Grevillea 'Flamingo'
Plants I love

Growing grevilleas in Sydney

There are more grevillea species in Australia than there are days in the year, and every year a few more join the gang as botanists and dedicated volunteers find previously undescribed plants. In the Sydney basin alone there are more than 30 different species, most coming into their peak flower period about now. You can see them, and a few hundred other grevillea species, hybrids and cultivars at the Illawarra Grevillea Park. Ray Brown is the energy behind the park, which is maintained by volunteers, and opened to the public a few weekends a year.

Brown is a member of the Australian Plants Society’s Grevillea Study Group. Together with other enthusiasts he collects plant material and specimens in the wild, experiments with propagating and grafting plants, and trials them in the gardens at the Grevillea Park. There is plenty to learn. After 200 years what we don’t know about Australian flora totally outweighs what we do know.

One thing we know is that it is much easier to grow grevillea cultivars in the garden than the species. The garden-proven, large-flowered grevilleas are great garden plants for screening or for standing tall at the back of a border. Most popular are cultivars such as bronze-orange ‘Honey Gem’; pink ‘Peaches and Cream’ and ‘Flamingo’; yellow ‘Moonlight’ and red ‘Robyn Gordon’. ‘Robyn Gordon’ has a notorious reputation for causing screaming allergic reactions, but she shouldn’t be singled out. Gardeners who are sensitive to the tiny hairs on grevilleas will be sensitive to all of them and should stay well away, or cover up completely. Those of us who don’t come out in a rash around grevilleas can welcome these plants into gardens for the dramatic, nectar-dripping, almost-year-round flowers, and the birds they attract.

Grevillea 'Flamingo'

The key to having them look good in the garden is to prune annually, which will also extend the life of the plant. At the end of September cut off all the flowers and put them in a vase, then cut the plant back to waist or chest height; knee-height for ‘Robyn Gordon’. You’ll see new growth within a fortnight and the plant will soon be flowering again. Plants that have been left to grow unpruned and have become lank and straggly can be given a rejuvenation prune in spring, right back into hard wood at chest height. The only rule, says Brown, is to avoid pruning when the weather is wet or very hot.


Grevilleas, like other members of the proteaceae family, are highly sensitive to phosphorus, the plant nutrient that boosts development of flowers, fruit and seeds in common garden plants. So feed them with a low-phosphorus slow-release fertiliser developed for native plants, and water during very dry weather in the growing season.

The Illawarra Grevillea Park is open September 5-6 and 12-13. Grevillea Park Road, Bulli. There will be plants for sale, including ‘Bulli Beauty’, which appeared in the park as a seedling and has dense ferny foliage and pink toothbrush flowers. Details:

In season

August 25

In now: Broad beans are at their deliciously nutty best. Expect 250g of unshelled beans to yield a cup of shelled beans. If you’re picking your own, trying harvesting the very young pods, no thicker than a finger, and cooking them as you would snowpeas, pod-and-all.

At its best: Pineapples don’t ripen after they are picked, so cut and eat, refrigerate or freeze before they start to dehydrate.

Best buy: It’s peak harvest time for red capsicum grown in Queensland so the crisp crimson bells can be found at bargain prices.

In the vegie patch: Harvest the central head of broccoli to allow the side shoots to develop for a second harvest.

What else:

  • broccoli is a bargain at the moment.  I recently steamed some and doused it in a walnut, lemon butter I found in the new book by Gregory Lleywellyn and Naomi Hart, Fried Chicken and Friends: The Hartsyard Family Cookbook, published by Murdoch. To make the butter, slowly cook a big lump of butter and a handful of walnuts so both brown at the same time. When they are both smelling deliciously nutty, smash the nuts into the butter with a pestle, add the zest of a lemon, season with salt and pepper and mix into steamed broccoli.
  • globe artichokes are in season now
  • drowning in cumquats needing to be jammed? Try salting some as you would lemons, and preserving others in brandy and sugar.
  • Make another apple crumble before the weather warms up.
Other people's gardens

Sydney’s Endangered Gardens #1

Parramatta Road is now a slow-moving carpark lined with caryards, fast food outlets and dusty shops. But in the 19th century our oldest road was a choice location for a gentleman to build a fine villa and accompanying garden. There is one such intact Georgian villa left on Parramatta Road – Yasmar in Haberfield. High on the list of Endangered Gardens of Sydney, Yasmar is threatened by lack of funds and vision; as well as by Westconnex.

