Acquilegias, Old Wesleydale, Tasmania
Other people's gardens

Old Wesleydale

One from the vault again this week, a piece I wrote for Garden Clinic earlier this year about Scott and Deb Wilson’s wonderful Tasmanian garden, Old Wesleydale.

When people talk about Scott and Deb Wilson’s lovely garden what they mention first is the elephant hedge. The elephant in the room might be an unmentionable, but the elephant in the garden is a talking point. It came about by accident. Scott was wrestling, yet again, with a floppy old Lonicera nitida hedge in front of the house while Deb stood back, advising on the long view. Suddenly she saw a line of elephants begin to form, like cloud animals, out of the chaos. She alerted Scott, who accentuated the curves and lines and the elephant hedge was born.

Elephant hedge, Old Wesleydale, Tasmania

The hedge, which continues to grow and subtly change, is both light-hearted and seriously skilful and that combination of levity and a deep commitment to excellence runs right through Old Wesleydale. The property itself has a serious history. Set in the gorgeous countryside of the Meander Valley of northern Tasmania, backed by the deep blue ridges of the Great Western Tiers, this was frontier territory in the early 19th century. The property was half-fortress, half-farm, and the great drive leads not to the house, but to a massive barn, protected by a 2m high perimeter wall, and featuring window slits in the upper storey from which besieged pioneers could aim their muskets.

Acquilegias, Old Wesleydale, Tasmania

The heritage buildings were all dilapidated when the Wilsons arrived and they were given permission to restore the original lines of the barn, removing a later addition, as long as none of the materials were removed from the property. That left plenty of mellow old red bricks with which to build a walled garden on the northwest side of their new house. Scott’s hedge work is on show here too with sharply defined box hedges containing a froth and bubble of planting that changes with the seasons. In late summer there are lime heads of euphorbia and pink cones of echinacea, while in spring it’s all pretty nodding granny’s bonnets. Clematis and roses, including creamy ‘Lamarque’ and pretty ‘Pinkie’, clothe the walls, and hydrangeas bubble up in front of them. Heritage apple varieties from 1830s are grown as ‘step-‘over’ espaliers, tied on to hurdles of woven willow.

Hydrangeas, Old Wesleydale, Tasmania

Through the gate is another smaller walled garden where the walls contain enough warmth to extend the vegetable growing season. As well, towering delphiniums and fabulous dahlias are grown here to pick for the house. Raspberry canes are covered with fruit in summer.

 Old Wesleydale, Tasmania

At the rear of the house what was once a horse paddock is now the Terrace Garden. The tall silver trunks of birch dominate a play of light and shadow, the shade under the shining birches echoed in the light-dark coloration of a black-stemmed, white-flowered cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’, and in variegated hostas and lamium. Adding more light are philadelphus and viburnum, deutzia and windflowers. The whole garden is overlooked by 40 ‘Ranelagh’ crabapples.

Again hedges play an important part in the design here, guiding sight lines and adding structure to the plantings. Hedges of rugosa roses, hornbeam, elderberry and viburnum define different areas of the garden.

Old Wesleydale, Tasmania

Scott travelled to England to study the ancient craft of laying hawthorn hedges so that he could faithfully restore the kilometres of hawthorn hedges first laid by Irish and Scottish settlers to the area in the 1840s. Hedge laying involves making a partial cut in semi-mature wood then laying down and securing that cut stem. Suckers grow from the cuts and a dense hedge forms. That’s the 25-words-or-less explanation; the real thing is a bit more complicated, but Scott is now taking classes to spread the skill of maintaining our important landscape hedges.

One of the other historical landscape features of the garden that adds a special quality is the ha-ha at the front of property. The ha ha is an invisible but impenetrable barrier between the stock paddock and the garden, drawing the bucolic rural landscape into the garden without the visual interference of a fence. First developed in 17th century France, a ha ha consists of a steep sharp slope running into a rock or masonry retaining wall. Scott and Deb spent four years building their ha ha, using basalt and dolerite rock collected around the farm. The ha ha is typical of the approach of these two inspiring gardeners whose appreciation of history and old skills is matched by playful personal expression.

**You can stay in the old stone cottage on the property and pretend this gorgeous garden is yours for a bit. Details here. 

It’s time to:

Get to Bronte House
This inspiring garden is open tomorrow, Sunday 18 September, from 10am – 2pm. 470 Bronte Road, Bronte. Entry $2.

Cut back shrubby tibouchinas ready for a burst of spring growth.

Now that the weather is warming the whole garden can be fed with all-purpose fertiliser.

Make a list
Plant Lovers Fair at Kariong on the Central Coast on September 24 and 25 promises to fill your garden with new treasures. More than 40 specialist growers will bring their wares, and there’s a free speakers program.. Go to Plant Lovers Fair for details.


Other people's gardens

Happy Birthday Capability

This month marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. He’s the man responsible for the beautiful ‘natural’ landscapes that surround many great English estates, colouring the image of England as a ‘green and pleasant land’. A generation of young aristocrats in the mid-18th century returned from their Grand Tours keen to express their newly acquired ‘taste’ by, among other pursuits, pulling out their fathers’ dowdy old baroque gardens and replacing them with the bold plans of Capability Brown.

