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

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.




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.


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.



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 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.


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.


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.

Plants I love

Worsleya and other fans

worsleya procera

Worsleya in flower last year. So far, nothing this year, but there’s still time.

The flower of Worsleya procera looks like a lily, but it’s wisteria-purple, a colour you never get in a lily. One of its common names is blue hippeastrum, which doesn’t suit it as well as another, Empress of Brazil, which at least captures its sense of drama. The throat of the flower is white and as the petals extend, each with a ruffled edge, the colour builds in lines to be richest at the petals’ tips. A handful of blooms unfold from the single flowering stem so it’s quite a show, but I’d grow it even if those blue December blooms never appeared.

Some plants you grow only for their flowers. Hibiscus, for example: really, who’d bother if it weren’t for those stunning blooms. But others are fabulous, flowers or not, and this is one of them. Grey-blue, silky-smooth leaves curve out of the central stem, all in the same direction, so that rather than a fountain effect it creates a kind a rooster’s tail, but longer, firmer – and green. Or a ponytail, complete, with a curling twist at the end.


You see what I mean – who wouldn’t want this!

These fabulous good looks are augmented by rarity, and the fact that it’s the only child in the species, so that Worsleya is a kind of secret handshake amongst plant lovers who, spying it on a fellow gardener’s terrace feel an instant rapport.

In its native Brazil Worsleya grows on rock faces in subtropical rainforests among lichens and mosses where hot days and cool humid nights result in heavy dew and persistent mist. Replicating those conditions at home means it’s best grown in a pot in a free-draining mix of orchid bark mixed with coconut peat or pea gravel. Water it daily and protect it from afternoon sun. Find it occasionally at Growing Friends at the Botanic gardens, or at plant fairs and shows.

aloe plicatilis

I’ve long been mad for the fan effect of this aloe, and picked this one at at the Collectors’ Plant Fair this year.

Slightly less rare, but with a similarly desirable flat foliage effect, like a plant pressed to grow between the pages of a book, is Aloe plicatilis. Where Worsleya grows in just one direction, this aloe grows in two, symmetrically, with the thick succulent leaves lined up tight like a partly opened fan, giving it the common name of fan aloe. It’s endemic to just a few mountains in the Fynbos of South Africa. Slowly, over decades, it will get to 5m, with multiple fans on a thick corky trunk, but so far at my place it’s happy, small and handsome in a pot. A sunny spot with well-drained soil is essential, whether in a pot or garden bed.

aloe plicatilis

I saw this Aloe plicatilis in flower at the fabulous Ballarat Botanic Gardens on my recent Ross Gardens Tour of Victoria.

Smitten by Worsleya and A. plicatilis, I fell for another fan at Collectors Plant Fair this year, the irresistibly named Boophone (boo-oh-foe-nee). There are two to choose from: Boophone disticha, which was used to tip poison arrows by the Hottentots, Bushmen and Bantu of its native South Africa and grows in a fan of straight leaves; and Boophone hameanthoides, which looks like it stuck its finger in the electricity socket and ended up with a tightly frizzled perm. Each leaf of the fan is wavy-edged for maximum startle effect.

Collectors Plant Fair 2106, photo by Daniel Shipp

Thanks to Collectors Plant Fair and Daniel Shipp for this pic of the amazing Boophone hameanthantoides and its dried flower heads.

Apparently both these African bulbs will flower with single enormous pink-red heads. The aloe too promises to burst into bloom late one winter with spires of orange-red flowers. Though I’d miss the summer show of blue blooms on the Worsleya I’m not really fussed if none of these flowers. My collection of fans doesn’t need flowers to make it exotic.

It’s time to

See flowers
Perennial Hill is a English-style flower garden on the sunny side of ‘The Gib’ in Mittagong. It’s open weekends until mid-December, 10am-4pm, $7. www.perennialhill.com.au

Feed roses
Deadhead spent blooms and give plants a supplementary feed of specialised rose food, such as Sudden Impact for Roses.

Plant petunias
For long-lasting colour in the sun, try petunias. The dark purple ones have an evening fragrance so are good for pots near the outdoor table.

Trim lavender
Cut back lavender after each flush of flowers to promote another flush.

