Healing Gardens

Hugging trees may be out of fashion, but what if a tree was to hug you? It’s a concept garden designer Betsy-Sue Clarke employs when creating a therapeutic space. “We all need a hug,” she says. Betsy-Sue specialises in healing gardens and says an enclosed place to sit – preferably by water or with a view – is a key feature. “Having a tree canopy overhead is like having a hug.”

The idea of gardens as remedial spaces is not new: sixth-century Persian gardens aimed to help connect people with God, Japanese Zen gardens have long promoted healing meditation, while monastic infirmaries almost always include a cloistered garden.

Surgical patients with views of nature have been found to have shorter post-operative stays, take less pain medication and experience fewer minor post-operative complications than those facing man-made structures such as buildings.

Similar results have been noted since nurse and horticultural therapist Steven Wells created a therapeutic garden at Austin Health’s Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre in Kew, Victoria.

Steven originally thought patients at the Acquired Brain Injury Unit would benefit from gardening activities, but now patients from all the departments – as well as visitors – use the space. One patient even got married there.

Science backs up centuries of garden practice. Professor Roger Ulrich, director of the Centre for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University, found that viewing greenery helped with stress recovery.

As well as aiding physical health, gardens aid spiritual recovery, Betsy-Sue says. She cites key elements:

  • Being able to see the seasons changing helps with moving forward.
  • The sound of water is important and watching water moving – never in a straight line – reminds us that our lives aren’t perfect and controlled either.
  • Seeing how plants battle and survive helps us to battle our own storms.
  • Some plants evoke memories from our childhood – good and bad. “I try to replicate elements of loving memories to help visitors feel safer,” Betsy-Sue says.
  • The ability to make a memory in a garden, whether it’s placing flowers in a vase or stacking rocks, allows you to say, “I’ve been here”, and gives you a moment of peace or of letting go.

words Jane Canaway
Image Dean Golja

 

For gardening inspiration visit
abc.net.au/gardening

Fruit for thought

Regardless of the size of your garden, courtyard or balcony, it’s possible to produce home-grown fruit.

Fruit trees come in a range of sizes: full-size (four metres or larger), dwarf (two to three metres tall), columnar (60 centimetres wide and up to four metres tall) and miniature (one-and-a-half metres tall).

Apples and pears need a cool winter, but there are still plenty of options for people living in warmer climates – look for dwarf peach, papaya, mulberry, macadamia, persimmon, almond or mango trees. Consider dwarf quinces, apples or blueberries for balconies and small gardens. Mail-order nurseries stock a large selection of fruit trees.

If you only have room for one full-size tree, plant two varieties 15cm apart in the same hole. This is particularly effective when combining apples, pears or plums that need a cross pollinator, but it can also be done with trees of different species. Prune overlapping branches to reap more fruit over a longer period.

Alternatively, you can buy trees grafted with two or more varieties of fruit, whether it’s a mix of citrus, stone fruit, apples or pears. Just remember to mark branches so you don’t accidentally prune off a variety.

 

 

 

 

Pruning is key, says Craig Castree, a Victorian-based horticulturalist and the author of Edible Gardens. “If you can’t reach the fruit when you’re standing with your feet flat on the ground, trees become too hard to manage,” he says. “Trim vertical growth to encourage horizontal growth, which produces more fruit and will be easier to pick.”

He also says: “No net equals no fruit.” So, protect your crop from local pests such as birds and possums.

Strategic pruning can reduce the space needed without a huge loss of fruit, from trees trained in neat lines or fan shapes (espaliered), to column-shaped cordons (trained to grow as a single stem). You can even buy stepover apple plants that act as productive bed edging and grow to a height of about 50 centimetres.

If you’re not sure about your pruning skills, try Fleming’s Ballerina range of columnar apple trees, which are bred to stay in shape.

Miniatures are perfect for growing in pots and dwarf sizes suit larger tubs. Meyer lemons, cumquats and mandarins are best suited to tubs. Buy wheels for your tubs so you can move them.

Some specialist suppliers graft trees to order. Choose from heritage varieties not widely available, or have a favourite fruit tree cloned onto dwarf rootstock.