Brown’s plans were certainly bold. The distinguishing features of a Brown landscape: a serpentine lake resembling a river, with waterfalls; copses of trees on a ridge of hills; and parkland sweeping right up to the house, required massive changes to the topography, and also to the people who lived on the estates. One village, complete with church and graveyard, was moved when Brown decided it interrupted the views.

Croome court, National trust

Croome Court, Worcestershire, designed by Brown in 1758 and requiring the draining of a morass and removal of a village. Photo: The National Trust

His ambitious designs challenged contemporary engineering technologies and horticultural techniques, including the transplanting of mature trees to create those signature silhouetted clumps. Brown’s clients weren’t keen on waiting half a century for the expected effect to grow in, so he experimented with a number of transplant methods. His ‘transplanting machine’ was a long pole attached to cartwheels. The pole was tied to the tree while it was vertical, then lowered by ropes, wrenching the tree from the ground. Success rates varied.

Petworth Park, National trust

An aerial view of Petworth Park shows how Brown made the link between garden and natural landscape imperceptible. Photo: National Trust

Like any new fashion, Brown’s designs operated as a refutation of past practices. Flowers were banned, and so too was ‘foreignness’, represented in older gardens by classical statues, temples and references to antiquity. Instead the new landscapes were expressions of honest English virtues. Livestock replaced statuary as part of the decorative programme. A charming group of cows or sheep could be admired from the house, separated from it by a ha-ha. These ingenious in-ground barriers are formed by a ditch or steep slope bounded by a retaining wall, so that animals are restrained without a visual barrier.

Brown’s new landscapes were also pragmatic. Mowed by the estate livestock they were much less expensive to keep up so landowners could spend their disposable income on other pursuits – like fishing in the lakes and hunting in the woodlands. Brown’s heyday coincided with the development of better guns, so that hunting and shooting became a more important part of aristocratic leisure. Pheasants were introduced to England from India at this time too, and they liked to live on the edges of copses trees that were fortuitously features of Brownian plans.

Croome, National Trust

The stream at Croome, with a Brown signature planting of Lebanon cedars. Photo: National Trust

Brown’s plans were immensely popular and he worked on more than 170 estates through his career, transforming the landscape of England. In effecting that transformation he also changed perceptions of landscapes in a way that resonated across the English-influenced world for centuries. So when Lachlan Macquarie marked out the boundaries of the Botanic Gardens and Governor’s demesne (domain) 200 years ago, the landscapes of Capability Brown shaped his visions.

It’s time to

Plan for daffs
The heritage village of Rydal celebrates spring with thousands of daffodils blooming in public parks and private gardens. Gardens are open on 10-11 and 17-18 September. Go to for details and accommodation options.

Prune hydrangeas
Take out the weak and spindly branches and a couple of the oldest gnarliest ones to allow room for renewal, then cut off the dead flower heads, back to the first pair of fat buds.

Feed the vegies
Keep winter-growing vegetables moving with regular soluble fertiliser.

Other people's gardens

Small space gardening

The smaller the space available for private gardens the grander the public gardens. This seems to be the very pleasing credo of the Singapore government whose spending and commitment to public gardens and green space is inspiring.  Just imagine a government closer to home handing over more than 100 hectares of prime waterfront land for public gardens (and an army of workers to maintain it in beautiful condition) instead of, for example, allowing a billionaire to build a big casino.

While the public gardens – and even the street trees – are gorgeous, Singaporeans are also keen home gardeners, albeit in very limited areas.  So the locals at the biannual Singapore Garden Festival don’t crowd the Landscape Gardens designed by internationally renowned designers and constructed by local landscapers, like this very do-able design by Adam Frost, with a floating pavilion in a grove of Caesalpnia ferrea, and plantings of yellow and white flowers.

An Urban Jungle by Adam Frost, Singapore Garden Festival 2016

The crowds are at the displays of gardening on a much smaller scale. Like this from the Balcony Gardens section, with a leaf-papered wall featuring a display box of tillandsia and broms, and a  hat stand for a really ordinary cap.

Tillandsia hat stand

More traditional are the crafts of bonsai and penjing. Here’s one of the striking works in the calligraphy section of the bonsai pavilion, all of which were created by local enthusiasts. It is the symbol for happiness, turned upside down.  In the same way that Anglo superstitious types would never hang a horseshoe upside down in case the luck falls out, so at Chinese New Year Chinese superstitious types hang symbols for happiness upside down, so as to invite happiness in.


And for those without even a balcony with which to engage with green life, the show offered indoors inspiration, including these begonias in black frames hanging in a lounge room space.


Back outdoors Leon Kluge and Bayley LuuTomes offered a beautiful fantasy of garden living and a message of integrating the natural and man-made worlds. In their small spaces an integration of the natural and the man-made is exactly what Singapore’s garden-lovers aim for. Was it this resonating theme or the garden itself which scored for its designers the People’s Choice Award this year?Leon 'Back to Nature' by Leon Kluge and Bayley LuuTomes, Singapore Garden Festival 2016

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.


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.

Other people's gardens

Great garden ideas

My garden column isn’t running in Spectrum this week, due to a much-shrunken section. (Send your outraged notes directly to Herald!) So instead I thought I’d share some bits of a story I wrote for the current issue of Garden Clinic, highlighting some clever ideas from the professional designers who convinced their clients to open their gardens for the Hidden Festival of Outdoor Design this year.

