On Keeping Warm in July

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 …

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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

Dark Happenings in the Garden Shed: The Saga of the Worms

The worms have left home again. It’s the second time they have done this and I am in despair yet again. Just like last time, they are all over the floor of the garden shed, their poor little desiccated bodies making me feel sad and guilty. They seem to have been heading for the door as if they had wanted to go out into the garden.

Why did they do this? Make this doomed lemming-like journey? I thought I was taking good care of them. They lived in the garden shed in a worm farm (a two-story plastic box on legs designed especially for them). They were fed regularly with vegetable scraps, and I even chopped the scraps finely just as the instructions on the packet that the worms came in told me to do; they could not have been in search of food, surely.

Perhaps there was something they did not like, though I carefully removed the cabbage leaves after I read somewhere that worms don’t like cabbage. And the egg shells because they seemed to studiously ignore them even though I read somewhere else that they like to lay their eggs in them. I never gave them onions, which I also read they dislike.

I sprinkled their bed mostly fairly regularly with a soil conditioner, as instructed by several worm-savvy writers on the web, and I always wet it with water that had been standing in the shed overnight so there was no chemical imbalance or drastic change of temperature to upset them. The shed is cool in summer and relatively warm in winter, and I even put a large cardboard box over their home to improve the insulation for them against our recent cold winter days.

But, no, the ungrateful creatures just up and left. They must have wriggled their way up the sides of their apartment, then under its lid and then down the legs on to the floor. There are some still left behind, I can see, but not half as many as are now littering the cold concrete.

Perhaps there was some kind of civil war going on and the defeated have been driven out and those left behind are the victors — a battle on the scale of Milton’s Paradise Lost, all in the garden shed.

I’ll have to do some more reading about worms before I decide whether to replace them or not because I cannot bear the thought of going through this leaving-home business again. In the meantime, I must sweep the floor of the shed to remove their poor little bodies and the sad reminder that worms are a mystery and a source of great anxiety to me.

. . . . . . .

Elsewhere in my garden right now …

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This is a one of the wild strawberry plants that have obligingly taken root amidst the dichondra ground cover under the birches. They are so pretty and the fruit so delicious I have decided to leave them there, even though it is a race between me, the local low-life like slugs and snails, and the visiting birds and my grandchildren, as to who gets to eat the little berries.

 

 

 

 

All is well …

Things are looking up, literally: the silver maple, over which I was agonising when I last wrote, is now six metres tall and looking great.

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The ‘stick’ that I despaired of then now has ten or so branches and a mass of lush, sharply lobed leaves which, true to form, when the wind blows, twist and turn on their long petiole and reveal their silvery underside. It is nearly two years old now and the worry that I had not planted it properly, that my family had sabotaged the planting ceremony, that the summer months were too hot for a tree from northern climes, is now behind me. (I was so worried on one particularly hot day last summer day that I placed the outdoor umbrella over it to protect it, laughing at myself as I did so.) But all is well and now I am enjoying watching the leaves turn gold and drop to form scattered pools of gold and silver at its base.

In fact, I have been enjoying watching the whole of this my new garden take on its autumn cloak and prepare for winter. Especially as it is only three years old and when I first came here there was nothing growing except a rapacious wonga-wonga vine and vast swathes of kikuyu grass.

Now there are four trees (the silver maple and a grove of three silver birches, ‘… the most beautiful of forest trees, the Lady of the Woods’ according to the Romantic poet Coleridge). Perhaps I have rather overdone the tree thing but there are few grand trees in this area and I like to think I am helping to make it lovely for the future. Besides, I have always been mindful of that great Australian gardener Edna Walling’s injunction that ‘trees come first in the making of garden pictures’.

The hedges that I planned to give the garden a feeling of enclosure — one of Portuguese laurel and another of murraya — are looking as if they are destined to become hedges after all and not just a row of scrawny little soldiers who have not done their dressing-off drill correctly so that they form a nice straight line.

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The east-facing deck is now one-third sheltered by several Boston ivy vines, and its southern corner, my pride and joy, is almost covered by the old fashioned climbing noisette rose, Lamarque. Having climbed valiantly something like seven or eight meters last summer to reach the overhead beams, it rewarded me a few weeks ago for all the care I had given it (and the skin of the breakfast banana each day) with a single cluster of its fragrant creamy white blooms. It was such a huge effort to get to the top that I think all its energy for the growing season was spent doing just that and it could do little more; but I also like to think that it wanted to reassure me that, yes, it would produce flowers but not in any profusion until next spring, when it will have rested a little. That’s okay by me: it is a tried and true rose in my experience and it promises to be so lovely it can take its time. Gardeners are patient people and understand that a garden is not mature until it is at least five years old.