Caring for container trees

  • Keep tubs in a sheltered, sunny position
  • Apply a slow-release fertiliser every six months
  • Keep soil moist at all times
  • Pick off pest insects
  • Trim the branches and roots every two years and change the potting mix to keep plants healthy
  • Instead of tubs, try bonsai bags, which can be used to temporarily hold fruit trees if you’re moving house
  • Apples and pears need different pruning to stone fruit; check before chopping.

words Jane Canaway

 

Winter Flavour

It’s hard to imagine life without oranges and lemons. A staple of cuisines from Spain to China, citrus is probably our most versatile fruit family. Best of all, they come into season now, when many others have ended. There are about seven species of native limes, plus cultivars, but sadly they are still rare in shops – which is ironic because new research suggests all modern varieties can be traced back to Australasian species from 30 million years ago. However, you will find new-season lemons, limes, satsumas – a lunchbox favourite – and navel oranges, taking over from summer’s Valencias.

You might even find tangelos, citrons, yuzu, Buddha’s hand or bergamot; there are hundreds of types and they’re all cousins. They’re also good for you, providing fibre, lots of vitamin C, B vitamins (including folate), antioxidants and trace minerals.

Few Greek dishes are complete without lemon, and it’s a healthy addition: squeeze it on salads, stir fries, risottos, roast potatoes, chicken, fish, water, tea – and an occasional gin and tonic. High levels of citric acid mean lemon is a good meat tenderiser and it can be used as a cleaning aid. It’s even supposed to fade sunspots. To preserve a glut, you can freeze juice in ice trays, make cordial and curd, or preserve lemons in salt.

Limes can be substituted for a change; generally they are more acidic. The sweetest citrus are oranges, which work well in cakes, desserts and salads. Try oranges with raw fennel for a summery crunch in winter. Or create the colourful Sicilian orange salad, using a range of sliced citrus dressed with olives, red onion and olive oil. Swap tinned fruit for fresh citrus to make a refreshingly different trifle; you can even make the jelly from scratch using fresh juice, and decorate with shavings of orange-flavoured chocolate.

Grapefruit adds flavour to a salad too – it is particularly tasty with avocado, rocket and prawns, or in a Vietnamese-style slaw with chicken or crab.

QUICK CURD

Make an easy lemon curd by whisking 2 eggs, 2 egg yolks, 175g caster sugar, 80g butter and 2 lemons (zest & juice). Stir continuously over low heat until thickened. Store in an airtight jar in the fridge.

words Jane Canaway illustrations Clementine/The Illustration Room

 

Cooking tip: Add lemon juice before scrambling eggs to retain their golden colour.

Know your Natives

Spring in Australia is a magical time to explore our native flora and a good time to consider adding some local colour to your garden.

Native plants are naturally suited to Australian conditions and if you choose varieties from your immediate area you’ll be providing food and habitat for native bees, butterflies, lizards, mammals and birds.

Unit-dwellers need not miss out – many stunning plants are fusspots best grown in pots: brown or pink scented boronias or vivid orange, red or turquoise lechenaultias, bright yellow and exquisitely detailed verticordias, lapis lazuli derwentias and neon orange-yellow-and- pink chorizemas. There is no end to the colours or combinations.

Slowly does it

For gradual change, replace underperforming plants with native ones.

Consider the position to be filled then ask at your local nursery for plants to suit, rather than falling in love with something impractical.

For a hedge, try correas or westringias, which can be cut to shape and will still flower. Trimming a little and often is best.

Remember plants with grey leaves often prefer drier climates and may suffer from fungal problems in higher humidity.

There are lots of options for replacing lawns, whether you want a grass and flower meadow or a neat line of low-growing plants, such as myoporum parvifolium.

 

 

 

 

 

High drama

Some native plants are surprise stunners, providing a green backdrop for most of the year, then exploding with colour in Spring: acacias, mint bushes (prostantheras), hibiscus (alyogyne), eriostemon, orchids and daisy bushes (olearia and ozothamnus).

Quiet performers such as grevilleas, banksias, eremophilas and small daisies (chrysocephalums, xerochrysums and brachyscomes) bring colour – and wildlife – for much of the year.

Then there are the superstar plants whose simple role is to be gorgeous. You only need a few of these in a garden and they need room to shine.

The red gymea lily that soars four metres (or more) is a perfect example. Waratahs are almost as spectacular and enjoy the same conditions as azaleas. Grass trees (Xanthorrhoeas) also fit into this category, as do kangaroo paws, which need good air flow.

Height matters

Tall plants lift a garden and provide structure: consider lomandras, dianellas, tree ferns, grass trees and trees.

While researching the nine-volume Encyclopaedia of Australian Plants and other books, authors Rodger and Gwen Elliot spent years exploring our native flora. Rodger singles out Eucalyptus petiolaris and E. leucoxylon subspecies megalocarpa as favourite small trees.