Frame the view

Garden by Seed

Take a cruise around Sydney harbour and you see the same multi-million dollar mistake repeated all around the shoreline. People remove the trees, thinking they are maximising their view. So how fabulous is this! The client wanted the existing angophoras to stay, which was just fine with designer Jenny Paul of Seed Garden Design. She added clipped balls of westringia contrasted with the fine textured movement of Lomandra ’Tanika’ and purple fountain grass. Rather than blocking the view, the trees frame and change it so that is constantly shifts with each step you take on the terrace or in the house. Boats and water and the far horizon slide between the silky sculpted branches of the trees in a much more alluring way than if it was all in front of you, all the time.

Love the built-ins

Garden by Quercus


In small spaces chairs can cause of forest of legs that visually diminish the space, and makes getting around your guests with the pitcher of margaritas an obstacle course. Built-in seating is a clean-lined answer. In an inner city terrace courtyard, shown above, Richard Rimmell for Quercus built a bench seat into raised planting beds with maidenhair ferns enjoying the shade underneath.

Garden by Adam Robinson

In a small northern beaches courtyard designed by Adam Robinson, above, an L-shaped bench has wooden slats and seat, with cushions chosen to tie in with the colours of the garden and the interior of the house. The tropical foliage of frangipani, bamboo and Strelitzia nicolae explode overhead.

Live out the front

Garden by Marcis Hoskings

Too often our front gardens are used for show and not for living. Marcia Hosking of Hosking Partnership turned this around for her eastern suburbs clients. Their backyard is overlooked by towering apartments, but the front offered privacy behind a camellia hedge. Marcia pulled up the boggy and overshaded lawn and replaced it with paving broken up by rills of native violet, added a screen of sweet-smelling evergreen magnolia and a water-feature between two lovely weeping grafted mulberries, and atmospheric lighting. The family has been lunching and dining and entertaining out here ever since.

It’s time to

See grevilleas
The special enclosed section of the Illawarra Grevillea Park is only open a few days a year. This weekend, July 2-3 and next weekend, July 9-10 constitute the winter opening. Expect gorgeous grevilleas, great views and plants for sale. Grevillea Park Road, Bulli. Entry $5.

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.

Camellia sasanqua 'Plantation Pink'
Other people's gardens

Perfectly pruned camellias

As a role model for active retirement it’s hard to beat Eben Gowrie Waterhouse. When the Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Sydney retired in 1945 he turned his blazing intelligence and passion on what had already become a fascination with camellias. He researched the origins, culture and naming of camellias and developed several popular hybrids himself, co-founded the Australian and New Zealand Camellia Research Society, wrote a couple of books, started Camellia Grove Nursery in St Ives thereby colouring the north shore camellia, and developed an international reputation along the way. In his 80s he learned Japanese so he could talk camellias with Japanese colleagues.


The Hardie Wilson house has pleasing Georgian symmetry, and a lovely verandah. But best of all are the shadows thrown on the roof by the jacaranda. It was a seedling tree that popped up where you wouldn’t plant it given the choice, as its roots have distorted the terrace and tilted the steps, but it does look gorgeous.

Eryldene was E.G Waterhouse’s house and garden and it’s one of the unknown gems of Sydney’s north shore. The architect Hardie Wilson designed the house in Georgian colonial style in the early decades of last century and he and Waterhouse worked together on the garden, following an Arts and Crafts ‘garden room’ model.

Eryldene front temple and Camellia japonica 'oki-no-nami'

This little temple is in the front garden, and that’s Oki-no-nami- on the right, which has stripy red and white flowers except where they revert to the original red, giving the bush a two-tone look.

There are some fabulous garden buildings: a neat little temple in the front garden, a tennis pavilion around the back that is part Chinese pagoda, part Grecian temple, part shed; a dovecote/tool shed; art deco trellis archway; and Waterhouse’s study where he worked among Chinese and Japanese artworks. The planting follows Waterhouse’s ideas about controlled views and controlled colour, with limited yellow and orange flowers and at least 30 per cent white.

Eryldene deco trellis arch

This trellis arch was added after the house was built and has a deco styling, with great proportions.

There are 500 camellias in the garden, all of them more restrained in style than the bigger, flashier flowers developed since Waterhouse’s death in 1977. Camellia japonica ‘Fimbriata’ is typical and a Waterhouse favourite. It’s a pure white flower, perfectly sized for a buttonhole, with a serrated edge like a piece of frayed silk. It grows in a pot by a columned terrace at the back of the house, elegant and shapely.

Eryldene Camellia japonica 'Fimbriata'

Left to their own devices, camellias grow into big, dark shrubs, with flowers arranged along the sunny top where they can’t be seen. That’s not much use, so the gardeners at Eryldene manage a pruning program which sees trees grown too big given what volunteer garden co-coordinator Helen Wallace calls a ‘slaughter prune’, immediately after flowering. Camellias respond well to the pruning saw or chainsaw, and will even survive being cut off almost at ground level.

