In season

May 31

In now: The best strawberries of the year are those grown in Queensland in the cool season that passes for winter there. Picking has started and the flavour is good.

At their best: Take advantage of Australian pomegranates as the harvest will finish soon. The arils store well in a closed container in the fridge so there’s no need to eat them all at once.

Best buy: Jerusalem artichokes are now a bargain. Scrub, slice and roast, or turn into soup.

In the vegie patch: Plant organic cloves of garlic, thumb-deep and about 5cm apart, in rich soil in a sunny spot.

What else:

  • avocados are back on the menu as supply finally picks up
  • look for bargain-priced baby Brussels sprouts
  • Harris Farm Markets has so far prevented four million kilos of fresh food being wasted by selling it as ‘Imperfect Picks’. Shoppers have responded so enthusiastically to the bargain-priced odd-looking things that the company is doubling the range to include William pears, red capsicum, eggplant, sweet potato, potato, tomatoes, zucchini and Granny Smith apples. Prices are up to half that of ‘perfect’ picks.
  • tried a choko yet?
Other people's gardens

5 tips for designing small gardens

Think big. This is the number one piece of advice for designing small courtyards or balcony gardens from garden designer Richard Unsworth, who lectured at the Royal Botanic Gardens Garden Design Series. The rookie error in designing small garden spaces is getting the scale wrong, he says. Unsworth, from Garden Life, designs big and small spaces and while scale is important in both, choosing small pots, small plants and small furniture will only make a small space appear smaller. Better to keep it simple, bold and scaled up.

“Of course, you need to understand the constraints,” he admits. “It’s no use buying a big pot or plant that you can’t get onto an apartment balcony because it won’t fit in the lift; or having a big table that you can’t get around. In fact, you might not need a table, if there is one just inside. You might be better off with a big plant in that space.”

Garden by Garden Life, photo by Nicholas Watt

In a recent design for a new apartment in Balmain, Unsworth and his team designed an oversized, square, planting box to divide the space on the large balcony. It’s painted in metallic bridge paint to match other large containers on the deck and is planted up with a softly textured mature dwarf date palm, Phoenix roebelenii, and a range of hardy succulents, with the client’s treasured Buddha nestled into the planting.

Garden by Garden Life, photo by Nicholas Watt

The cohesiveness of repeated plants and surfaces make for aesthetic harmony in a small space, but Unsworth turns his back on minimalism in favour of textural contrast in plants and pots to keep a small garden interesting. On the Balmain balcony, the feathery palm contrasts with stiff succulents and crisp-edged balloons of a cloud-pruned juniper, while the bridge-grey pots are matched with the roughness of hand-thrown terracotta and the sheen of antique brass. And because there’s no fun in minimalism for the plant collector Unsworth also likes to include a display table. “On a great table you can arrange all the plants you love in a collection of pots and tinker as much as you like.”

His take-home message for small garden owners: avoid itty-bitty gestures; make a bold scale statement; balance the hard and soft elements; and show off your treasures. Oh, and there’s one more thing – a small space garden operates on a different time scale to a large garden. A large garden grows and develops and is at its peak years after it’s planted, but that’s not the case with a small garden that just gets tired. Potted plants run out of puff or get too big for their spots and materials show wear and tear. In a small space there is nowhere to hide. So there’s only one thing for it – give yourself permission to start again!


The final lecture in this year’s RBG Garden Design Series is by Michael Bates, on June 16, Royal Automobile Club, 89 Macquarie Street, Sydney, 6.15pm, $75, Bookings: 02 9231 8182.

Photo credit: Nicholas Watt

It’s time to:

Order asparagus crowns
‘Fat Bastard’ is an irresistibly named F1 hybrid with thick juicy tasty stems. Choose a sunny position you don’t need to disturb, as an asparagus patch lasts forever. Let the crowns develop for a few seasons before starting the harvest.

Thin frangipani
Before the weather gets too cold, trim or thin the frangipani if necessary. If reducing overall size, use a sharp pruning saw to remove entire branches rather than simply lopping the ends.

Clean up cannas
Cut rusty cannas down to ground level and bin them as well as the mulch around them, which will be full of fungal spores.

Gardens light up
Vivid Sydney comes to the Royal Botanic Gardens for the first time this year, celebrating the Garden’s 200th anniversary. May 27 – June 18, 6pm-11pm, free entry.

In season

May 24

In now: Buddha’s hand is a citrus that is all rind and no flesh. Use the zest in salads and sauces, candy it for desserts, or simply allow the odd fruit to perfume the room.

Last chance: Buy green olives for home-curing. They’ll require daily, brief, attention for a couple of weeks.

Best buy: Cabbage is a keeper. Wrapped in plastic in the crisper it lasts for weeks. Keep red and white versions on hand for a quick slaw, stir fry, or braise with bacon bits and a splash of cider vinegar.

In the vegie patch: Tie peas onto their supports as they grow.

What else:

  • the unseasonably warm weather is playing havoc with the blood oranges. These citrus need cold nights and sunny days to build the anthocyanins that make the blood colour. Unless we get some cold weather soon it will be a very anaemic season for the blood oranges.
  • time to make some quince paste?
  • look out for tangelos, the juiciest of all the citrus, and like a mandarin for grown-ups
  • beetroot are a good buy this week
Plants I love

Why are banksia flowers so big?