“You cannot guarantee the flower colour – sometimes young plants with reddish stems may have pink to reddish flowers – but they are some of the best,” he says.

Both are best suited to medium-size gardens but many of the Mallee-type eucalypts only grow up to four metres, offering an Outback look in miniature. There’s the Rose Mallee with enormous pinky red flowers, or Eucalyptus synandra, whose pink-white flowers look like beaded skirts.

For a more humid climate, the Blueberry Ash (Elaeocarpus reticulatus) with its smooth trunk, dark, shiny leaves and fringed, scented flowers is another of Rodger’s star trees.

Planting

TV gardener Angus Stewart, from the ABC’s Gardening Australia, recommends checking roots are not pot bound, gently teasing roots out and soaking the root ball in water before planting. He also suggests adding organic matter to improve soil condition.

To stop shrubs becoming leggy, Angus says, “tip pruning is a must”. And he says, “staking is best avoided, if at all possible,” because movement in the wind helps strengthen plants and their roots.

words Jane Canaway
Images: iStock photo; courtesy Tatters

Need a hand with your gardening? australianunity.com.au/home-services

 

For more advice and plant lists
gardeningwithangus.com.au

See also:
Royal Botanical Gardens
anbg.gov.au/gardens

The Australian Native Plants Society
anpsa.org.au

The Time is Ripe

Summer’s harvest begins to add fragrance to our shops and gardens in late Spring and just as Summer fruits start to taste their best, the price drops. So, now is the time to enjoy peaches, cherries, grapes, plums, apricots, nectarines, mangoes, raspberries, pineapples and strawberries.

Wild strawberries, whose Latin name Fragraria means “fragrance”, have been used medicinally since Roman times. They were grown from runners until new species from North and South America arrived in Australia in the 1750s. These species had larger fruit, so growers experimented with cross breeding. Initial plantings produced no fruit, until growers learned that some plants were male and others female.

The modern strawberry is a cultivar, first produced in France around 1766. Choose strawberries by their sweet fragrance and glossy exterior and check carefully for bruising or marking.

India’s national fruit, the mango, adds flavour to many different dishes. Add mango to a super-spicy chutney or curry, a smoothie, or simply enjoy it on its own. Grapes and chunks of sweet pineapple add interest to a summer salad.

The stone fruits chosen for easy transportation by supermarkets are probably the least flavoursome, so if you can grow heritage types at home you can enjoy their old-fashioned scent and taste.

Look for dwarf trees of many heritage fruits, some of which are small enough to grow in pots. Most fruit offers a broad range of vitamins and antioxidants; strawberries are particularly high in Vitamin C.

Many fruits are treated with chemical sprays to retain freshness. Strawberries top the list, but grapes, apples, peaches and nectarines are often sprayed too. Pineapples, mangoes, papayas, kiwi fruit and cantaloupes are hardier and less likely to be treated.

Don’t let that stop you eating fruit though – just make sure you wash it thoroughly, or buy or grow organic. Hunt down a pick-your-own farm and discover where and how your fruit is grown.

words Jane Canaway

illustrations Clementine/The Illustration Room

 

Cooking tip
The enzymes in fresh kiwi fruit,
papaya and pineapple can be used
as meat tenderisers in marinades

Orchid excellence

 

 

 

 

 

Orchids love the Australian climate so much that more than 800 orchid species, most of them unique to our shores, grow in all kinds of locations all over Australia.

Queensland’s floral emblem, the delightfully named Dendrobium bigibbum, or Cooktown orchid, is well known for its striking shades of purple. The supertough Sydney rock orchid, endrobium speciosum, produces creamy yellow flower spikes in Spring and is loved by gardeners.

More familiar to gardeners in the southern states of Australia are the showy, intricately patterned Cymbidiums, the moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) with its broad-winged petals that vary from white to deep purple and the wildly coloured Singapore orchid, once a buttonhole favourite.

Despite our climate and our huge variety of native plants, the bulk of commercially grown plants sold in Australia originate from southern China, South-East Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

Most cultivated orchids are epiphytes, which grow on trees in the tropics or sub-tropics. They prefer dappled light, high humidity, good airflow and limited nutrients. Rock orchids like similar conditions.

Terrestrial orchids (those growing in the ground) outnumber their tree-loving cousins by three to one but are difficult to cultivate. The exceptions are varieties of greenhood (Pterostylis) and onion (Microtis unifolia) orchids, which grow readily in pots or under a tree. Look for them in specialist nurseries.

