Ooralba, design by Hugh Main
Other people's gardens

The most innovative gardens in NSW

What are the most innovative gardens designed in NSW since 1980? Architect and writer Howard Tanner had the opportunity to explore this interesting question for the State Library of NSW. Tanner’s answer, a survey exhibition called Grand Garden Designs, is a contemporary companion piece to the library’s extensive and fascinating Planting Dreams exhibition, which documents 200 years of garden-making in Australia.

In compiling his selection Tanner talked to garden makers, designers and garden lovers, then criss-crossed the state to see the gardens himself, before pruning the list to 22. Nicholas Watt, Jason Busch, Sue Stubbs and Murray Fredericks then photographed the gardens over the spring and summer of 2015. The State Library has acquired more than 600 images of the gardens to add to its collection of garden photography and to preserve this moment in NSW garden history.

The hermitage, design Daniel Baffsky, Photo, Sue Stubbs

The hermitage, design Daniel Baffsky, Photo, Sue Stubbs

Visiting a garden is a total sensory experience. You don’t just see it, you hear it, smell it, feel it and experience it changing in time, even if only moment-to-moment. So a still image, no matter how beautifully framed and lit, is only ever a snapshot, a suggestion of what you might experience in the real thing. To overcome the limitations of viewing gardens in a gallery, the exhibition offers multiple ways in – through images on the wall, large back-lit projections, more images on interactive computer screens, Tanner’s excellent catalogue, and a short film of interviews with some of the garden-makers.

Horse Island

Horse Island, design Christina Kennedy. Photo: Jason Busch

Most of the gardens featured are private, and most have the expansive space – and budget – to create a big vision, such as the recreated subtropical forest and botanical ark of Sea Peace, outside Byron Bay; the natives-only garden on Horse Island in Tuross Lakes; or Peter Fudge’s grand re-imagining of Hadrian’s Villa in hedges at Tobermorry in Moss Vale.

Tobermorry, design Peter Fudge, photo Jason Busch

Tobermorry, design Peter Fudge, photo Jason Busch

Some of the gardens invite you to look out at the view, such as Hugh Main’s garden at Ooralba in the Southern Highlands, where mounded, jelly-like lumps of clipped eleagnus echo the line of the mountains on the horizon. Others enclose you in their arms and ask you to stay awhile, like Michael Cooke’s Wirra Willa on the Central Coast where a boardwalk winds through only slightly gardened bushland, and a pavilion sits over the lake.

Wirra Willa, design by Michael Cooke

Wirra Willa, design by Michael Cooke, photo Murray Fredericks

Public gardens are a vitally important part of any snapshot of our garden life in the early 21st century as private gardens shrink along with the time to make and maintain them. Tanner has included the atmospheric Paddington Reservoir Gardens, designed by Anton James in 2009. Here two sunken courtyards complement a Gothic architectural space, one a lawn dotted with eucalypts, the other with a dark rectangular pool surrounded by banksia and tree ferns.

Paddington Reservoir

Paddington Reservoir, lead designer Anton James, photo Jason Busch

In his catalogue essay Tanner identifies influences on contemporary designers from the rich textural plantings of Piet Oudolf, the clipped forms of Nicole de Vesian, and the spatial relationships of Japanese design. He also notes a renewed appreciation of Australian natives and a desire to create spaces to show off sculpture. For me, though, the take-home message from these inspiring and innovative gardens is the way in which they fit their space, expressing that age-old idea of the garden, the genius loci, the spirit of place.

The image at the top of this post is Ooralba, designed by Hugh Main, photo by Murray Fredericks.  The exhibition runs until january 15, 2017 at The State Library of NSW. Entry is free.

It’s time to

Tidy bottlebrush
Trim finished callistemon flowers to promote a bushier plant and more flowers next year. If the bush has been neglected and is looking straggly, you can cut it to the ground and let it start all over again.

See art deco
Mahratta is one of few remaining gardens in the Sydney area designed by Paul Sorensen, a leading designer of the early 20th century. The garden surrounds a wonderful Art Deco house, now owned by the School of Practical Philosophy. It’s open this weekend, October 22-23, 10am-4pm, $5, $10 including a tour of the house. 25 Fox Valley Road, Wahroonga.

Feed the lawn
Apply a complete fertiliser, according to pack directions, and water in well.

Talk with Costa
ABC Gardening Australian host and educator Costa Georgiadis is a passionate advocate for gardens and their ability to create connections within communities. He’s talking ‘Gardening for our Future’ at the State Library of NSW, November 12, 2-3pm, $20. Bookings: www.sl.nsw.gov.au/whats-on



Other people's gardens

Retford Park

Spring is so quick in Sydney, it barely lasts longer than the bunch of jasmine, crispy but still fragrant, on my desk. To get your fill of spring you need to plan, and to travel. So don’t forget Glenmore House Spring Fair this weekend, and make plans to head south at the end of the month for the domestic-scaled country charms of the Bundanoon Garden Ramble, and the wonderfully grand Retford House. This is the story I wrote about Retford for the Sydney Morning Herald.

