Holly's Spring 2020 Newsletter

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Spring 2020

   “The promise of spring’s arrival is enough to get anyone through the bitter winter!”
      - Jen Selinsky, Author



The magnolias that started flowering mid-winter with M. x soulangiana, continue to bloom, and more are ready to unfurl their scented petals.


Some gardeners tell me their favourite season is Autumn when things are slower: mellow. 

For me, however, it’s Spring, with the daily emergence of new growth, that fills me with excitement and happiness.


Signs of new life are everywhere, from fresh green grass, to new shoots unfurling lime-green on bare branches, to fields suddenly waking with the golden bloom of thousands of daffodils. Buds are fattening on wisteria and garden beds are bursting with colour.

1 Magnolia liliflora



There is still time to plant spring bulbs, either as a meadow, in your perennial borders, or in pots. The pots on my verandas are bursting with bulbs: what joy they provide – and with such little effort! In my last garden freesias, tritelia, grape hyacinths, hyacinths and the common bluebell were the most successful, along with the daffodils. I would leave them undisturbed for years; they prefer not to be watered in summer, when they are dormant. And, of course, don’t remove the dying foliage, as that creates food for the next flowering,



In the garden next to mine an old magnolia limbers up for weeks for its annual performance, the expectation tantalising all who pass by. The buds, held aloft on contorted branches, get fatter and fatter, and the first scented, aristocratic flower then emerges. Come Spring M. grandiflora ‘Little Gem’ displays large cups of scent, and is followed by the deep crimson ‘Vulcan’. The season finishes with the butter yellow blooms of ‘Elizabeth.’


The magnolia, named in honour of the French botanist Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), in 1737, by Carl Linnaeus, who invented the system of botanical nomenclature, has been cultivated in China, where their beautiful flowers symbolise purity, for more than 1500 years.


Magnolias were introduced to the western world in 1687, when M. virginiana, was sent to the Bishop of London from North America by the missionary-botanist John Bannister. And since Sir Joseph Banks introduced the first Asiatic magnolias – M. denudata and M. liliiflora from eastern China and Japan - a century later, the pure sensuality of the genus has captivated the horticultural world.


Plant hunters dispatched from Britain in the 18th century to search for botanical trophies for the great houses risked terrible deaths throughout China, the Himalayas and Tibet in their quest for the exotic and rare that exemplified the mysteries behind closed borders. Among the most intrepid was Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson who wrote that magnolias were the ‘Aristocrats of ancient lineage, possessed of many superlative qualities ... They have the largest flowers ...no other genus can boast so many excellences. Their free-flowering character and great beauty of blossom and foliage are equalled by the ease with which they may be cultivated.’


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.


The cultivar ‘Alexandrina’ has white goblet-shaped flowers stained purple at their base; ‘Brozzoni’ produces the largest flowers of this group. Other wonderful soulangiana cultivars are the crimson ‘Lennei’ and the white ‘Lennei Alba.’


Magnolia denudata, - formerly known as M. heptapeta – native to China and cultivated there for more than 1000 years, displays its scented, mid-sized, cream blooms in mid-August. But for weeks before its white buds emerge from brown sheaths that are covered in fine hairs which catch the morning light, or, when covered in frost, create wonderful winter pictures.


2 Magnolia denudata


While the form of M. sieboldii is not so impressive, its waxy, white bloom has an exquisite, fragile beauty. For those who like to search for the unusual, M. ‘Elizabeth’, named in 1978 for Elizabeth Stolz, director of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, is a pyramid shaped tree with pale lemon coloured flowers with pink stamens.


For those who must have the difficult to find, the most coveted of all is perhaps Magnolia macrophylla, or the bigleaf magnolia; its leaves are more than a metre long with a fascinating silver underside. I saw it for the first time in a collector’s garden of botanical treasures, on an island in Lake Maggiore, in the north of Italy, where, in April and May, it is laden with heavily perfumed flowers, each 40cm in diameter.


The impressive espaliers you often see on houses in English gardens are most often the intensely fragrant M. g. ‘Exmouth’.


In my last garden, the wisterias were the standout bloom. I couldn’t get enough of them, and, as this is a genus that thrives in Sydney, I grew 12 species and varieties, ensuring that we could enjoy their scented racemes over several months. They start flowering in late winter with the very pale pink Wisteria venusta, and continue on, until the late flowering species, in November.