The cuts encourage thickets of new vertical growth, and this is where the real work comes in. Leave it alone and it will solidify into a dense head, shorter, but no lovelier than what was there before. Instead, the pruner needs to move in for the second phase, with secateurs instead of saw, and remove all but 4-5 of the new branches, selecting each to give the tree an interesting shape. Keep in mind the adage that camellias should be airy enough to allow a bird to fly through them.

Eryldene camellia

Instead of thick walls of dark green, camellias look best pruned so that they cast interesting shadows, and allow the birds through.

The camellias at Eryldene are all at different stages of this pruning process. Some are overgrown and ready for a cut after this year’s flowering; others were cut just last year, and this year are putting on growth but not flowers; and most show older cuts if you look closely through what is now a framework of beautiful branches with flowers at eye level.

So if you grow camellias, go to Eryldene this winter and make a study tour. And if you don’t grow camellias, go to enjoy one of the great beauties of Sydney’s garden history.

Eryldene is searching for garden volunteers. Experience and skills aren’t necessary, just a willingness to be involved and learn along the way. Call 02 94982271 for details.

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.

Other people's gardens

Gardening boosts wellbeing – who knew!

Gardening is good for mental health. To gardeners this is as obvious as a flowering daisy in a well-tended lawn, but scientists have now added evidence to match our personal experience. They have found that gardeners generally have greater life satisfaction, enhanced self-esteem, and fewer feelings of depression and fatigue than non-gardeners.And lest you think that simply shows that people who feel good, garden, a further study demonstrated that pottering about in the garden reduces stress following a stress test more effectively than relaxing in a chair inside with a book, or doing an indoor exercise class.

That last bit is important because it suggests that gardening’s mental health benefits aren’t related to exercise endorphins, but just to being outside growing things.

It’s these latter mood enhancers that lure nurseryman Tim Pickles into the garden after a working week spent talking plants and gardens at his eponymous garden centre in Campbelltown. “I need to plant things and look after them,” he says. “It makes me feel better. You can feel the stress leave your body. Even when it’s work, and trimming that hedge is work, the sense of satisfaction when it’s done makes it worth it.”

Tim Pickles garden

The hedge screens off the neighbours, but opens up to views of bucolic countryside. The daylilies planted here with bronze phormium are mown to the ground when they finish.

The hedge in question is 100m of Waterhousia floribunda, a handsome native with a weeping foliage habit and coppery new growth that Pickles first admired 20 years ago, hedged on either side of the tollbooths on the M5. His hedge provides the privacy Pickles craves around his five-acre property in the hills behind Camden, where he has planted more than 100 trees, mostly deciduous, to create a park-like space that is always changing in form and colour. The most recent addition is a fast-growing Brachychiton ‘Jerilderie Red’, planted in response to the news that a neighbour a kilometre away is building a house. The tree, 8m high and 7m wide, with stunning bell-shaped red flowers through summer, will neatly hide the distant house and maintain Pickles’ sense of being surrounded by nature.

Creating and maintaining this garden is stress relief, satisfaction and joy for Pickles. And he’s keen to share gardening’s good effects, so this weekend Tim’s Garden Centre is again participating in RELEAF. This is a Garden Centres of Australia initiative to encourage people into the garden for better mental health and to raise money for Beyond Blue.

Tim Pickles in garden

Tim in his cactus garden with one of the magnificent heirloom pumpkins his young son has been growing in the paddock, and which he gave to me. I plan to admire it for quite a bit longer before I cook it.

“I was surprised when we were involved in RELEAF last year to find how many people who came to the nursery had had been touched by suicide in their family or friends,” he says. “What we did meant a lot to those people. It’s not hard to help and that’s why we’re doing it again.”

‘Something Blue’ is the theme this year, and as well as a wide range of blue plants for sale, shoppers should expect staff in blue wigs and blue hats. Different garden centres are arranging different events; Pickles has organised experts in backyard chickens, backyard bees and balcony bonsai. The plan, he says, is to extend the range of reasons people might find to get into the garden and discover its benefits, no matter the garden’s style or size.

Tim Pickles garden

Beautifully pruned Chinese elm in Tim’s garden, with that Waterhousia hedge, bronze flax and masses of ‘Wavy Navy’ aggies.

RELEAF is at participating garden centres on April 9 and April 10. More:

It’s time to

Buy something unusual
Collectors’ Plant Fair offers rare, unusual and unfashionable garden treasures from more than 70 specialist nurseries. April 9 and 10, Hawkesbury Race Race Club, Clarendon, tickets at the gate $14 on Saturday, $12 on Sunday. More:

Botanical art
Acknowledging the 200th anniversary of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney this year’s Botanica exhibition has a focus on the native plants of Sydney and those that arrived with the early settlers. All works are for sale. Saturday April 9 – Sunday May 1, 10am – 4pm, Lion Gate Lodge, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, free entry.

Divide daisies
Shaggy white perennial shasta daisies are finished for the year. Trim them back, and if necessary lift and divide the clump, repeating it elsewhere in the garden, or sharing with friends.

Sow pea seeds
Climbing types offer bigger harvests than bush types, but do require a trellis or other support. Add a handful of lime to compost-enriched soil and direct sow seeds thumb-deep.


