Sunday, December 20, 2009

Writing about gardens

There's a reason Sissinghurst is one of the most famous gardens in the world. Yes, it's gorgeous and romantic and clever, but originally its fame was due to the woman who made it and the fact that for two decades last century she was the most celebrated gardening columnist in the UK.
Vita Sackville-West defined the art of the garden column for us and although she has many wonderful peers she was - and remains - one of the best writers about gardens and, more importantly, gardening.
You wouldn't think it's that hard to do, would you?
But good garden writing has to offer many things: clear word pictures; a strong and trusted, and hopefully entertaining, voice; expertise that comes from gardening, not just from books; and above all it is technical writing which can be devilishly tricky, especially if you don't realise that's what you're doing.
A dash of style doesn't go astray either.
Vita's writing is all of these and more, and people adored her columns in The Observer - even people who had no interest in gardening:
...The hedge is made of 'American Pillar', a rose which, together with 'Dorothy Perkins', should be forever abolished from our gardens. I know this attack on two popular roses will infuriate many people, but if one writes gardening articles one must have the courage of one's opinion. I hate, hate, hate 'American Pillar' and her sweetly pink companion 'Perkins'. What would I have planted instead? Well, there is 'Goldfinch', an old rambler, very vigorous, very sweet-scented, and when I say sweet-scented I mean it, for I do try to tell the exact truth in these articles and not mislead anybody. 'Goldfinch' is a darling, she is my pet, my treasure; a mass of scrambled eggs.

Vita, of course, was at heart a poet and writer and probably turns in her grave at the thought that her columns, rather than her huge body of creative work, is the writing for which she is remembered.

Local stars
Edna Walling, though not in the same camp as Vita (well, actually they were, but that's another story), was similarly revered for her wonderful, cranky columns which changed the way that many Australians thought about their gardens, and the bush:
A garden should, I always feel, be just a little too big to keep the whole cultivated, then it has the chance to go a little wild in spots, and make some pictures for you.

Edna is, if you like, the patron saint of the bush backyard.
At the same time, Bill Molyneux was writing about indigenous plants in lucid, passionate books that made us see the Australian landscape and its flora through new eyes, and his influence is evident in many contemporary writers about Australian plants, such as Diana Snape.
That's also why Peter Cundall is so adored by Australian gardeners. It's not that his prose has the poetry and dash of Vita's, because it doesn't; but he has a clear and dear voice and connects with both readers and viewers. We trust him and he is also not a bad technical writer (although I have read a passage of his on crop rotation many times and still can't make head nor tail of it):
I'm being terribly cruel to my tomatoes again. They are receiving just enough water to keep them alive... it's the best way I know to get them to produce early crops

That's even why Don Burke, love him or hate him, is so very popular. He has a distinct voice and, if you set aside his strange habit of advising companies on the wrong side of environmental debates, a reputation as trustworthy and knowledgeable. He may be many things but he's not boring.
But I have to say that many of their colleagues could blister paint with the dryness of their writing.
Several newspaper and magazine columnists make my eyes glaze over, lose focus, and move quickly onto the book review pages. A couple (we won't mention any names - Denise Gadd and Jim Fogarty) send my eyes rolling into the back of my head: I groan, and am incapable of even turning the page for a few minutes. It can't be that boring, surely?

In search of style
The issue rests in the idea that anyone can write. Of course that's true. Everyone can - to a point. But not everyone can write brilliantly. Even half-brilliantly. Even vaguely interestingly.
Not everyone who can garden can write about gardening.
Charisma can't be faked.
And charisma is what we need.
I know most of us don't spend too much time actually reading the words in our gardening books, unless we need to urgently find a cure for something. We're too busy drooling over the pictures.
Hands up those who have ever actually read a chapter by Hobhouse or Verey. I rest my case.
But the recent explosion of gardening book publishing has led to too many people who may be fine gardeners or affable enough on the telly being given advances and transformed into rock stars, when they should instead be given a copy of Vita's gardening column anthology and told to come back in a few years. I expect the same is true of cooking books.
In the new Australian book department, there are some honorable mentions: I actually read Jenna Reed Burns' Australian Gardens for a Changing Climate, while drooling, which tells us that the words must be meaningful and engaging, because the photographs are wonderfully distracting.
I do like Meredith Kirton's books, especially Dig. Marvellous production values, well thought-out, and her text is clear and snappy. There's not that much voice coming through, but you do feel her benevolent presence.
Michael McCoy is possibly the best popular garden writer in Australia right now. He never fails to amuse, whether in short columns or in books, and he has a lovely feel to him, if you know what I mean.
I adore Monty Don. He may be the love-child of Vita Sackville West and Beth Chatto. But don't let your mind linger on that thought too long. Get your grubby little green fingers on a copy of The Sensual Garden, or make someone give you Extraordinary Gardens for Christmas. That man can write. Even his TV shows are thoughtful and articulate.
(Which reminds me - why do those people on Gardening Australia speak to us all as if we were five? Have they done research that indicates we are all morons? Even John Patrick, a well-read and erudite writer and speaker, acts as if we were are all in some remedial class for people who've been wearing their gardening hats too tightly. And a few of them write in the same lifeless tone as well. I have ceased to read anything Jerry Coleby-Williams writes. I do hope it's paying John Patrick's mortgage, but I'd much rather read his really rather good books.)

Writers on gardening
It is salutatory that some of the best writing about gardens is by people other than garden writers: Germaine Greer, for example. Try to get your hands on The Virago Book of Women Gardeners (I have an illustrated edition, which is perhaps a mistake - if I want to actually read, I revert to my paperback, otherwise that drooling daydreaming thing happens).
Or perhaps The Nature of Gardens, edited by Peter Timms, with contributions from writers such as Carmel Bird, Marion Halligan and Belinda Probert. Carmel Bird points out this show-stopper from Maeterlinck, which proves my point completely:
Among the plants that has ceased to defend themselves, the most striking case is that of the Lettuce.