In April this year James Fairfax made a gift of his property Retford Park to the National Trust. It’s been his Southern Highlands home since 1964 and under the terms of the gift will continue to be his private home until his death, but for three days this month the garden is open to the public. It’s a great opportunity to see an important, beautiful and surprising garden.

Samuel Hordern, founder of the emporium Anthony Hordern & Sons, originally developed the property in 1887 and commissioned his architect Albert Bond to build a Victorian Italianate style house. The coral-pink, white-trimmed, two-storey building, with its turreted portico, is now framed by mature trees and settled comfortably into an expansive garden.

Retford Park

When James Fairfax bought the property after the death of Sam Hordern III, he inherited a fine garden with a well-planted park (a grand old bunya pine near the house and two Algerian oaks in the park which in the summer form a cave of green are special treasures) and added his own style, so that Retford Park reveals layers of garden design, while maintaining a wonderful coherence.

English garden designer John Codrington, whose services were a gift to James Fairfax from his mother, designed the fountain path, which leads into the garden from the house. Grey-leafed plants are clipped into dense mounds along a red gravel path, with just a splash of white agapanthus exploding around the fountain in the summer.


More recently, Melbourne-based architect David Wilkinson, who has been involved in the garden’s on-going design over several decades, suggested a different sort of water feature. The Millenium Canal is a rectangle of reflective water with a surface area of 2000 square metres, commemorating the year 2000. It runs parallel to the driveway, edged on its far side with a row of maples whose glowing red leaves are mirrored in its surface in autumn.


Wilkinson was also responsible for the Green Room, designed to display one of James Fairfax’s many artworks, a bronze sculpture by Inge King called Euphoric Angels. The success of this restrained and meditative space is in its grand scale, with an enormous grassed expanse between Thuja hedges focussing attention on the work as it takes flight from a clipped teucrium plinth.


On the other side of the hedge the former tennis court is now the Laurel Lawn, with a perennial border of mostly red-flowering plants, and beyond it the surprise of the Pool Pavilion, designed by architect Guilford Bell in 1968. The low-slung modernist building features glass walls that slide away to open the space completely to a swimming pool on one side and an ornamental pond on the other. Donald Friend’s sculpture Man Jumping Over Goat gambols here among the waterlilies.

Retford Park

There’s much more to discover: the Knot Garden, designed to highlight two 17th century marble benches; the Emu Walk, where a mob of emus explores an avenue of pollarded lindens; and a Peony Walk, orchard and kitchen garden. Linger to take in Retford Park’s layers of history and the pleasures of its art and gardens.

Retford Park


Retford Park is open October 21-23, 10am-4pm, $10, 1325 Old South Road, Bowral.

It’s time to

See Galston gardens
There are eight large gardens open in Galston this weekend (October 14,15,16). Entry is $5 per garden, or a $20 ticket allows access to all gardens all weekend. For garden details and addresses go to www.gasltonggarden.club.com.au

See more gardens
While you’re in the Southern Highlands for Retford park, head down the road to Bundanoon, where eight gardens are open for the annual Ramble. www.bundanoongardenramble.org.au.

See art
Eden Unearthed is an exhibition of 30 installations by invited artists who have engaged with the various nooks and crannies of Eden Gardens to create site-specific works. Until March 1, 2017, free entry, 307 Lane Cove Road, Macquarie Park.

Buy art
Artisans in the Gardens opens this weekend at Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, until October 23. All works celebrate the natural world in some way, and are for sale. Also for sale just next door are bits of the actual natural world – plants from the Growing Friends.

Buy more art
Also while whiling away the weekend in the Southern Highlands, see florist/sculptor Tracey Deep’s beautiful and intricately formed explorations of shape and shadow, at Sturt Gallery until November 13.

Other people's gardens

Garden Fair at Glenmore House

Mickey Robertson opens Glenmore House garden for her Spring Garden Fair next weekend, October 15 and 16. I’m a big fan of the garden, which is elegant and domestic at the same time, and which communicates a wonderful sense of well being. Honestly, you feel that all is right with your world while you walk around the gardens or lounge in a chair in the shade of one of the repurposed outbuildings.

I’m also a fan of Mickey’s strategy for making the garden pay its way. Rather than just charging to come have a look, Mickey has made Glenmore the location for a range of interesting events. We came to dinner, for instance, for Kinfolk’s first Australian event, and sat here one gorgeous summer evening:

Glenmore House

There are also workshops – I did one with India Flint and learned how to make a bag out of a scarf and use native plants as dyes (more on that some other time). And each season, vegetable garden guru Linda Ross holds a Kitchen Garden day, sharing her experience on growing your own, matched with lunch from Mickey’s very impressive kitchen garden.

