What happened to our peaches?

Sydney’s colonial-era summers were awash with peaches. They were so plentiful, ‘growing spontaneously in every situation’, as William Charles Wentworth put it, that they were heaped into piles and used as pig feed. The pigs especially enjoyed them fermented. The locals fermented them too, converting peaches into gallons and gallons of good times.

So how did peaches go from being the ‘most abundant and useful fruit in the colony’ to a fruit rarely seen in a Sydney backyard? This is one mystery food historian Jacqui Newling is yet to solve. Newling is the ‘resident gastronomer’ at Sydney’s Living Museums and knows an awful lot about what people in Sydney have grown, cooked and eaten over the years. The fate of the backyard peach is so far unsolved, though she does have a theory about all that peach cider. She reckons mutant fruit, caused by incomplete pollination, was tossed into the ferment barrels. Most peaches are self-fertile and will fruit without help, but pollination is much better with bees. (Commercial growers use bees at a rate of 2.5 hives per hectare.) Honeybees weren’t successfully established in the colony until the 1830s, suggesting many a mutant peach in Sydney’s early, cider-swilling days.


Here's Jacqui in the maize at Vaucluse House Kitchen Garden the morning of her book launch.

Here’s Jacqui in the maize at Vaucluse House Kitchen Garden the morning of her book launch.

Newling’s new book, ‘Eat Your History’ shares food stories and recipes from our past and busts a few myths along the way. The olive, for instance, often assumed to have arrived with post-war migration, was a part of 19th gardens and its juice was usually referred to as ‘salad oil’. It hasn’t been simple to establish exactly what leaves that salad referred it, but Newling thinks it must have bitter greens like endive, chicory and cress.

Our renewed interest in growing food has seen these three re-incorporated into the backyard, along with other colonial era crops, such as artichokes, both Jersualem and globe, asparagus, rainbow chard, and all manner of kales. While our choices are driven by curiosity and flavour, colonial choices were formed, at least in part, by storage considerations. Without refrigeration vegetables that stored, or could be harvested leaf by leaf, were favoured. Likewise fruit that could be preserved had a much higher priority than it does in the modern garden.

Popular in Sydney’s early days, and worth rediscovering, is the rosella, Hibiscus sabdariffa. The scarlet calyx that encases the seedpod of this West African annual shrub is tartly edible. Dried rosella is the ingredient that flavours hibiscus teas, and we also see rosella sold as ‘wild hibiscus flowers’ preserved in syrup and designed to be drowned in a glass of sparkling wine. The young leaves are also edible. Their sorrel-like tang will tart up a salad, and they become milder if stir-fried or steamed. Newling includes a recipe for rosella jelly in her book that she says is delicious as either a sweet spread or an accompaniment to roasted meats. I bet it’s also good with her ‘kangaroo steamer’, which is a kind of roo rillettes. Peach cider optional.

Rosella 'fruits'

Here’s rosella growing. You can use it as an annual ‘hedge’ in the vegie patch.

You can read more of Jacqui’s research and recipes on The Cook and Curator.  She is the Cook and Scott Hill is the Curator.

‘Eat Your History: stories and recipes from Australian kitchens’ by Jacqui Newling, published by Sydney Living Museums and NewSouth, $50.

Kangaroo paw
Plants I love

Kangaroo paws for any garden

Kangaroo paws are hot in California. In coastal gardens they share the sun with succulents, salvias, agapanthus and other heat and salt hardy plants. But here at home, instead of encouraging their fuzzy furry textures, bold, long-lasting colours and towering height into any garden, we tend to categorise them as belonging in a native garden, at home with grevilleas and banksia. It’s a habit of thought that drives Angus Stewart crazy.

Kangaroo paw

Stewart has been breeding kangaroo paws for more than 35 years and reckons he is finally starting to see a change in how local gardeners use them. “We’ve been giving our native plants this status as natives, and they’ve not been seen as garden plants. There’s been this idea that a proper garden is English in style, and perhaps there’s a bit of cultural cringe about including natives in that mix.”

Of course the English style flower garden has always been cheerfully multicultural, featuring plants from around the world, and Stewart thinks that we are finally taking the same approach in our gardens, making choices based on colour and form and texture and what a plant can add to our enjoyment of the garden rather than where it comes from.

As well as ghettoising Australian plants in native gardens, Stewart says we have also been guilty of assuming that native garden plants need no actual gardening. Like any plants, he says, they respond to proper pruning, watering and feeding regimes with better growth, more flowers and longer lives.

Stewart’s new book, ‘The Australian Native Garden: A Practical Guide’ co-written with Melbourne writer A.B Bishop, published this week by Murdoch, addresses some of those cultivation issues. It also offers handy advice on the best available cultivars. When it comes to kangaroo paws, Stewart’s recommendation is for his 2015 releases, called the ‘Landscaper series’. His goal for these plants was ‘tall and tough’. There is one with a lime green flower, an orange with red stems, a yellow with red stems, a two-tone pink and a lovely soft silvery lilac on deeper purple stems. All will tower 1.5-2m.

Kangaroo paw 'Landscape Lilac' by Angus Stewart

This is ‘Landscape Lilac’, photographed by Angus Stewart in Linda Ross’ garden.

When the flowers are finished the stems should be cut down to ground level, along with the fan of leaves supporting than stem. In fact the whole plant can be cut down to the ground in late summer to allow for new fresh clean growth. They’ll flower regardless, but give a great show if fed with a slow-release fertiliser formulated for natives in autumn and coming into spring. The only thing that will slow them down is when the clump becomes overcrowded, so every five years or so, it’s a good idea to divide the clump, replant and use the remainder to repeat the effect in other parts of the garden, or share with friends, especially those who don’t have a native garden.