Timms also writes cultural histories of gardens and nature that prove that writing about gardens doesn't have to be dull as dirt.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Morello cherries before the currawongs get them
Baby beets

Just finishing:
Rainbow chard
Broad beans

Red grapefruit

Coming along nicely:


Nearly there:
Tree onions

In flower:
Jacobean lilies
Tiger lilies
Borage (endlessly and everywhere, but luckily the chooks go mad for it)
Kangaroo paws
Day lilies

Correas of all kinds
Grevillea Royal Mantle
Swan River pea



Sunday, November 8, 2009


Before (the veggie patch)


Friday, October 30, 2009

What's the best mulch?

Good question.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, with the new guidelines on bushfire fuel load reduction.
Use gravel, the Victorian Government advises.
Thanks for that.
Gravel is a great mulch for level areas that are already planted. Absolutely. And it doesn't burn in a bushfire. Gravel and pebbles have also been very fashionable for several years (too fashionable, one might argue).
But for the 98% of us (number picked at random but I reckon it's certainly the vast majority) of us on sloping blocks or with developing planting, gravel is no use at all.
You can apply it to a slope all you like, but it won't be there after the next decent rain. It'll be in your drains or your garden beds or wherever you most wish it wasn't. It's also a pain in the butt to try to plant into gravel-mulched areas.
I don't know how to solve the problem of having combustible mulch near your house if you're in a fire-prone community.
We simply have to mulch, and often those plants that do need mulching, such as fruit and veg, are relatively close to the house.
Mulch keeps moisture in the soil and keeps it cooler on hot days and warmer in winter, hopefully replenishes nutrients, and reduces weeds, which also makes sure your plants aren't competing for water and nutrients. It also makes it a great deal easier to remove any weeds that do pop up (and they will).
Groundcover plants are probably the best idea, though not as instant as a layer of bark. They will burn - any foliage can burn - and they will require water from the soil, but they will always have a higher moisture content than dead woodchips and therefore must be a better option. Just don't choose plants with highly inflammable oils (part of the problem with eucalypts and pines).
If you have enormous water tanks, it might be possible to wet down combustible mulch on extreme fire danger days - certainly that should be part of your fire plan if your property is in danger and you are there to hose it down. That was the local CFA advice last season (prior to February).
As far as I know, there is no other fire-resistant mulch.
But fire fuel issues aside, what is the best mulch?

I can tell you what's not.
Plastic matting is not. It adds nothing to the soil and probably in fact damages it. And it's ugly. If you must use sheeting of some kind, invest in proper weedmatting.
I'm not keen on all that bright red recycled rubber, though it may have its place on roundabouts and shopping centre carpark edges. But it's not organic, and it's not helping feed the plants. It's recycling, which is better than nothing, but is designed only for weed prevention, not for plant support.
And after all, gardening is primarily about supporting your plants to do their best.
Anything that is taken from unsustainable forest practices should be out. Most purchased mulch is pine, but you need to be very careful buying anything like red gum or other eucalypt mulches. Ask the supplier - where do they come from? It's a pretty ridiculous concept to destroy native forests in one area so that plants in another place can be pampered.
But generally, bought mulches are by-products of milling plantation timbers or recycling green waste.
I'm not that keen on those blocks of coconut husks - they do suppress weeds but seem to keep water out of the soil. I used a few for the first year but the beds stayed very dry, even after good rain. The following winter I dug it all in, and can report that it does break up clay nicely, so not a complete waste. And very cheap.

You can make your own mulch, of course, with the help of your feathered friends. If you have chooks, leave the straw and manure to rest in a pile for a few months and it can go on your veggies and garden beds. You have to be a bit more careful with barn straw, if you have horses or cattle, as seeds in any manure can become weeds in a garden pretty quickly.
You can use grass cuttings and garden trimmings, though I would let lawn clippings die off in a pile somewhere before layering them on. They do get a bit slimy, so mix them through with other compost materials, such as dry leaves.
You can collect mulch, too, especially leaf litter from bushy areas of your block, which is great for indigenous plants. Leaf litter is certainly a lot safer in heaps around your shrubs where you can damp it down than scattered in the dry grass on a hot windy day. Rake it up, use what you need as mulch, and get rid of the rest of it before high summer - either in the compost (where it will take longer than other matter to rot down) or in your green waste so it can be re-used by others.
If you make compost, it's up there among the best mulches, although most of us can't generate enough to cover great swathes of ground.

For the veggies
Lots of people, including the good folk on the ABC's Gardening Australia, recommend sugar cane waste.
I don't. I used it a great deal in the first few seasons I was here, mostly because it's cheap, but it seemed to create an impermeable layer on top of the soil which actually prevented water from reaching plant roots. It might be good for breaking up heavy soils, but there are also different views on whether or not it adds nutrient content.
For veggie patches I much prefer pea straw. In fact, I love pea straw. I also love mushroom mulch. I could eat it. It just smells gorgeous and feels rich. It's gardener's chocolate. But I have to say it's more a compost than mulch. The only drawbacks with pea straw are that you do get a lovely random crop of peas, but just think of them as a wonderfully nourishing green manure and dig them in. Pea straw will also blow away in exposed areas. On the other hand, you will see it featuring in lots of local bird nests, which is kinda nice.
When making new veggie beds, start with a layer of cardboard or thick newspapers, and lay an inch or three of compost and then pea straw over the top.
I collect bags of oak leaves in autumn for the roses, but otherwise they seem to quite like the pea straw too.

Bulking up
For general planting areas, you need something more solid than pea straw: something that will look after itself, not rot down too fast, and preferably look good. That's why most people go for timber chips or bark.
Choose carefully, though. Some of it is quite recently milled pine, which is still too raw for your garden beds. It may even contain toxins that can cause serious damage.
It needs to look as if it's been laying about in a pile for a good few months before you put it anywhere near your precious charges.
Most bark and chip mulches actually leach nitrogen from the soil as they break down, so make sure you throw around some blood and bone (or pellets made especially for native plants) to compensate.
Most bark or fine chip mulches need to be replenished every couple of years.