Glenmore House

Pear arch in the kitchen garden

Mickey has always opened the garden in spring and the open day has now morphed into a full-on Fair. So next weekend there will be plants and stylish garden things to buy, Martin Boetz is making lunch, and there’ll be cake and tea and various entertainments. Mickey’s just-released book, The House and Garden at Glenmore (here’s a review of the book by gardener, writer, artist, Silas Clifford-Smith, who blogs as The Reflective Gardener) will be for sale in the Barn, where Mickey also sells the linen dress that is her uniform, and other hard-to-resist bits and pieces. It will be a beautiful day out in the country, whatever the weather.


I wrote about the garden for the Sydney Morning Herald,  but today as a flashback I thought I’d include a bit from a story I wrote a few years ago for Your Garden magazine, Australia’s longest-running garden magazine, launched in 1947, and killed off just this year by Pacific Publishing.


Mickey Roberston traces her dream of a country house life filled with flower gardens, orchards and a vegetable patch to childhood bedtime stories. “Blame it on Beatrix Potter and those nursery rhymes,” she says, “…Mary Mary Quite Contrary.” In 1989 when Mickey and husband Larry found Glenmore House, in the rural hills south-west of Sydney, there were no pretty maids all in a row. On the contrary, the house was derelict, the garden overrun, yet Mickey’s childhood dream began to take shape.

The house, a rough-hewn sandstone cottage, Georgian in style and dating from the 1830s, had been alternately rented and vacant for some 35 years, so “when we would come from the city on a Saturday morning and put the key in the lock we would hear the scuttling behind the door,” remembers Mickey. The couple worked weekends for 18 months before they could spend a vermin-free night in the cottage and wake to the view over hills and a winding creek towards the Razorback Ranges.

Glenmore House

Blackberry and lantana had swallowed the garden and its outbuildings, though persimmons and peppercorns were visible through the mess. “I started planning and making little drawings on pieces of paper,” explains Mickey, whose career as an interior designer is apparent in the garden as well as the house. She rejected the curved organic shapes of a typical country garden, for something more room-like. “I like straight lines, compartments, a certain amount of orderliness.”

She also likes structures and one of the charms of the gardens is the use of the original outbuildings – a hayshed, barn, dairy and stables. These formerly rundown constructions have been restored and given fresh purpose. They also offer points with which to frame the axes of the garden.


Mickey’s early planting ideas were heavily influenced by English country gardens, but, ensconced at Glenmore House, she gradually developed a sense of history about the garden. “I was hugely influenced by what Leo Schofield did at Bronte House,” she explains. “That garden is just such a thrill! And about the same time I was working at Brownlow Hill, an early-19th century property close by and saw the agaves, aloes, yuccas, and the Chinese elms and bamboo forests there. That was when the wisteria and the roses I’d planted out the front came out and I became really interested in garden history.”

The front of the symmetrical stone cottage, grey dormer windows like eyebrows, a bullnose verandah shading the lower rooms, now has a garden that suits its no-nonsense lines: a forecourt of pale grey gravel, a round pond and two great clumps of silver-blue Agave Americana.

Now, says Mickey nothing is planted purely for its good looks. “There has to be some historical or romantic reason for planting it.” As an example she points out the olive and almond trees, both early sentimental plantings that link her to memories of times spent in the south of Spain with her late parents-in-law.


The almond and olives form part of an orchard planting that includes citrus, black and white figs, apples and crabapples. The adjacent garden of perennial borders gives Mickey opportunity to practice her talent for developing horticultural pictures. The two facing borders are wide enough and long enough for the development and repetition of tone and texture. The structure is supported by plantings of bronze flax, Phormium tenax, and through the seasons different plants take starring roles. In autumn apricot cannas, burgundy heads of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, bright red hips of the rugosa rose ‘Frau Dagmar Hastrup’ and bleached blonde, fairy-floss heads of ‘Miscanthus sinensis’ draw the eye.

The borders are let go all through winter, the dried heads of the flowers and grasses hanging on against the frost. And then, in mid-August, everything but the flax is cut down, the whole lot covered with compost and manure, so that it springs into lush new growth.

Glenmore House is about an hour south of Sydney on Moore’s Way at Glenmore, and is open 10-4.30pm next Saturday and Sunday, October 15 and 16. Entry $10. Mickey will take tours of her Kitchen Garden at 11am and 2pm.


It’s time to

Repot the orchids
Cymbidium orchids like to live close but not overcrowded. If pots have become packed, lift and divide them now and repot into fresh orchid mix.

Consider azaleas
Petal blight destroys azalea blooms, turning them sludgy first, then crispy. A systemic fungicide, such as Zaleton, sprayed from first colour in the buds until flowering is finished, is one solution. The other is to swap high-maintenance azaleas for something less troubled by pests and disease.

Rehydrate the pots
The ghastly westerly winds of the last week sucked the moisture out of everything. Potting mix is particularly susceptible to becoming hydrophobic once it dries out. Use a soil wetter, such as Eco-hydrate, to allow you to really soak the mix in preparation for a hot day on Monday.

Feed freesias
The evil westerlies dried up the last of the freesias. Trim back the dead flower spikes and feed the foliage to boost flower production for next year.