Kerrie’s Blooms Bring Smiles at Willandra

Australian Unity’s Kerrie Smiles is leading her own orchid revolution.

Kerrie, the Assistant Manager at Willandra Retirement Community in Cromer in New South Wales, is getting many of the residents involved in her hobby.

“I remember being a kid and having a lady’s slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum) and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” Kerrie says.

“They are such good value; better than cut flowers. And I love the people I have met through collecting and growing them.”

Kerrie has encouraged so many residents to grow the plants she has been able to host orchid shows at Willandra. She has also created a special garden where former residents’ orchids continue to bloom in their memory.

After a busy Spring, repotting bigger Cymbidiums and removing old rhizomes, Kerrie says Summer is about maintenance.

“I make up a diluted molasses mix and spray every two weeks. It keeps the bugs off and gives the leaves a sheen. I mix two tablespoons of molasses in one litre of water, using warm water to make sure it dissolves.”

Checking Summer light is also important; the sun is higher and shade will fall differently.

Top tips for healthy plants

  • Good drainage is essential; use orchid mix, which comprises large chunks of bark
  • Orchids like warm and humid environments, not hot and dry, or cold and wet
  • Direct Summer sun can cause sunburn
  • Know your orchid: Moth orchids prefer hot weather and low light; Cymbidiums don’t like temperatures over 25 degrees C but need more light; Dendrobiums like warm days and cool nights.

words Jane Canaway

photography Kerrie Smiles

 

Asparagus is the stuff of folklore and mystery

Flourish, September 2016

The ancient Greeks discovered the delights of asparagus and it’s no surprise they associated the firm, thick shoots – emerging each spring from winter-dormant soil – with virility.

There is no proof asparagus is an aphrodisiac – nor that it can cure cancer – but it is certainly a delicious, nutritious plant worth enjoying during its brief season.

Asparagus is low in calories and high in antioxidants. It is high in B vitamins, folate, vitamin C, potassium, sodium, iron and fibre.

Experts disagree on whether it is a natural diuretic and can lower blood pressure – and thus whether it should be avoided by those with uric acid kidney stones or diabetes.

Purple asparagus contains anthocyanins – potent antioxidants that aid in the growth of healthy cells.

When cooking asparagus, light steaming or stir-frying will preserve more nutrients than boiling, but stems can also be eaten raw (add to a salad or blend in a smoothie).

Try it in soup, in a quiche or omelette, tempura style or with smoked salmon and pasta. Blanched asparagus can be frozen or preserved in brine, vinegar or oil.

Asparagus can be costly to buy as the roots must be three years old before harvesting. White asparagus, which is grown in the dark, is even more labour-intensive. On the upside, plants last 15-20 years.

However, it is easy to grow from seed: six crowns, planted 20-40 centimetres apart during winter, will feed a family. Asparagus grows across Australia but performs best in areas cold enough to induce dormancy.

PARMESAN SPEARS

1 bunch asparagus, 2 tbsp olive oil, salt & pepper, 1/4 cup parmesan cheese (grated), balsamic vinegar

Heat oven to 230°C and drizzle olive oil over a single layer of asparagus on a baking tray. Spread with parmesan and season to taste. Bake for 12-15 minutes. Serve with balsamic vinegar.
(For recipes and tips visit asparagus.com.au)

words Jane Canaway illustrations Clementine/The Illustration Room

 

Wine, wildflowers and wallabies

By Jane Canaway

First published in Your Garden, Autumn 2012

Sue and Sean Delaney tasting wine at Sinclair's Gully

It was a year or two after bringing in professionals to manage their vineyard that Sean and Sue Delaney noticed all the insect and aquatic life around their dam had disappeared.

“We realized all the herbicides, pesticides and fungicides the contractors were using was running off to the holding dam and killing everything off,” Sean explains.

“We thought ‘this is ridiculous’ – we’re living at the bottom of hill with this run-off heading to our house with young children and we could see the damage water-soluble sprays were doing; biodynamics was a way to find alternative method to break our reliance on chemicals.”

At this stage you may be thinking: ‘biodynamics – yes, heard of that – Rudolf Steiner’s take on organic farming, isn’t it?’ and, yes, that’s part of the story.

