Holly's Winter 2020 Newsletter

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                              "Nature never did betray the heart that loved her."

                                  William Wordsworth, 

                                 Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, 

                                 July 13, 1798.


Autumn colours have faded - on trees that didn’t lose their leaves during the fires over summer, and deciduous trees are bare. Winter need not be a sad time, however, as berries develop from summer flowering plants, and grasses take on golds and caramels. Many species also flower in winter.

Welcome to my Winter 2020 newsletter.

As I said in my autumn newsletter and write in Seasons in my House and Garden, it’s not too late to order summer-flowering bulbs and to sort through seed packets to ensure seeds are sown at correct times. It is a time for slow cooking, and for preparing stocks that are full of veggies from the winter garden. The citrus trees are laden: it’s time for bottling and pickling.


And, in these extraordinary, catastrophic times, it’s therapeutic to get into the garden, and important to grow your own vegetables.


Winter sees the retiring hellebore take centre stage. Described as ‘Nature’s gift to gardeners in the dismal months’, this easy-to-please, charming plant blooms in a range of colours and shapes, some pointed, some distinctly rounded, from dazzling white, to pink, to black-purple. Some are intricately marked with speckles or splotches, some are double. Some hellebores have jagged leaves, or foliage that is deeply veined; some foliage is the deepest forest green, others blue to steel grey.

Hellebores are native across much of the globe, from Britain to the Balkans, Turkey, and into Russia and China; there is a species suited to almost every climatic zone in Australia, therefore. The most common, Helleborus x hybridus will multiply in anything but the poorest soil, and copes with hot summers and winter rains.

The promiscuity of Helleborus orientalis is perhaps what makes this species so interesting, for the offspring bear widely differing markings and colours. And H. o. and its hybrids will happily multiply in anything but the poorest soil. They cope with hot summers and winter rains that would rot the caulescent types - those with an obvious stem rising from the ground. An Australian star is the double white H. o. ‘Mrs Betty Ranicar,’ named for a renowned Tasmanian gardener. If you have any from the original garden, Red Hill, treasure them, as those grown from seed don’t always come true. And try the bewitching almost-black Helleborus o. ‘Pluto’ and ‘Plum Purple.’ 


1 hellebore

The caulescent species – those with an obvious stem - include Helleborus argutifolius, which will stand erect at the rear of a border with impressive serrated leaves; it flowers early in its life with large sprays of yellow-green flowers. H. x sternii ‘Boughton Beauty’ has jagged, blue-green, toothed leaves: H. nigercors and H. lividus are for colder districts. H. argutifolius and H. x ballardiae like full sun in cool climate gardens, but in warmer areas thrive in shade, particularly in a southerly position. Take care, however, some people have an anaphylactic reaction after touching any part of the hellebore.


In the depths of winter, many autumn-colouring trees produce berries and pods, cones and nuts are a blessing. These are the capsules that protect the seeds, the progeny for the next generation. If you look hard, in fact, the winter garden is bountiful, not only in providing food for the table, but also plenty that can be cut to decorate the house. Bright berries are the unexpected bonuses of the winter garden; they come in pinks, reds and burgundy, electric yellows, russets, umbers and oranges.’

Berries seen in counterpoint to the foliage of evergreens like hollies and lilly pillies are beautiful. The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) bears large fruits with a tough pink skin, while beautyberry (Callicarpa spp.) a genus of some 150 species in the Lamiaceae family, all bear bunches of berries in winter. The newly fashionable Brunia albiflora, from South Africa, produces bunches of silver-green, very textured fruit, and is sought after by flower arrangers.

Nandina domestica, the sacred bamboo, not only provides clouds of delicate, feathery foliage all year, but also bunches of red berries in winter. The Chinese tallow (Sapium sebiferum) one of the few trees in warm climates that develops deep colours in autumn– oranges, yellows and reds - produces rounded capsules protecting silver white seeds.

Eucalypts, of course, bear fascinating fruit, from the tiny, as you’ll find falling from Eucalyptus saligna, the Sydney blue gum, to huge, on the wonderful E. macrocarpa. Studying the fruit, or gumnuts, of eucalypts is one way of identifying the species in this large genus. Many of the conifers, so important in adding structure to the winter garden, also bear fascinating fruit; textured and sometimes contorted. If you lived in a cold climate and had to choose just one conifer it might be Abies forrestii, native to western China, which bears cobalt-blue cones, and is rare in Australia.


2 Eucalyptus macrocarpa

The Viburnums, particularly Viburnum carlessi and V. carcelphalum, with their indescribable scent on dense cream and pink flower heads, also give us marvellous berries.