On an angle
Most of my block, like many bush backyards, is sloping. It's possibly more dramatic an angle than other places, and I have done quite a bit of planting on the slopes. That's very common.
So how do you mulch on a bank?
On one relatively gentle slope I recycled carpet underlay and cardboard boxes and held them down with rocks. Then I plastered it with Eltham Mulch. Onion weed came through it this year but not much else.
I've used the Eltham mulch on even steeper slopes, sometimes almost vertical, and it just stays there. Never moves. I just chuck it down the hill (sometimes a tarp-full at a time) and it rolls down into place and does not move.
I love Eltham mulch even more than I love pea straw. It is dark pulverised bark mixed with thin strips of pale wood (pine, mostly) and it is especially made for mulching banks.
Now, I know it comes from Adelaide, and it's probably only called Eltham mulch because the Eltham Soil Shop gets it in especially, as it's perfect for the steep gardens around our way. Elsewhere, it's probably called Upwey mulch or Macedon mulch. It's fabulous.

How thick should mulch be?

The opinion on thickness of mulch has changed a bit over the years - experts used to recommend 10 centimetres (which is a bloody lot of mulch). Now it seems like most recommend about 5 to 7 centimetres. Any thicker than that and you risk preventing water from getting to the root zone.
A rule of thumb is the bulkier the mulch, the thicker you spread it. Fine mulches like compost and lawn clippings can be 3 centimetres.

Wherever you are, shop around for the right mulch for your block and don't be afraid to ask the suppliers what it's made of and where it comes from.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

October tasks

For everyone (well, temperate Australia & NZ)
Sow or plant:
- broccoli
- climbing beans
- cabbage
- carrot
- citrus
- lettuce
- passionfruit
- peas
- potato.
Get indigenous plants in the ground while there's rain about and the soil is getting warmer.
Feed citrus and other fruit trees and watch for pests.
Mulch, mulch, mulch.
Weed, weed, weed.
Feed, feed, feed.
Manure leafy vegetables.

In this bush backyard
Clearing, clearing, clearing.
And more clearing.
Though I'm not one of those people in fire-prone areas who is bulldozing around the house, since I quite like trees and animals, it's amazing how much crap accumulates in the bush backyard. Dead branches, dead saplings, old blackberry canes, ivy everywhere. It's all got to go.
I don't plant tomatoes and eggplants until Cup weekend, because my Uncle Phil said so. Even though the seedlings are about already and looking tempting. I'm not going to bother growing from seed this year: when Sweet Bite seedlings are $2 each for a good strong tube, why bother? Nor am I going to bother with Grosse Lisse or any other whoppers this year. We love the smaller fruit and they are quicker to ripen, which means we are more likely to eat them than the birds.
This year I have blossom on the Buerre Bosc and the William pears at the same time, which is the point of having both for cross-pollination. So I'll need to keep an eye on the pears and the cherry and net them this year.
I'll also sow or plant:
- basil (in the propagator)
- Tuscan kale (again, after rabbit massacre)
- peas
- scarlet runner beans, this year, having seen my father-in-laws impressive crop over summer that fed dozens of people for days on end.
We also plan to make a huge batch of rocket pesto from the current crop and replace it elsewhere.
My veggie patch isn't quite big enough for everything I want to grow. The bush areas of the block, on the other hand, still need years of work. But you get that.


I'm ridiculously pleased with my irises this year. Dutch and Bearded have both done very well, the small Algerians less so but still performed. There are two problems: they are all purple; they are slightly different purples. So at present, with both Dutch (mid blue/purple) and Bearded (dark imperial purple) out, it's a bit of a clash. I'll need to move them out of each other's sight before next year. And get some whites and yellows to mix it up a bit.
The big story is that the olive tree is sprouting new growth all over and that's just about the best news I've had all year.
The bare ground where we took out an enormous privet and slashed blackberries and then pulled out nightshade for hours is now carpeted in forget-me-nots. Of course, those are a weed here too, but I am choosing to forget that. It's delightful. Next year I'll put blue and white bluebells through there as well (non-invasive ones, of course).
The other main growing activity in the garden at present is confined to weeds and rabbits. Both are thriving.
That's not entirely true. Some bits of the veggie patch are doing quite nicely; that is, those plants not yet eaten by enterprising rabbits Warren and his wife Nora and the dozens of other Warrens and Noras.
Warren's quite keen on broccolini and, of all things, leeks. Nora prefers raspberries - the canes, not the flowers. I think Nora may be a little stressed, too, as she's been eating the valerian and hopefully is now down in the burrow having a snooze. Nobody likes beetroot or rocket, which is a mercy, but they finish off with a salad and a few mouthfuls of my precious burgundy Scabiosa. I could not for the life of me figure out how they got in, but then watched them race, Houdini-like, through the fence and realised there was the tiniest hole in the wire. And they were sending Warren Junior through the teensy squares in the willow pickets to feast - hopefully he's now eaten so much Scabiosa he can't fit through any more.
Now it's war.
Apart from that I don't have time to actually sow or grow. This year all our effort is going into bushfire load clearing. It was whipper-snipper yesterday and chain saw today.
O, how I love power tools. And the smell of two-stroke in the morning.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Gardener's back

Oh my aching back.
And feet. And legs.
It's mountain goat territory here (well, mountain rabbits) so clearing the banks of dead scrub and blackberry canes before the bushfire season has to be one of the least glamorous and most exhausting jobs ever.
But damn! It looks good now.
What could be more satisfying than a head-high pile of crap waiting for the next green waste drop-off day? (I could burn it, but I like the idea of it all being chewed into mulch and spread across some other garden somewhere.) Not everyone can get such enormous enjoyment from a huge pile of sticks - it's a pleasure confined to those with bush backyards, house framers, and firewood merchants.
All that excitement even without the chainsaw. Next time I'll rev up the Beast as well. I tell you, the fun never stops around here.
I'm still ignoring the annual weeds near the house. I figure it's better to let them get big enough to pull out without bending down too far. But before they run to seed. O, the delicate balance of nature - or rather, perverting the course of nature.
In the veggie patch, the raspberries are sending up runners everywhere. I fear I may have introduced a virulent pest to the Yarra Valley region. Just shows you how easily the buggers can get away from you.
This evening we cooked up the last few big leeks from last spring - I left a few in the ground months ago, because I quite like the flowers, and the stems spilt and multiplied into smaller leeks. I had no idea they'd do that. So now I've transplanted those (they are about a finger's width) and at the same time put in more tiny seedlings so I should have an almost continuous supply.
For once, I planted the seedlings the way you're supposed to, digging in plenty of compost and then making a thin trench with the edge of the spade and just laying the leeks in there, leaning against the side. Then you water them in. Maybe a tiny sprinkle of soil to cover the roots.
It doesn't matter if they keep leaning, apparently, as they will right themselves.
We'll see.
A very satisfying weekend, enjoying the results of my own labours: leek and potato soup, salad, fresh herbs in scrambled eggs (courtesy of the chooks) and finally rhubarb.
Not to mention those huge piles of sticks.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Garden diary dates