Other people's gardens

Disobedient gardens

The idea that a garden is a place of healing is now well established in the scientific literature. Central Coast-based garden designer Michael Cooke was forced into a very personal understanding of exactly how a garden is a place you nurture and which nurtures you back when, in 2012, he was seriously injured. Cooke, a keen and experienced horse rider had a serious fall and was in a coma for nine days. The prognosis looked grim, but after months of physiotherapy, exercise physiology, speech and occupational therapy, Cooke was allowed home. Little by little he ventured back into the garden, where he found solace, inspiration and the revelation that this – family, friends and gardens – was all he wanted. He has attempted to capture this sense of the richness offered by life in the garden in his new book, co-authored with photographer Brigid Arnott, called Disobedient Gardens, and he reckons the project was a big part of his recovery.

Garden by Michael Cooke

“I believe the time I spent writing this book,” he says, “reflecting and thinking about the gardens I created, together with being outside working, and just walking about looking at the garden with my dogs by my side, is what really healed me.”

The evocative title suggests gardens that are badly behaved, but by disobedient Cooke means a garden that balances manicured and wild elements and that reveals its own character rather than being dominated by a gardener, or worse by a designer. He favours textures that are weathered and organic, messy and time-affected over the shiny, neat and new. He likes a garden that has grown in a relationship with its owners, each impacting on the other to create a place of character, memory and beauty.

Cooke has been working in the five gardens presented in the book for years, helping develop and shape their character. Included are Valleyfield, the garden of Buon Ricordo chef Armando Percuoco and Gemma Cunningham in the Hunter Valley; a Georgian cottage with bucolic views at Foxground on the South Coast; an historic garden at Mount Wilson; a long-time friend’s large garden in the Central Coast and Cooke’s own home, Hawthorne.

Garden by Michael Cooke

Images from Disobedient Gardens by Michael Cooke and Brigid Arnott (Murdoch Books) $59.99

It’s Hawthorne that is at the heart of the book, and Cooke wonders whether readers will find it too wild and unrestrained. Certainly gardeners on one end of the chaos-control spectrum will find the garden a cause of anxiety rather than healing. It looks loved and lived in, an aesthetic romantically captured by Arnott. Early winter light catches a dewy lawn and box balls clipped into irregular teardrops; Cooke’s studio is shot at sunset, golden light just visible through the trees, and echoed in the windows of the low-slung building, whose red roof seems perfectly matched by a froth of crabapple blossom; slanting sun catches the sheets drying on the old Hills Hoist above a carpet of fallen autumn leaves; even the mossy stone flagging on the terrace looks appealingly lived-in rather than merely grubby.

Garden by Michael Cooke

Images from Disobedient Gardens by Michael Cooke and Brigid Arnott (Murdoch Books) $59.99

The seesaw between control and chaos is explored in each garden in the book, and the images, along with Cooke’s evocative story-telling, will have you considering the balance of restraint and wildness in your own garden and how noting how getting it right creates a place that feels like home.

Garden by Michael Cooke

Images from Disobedient Gardens by Michael Cooke and Brigid Arnott (Murdoch Books) $59.99

It’s time to

Head east
When Ellerslie Garden Show was sold to Christchurch council, and then failed to make as much money as the council expected it was mothballed. Slipping into the garden show gap – Auckland. See the New Zealand Flower and Garden Show in Auckland, November 23-27.

Fill the house with plants
One of the most annoyingly anachronistic bits of last year’s A Little Chaos movie about Versailles, was Kate Winslett’s character’s achingly hipster courtyard garden. It could have been designed by Rose Ray and Caro Langton, two London-based plant sellers and stylists who perfectly grasp modern interior plant-scaping. Their new book, House of Plants: Living with succulents, air plants and cacti, Quarto, $40, shows how it’s done.

Look for bugs
Bronze orange bugs are big bugs, often with brightly coloured backs that suck on citrus. Their very size is intimidating, especially en masse. Knock occasional visitors off the tree, and then step on them. For larger gangs, spray with something like Yates Nature’s Way Citrus and Ornamental Spray.

Feed the hydrangeas
Use a flower-boosting foliar feed as hydrangeas prepare to launch the show.


Other people's gardens

Cool climate treats

The spring garden-visiting season is nearly over. If you spent some time looking at someone else’s garden this spring, join the club. Garden visiting is a massive tourism-related activity, but it essentially operates underground. There are no useful figures that show how popular looking at other people’s gardens, both private and pubic, is in Australia, but in the US garden tourism generates more revenue than any other form of tourism, including gambling. Because garden viewing is widely spread, often involves volunteers and doesn’t employ lobbyists, it doesn’t draw attention to its economic benefits, though Singapore’s massive tourism boost courtesy of Gardens by the Bay has been an eye-opener for the bean-counters.