One of our most useful plants, the native lilly pilly is a member of the Myrtaceae family, which also includes callistemons, eucalypts and melaleucas. As well as growing into handsome, evergreen trees lilly pillies, the Syzygium, Acmena and Waterhousia genera – so closely related that they are now considered by some botanists to all belong to the genus Syzygium - make excellent topiary subjects, and smart pyramids and spheres for pots. They also clip into dense, deep green hedges. And they all develop colourful fruit; some red, some purple, some round, others elliptical, often at the same time as fluffy, cream coloured flowers appear.

There are varieties of lilly pilly to suit every climate, any aspect and most situations. They are at home in the deep, rich soils of the rainforest, but will tolerate a range of soils: they love the sun but will cope with shade. They have smooth, glossy leaves that have bronze, pink, cerise or lime green tips when young. And, through summer and autumn many bear nectar-laden powder puffs of white blossom that attract the birds and the bees, followed by cream, pink or purple fruits.

Left to grow into trees, some will reach great heights. From the rainforests of northern NSW and Queensland, the riberry, (Syzygium leuhmannii) will reach up to 30 metres in its natural environment. Much loved by the bush food devotees, the riberry can be made into jams and jellies, and can be poached to use with cuts of meat such as lamb backstraps in much the same way as you might use baked quince.

Also useful in cooking, Syzygium australe, the brush cherry, native to our coastal regions and highland rainforests, grows to 35 metres.

There is that saviour of coastal gardens, the Indian hawthorn (Raphiolepis indica), easily grown in warm climates and developing blue-black berries.

And you can’t forget rose hips, particularly spectacular on the rugosa species. Not only is this easy-going species useful for hedging, but the hips provide a wonderful tea, or a syrup to add to drinks.

Among the politically incorrect plants that bear wonderful berries are the privet, the pepper trees, the pittosporum and the pyracantha, thorny shrubs which develop exciting red, yellow or orange fruit. If you do find any of these species, perhaps in an older garden you have purchased, take care to prune off the berries before they escape to smother other, more precious species.

There are also summer flowering plants like hydrangea that fade to antique colours, which can be harvested in winter to add to berries to create smart, winter flower arrangements.
And if you are very organised you can save faded flowers, seeds and winter berries to

make wreaths with which to decorate the house at Christmas time.


You may not be a fan of the colour combination of orange and purple. When nature paints in it, however, it looks fabulous. In warm temperate climates, in mid-winter, the tangle of these colours created by two energetic vines – the native wisteria ( Hydrangea violacea ) and the South American flame vine (Pyrostegia venusta) – lights up even the gloomiest of days.


3 Hardenbergia violacea

And plenty of Australian species provide brilliant colour in winter. Kennedia glabrata, one of 16 species of ‘running postman,’ all native to Australia, blooms red in August. K. prorepens, endemic to the south of Western Australia, flowers violet and blue from April to September and is among the species that Georgiana Molloy, an English settler who arrived in the state in March 1840, collected and dried to send back to London’s Kew gardens. Her botanising provided some comfort to her when she found herself isolated in a country very different from that which she had expected as a young bride in the UK.

As well as lilipillies, grevilleas and banksias there are the wattles, for many of us synonymous with Australia – and, of course, the Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha) is our national floral emblem. For many, their bright yellow blossom each July and August means that winter is nearly over, although for some the blossom heralds the beginning of the hay fever season. Perhaps the best known of the wattles is the Cootamundra wattle (A. baileyana), in some climates making itself too much at home. The purple-leaved form A. b. ‘Purpurea’ is safer.

If you live in a cold climate, you’ll love Viburnum carlesii and V. x carlcephalum, which bloom highly scented in late winter. They make wonderful hedges, or additions to a shrubbery. And how could you ignore the daphnes, the easiest of which is Daphne odora. Give them an east or south east position and they will reward you with glorious scent.

There can be no more cheering sight in mid-winter than the large shell-pink, goblet-shaped, flowers of Magnolia soulangiana. Each year in late June, when the magnolias unfurl their pink and cream flowers, on a tracery of black-grey branches, against a clear, intensely blue winter sky, you might agree at the absolute perfection of the simplest things in life.

Aristocrats of the plant world, magnolias are trees of such presence that you need just one in a garden to create instant impact. There are more than 80 species and dozens of cultivated varieties to ponder over, so there is a magnolia for every size of garden, for any use, and for all climates.
And it’s in winter that the first of the daffodils appear: among the best for winter fragrance is ‘Ericheer.’ I could go on, and on.


Winter is the time to plant autumn fruiting trees, such as plums. While plums do best in frosty climates, Yates advises that some varieties, including ‘Gulf Gold’ will fruit in more temperate regions. And early winter is the time to buy and plant bare-rooted specimens.


Winter is not the time to prune wisteria, which will be preparing to flower in early spring. It’s the time to mulch the garden well, after watering. And it is the time to do those garden chores for which you had no time during the hot days of summer. Garden furniture can be mended, sheds can be tidied. Seats can be painted.