Garden specialist

A botanical metaphor seems apt to describe Australia’s specialist garden bookseller. Let’s go with a waratah. Like the striking flower, Gil Teague’s Florilegium is a highly specialised survivor in difficult conditions. Waratahs survive drought and bushfire, and independent booksellers certainly feel they’ve been through both in recent years. Now though, Teague feels that garden books have seen off the threat of the e-book.

“Readers have realised that the experience of reading is different with a book versus a screen,” he says. “For non-fiction, books are easier – easier to flick backwards and forwards, and to check the index.” And it’s not just practicalities that favour the physical book. “A book has a more personal quality. Imagination comes into play. You spin off into your thoughts, and then come back to the author so that the quality of communication between the author and reader is different,” he insists.

Teague started Florilegium in 1989. The fun had leached out of his job as General manager: Editorial and Production at McGraw-Hill when he came across an ad in The British Bookseller for Hortus. Hortus is a publishing throwback; a paperback-sized quarterly published on quality stock with no glossy pictures, only lots of well-written words and occasional woodblock engravings and line drawings. Teague struck a deal to be the journal’s Australian agent.

The plan was to use Hortus to launch a garden publishing business, though that plan required heavy pruning. Florilegium has published some of our finest garden writers– Peter Valder, Michael McCoy, Alistair Hay – but the business has been primarily a retail operation of new and secondhand books, which Teague takes on the road. His tall lanky frame is a regular sight at plant fairs and garden shows around the country. “I can see thousands of people over a weekend at a plant fair, or 300 people in an afternoon at a Cottage Garden Club meeting,” he says. “I’d never see that as foot traffic here.” And it’s true that in the hour we spend in his shop off Glebe Point Road, no customers turn up. Except me, my attention instantly snagged by a new book about Piet Oudolf’s life and work and home garden, Hummelo.

With Christmas in sight, Florilegium’s customer base is bolstered by seasonal shoppers, and Teague resists helping them out with specific recommendations. “I stock more than 5000 titles,” he pleads, “across so many different interests: design, individual plants, environmental issues, books that are just a good read, botany, plant hunting, growing food….” Pushed, he admits that Huanduj: Brugmansia, by Alistair Hay, Monika Gottschalk and Adolfo Holguin, which Florilegium published in 2012, is a personal favourite for the depth of its research and the questions it brings up about human relationships to plants.

His advice to garden book gift-givers is to consider the reading and garden tastes of the giftee; to take note of any highlighter circles in a Florilegium catalogue left open on the kitchen table, or to visit the shop and chance the serendipity of bookshop racks and their armfuls of intrigue and surprise.

Plants I love

Hoyas for Sydney

So now I know I did the exact wrong thing. Last summer, charmed on the way to the compost bin by the vanilla sweet scent of the Hoya carnosa blooming deliciously in the lattice fence, I picked a flower stem. Hoya carnosa you might know better as wax flower. Your gran probably grew it in the shade house. The blooms are globes of multiple tiny pink waxy star flowers with a white centre, like a fairy disco ball. I put the flower stem in a little ceramic sake jug and admired it for a week.

Rookie error. It turns out that most hoyas flower on the same bud nodes year after year so having picked the flower I’ve wrecked any opportunity of having flowers on that stem this year. It was Wes Vidler who gave me the bad news. Wes and his wife Lorraine own Weslor Nursery, which specialises in climbing plants and hoyas. They grow more than 90 of the 250 hoya species, so are well on the way to collecting the set. Wes and Lorraine grow their hoyas at Imbril, an hour west of Noosa, but plenty of hoyas do well in the frost-free gardens, balconies, courtyards and houses of Sydney. They grow on trellis, up trees, pillars and tripods, as groundcovers, and in hanging baskets.
Hoya kerrii ‘Sweetheart’ is a favourite for baskets for its distinctly heart shaped leaves. It also has pale pink flowers and says Wes, ‘flowers its guts out’. ‘Hoya Bella’ has pointy foliage and pink-starred, white fragrant flowers. In its native North India it cascades from the crooks of trees, and is consequently stunning hanging from a pot.

Hoya kerrii

This is Hoya kerrii, photo courtesy of Wes Vidler. As I said, I picked my Hoya carnosa, didn’t take a picture of it, so have nothing to show til it flowers again.

I was calling Wes for a recommendation for a hoya to grow up a tripod. His first suggestion was the one currently astonishing visitors on his front balcony. It is Hoya Macgillvray, native to Cape York, with the most extraordinary dark purple flowers that look like bats with outstretched wings.

Hoya macgillivaryii 'Langkelly Creek' 7 jpg

This is Wes’ Hoya macgillivaryii ‘Langkelly Creek.

It’s too cold in Sydney to have this beauty outdoors, but Wes thinks it would be fine in a bright spot by a window inside. A better bet for a filtered sun position in the garden is Hoya australis, another native, with a loose globe of white flowers in autumn.

Hoya australis ssp. australis

Hoya australis, also by Wes.

Hoyas are mostly epiphtytic and like growing in a tight spot. They should only be potted up when totally root bound, and then only into a pot the next size up. They don’t need much water, and only in the growing season, not in winter. A warm season regular feed of weak foliar fertiliser will promote growth and flowers, but the real trick to flowers is enough light. They prefer morning sun and the dappled light under trees. You can often find them, not always named, at Bunnings and at garden centres. Better is to buy from the experts. The Vidlers mailorder at, and will have a stall at Collectors’ Plant Fair at Clarendon in April.