Cruden Farm, Dame Elisabeth's lovely country garden (albeit now in the suburbs of Frankston) is open tomorrow, August 30. While the Walling walled garden will be bare, the lake will be ringed with hundreds, maybe thousands, of daffodils, and the camellias and magnolias (I fondly recall this gorgeous M. stellata) will be in full bloom.
Anyway I love seeing the bones of an old garden in winter. Serious gardeners will spend time admiring the leaf mould composting bins, if nothing else, and 100 years notwithstanding the National Treasure herself is usually on hand to sign books and answer questions.
Bless 'er. And her gardeners.

Coming up in my area:
Managing a bush block for biodiversity and bushfire management
This field day will involve site visits to a small number of properties to discuss the tools and techniques for bushland management. The tour will cover bushland ecology, basic plant identification (indigenous and exotic), identifying and addressing land management issues; managing fuel loads, protecting and enhancing habitat, revegetation, and funding and assistance available to landholders.
Date: Saturday 17 October
Time: 10am-3pm
Cost: Free
Facilitator: Tanya White
Meeting point: Dunmoochin (location confirmed on booking)
Bookings: Georgia Ramsey, Environment and Strategic Planning, on 9433 3210 (Nillumbik Council)

Growing organic fruit and vegetables in Nillumbik
Presented by Sustainable Gardening Australia (SGA)
Come along and learn about growing your own food under Nillumbik conditions. The workshop will cover ways to deal with gardening issues particular to Nillumbik, such as Nillumbik soils, possums and shading. Find out which vegetables grow well in our area and learn about effective irrigation strategies.
Date: Saturday
3 October
Time: 10am-12noon
Cost: free
Venue: Edendale Farm, Gastons Road, Eltham (Melway 22 A1)
Bookings: Georgia Ramsey, Environment and Strategic Planning, on 9433 3210

Edendale is well worth a visit anyway, if only for its splendid chooks and feijoa hedge.

I'll also be heading for the Australian Plants Expo: Sustainable Gardening with Australian Native Plants.
Saturday 10 October 9 am - 5 pm
Sunday 11 October 9 am - 4 pm
Templestowe College, Cypress Avenue, Templestowe (Melways 33 D7)
(Adults $4, children free)
See the program and activities (to be published soon, we are promised) on the SGAP Vic site.

[Later] I found some photos of Cruden Farm in late winter, from my visit there in 2007 or so.

Blossom in the home paddock

The house from the old walled garden originally designed by Edna Walling.

Lakeside daffodils by the armsful.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Is it still winter?

Apologies for the hiatus: I came down with the dreaded swine flu and haven't even looked at the garden for weeks.
That means I'm way behind with my spring preparations, but today is the day. I'll be starting all those things I really ought to have done weeks ago. If you've already done all this, like a normal gardener, the list won't be much use, but here's what one should do in July/early August in a cold-to-Mediterranean climate:
- Prune roses
- Weed, weed, weed, especially the annuals before they set seed
- Cut back the raspberries (again - I am only guessing that's the right thing to do, since here are no instructions on what to do with raspberries that accidentally fruit in winter)
- Mulch while the soil's damp
- Get the backlog of new plants into the ground so they have a chance to establish before it gets too warm and dry: I have a few more ground-covering Grevillea Poorinda Royal Mantles, and a whole stack of things I've propagated from cuttings to fill holes, such as pineapple sage and wormwood.
- Stick some garlic cloves in the ground for next year's supply (so easy and SO satisfying)
- Install another water tank.

The must-do things I really can't do now because I've missed my chance, are:
- Move or plant any deciduous shrubs or trees
- Spray nectarines with Bordeaux or a copper-based fungicide before bud burst.

My genuine late August jobs include:
- Fertilise bulbs (to provide nutrient stores for next year)
- Dig over and fertilise/compost/lime (depending on what's going in next) the veggie patch
- Patching the new "lawn" over which visitors repeatedly drove heavy cars the other day, just when it was looking like it might actually become grass
- Spread fresh pea straw onto the veggie patch.

I'm not going to bother with growing tomatoes or eggplants from seed this year, but I will clean out the propagating kit for basil and lettuce.

(Image from Organic Gardening 101 group on facebook)
I'm also going to attempt to move the passionfruit vine to a patch with greater levels of sunshine as it hasn't set fruit at all in its current spot. It may not survive, but I think it's worth a go. I'll plant an old-fashioned jasmine to climb up the deck where the passionfruit is now.

Then there's a vast amount of work to do in bushfire preparation, clearing dead scrub and crap accumulated over the decades just below the banks around our buildings and lying like piles of kindling. I started clearing the old blackberries canes and junk before I got sick, and discovered gorgeous and enormous rocks lying under knots of ivy, open spaces that were revealed as views from the house by just an hour or two with the machete, and even an old rambling rose that had been hidden for years. It's a voyage of discovery.

And while I'm out with the chainsaw, that monster hebe has got to go.

But while I wasn't watching, the rhubarb's gone crazy, the broccolini has burst into flower (not good - makes it woody) as has the kale, the rocket has as always taken off, broad beans have come up nicely, my artichokes are looking majestic, and the beetroot and rainbow chard are doing very well. All with no recent help from me whatsoever.

I could put it down to my superior planning and preparation, but I think it's just nature taking its course. Which should be, after all, the whole point of the exercise.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

World gone mad

The warmest winter for a million years. Looking forward to the driest summer.
The world's gone mad.
At present the wattle's out all along the river, and in the garden we have jonquils and daffodils and magnolias. The broad beans are coming along, kale and rainbow chard doing nicely, broccolini just heading, rhubarb gone nuts and the raspberries looking lovely.
One of these things is not like the others.
Yes, I said raspberries.
What are they doing setting fruit in the middle of winter? You may well ask. I don't know.
How are any of us supposed to forecast even the most obvious growing questions in conditions we've never experienced?