4 PowerGearXLopperbypass



4b pleaching

The garden designer, Kath Carr, a devotee of Edna Walling, abhorred white painted garden furniture. Too obtrusive, she insisted. Not subtle enough. Seminal to Carr’s work was the idea of restraint: she believed that skill in garden design and in the creation of things of beauty came from having a light touch.

Carr (1909 – 1999) advised against stark, white painted garden seats, signs or fences, against garish embellishments such as ornate, shop-bought garden lamps. She liked to provide the name of a local blacksmith and instruct clients to have simple, ‘workmanlike’ lamps made. Fences were to be simple, painted a dark brown or stained black. Most clients heeded her instructions and they resulted in the creation of the restrained, un-fussy, tranquil gardens that can only be achieved through years of nurturing and judicious choice and placement of plants.

I’m not sure I agree with her about the colour of garden furniture, for nothing looks prettier that a pair of white seats set in a pastel-flowering meadow.


5 bulbs

But, blending naturally into any garden, unpainted wooden furniture is unobtrusive, strong and practical. Often constructed from plantation-grown teak, with time it weathers to a gentle silver. Similarly, unpainted post and rail fences are beautiful.

A seat painted kingfisher blue, however, while hardly subtle, would brighten any winter’s day. It does need to relate to an element in the garden: perhaps plantings of deep blue delphiniums, or the colour of wood trims on the house.
And if you are clever with craft why not create a rustic bower, the dictionary definition of which is “a shady retreat with sides and roof covered in climbing plants.” This description conjures up images of mysterious places in cool English gardens, often a subject for the Romantic poets. Such retreats are even more appropriate in the sometimes ruthless Australian climate.

Traditionally found in monastic gardens, shaded bowers can be created from chestnut, willow or maple saplings. Scented vines like jasmine, or thornless roses such as ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ or her offspring ‘Kathleen Harrop’ can be trained over a canopy to create a supremely restful space.

Any piece of garden furniture should suit the overall design of a garden; materials need to take their cue from what is used already in the garden, and what is local. If you live in an area where stone or rock is part of the landscape, for example, a simple stone seat, angled toward the morning sun, or the sunset, provides the perfect spot for contemplation. Seats can be tucked into garden corners, doubling as sculptures. Left over pieces of the material used for hard landscaping – such as off-cuts of sandstone - provide a uniform look throughout the garden, and prevent a confused, too-busy, appearance.

Edna Walling (1895 – 1973) understood the importance of such simplicity. “Clearly when we employ local materials,” she wrote in the introduction to Cottage and Garden in Australia, in 1947, “we achieve a far better result. Low walls add greatly to the pleasure of out-of-door living. For casual seating they are most useful - one always likes to perch in unexpected places about the garden, rarely in the spots where seats have been carefully provided.”

In city courtyard gardens where space is at a premium, built-in timber seats with hinged tops serve a double purpose. They can be boxed in to provide storage for cushions and outdoor games.

Ironwork combines visual delicacy with strength, exemplified best by the cast iron Colebrookdale seats. Decorated with ferns, grapevines or Lily of the Valley, they were most popular in Victorian times. Woven wire seats are also works of art in themselves. While sturdier than they look, they are perhaps best suited to an enclosed, intimate garden space. They look perfect, hosted by a swathe of green lawn, set perhaps before a deep border of flowering perennials. If choosing wrought iron, always buy the best you can manage. Flimsy aluminium imitations will rarely satisfy - somewhat like breakfasting on an all-egg-white omelette.



Crop Rotation:

If you have the space available for a good-sized vegie garden, you may want to practice the age-old art of crop rotation. And winter is a good time to dig and prepare the four beds employed. One bed each is devoted to one of the four groups of vegetables – the legumes (beans and peas), the brassicas (cauliflowers, kales and cabbages, turnips and swedes), root vegetables (beetroot, onions, leeks, garlic, spinach, carrots, chard and potatoes) and other crops, or a nitrogen fixing crop like clover. You grow each group of crops in a different bed each year, so that any soil-borne diseases unique to one group won’t multiply to become a problem.

It works like this: the first bed will hold the legumes, which require a good dose of fertiliser: these are followed by brassicas, which don’t. These are followed, in the third year, by the root vegetables. You can plant fast growing leaf vegetables such as lettuce in any of the sections. And you can have great fun drawing up colour coded plans for your crop rotation.

You might edge garden beds with herbs like basil or chives, or with strawberries, as colonial gardeners did, before box hedging became affordable.

It’s time to plant garlic and it’s time to plant potatoes.

I always plant my potatoes in mid-winter – in June or July, although friends on the frosty Southern Highlands plant a little later, in early spring, so that new foliage is not burnt by frost.


