In Praise of Lilies …

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‘That was the moment when I first saw the lilies. And that was the moment  when, having seen them, I mentally signed the contract to buy the house… I had to possess those lilies…’

This is a quote from one of the first chapters of Beverley Nichols’ book Merry Hall, first published in Australia in 1951. It is an account of how he transformed a long neglected English garden, and along the way we meet his gardener, Oldfield, and his various friends and neighbours, all portrayed with sharp wit and acute observation.  The story is rather dated now as it is about an era long passed, when people had factotums  to tend to the management of their large mansions and full-time gardeners to tend to their surrounding acres — acres that usually included an a pond, statuary, and an orchard and a vegetable garden.

I have my mother’s copy of this book and it has been one of the most influential of all the gardening books I have collected and read over the years, so much so that I have never had a garden without lilies growing somewhere there.

 And so it is with this new garden of mine. They are Regale lilies (Christmas lilies is one of their popular names, Lilium regale their botanical name) and the last of the flowers are opening on their tall stems in the far corner of the garden. When I stand among them, some are taller than I am, all of them exquisite and headily fragrant. I am glad they have lasted until now because I can give away large armfuls of them to my friends and fellow gardeners, and fill vases of them for myself to bring a lovely Christmas feel to the house.Phone pics 9.12.17 014


Like Nichols’ lilies, my lilies ‘stand in rows of glistening white’.  Like Nichols’ lilies, when a faint breeze is stirring, as they nod their heads, there drifts towards me a most exquisite fragrance.

 I have just paraphrased Nichols; now I must quote him because only his brilliant writing can do justice to this beautiful flower. ‘Never before, in any garden of the world, have I seen such lilies; their loveliness was literally dazzling; the massed array of white blossom was like sunlit snow. Nor was this shining, shimmering beauty merely the result of mass, for as I walked closer I saw that each individual blossom was a perfect specimen, with a stem that was often four feet high, bearing on its proud summit no less than a dozen blossoms.’

Oldfield had grown those lilies from seed planted some thirty years earlier; at their first meeting, he scoffed at Nichols’ suggestion that he had bought bulbs. ‘Boolbs? [he had a Yorkshire accent] Boolbs? I didn’t get boolbs. I grew ‘em from a handful of seed.’

That was the moment Nichols found his consummate gardener and immortalised him in print; that was the moment in the book when I fell in love with the old man and he became my gardening hero, and when I thought that perhaps I too could grow beautiful flowers if I too planted and tended with patience and care.

I can see the last of my lilies from my desk as I write this and they are reminding me to wish you and yours a happy Christmas, and your garden a bountiful and thriving new year.

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Mrs Murray’s Daffodils

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At a bend in a quiet country road a little to the north west of Melbourne, there is a lane that leads to an old homestead — a low timber building with wide verandahs and stone chimneys, and probably more than a hundred years old. Along that lane, some sixty or more years ago, a consummate gardener planted hundreds of bulbs of her favourite flower, the daffodil.

Today, all along the length of the lane, under its wonderfully gnarled old red gums, is ‘a crowd, a host of dancing daffodils … beneath the trees, ten thousand dancing in the breeze’. (I quote the poet William Wordsworth here because I can think of no better way to describe this glorious sight of thousands of daffodils.)

The gardener was Mrs Murray, a lively and charming old lady already eighty or so when I interviewed her in the 1970s and wrote about her garden in the weekly gardening column I contributed to the Women’s pages of the Sun News Pictorial in those days.

I visited her occasionally after that and at each visit I saw that the daffodils had spread further along the length of the lane, turning it into a magical place each Spring. I was there again a few weeks ago and saw the last of this Spring’s flowers, still lovely, still in great sweeps of gold, bright yellow, and lemon and creamy white. The only consolation in having to tear myself away from such a beautiful place was to know that it would be just as beautiful again next year, and the next, and the next, and that it would be there for my grandchildren to see for as long as they too cared to visit.

Mrs Murray’s garden was lovely too, and she tended it with a passionate love of its plants. But daffodils were her great love and when there was no more room in the garden for her favourite flower, she planted yet more bulbs in the paddocks beyond the garden so that sheep and cattle and passing kangaroos grazed in a bucolic scene in Wordsworth’s ‘laughing company’ of nodding, fragrant golden flowers. When the paddocks were planted, she turned her attention to the lane and planted her beloved flowers there too.

The garden has not been tended for decades now and there is little trace of it left, and the paddocks now are just grass and native trees, all that has survived the ravages of frequent years of drought and fire and hungry stock. But the lane, in Spring, is more beautiful than ever and Mrs Murray’s golden legacy lives on.