A vigorous, deciduous twiner, wisteria is a genus comprising just a few species, native to Asia and North America. The two most widely grown species are the Japanese wisteria (W. floribunda) which was introduced to the west in 1830; its stems twine clockwise. The stems twist anti-clockwise on the more vigorous Chinese wisteria, (W. sinensis). There are countless cultivars of these two species available, each suitable for different conditions and sizes of garden.


Among my favourites are ‘Honbeni’, known commercially as ‘Peaches and Cream’, with a lavender pink flower with a yellow ‘blotch’, and ‘Showabeni’ (or ‘Pink Chiffon’) with a true pink bud that opens to white. These brachybotrys species re-flower in summer when their pink tones are intensified. 


3 Wisteria and Lilac


As I write in Seasons in my House and Garden,




if you garden in an area that suffers from late frosts, the American forms, like W. macrostachys which flowers in late November, are a wise choice. They flower with heavy, 30cm-long racemes, a honey scent and a dark blue colour.


Apart from forming a shady roof to a pergola, wisterias can be grown up poles, or trained as a ‘tree wisteria’ on an upright of wood with two struts nailed across the top. (You prune to create a head about 1m high and 1.5m across: once a strong trunk is formed you can cut away the support.)


Wisterias are easy to grow, don’t demand excessive water, and flower when just a few years old. Don’t allow wisterias to haul themselves up onto the house, however, as the climbing tendrils can easily pull a structure off a house; a freestanding support is the safest way to enjoy these beauties. Use tensioned wires to train wisteria up a flight of steps or a pergola, or use sturdy rope, which eventually rots out, by which point the vine has become self-supporting.


Hard prune wisteria in late spring, straight after flowering, right back to several buds, which will fatten to form the racemes for the following season. Then, tip prune long suckers and tie them in the required position. All unwanted, untidy, long, shoots can be gently pulled away as they appear, particularly over summer.


Don’t over-feed wisteria: too much nitrogen fertilizer will encourage foliage at the expense of flowers. Water well in the flowering season to extend the blossoming period. And, be sure to buy vegetatively produced wisteria; any grown from seed may take years to flower.



Although it is too hot and humid to grow the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) in most Sydney gardens, you can buy them from the flower markets in October. Lilacs flower in panicles of many shades, from the palest mauve, to the richest, most intense purple, but also in cerise and pink, whites and creams. It seems that you cannot make a mistake with lilac: placed all together in any vase, with just a few bright green leaves, it looks sumptuous.


5 lilac study


While most of the two dozen species of lilac come from the mountainous regions of Asia, from Afghanistan to China and Japan, the precursor to Syringa vulgaris is one of two species that hail from Eastern Europe. There are around 1500 cultivars of this common lilac, most developed in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and, these days, often grafted onto its close cousin privet, a member of the olive family. Among the great lilac breeders is the French Lemoine family; the glorious white cultivar, ‘Mme Lemoine’, is one of my favourites. If you live in a climate in which you can grow this shrub, you might grow several varieties, so that you can enjoy a parade of colours over several weeks.


Lilacs are happy in most soils, in sun or light shade, but need around 1,000 hours below 10c to flower well: they struggle in the coastal areas, from Sydney north. Prune after flowering to remove any dead wood or branches that are crossing, and to keep the bush to a manageable height. You can grow them from cuttings; take care, if buying grafted specimens, to remove any suckers that appear from below the graft.



Worm Farms. We’ve discussed Compost before: worm farms are just as important, especially for those who garden in small spaces. And your reward will be buckets of rich worm tea to pour on vegies and flowering plants. You can read more about Worm Farms in my Seasons in My House and Garden

6 worm farms


We’ve agreed that good gardens are not created without good soil: that caring for your soil by not depleting it through over-use, by not dousing it with chemicals and by keeping it correctly watered, fed and mulched, will guarantee beauty, along with bounty. And we know that compost adds vital structure, as well as nutrients, to the soil.


