Other people's gardens

Dead gorgeous perennials and clipped things

Two things struck me on an early winter garden whip-around in regional Victoria. The first was how gorgeous dead perennials can be (or should that be how dead-gorgeous perennials can be?). We don’t get much chance to appreciate this effect in Sydney. Our winters are just cold enough to make perennials look wan and sick, but not cold enough to shock them into brown, grey and black skeletal forms.

garden by Michael McCoy

Michael McCoy is a master of textural perennial planting and on a freezing, rainy afternoon a garden he designed outside of Woodend near Mount Macedon was a picture (even with a rain-spotted phone). Black verbascum stems stood against silvery whisps of perovksia, dark chocolate sedums and the occasional blue-green of euphorbia spires and freeze-framed fireworks of Yucca rigida. I couldn’t imagine it looking any better in flower.

garden by Michael McCoy

While perennial death pictures aren’t part of our gardening palette, clipped things are, and I saw some terrific examples down south. There were hedges of course, as walls, windbreaks, screens, and at one garden as a giant roll of firm grey cushioning along the front of the house. Made from westringia and assiduously clipped into a long cylinder, the owners described it as mirroring the curve of the hills, but it seemed to me more of a massive bolster turning the whole house into a daybed from which to take in the view of those hills.

At the Vineyard Gardens in Mornington Peninsula, the curving perennial borders are walled by high hedges, but it was the fat columns of clipped lillypilly interspersed through the borders that gave the space a wonderful sense of being inside outside.

The vineyard garden

On the other side of the hedge, balls of teucrium and westringia acted as formal grey boulders in a grove of lemon-scented gums. The contrast of formal and informal, wild and clipped, bush and garden had a disorienting appeal.

The vineyard garden

The same idea was given a different treatment in a walled space in the same garden where white-flowered ‘Natchez’ crepe myrtles were underplanted with more trimmed plants, primarily Helichrysum petiolare clipped into undulating mounds like a sleeping body snuggled under a doona.

An international inspiration for this kind of well-clipped, drought-tolerant gardening is the late Nicole de Vesian’s garden la Louve, in the Luberon Valley of Provence. De Vesian was a designer at Hermes for years and when she gave up haute couture for horticulture it was in dry and rocky ground which severely limited her plant choices. As is so often the case, the constraints made for an elegant solution, and la Louve, with its shapely forms of rosemary, lavender and santolina among the fig, olive and yucca, makes visitors itchy to get home to their own garden and a pair of clippers. I had just the same response on my visit to Victoria.

My trip was a speedy famil for a tour I’m leading for Ross Garden Tours in November. As we’ll be visiting regional Victoria in spring, there’ll be no perennial death pictures, but plenty of flowers! See the full itinerary here. (Do you reckon I could gather enough interest to do a cool climate garden tour in early winter – it’s so beautiful!)

It’s time to

Take the tropical tour
Dr Dale Dixon is leading a tour of the public and private sections of Latitude 23, the tropical glasshouses of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney this Thursday. Meet the ant plants and the world’s smallest fig among other oddities. Thursday 28 July, 9.45–11 am. $25. Bookings: 9231 8182

Take cuttings
Ensure cold-sensitive coleus aren’t lost over winter by taking lots of cuttings. If you have nowhere warm to overwinter them, keep the cuttings in water. They won’t all survive the transplant from water to soil so make sure you double up.

Collect leaves
Pick the fallen leaves from the foliage of lower-growing plants so they don’t get smothered.

Buy fragrance
Daphne is one of the signature scents of winter. ‘Perfume Princess’ is a new variety that flowers over a long period, with an intense perfume, in gardens or pots, semi-shade or full sun. It’s Australia’s Nursery and Garden Industry Plant of the Year for 2016.


In season

July 19

In now: Cumquats aren’t just for marmalade; the whole fruit is edible. As jam makers know the skin is the best bit, but try the golden globes sliced thinly to give salads a sweet-tart-bitter lift.