Other people's gardens

Charlie Albone goes to Chelsea

Landscape designer Charlie Albone has just shipped three big bluestone slabs to England. Originally part of a solid 19th century Melbourne bank, in May the slabs will form part of the water feature at the back of Albone’s garden design for the Chelsea Flower Show.

It will be Albone’s second attempt at winning a gold medal at Chelsea, and it’s not going to be easy. The bid to turn gardening, surely the planet’s least competitive activity, into an Olympics-style competition forces Chelsea’s Royal Horticultural Society judges to be hawkishly pedantic. Albone’s slip-ups last year: “I had written in my brief that the garden was to be enclosed by a hedge, but my hedging plants didn’t have enough leaves to enclose the garden,” he explains. “Also some lighting points needed to be better hidden, a few plants were in the wrong place…”

Charlie Albone Chelsea 2015

Here’s Charlie in his Chelsea 2015 garden, sponsored by Husqvarna, suited up for judging.

In the vein of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, within a month of his silver-gilt disappointment, Albone had decided to return to Chelsea. Partly he says, it’s the highly competitive sliver of him that wants that gold. “Also it’s fun. There’s a great atmosphere for the 21 days of the build and the show, and you get to design and build what you want.”

Charlie Albone garden Chelsea 2015

My favourite part of Charlie’s Chelsea 2015 garden was the water feature, which seemed in inhale and exhale as it filled and drained away. A little too quickly to be as moving as it could have been, but it had to be fast enough to catch the crowd’s attention.

Like the 2015 garden, this year’s design presents the garden as a place of emotional healing. “I have a busy life, with tv [Albone is a presenter of Selling Houses Australia], two young kids, a business, and Chelsea, and my own garden gives me a lot of support. Being in the garden settles me and I wanted to show that.”

Support: The Husqvarna Garden is imagined as a garden for a busy professional couple. An entrance flanked by mature banksias leads to a sunken lawn, backed by water falling silkily over those bluestone slabs. The lawn will be fringed by purple, white and pink perennials spiked with acacia, protea, and dark purple leucadendron.

The perennials will be sourced in the UK, but the Australian and South African plants are grown in nurseries in Spain, and Albone spent a speedy four days at the end of February visiting 14 nurseries to choose the individual plants. By April 30 when they head to the competition the team of eight will have gone over every detail of the build, because nipping down to Bunnings for something you forgot is not an option.

This year Albone reckons the hot competition will be from two-time Best in Show winner Cleve West; Dairmid Gavin, whose work inspired Albone to take up a career in landscape design; and James Basson, whose ‘Perfumer’s Garden in Grasse’, for l’Occitane, was Albone’s favourite from the Chelasea 2015 line-up show. [You can read more about that garden and the Best in Show for 2105 here.]

Chelsea 2015 James Basson

James Basson’s gorgeous 2015 landscape for L’Occitane was, A Perfumer’s Garden in Grasse.

It’s three years since Melbourne landscape designer Philip Johnson won a gold medal and Best in Show at Chelsea, the first time for an Australian designer.

Philip Johnson Chelsea 2013

In case you’d forgot, this was Philip Johnson’s winning garden. If you ever get a chance to listen to him tell the story of the win, grab it.

Consequently it was the first time in living memory that gardening took up front page space on Australian newspapers. Albone is keen that an Australian presence continue at Chelsea. “Our quality of design and tradesmanship is excellent and I think it’s important that’s represented on the world stage,” he says. Yes, but can he deliver garden-lovers another headline!

It’s time to:

Pick a free tree
The City of Sydney is giving away 1000 free trees to residents of the City of Sydney next Saturday, March 12 at Sydney Park. There are small medium, deciduous, evergreen, native and exotic choices. Take a rates notice or driver’s license to prove your bona fides. The giveaway starts at 10am and lasts only til the 1000th tree.

See roses
Goulburn calls itself the City of Roses and boasts more than 8000 named roses in its public gardens alone, as well as its own rose, ‘City of Goulburn’, a floribunda with scallop-edged apricot blooms. The city’s annual rose festival in on March 12-13. Details:

Volunteer for Vaucluse House
Vaucluse House is looking for new garden volunteers to maintain and develop the gardens, in particular the heritage kitchen garden. Volunteers work every second Monday 9am-1pm. Here’s the application information.  Applications close March 14.

Get to the Fair
Lanyon is an historic homestead and garden on the southern outskirts of Canberra. In autumn it plays host to the Canberra Plant Fair. This year more than 30 stallholders will gather on March 12 and 13, from 10am-4pm. More:

Other people's gardens

Stringybark Cottage

As a measure of how much a cool climate aesthetic pervades ideas of the garden consider this: of the eight private Australian gardens featured n Phaidon’s massive account of worldwide gardens, The Gardener’s Garden, only one can be found north of Canberra. The single standout from the temperate and sub-tropical climes is Stringybark Cottage, home to New Zealand-born garden designer and horticulturist Cheryl Boyd. Surely Stringybark is not the country’s only impressive warm-climate garden but it certainly deserves its spot in the parade.

Stringybark cottage

Boyd has carved the garden out of towering stringybark and tallowood forest in the Noosa hinterland, not far from Eumundi. In keeping with traditional landscape approaches, the garden is quite formally arranged around the house. Borders wrap around a lake-like lawn that gives out through curved low hedges and an archway to garden rooms and a wilder garden beyond. Here formality melts into the forest so that the borders between garden and bush become invisible. What looks like wilderness is revealed as an artfully edited clearing, where bleached wooden chairs, made from wood harvested on the property, have grown lichen and scales. Stories told around the fire pit seem to have seeped into their skin.