It’s not always possible, however, to erect a compost bin, or the ultimate three-bale bin in a small garden – impossible, surely, if you live in an apartment. The worm farm may be the answer to the small garden owner’s wish to ensure that food scraps don’t go to waste. There are several brands available, and in my garden I have a ‘Can o Worms’ and a ‘Worm Café’, which are both easy to assemble. You buy a starter kit of at least 1000 worms when you purchase your worm farm, which is available from most good-sized nurseries. Some packs of worms are supplied with bedding, which the worms will eat before climbing up, into the top tier - known as the working tray - to demolish the food scraps. Don’t be too hasty, in the first few months, therefore, to fill the working layer with food. Too much food, supplied too quickly, will rot, encouraging the tiny vinegar fly, which is attracted to anaerobic and acid conditions, which will make your unit smell. (Vinegar flies are annoying, rather than unclean, however.)


You should see worms eating, and converting, the food waste before adding more scraps. This can be slow during the early months until the worms multiply, after becoming accustomed to their new environment, and until they demolish the original bedding.


You can balance the environment, to assist the entire process, by tipping a handful of garden lime - dissolved in water, as undiluted lime would burn the skin of the worms - over the working tray, after ensuring that the tap is open, so that you don’t drown your worms. I keep the tap open all the time: place a jug or bucket under the tap. You can then pour the ‘worm tea’ – which I dilute - onto your garden, or add it to your watering can to give your plants a beneficial foliar drenching.


Worms will eat up to half their weight in food each day. Once you have a thick layer of castings in the lower tray, remove and add to the garden, either as a tonic around plants, or as part of a mulch. It sounds like a little effort, but your garden will applaud.


Lawn renovation.
As the weather warms the lawn starts to stir - and so do lawn weeds like bindii, which are easy to remove by hand at this early stage.


The warm weather buffalo (Stenotaphrum secundatum) is a running perennial grass that is a good choice for a coastal garden. Hard working and hard wearing, buffalo will cope with some shade but by this time of the year is crying out for some tender loving care. You might pierce the lawn with a fork, taking care not to pierce plastic irrigation pipes that might be just beneath the surface.


You can walk over the lawn with shoe spikes, or, if you have a large expanse to cover, hire an aerating machine from a large hardware store. Then replant any bare patches with any spare runners that have appeared: broadcast a slow release, organic fertiliser onto a damp lawn, and water in well.


If your lawn has become uneven you can apply a thin layer of topdressing soil, or sand, in early spring when new growth starts, or in early summer. Ensure that the surface is level and that the tips of the grass are visible.


When mowing ensure that you don’t cut the lawn too low, which will expose soil and encourage weeds. But do mow before any weeds have had a chance to turn to seed: you can then add lawn clippings to the garden as a mulch, or, along with some nitrogen, to the compost bin.



As the soil warms, we prepare to plant more vegetables. It’s not surprising that there has been a steep increase in the sale of fruit and vegetable seedlings over the past few years: war in many parts of the world and economic stresses – not to mention that dreaded corona virus - have shocked many into turning to soothing activities like gardening. As well, many of us are rejecting foods that have been sprayed with chemicals, or genetically modified. There has never been more information, and more organic products, available to make growing your own food easier, and safer.


In most climates it is time to plant ‘cut and come again’ lettuce, silver beet and spinach,
beans, snow peas, beetroot, carrots, late harvest broccoli, eggplant, strawberries, rhubarb, sweet corn, zucchini, leek and cucumber, herbs, radishes and spring onions.



Be alert for snails, slugs and caterpillars: employ a variety of deterrents, including coffee grounds around plants, and beer traps. 


7 Amaryllis Clivea caterpiller on amaryllis FNL1


Combat aphids, scale, thrips and other sap sucking insects, which all exude a honeydew that further leads to unsightly black sooty mould, with a horticultural oil, with Confidor or Natrasoap.


Commence fortnightly spray plan against the bronze orange bug: use a horticultural oil.


Spray camellias against the invisible tea mites, which enjoy low humidity and cause a bronze sheen over those normally beautiful, deep green leaves: use Yates Natrasoap, spraying under the leaves as well as over the bush.


Start monthly spray with an organic product to protect azaleas against lace bug.


In warm climates, watch for hibiscus beetle: again, spray with an organic product.


Hang fruit fly traps


In cool climates spray with a commercial Bordeaux mix at budburst to combat pear and cherry slug, and fungal diseases such as peach leaf curl.

