The spring bulbs, that emerged in late winter, are now blooming. The wattles are brightening any lingering dark days, the lilacs are flowering, and the first of the wisterias is appearing. Welcome to my Spring newsletter.
BULBS and MEADOWS
William Robinson, the Irish landscaper and writer who is generally credited with having created the natural, or wild, style of garden, wrote in his 'Home Landscapes,' published in 1914, that bulbs should be scattered, as if casting potatoes from a bucket.
Having purchased Gravetye, the 300-year old Elizabethan Manor, in 1885, and collecting some 500 hectares of land around the house, Robinson (1838-1935) lived and gardened there, in the south of England, until he died, well into his 90's.
If you covet a meadow, or wild garden, such as is often featured in books written for the gardener in the northern hemisphere, bulbs will ensure success, rather than bank-account-breaking wild-flowers, which would, in any case, fight a losing battle with our tough grasses and extended growing season. Plant low-growing bulbs on the outer edges and along a wide, swooping, mown central path; taller varieties towards the middle. And plant a mix of early, mid and late season bulbs to keep the 'meadow' flowering for months. Then, a rough cut with the mower blades as high as possible, once a month, will do until Easter when the shoots will again emerge.
While many gardeners consider bluebells weeds, they are generous and easy going: plant a few Scilla hispanica and you'll soon have a meadow.
You don't have to own a garden like Keukenhof, pictured here, to enjoy the fragrance and colour of bulbs: they are also happy in pots.
Stephen Ryan, of Dicksonia Rare Plants, recommends fertilising bulbs with tomato food: it's low in nitrogen, but not in phosphorus and potassium. 'I find it important to feed as soon as you can see the plants are in active growth,' he writes. 'Bulbs begin to gather food and make new bulbs as soon as they start to grow - not after flowering as many people think. By then it is too late.'
Could there be any family of flowering plants more generous than those in the ORCHIDACEAE? With a little planning you can enjoy an orchid in bloom in almost each month of the year: the spider-like miltassias flower in May, the big, bold cymbidiums in July. The butterfly-like Phalaenopsis orchids will brighten the bleakest of winter days with their delicate beauty. The glorious coelogynes flower in September; then, bring pots of them inside to fill your house with scent. Among the easiest to grow well, however, are the Australian native orchids, which bloom on my small balcony garden in October. Many bear tiny flowers, but most have intriguing markings and many are scented.
There are some 200 genera of orchids indigenous to this country, including the easy going epiphytic thelychitons, dockrillias and sarcochilus, with their sweet, open faces. If these are unfamiliar names, the largest group of native orchids, the dendrobiums, comprising around 1800 species, will be better known.
Some, like the epiphytic king orchid (Dendrobium speciosum), with its glorious sprays of yellow flowers, clings, in the wild, to sandstone rocks. Mine, pictured here in a large pot, is loving its west-facing position.
Some, like the Cooktown Orchid, (Dendrobium bigibbum var phalaenopsis) demand warm and humid conditions. Others, like the tiny ironbark orchid (Dendrobium aemulum) which flowers with feather-like white flowers, happily clings to pieces of bark in colder, drier parts of the country. You can also attach it to pieces of tree fern to hang from deciduous trees.
Once your orchids have finished flowering it may be time to re-pot any that are jumping out of their containers. In general, orchids like to be root bound, so this should only be necessary every 3-5 years.
As I explain in Seasons in My House and Garden, tip the plant onto newspaper (you may have to break the pot to do this). Trim off any diseased or damaged foliage and dead roots, placing them in the garbage bin, rather than in the compost. Turn the orchid over and, with a clean, sharp knife or secateurs, divide into several sections. Repot in fresh orchid bark: the standard orchid mix is 80% medium grade treated pine bark, 10% coconut chips and 10% perlite, with smaller growing species preferring a finer mix. Spray with a mix of Eco-oil and Eco-rose to combat any lingering pests.
If you are waiting for a Magnolia campbellii to flower, you will empathise with Audrey Hepburn, who said, 'To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.'
While many magnolias flower from mid-winter, the late-blooming, pale yellow 'Elizabeth' and Magnolia liliiflora 'Nigra,' with its deep crimson blooms, flowers into early summer.
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 consider, so there is a magnolia for every size of garden, for any use, and for most climates.
Named, in 1737, in honour of the French botanist Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), the genus is native to vast areas of the colder parts of China, the Himalayan regions of India, Tibet, and Bhutan, where the genus starts to bloom at around 2000 metres above sea level – with the white Magnolia denudata (pictured below) - in late winter. Several species are also native to northern America, due to a shared botanical provenance dating back millions of years, before the continents separated.
Magnolias are easy to grow and relatively pest free: they love well drained, acid soil rich in organic matter, with similar conditions to the camellia. Most hate lime.
Many gardeners complain that this glorious genus is also a favourite of possums, which like to run along a wall or fence, chewing on the fresh new flower buds. My solution was to buy a rubber snake from a National Geographic store, and place it near the precious trees. Sounds ridiculous, but it worked for me.
Although it is too hot and humid to grow the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) in warm temperate climates, you will find them in 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 together in any vase, with just a few green leaves, it looks sumptuous. Yet again proof that nature never makes a design mistake.
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, also 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 and tones over several weeks.
Lilacs are happy in most soils, in sun or light shade, but need around 1,000 hours below 10dC 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.
Wisterias also 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 of the more vigorous Chinese wisteria, (W. sinensis), twist anti-clockwise. There are countless cultivars of these 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.