So why do we go see gardens? One reason was right in front of me waving its lolly-pink hands as I rambled through gardens in the Southern Highlands recently. The Chinese cedar, Toona sinensis ‘Flamingo’, previously Cedrela, in spring is the colour of fairy floss. It’s screamingly pink, floaty as chiffon, elegantly tall and slender and irresistible to gardeners who live in cold climates.

Toona sinensis, Chinese cedar

Experiencing stuff you just can’t grow is one of the lures of garden visiting. In cool climates, Cedrela makes me laugh, I can’t walk past a lilac without sticking my head in for a deep breath of that amazing fragrance, and I am struck green with envy by the gorgeous tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera. I first noticed this tree in autumn when its crown glows as yellow as Irish butter. The leaves have the shape you’d cut out of paper if you had to show a tulip about to fall apart. I assumed that was the source of its common name, until I saw it in flower in spring. The flowers are like mini tulips, held facing upwards, in amazing graduated tones of green and orange. It’s stunning.

Tulip tree, Liriodendron

And then there are the maples – all those soft-leafed, highly dissected Japanese maples look so good in cool climate gardens just coming into delicate leaf in spring. The leaves flutter like feathers in the slightest breeze, and then slowly settle back into a dome that demands to be stroked. (These maples sneak into cooler gardens in Sydney, in places where they can be offered protection from crisping westerlies and scorching afternoon sun: not at my place.)

Japanese maple, Acer palmatum 'Kinshi'

Seeing plants you know used in new ways, meeting unfamiliar plants, seeing how space is used, how the gardens relate to the house, where the seats are placed, even how the practical things work, like where the bins go, and the clothes line, and how the watering works; all these inspire factors gardeners to go garden visiting. But ultimately the lure of another’s garden is the pleasure of being in a beautiful place, with nothing to do, not a weed to pull, simply for the joy of it.

Garden seat

There are just a few weeks left to visit someone else’s spring garden: check My Open Garden for late season offerings, and expect most garden gates to be shut by the end of the month.


It’s time to

Boost your skills
The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney has teamed up with horticulturists from Yates to offer monthly workshops on garden know-how. Next up – Growing Summer Vegies and Herbs on Friday November 25, at Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan and Saturday November 26 at Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, 10am-2pm, $95, includes a Yates ‘starter pack’ to take home.

Check the tank
A rainwater tank is an excellent way to save water to spend on the garden, but only around half of installed tanks are used, primarily because they are not working properly. Get the tank fixed before the hot dry weather arrives.

See Melbourne gardens
Garden DesignFest opens more than 30 private gardens, designed by professionals, in Melbourne and rural Victoria over two weekends, 12 and 13, and 19 and 20 November.www.gardendesignfest.com.au

Plant a mango
New dwarf varieties get to around 4m, small enough for many suburban gardens. Plant into a sunny spot where soil has been enriched with plenty of compost and old manure.



Other people's gardens

Big ideas for small gardens

I can’t win – this weekend there’s no gardening in Spectrum because there’s too much advertising! So this week’s dose of gardening life comes from the current issue of Garden Clinic and it offers a few suggestions for making the courtyard a more satisfying space. If this seems like just the thing you need to find out more about, you’re in luck. Next Saturday, November 12, Richard Unsworth and Linda Ross are holding a workshop on using pots and plants to create creative small outdoor spaces at Garden Life in St Peters, 11am-2pm. It’s free for Garden Clinic members (sign up here) and $65 for non-members, including refreshments. Book on 1300 133 100.

Garden by Garden Life, photo by Nicholas Watt

Garden by Garden Life, photo by Nicholas Watt

Big ideas for Small gardens

Courtyard and balcony gardens are less forgiving than suburban gardens. A big garden can ramble a bit, drawing you past a bit of a dead patch with the lure of the something great glimpsed just around the corner. But in a small garden everything is on show, all the time. So those tired potted plants that have outlived or outgrown their containers nag us with their sad faces. The impulse purchases pile up near the tap or the back door in a dispiriting way; the paint chipping off the furniture has turned from rustic to ruined. There’s nothing for it, but to start again with a fresh eye and new inspiration.