The local town of Kyneton honours Mrs Murray’s memory with its annual Daffodil Festival, and if you are there in the early weeks of Spring, and make your way to Mrs Murray’s lane, I promise you, your heart, like Wordsworth’s, will ‘fill with pleasure and dance with daffodils’.

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I have copied Wordsworth’s Daffodils if you have forgotten it or would like to read it for the first time. I found this version in my treasured copy of  Lyrical Forms in English, the text we used throughout high school under the strict guidance of our very English English teacher. She was a Cambridge graduate and poetry her great love, a passion that she managed to pass on to her students and one that I, for one, am grateful for. Continue reading



One of my favourite pictures in one of my favourite books about one of my favourite gardeners is of a writing desk on which there are several photographs, a framed portrait of the Brontë sisters that once was folded and still bears the marks, a pen and inkwell stand, a lovely china bowl of what I imagine is pot-pourri, several stamped and addressed envelopes that look as if they are waiting to be opened, a couple of sheets of postage stamps depicting the crowned head of a young Queen Elizabeth, a scribbling pad dated 1962 (a poignant date) and a small closed diary. There is also a packet of lens cleaners, a silver letter-opener in the shape on an arrow complete with its flight-feathers, and a blotter, the kind that is hand-held and you rock backwards and forwards to dry the ink on your paper. It is an intensely personal collection and when I look into it I feel an intruder.images.jpg

Only half the desk is in range of the camera lens but on that half are at least six small vases of flowers. It must have been the northern summer at the time because in one of the vases — a charming ceramic pot — are several sprigs of lily-of-the-valley; in another — this one decorated with what looks like a Chinese scene — is a mixture of small rose buds and foliage; another holds some white flowers that could be anemones; yet another — this one with a dark glaze — holds a large modern rose perfectly set off with some asparagus fern. At the back of the desk and against the wall and in a vase that is hidden from view are three stems of unopened magnolias beautifully set off by their large shiny leaves.

It is a black and white photograph so I cannot tell you about the colours of the flowers; I can only tell you that each little bouquet is lovely.

The desk speaks of someone who writes and loves flowers. Of course, is does! Because the writer is Vita Sackville West (pictured above on another occasion), poet, novelist and creator of the famous Sissinghurst garden in Kent in England. One of the photographs on the desk is of her husband, diplomat, fellow writer and gardener, Harold Nicholson. The date on the scribbling diary is poignant because she died in 1962.

The photograph is amongst the last pages of Jane Brown’s Vita’s Other World: A Gardening Biography of V.Sackville-West, a brilliant 1985 account of the making of that famous garden — ‘a garden made from deep within memories and experience’ as Jane Brown so eloquently puts it. The same photograph is in my copy of Anne Scott-James’ equally important book, Sissinghurst: The Making of a Garden, published in 1974. Continue reading

Climbing Roses and Their Wandering Ways

This is just how a climbing rose should be: hanging in luxuriant flounces and reaching in all directions. The white climbing rose is Lamarque and it is growing across the front of the home of respected rosarian, Walter Duncan, in his beautiful Heritage Garden in South Australia’s Clare Valley.  The garden is open to visitors.

‘You can almost never have too many climbing roses,’ says Monty Don, well known English broadcaster and garden writer. I absolutely agree. In fact, I agree with everything Monty Don has to say about gardens and have kept an eye on his writing ever since 2008, when he won me with his television series Around the World in 80 Gardens.

He is an interesting man. He is a self-taught horticulturalist and came to gardening in a round-about way after a series of jobs and an unsuccessful attempt at writing fiction. Of himself he says: ‘I was – am – an amateur gardener and a professional writer. My only authority came from a lifetime of gardening and a passion amounting to an obsession for my own garden.’

One of the obsessions in his own garden, other than his passion for organic gardening, is his roses and he writes about them frequently. I have a similar obsession and having just pruned my climbing roses I was interested to read what he says about these particular plants. ‘Just let them grow’, he says. ‘Allow them to grow as big as they really want to, rather than being constantly curtailed and clipped to stay within the limits imposed by our back gardens.  If you have room on your house or a suitable tree (an old apple tree is perfect), try growing a rose up it so it can grow untrammelled, and if this is not practical, then pergolas, arches, fences, walls and bowers are all ideal for training a rose over.’ That’s his very good advice.

