Friday, 24 March 2017

New ways to ID plants

The traditional way of accurately identifying a plant was to ask an experienced horticulturalist or ask a botanist. Sadly, easily accessible experts are thin on the ground so when I have a plant name query I usually fall back on my tried and trusted library of reference books. These technical guides vary in quality from general books such as Stirling Macoby's well-known, What Flower is That? to more technical references such as the five-volume Horticultural Flora of South Eastern Australia written by botanist Roger Spencer. However large the scope of my standard reference books I often frustratingly fail to find an answer to the name or cultivar of the particular plant that is my current obsession. 


Facebook (login, signup page).jpg

The advent of social media sites such as Facebook has seen a new way to ID plants. I must admit I resisted Facebook (FB) for a decade but a couple of years back I signed up. While the diverting pleasures of watching cat videos and viewing my friends holiday pics are distracting I find the pages devoted to horticulture highly rewarding. On FB there are many sites which help answer our collective pleas for help in plant identification. I'm a member of several FB gardening sites and I often enjoy trying to answer a request for an ID posted on these pages.


Plant Identification Australia is one of my favourite FB sites as it has over 2,000 (free) subscribers and its remit is broad in scope. The groups aim  is 'to educate and aid in the identification of any plant found within Australia. If you come across a plant in Australia and don't know what it is, this is the group to ask!' Sounds good, so I gave it a go.

I wish I knew the species name of this winter flowering Sedum

June last year I posted my first appeal for an ID on the Plant Identification Australia group site with a photo of the above plant:

"I have had this winter flowering sedum growing in my garden for ages but don't have a species name. Any ideas?" 

Within minutes I got a reply from a group member called Lewis in Melbourne with the answer Sedum confusum. Double checking on the internet I confirmed that Lewis' identification was indeed correct. After formally thanking him on the site I promptly added the species name to my plant labels.


While my query was quickly addressed I note from observing other requests for help that a proper identification is often open to debate. While someone may assertively ID a plant on the site there is often a quick response from others who offer alternative answers. Often these debates are caused by the questioner not putting up a decent photograph or description, but most times these debates are quickly resolved with a collectively agreed answer.


While Plant Identification Australia is very general in nature, other FB groups are much more specialised, so you can find groups on (among others) cacti, vegetables and native plants. While signing up to these sites won't lead to you throwing out your standard paper references I'm sure they will help you get more pleasure from your garden.





Tuesday, 1 November 2016

BOOKS: Disobedient Gardens by Michael Cooke & Brigid Arnott



I first became aware of Michael Cooke in the 1990s when I was an occasional customer at his plant nursery on Sydney’s northern fringe. Belrose Nursery was, then, one of the last ‘proper’ retail plant businesses that grew and sold exciting and hard to get plants. Gardeners and landscapers would battle the intolerable Sydney traffic just to seek out his interesting range of perennials and other ornamentals. Since closing the nursery in 2009 Cooke has concentrated on landscape design and in this lovely book (his second) we see some of his treasured gardens, all from New South Wales.



Cooke began designing gardens in the early 1980s and later in his career became a leading advocate of ornamental grasses in landscape design. His reputation soon gained attention overseas and in 1997 he was – I seem to recall - the first Australian landscape designer chosen to appear in the influential UK magazine Gardens Illustrated.

While Cooke does not write much about his influences in this book the works of Piet Oudolf and the late James van Sweden are evident in many of his designs. Despite this, Cooke’s landscapes have a distinct personality all of their own and he merges international influences with the practical realities of gardening in Australia. While mass groupings of ornamental grasses are seen in all of the five profiled rural gardens, Cooke successfully mixes them well with other plantings such as spiral hedges, succulents, ferns, water plants, tropicana and roses.

While his planting palette is diverse he seems to prefer using exotics rather than native plants. For this observer at least, this planting bias gives his gardens a very European or North American contemporary minimal look. Cooke’s gardens have a controlled looseness and informality which will appeal to many who prefer gardens dominated by plants rather than hard landscaping elements. Cooke touches on this in his introduction to Disobedient Gardens:

“When I look back at images of the gardens I’ve designed, I look for similarities – common threads that bind them. Certainly, some plants and colour combinations are repeated, and I also clearly admire the aged, weathered finishes that only time and patience can achieve, as this is also something often seen in my designs. Yet the thing that strikes me most vividly is the contrast between wild and manicured plants. This reoccurs in all my gardens to varying degrees, depending on both the season and the owners’ inclinations.”