Yasmar House

This is architect John Bibb’s original drawing for Yasmar House in 1856.


The single storey sandstone house, built in 1856 in Greek-revival style, is fronted by a spacious terrace that looks down a curving carriageway planted with rare trees and past a sunken garden to grand iron gates. Like any garden, this one has stories to tell. Among its extraordinary trees are one of Australia’s oldest gingkos; a Queensland kauri rarely seen in private gardens; and a Canary island laurel, Picconia excelsa, of which there are only about 20 specimens in all of Australia. How did these rare plants come to be in a garden in Haberfield?

David Ramsay, who owned most of what is now Haberfield and grew oranges and pineapples along the creek, had Yasmar built as a wedding present for his daughter Sara. (Yasmar is Ramsay spelt backwards). Sara’s brother Edward was a keen botanist who was friendly with the power plant men of the day, including William MacArthur of Camden Park and Alexander Macleay of Elizabeth Bay House. When Edward moved to Queensland to capitalise on the sugar rush, his plantation neighbour was botanist and plant hunter John Bidwill, who discovered the Queensland kauri and the bunya pine, Auracaria bidwillii, that is named after him. You can easily imagine Edward talking plants to his mates, and planting out some of his swaps and gifts in his sister’s new garden.

The trees, and the property, thrived for 50 years, but Yasmar’s fortunes dipped in the 20th century and after WWII the government acquired what was left and set up a children’s court and home for delinquent boys, adding brutalist detention wings on either side of the driveway in the 1960s. The property has been on the register of the National Estate since 1977, which hasn’t done it much good, and it is now used for training by the Department of Corrections. The Italian community service Co.As.It uses one of the ‘60s wings.

Yasmar House

This is the western side of the terrace as it looks now; sadly only useable shot from a visit with the Australian Garden History Society.

Initial plans for Westconnex that would have shaved off more of the estate were changed to preserve its current size, but the siting of the exhaust stacks for the tunnels threatens to rain particulates over the gardens and its rare trees. What could save Yasmar, the only intact Georgian villa near central Sydney? Weddings and functions? A restaurant? A training centre for heritage gardening and conservation skills? The latter is the goal of Emma Brooks-Maher, founding member of Friends of Yasmar. It’s a fine idea, but my vote goes to the Bronte House model: a house and garden whose historical value is preserved, is brought back to life by having people live in it, and which is occasionally open for all of us.


In season

August 18

In now: Fresh, pink-tinged ginger is juicier than the older rhizomes and not as spicy. Use it in juices, desserts and soups, but don’t store it long. It doesn’t keep.

At its best: Blood oranges produce the anthocyanins that colour them red in response to differences in day and night time temperatures. The best coloured fruit, grown in the Riverina by the Mancini brothers under the Redbelly label, is in store now. The Mancinis are trialling an infrared scanner that they hope will enable them to assess the internal colour of the fruit in the packing shed and grade it according to its bloodiness, taking the disappointment out of cutting open a blood orange suffering from anaemia.

Best buy: Locally grown bunches of English spinach are at their most affordable.

In the vegie patch: Grow watercress in a container with a saucer. Water as soon as the saucer dries out to keep roots moist at all times.

What else:

  • plant breeders have put a tint into Chinese cabbage. Try the new  purple wombok cooked or raw.
  • radicchio is tasting great
  • the asparagus is still all imported and cold weather in Victoria means the local harvest might not make the usual September 1 launch.
  • peak of the season for celeriac
Dracaena, bromiliad, bougainvillea
Plants I love

Plant trios that sing

In the nursery I’m a pushover for a showy flower. But in the garden, my own or others peoples’, what charms is not a stand-alone stunner, but plants in satisfying combinations. Beauty is in the harmonious way they all work together. And it’s harder than it looks. Plants I think are going to be compatible neighbours sometimes end up as lonely individuals rather than a happy community. To cu down on trial and error, professional designers develop favourite go-to combos that have proven themselves to be visually complementary as well as demanding the same kind of conditions and care.