Boyd is an endless experimenter with plants, mixing textures and colours to create arresting and original combinations. At the back of the house a scramble of white bougainvillea weeps and twists like bridal finery over the stiff bold form of red-backed alcantera. In the shade tassel fern and electric ferns offer a lacy counterpoint to the bold, almost plastic perfection of anthirium flowers. A favoured groundcover combination is deeply pleated and variegated pilea (sometimes found in Sydney garden centres as an indoor plant, but reliable outside where there are no frosts) with burgundy-tipped bromeliads.

Stringybark cottage, alcantera and bougainvillea

Her artist’s eye extends beyond the planting and layout to sculpture that makes clever use of found objects. A giant disco ball made from collected sticks is suspended from trees in front of the house; a twig tepee glitters in occasional sunlight through the trees; and an old truck cable winds like a diamond python up a trunk. There are cairns of stones on stumps, and garden archways made from the prunings of the crepe myrtles.

Stringybark cottage

It’s a garden of magic, surprise and beauty, and as a bonus it has one of the best-looking pools I’ve seen in a private garden. Irregularly shaped with a sand-coloured surround that gradually deepens, and a rock-marked paddling area, it is the antithesis of the glaring aqua rectangle. The pool is backed by the impressive silver fans of Bismarkia plams, a great match for the driftwood-grey Adirondack chairs by the pool edge.

Stringybark cottage

 I’ll be talking to Boyd about the garden, her sculpture, and how well her plant choices translate to Sydney gardens at Collectors Plant Fair on Sunday April 10, Hawksesbury Racecourse, Clarendon. Tickets, $35,

Stringybark Cottage, anthirium and ferns

Other people's gardens

Filling in the pool

Barbara Landsberg garden

What to do when a swimming pool has reached the end of its useful life? In this Rose Bay garden the pool’s use-by expired two years ago. The grandchildren had long since abandoned the blow-up purple octupus that was once a summer stalwart, the stone paving was cracked and the pipes were rusty.

When landscape architect Barbara Landsberg was first briefed about filling in the pool, she imagined it becoming a lawn terrace, edged with hedge, forming a green foreground to a view of the city, just as the pool had done in aqua. But that was before she met the pool’s owner and wandered through her garden. Landsberg’s 86-year-old client, (who wishes to remain anonymous) has lived here since 1960 and still gardens every day.

Foliage textures

Her existing garden was a fascinating collection of plants in pots and in the ground, each with its own story of provenance or family history. Landsberg immediately realised that a lawn terrace would be exactly wrong. Instead her solution is an intensely planted garden of winding paths and curved beds packed with horticultural interest. The paths seamlessly combine new stone paving with the old stone flagging and the curved beds allow for easily reachable plants, all low enough to handle and to not obscure the view.

Barbara Landsberg garden

But first, the pool. Full of water, the structure of the pool helped stabilise the garden beds, paths and sandstone terraces of this sloping property. So simply emptying it and demolishing the shell posed structural risks. Instead, the pool was decommissioned, but the structure retained and turned into a kind of giant plant pot. A silt basket was put in place over the drainage hole then road base was pumped in and topped with 70 cubic metres of soil.

foliage textures

Landsberg’s client was keen to join the fashion for succulents, which Landsberg matched with grey and silver foliages and small, soft flowers. She also left plenty of planting gaps, knowing that her client was an avid reader of Lambley and Diggers catalogues, and an inveterate nursery visitor. The result is a textural and tactile garden whose paths you can’t walk without patting something or other and admiring a new plant combination. From the shaded terrace of the house, the pool garden is a patchwork of low colour, its paths an invitation to explore. It looks great and delivers what the pool no longer did – hours of fun.

Lycoris lutea

Even better, you can admire it yourself at the Hidden Design Festival, when Sydney’s best landscape architects convince their clients to open their gardens to the public. Eight gardens are participating this year, with the designers present to answer questions. A bonus fringe Hidden day on April 30 will take in three Blue Mountains gardens, including Landsberg’s Withycombe, at Mount Wilson. April 2-3, $33 (Sydney-Mountains combo tickets $55).

It’s time to:

Get a free tree
The City of Sydney is giving away 1000 free trees to residents of the City of Sydney next Saturday, March 12 at Sydney Park. There are small medium, deciduous, evergreen, native and exotic choices. Take a rates notice or driver’s license to prove your bona fides. The giveaway starts at 10am and lasts only til the 1000th tree.

See roses
Goulburn calls itself the City of Roses and boasts more than 8000 named roses in its public gardens alone, as well as its own rose, ‘City of Goulburn’, a floribunda with scallop-edged apricot blooms. The city’s annual rose festival in on March 12-13. Details:

Volunteer for Vaucluse House
Vaucluse House is looking for new garden volunteers to maintain and develop the gardens, in particular the heritage kitchen garden. Volunteers work every second Monday 9am-1pm. Find the application form at Applications close March 14.