6 potatoes in grow bags

Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are native to South America, and are rich in vitamins C and B, in folate, niacin, iodine, thiamine and many more nutrients, a great proportion of which are contained just under the skin. A member of the deadly nightshade family (Solanaceae), you need to ensure that you build up the soil around the foliage as the plant grows: any potatoes that appear on the surface will be green and poisonous.

You might cultivate your potatoes in ‘Grow Bags’ or Hessian bags or create a circle with wire netting held in place by four stakes. Add compost, old manure, some slow release fertiliser and good quality potting mix. Plant certified virus-free potatoes, bought from your nursery, or from on-line suppliers, at a depth of about 15cm, and about 50cm apart. Cover with soil, fertilise and water well. As the leaves emerge, add more soil, compost and straw to ensure the plant develops tubers up the stem: this is known as hilling. Potatoes like some 6 hours of sun each day. Fertilise tuber vegetables, including potatoes and kumera, with a potassium-rich product: nitrogen-rich fertilisers will produce leaves at the expense of tubers.

Harvest new potatoes a month after the flowers die, old potatoes when the leaves have died completely. If you don’t have a large family to feed you can practice ‘bandicooting’ an old-fashioned term where you reach down with your hand, into the soil, to break off just one or two potatoes. One kg of seed potatoes should give you about 10kgs to harvest. I start harvesting my potatoes in early December and am still harvesting in early autumn. Remember, always wear gloves, and, when opening bags of soil or potting mix, wear a mask and keep your face clear.


Even in the coldest months, pests and diseases can make their presence felt! If you grow quince, apple or pear you need to be alert for the dreaded Pear and Cherry Slug, a tiny, but ugly, black slug that can defoliate a tree very quickly. Spray at budburst (and, next autumn, at leaf drop) with a commercial product, such as Yates Success. Natural predators include wasps, birds and spiders.


Watch for white rose scale on rose stems, or, in warm climate gardens, on frangipanis: remove with a toothbrush and then spray with PestOil or Eco-Oil


Keep fruit fly traps hanging on trees and replenished until all autumn fruit has been harvested.
My favourite pest deterrent must be coffee grounds, which, sprinkled around your plants, repels even the most determined snail.


Cold winter months provide a great excuse for soups and casseroles. A pumpkin soup, cooked and served in the pumpkin, appears in my Seasons in My House and Garden. There is also a great Cassoulet recipe: not to mention the Tarte Tartin! And here is the recipe for the delicious Ginger Souffle with Rhubarb and Ginger Sauce, from my current book, Country Gardens, Country Hospitality


7 ginger rhubarb souffle



RHUBARB-GINGER SAUCE. (this can be made the day prior to serving.)

3 cups rhubarb, chopped (about 2 bunches)
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup orange liquor
1/3 cup (approx.) water
1 tbsp glace ginger, finely chopped

Combine rhubarb, sugar, liqueur and water in large, heavy pan. Bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until a good consistency. (approx. 15 mins) Stir in ginger and simmer further 10 mins, adding more water if sauce becomes too thick. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Makes 2 cups.


120gms unsalted butter, plus 1tbs extra for preparing soufflé dish
3 tbsp plain flour
1 cup milk
½ cup heavy cream
5 free range egg yolks
7 free range egg whites
1tbsp caster sugar for preparing soufflé dish
½ cup sugar
½ cup very finely chopped crystalised ginger
½ tsp orange flower water
Pinch cream tartar

Pre-heat oven to 220dC.
Butter 8, 1-cup dishes, or a 6-cup soufflé dish and coat with sugar.
Melt butter in small, heavy saucepan over medium heat until foamy. Stir in flour; cook 1 minute. Gradually stir in milk and cream. Cook, stirring constantly, until thick and smooth. Remove from heat; add egg yolks, one at a time, whisking well after each addition. Stir in sugar, then ginger and orange flower water.
In separate bowl, beat egg whites with cream of tartar until stiff, but not dry. Gently fold into soufflé base. Pour into prepared dish.
Bake until puffed and golden: about 15 mins for small dishes and 30 minutes for large. (You may need to place foil very loosely over large soufflé half way through cooking to prevent burning.) Serve immediately with rhubarb sauce, cream. It is also delicious with the cold temperature of homemade ice-cream



MEMOIR: It’s Not All Wine and Roses. A Journey To Survival.

As I’ve said, apart from my novel The Reluctant Spy, which is selling well, I’ve written a ‘Memoir’: It’s not all wine and roses; a journey to survival, my story of surviving several cancers, having been given a ‘less than one percent’ chance of survival. It’s not a ‘misery memoir’: it’s written to give people who are on this challenging journey strength, support and information. The story is intertwined with my travels around the world, photographing the world’s best gardens, and often experiencing dangerous encounters. I am still looking for a publisher.


8 Its Not all Wine and Roses Cover7b Country Gardens Cover





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