For most of us a small garden makeover won’t mean changing anything expensive, like the flooring or walling of courtyards and balconies, but simply re-dressing the space with new plants, and perhaps some new containers, a fresh coat of paint, and a cushion. For inspiration we turned to Richard Unsworth, whose design business, shop and book, all called Garden Life, are a storehouses of great ideas for small spaces. See how you can work a few of his top tips into your own small garden space.

Keep it simple

Garden by Garden Life, photo by Paul Sinclair

Photo by Paul Sinclair

Simple works best in a small space, says Richard Unsworth. This courtyard is about eating outdoors, and the black and white tones of the dining table and chairs are echoed in courtyard floor and in the black and white pots and hanging lanterns. The space is completely engaging, with something to look at on all levels, from the shadows cast by the kentia palm on to the floor, to the hanging pots and lanterns and the big-banana-like leaves of giant strelitzia overhead.

Scale it up

Garden by Garden Life, photo by Nicholas Watt

Photo by Nicholas Watt

Richard reckons the number one mistake that home gardeners make in putting together a courtyard or balcony garden is in choosing small features to fit the small space. Small plants and furniture only make the space appear smaller he says. Instead, he advises, make a big gesture. Use a couple of big pots with big plants to give the space structure, then fill in the structure with smaller pots. Also consider how are you going to use the space. Do you need a table and chairs for dining, or could you eat inside and use the space for an outdoor lounge or one really great chair? Once you have the structure sorted, balance the hard and soft elements, making sure that there is not so much hard floor, wall or pot surface that the space feels unwelcoming. Use hanging or climbing plants to soften walls, and trail plants over pots to soften their edges.

On this terrace, the custom-made planters are scaled up. The central planter is large enough for a pair of mature dwarf date palms, two prized sculptures and supporting planting. In cylindrical pots of matching colour cloud-pruned junipers offer a contrast of shape and texture.

Show off

Garden by Garden Life

Small spaces look best when there is a certain amount of coherence and repetition in the materials and the plants used. But where does that kind of discipline leave us plant lovers! We know that the mass of little pots featuring our current treasures looks a bit of a mess. And yes, it’s hard to look after and a nightmare to sweep!- but we can’t help our urge to collect and our need to nurture. The solution, says Richard, is a display table. A handsome, or suitably rustic, table can be used to create an ever-changing display of treasures: plants we have recently fallen in love with; much-loved sculptures; a few precious rocks or shells or other found objects. A display table solves the collection problem – it looks good, is fun to arrange – and is easy on the back.

This is an especially stunning display table, anchored by the antique Sri Lankan brass ornament whose arching shape is mirrored in the frame of flowering star jasmine curving around an arched French door, but the idea – a careful composition of pieces and plants to nurture and love – is one that is easily replicated at home.


Mix textures

Garden by Garden Life

Too many different materials and plants crammed into a small space is dizzyingly busy, but the strict minimalism of all-matching pots and a limited plant palette is dull. Richard advises a careful blend of textures to keep everything balanced but interesting. Choose plain containers as a base –perhaps matte dark lightweight and cheap fibreglass – and contrast them with a few unusually shaped terracotta pots and perhaps a striking bronze or ceramic container filled with something eye-catching. Likewise put some coherence into structural or screening plants, then mix up textures in the rest of the planting, contrasting soft and hard, filmy and sharp, big and small.

The different textures of grey pots, side table stools and sofa cushions form a harmonious background against which the textures of succulent, strappy and bold foliage plants stand out, complemented by coloured soft furnishings and the sheen of a burgundy ceramic jug. Geo screens hide the car space and the neighbour’s wall in this inner west terrace courtyard.

5 great plants for balconies

Magnolia ‘Little Gem’ is a popular choice for small gardens, but beware – these evergreen beauties don’t like living in a pot for long. Better long-term choices are citrus and olives.

Sanseveria, (let’s not call it mother-in-law’s tongue) – is great value in shade. ‘Mason’s Congo’ has big fat speckled leaves; S. stukyii has long cylindrical spires of grey-green leaves; and ‘Silver Sword’ has striking blue-green foliage.

Hot sun:
The rush-leafed bird of paradise, Stelitzia juncea, is hardy in a really exposed spot, including blasting westerly sun. It tolerates dry spells and general neglect and only needs to have the faded flowers removed.