Bee scene

The tomatoes are flowering. That’s a good start, but pollination has to occur to convert those flowers to fruit. Many plants use food in the form of nectar to lure pollinators to the flowers, which then pick up and distribute pollen on the way in and out of the dining room. Tomatoes are one of the 20,000 or so plant species that evolved a different arrangement. They offer pollen itself as food and to get it insects need special skills. They must vibrate tubes inside the flower so violently that pollen explodes out – onto the bee and the female flower parts. It’s called buzz pollination and big fat furry bumblebees are experts. Honeybees can’t do it at all.

Our local specialists in buzz pollination are native bees. There are some 2,500 species of bees that call Australia home, though that figure is a bit rubbery as only 1600 have been described and named. Dr Katja Hogendoorn, from the University of Adelaide, who has named four of them herself, says the Sydney region is home to “some quite spectacular species of buzz pollinating bees, including quite a few of the blue-banded bees, the teddy bear bee, and the gold and green nomia bee.”

Buzz pollination captured on video and played at normal speed sounds like a usual bee buzz, interspersed with a turbo-charged buzz like a bee-world jackhammer. When the video is super-slowed it shows that the sound is made when a bee head-bangs the flower at a speed of 350 times a second.

Buzz pollination by Blue-banded bee

Here’s a shot of buzz pollination in action, courtesy of a blue-banded bee. The terrific image is by Marc Newman. See more of his great bee work:

In commercial tomato glasshouses buzz pollination is faked using a kind of re-purposed electric toothbrush called a vibrating wand. In research by Melissa Bell, conducted at the University of Western Sydney-Hawkesbury, blue-banded bees were found to be just as effective pollinators as the laboriously applied vibrating wand, and both methods produced fruit that was rounder, heavier and larger than the controls, and more of it.

Invite bee headbangers around to your place to improve the quality and quantity of harvests of not just tomatoes, but also eggplant, zucchini, pumpkin and blueberries, which are all buzz pollinated. Native bees are solitary and around half of the known species, including blue-banded bees, build their nests in the earth. A single hole in the ground might lead to a subterranean apartment block housing up to 100 single-dwelling bees. So leave some bare soil unmulched, especially by paths or between stepping stones. Alternatively build a bee brick house from powdery clay (details at Other local bees live in holes of various diameters in sticks, and these bee hotels can be made or purchased.

Buzz pollinating native bees don’t produce honey, but gardeners find that the rewards of having them visit are sweet.

Blue-banded bee

Another of Marc’s blue-banded bee shots, included for no other reason than it is so cute. This one is feeding on nectar in lavender flowers.

One more thing:
Katja Hogendoorn’s latest research is in using honeybees as ‘flying doctors’, delivering biological controls to blossom to prevent fungal attack. The method has been proven effective in strawberries and offers an alternative to commercial strawberry growers’ weekly antifungal sprays. Next up – cherries, summer fruit, pear and apple. To find out more:

Tropical water lily
Plants I love


When I say waterlilies do you think first of the flower, or of the paintings by Claude Monet? More than any other flower waterlilies are intricately linked with a single gardener. Monet’s willow-edged pond at Giverny, with its wisteria-looped, arching bridge and floating lilies has been much-copied, while his paintings of the pond are loved to the point of reverence. (In the Monet room of the Chichu Art Museum on Japan’s ‘art island’, Naoshima this reverence takes on a spiritual solemnity. There is ritual involved: first you wait, in silence, to take your turn as one of the limited number of viewers allowed in the presence of the works, then remove your shoes and put on a pair of clean cotton slippers before slipping through panels to a large light-filled room built to display the five large light-filled paintings. The sussurant sounds of the slippers, the light, the scale of the works and their shimmering surfaces combine in an art moment like no other.)

water lily

Monet’s pond garden timing was perfect. Until 1879 the only hardy waterlily was a large-flowered white one. Then Joseph Latour-Marliac started crossing that white with colourful tropical water lilies he imported from the hot southern states of the US. In his garden near Bordeaux he meticulously selected and bred for colour and in 1889 caused a sensation when he displayed his amazing coloured lilies at Bagatelle in Paris. Two years later Monet took on the lease at Giverny and when he acquired the extra land for his pond, he ordered his pond plants from Latour-Marliac. The two corresponded about lilies and lotus and after Latour-Marliac visited Giverny, he created one of the first copies of Monet’s Japanese bridge in his own garden.

Most waterlilies are sun worshippers. They like it hot and keep the kinds of hours dermatologists advise against, waking when the sun is high, shining brightly through the hottest part of the day and closing up again at about drink-in-the-garden time. So to grow waterlilies you need to offer them at least six hours of direct sun. The other must-have is still water. They don’t like moving water, or water splashing on their leaves. The still water can be in a container rather than a built-in pond, but it needs to be a big one. Most waterlilies need a depth of about 50cm, though there are miniature varieties that only need to be planted a hand-span beneath the surface.

Tropical water lily

The hardy waterlilies that Latour-Marliac developed and Monet painted float on the surface of the water, flower from October to April in Sydney and come in white, pink, deep red and yellow. The tropical water lilies, which Latour-Marliac used as his colour genes, hold their flowers on tall stalks that stand above the water. They flower into winter, add violet and purple to the colour options and are often intensely fragrant. Some tropical lilies are exceptions in loving the sun but flowering at night. These usually open at sunset and close at morning teatime the following day. They prefer water temperatures of about 24 degrees, and tend to have a larger-leaf spread so are best for larger ponds.