At its best: Queensland-grown seedless watermelon is particularly good at the moment. If the idea of cold salad has you reaching for a beanie, try slices of watermelon grilled on the barbecue with a grind of black pepper and sprinkle of sea salt or drizzled with balsamic.

Best buy: Pickle, poach, preserve or dehydrate cheap pears.

In the vegie patch: After the cumquat harvest, prune the tree to shape and remove dead wood. Follow with citrus fertiliser to promote growth and flowers in spring.

What else:

  • there is lots of imported produce around. If you want to limit food miles and eat in season now is not the time to be enjoying stone fruit, cherries or asparagus.
  • parsnips are fashionable enough to be pricey, but swedes are still a budget buy. Peel and slice no fatter than a centimetre, fry gently in butter til starting to brown, then add a little stock and let them cook until soft.
  • swedes also add variety to the roasting tray, as do Jerusalem artichokes, plenty of which are around now.
  • winter melon is a good stir fry option. Peel, slice and fry up with garlic and/or ginger, finish with a drizzle of sesame oil, or a splash of black vinegar.


Plants I love

Chocolate grows on trees

If it’s a birthday there must be chocolate. And so it is that the Story of Chocolate is one of the treats the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney is sharing for its 200th birthday. The story unfolds in the big present the Gardens recently unwrapped, a new horticultural exhibition space called The Calyx. (For those whose high school biology is shadowy, calyx is not just a handy Scrabble word, but also the term used to describe the cup that protects the developing flower bud. Think of the curving green sepals around a rose bud or the green skirt at the end of a tomato or strawberry.)

The Calyx replaces the Pyramid glasshouse and links with the Ken Woolley-designed Arc glasshouse, completed in 1987. It’s part-exhibition space and part-function centre, its purpose being to fund horticulture as well as to show it off.

Calyx, RBG

Chocolate is a good place to start exploring the deep relationships between money, plants and people. Cacao was currency in Aztec culture and is now traded on the futures market. It grows only in a thin band, 20 degrees either side of the equator, making Hawaii the North Pole of chocolate and tropical Queensland the South Pole.

Calyx, RBG

At the entrance to the Calyx exhibition is a beautifully grown representation of the South American rainforest, featuring rare palms, lots of bromeliads, shawls of Spanish moss, and a mature cacao tree of the ‘Criollo’ variety, which is the one used by the Mayans to make their hot chocolate. Behind the tree is a long living green wall featuring the Mayan god of chocolate as well as the Mayan symbol for chocolate, illustrated in plants. (Interestingly, the images are hard to make out unless you look at a camera screen, which draws the ‘plant pixels’ together.)

Calyx, RBG

The ‘Criollo’ in the Calyx is flowering, with tiny complex blooms springing directly from the trunk, a form of flowering called cauliflory. In the wild little midges like fungus gnats pollinate the flowers but as fungus gnats aren’t welcome in the controlled environment of the glasshouse, Gardens staff are painstakingly hand-pollinating the flowers to see if they can produce a pod before the show closes after Easter next year. In the meantime, freeze-dried cacao pods provided by the Daintree Chocolate Company have been hung on the tree.

The relationship between the midge and cacao is just one reason chocolate responds so poorly to industrialised plantation farming. It’s a plant that grows naturally in the rainforest understorey, with protection from hot sun, and with a thick compost of rotting leaves at its feet providing shelter and food for those pollinating midges and for the mycorrizal fungi that help provide nutrients to the plant. Sustainable farming requires replicating these kinds of conditions, rather than destroying rainforest to establish plantations of high-yield varieties that threaten to narrow the varietal diversity of cacao and send some of its most interesting flavours extinct.

Calyx, RBG

The chocolate-coated conservation message from the opening of the Calyx is that plants are part of an ecosystem deeply impacted by the choices we make. Most visitors seem happy to take the message home – in the form of a block of chocolate from Lindt, which is a major supporter of sustainable cacao in Ghana, and exhibition sponsor.