Books such as this often act as a ‘calling-card’ for the profiled designer. This is true in this case too, but unlike some high profile landscapers - who have a reputation for disappearing soon after the garden is completed - we discover Cooke relishes having an ongoing relationship with his clients and many have become good friends.

In keeping with the provocative title of the work, Brigid Arnott’s photos add much to the distinctiveness of this volume and her images help break the publishing convention of only showing the garden in ‘styled’ perfection. Therefore, we see images that subtlety challenge the paradise-garden architype - there’s washing hanging on a Hills Hoist (no socks and undies though), upswept leaves everywhere as well as occasional views of hoses and ladders.  Some readers will not like this looseness, but for this writer anyway it makes his gardens seem more liveable and real. The only thing really lacking from this book are plans of the individual gardens and photos of the authors and their patrons.

While the landscapes in this book will be of only passing interest to the small plot gardener they will certainly appeal to landscape designers and home owners with large gardens who are in need of design inspiration. This is a lovely book and warrants inclusion in many horticultural libraries.


Disobedient Gardens by Michael Cooke & Brigid Arnott
Murdoch Books, $59.99 hardback ISBN:9781743365830






Wednesday, 12 October 2016

BOOKS: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben


Unlike arborists, who care for significant trees in parks, gardens and public amenities, silviculturists look after the care and general health of commercial forests leading up to the time of harvest. Their skills are diverse but are informed by closely observing the changes in their arboreal charges, season by season, decade after decade.


The Hidden Life of Trees


Much has been written about the art of growing and caring for trees. It is not a new genre and authors have approached the subject in many different ways. The author of this book is a German silviculturist of thirty years standing, although he unpretentiously describes himself simply as a forester.

The Germans, in particular, have always had a close relationship with their trees and forests and this has imbued much of their national culture and identity. This book steers away from Romantic mythology and concentrates on what makes wild and cultivated forest trees and their ecosystems so dynamic and wonderful.


This could have been a dull work, but the author brings his subject alive with good writing. Although clearly acquainted with the latest academic research on trees and forest ecosystems, Wohlleben successfully treads the narrow path between accessible language and technically informed detail with apparent ease.

“I thank you, dear reader, for having explored some of the trees’ secrets with me – only people who understand trees are capable of protecting them.”

Peter Wohlleben 

Through the close examination of the tree species under his long-time charge in Germany (mostly beeches, oaks and conifers), Wohlleben observes how trees like to grow in natural forests. We learn how they communicate with each other through their roots (the ‘wood wide web’), and how ‘mother trees’ deliberately slow the development of their progeny so they don’t grow too quickly. We discover that these young plants ultimately develop stronger trunks and root systems this way which in time help guarantee a long life.

The author compares the slow start of forest trees to the specimens planted by gardeners in urban settings. These pampered root pruned plants – Wohlleben calls them ‘street kids’ - often grow well initially but never reach the size, strength and longevity of many of their wild cousins. Much of the book examines the many reasons for this.

Ultimately, Wohlleben makes a provocative appeal for humans to break down the barriers between the kingdom of animals and plants. Acknowledging that in recent decades we have begun to treat animals with more respect and dignity, he argues that this should be extended to trees. 

While anyone with an interest in the natural world will enjoy this fine work I think arborists and horticulture students will especially benefit from reading it as it helps the planter and carer of urban trees better understand the frailties of growing trees divorced from their wild kin.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. 
Black Inc, $29.00 Paperback ISBN: 9781863958738

This review, by Silas Clifford-Smith, was first published on the Gardendrum website

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Sage Advice - Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman
(image courtesy Wikipedia)
"The word paradise is derived from the ancient Persian - 'a green place'. Paradise haunts gardens, and some gardens are paradises. Mine is one of them. Others are like bad children - spoilt by their parents, over-watered and covered with noxious chemicals."

Derek Jarman (1942-94)
Film Director, Artist and Gardener

Saturday, 1 October 2016

BOOKS: The House and Garden at Glenmore

In 2002 Viking published The Garden at Bronte. It was a ground breaking book that tells of the restoration of Leo Schofield’s Victorian-era garden in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs during the 1990s. Schofield’s delightfully written volume showed how he, and others, had researched the history of the heritage property and how this informed the design of the restored garden. As well as the focus on the grounds Schofield’s book included interior shots of the house which highlighted his exquisite taste for decorating.  Although similar books had been published overseas The Garden at Bronte was the first of its kind in Australia and helped kick start a sub-genre of works on heritage garden and house restoration.