Tropical water lily

If you can find no room for waterlilies in garden, courtyard or balcony, buy them as cut flowers. They last well, as long as they are submerged up their necks in water. They’ll close up at night, and dazzle for days with a heady fragrance.


Other people's gardens

Eating the garden

Growing plants is a birth right for James Viles, owner and chef of Biota, the two-hatted destination diner in Bowral. The nursery of his babyhood was a horticultural one, Camellia Grove Nursery, on Sydney’s North Shore, which his horticulturist mother, Cathy Viles, ran before the family moved to a farm in Scone, and later to Bowral. Viles briefly lost touch with plants when, as chef de cuisine of a five-star hotel in Dubai, he sat in an air-conditioned room and ordered produce from all over the world. Now he’s gardening again, and loving it, as he writes in his new book, ‘Biota’, published by Murdoch.

Biota gardens, Bowral

View from the verandah at Biota, with the polytunnel ‘worm’ at the bottom of the lawn.

Edibles are squeezed into the Biota gardens wherever there is space. The terrace and verandah look over a lake edged with dark purple iris to the surprise of a poly tunnel squatting like a giant white grub at the bottom of the lawn. It’s not a particularly photogenic backdrop, but it is central to the Biota project. Seed, ordered from Eden Seeds, Greenpatch, and 4Seasons, and collected from the plants grown in the garden, is raised in the 30m poly tunnel. Some seedlings are used as shoots and sprouts, others go on to populate a small kitchen garden, a fenced-off patch in the chook run, and an assembly of raised beds behind the property’s 15 guest rooms.

James Viles Biota

James in front of the impressive chook house he built from pallets, and the former Jerusalem artichoke bed, now with a mixture of edibles,including rogue sunchokes, netted against the chooks.

“What we grow here and pick from the garden is what makes our plates different,” explains Viles. Vegetables, leaves, flowers, sprouts and fronds have starring roles. A flutter of white dianthus and orange nasturtium petals covers a scoop of homemade fresh cheese, served alongside a curl of Balmain bug. A dessert called Mum’s roses showers poached peach and peach sorbet with frozen rose meringue, rose petals and baby chocolate mint leaves.

Plants are tasted and tested at every stage of their development and are smoked, charred, pickled and fermented in the hunt for delicious. It turns out the very-strong flavoured and rarely eaten herb rue, which is usually grown for its insect repellent properties, adds a great vegetative flavour to a stock; the seed pods of radish are good blanched and chilled; fennel fronds are delicious when crystallised; and Jerusalem artichokes make a tasty ice cream.

Garlic scapes, spanner crab and sunchokes, Biota

Those are society garlic flowers and yarrow leaves atop slivers of raw Jerusalem artichoke, charred garlic scapes, Jerusalem artichoke cream and spanner crab. Yum. Photo: Jason Loucas

Gardeners are used to trial and error, and Viles is not immune. The Jerusalem artichoke patch over-delivered this year and he ended up selling what he couldn’t use to Aria; he lost $200 worth of seed last spring when a late frost taught a costly lesson about sowing too early. But his culinary trials are the lesson for gardeners. Viles’ close attention to the beauty of plants and the range of flavours they offer is an inspiring invitation to food gardeners to look more creatively as what’s growing in the garden. Viles can even turn bug-holed, spent lettuce into something you want to eat more than once! Eat at Biota, or read the book, and you’ll look on the vegetable patch with new eyes.

***Exciting news!
I’m leading a garden tour of Holland and Belgium next spring with Viking cruises. We’ll enjoy the ease and comfort of a river cruise, (love that unpack once thing!) with plenty of great garden moments at the height of tulip season. It will be just a small group and we’ll have a ball. Read the full itinerary on the brochure here.
Spring blooms with Robin Powell



Other people's gardens

Clever small space garden

Houses are expanding and garden space is shrinking, but the to-do list for that precious outdoor space is the same as it ever was: somewhere for the kids to play, the barbecue to sit, friends to eat, food to grow and clothes to dry. Two modern must-haves – water feature and fire pit – round out the list, which has the rider that the neighbours should overlook none of it.

The list was just part of the challenge that faced designer Adam Macdonald, of Impressions Landscapes, when he was briefed to design a garden in a small space around a large house in the inner west. Macdonald has cleverly managed everything in his brief, including views into the garden from both ground-level and upper floor windows, in a simple and coherent design.

The solutions start at the street, with the house’s boxy double-storey front is lent scale and afforded privacy with a pleached lillypilly hedge. Pleaching is an ancient technique of training trees to form a narrow dense hedge that is trimmed so that it appears to be on stilts. (How ancient? Julius Caesar reported that one of the Gallic tribes he was trying to subdue had used the technique to build defences against cavalry.) In Europe it is usually applied to deciduous trees, but MacDonald wanted an evergreen effect. He has found Acmena smithii a very amenable subject. He selects plants with single leaders, then trims and trains to create a narrow plane of foliage atop elegantly lean bare grey trunks.

Garden by Adam Macdonald, Impressions Landscapes

The hedge wraps three sides of the property, and is continued in the back. Though only small this back space has two terraces of lawn and pockets of interesting planting that give a sense of lush garden, not courtyard. A large wooden deck tucks into the house. A moat-like pond divides the deck from the two lawn terraces. Large granite slabs form stepping stones across the pond and into the lower terrace, which is just big enough for the kids to show off their handstands. On the upper level, a curved sandstone wall offers convivial seating around a built-in firepit.