Plants I love

Wisteria lane

If I could bottle the scent of my driveway I could– a sprinkling of jasmine over wisteria, with a top note of lemon blossom underscored with just a touch of freesia. I don’t think I could call it Driveway though: doesn’t suggest quite the right images for the ad campaign.

Wisteria sinensis

The wisteria is in stereo. On the fence we share with our neighbours is the traditional mauve Chinese wisteria, Wisteria sinensis. It has been here longer than either of us and was never trained on the fence so much as allowed to engulf it. For years it was the only thing holding the fence up and when it no longer could we chainsawed it to the ground and replaced the fence.

Wisteria sinensis

My intention with this tabula rasa was to train the wisteria so that it made an appealing line on the fence rather than a tangled scribble. I had in mind a wall I’d seen in the Botanic Gardens in Brussels with gnarly swoops of wisteria stem like fat brush calligraphy. Fat chance! The wisteria took off like a dropped bag of marbles. In weeks it had clothed the fence in brilliant lime green leaf and had never looked better.

It didn’t flower that year, which some might consider a downside, but I loved the green floaty growth covering the whole surface of fence with riffling movement. Now we are back to a tangle of bare sticks against the fence with a ruff of flowers on top. Can I convince the neighbours to let me at it again with the chainsaw?

Wisteria floribunda

The other wisteria is a Japanese form, Wisteria floribunda ‘Macrobotrys’. In this wisteria the space between each flower in the panicle is bigger, giving the cones an elegant, elongated look. They are wispier and more inclined to shiver in the slightest breeze. It grows in a pot at the side of the house. The pot restrains its growth so I don’t have to worry about it lifting off the roof, though it does need to be watered every day in the summer. From indoors the long flowers are framed through French windows and from one particular chair, with my head turned just so, the view is of drooping wisteria and blue sky and nothing else.

There are many more wisteria to choose from – some with chunky dense panicles, some with double flowers, and in colours from burgundy through pale pink to white. It’s always best to buy them in bloom so you can see exactly what you’re getting, unless of course you’re just after that gorgeous fresh floaty leaf. They’ll all grow in big pots or in the ground.


The best place to see wisteria in pots is at Nooroo, the Mount Wilson garden owned by Anthony and Lorraine Barrett. The garden is famous for its wisteria collection, established by botanist, plant collector and inimitable garden story teller, Peter Valder, whose family owned the property from 1917 until 1992. The wisteria court, formerly the tennis court, features 28 standard wisterias ranging in colour from white to deep purple. It’s at its frothy floral peak in late October.

Peter Valder, whose fabulous monograph on wisteria you can get from Floreligium for just $30, advises pruning wisteria in late spring, taking back all the new shoots to two or three leaves. Six weeks later, he says, go over the plant again and continue tidying up those long shoots that get in the way through summer. The main thing to remember is not to prune in winter as you’re likely to cut off the flowering stubs.

The only bit of that advice of that I got around to following last year was snipping off the long summer shoots that whipped me in the face when I walked in the  gate. And yet, here it is, like a Japanese dream outside my window, and smelling good enough to bottle all up the driveway.


It’s time to

Bring in the bees
Urban beekeeper Doug Purdie’s new book, The Bee Friendly Garden, Murdoch $45, tells why and how to transform our outdoor spaces from insect deserts to stops on a nationwide bee highway.

See waratahs
The Wild About Waratahs Festival at Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah offers the usual opportunities to admire waratahs, as well as a chance to buy cut flowers and plants, including a new variety, ‘Corroboree’, launched as part of the RBG’s 200th birthday celebrations. The festival runs September 24 until October 3.

Make a plan
Thirteen cool climate gardens are on show for the Leura Gardens Festival this year, from October 1-9, all with different approaches to mountains gardening.

Feed the garden with an organically-based fertiliser as it bursts into growth. Bush Tucker is developed for natives and can be used on phosphorus-sensitive banksias and grevilleas.



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.


Plants I love

Growing orchids in trees

Singapore is the only country in the world to have chosen a hybrid as its national flower. It’s an orchid called ‘Miss Joaquim’, after Miss Agnes Joaquim, who in 1983 crossed the Burmese Vanda teres and the Malayan Vanda hookeriana to create the world’s first vanda hybrid. It’s a tough plant that grows as a dense clump of thin branching stems to about head height, which is where the rosy-violet flowers bloom.

Orchid 'Miss Joaquim'

Here’s ‘Miss Joaquim’ grown as a sort of hedge in the National Orchid Garden in Singapore. If you’ve been to Hawaii you will have seen her growing on the side of the road, her flowers picked and placed into leis. And in tropical Queensland she’s a hardy roundabout plant!

Commercial orchid culture took off in Singapore the 1920s and the island became synonymous with orchids. It’s still the place to go to see orchids, especially every second year in late July when the Singapore Garden Festival sets up in the Gardens by the Bay. This year I marvelled at baskets of impeccable moth orchids, hung from tall stands, each with multiple arching canes studded with dozens of perfect white blooms, and pots of modern vanda hybrids packed into shallow wooden trays and suspended overhead, the supporting structure disguised with trailing curtains of Spanish moss.

