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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis 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

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.

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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.



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