Rob Willis, a consummate plantsman who used to own Belrose Nursery and now designs gardens as Woodside Gardens, says that every garden he works on starts with a combination of three plants. “Depending on the size of the garden we either repeat that or extend it with complementary or contrasting plants.” A classic Willis combo is the purple flowers and purple-backed foliage of cherry pie, Heliotrope ‘Lord Roberts’, matched with feathery, silver-leafed Artemesia ‘Powis Castle’ and striped, grass-like society garlic, Tulbaghia violaceae. Want shade and flowers? What about the big purple floss-flowered Bartlettina sordida (which used to be called Eupatorium), Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ and ‘Stripey White’ liriope. Willis has plans for pots too. Try a copper-coloured carex grass with coral diascia and a tumble of purple-silver sedum.

Alternathera, teucrium, miscanthus

A trio for sun from Rob Willis: Miscanthus ‘Adagio’, teucrium and Alternathera ‘Little Ruby’.

Designer Peter Fudge’s modern go-to trio elegantly suits the current desire for low water-use, low-maintenance gardens: shiny green Crassula ovate with felty Kalanchoe ‘Silver Spoons’, and the fine-leaf of westringia ‘Jervis Gem’ or a rosemary. All are hot sun-hardy and look great in groups interspersed through gravel. This particular westringia makes a neat sphere without pruning, and the crassula prunings can be simply stuck in the ground to extend the planting.

Peter Fudge garden

In Peter Fudge’s front garden wavy-leafed crassula pairs up with felty kalanchoe and small-leafed westringia and rosemary. All can deal with the hot west-facing position, and demand no extra water.

In subtropical gardens Nicola Cameron of Pepo Botanic Design puts together a native gang. Waterhousia ‘Sweeper’, which is a weeping form of lillypilly with rippled foliage that makes a great tall screen, contrasts with the dwarf form of the native frangipani, Hymenosporum flavum ‘Gold Nugget’ which forms a low shrub with gorgeously scented gold flowers in summer, and the native grass Dianella ‘Emerald Arch’.

So what are the rules here? Willis says he wishes he knew for sure. “It’s something about contrasting, but not contrasting everything,” he suggests. Start by not being sucked in by those dazzling flowers or other ephemera and focus instead on creating contrasts and complements in forms (mounds, mats, fountains, columns), textures (glossy, felty, leathery, feathery, smooth, puckered, large, small), foliage colour (gold, green, blue, grey, silver, burgundy, purple, striped, splodged, splashed) and density (airy, frothy, dense). Ensure the chosen few like the same conditions and then see if they work. If so, repeat or extend the gang as needed. Simple, right!

In season

August 11

In now: The oil content of the avocadoes builds through the season and Hass avocadoes from the mid-north coast of NSW are now at their rich and creamy peak. Choose green fruit and ripen to black at home, safely away from shoppers who squeeze.

At its best: Queensland-grown Roma tomatoes have hit their winter sweet spot.

Best buy: Kohlrabi is a member of the cabbage family. Like fennel, the swollen stem of the plant is the bit we treasure. Steam, roast or use raw in a remoulade-style salad.

In the vegie patch: Pick peas often to encourage more flowering and a bigger harvest.

What else:

  • Buy some mushrooms for vitamin D. Sounds ridiculous – mushrooms grow in the dark, how can they produce vitamin D! But mushrooms are still living when they are harvested and once exposed to light start to generate vitamin D. Some producers are now exposing their mushrooms to light and these vitamin D labelled mushrooms supply 100% of vitamin D daily requirements in a serve, which is just three average-sized button mushroom, or one large flat. You can make any mushrooms into vitamin D mushrooms simply by putting them out in the sun for a few hours. Most of that vitamin D is retained once they go into the fridge, and even once they are fried in butter on served on toast!
  • Celeriac is being harvested in Victoria and NSW so the abundant supply means more affordable bulbs.
  • Seville oranges for marmalade won’t be available much longer.
  • Pick up bargains on rain-affected Queensland strawberries.  The rain means they don’t keep, so feast or make a quick jam.