Orchid, white moth orchid, pic Robin Powell

Much as I wanted to take all these home, it was the idea of growing more orchids in the garden that I ended up souveniring. Almost everywhere you look in Singapore there’s an orchid growing in a tree, along with shaggy ferns on the trunk and a birds nest fern squatting happy in the elbow of a bough. I loved this festooning of trees with plants.

One reason all the trees are host to so many plants – all that rain!

In Singapore the go-to orchids for this kind of treatment are the vandas, but they’re not for Sydney’s great outdoors. So I asked advice of Ian Slade, from Kawana Gardens Nursery, who grows a bountiful array of orchids in a mature jacaranda at his Peats Ridge property. He recommended Dockrillia teretifolium, the pencil orchid or bridal veil orchid, which naturally grows on casuarinas up and down the coast. Dendrobium speciosum var. Hillii, with its big fat spikes of fragrant creamy blooms “gets pretty big but takes a while to get there”, he says, and lots of the coelogyne orchids also do well in trees. Another reliable choice is the Mexican orchid Laelia anceps, which comes in a variety of colours and doesn’t mind cold winters as long as there’s no frost.

Orchids in frangipani, pic Robin Powell

Vandas in a frangipani.

To establish an orchid in a tree, simply tie it on with something soft and stretchy like pantyhose (cable ties or fishing line will cut into the tree as it grows). Pack some damp sphagnum moss around the roots to protect them until they get a hold around the tree. Position the orchid to get a good amount of light or morning sun to encourage flowering.


The dead tree look-alike is actually concrete. A DIY project for the weekend?

No tree? No problem. In the National Orchid Garden of the Singapore Botanic Gardens what looked at a distance to be dead tree trunks sporting masses of orchids on closer inspection turned out to be concrete arms wrapped in black coconut fibre sprouting orchids tied on with cable ties. Behind them waved a tall hedge of ‘Miss Joaquim’. Perfectly Singapore.

Find specialist orchids and other interesting plants at Plant Lovers Fair, Kariong, September 24-25, www.plantloversfair.com.au.

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.

National Arboretum Canberra

Planting Dreams

Nature and culture come together in the garden. An exhibition at the NSW State Library called Planting Dreams explores that patch of fertile ground through paintings, prints, maps, plans, cartoons, catalogues, magazines, posters and more, primarily drawn from the voluminous treasures of the State Library. Leading garden historian and author Richard Aitken curated the exhibition and has written a companion book, Planting Dreams: Shaping Australian Gardens.

Aitken is more interested in the social and cultural impacts of gardens than garden design. The book tells stories about Australian interactions with nature and gardens from the first contacts of Europeans with a land they simultaneously recognised as park-like and failed to recognise as the result of the work of the locals, through to the Backyard Blitzes of the early 21st century and the meanings and opportunities of gardens in an increasingly urbanised world. Like the book, the exhibition asks questions about what gardens, plants and nature mean to us, but shapes them through a giant cabinet of garden-related curiosities.

Garden Palace, Sydney, c.1879-82. JT Richardson (artist)

Sydney’s fabulous Garden Palace, here in watercolour and ink by JT Richardson in 1879, burned down in 1882, in just 40 flaming minutes. The site becomes part of an installation by Wiadjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones called barrangal dyara (skin and bones) from September 17 until October 3, as part of the 200th birthday celebrations of the Gardens.

Inspired by the Great Exhibitions of the 19th century (that’s it in gorgeous ink and watercolour above), Aitken arranges his material across themed courts rather than chronologies. Each section is packed with treasures that interrogate the fashions, fads and enduring feelings associated with private and public gardens and parks.

The section on designing with plants, for instance, explores fashions in plant life through one of the earliest books on plants for pleasure, a florilegium from the 1560s; Joseph Hooker’s book of rhododendrons, published at the height of 19th century plant-hunting adventures; images from the great subtropical garden boom of the late 19th century; and a drawing by Jean Walker, a Sydney pioneer of bush gardens in the 1960s.

Margaret Flockton, Broad-leaf wattle and honey flower, from Australian Wild Flowers, Series 1, c.1902-03

As unlikely as it sounds, in 1902 the American Tobacco Company commissioned botanical artist Margaret Flockton to produce a series of posters that smokers could collect by sending in cigarette pack labels, specifically ‘100 Premium Certificates from Vanity Fair and Old Judge Cigarettes’. This is her Acacia pycnantha and Lambertia formosa, Broad-leafed Wattle and Honey Flower.

The section that celebrates the depiction of plants in gardens explores the way we record gardens, and what we choose to focus on when we do. There are woodblock prints from Japan and China and the first nursery catalogues printed in the blazing colours of chromolithography. Edna Walling’s limpidly romantic watercolour plans find a home here as do Kodachrome images of Sydney’s public spaces and private gardens in the 1960s and ’70s, from the collection of an amateur suburban photographer.