Why are banksia flowers so big? I’ve long admired those huge cones, run my hands over their almost-plastic perfection, marvelled at their fabulous geometry and great colour combinations, but I’d never considered the question until I read Tim Low’s Where Song Began.

Banksia serrata

Bankisa serrata and friend, photographed on the walk south from Merry Beach to on the south coast of NSW.

As Low explains it, banksia (and other Australian flowers) are big as a result of a kind of evolutionary arms race with Australian honey-eating birds and mammals. In a land of abundant sunshine and impoverished soils, plants photosynthesise like crazy but don’t have the nutrients to turn that energy into growth. Instead they produce nectar, lots of it. With an abundant food source, the birds grew bigger (and more aggressive and much louder), and to survive their weight, the flowers needed to toughen up or collapse. The banksias, which can produce nectar for up to 20 days, are the biggest and toughest of the lot.

Matchstick banskia, Banksia cuneata

This is the matchstick banksia, B. cuneata, one of the rare beauties in the Collins collection.

There are 79 species of banksia in the world and Kevin and Cathy Collins have all of them growing in their garden, The Banksia Farm, at Mount Barker in south-west Western Australia. The Collins’ is the only full collection in the world. They no longer open the garden on a regular basis but banksia fans can stay in the B & B on the property and book a walk around the garden with Kevin.

Kevin Collins

Why does Kevin remind of a character out of May Gibbs?

A full set of banksias would be an impossible act to replicate in Sydney as the majority are native to the sandy soils and low humidity of Western Australia and less than perfect drainage spells death. But local gardeners can grow our local banksias. Banksia integrifolia, known as coastal banksia, is the least fussy about soil and has green-yellow flowers through autumn, with a silvery sheen to the candles when they first form. B. serrata, old-man banksia, has saw-toothed leaves and a develops a fabulously gnarly trunk. It is perfect in sandy coastal conditions, must have good drainage, and can be pruned to keep it to an appropriate size, or to emphasise its sculptural form.

Banksia serrata

So much to love in a banksia flower – the colours, the texture, the geometry. This one B. serrata.

Our local banksias are also good for pots. The dwarf forms of Banksia spinulosa are the easiest to find, and to grow. ‘Birthday Candles’ grows to about 50cm high and has yellow flowers with red styles through autumn and winter. The original plant material for ‘Birthday Candles’ came from Schnapper Point near Ulladulla on the south coast. ‘Stumpy Gold’ was developed from plant material collected at Catherine Hill Bay on the central coast. It has noticeably greyer foliage than ‘Birthday Candles’ with and gold on gold flowers.

Feed banksias in the garden or in pots in spring and autumn with a low-phosphorus fertiliser developed for native plants. Kevin Collins advises that banksias love a good mulch, kept clear of the trunks. Trim off the spent flower heads in spring and that’s all the maintenance required.

These dwarf banksia candles bloom into winter, providing a feast for birds. And when the big wattlebirds land for a breakfast feed those resilient and spectacular flowers barely waver.

It’s time to:

Bag a book
The Foundation and Friends Annual Book Sale is on Friday May 27, 11am -4pm and Saturday May 28, 9.30am – 4pm, Joseph Maiden Theatre, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney.

Choose citrus
‘Clementine’ mandarins, unlike most mandarins, can hang on the tree for months without deteriorating. Perfect for home gardeners.

Plant poppies
Plant seedlings close together in a sunny, fertile spot. Fertilise prodigiously for flowers all through winter.

Plant bulbs
Spring bulbs can go into the ground or into pots now, though tulips are best left in the crisper for another few weeks. Sow seed or plant seedlings of annuals at the same time to take over once the bulbs fade.

In season

May 17

In now: Jerusalem artichokes are the tubers of a towering perennial with yellow daisy-like flowers. Now that the flowers have faded and the tops died down, the harvest is ready.

At their best: Big differences in day-night temperatures builds flavour in persimmons so now that we’re reaching for a jumper at night, the fruit is at its best.

Best buy: Though it looks like a root vegetable, celeriac is actually a swollen stem and consequently has a much higher water content than starchy tubers. It can dehydrate and soften quickly and is best enjoyed when fresh and firm.

In the vegie patch: Sow rocket where summer annuals or warm season perennials have died down.

What else:

  • custard apple season is in full swing
  • the thyme is growing really well. Fry it up with some mushrooms to pile on toast
  • hunt around to score an old-fashioned tart white grapefruit. These are becoming rare as farmers plough them in or graft them over to sweeter varieties to please our ever-sweetening tooth
  • mmm, pears!
  • melons have been enjoying the long long summer. Try a rockie or piel del sapo
In season

May 10

In now: Much-derided choko remains crisp, sweet and juicy in a stirfry while taking up the flavours of the sauce.

At its best: Don’t be put off by wan complexions in pink lady apples. Autumn nights have been too mild to trigger the usual colour, but the flavour is still there.

Best buy: Warm weather has kept Asian vegetables growing fast. Take advantage of bargains.

In the vegie patch: Keep one of those chokos in the pantry until the fruit has sprouted then plant into a 12cm deep hole in a sunny spot with a climbing support. Harvest the fruit at egg size for best flavour.

What else:

  • horseradish grows fastest in late sumer and autumn, so expect supplies to pick up
  • Moree-grown pecans are harvested this month, so fresh local nuts should be in store soon
  • try Jerusalem artichokes boiled then fried with bacon batons and tossed through baby spinach leaves
  • time for cauliflower soup