Gardeners are also usually quiet achievers and not given to boasting, but I must say that I am hugely proud of the dichondra ground cover that I planted under the birches to replace the kikuyu grass: it has spread and spread, making a dense, and so far, tough, mat-like covering (you can see it in the pic of the silver maple above). In the first year, when there was little else covering the lawn area, I planted some seeds here and there; now I just dig up a spadeful or two and place it where there is a gap. It really is a most obliging plant, and, to add to its qualities, together with a prostrate thyme and some wild strawberry plants, it has created its own line on either side of the path that leads to the garden shed —‘a line more charming and elusive than any human can devise’, as Edna Walling put it so eloquently.

This is the third significant garden I have planted, and, as a friend commented, it is probably a great act of faith to make a garden in one’s late seventies. There are times when my back aches and my determination to keep tilling and tending does flag, but as I look out on the lovely drifts of golden leaves fallen from the birches and now lying on the ground at their feet, and when the red and gold autumn leaves of the Boston ivy are glowing in the late afternoon light, I am awfully glad I had that faith.

……….

PS. In case you are interested, here are the botanical names of the plants I have mentioned: Portuguese laurel: Prunus lusitanica; Murraya paniculata; Silver maple: Acer saccharinum; Silver birch: Betula pendula; Wonga-wonga vine: Pandorea pandorana; Rosa ‘Lamarque’; prostrate thyme: Thymus serpyllum; wild strawberry:  Fragaria vesca; Boston ivy: Parthenocissus tricuspidata

Good News!

All is well! The Silver Maple is growing at last. Most of the buds along the length of the stem are now green and several have sprouted tiny leaves. Perhaps the Norse gods did hear our prayers, after all; perhaps I maligned my family and they did share their wine with the new tree. Still, I cannot help wondering why it was so late to show signs of life.

Years ago, when I was planting a new garden, I had someone help me to plant a row of conifers, but when I checked what had been done, I despaired because I thought they had been planted too deep. I pulled them out and replanted them. Then a friend told me, no, the new thinking was to plant deep. Sure enough, when I checked, I found that this was, indeed, the way to go: it’s called ‘long stem’ planting, a method devised by dedicated environmentalist, Bill Hicks. He overthrew one of the basic laws of gardening that, when planting, you keep the new soil-level the same as it was in the pot. The idea is that the plant will grow a much more extensive root system, one over and above the system it has already established in its pot; and, of course, the more roots it has, the better a plant’s chances of thriving.

I had this in mind when I dug the hole for the Silver Maple, but I was a little anxious when I saw that the soil was getting rather wet the lower I went, and so I dug no further. Now, with hindsight, I think should have provided better drainage and that is why the new growth is so slow. It would also have allowed me to plant the tree deeper.

For now, all seems well, but I cannot help wondering (and hoping that the Norse gods are still watching over it).

There is a lot of information on the web about Bill Hicks’ long-stem planting technique, if your want to learn more.

Calling on the Norse Gods

There is an ancient Norse ceremony that must be observed when you plant a tree. You gather family and friends, give each a glass of wine, then get them to circle the newly planted tree three times, sprinkling wine from their glass onto it, while calling on the Norse gods to watch over it. “Oh, Norse gods, look after this tree!” or something like that. It probably helps if you know a Norse language. (That done, you can then drink the leftover wine.)

On one of the last days of Winter, the family came and, kindly tolerating my eccentric idea and placated by the prospect of wine, they helped me plant a new tree with due ceremony and I have watched over it since.

There was not only scepticism about the pagan ritual (and unkind remarks directed at me), but there was also concern about the tree itself: it was just a stick, they said. Admittedly, it does look  like a stick (it’s  about two metres high, with only a few bumps promising new growth). There are big expectations of this stick. It’s a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) and the grand plan for the new garden is based on its growing to about 10 metres and shading the house in Summer. That is still a long way off, of course, and in the meantime, I must take great care of it so it does what I hope of it.

Things are not looking good. It still looks just like a stick, and here it is a month into Spring and all else around it is turning green. The ‘bumps’ have swelled only a little, some not at all. The swollen buds have a faint hint of green, which is promising.

What has gone wrong? Did the gods not hear us? The Silver Maple comes from Northern climes so the gods should be sympathetic. Did my family not share their wine fairly with the tree? (Probably, being my family.) Perhaps some didn’t go the full distance; it was supposed to be three times. (Some of them hate to walk, I know.) Perhaps someone sabotaged the ritual by walking the wrong way; they were drinking, after all.

There is some consolation: a neighbour’s maple has only just shown signs of new growth.

I keep watch on mine each day.