Sunday, July 12, 2009


You know you're obsessed when you read a line like this:
"Compost. It's the most beautiful word in the English language."*
... and you think that's a reasonable thing to say.
I've always been too half-hearted about the compost for my own good. Never turned it or fussed over it because life just seemed too short.
Mind you, I have always admired a good compost heap - I was dead impressed by those at Cruden Farm, and I feel sure Dame Elisabeth wouldn't mind me saying they are amongst her finest achievements.
But I seemed to have turned the corner. I now have three heaps on the go: one nearly cooked, one just started, and one purely of muck from the chook house. I have a black bin for the first stages, and two open bins made of light wooden pallets wired together.
I have even found myself worrying about the ratio of dry to soggy, and turning the heaps over from time to time. I think it's the chooks that helped me over the heap hump. Having an ongoing supply of pooey straw really does make a difference to a person's life.
And if you think that's a reasonable thing to say, you're on the edge yourself.

*Gardening Australia magazine.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Around the world in 80 ugly gardens

While stomping around suburban Sydney the other week, I saw a fantastic front yard - a gorgeous old house, too - made up entirely of hundreds of poas on a slope. Brilliant. And you wouldn't really need to lift a finger, or maybe give it a haircut with a trimmer once a year.
I saw people growing fruit and vegetables in their front yards, some that overflowed out onto the nature strip, and others that were jungly and interesting and great places to explore if you were four years old.
There were a few lovingly tended squares of lawn with roses (nothing wrong with that) and needless to say several of the red cordyline and gravel factory styles.
But I did wonder why so many people have such godforsaken, ugly gardens.
I've never seen so many noseless garden gnomes in my life. Clearly Botany is also the concreting capital of Sydney, as so many front yards featured old, cracked paving and straight-jackets of cement around every plant.
It takes just as much effort to neglect a nice garden as it does a patch of buffalo grass border by a eight-inch strip of dirt in which a straggly oleander falls over a moth-eaten pelargonium or maybe some pathetic begonias (aka snail bait). Or nothing.
Why? Why? Why?
It might take a lot more work to maintain a veggie patch or renovate an old bush backyard, but it's a hell of a lot more fun.
And even if you don't want to do any work, plant a grevillea or a banksia or an olive tree, a correa or two, and a few tubs of erigeron or day lillies or well, anything. Mulch.
And then ignore them.
They'll still look better in five years time than what you have now.
Do it for passers-by, if not yourself and your kids.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Walking and watching

I've taken to walking. A lot. Well, it feels like a lot.
And what I realised when walking in Sydney last week, is that gardening helps you see the world differently - in more detail.
I sit on the train every morning on my way into the city. Instead of a blur of fences and houses and green bits, which is all I used to see, I notice when the silky oak is in bloom or that the bulbs come up later in the inner city than out in the eastern ranges. Or that the lovely mudbrick house just after Eltham station could do with a bit more sun on its veggie patch.
In Sydney, where I walked through normal suburban streets, I noticed how very lovely the grevilleas are at present, happy in the sandy soil near Botany Bay and with that slightly more even temperature. The coastal banksias were in bloom - mind you, they seem to be eternally in flower - and the gymea lilies were shooting. Even the rata hedge out the front of my family's house still had a few red flowers.
I lived in Sydney for quite a few years and I must admit that at this time of year, although I appreciated those couple of extra degrees in temperature, I did miss having a proper autumn. I love the crisp mornings, and the soft sunshine, all perfect for gardening; and of course the colours.
So this week, back in Melbourne, I've left the train at Jolimont and walked through the good old Fitzroy Gardens - one of my traditional kicking-up-leaves destinations. My apologies to the blokes with the leaf blowers who would rather keep autumn in check. It's just not possible for me to walk by a gutter full of oak leaves without having a flurry.
Then this morning, I walked in Currawong Forest Park, where I was perversely pleased to see that their stinging nettle infestation is way worse than mine.
Which reminds me, I must get out there.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Get out there

Yes, it's cold. It's wet. But it's a great time for planting and fertilising: the soil's still warm, there's rain falling - for once - and plants have plenty of time to dig themselves in before spring and summer.
Today I've put in:
Two red flaxes (replacements of summer tragedies)
Two dryandra (ditto)
Columbines to test if they are really rabbit-proof - I should know by morning
A pomegranate tree
Salvia Okata gold
Several society garlic
More correas, kunzeas, Swan River peas and a small grevillea that might be a mistake as it turns out to need moist soil.
All of the above were bought for almost nothing at the Molesworth Annual Sale ladies stall or the sale at the good old Kevin Hinze Gardening Centre in Doncaster.
I've divided the acanthus, moved hellebores, and rescued the daylillies, white evening primrose and Shasta daisies that have been eaten to the ground (again).
And I completely forgot to put in the pile of bulbs still sitting by the front door so I'd best get onto them next weekend. I did manage to pot up some jonquils and tulips. And I stood about looking for a spot to plant the quince tree, which had seemed like a good idea at the time. It might have to go in the country garden instead.
It was cold and muddy and dripping rain and so much fun. So get out there.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Fertiliser machines

The chooks have arrived.
They have been greatly anticipated, with the chook run construction taking place spasmodically over several months.
All I had to start with was my Uncle Phil's homemade galvanised iron tin, in which we used to carry the chook food down to his henhouse when I was little. I inherited it. He had great chooks - about a million Leghorns, or so it seemed. He used to let us gather the eggs in the mornings.
Anyway, I'm not sure he'd approve of my handywork but it seems to be standing up so far.
We bought a ready-made fox-proof chook house (timber and aviary wire, with colourbond roof). We have no fences, plenty of foxes, and people walk their dogs off the leash along the road and beside the river and anywhere they like on our block. So a bit of a run is critical, and they will have to be in a tractor to free range (not that it's particularly free).
There was a great deal of agonising about how to make a run without digging postholes, as the areas of flat ground are limited and mostly carved out of rock. In the end, the answer found me. There were a whole stack of timber poles by the side of the road for the council's inorganic rubbish collection (one of my favourite times of year). I threw a couple in the car and then just had to buy some wire and a few nice solid boards for a kind of kick board along the bottom.
We decided on a spot up against the wall of a building(my office, once a potter's gallery and studio), offering shelter under the eaves and from the wind.