Rhipsalis, donkey’s tail sedum, purple or variegated tradescantia, and Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ are all good hanging from pots to curtain a wall, or trailing over containers to soften the edges.

Chinese star jasmine, Trachelopsermum jasminoides, is hard to beat for wall covering as it takes full sun or full shade, is covered with foliage from top to bottom and has flowers too.

Other people's gardens

Gardening for good

I love the way gardening connects us to the past, to the generations of gardeners who have also found pleasure and satisfaction in growing things and making gardens. Of course it also connects us to our own past, and gardeners find they need that connection , even, or especially, when they no longer have a garden of their own. I was struck by the way that we will find a way to garden, somehow, when I met the volunteers who look after the garden at Lindesay in Darling Point, which is owned by the the Women’s Committee of the National Trust. Here’s the story I wrote for Spectrum about the garden:

You have to crouch down a bit to get the full effect of the views from Lindesay as they would have been when Campbell Riddell built his harbourside Gothic Revival villa at Darling Point in 1834. Stand tall and a conga line of tradie trucks, parked in the lane that has truncated the sloping lawn since early in the 20th century, are a visual intrusion. But get into the right position, one of the handily placed, black-painted ironwork benches will do fine, and you can link the lawn to an imagined set of stairs headed by a pair of impressive agaves, and conjure yourself into 19th century Sydney’s high society.

Lindesay, Darling Point

Volunteer gardener Ros Sweetapple is showing me around. Sweetapple started gardening at Lindesay in the early 1960s. The property had recently been willed to the Women’s Committee of the National Trust and the plan was to recreate a garden setting for the villa that was reminiscent of 19th century gardens. An English oak was planted as a symbol of ‘home’ for the first lady of the house, Caroline Riddell. A hoop pine was added to acknowledge the place of native auricarias in 19th century horticultural fashion and the central lawn sweeping down to the view was edged with other plants on the era’s must-have lists.

Lindesay, Darling Point

Ros Sweetapple gets to grips with the buxus.

Sweetapple jokes about having been closely supervised in the early days, and only allowed to trim the parterre with ‘nail scissors’. She also recalls visits made to Rookwood cemetery to collect cuttings of old roses so as to fill Lindesay’s beds with authentic 19th century plant material.

By 2014 the attempt to make a 19th century garden in the 21st century was failing and the focus on authenticity in plant material gave way to something far more elusive, a bid to recreate the sense of pleasure that being in the gardens at Lindesay had always provided; to offset the house and the views – without replicating a 19th century plant palette.

Lindesay, Darling Point

Partly this change had to do with pragmatism. Like all National Trust properties Lindesay has to sing for its supper. The weddings, functions, fairs, photo and film shoots that pay its way, all demand a garden that looks good every day of the year. To make it happen the mature plantings stayed but everything else went. Sydney-based garden designer, Christopher Nicholas, devised a planting plan that is modern, has references to the past and looks very good in a wedding photo. Flowers flush throughout the year, mostly in subtle blue tones, and never in enough chromatic dazzle to disrupt the tapestry of silver, blue and purple foliage that supplements the background greens, and complements any bridal party.

The team of volunteers keep it in great condition with five hours help a week from a professional, Nicholas Ball of Avant Design. Visit to see a precious slice of Sydney’s domestic history, and to nab some inspiration for textural planting in Sydney’s modern domestic gardens.

Lindesay, Darling Point

Lindesay is open to visitors on the first Thursday of every month except January, and its famous Christmas Fair is on November 17, 18 and 19. 1 Carthona Avenue, Darling Point.

It’s time to

Check the mulch
Use an organic mulch to reduce annual weeds, slow evaporation from the soil and maintain a more constant soil temperature. The ideal depth is about 50mm. Any deeper and water is prevented from reaching the soil and plant roots, any less and the benefits are missed.

Prune abutilon
Flowering slows in late spring and this is the best time to prune for a thicker shrub or to trim to fit the space.

Last chance
Florilegium: Sydney’s painted garden finishes its run at the Sydney Museum this weekend. The exhibition features botanical illustrations by internationally renowned artists of significant plants in the living collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. 10am -5pm, $12.

Feed the lawn
Use a lawn food to nourish new growth, water in well, and raise the blades on the mower a few notches to allow a longer leaf to shade roots over summer and prevent scorched patches.