It’s time to hang up those cards of parasitic wasps (Encarsia formosa) that can be purchased through Biological Services, a mail order company in South Australia. You order by the thousands: they arrive through the post as wasp eggs on small cardboard strips that are hung amongst your vegetables, particularly among the tomatoes. After they hatch the adult female wasp lays her eggs into the whitefly; the larvae then parasitises the pest.


Use ladybirds as natural predators against sap sucking insects, to protect a range of plants, including strawberries. There are more than 500 varieties of ladybird in this country, and as early as 1888 we were exporting them to the US to help in pest prevention. Be alert, however, for the 26 -28 spotted ladybird, which will eat your crops, particularly damaging your potatoes.


Check for aphids on roses, citrus and murraya as well as on spring flowering bulbs that are finishing, and will be weaker and more susceptible to attack. Aphids spread disease as well as excreting honeydew which results in black sooty mould. Spray with Confidor or Natra soap, or combine EcoOil with EcoRose for your roses. Or, aphids can be removed by hand. Biological controls, which can be ordered from several companies, on line, include ladybirds and hoverflies.


In early summer the curl grub will lay its eggs in your lawn: if you see moths rising from the lawn, perhaps as you mow, it is time to spray with Confidor.



My Arts of Bhutan: Botany, Landscape and Textiles tour, with Yoga had to be cancelled, courtesy of the Virus, and the crashing Aussie dollar! We might revisit it for next year. The tour price included airfares from, and to, Bangkok, visas, accommodation and meals, including at the beautiful Taj Tashi and Uma Paro hotels, trekking, very experienced guides, etc. We’ll trek to sacred Tiger's Nest, which clings to the cliffside at around 4,000 metres above the town of Paro, walk through pristine valleys, visit a village where the protection of a bird is so important that electric power is shunned, descend Dochula Pass and visit textile weavers in the East, an area rarely sighted by outsiders.


This tour was especially interesting to those who love gardens and plants, as 30% of the species we know and love come from this region: magnolias, daphne, rhododendron, and more – but would also fascinate those interested in textiles and other aspects of eastern culture and religion. Because of the restricted availability of visas and Druk airline seats, places on this tour are limited. Text Michael Malaga, my yoga master, on 0468 434 108
or email me at holly@hollyforsyth.com.au


And what better place to practice yoga than in the shadow of the snow-capped Himalaya mountains.



My 11th book, Country Gardens: Country Hospitality, (Miegunyah Press) is again in bookstores (and my on-line shop). I travelled all over our beautiful country in 2011, and early 2012, to capture the beauty of our landscapes, as well as the spirit and purpose of Australian country people. As well as sharing their gardens with us, and the history of their properties, owners have shared their favourite recipes, many of which have been handed down through several generations.



Here is a a recipe from Wychwood, a glorious garden and nursery at Mole Creek, in northern Tasmania (it’s in the book). This wonderful garden houses a stellar collection of heritage apples.


Apple and Walnut Cake


8 Apple and Walnut cake

For this delicious cake you might use an eating apple, which will not become fluffy when cooked: ‘Cox’s Orange’ or ‘James Grieve’, the national apple of Scotland, is a perfect choice, as it remains firm with cooking.

100g sultanas
75ml marsala
150ml light olive oil
200g caster sugar
2 large free-range eggs
350g SR flour
1 heaped teaspoon mixed spice
½ teaspoon salt
450g eating apples, peeled, cored and cut into small pieces (I like Cox’s or Mutzu’s)
100g chopped walnuts
Caster sugar, for sprinkling


Grease and line a 25 cm. springform tin. Preheat oven to 180 C (350 F).

Place sultanas and marsala into a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove from heat and leave to infuse and cool.
Beat the olive oil and sugar in an electric mixer, adding eggs one at a time and beating well in between. Sift together the flour, salt and spice, and then add this to the egg mixture, folding in with a metal spoon.
Stir in the apples, walnuts and drained sultanas: it is a stiff batter. Place in the tin and smooth the top, then sprinkle with sugar.
Bake for 45 – 60 mins: a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake should come out clean. Cool in the tin for about 10 mins, then turn out on to a wire rack to cool completely.



                  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.


10 Its Not all Wine and Roses Cover 002 


 p.s. ... wind your clocks and watches one hour forward before you go to sleep on October 3.

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