Get to the Fair
Lanyon is an historic homestead and garden on the southern outskirts of Canberra. In autumn it plays host to the Canberra Plant Fair. This year more than 30 stallholders will gather on March 12 and 13, from 10am-4pm. More:

Buy begonia
The annual NSW Begonia Society sale is on this weekend at 226 Annangrove Road, Annangrove, from 10am-4pm on Saturday 12 March and 10am-3pm on Sunday 13 March. Stock up on the ground-covering, shrub and cane begonias that do so well in Sydney. 226 Annangrove Road, Annangrove. Gold coin admission.

Other people's gardens

Great plant matches

Last week in Spectrum I wrote about Deidre Mowat’s fabulous garden. Given the constraints of 450 words I had to narrow my focus to just a few of the justicias that Deidre grows. And that meant I didn’t get a chance to talk about Deidre’s great plant matches. Here are just three that took my eye on the day:

The magic of coleus #1

Coleus and abutilon

How good does this abutilon look with the red-splashed lime leaves of a coleus. Coleus are great for filling in gaps and for playing around with colour and texture as they offer so many options.  They propagate easily from cuttings, so don’t pass one in a friend’s garden without begging a bit. My other go-to is the Growing Friends at Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, which has an ever-expanding collection of coleus. They don’t always make it through winter in my garden so I take insurance cuttings of my favourites and keep them in water to plant out as soon as the weather warms. (Make sure other people in your household know what you are doing – last year a helpful housemate tossed the manky-looking glass of rooted but admittedly ugly cuttings thinking he was cleaning up. I lost the lot.)
The magic of coleus #2

Coleus and fucshia triphylla

This time  a burgundy and red match with the frogs-foot style coleus pairing with the old Fuchsia triphylla, which is a terrific plant in Sydney. It flowers almost all year and has felty dark foliage. Take cuttings in autumn and spring, and prune them in late winter if you need to.

Groundcover brights

tradescantia zebrina and hypoestes

The tradescantia that is commonly called wandering jew is a terrible pain, and this pretty silver and purple one, T. zebrina is also over-ambitious, but it looks great here peeking through a white polka dot plant, Hypoestes phyllostachya.  They are a good match for each other as both are as pushy as stage mothers.  They are shade lovers and dry conditions only slow them up a bit, so they are very useful in the dark, dry, difficult parts of the garden. It’s easy to pull out the excess so they don’t dominate gentler companions.

If you haven’t yet discovered Deidre’s blog, make sure you do. It’s a mine of practical information about growing plants that are perfectly suited to Sydney.



Other people's gardens

Late summer specials

Deidre Mowat had a dismayingly large box of labels from plants she had killed before revelation struck. “It was when Christopher Lloyd ripped out the rose garden at Great Dixter,” she recalls. “The ideal of the garden changed.” Inspired, she retained the English garden style of harmoniously toned borders but ditched the cool climate perennials she had always dreamed would do well in her Beecroft garden and didn’t, and started to focus on plants that really did do well. On her new list were plants from Sydney-like climates in South and Central America, South Africa and parts of Asia.

Cool climate gardens look tired by the end of summer, but Mowat’s warm-temperate and sub-tropical beauties are at their most vivid and abundant from February through April. There are salvias and dahlias, pentas and gaura, abutilon and cupheas, and in the shade, plenty of justicias.

I interrupted Deidre deadheading the dahlias in the pink and purple full-sun border at the front of the house.

This sub-branch of the Acanthaceae family is often seen in old gardens. Indeed, Mowat picked up the cuttings of many of her plants from generous older gardeners. She pays forward their generosity by passing on cuttings to friends and garden club members, and by sharing her knowledge and experience on her always informative blog, iGarden.

Justicias are untroubled by pests and diseases, easy to propagate and fabulous through late summer. Best-known of the gang is the shrimp plant, Justicia brandageeana. This reliable trouper grows and flowers in sun or shade, pretty much all year. Choose from the common terracotta version, lime green ‘Lutea’, ‘Big Red’ or ‘Fruit Salad’.

Justicia brandegeeana 'Lutea'

Here’s the gold shrimp plant with fellow Acanthaceeae family member, Acanthus mollis. Deirdre thinks the family always looks good together. Sure does here.

Also familiar is Justicia carnea, commonly called plume flower, which comes in a pastel pink; dark carmine with burgundy-backed leaves; handsome but less robust white; or gold. These wilt in the sun but are perfect shaded by trees or large shrubs. Deadhead blackened flowerheads to promote new blooms. Mowat cuts her shrimp plants and plume flowers back by at least half at the end of winter to defeat any lanky tendencies, and follows the chop with a good feed.

Justicia carnea

Justicia carnea looks great if you can find a protected position where the sun can light the flower plumes from behind.

Also desirable is 1m tall J. brasiliana, which holds a fan of pink flowers in its leaf axils so that they appear to be cascading down the branches. And I just can’t leave the wonderful exuberance and beautiful colour tonings of Mowat’s garden without a cutting of, Justicia scheidweileri, a groundcover justicia sometimes called purple shrimp plant. It lights up shade with its silver-streaked leaves, and has burgundy and purple flower spikes all year except in the worst heat of summer.

Justicia scheidweileri

Even without the purple and burgundy flower spikes this is a beauty for shade.