In similar vein comes The House and Garden at Glenmore by the Sydney interior designer Mickey Robertson. Robertson’s subject is her 1850s sandstone home - on the southwestern edge of Sydney - which she purchased with her husband in the late 1980s. For those familiar with the restoration genre - think Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs – we see the transformation of the house from a rundown country property into a tastefully restored property, in this case, decorated in what I call the ‘Heritage-Modern’ style. Heritage-Modern homes are airy and light (think butler’s sinks, lime washed walls, toile curtains and antique wooden furniture) and have all the modern conveniences (which you never see) but honour and embrace the age of the property.

This book is divided into several sections. It begins with a memoir on the history of Robertson’s involvement with the property and shows how she restored and recreated Glenmore. While this was informative I felt there was only minimal detail on the many difficulties of doing such a major project. Most of Kevin McCloud’s programmes focus on this problematic period as it not only entertains but informs us whether the end result was truly successful. It would also have been interesting knowing more about the history of the house, its occupants and local memories of the property.

The second section focuses on the author’s interior designs. She is clearly a designer with great taste (not too feminine) and her interiors work well with the house if you embrace the Heritage-Modern look. I particularly liked the colour schemes and the diverse and interesting textiles used throughout the house which made it look very livable.

The third section looks at the garden. Almost all the images show the grounds today and the end result is very much in the Gardens Illustrated style (heritage vegetables, jute, gum boots, bamboo canes and potted bulbs – you know the look). The area of Sydney where Glenmore is located gets light frosts, hot summers and below average rainfall. The owners should be commended for keeping these harsh conditions in mind as the garden was planted out.

Without doubt the most dramatic plantings are a group of mature glaucous grey Agave Americana planted at the front of the house. These slow growing majestic succulents were relocated from Denbigh, a nearby heritage property. It would have been great to see photos of the removal and replanting of these dramatic plants and some images of the gardeners at work. 

I’m sure this beautiful volume - with lovely photos by Daniel Shipp - will appeal to many who drool at the idea of owning and restoring an old house with land. I look forward to viewing the property one day and congratulating the owners in person on doing such a fine job.

The House and Garden at Glenmore by Mickey Robertson ISBN: 9781743365823
Hardback $59.99 RRP Murdoch Books

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Your Garden

I was saddened to hear the news that Your Garden magazine is going to fold. While it is disappointing to see any title go it is especially true of Your Garden which has the distinguished honour of being Australia's longest running gardening title. 




Your Garden was first published in 1947 under the editorship of Ernest E Lord. The 1940s, 50s and early 60s were the peak years of interest in gardening and with the post war housing boom and increased population the magazine prospered.  The title actively promoted the use of native plants in home gardens as well as growing orchids and other ornamentals. The publication was general in nature and reflected the diverse horticultural interests of amateur and professional gardeners.

The title had an impressive list of contributors during its lifetime, including (among others): Winifred Bristow, Phil Dudman, Rodger Elliot, Jean Galbraith, Kevin Heinze, Arno King, J N Rentoul and Arthur Swaby. As well as excellent articles Your Garden was attractive to look at and also included gardening themed cartoons - something unheard of in contemporary garden mags.






By the 1990s and the new century the magazine was in slow decline. The readership was ageing and the publishers made little attempt to appeal to younger readers. While Your Garden had seen off several other titles during its boom years it couldn't compete with new (and arguably) fresher journals such as Gardening Australia and Better Homes and Gardens which had companion TV shows.  In recent years the magazine has moved from being a monthly to a seasonal publication. I wish the current writers and production staff well.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Sage Advice - Anne Wareham

"Gardening is boring. It is repetitious, repetitive and mind-blowingly boring, just like housework. All of it – sowing seeds, mowing, cutting hedges, potting up, propagating – is boring, and all of it requires doing over and over again. if there are enjoyable jobs they're mostly enjoyable for the result not the process."

Anne Wareham writing in The Bad Tempered Gardener (2011)



Anne Wareham (image courtesy telegraph.co.uk)
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