Eastwood garden

Suburban order and lots of colour in this Eastwood garden, photographed in 1968.

Also in this section are digital images of the National Arboretum in Canberra, a project which for Aitken sums up the thinking behind the whole exhibition. “The Arboretum is a public space that is going to mature over the next century. The thing about gardens,” he says, “is that they are dreams about the future.”

National Arboretum Canberra

National Arboretum Canberra, ACT – Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL) and Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects (TZG) Photographer – John Gollings

And what of the future of gardens? “What strikes me as most important now,” says Aitken, “are public open spaces and public gardens. We are living in much more cluttered urban spaces, and are going hell bent for selling pubic land for private use. Once you have got rid of public land it’s very difficult to get it back. We sell that at our peril.”

The exhibition reveals how fashions in plants, gardens and gardening change and how what endures is our need for gardens, our desire to experience nature shaped by culture.

Planting Dreams: Shaping Australian Gardens is at the NSW State Library from Saturday September 3 2016 until Sunday 15 January 2017. Entry is free.

The image at the top of this post is National Arboretum Canberra, ACT –  Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL) and Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects (TZG). Photographer – Craig McDonald Landscape Photography

It’s time to

See garden design
Grand Garden Designs is a companion exhibition to Planting Dreams at the NSW State Library. Curated by Howard Tanner it’s a photographic exploration of some of the most influential 21st century gardens in NSW. Entry is free.

Admire cherry blossom
The Golden Wheel Buddhist Retreat in Galston opens this weekend, Saturday 10 and Sunday 11 September for the Galston Spring Blossom Spectacular. Enjoy peach and cherry blossom, citrus, and camellias, as well as the temple itself. 405 Galston Road, 9.30–4.30. Tickets $5. There are other private gardens to see in Galston this weekend. Pick up info and tickets at Golden Wheel.

See tulips
Floriade opens next week in Canberra for a month-long celebration of spring, promising to go back to basics with more than 100 species of tulips in colour-coordinated beds. Commonwealth park, September 17 – October 16. Entry is free.

Sculpture show
Petana is a lovely wild garden with fantastic veiws, outside Milton on the South Coast. ‘Sculture at Petana’ opens next weekend with a BYO picnic on Saturday. Local and South Coast artists are showign more than 50 works. Open daily 10am-4pm, til September 26. 408B Woodbrun Road, Morton. More:www.petanagardens.com.au

It’s a marvel how fast weeds grow in spring. Get on top of them before they seed, honouring your grandmother’s saying: one year’s seeding; seven years weeding.

Pink frangipani

Vale Made Wijaya

An inspiration for my garden died suddenly this week: Made Wijaya, formerly Michael White, the Sydney tennis coach and architecture student who swam ashore from a boat stranded off the coast of Bali in 1973 and stayed to become a massively successful designer of tropical gardens and an expert on Balinese culture.

When I first travelled to Bali my garden was English-style – pretty, floral, a little bit frilly. But then I saw what Made Wijaya had done with the gardens of the Bali Hyatt in Sanur. In his first go at designing gardens he created a style he called ‘tropical Cotswolds’. I loved it. It wittily referenced Western garden design history while being louder, lusher and more flamboyant. The layers of green, the big leaves, the water, the broad splashes of colour managed to convey both the relaxation and the invigoration of a holiday. I went home, pulled out my prissy flowers and went in for big leaves and a holiday vibe.

Sub-tropical garden

My place – Sydney with a little bit of Bali

Made Wijaya went on to design more than 700 gardens around the world, from Florida to the Taj hotels in India and David Bowie’s garden in Mustique. His vision has massively influenced not just my little piece of paradise, but our images of tropical luxury wherever we seek them out.

I haven’t spoken with him for years, but thinking about him this week I wondered if I could find the articles I wrote all those years ago. No luck, but on his website I found this – a story I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1999 when his book Tropical Garden Design first came out. (Florilegium has a second hand copy of this book available.) His friends will miss him but all of us can enjoy the gardens he created and the gardens he inspired.


I found this picture on the web and it seems to sum it all up.

When we imagine a Balinese garden we conjure an image that’s lush and verdant. Palms sway, frangipani host riotous bougainvillea while hibiscus, ginger, cordylines and pandanus backdrop a pond of louts and waterlilies and a couple of intriguingly mossy sculptures. It’s beautiful, it’s alluring, and it doesn’t have much to do with the original gardens of Bali. Instead it’s an invention, much influenced by former Australian architecture student Michael White, now known as Made Wijaya, eminent designer of tropical gardens and the creator of some of our favourite images of luxury.

True Balinese gardens are spare creations: packed earth floor, a central tree and some plants for ritual purposes. As Wijaya points out, people who live in the tropics are less enamoured of leafy fecundity. “They’re aware of all the insects and the fungus that go with that and they’ve spent thousands of years hacking the ficus off the gutters!” When he designed the gardens of the Bali Hyatt in Sanur in 1980 though, Made Wijaya gave tourists the tropical paradise of their fantasies – lush, fragrant, dramatic and multi-layered.