Garden by Adam Macdonald, Impressions Landscapes

Softening the corners are the huge beanbag-like mounds of Echium fatuosum, commonly called pride of Madeira. This plant is often thought to resent Sydney’s humidity, though Macdonald has found it to be a trooper. He’s used it repeatedly over the past five years, including in his own garden in southern Sydney. The huge cones of purple flowers appear in spring. When not in flower the shrub is a soft-leafed grey-green lump, with foliage right to the ground. MacDonald prefers not to cut tit back, both because of the ugly phase while it reshoots and its tendency to swiftly get even bigger than it was before. If necessary he’d rather start again with a new plant, than try to secure a size with secateurs.

Garden by Adam Macdonald, Impressions Landscapes

There are plenty of details to admire in this garden – that lovely sandstone walling, the corten steel edge to garden beds repeated in a channel that runs into the pond, the foliage contrasts in the planting beds, but the really impressive achievement is how much life in the garden is packed into this small space. Last night MacDonald was recognised for this by his peers, winning a Best Garden award (in the category for residential gardens, $50,000-$150,000) in the Australian Institute of Landscape Designers and Managers awards.[Friday oct 23].

Thanks to Adam for his great pictures of the garden.

***Exciting news!
I’m leading a garden tour of Holland and Belgium next spring with Viking cruises. We’ll enjoy the ease and comfort of a river cruise, (love that unpack once thing!) with plenty of great garden moments at the height of tulip season. It will be just a small group and we’ll have a ball. Read the full itinerary on the brochure here.
Spring blooms with Robin Powell

White spider orchid, Caladenia longicauda
Plants I love

Orchid hunt

I’m on an orchid hunt in south-west Western Australia. Our quarries are tiny, delicately detailed ground orchids. Of the thousand species of ground orchids in Australia, almost half are found here. It’s not just orchids that are over-represented here either. The numbers of plant species is boggling: more than 8000 different flowering natives, with more being discovered every year.

I’m on the southern edge of the region, in the Stirling Ranges, and I only need to look at my feet to appreciate that diversity. Around me I count at least 12 species before being distracted. That’s a pretty pathetic effort. Botanists typically find 25 species in a 10m by 10m quadrant in the south west, with the record being 110, in Lesuer National Park north of Perth. I gave up counting when I noticed a twining, twinkling sundew. These carnivorous plants catch insects in sticky ‘dew’ that sparkles like a ring of diamonds. Sure enough, when I lean close enough I see a tiny green wasp trapped, and slowly being absorbed into the plant.

But we’re not here for the micro brutality of the sundews. John Byrne is leading us to orchids. Byrne jokes that he farms cattle, crops and caravans on his Mount Trio property. The caravans started turning up in when he set up a bush camp for travellers on the wildflower trail and he now offers guided walks every morning.

This morning we are heading for an old gravel pit worked in the ‘60s and never remediated. The orchids grow where the topsoil was scraped into mounds. Most obvious are glowing communities of cowslip orchid, Caladenia flava.

Cowslip orchid, Caldenia flava

Cowslip orchid, Caladenia flava, is the most common of WA’s spider orchids. It often grows together in colonies in which all plants are clones of each other. 

Nearby are the shiny enamel orchids, Elythranthera emarginata, glossy as a freshly painted fingernail, and white spider orchids with long trailing petals.

Enamel orchid, Elythranthera emarginata

Purple enamel orchid, Elythranthera brunonsis. The backs of the petals have a fantastic snake-skin pattern.

They are highly desirable and not coming to a garden near you any time soon. These plants have exceptionally specialized growing requirements evolved over millions of years in infertile soils. The adaptations are bizarre. Each orchid species must be infected with a specific fungi that supplies carbohydrate in exchange for water, nitrogen and phosphates.

White spider orchid, Caladenia longicauda

White spider orchid, Caladenia longicauda.

As well as specific fungi, the ground orchids have evolved with a specific pollinator, and many cheat and lie to lure them in. The spider orchids, for instance, emit a perfume that smells like the pheromone a particular female wasp uses to signal sexual availability. To double the deceit, part of the flower looks like a female wasp. The deluded male flies from flower to flower transferring pollen in a fruitless search for a sexual partner.

Dancing spider orchid, Caladenia discoidea

Dancing spider orchid, Caladenia discoidea

Our hunt is more successful than that of the hapless pollinator wasps. We spot a dozen of the 54 different species John has identified on the property. All have a fragile appearance and a fascinating story, going part way to explaining why some orchid hunters are driven to collect the full set.

Heberle's spider orchid, Caladenia heberleana

Heberle’s spider orchid, Caladenia heberleana. Just look where this is growing!

***Exciting news!
I’m leading a garden tour of Holland and Belgium next spring with Viking cruises. We’ll enjoy the ease and comfort of a river cruise, (love that unpack once thing!) with plenty of great garden moments at the height of tulip season. It will be just a small group and we’ll have a ball. Read the full itinerary on the brochure:
Spring blooms with Robin Powell

Sulphur-crested cockatoo
Other people's gardens

Bringing in the birds

There are plenty of seats in John and Carol Clarke’s large garden, Crundale, at Dural. We try out most of them as we wander the curving pathways that lead down the slope to the dam and gully beyond. It’s not that we are wearied by our wander, but that there is so much going on we need to stop and let it all register. John’s is a garden for birds. He tells me he had three primary aims in establishing the garden some 20 years ago. He wanted a lovely place to be in, not just look at; it needed to attract birds; and it needed to change all the time, a desire fulfilled not just by a wide range of native flowering plants and a few exotics, but by the movement and activity of the birds who visit them.