All of these plants are easy to grow in Sydney, but are not easy to find in garden centres. Track them down at the Growing Friends plant sales, Monday – Friday 11am-2pm and Saturday, 10am-2pm at Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney; at the Collectors Plant Fair, Hawkesbury Racecourse Clarendon, April 9 and 10; and at garden clubs (check for your local). And if you see them in a friend’s garden, beg a cutting.

Justicia betonica

In the middle here is one more justicia I didn’t have room to write about in Spectrum. It’s j. betonica, with spires of tight white bracts around pale pink flowers. It gets to a metre. Deidre tip prunes it through the growing season and hacks it back hard in late winter to stop it getting lanky.

It’s time to

See Central Coast gardens
Planty Fierce is a garden day out on the Central Coast next Saturday March 5, 10am-4pm. See four never-before-open gardens, and pick up some new plants. Entry to the gardens is free. Find details and addresses at

Dwarf bougainvillea
Jan Iredell has been breeding dwarf bougainvillea for years. Her new release is ‘Babybino Mimipur’, a true pot bougainvillea, which grows to just 60cm high. Expect three protracted bursts of flowering a year covering the plant in magenta-purple.

Sydney’s newest garden centre, Honeysuckle Garden, at 500 Military Road, Mosman, won Best Retail Nursery in the country in the Nursery and Garden Industry Australia awards last week.

Feed hibiscus
Hibiscus are always hungry; keep the flowers coming with a dose of flower-promoting fertiliser. Like big flowers? Look for the Summerific range of hibiscus, which boasts flowers up to 10cm across on a deciduous shrub to just 1m.




Other people's gardens

Prize-winning tomatoes

Clare Payne entered last year’s Tastiest Tomato category at the Royal Botanic Gardens Tomato Festival as a bit of fun. She decided to put her tomatoes to the test on the day of competition, encouraged, not to say goaded, by her neighbour who had won the previous year. Payne picked her ripest, best-looking tomatoes, which happened to be the handsome gold and red streaked berries of a variety called ‘Pink Bumblebee’, and headed into town.

Prize tomato, Pink bumblebee with Sugar Tom

As a very part-time gardener and full time music teacher Payne didn’t expect to take out the prize. She lives on the lower north shore and like most city gardeners the available space for edibles is pocket-sized. Squeezed between the house and a council-managed bush path are masses of herbs, beans, potatoes, eggplants, chillis, and those tomatoes.

Payne doesn’t think of herself as a serious vegetable gardener so when the judges named her tomato the winner she burst out laughing.

This year things are not looking promising. The summer’s very hot, very wet weather has been compounded by a late start, a long holiday and rampaging possums.

Last year her prize-winners were grown from seed, which she thinks gives plants a sturdier start in life. This year time constraints demanded seedlings, namely a punnet of heirlooms from Diggers, which went into the garden at the end of November. She only grows the less demanding cherry-type tomatoes, and gardens organically, relying on the quality of her homemade compost to boost growth, and companion plantings of basil and marigold to confuse pests. Brown leaves from the bottom of plants are binned to keep plants clean and they are watered at root level, never over the leaves, to reduce mildew risk. She doesn’t remove the laterals, figuring that more growth means more flowers and more tomatoes.

A few weeks out from competition, I visited for a pre-competition trial of ‘Pink Bumblebee’. This tomato is not strictly an heirloom, but a relatively new, open-pollinated variety that has been very successful for farmer’s market growers in the US. It’s very pretty, almost heart-shaped and with skin that looks to have been painted by a watercolour artist. Anticipation is high, but our first taste is underwhelming. Though juicy and with great texture, the flavour is a little thin and watery. “I’m gutted,” says Payne with a laugh. Our next one is better and the flavour is pleasingly fresh, but neither of us thinks it tastes like a winner.

Payne is hoping that a few sunny days will intensify the flavour in the still-green trusses, but a back-to-back win seems unlikely. The field is wide open, so if you’re proud of your tomatoes go for gold! And if you’re not, head to the Tomato Festival for the tomato taste test, which is on both Saturday and Sunday from 11.30am to 1.30pm and work out which tomato will get the run of your garden next summer.

To enter the Tastiest Tomato competition take two tomatoes of the same variety to the Botanic Gardens Loading Dock in Mrs Macquarie’s Road between 10am and 12pm on Sunday February 21. Winners will be announced at 3.30pm in the D’Vine Ripe Cooking and Learning Hub. For details on the full program of the Tomato Festival go to


It’s time to

See gardens
The International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition travels the world and has landed at the Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. 10am-4pm, until March 6. Entry $5.

Cut back
All the heat and the rain has exploded growth. Get things under control so treasures aren’t swamped.

Trim hydrangeas
Burnt heads of hydrangea can be trimmed off, but leave the gently fading ageing heads to take on sepia tones through autumn. Hydrangeas from the ‘Endless Summer’ range are exceptions, as they like a bit more time to put on new growth so should be pruned now.

Propagate rosemary
Take 10cm cuttings and strip the bottom leaves. Use your finger to make holes in a pot of propagation or potting mix, and put one cutting in each hole and firm it in. Dipping the cutting into hormone or rooting gel (or raw, unpasteurised honey), increases the success rate, but isn’t necessary.