This is one of my favorite versions of Bali style gardening, Bali Hai on the Sunshine Coast.

Bali, he says, is a high–maintenance location for gardening (there are 50 gardeners on staff at the Bali Hyatt, continuously attacking rampant growth with machetes, but in Sydney the pace is a little slower. Our outdoor spaces are perfectly suited to the small courtyard styles Wijaya has turned his attention to, and we love the outside-inside lifestyle of the tropics. He quotes Dame Edna’s quip about tropical life – “it’s the plants in the house and the furniture in the garden.”

First step in creating a Wijaya Bali-style courtyard or small garden is to ‘hide the uglies”, he says. “Hide the view of the air-conditioner compressor, hide the neighbours. Make the wall a nice backdrop, add a statue and make a little vignette out of it. At night, you can backlight a statue and get wonderful shadows, with vines streaming off the wall…”


Also at Bali Hai

And then you need a single big idea: “A tree in the middle, a largish water feature, a bit pot or an outdoor seating area,” he explains. The plants come last, dressing the bare bones of your set. Wijaya doesn’t go in for anything rare or hard to grow. Whatever works well in our area is the best choice. The impact comes not from individual plants but from how well you’ve harmonised your whole picture. Get it right and every day is a holiday in paradise.

It’s time to

See garden design
Grand Garden Designs is a companion exhibition to Planting Dreams at the NSW State Library. Curated by Howard Tanner it’s a photographic exploration of some of the most influential 21st century gardens in NSW. Entry is free.

Admire cherry blossom
The Golden Wheel Buddhist Retreat in Galston opens next weekend, Saturday 10 and Sunday 11 September for the Galston Spring Blossom Spectacular. Enjoy peach and cherry blossom, citrus, and camellias, as well as the temple itself. 405 Galston Road, 9.30–4.30. Tickets $5.

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.


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 www.rydal.com.au 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.

Plants I love

Finding the barnacle goose tree

In his new book on 200 years of Australian gardens, Planting Dreams, (more on this next week) garden historian Richard Aitkens bemoans the current practice of valuing plants based on their performance as tools – good for hiding walls, or dividing spaces. I’m with Richard on this. We kill of the mystery, magic, history and culture of plants when we ascribe them a limited purpose, or reveal nothing about them but how to kill the insects that like to eat them.

In my desire to explore the culture part of horticulture I’m old school. Real old actually – at one with the 16th and early 17th century naturalists who believed that you could not understand anything in the natural world without looking at every aspect of it – from the words used to name it, to what Pliny et al had to say about, and every poet since. To these polymaths, the literary and mythological aspects of plants were just as important in understanding them as what they looked like and how they behaved.

You can see how this works in an exhibition of herbals from the 16th to 19th century from the collection of the Sydney Botanic Gardens Library, now on display at Red Box gallery in the Herbarium foyer.

John Gerard's Herbal

One of my favourite herbals is available in facsimile so you can flick through it and have a really good look. It’s John Gerard’s Herball, first published in 1597. Gerard was a great gardener with a fascination for new plants at a time when every arriving ship brought new horticultural treasures from around the world. He was, for instance, the first man in England to eat potatoes he’d grown himself. And he was as good at self-promotion as he was at gardening. He was the first person to publish a catalogue of plants growing in a garden, listing some 900 species in his private garden at Holborn.

Gerard makes a very personable guide through the plant world of the late 16th century, always willing to share his personal experience. Those potatoes, he says, have a texture a bit between flesh and fruit, and are a bit ‘windy’ unless they are roasted in embers and then eaten ‘sopped in wine’.

John Gerard's Herball


The slow and patchy metamorphosis from a Renaissance view of the natural world to an Enlightenment one is evident in Gerard’s book. The potato was a New World discovery and so arrived in England without an ancient or poetic or mythological backstory. Gerard reports about it purely from experience. But flick to the back of the volume and you’ll find him anchored in mythological mode.

John Gerard's Herball


It’s here, at about Chapter 170, depending on the edition, that you’ll find the barnacle goose tree. Gerard claims to have seen this natural wonder with his own eyes, and writes about it alongside a woodblock print which had been used to illustrate a Dutch herbal half a century earlier. The illustration shows a twisted tree blooming with large tulip-like shells, overhanging a cliff. Beneath the tree birds are shown serenely floating on the waves. Birds falls from the shells produced by the tree, explains Gerard. If they happen to fall on land they perish, but if they fall into the sea they become fowl, bigger than a duck and a bit smaller than a goose.

THe barnacle goose tree, John Gerard's Herball

Here’s a barnacle goose illustration from a later edition of the Herball, still holding on to a spot.