My first garden was a tiny space behind a tiny terrace house. I was new to gardening but my head was full of wild fantasies about what I would grow there. I would have trees and flowers and a pond and vegetables, and the flowers would be mostly roses, masses of them. When the more practical aspects of what would actually fit into this tiny space finally dawned on me, I settled for one small-growing tree, a ‘pond’ contained in an old Chinese bowl, some vegetables in pots and three climbing roses. But the climbing roses did have masses of flowers, so my fantasy came true in a small way. Continue reading

On Keeping Warm in July by Digging


I was going through my old files recently and found some twenty-year-old clippings of a weekly gardening column I used to write for the Herald Sun in the days when it had a lively little weekend home magazine edited by a wonderful editor, the late Tony Hitchin. ‘Write me something that you would write for a dear aunt,’ he would say. ‘Someone who loves her garden and likes a good story.’ It was good advice for any newspaper columnist and off I would go, a particular dear aunt in mind, and write something I thought she would like to read.

Amongst the clippings was a column I wrote for her in 2000, in July, that typically chilly month we are enduring now, when you would rather be by a cosy fire than in a bleak, windswept garden. It was mostly about digging and, in particular, digging and tending herbaceous perennials, those plants that produce some of our finest and favourite flowers. Unlike annuals and biennials they keep growing, becoming larger and larger each year. Hugh Johnson, one of my favourite garden writers, says that by combining the permanence and certainty of shrubs with the brilliance of annuals they make themselves indispensable.

Among these indispensables are gorgeous plants like cannas, shasta daisies, Japanese anenomes, day lilies, delphiniums, aquilegias, lupins, borage and more. They flower in their season, from early summer to late autumn, and die back, usually in winter. Some die back briefly; others for a month or two, so that you can easily forget where you planted them.

I was glad to find this clipping because I have planted a lot of herbaceous perennials in my new garden, relying on them to quickly fill the vast empty garden beds that came with the new house and hide the ugly paling fences and bare brick walls that back them until climbers and creepers take a hold. And they are doing just that: in three years they have grown so much I am wondering if I rather overdid the planting, but working on the principle that you can never have too much of a good thing, I will ignore that problem for now.

Gardening being a perennial subject, I was glad to find that what I wrote then has not dated. This is what it said.

Continue reading

On making a backyard into a garden …


The builders have left the site and you are left contemplating a desert. Or, the estate agent has put up the sold sign and you have your dream home — well, it will be when renovations are done. But the garden! It’s more the stuff of nightmare.

This daunting prospect faced me many years ago — more years ago than I care to remember, actually. It was the late 1960s and the backyard of the little terrace house  we had just committed our meagre finances to seemingly forever was just that: a backyard, an ugly bleak space that you could never have called a garden.

I was young and new to gardening, an occupation of ancients in my eyes, and I floundered around, not knowing where to begin with this gardening business, but, as luck would have it,  I found some superb garden writers, all of whom had a thousand wonderful things to say about gardens, and especially where to begin. Perhaps they will be helpful for you too. Continue reading

A Grandmother’s Garden

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There is a huge dead tree in the garden beyond my back fence and I have mixed feelings about it. Mostly it is a stark and depressing reminder that it must once have been beautiful, its low sweeping branches casting welcome summer shade over the lower part of my garden and my neighbours’ gardens on each side.

It looks very like an oak tree: was an oak tree. I find myself using the present tense when I think or write about it, as if it were still alive; with its all-pervading presence, and its still intact dome dominating the skyline, it does seem so.

An oak tree and an heroic one at that. It has that classic shape and it must be at least fifteen metres high, and its spread is vast, overshadowing the garden where it grows, grew.

When I first moved here, I hoped that it would be felled as it was just too sad to see it each day at the far end of my garden. I hoped that someone would buy the derelict old house and rescue both it and the garden. But it is almost three years now and the house is still vacant, unsold, unrescued, and what must once have been its lovely garden, like the house, looking more forsaken as each day passes.

I sometimes walk past the front, hopeful that I will see signs of someone there — someone other than the man with a mower and a blower who keeps the grass cut and a semblance of order. I watch for a ‘For Sale’ sign to appear and someone looking to buy it. But so far, no sign, no buyer, no gardener who will garden there and bring the garden back to life.

The garden at the front is intriguing. Amongst the weeds, I have spied some treasures there. Across the front are, I think, the remnants of a hedge of Lorraine Lea roses: occasionally, valiant salmon-pink buds struggle up between the weeds and sunburnt Boston fern fronds and blossom there. Now that it is winter, there are arum lilies in the overgrown garden beds, all unfurling in their neat Chinese-scroll like way. Early in the spring, there are hundreds of delicate, green-tipped snowdrops, and a little later the rough grass that was once a lawn is a sea of old fashioned fragrant freesias. Later again, tucked away in a corner, a wonderfully gnarled old camellia — a japonica, I think — is dotted with small dark, dark red flowers. Continue reading