But biodynamics also requires planting, cultivating and harvesting according to the lunar calendar, as well as more spiritual aspects that critics have compared to alchemy and magic – such as creating compost improver from ‘Oak bark fermented in the skull of a domestic animal’, fermenting dandelions in a cow’s stomach for another preparation, stirring spray solutions in alternative directions for an hour to energise the mix, and burying a cow’s horn to improve the soil’s condition.

Such unorthodox methods might raise eyebrows in a Nimbin commune, so what was the appeal for city professionals with accounting and engineering backgrounds?

From skeptic to accept-nik

“As an engineer I was very skeptical,” agrees Sean. “But I thought ‘if it works I’ll try it and if it doesn’t I won’t’. And, you know, a lot of it works.”

Sean quotes pruning as an example.

“When you’re pruning, you’re cutting 70-80% of the plant away, creating large wounds and increasing the chance of disease; in biodynamic culture you wait until the sap is moving up into the plant so when you cut the plant the wound will be wet – if you cut at a different part of the cycle when the sap is going down, you could pull disease into plant.

“So I tried it and cut the plant when the lunar calendar says it’s good to prune and [the wound] was dripping like a tap. I tried again four or five days later and it was dry. I did it a few times with different plants and it was always the same.

“As engineer I needed to know how things work but as I’ve got older I’ve had to accept that I don’t have to understand it if it works. I don’t believe in all that life force stuff but I think there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know about soil and growth so it will probably be explained one day.”

Because biodynamic methods aim to improve the soil health, and soil plays such a key role in determining a wine’s taste, biodynamic principals are being adopted by a growing number of wine makers who believe it improves their end product.

“I can’t put my heart on my hand and say it’s a better, healthier product but the methodology of making them is healthier,” Sean says. “Others who have gone down this path do it because they say it expresses the terroir and sense of place better in their wine; I can’t guarantee that – it may well but we do it because we live at the bottom of hill below a vineyard.”

Filling a gap in the forest

The Delaneys’ winery is the Adelaide Hills’ only cellar door in the area to be “climate action innovator and advanced eco-certified” and their business model has won a slew of tourism and environmental awards.

Sean and Sue are also happy with the Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay their vines are producing and their sparkling wine has been ranked an impressive 93 in the prestigious James Halliday rankings. However farming was not even on the radar when they bought their 10.5-hectare patch of bush in 1997.

“We had no horticultural or agriculture background at all, but we had been looking for a project we could work on together and we fell in love with the property,” Sean says.

Wildflower walks through the Candlebark Woodlands are nearly as popular as the Sinclair's Gully wines

The land is home to a miraculously well-preserved stand of Candlebark woodland – an endangered ecosystem that has the highest conservation rating in the Mt Lofty Ranges.

“But the trees had been cleared from the top 5 acres – it was too big to revegetate and in ’96-’97 there were good tax incentives for primary production. Soil samples suggested it would be a good site for cool-climate grapes or olives – well, olives were a weed species that we were pulling out on the other side of hill, so we looked at grapes.

“If the land hadn’t been cleared we wouldn’t have had a vineyard, so it is just through serendipity that the property has been able to provide us with an income.”

Seedbank is biggest asset – and biggest threat

Aware of their land’s value in terms of habitat and biodiversity, the Delaneys have put huge amounts of time, money and passion into restoring its natural balance.

“Only 2% of remnant vegetation remains intact in South Australia,” Sean explains. “A lot of Candlebark woodland has been grazed, so you get the beautiful white trees and no understorey; our property has about 150 plant species and supports 66 birds,” he says.

However the Delaneys’ block was still under threat from weeds.

“Our biggest asset is the native seed still in the soil – it can stay viable for many decades – but our biggest liability is the weed seed that is also in the soil,” Sean says.

Their solution was to use “strip burning” techniques; burning off to sterilize the soil and create light and space to encourage seeds to germinate.

“The main weed species like broom and gorse emerge first but we can use a selective herbicide to knock that out and then the second flush is native seed.”

Some 600,000 plants have also been planted on the property and, through local Landcare group, Sue has recently won a grant to establish a biolink between Morialta to Coralinga parks, covering 260 hectares on 19 adjoining properties – an essential feature in a landscape where fragmentation is one of the greatest risks to remnant vegetation.

To complete the sustainable picture, the business has a policy of zero waste policy (“you buy differently and do a hell of a lot of washing up,” says Sean), all water is harvested and reused on the property and, to attract beneficial insects and increase biodiversity, native grasses are being replanted between the vines.

Good karma

As if repaying them, nature is rewarding their efforts.