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, or walkway (as you see here at Melk Abby in Austria) 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 parts 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 fertiliser 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 wisterias; any grown from seed may take years to flower.
Nancy Mitford, in her captivating and wickedly funny books, talked of the giant rhubarb (Gunnera manicata) as a man-eating monster, no doubt to terrify her five younger sisters. It grows on the river banks at Ninfa, an historic garden south of Rome, as you see here in this picture.
The tormenting of siblings aside, Mitford, who peppered her writing with plants and gardens, was correct in portraying certain rhubarb as dangerous: most gardeners know that the foliage of Rheum rhabarbarum is poisonous, even though the red stems, if steamed with sugar and lemon, are delicious.
Some will have read of tragedies resulting from the use of prunings of the highly toxic oleander (Neriumoleander) as bar-b-q fuel. And we all know to be very careful of mushrooms that we might collect in the woods: pretty but often poisonous.
While stories of adventurers surviving in the Australian bush by eating native tucker abound, there are plenty of plants that look edible, but are poisonous. And plants have been used throughout history to dispense with political opponents. Women and botanical poisons are closely linked in history and in mythology, from Agrippina, the mother of the Roman emperor Nero, to Lucretia Borgia and Catherine de Medici.! Go to the Australian government website: www.anbg.gov.au/poison-plants/AB-poison.html Or contact the Poison Information Centre on 13 11 26
PESTS AND DISEASES
Watch out for early season pests and diseases in September; they will only increase as the weather warms.
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. 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 Natra soap, or combine EcoOil with EcoRose for your roses. Or, aphids can be removed by hand. Biological controls, which can be ordered on line from several companies, include ladybirds and hoverflies.
Go on to the websites of well known gardening districts, such as The Southern Highlands, and the Blue Mountains in New South Wales; Mount Macedon and Bright in Victoria. At Mount Macedon you must visit Dicksonia Rare Plants for some of Stephen's wonderful offerings, such as his Lonicera fragrantissima the winter honeysuckle, which, he writes, 'isn't the showiest shrub in the border but it's fragrance at this time of the year certainly makes amends! Tough as an old boot as well!'
Buckwheat pumpkin pancakes, with candied pumpkin and orange zest are perfect for a Sunday Brunch. You might have cooked them already, from my Seasons in My House and Garden.
I first tried these delicious pancakes at Paro's lovely Uma Hotel, before I trekked to the famous Tiger's Nest Monastery in Bhutan, an ancient, sacred place that clings to a cliff at almost 4,000 metres above sea level. With a decadent candied pumpkin jam and pureed pumpkin yoghurt, these pancakes are substantial enough to sustain you on the gruelling climb; the buckwheat ensures they are not too heavy, however. For the pancakes 1 cup buckwheat flour 2 tablespoons brown sugar 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder ½ teaspoon bi-carb soda 1 teaspoon cinnamon ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg Pinch salt 1 & 1/3 cup soya milk 3 eggs ¾ cup roast pumpkin puree zest of 1 orange 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Mix flour, sugar, baking powder & soda, spices & salt In another bowl mix the soya milk, eggs, vanilla & orange zest and blend well. Pour the wet ingredients slowly into the flour mix and blend. Add, and mix well, the pumpkin puree. Leave to rest for an hour. Pour quantities (depending upon the size you prefer for your pancake), into heated pan. Cook until bubbles rise and break. Turn and cook for a few minutes.
To serve: Pile pancakes and top with candied pumpkin, pumpkin-yoghurt cream. Garnish with orange zest, and, perhaps, a fine slice of fresh orange.
For the candied pumpkin (this can be made a few days in advance) Juice of 3 oranges ½ cup honey (the hotel uses coffee blossom honey) 1 cup water zest 1 orange 1 cup cubed pumpkin
Place liquids in a small saucepan. Bring to the bowl, and stir to dissolve the honey. Add pumpkin and zest: simmer very gently until pumpkin is candied, and liquid is almost evaporated.
Pumpkin cream 1 cup pumpkin puree Pinch grated nutmeg 1 tablespoon honey 1 cup plain yoghurt (I always use goat or sheep yoghurt) Puree all ingredients in blender until smooth. Note: I have also used ½ pumpkin and ½ sweet potato in this recipe, with great success.
Triple Choc Almond Brownies (Gluten Free) These triple chocolate almond brownies (which use white, milk and dark chocolate ) are gluten free, but not, of course, calorie free! I use this mix for a delicious - but very rich - brownie base for slices, and also as a base for desserts. For an easy dinner party pudding, simply cut rounds, with a small glass or cookie cutter: sandwich together with vanilla icecream, crème fraiche, or whipped cream. Add fresh raspberries or strawberries. The cooked slice keeps well for up to a week, and also freezes well. To serve for an afternoon tea simply cut the brownies into bite sized rounds. Always check that none of your guests is allergic to nuts...
200 g almond meal
½ cup rice flour 1¾ cups caster sugar 1/3 cup cocoa 300 g total of dark, milk and white chocolate, well chopped 3 eggs, lightly beaten 250g butter, melted ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Pre-heat oven to 180dC, and line a 24 x 35cm baking tin. Mix together almond meal and rice flour with cocoa and sugar. Add chopped chocolate (or you can use chocolate drops). Combine eggs, butter and vanilla and fold into chocolate mixture. Bake 40 minutes (It will still be a little soft to the touch but will firm as it cools). Cut into rounds or small slices when almost cool.