Building the chook run
So, the poles are attached under the eaves in a sort of lean-to, and dug into the ground just a few inches. The chook wire is then stretched tight across these and attached in a range of unique and possibly sculptural (in other words, dodgy) ways and means to the building, which is mudbrick and it's therefore impossible to actually fix anything to it.
Then over that wire I stretched a less taut layer of finer wire I had laying about. It will flap and bend if anyone tries to climb it, which is often enough to put off foxes and cats.
On top of the wire went the kickboards, attached to the poles, for extra security.
That wire also stretches outwards about two feet, so no-one can dig under it. And on top of that is a line of cement bricks (hollow ones, you know the sort) which I filled with potting mixes and which now feature a range of seedlings: borage, nasturtium and Flanders poppies. So if a fox manages to dig under the two feet of wire, he'll get a brick on his head.
What a palaver.

Chook accessories
Then of course you need feeders, straw, pellets, scratch and grit. All before you've even sighted a chook.
No chook house would be complete without two corrugated iron chooks on sticks and a baroque Italian concrete fish, which I've had for years and is one half of a bird bath - the other half sadly broken by an over-enthusiastic Jack Russell who shall remain nameless. It may be just a little OTT. We don't do minimalist here.
Then you need to spend hours happily researching breeds and needs. We were going to get rare breeds especially chosen on aesthetic as much as productive grounds, but in the end we just went for the closest, the Research Poultry Farm: two point of lay hens, crossed between New Hampshire Red and Rhode Island Red; so nice dark feathers, not too big and should be prolific layers.
They were initially named Cluck Norris and Feather Locklear, which I thought hilarious, but Her Indoors has decided they look more like Red and Ginger, which is, after all, easier to say.
I jokingly opened the flap of the nesting box this morning and lo and behold! An egg.
We weren't expecting any egg action for weeks.
Not bad going.
Of course they are already producing poo at a great rate too, which will save on the Dynamic Lifter bills.
At this rate I estimate they'll pay for themselves in twelve years.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Autumn tasks

Suddenly everything's green. Including things you wish weren't.
Over the next few weeks in my bush backyard I'll be:

Clearing and cutting
Dead scrub and blackberries so they don't become next summer's bushfire fuel.
New weeds (some kind of solanum) that have popped up where the old blackberry canes were, on the riverbank.
Heat-frizzled leaves and old growth from shrubs now that the danger has passed - and before the frosts start.
Annual weeds that have popped up, even in the thick mulch.
Borage seedlings all over the veggie patch.

Planting and sowing
More globe artichokes and white windflowers.
Replacements for a few things that did not survive the heat wave: white echinacea, gaura, Banksia Golden Candles, a couple of grevilleas, some extra Erica longifolia.
New blue salvias (Azurea).
Broad beans, beetroot, garlic and rocket (the slaters have eaten all the beetroot seedlings so far).

(Today I've put in lettuce, broccolini and Tuscan kale.)

Declaring war on slaters and Portuguese millipedes
I don't know how, but I am feeling murderous.

An awful lot of eggplants, zucchini and tomatoes.
I've had another good season of Sweet Bite tomatoes, but the Grosse Lisse and Mexican Midgets (very sour) grown from seed have been disappointing, while Mama's Delight is only now setting fruit. But I guess it hasn't been a normal year.
I'm delighted to be able to report that the much-mollycoddled olive tree has pulled through yet again, and a few plants I thought I'd lost to the heat and drought have come back with a sudden vengeance, including daylillies and the Magnolia Little Gem although it may end up two feet shorter than it was in December.

And I'll be throwing lime, manure and compost around in the veggie patch, and mulching madly.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Writers for Wildlife

This weekend I'll be reading/speaking at a benefit for our furry and feathered friends who have survived the bushfires.
Writers for Wildlife
Abbotsford Convent
Sunday, March 22

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The right tool for the job

A confession: I love English garden books and magazines.
Yes, I know that's impractical. Even if I lived in Britain I'd never own an Elizabethan tower with a moat and orchard; or even a Georgian manor with a walled kitchen garden.
It's all garden porn: I know that, but I can't help revelling in it - lush greens, fabulous colour combinations,vast acreages where slaters and rabbits instantly perish before taking a nibble, and spent blooms miraculously turn themselves into gorgeous moist compost overnight - and I'm always a sucker for a row of cabbages or a Miss Jekyll border. It's not real, for me, obviously. It's a little like reading superhero comics.
"If only I could fly."
"If only I could have a field of snowdrops or Flanders poppies."
More to the point: "If only I had a dozen Victorian hand-blown cloches". Because my secret guilt is not even the garden photos but the classified ads up the back of Country Living or The English Garden.
I don't mean "WSF seeks similar with GSOH and strong pruning arm for moonlit deadheading excursions".
Not at all.
It's the ads for bamboo cloches, traditional seed catalogues, bird scarers that look like real barn owls, dove cotes,Victorian conservatories, log trolleys, summer houses, cold frames, bronze sun dials (and for that matter wild Scottish boar or Irish trout, delivered to your door).
And tools.
I love tools - the more obscure the better. I can get lost in Bunnings for hours - any hardware store will do, but preferably as large a range as possible.
One never realises how much one truly needs a small hand mattock, say, until it's there, on special, just next to the check out. It does mean that the simplest trip to the store for a bag of Dynamic Lifter can turn out to be very time-consuming and often expensive. But fascinating and profoundly thrilling - even if you do nothing more than fiddle with things and wonder how they work.
I have plenty of tools at my place in the country (where I sit, writing this) but many are purely for the sake of historical interest: old shears, scythes, a Dutch hoe, shovels, even my Uncle Phil's old beehive smoker. I don't use them - although it turns out that an old bricklayer's mitre is perfect for scraping pine needles out of guttering. (I've looked everywhere for a new Dutch hoe, as they come highly recommended in the aforementioned English garden magazines, but they don't seem to be about, so the antique one may be in for some refurbishing.)
Everyone has their favourites, but here's my list of essential tools for the bush backyard:
Garden fork
Bush saw
Long handled pruners
Pruning saw
Whipper snipper or preferably brush cutter
Mallet (for driving endless numbers of stakes)
Wire cutters
Tarp (for lugging mulch up slopes and a thousand other things)
Trug (ditto)
Rakes (leaf and gravel)
Gloves (leather - lots)
Spray pack with extension rod
Lots of twine, wire, rabbit bags, stakes, etc.