For how to make chocolate once you have grown the cacao, check out this on Melanie Boudar’s chocolate plantation tour in Maui.

It’s time to

Watch pines
A new pine nematode is killing pine trees in the Sydney basin. Plant Biosecurity NSW is asking for help reporting dead and dying pines so that the nematode and its vector beetle can be tracked. Go to www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/content/biosecurity/plant/pine-nematodes

Cut back
Trim liriope to the ground to allow fresh new growth to rejuvenate the plant.

Feed bulbs
Use a soluble fertiliser on spring bulbs you plant to keep for next year.

Buy fragrance
Daphne is one of the signature scents of winter. ‘Perfume Princess’ is a new variety that flowers over a long period, with an intense perfume, in gardens or pots, semi-shade or full sun. It’s Australia’s Nursery and Garden Industry Plant of the Year for 2016.





In season

July 12

In now: Kalettes are a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale that look like sprouts off to the Year 10 Formal in purple ruffles. They debuted last winter and won enough fans to increase production by six times this year.

At its best: Radicchio comes as a round cabbage look-alike and as a longer, thinner endive-like version. The round one is milder and better for salads; the longer one more bitter and better for braises.

Best buy: Take advantage of cheap carrots for soup. Treated the usual way, carrots make a thin and uninspired soup, but roasted first they develop sweetness, complexity and a better texture.

In the vegie patch: Order certified virus-free seed potatoes to plant out in spring. While you wait store them in egg cartons in a warm dark spot to encourage sprouting.

What else:

  • the rockmelons are coming from the Northern Territory and they’re good.
  • hunt up fresh turmeric root now. It’s a revelation in curries.
  • there’s an occasional bargain in bunches of slim leeks.
  • swedes are at their best now until the end of winter
Other people's gardens

Honouring weeds

I was at Uluru recently, awestruck by its presence and silvery sheen as rain slicked its surface, thrilled by the hot metal smell as water hit that thin iron skin and just plain bemused to see at my feet – purslane. The same weed that irrepressibly clings to life in the cracks in my driveway has found its way to the heart of Central Australia.

Uluru in the rain

In honour of the opportunism of weeds, and in the absence again this week of enough pages in Spectrum to support my garden column, here is a story I wrote for Your Garden magazine, about forager and artist Diego Bonetto who thinks that weeds are under-utilised opportunities.

Diego Bonneto

Diego hoping to convince me that camphor laurels are more than a massive pest.

When you look at a weedy wasteland around a railway station, what do you see? Most of us see just that – a weedy wasteland – but Diego Bonetto sees a pantry of food items and a bathroom cabinet of herbal remedies.


The council sees something to poison, Diego sees dinner.

Diego is an artist whose mission is to re-engage us with our natural environment, one weed at a time. We meet at the weedy railway station and he helps me out immediately. Among the fast food detritus, soggy tissues, and unnameable refuse, Diego identifies dandelion (the young leaves are eaten in salads, the flowers in frittatas and the roots as parsnip alternatives); sow thistle, Sonchus sp. (in Greece the young leaves are blanched and doused in olive oil and salt; Pacific Islanders use its bitter edge to cut the sweet richness of their pork stews); green amaranth, Amaranthus viridis (cultivated as a grain for 8,000 years, and also used as a spinach, particularly in India); mallow, (a personal dinner favourite of Diego’s, used in salads and in soups); and a brassica.

We don’t pick dinner just yet as railway weeds are sprayed with  glyphosate. For snacking and harvesting we take a wander along the Cook’s River in Tempe, Sydney, where Diego leads regular foraging tours, a career direction that began with a dandelion.

Diego’s family were farmers in rural northern Italy and part of his childhood responsibility was collecting food – mushrooms in season, and greens all year. The greens collected were the kinds of plants we know as weeds. His knowledge of these plants, and where and when they grew, became deeply ingrained. When he migrated to Australia, 20 years ago, dandelions waved to him from among the unknown plants and welcomed him home.