Bird friendly garden
For keen bird-watcher John, there is a 360-degree drama unfolding around us as we sit looking over waterfalls of grafted grevilleas, melaleucas just coming into flower and wattles just finishing, that I’m missing. That chick-chick noise? Little wattlebirds warning off the little birds in his territory. The woop woop? A brown cuckoo dove that nests in the gully where the lyrebirds live. Clarke has identified 110 different avian visitors to the garden. We sit a bit longer and I recognise a whipbird and an Eastern spine bill zooming under the grevillea, but miss the Bassian thrush rustling through the mulch and the white-throated gerygone in the top of a tree.

Dam at Crundale

The key to luring a range of birds into the garden, says John, is simply to provide what they like. First off, that’s water. He has it as still pools and birdbaths kept scrupulously clean, as running water, and in a large dam, where a kingfisher has built a nest in the willow on an island, and a raft offers fox-safe b&b accommodation for ducks. The are nectar-rich flowers for the honey-eaters, mulch for the insectivores to forage in and seed on plants and in cockatoo-proof feeders for the little seed-eaters. (Clarke follows Audubon Society recommendations on responsible feeding of birds.) There is also shelter, and nesting options.


Clarke has designed the garden to maximise his enjoyment of the birds. Paths wind around so that you can come around a corner unexpectedly on a bird. The paths take advantage of naturally occurring outcrops of sandstone, where rock orchids and ferns shelter in the damp shade of the stone overhangs. The paths link two terraces of open lawn loved by little birds like superb blue wrens and red-throated firetails. Around the lawns grevillea, banksia and tall kangaroo paw draw the honey-eaters and provide shelter for the little birds. We pause again on another bench and listen to the bird song.

Bird friendly garden

Crundale is open as part of Galston Open Gardens. Eight private gardens will open on Friday 16, Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 October, 9.30am-4.30pm. Tickets and brochures at Galston Club, 21 Arcadia Road Details:  

Plants I love

Plant sale

One of the big draws of the Growing Friends plant sale at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney next weekend is the cabbage on a stick plant, Brihamia insignis. The lure isn’t its good looks. The 1-2m tall succulent stem is topped by a rosette of fleshy, spoon-shaped leaves (hence cabbage on a stick). Clusters of tubular, yellow flowers bloom in winter and smell like honeysuckle.

Odd, rather than gorgeous, the real draw is this plant’s endangered status. Its only pollinator is a now-extinct moth, so the handful of individuals left on its native Hawaiian islands are hand-pollinated by botanists abseiling down the cliff faces. Introducing Brihamia into gardens is the backup plan to stave off extinction, and plant collectors are keen to help out. All proceeds from sales of the plant go to assist groundwork and conservation at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai.

Molokai from helicopter

I don’t have a shot of the Brihamia, so this is just to set the scene – Molokai from a helicopter. Great fun!

A rare find isn’t unusual at the Growing Friends nursery. It’s the go-to spot for gardeners hunting out the horticultural hard-to-find: a daily adjunct to the biannual plant fairs, Collectors Plant Fair in April, and Plant Lovers Fair at Kariong in September.

Growing Friends is not-for-profit. The money raised goes towards travel scholarships for Gardens botanists, research support and infrastructure. It is manned by volunteers who propagate plants from those grown in the public areas of the RBG. The plant list fills gaps in what is commercially available. “There are plants that have gone out of fashion but work well in Sydney, or tube stock sizes of plants you can only buy commercially in large and expensive sizes, as well as the rare and unusual and endangered stuff,” explains Greg Lamont. Lamont recently started working with Growing Friends as horticultural consultant. He comes from a background in plant research (he was first to launch garden-friendly varieties of Geraldton wax back in the ‘80s) and commercial plant and cut flower production, and his experience and expertise is improving propagation and growth rates in the Growing Friends stock.

Angel wing begonia and calathea

Angel wing begonia and calathea, Tropical Breeze, Seven Hills, Sydney

Best-sellers at Growing Friends include the myriad members of the begonia family, blue ginger, the silver-rimmed Japanese chrysanthemum, Ajana pacifica and rhipsalis, which is hipster-chic in hanging baskets, green walls and indoor plants. My personal favourites are the coleus. These foliage fillers for shade can be found in commercial nurseries, but not in the brilliant array of colours and patterns seen on the Growing Friends benches. Lamont says they have been working on the coleus collection, improving its uniformity and quality and increasing the range. Hunt up frilled, curled and ruffled leaves in solid burgundy and lime green, as well as complex variations of two or more colours in patterns mad enough to make a tropical fish look underdressed.

Coleus, solenostemon

Why I love coleus, more correctly now Solenostemon.

Joining them on the desirables list for the spring plant sale is a rare bronze form of Alcanterea imperialis. This grand bromeliad was popularised by the modernist Brazilian landscaper Roberto Burle Marx, and this form comes from his own garden. Like the Brihamia, this gem will have the enthusiasts arriving early.

Other people's gardens

A cool garden

Penrith is the hot spot of the Sydney basin. Partly that has to do with geography, but at least as important is land use and urban design. Thermal imaging of the city taken on a February morning showed land surface temperatures ranging from 40-49 degrees with localised hotspots another five degrees hotter than that. You could melt the soles of your shoes walking across the road!

Penrith recently released its Cooling the City Strategy, which aims to make summers more pleasant by reducing the city’s Heat Island Effect. The Heat Island Effect describes the way hard surfaces prevent water soaking into the ground and evaporating to cool the air; how non-porous, non-reflective surfaces on rooves and at ground level soak up heat and disperse it all night; and how warm air from cars and air conditioners increases the heat, causing more people to turn on their air conditioners in a cycle that just gets hotter.

