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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Other people's gardens

Visting Stonefields

In November I led a fun and garden-loving group around some great gardens in regional Victoria. (I’m taking the tour again next November, though the updated itinerary is not finalised yet. Contact Ross Garden Tours if you’re interested in joining me.) One of the highlights was  a morning spent at Paul Bangay’s garden Stonefields. This is the story I wrote about the garden for Spectrum.

Stonefields, Paul Bangay

 

Paul Bangay is one of Australia’s most high-profile garden designers. His country garden, Stonefields, an hour or so from Melbourne in the hills between Daylesford and Ballarat, is featured in his new book, Paul Bangay’s Country Gardens, among other large projects in Australia, New Zealand and the Hamptons in New York, now the site of some of his biggest commissions.

Stonefields is rarely open to the public. Every two years the gates open to benefit the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, an event that drew 8000 visitors across a spring weekend this year. Bangay also hosts occasional tours: no more than 24 people, tickets $240 each. I was lucky enough to visit another way, as leader of a tour group on a sunny morning when the irises and white rhododendrons were blooming, the wisteria was only just starting to fade, and the viburnums and dogwoods looked lovely.

Stonefields, Paul Bangay

An irreverent streak is also part of the Bangay style. The apparently classical statue in the rose garden, enrobed in a veil of dripping wisteria is a find that harks back to the adolescent Bangay’s lust for an antiquity to call his own, answered when a local church replaced its concrete statue of Jesus. Bangay acquired the statue, knocked off the head and the stigmata-showing hands, and presto…

The garden is as grand and tightly controlled as you’d expect from a designer whose reputation has been built on formal, geometric gardens of great precision. Two full-time gardeners keep the plants performing, the privet hedges clipped to a knife-edge and the fine-leafed lawns flawless. Indeed the finish of the garden is so perfect it verges on intimidating, which explains my reaction to the part of the garden I found myself continually drawn back to, the pool lawn that adjoins the terrace at the back of the house.

Stonefields, Paul Bangay

There are various neat perspectival tricks here and clever inversions of expectation. Instead of an infinity pool, for instance, the lawn itself has the infinity edge, its perfect green seeming to drop into the wild bush in the valley below as you take in the view from the terrace. Once you approach that apparently vertiginous edge however, wide stone steps appear that lead down to another garden area, with twin herbaceous perennial borders in shades of red and purple leading to an outdoor dining area on one side, and the woodland and lilac walk on the other. The plants here are chosen so that they never get high enough to be visible from the terrace, maintaining the illusion of green infinity. From this lower level, it is the pool itself that disappears, its location marked only by alternating benches of box, cut at different heights.

Stonefields, Paul Bangay

Hedges enclose both sides of the lawn, with dense herbaceous borders in cream and gold tones, and symmetrically placed, matching pool pavilions. I sat on the cushions in one of the pavilions, taking in the framed view of controlled garden giving way to wild bush, and the green-tiled pool with its restless light reflections. I loved the cleverness of the design and its subtle wit, those expansive views, and the gracious scale of everything. One part of me wanted to live this live of perfection and order, and another part rebelled and demanded a plastic banana lounge and a bunch of teenage boys bombing the pool.

Paul Bangay’s Country Gardens, photographed by Simon Griffiths, is published by Random House, $80

It’s time to

Buy up
Garden Life, Richard Unsworth’s outdoor store, goes on-sale on Friday January 13. All plants are 20%-50% off, and selected pots and homewares are 50%-70% reduced. 158 Princes Hwy, St Peters.

Going away
If going away for a few days soak indoor plants, then place them all together on an old towel in the bathtub. Run a few centimetres of water in the tub. Massing them together increases humidity and reduces transpiration. Sodden bottoms will cause root rot over a long period, but not in just a few days.

Feed frangipani
Encourage a good season of flowers with a feed of manure and compost.

Pick Christmas bush
Vases and jugs of Christmas bush the perfect seasonal decoration, and the trees respond well to the trim.

Trim Chinese jasmine
Prune back the long whippy bits of Chinese jasmine to keep it in check.

 

 

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Oranges
Other people's gardens

Eating oranges at Versailles

Versailles is so overwhelming that visitors feel exhausted as soon as they arrive. They take one look at those long vistas (not actually as long as they look, courtesy of a perspective trick managed by designer Andre le Notre) and start hunting for the ice cream concession. The only way to manage the vastness is to narrow your focus. It seems like a good approach to writing about the blockbuster exhibition Versailles: Treasures from the Palace, which opens this weekend [December 9, 2016] at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

So let me tell you about oranges at Versailles and the role of four large bronze vases that are part of the exhibition.

vase

Vase with boars and ‘Janus’ heads, 1665 © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christophe Fouin

The vases also feature in a painting in the show, ‘Still Life with Orange tree’, by Jean-Baptiste Monnover. They show the vases holding small, standardised orange trees in blossom and fruit. Siamese ambassadors to the court of Louis XIV reported that the Hall of Mirrors was filled with these vases of orange trees, perfuming the air. Visitors to the exhibition will experience the effect as orange blossom fragrance is wafted through the room.

vase-and-blossom

Jean‐Baptiste Monnoyer, Still life with orange tree, c. 1671–75 © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christophe Fouin

The oranges, like so much at Versailles, came originally from Vaux le Vicomte, the house and garden built by Louis’ finance minister Nicholas Fouquet. Fouquet’s brother had built up the citrus collection in travels through Italy and Spain, and they grew at Vaux in the wooden planter boxes we now know as Versailles tubs. Following the imprisonment of Fouquet and the dismantling of Vaux, the oranges were moved to the Orangerie at Versailles.

The NGA exhibition includes a topographical oil painting by Etienne Allegrain, ‘View of Versailles from the Orangerie’, c 1695, which shows the Orangerie parterre and the glasshouse in which the plants were protected from the extremes of a northern winter and nurtured into flower. The man responsible for this effort and the rest of Louis XIV’s amazing edible production was the lawyer-turned-plantsman Jean-Baptiste Le Quintinie, who, like the oranges he grew, had originally been at Vaux.

orangerie

Étienne Allegrain, View of Versailles from the Orangerie, c. 1695 © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Franck Raux

The Orangerie, with its great panes of glass, was a triumph of French technical skills, and the trees it protected carried a heavy symbolic meaning. The orange trees grew in planters featuring Louis XIV’s ubiquitous Sun King motif, and the fruit itself made the Sun King claim reality. These emblems of the sunny south fruiting in the cold swampy north operated as the physical manifestation of Louis XIV’s divine identity. When ambassadors and powerful guests visited Versailles they were presented with early peas, strawberries and oranges, foods that were magical in this part of France. They were literally eating the fruits of Louis XIV’s mastery and power.

Which makes the big bronze vases, with their boar heads and Janus decorations, indicative of the way in which Louis XIV announced his understanding of absolute monarchy at Versailles, and expressed it through a combination of style, science, art and gardening.

It’s time to

Trim lavender
Lightly trim lavender after each flush of flowers to promote another flush.

Give seaweed
Use a seaweed solution regularly to boost plant health and help them cope with extreme weather.

Prune shrubs
Spring-flowering shrubs, such as abutilon, brunsfelsia and Mackaya bella can be trimmed to shape now they have finished flowering, or at least slowed down in the case of abutilon.

Enjoy hydrangeas
When picking for the vase choose only the fully-opened mature flower heads. Fresh new heads will quickly droop.

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