Foraging had connected him to the land in Italy and now it connected him to his new country. He became a wild provedore, providing chefs with dandelions and other novel foods, which he laughs, weren’t novel at all, but the oldest foods known to humankind – the weeds. In between foraging, and bringing up his two daughters, he studied art, and thought about weeds.

“Academics now talk about nature blindness: people can’t see what they can’t name,” he says. Through his work and his tours Diego aims to cure nature blindness by giving people the names and stories that enable a new vision of the landscape: not just weeds by the railway station, but a biodiverse community of plants with a long history of interaction with humans.

rambling dock, Acetosa sagittata

Rambling dock lasted well in a plastic bag in the crisper and was the secret ingredient in a green salad with shaved fennel, and an Asian style salad with pickled grated carrot and other herbs.

Further along the river we snack on what is my favourite discovery of the day, rambling dock, Acetosa sagittata, which has a crisp lemony flavour so delicious I pick a bunch for dinner. Diego doesn’t recommend side-of the-road foraging in general, but he knows that the local council don’t spray here and the rain we’re walking through has washed off dirt and dust.

“The safest place to forage,” he advises, “is your own garden.” He believes we can all grow something to eat and assures even non-gardeners that they will be able to find some edible plant to suit their gardening style.

Mallow, Malva silvestri

I’m not a big fan of muciliaginous greens, but for those who like okra, kangkong and the like, mallow is a cheap treat.

Diego’s own gardening style is Minimal Intervention. He has an agreement with his landlord to manage a 3m square plot of weeds and is foster-gardener to several other weedy plots. The most useful weed for gardeners to nurture, he says is “Whatever is in your garden.” As gardeners know, weeds seek out the spot that suits them best, with no encouragement at all from the gardener. Diego challenges us to look at them with new eyes – as individual plants that tell a story of a long association with humans, not simply irritations in the general category Weed.

In Diego’s garden:

Self-sown mulberry, Morus sp.
“I love mulberries, I make jam with the fruit, and the plant reminds me of Italy, where mulberry trees in the corners of the fields provide shade for summer working-day lunches.”

Cobbler’s pegs, Bidens pilosa

Cobbler’s pegs, Bidens pilosa

“If it goes to seed it makes a burr which gets into your socks in the bush, but if never gets to seed in my garden I eat so much of it.”

Mallow, Malva silvestri
“I have a few plants of this I like it so much. The young leaves are good in a salad, the older leaves thicken a soup and the seeds have a good, nutty flavour.”

Scurvy weed, Commelina cyanea
“This Australian native was used by non-indigenous colonists to ward off scurvy. It has a mild flavour, best cooked, otherwise it’s a bit hairy and gets stuck in your throat.”

Madeira vine, Anredera cordifolia
“This isn’t really happy in my garden. It might be too shady under the mulberry.” The leaves are sold in Malaysia and when cooked are a bit slimy, like kankong.

In season

July 5

In now: The cold snap has coloured up the blood oranges grown in the Riverina. Also making pink juice right now are Cara Cara navels, which are sweeter and less complex in flavour than blood oranges.

At its best: The side shoots that grow when the main head is cut from a broccoli plant are sold as bunch broccoli or baby broccoli. The stems look like broccolini so unscrupulous types sometimes sell them as broccolini, which is a broccoli-gai lan that is more expensive than either of its parents because it is grown under license.

Best buy: Feel like you’re eating more Brussels sprouts than you used to? Production has doubled since 2009.

In the vegie patch: Get some blue-flowered plants into the garden to attract bees and boost pollination come spring.

What else: 

  • lots of gold kiwifruit from New Zealand, as well as the new red variety, which has a gorgeous sunbust of red flesh at its centre
  • quinces are still good
  • last chance for a pesto before the basil gives up for winter
  • Queensland-grown chokos are cheap this week