Enlightenment writers argued for clear-eyed observation. ‘Knowledge is made by oblivion,’ claimed Thomas Brown who argued in 1672 that the only way forward was to forget everything that had come before and start again, using observation as the only criteria for knowledge. But despite Browns’ call, the myth of the barnacle goose tree lived on until 1780 when two French zoologists conducted an autopsy on the story. Their scientific paper migrated to the popular press where the story was told as the ‘histoire du canard’, which is where we derive the meaning of a canard as a tall tale.

One more postscript: the goose tree survived into the early 20th century in Northern Ireland where Catholics still ate ‘barnacle geese’ on Friday and fast days, sneaking in a feast of roast goose or duck thanks to a centuries-old definition of barnacle geese as seafood.

Plants I love

Moving trees

What to do with mature trees in the wrong spot? It’s a question with currency as National Tree Day has people all over the country planting baby trees, and another of Anzac Parade’s mature Moreton Bay figs becomes mulch. Mouran Maait owns Alpine Treemovals, a company that transplants mature trees around Sydney. If he had his way mature trees would always be considered for their transplant potential well before they were stuffed into a chipper.

Alpine Treemovals, pic Robin Powell (2)

This is the rescue section of Alpine Treemovals Nursery at Glenorie; there’s also a large section of nursery-grown trees.

Maait’s desire to give new life to old trees doesn’t always work out. Sometimes access is impossible or the tree is unhealthy or has no re-use potential. And sometimes it’s a phoenix palm, also called Canary Island date palm, Phoenix canariensis. Maait has black-banned dealing with any more of these, partly for health and safety reasons (those spiky fronds and all that rat and bird excrement captured in the crown) but also because people just don’t want them anymore. A highly fashionable choice in the late 19th and early 20th century, the date palm has been overtaken. New to the top of the desirable list, according to Alpine’s buyers, are banksias, tuckeroos, (Cupaniopsis anacarioides, an east-coast rainforest tree) and magnolias, both deciduous types and evergreens, especially Magnolia grandiflora ‘Exmouth’.

Alpine Treemovals, pic Robin Powell

If I had room I’d love to find a home for that pair of hoop pines Mouran is walking past. Gorgeous metallic trunks.

Some trees can’t be saved; others are destroyed through thoughtlessness. “They just need to give me some notice,” pleads Maait about developers, builders, architects or owners who don’t think about moving trees until the very last minute. “I can’t come and collect a tree if you ring me today, but give me enough time and I can see what can be done.” In his ideal world councils would require an assessment of trees on a property as part of a development approval process.

Alpine Treemovals, pic Robin Powell (1)

It was hard to get the right camera angle, but can you see how the age of form of this weeping Japanese maple gives it a $20,000 price tag.

The current jewel of rescued trees awaiting a new home in Alpine Treemovals’ Glenorie nursery is a 60-year-old weeping Japanese maple from a Waitara property. The call from the property owner came in November – spring – the worst time to move a deciduous tree. The best time to transplant trees in in winter when they are dormant; not in spring with growth energy pulsing through the plant. To reduce the risk, Maait put off the collection until an overcast cool day to lower transpiration. His team had the maple out of the ground and into a bag at the nursery in under five hours. It barely dropped a leaf and has been living happily in its big black bag at the nursery for nearly eight years, awaiting a buyer who appreciates it age and beautiful form enough to part wiht around around $20,000 plus installation costs to have it in their garden.

Yulan magnolia

Yulan magnolia, rescued from TAFE. Also seen at the top of this post.

Less pricey is a mature Yulan magnolia rescued from Ryde TAFE. Around 5m tall, and in bloom with creamy-white cupped flowers, it was drawing the eye of a woman who’d come shopping for her new garden when I visited the nursery. She was tossing up between the Yulan magnolia and a mature, pink-flowered Magnolia soulangeana in the next row. Smaller budgets are also catered to, and $600 will get you a new tree; the saved-in the-nick–of-time backstory comes free.

It’s time to

Book now
It’s still a long way off, but put the Ballarat Garden Show, 13-15 November in your diary. See five private gardens, the Archibald Prize at the fabulous Art Gallery of Ballarat and David Glenn’s inspirational Lambley, 20 minutes away.

See flowers up close
Florilegium: the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney celebrating 200 years tells the 200year history of the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney through 87 plants, illustrated by 64 botanical artists. An exhibition of the artworks featured in the book, called The Florilegium, Sydney’s Painted Garden opens today at the Sydney Museum, cnr Bridge and Phillip Streets, Sydney, July 30 to October 30.

Grow mushrooms
Mr Fothergills has released kits growing golden and pearl oyster mushrooms. Soak the kit overnight, spray daily and expect to be eating your own mushrooms in two weeks. $25, available at Bunnings and independent garden centres.

Aerate the lawn
Mossy areas develop in lawn that is compacted. More effective than inviting stiletto-wearing friends to cocktails is to use a garden fork to pierce the soil. Sprinkle over a little garden lime to reduce soil acidity.


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.


Plants I love

Chocolate grows on trees

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

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

Calyx, RBG

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

Calyx, RBG

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

Calyx, RBG

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

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

Calyx, RBG

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

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

It’s time to

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

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

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

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





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.