel the same colour as the rammed earth walls that bounded and divided the garden. London spring sun cast shadows on the pink clay walls and really did conjure a dream of Mediterranean countryside.  

Jo Thomson worked up a tea garden for Wedgewood that had the feeling of the wild bit at the bottom of the garden.  Away from the formality and duties of the house, a stream, rocks, trees, a beautifully worked stone terrace and a shade structure of curving steel and wires offered an escape from the everyday . There were no straight lines in the planting, just a naturalistic looseness with a light dusting of flowers in Wedgwood blues.

Some of the well-dressed Chelsea ladies around me clearly thought that applying precision horticulture and landscaping to a vision of the unkempt was the horticultural  equivalent of paying good money for ripped jeans but I loved it. It was, after all, one of the great English garden designers, William Kent, whose genius, according to Horace Walpole, was that he “leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden”.

Other people's gardens, Uncategorized

Gardens to visit – Hillandale

Hello to those of you still paying attention: it’s been a long time between drinks! With a few minutes spare, I thought I’d post the story I wrote on Sarah Ryan’s lovely garden Hillandale. It’s within striking distance of Sydney and definitely worth putting in your shiny new 2018 diary. Sarah opens the garden on the last weekend of the month until the end of 24-25 March. Don’t bother with pencilling it in – pick a weekend and commit to pen. Here’s what I wrote for Spectrum – and to see some more images of Hillandale, check out the gorgeous ‘Dreamscapes’ book by Australian photographer Claire Takacs.

Perennial border

The border in October, from the top. The people halfway down are on Ross Garden Tour with me.

I’m standing at the top of the perennial border in Sarah Ryan’s beautiful Hillandale, trying to work out why I like it so much. Before me the border is rocketing into its mid-spring phase. Iris the colour of lapis nod in the foreground, mounds of fresh lime growth glow, there’s a sprinkling of white and about mid-way down a glowing orange section of Euphorbia griffithii ‘Dixter’ against twin pillars of maroon elderberry and carex grass the colour of a beach-bleached blonde. The colours and textures backlit by morning sun and laid out down the slope before me are lovely.

I’ve also walked this path on a late autumn afternoon, starting from the bottom and walking up the slope with the slanting sun backlighting the towering growth of perennials and grasses at their peak volume so I had to almost elbow my way through. It was a magic experience then too. The siting of the border cleverly maximises the effects of light and of the backdrop of bucolic fields and distant hills. The narrow winding path changes the perspective with every step, and slows passage through the garden, forcing you to stop and admire its multiple effects.

This is the same border, shot from the other direction in May, when I visited doing research for the tour.

If the garden was just this border, it would be reason enough to travel to Yetholme, a spot midway between Lithgow and Bathurst, but there’s more. The old cottage nestles into the slope and is dwarfed by century-old rhododendrons that are discreetly shielded by mature trees so that they don’t stand out as mountains of hot pink, but shine through the green and spark in the sun.

The old cottage nestles into the embrace of mature trees.

When Sarah and her husband Andrew found the property in 1999, it was covered in blackberry. Sarah could see the rhododendrons under the shroud of weeds and felt that this was a Sleeping Beauty she could awake. It took more than a kiss though. She had to crawl under the blackberry cover and hack at its stems, then pull off the brambles and burn them. But gradually the bones of an old country garden appeared. Mature trees sourced from Paul Sorensen’s nursery in the early 20th century and planted in a style influenced by his great tapestries of evergreen and deciduous trees, form the superstructure that Sarah has worked under and through.

The swampy area at the side of the house was once original tree-ferned rainforest. The Ryans have harnessed the water into a rill that snakes a narrow path through verdant grass to a small lake that reflects the old cottage and its iron roof. Turf-covered stone bridges arch elegantly over the little creek, which Andrew keeps sharp-edged with a skilfully wielded whipper-snipper.

Succulents and geraniums weather the winter in the glasshouse.

On the other side of the house is a vegetable garden and a glasshouse full of the kinds of plants you can’t grow out in the open here where snow stays on the ground in winter. There are succulents and geraniums arranged with ‘tip finds’ – like the fish tanks that turn out to be the perfect place to grow bog plants, such as variegated Schoenoplectus zebrinus and carnivorous sarracenias, that don’t like to be submerged in a pond.

The glasshouse was a present from Andrew, reassembled piece by piece from the property where it was no longer wanted, on top of new stone footings that match those of the original cottage. Like the rest of the place, the glasshouse has the artless look of the perfectly placed and proportioned: not showy, just beautiful.

Sarah is modest about her skills. “The border makes me look like a great gardener, but it’s just that everything in it is growing to its potential,” she shrugs. Go see Hillandale and make up your own mind.

 HIllandale garden and nursery is open on the last weekend of each month until March 2019, 287 Eusdale road, Yetholme, 10am – 5pm, $10 entry.

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.

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

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

Other people's gardens


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