(Ideally you'd have a ute, too, but I get by with a trailer kindly loaned by father and brother.)

I love my chainsaw. I haven't had it long, but it makes me feel wonderfully Davy Crockett. Now the weather has cooled, I'm going to go crazy with it - blame it on the bushfire load reduction zeitgeist.
The whipper snipper or brush cutter is essential. I used to mow the half-acre in the country with it, and always felt very Tolstoyan, scything my way through the long grass, but now a nice man with a slasher comes twice a year so I only have to tidy up. It's tricky slashing at home, because of the slope of the land, and you have to time the cutting after the native grasses have set seed but before the highest bushfire risk.
I have my secateurs in my pocket whenever I'm in the garden, for deadheading, trimming. I don't use hand tools much, but do have a little hand spade for planting out seedlings and even bulbs - usually it just bounces off the clay and I have to bring in heavy artillery. Like the mattock.
I recently bought a cordless hedge trimmer - not for hedges, it's not that kind of garden, but for trimming things like the wormwood. It didn't cost much, but the battery does go flat rather quickly compared to, say, a cordless drill, and only trims light twigs. The monster hebe, for example, is way beyond it, but I suspect that hebe's days are numbered and I'll be taking to it with the chainsaw in the next few weeks.
I don't always buy the best tools. They do cost a lot, so it's a hard decision. But my core advice is to buy the most solid and best balanced you can afford, in a size that fits you, and they will do for a good few years at least.
You can buy great second-hand tools at garage sales, good country charity auctions (Molesworth over Easter, for example), estate auctions, markets, or any trash and treasure. I have two wheelbarrows - one cost $20, one was bartered.
You never need anything fancy. My soil would die laughing if I approached it with a dibber or a patented bulb planter, and a currawong would have a field day with a bamboo cloche.
That's really why I love those English magazines. They are hilarious.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Earth, wind and fire (and water)

As the sun finally dawns a gloomy yellow instead of pink or ominous red for the first time in a week, I am taking stock of the garden.
Mine's looking pretty sad but so is every other garden. I was unexpectedly away for a few weeks and my noble parents tried to keep it all alive through a ridiculous heatwave, but if you're not here to sprinkle around the spare shower water on a hot evening there's only so much the plants can survive. Then the day after we got back it was in the mid-40s and stayed that way for days. And then all hell broke loose, but that's another story.
In this bush backyard, mercifully unscathed by fire, there's an assessment underway: what coped with the dry and the heatwaves, what thrived, what faltered? And what lessons can we learn from that for future garden planning?

Here we lost:
Gaura (6)
Windflowers (6)
Erica longifolia (2)
Grevillea Bronze Rambler
Grevilleas (3)
Banksia 'Golden Candles' (2)
Kennedia 'Running Postman' (2)
Correa Alba prostrate (though it had also been chewed by Warren)
Hebe (2)
Snow in Summer (2)
Red and white Valerian
Dill, lemon verbena, sage and thymes.
I had also recently transplanted some daylilies and four roses that haven't survived the shock and then the summer. I even lost a few succulents, which is pretty hard to do.
To add insult to injury, some unidentified creature had jumped the fence into the veggie patch and chewed the rhubarb down to stumps.

On the critical list are:
The olive tree (as if we haven't been through enough already)
The Monster Hebe
Flaxes red and otherwise (4)
Sea holly (2)
Grevillea White Wings
Daylilies (yellow)
Looks like quite a bit when you list it like that but it actually doesn't seem quite as bad as I first thought.
They are all replaceable, some more easily than others, some I didn't even like much - and some may just have to be replaced with other more appropriate plants. Which brings me to...

Grevillea Poorinda something or other (I know that doesn't narrow it down much, but sadly the label blew away last weekend - it's one of the prostrate monsters)
Grevillea rosemarinifolia
(No surprises there, I guess.)
The veggie patch was a mess and there won't be much of a summer harvest except for tomatoes, but that's all transient anyway. Herbs can easily be replaced. The fruit trees managed to scrape through - just.
Like many others, the small Magnolia 'Little Gem' is scorched beyond belief but I think it'll pull through. The same goes for kangaroo paws, Marguerite daisies, roses galore and hellebores. They all look like crap right now but they still have sap running through their wee veins. Even bearded iris, sedges, dianella, poa and agapanthus are fried around our neck of the woods.

So what next?
First some more clean-up. The big hot winds last weekend made a mockery of my gutter clearing efforts, so it's up the ladder again and all hands to the rakes. The gums have been stripping so they look spectacular but the bark is lying in long strips everywhere (and look suspiciously like snakes in the moonlight - and tinder in the daylight).
I'm considering gravel where once was grass, but not too much.
Dead-heading may take a while, but the consensus is we shouldn't cut back anything too much, even though it looks awful, until March: there is still the possibility of more hot weather so we don't want to expose new growth to it. Grin and bear the brown leaves.

Audit and purge
There are clear lessons in the lists above about what is worth planting in these conditions, and over which plants we should draw a kindly veil. A quick look around your neighbourhood will provide similar feedback.
Once the air temperature cools down, we'll be replacing old with new:
Erica longifolia
Red Valerian
Banksia 'Golden Candles'
They're all worth another go.
I'll try to identify more specifically that unlabelled prostrate Grevillea*, because it's going gangbusters.
So the lesson is to plant many more of those, and indeed more of everything that's been thriving.
I refuse to have one of those backyard blitz white gravel, mondo and yucca gardens. I have made my peace with euphorbias and sedum over the past few months and am even allowing some of the indigenous cordyline to remain in spots where it doesn't offend me too much. I have allowed a few succulents to creep in here and there.
But there is a limit. White gravel, mondo and yucca is the new version of buffalo grass and pelargoniums if you ask me and I will not have it.

Water tanks
The casualty list would be much much longer if I hadn't had the tank installed this year. It's only small but it's got us through. I'll be ordering another one every year until we run out of downpipes and ground.