What’s this got to do with gardening? As anyone who has sat under a tree in the summer knows, gardens are part of the answer. Those thermal maps of Penrith showed that areas of vegetation were up 20 degrees cooler than the hot spots. Penrith’s strategy involves increasing reflective surfaces, making ground surfaces permeable wherever possible and making the best use of the urban water cycle, but it also stresses the need to look after and increase what planners refer to as green infrastructure, and the rest of us call plants.

The Heritage Garden, Clare Valley

All cool in Walter Duncan’s Heritage Garden in the Clare Valley, South Australia

With a monster El Nino maturing in the tropics, now is the time to institute your own strategy for city cool. First off, reduce hard surfaces. Bring back the lawn; choose stepping stones rather than hard paths, or compressed gravel rather than concrete. Grow plants up walls and over fences. Make sure the water tank is operational and the pump works. If you don’t yet have a tank, choose from myriad space-saving options, from bladders that sit under the deck, to tanks that are literally the fence. Next, add shade. The best choice is a tree, but only if you choose one that suits your space and conditions.

Living Pergola in Nathan Burkett

A ‘floating’ pergola beneath a living pergola of plane trees in Nathan Burkett’s gold-winning garden at this year’s MIFGS. Photo: John Wheatley

New to the glamorous tree boutique are the living pergolas grown by Warners Nurseries in Melbourne, and showcased in the gold medal-winning garden designed by Nathan Burkett for Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show this year. The trees are deciduous plane trees, grown to 2.5 metres high, so that there is plenty of room to sit or stand beneath them. The growth above 2.5m is trained to lie flat across a bamboo frame or is trimmed off, so that the tree becomes a flat plane of dense hand-shaped foliage, atop slender pillars of mottled grey. Put four together and you have a living pergola. It’s not a no-maintenance option; new growth will continue to attempt to grow vertically and need to be trimmed back all through the growing season. But in a formal garden this is a really elegant way of combining architectural form and organic life. And it is cool.

Living Pergola in Nathat Burkett garden for MIFGS_IMAGE 3

One more look. Garden by Nathan Burkett, Living pergola by Warners Nurseries. Photo by John Wheatley.

Daffodils at Rydal
Other people's gardens

Daffodils at Rydal

William Wordsworth wrote that he was wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’ when he came upon the famous ‘host of golden daffodils’. Let‘s call that poetic license. He was actually out walking with his sister Dorothy. It was she who recorded in her journal the memorable image of the daffodils dancing and laughing in the cold spring wind. Wordsworth wrote the world’s most famous ode to the daff a few years later, and by the time NSW Governor George Gipps came to the job of renaming the town of Solitary Creek, Wordsworth was Poet Laureate.

Solitary Creek was on the western edge of the Great Dividing Range, a dramatically beautiful spot that must have struck Gipps as sublime in the romantic sense, as he renamed Solitary Creek after Wordsworth’s home, Rydal Mount. Rydal had its heyday when it was the last stop on the train line but now the train doesn’t even stop unless you ask, and the village is a pretty but little-made excursion off the highway just this side of Lithgow.

Daffodils at Rydal

Definitely qualifies as a host! Mass planting by Lindsay and Laurie Green at Bark Ridge

Every year the village (population 80 if you count city-country commuters) celebrates the Wordsworthian connection in a festival called Daffodils at Rydal. The daffodil show improves and grows each year, and this year an extra 5000 bulbs were planted by the hard-working festival committee. There are daffodils glowing under bare birch, and glittering with golden wattle at the edges of town; and down the tiny main street they bloom under the gentle rain of white blossom falling from Manchurian pears.

Of the private gardens open for the festival the unmissables are Bark Ridge and Chapel House. At Bark Ridge, Lindsay and Laurie Green have thousands of daffodils in pots and troughs, along the lichen-strewn post and rail fences and in a great paddock where different varieties are cheerfully laughing and gossiping in the wind that whips up the hillside.

Daffodils at Rydal

Daffodils and post and rail fences at Bark Ridge, jut outside Rydal

After decades of planting with a plough Lindsay says she now knows that the secret to a less-back-breaking host of daffodils, is a no-dig method. Put the bulbs down then add the soil, she says.

The bulbs are fertilised each year after flowering and in the week before Christmas, when the foliage has died down, the whole paddock is mown. In winter the spears of foliage reappear, often through a blanket of snow. After a few years the clumps become overcrowded and need to be divided to ensure good flowering. So after this year’s bloom the Greens will mark out bare patches that can be filled, and start the hard work of dividing the clumps.

Daffodils at Rydal

Jo Maxwell at Chapel House lifted and divided her clumps this March, and the renewed daffs, plus 500 additions of new varieties, are blooming brilliantly, complementing blossom, and bulbs and the bow-like new foliage on the willows around the lake. Chapel House incorporates the old Queen Victoria Inn, built in 1932, which now operates as B&B accommodation, and a house built as a Franciscan seminary in 1920. John Olsen owned the property for a decade or so and put in the two lakes, and since 1989 Jo and Mike Maxwell have been expanding and adding to the complexity of the gardens. For the festival Chapel House hosts local artists, plant stalls and music, including a pipe band which marches around the big lake. Visitors can bring a picnic or grab a sizzled sausage. Bark Ridge too, is catering for sausage lovers, and also sells locally handmade jams, chutneys, pickles and mustards.