We've been planning a pergola, and it's become a priority both to help shade the house and veggie patch late on summer afternoons, as well as providing some shelter for people and creatures.
I've also had the brillian idea (patent pending) of making wide tubes of shadecloth, just like the usual rabbit protection bags, except taller, to slip over three stakes when days of 40 degrees are predicted. They can come in various sizes and would also be good for frost protection. I'm a genius. I'm going to make a fortune. Or not, as the case may be.

Fire-retardant plants
While there are some flames that cannot be turned, and no plant is truly fire-proof, but some will not burn as fast as others. Specifically, we don't want to plant anything that's like to just explode in the radiant heat or help spread the flames (some eucalypts and pines are among the worst). It's no coincidence that you see lines of agapanthus along the home paddock fences in the country - something succulent can sometimes be enough to slow a lazy grassfire.
In her classic Gardening Through the Year, Margaret Barrett lists the following (sourced originally from APSG):
Eucalyptus maculata (spotted gum)
Eucalyptus gummifera
E. bauerana
Angophora costata
Acacia cyanophylla
A. dealbata
A. pravissima
Banksia marginata
Hakea salicifolia
Grevillea rosemarinifolia

Mulch early, mulch often - and if it's a fire warning day, wet it down well. The ground is so baked at the moment that water penetration is minimal, so more effort needs to go into adding compost, manure and more organic matter and nutrients to help the plants under stress now, and lay a better foundation for next summer.
Best get to it, then.

[Later: I remembered. It's Grevillea Poorinda Royal Mantle, of course.]

Burning up

Gardening and plant management is a matter of plant, creature and even human survival in Victoria right now, with hottest temperatures, driest months and most horrific bushfires breaking all sorts of records - as if records somehow help you feel better about it all.
It hasn't rained for weeks, or at least that's how it feels, and the ground is dry - the bush is dry - and we've also had the searing winds that helped destroy so many houses and lives and of course gardens over the past week.
Gardens can be replaced after a while, of course, but imagine the heartbreak of having to do so after a fire.
There's a house in Flowerdale I've driven past many times that is an extraordinary splash of colour along the roadside, especially in summer. I fear that garden and house - maybe even the dedicated gardeners themselves - are now gone.
The bush, with a little help to control opportunistic invaders, replaces itself quite fast. I lived in the Royal National Park south of Sydney when bushfire destroyed 80% of the bush a few years ago. It may have not recovered quite as it was, and thousands of animals died, but the plant life did come back amazingly fast. Some of our indigenous plants, of course, are built specifically to regenerate after fire.
But gardens can only be rebuilt by gardeners, and it would be perfectly understandable if even those who have been a little singed rather than completely burnt-out were too traumatised or grief-struck to even think about it for months.
In the aftermath of the fires people are asking (well, it may just be the tabloid media) whether people should live in these areas at all, whether the bush backyard itself is a sensible way to live.
Of course I'm biased. But I don't even think it's a question worth asking. Some people in many cultures all over the world will always want to or have to live out of the city. We just do. We live with the risks (not just fire risks) and we still love it. There are places, like Castella, that do seem a little freaky to me, surrounded by tall timber and very isolated. But beautiful.
People need to be surrounded by beauty and that's universal and timeless. Many people love being surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. Many people make a living (precarious though it may be) in balance with the natural world. It will not change and should be viewed as a positive and natural impulse, not some dangerous and wrong-headed pursuit.
No one would have argued against the existence of Marysville, for example, with its lolly shop and antique furniture and guest houses with wide wooden verandas surrounded by rhododendrons and hydrangeas and mountain Ash. (All gone.) Nor would they rail against farmers eking out a living on the rolling grasslands near Yea or around Glenburn, or people who have lived for generations on small blocks in the tall timber of Toolangi, or grown grapes in the Yarra Valley. So why argue against the bush backyard?
I understand that in extreme circumstances people feel the need for extreme reactions, and many have very good reason for being angry.
But we do have to adapt - again - and the structures around us have to adapt even more to try to ensure it's as safe as it can be, and to balance the needs of the natural world with those of its human residents.
We have a wildfire planning overlay on the property here, which comes with some guidelines as to building and vegetation management. We also have an environmental overlay, with stricter vegetation controls. (Mind you, I don't see anyone from the Council or State Parks managing the blackberries and thistles along the river bank here - we pay for all that.)
I would like to be able to remove a few dead trees and cut the native grasses after they've seeded, to reduce fire load, and am happy to install possum boxes and bat boxes by the dozen to compensate for the tree removal. But I'm also happy to go through a considered process to do so, rather than bulldozing anything within reach of the house as some people are proclaiming. After all, we live in the bush - if you don't like leaf litter, move to Carlton.
While inner-city life (in, say, Paris in winter) held a distinct appeal about 4pm last Saturday before the wind change, I toughened up pretty fast. I'd rather be here facing these risks every summer than anywhere else.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

No words

The hiatus on this blog has been due to the illness and then death of my lovely, talented, loving, fiercely intelligent, gorgeous mother-in-law.
We were in New Zealand with the family for a few weeks and arrived back in Melbourne to a heatwave followed by an inferno.
So far we are safe although I confess my bushfire preparation this year has been half-hearted, and I've been forced to reconsider our fire plan, which is to stay and defend.
Having been through it before, in Bundeena, I felt confident I could save the house if required, but I now know I couldn't have.
Not this fire.
It moved faster and more fiercely than anyone has ever seen, so everything you thought you knew about fires, and houses, and yourself, is cast into doubt.
I don't know what would have happened to us if the wind hadn't changed - as it is, it has pushed the other edge of what is now one enormous fire towards my other place, my spiritual home, in the country near Yarck.
They are on high alert there now, with spot fires in the area.
There's nothing I can do but wait and act like I'm interested in work and the rest of the world while sick to the stomach and exhausted from checking the fire info services in the middle of the night.
And so many others are so - so - much worse off.
We are all affected somehow, everyone is waiting for news of people or places they love, and those who are not affected now will be, I'm sure in the coming days or weeks or months as we learn to live with it all.
But as Julia says, it's beyond words, so I'll shut up.
(Cross-posted on Ocean Without End)