Daffodils at Rydal

Spring flies on fast-forward in Sydney, but at Rydal it’s on slo-mo, so if you feel you haven’t had your spring fill, wind the clock back and see the daffodils at Rydal.

Daffodils at Rydal

Plants I love

Some salvias

I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much joy the common red salvia has given me over winter. For there is nothing rare or even particularly interesting about this plant. It is a modern hybrid of a Brazilian native, Salvia splendens, which was taken to Europe in 1822, and turned into a dwarf bedding plant. It is so resilient in the face of abuse and neglect it has become the number one choice of councils and shopping malls. Being overly familiar I held it in a certain amount of contempt until, burdened by indecision and poor choice at Bunnings one day last December, I bought a tray of seedlings.

They started flowering almost immediately, making splashes of red that unexpectedly linked cannas and gloriosa lilies and an old species fuchsia into a sinuous red ribbon. Where the garden is hot they shone, and where it is shady they glowed. And they kept it up all through winter. What was intended to be a quick stopgap, I now find I don’t want to do without, and so they have been cut back in anticipation of a new burst of growth and flower. Though marketed as annuals, I reckon I’ll get a few seasons from them.

Salvia splendens

Here they are, growing in almost total shade at the end of April.

There are two new members of the Salvia splendens family available this season: ‘Go Go Scarlet’ and ‘Go Go Purple’. They will grow to about 1.2 metres high and a metre wide, so are more substantial than my skinny red ribbons. The flower spikes are large and will cover the plants all year, as long as spent flowers are snipped off. These German-bred salvias are fine plants but they can’t beat the story behind the Australian salvia success story, the ‘Wish’ collection.

Salivia GoGo Purple

This is the new S. splendens called Go go purple.

A few years ago salvia enthusiast and collector Wendy Smith found a new salvia growing in her garden in Rosebud, Victoria. The plant grew to a 80cm x 80cm dome-shaped shrub covered in bright pink flowers with burgundy bracts and stems. Smith decided to donate part of the plant sales to the children’s charity Make-a-Wish. When Plant Management Australia, which negotiated the rights to supply ‘Wendy’s Wish’, developed a coral and bronze version, it auctioned the rights to name it. The winners named it for their children, Emma and Brett Shegog, who both died from a rare degenerative disease. Proceeds of the auction, and a portion of plant sales of ‘Ember’s Wish’ go to Make-A-Wish.

Salvia love and wishes

The latest in the wish series of saliva, ‘Love and Wishes’.


Newest to the collection is ‘Love and Wishes’, a deep purple cultivar, developed by a hobby plant breeder John Fisher, in Orange, NSW. A portion of the proceeds from sales of this plant also go to Make-A-Wish. The wish salvias are great garden plants. In fact ‘Love and Wishes’ was a finalist in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Plant of the Year at the Chelsea Flower Show this year, and took home the bronze medal. The three wishes are fast-growing, long-flowering, dry-tolerant and easy-care. And the joy they offer spreads beyond the garden.


The Goods Line

Pyrmont is the most densely populated pocket of Sydney so a place where you can sit under mature trees, curl bare toes into lawn and see flowers blooming is a gift. The Goods Line, which opened at the end of August, is ostensibly a pedestrian link between Railway Square and Darling Harbour, but it is also park, play space, meeting point, outdoor work space and, in little pockets, garden.

The Goods Line, Sydney

It runs for 250m behind the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building and at the back of the Powerhouse Museum. On one side the area is backed by the undulating curves of Gehry’s crumpled paper bag building and the geometric waves of the Powerhouse’s tramsheds. On the other is an avenue of mature figs that overhangs the park with a welcoming sense of enclosure and valuable shade.

There are big expectations around rescued railway lines since the Promendade Plantee opened in Paris atop a 4.7 km viaduct in 1994, and the High Line opened in New York in 2009. The High Line, with sensationally complex and seasonally-changing planting by master plantsman Piet Oudolf, draws more than four million visitors a year to walk its 2.33km length, and has brought more than US$5 billion to the area in new development.

The Goods Line, Sydney

Leading designer of the Goods Line project Sacha Coles, from Aspect Studios, plays down comparisons with the High Line. Certainly this project is much smaller in scale, but it has different ambitions too. Coles sees it reflecting the history of the site; the Goods Line is part of the first railway built in Sydney and gave Pyrmont its heartbeat. But he also draws links to the innovation and creativity of the area. “We’ve treated it more as a cultural building; not just a landscape,” says Coles. He points out that Pyrmont is abuzz with innovation – it is home to the city’s greatest concentration of business start-ups, as well UTS and the ABC. The Goods Line is envisaged as a hub for conversation, connection and creativity. In ‘platforms’ off the track, people can meet, exercise, play with the kids in water and sand, eat together or work. Decks nestled into the canopy of the figs feature seats with power points: devices can be recharged while the trees recharge the humans.

The Goods Line, Sydney

One of the big lessons from the High Line is that plants, and especially flowers, change people’s behaviour. They slow down, they look, they hold hands, they connect, so though the Goods Line isn’t the High Line, I’m pleased there are flowers. The garden beds are fitted into the wedges and platforms where the railway tracks escape the path. The visual idea is of self-starting plants finding a home among the disused tracks. A line-up of more than 30 different exotics and natives has been chosen, all tough enough to cope with the heat. There are salvias and gaura, kangaroo paw and echinacea, lots of soft swishy grasses, and enough blue-flowering plants to keep the city’s bees happy. Right now the plants look marooned in the gravel, but once they settle the effect should be of something slightly wild and unkempt and appealingly full of flowers; an unexpected garden in the city.

The Goods Line, Sydney