Guided wildflower walks, live music events and the kids’ discovery trail through the bush are nearly as popular as wine tastings and South Australia’s Natural Resources Management Board uses the property as a showcase.

Interestingly, since adopting biodynamic principles, the vines’ yield has actually dropped by a third, but the quality has improved, and they save money on sprays. Plus the frogs have returned to the dam.

To help protect the local population of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos, community baiting has removed at least 2,300 foxes over 13 years.

“We also have a family of Yellow Footed Antechinus living under the floor,” Sean adds.

The couple is constantly amazed by the power of the Australian bush to heal itself.

“Near here there’s a place that burnt down in 1980 and sat vacant for many years,” Sean tells. “A few years ago developers finally removed the concrete and a huge amount of native orchids and lilies came up; they had been buried for 37 years and yet the seed was still viable,” he marvels.

“Living here, you can’t help but be affected by the beauty of the place.

“We have mob of Tamar Wallabies that always give birth on same night – summer solstice – and two major insect hatchings on full moon twice a year; when you are living in the city, focused on TV, you don’t notice things like that.”

http://www.sinclairsgully.com/

Kate’s place

By Jane Canaway

First published Your Garden magazine, Summer 2012

Seasonal change and contrasting texture is provided by Sedum 'Autumn Joy' in the foreground with purple Salvia leucantha and white-flowering spikes of Yucca filamentosa behind.

If sharing adds to a garden’s beauty, then Kate Herd’s chunk of escarpment overlooking the Yarra River is doubly lovely.

Kate’s generosity with her garden is almost as remarkable as the garden itself.  Not only is it open regularly through Australia’s Open Garden Scheme, but locals use the tennis courts for a nominal fee (which hasn’t changed for 15 years) and Kate has built an amphitheatre to host local events and productions.

“We host the Alphington Christmas carols every year and an annual event called Music from the Wetlands festival in autumn,” Kate says.  “We got 1000 people last time – you get a real sense of being down in the wetlands by the river there.”

Enjoying the view over two-and-a-half hectares [six-and-a-bit acres] from her balcony, Kate can see which neighbours are out walking their dogs along the riverside path that fringes her garden.

“I have a belief that people should be able to access to the river in these urban areas – there is an element of trust involved but I’ve never had problems.”

However she does draw the line at young hoons who find she’s left a side gate open and decide to test out their off-road skills on the river flats.

“I just go down and yell at them and remember to shut the gates.

“It’s never scary.”

It’s brave talk for any young woman, but Kate could be forgiven for feeling more vulnerable than most – she’s been confined to a wheelchair since a diving accident when she was 16. But feeling vulnerable isn’t in Kate’s repertoire; she’s far too busy finding new outlets for her creativity and love of gardening.

From clubhouse to home

When Kate’s mother first bought the property in 1994, the 1890-built house had spent 14 years as a ‘clubhouse’ for a group of university mates who repaired the dilapidated buildings, built the tennis courts and dug the dam but kept the rest of the garden as lawns or car park.

“The house was all open plan with a huge mahogany bar and toilets out the side, so we spent a year renovating it,” Kate recalls.

“I think the topsoil from the river flats was actually removed – it’s solid clay in parts – so we did extensive earthworks.

“Then [landscaper] Simon Rigg built the stone walls for the terraced garden and I planted it out with two gardening friends, Annie James and Sue Smart.”

Now her mother lives mostly in NSW and Kate is caretaker at View Street, which she shares with two friends, a dog and two cats.

Tamarillos add colour - and are yummy.

A fan of productive gardens, Kate has planted out a kitchen garden close to the house with a Navel orange, Meyer lemon, Tahitian lime, Kaffir lime and tamarillo, plus herbs, salad plants, rhubarb and a muscatel grapevine.

From here a bluestone stairway cuts through the terraced levels, while a wide path of granitic sand – carefully cambered to reduce erosion – snakes along each level to the river valley below.

Designed for access

Kate’s garden is designed to be wheelchair accessible, but where her chair won’t go, she gets out and crawls.

“I’ve ‘bummed’ my way around many gardens in Australia and Europe,” she says.

She uses the same method for planting and weeding.

“Steps are not an issue. Although I don’t like ‘bumming’ around the garden in the summer because I feel I can’t move quickly enough if I come across a snake.”

A garden designer herself, Kate likes to test-drive plants at home before recommending them to others, but the garden is also influenced by her partner, fellow garden designer Phil Stray, and plantswoman Jane Dennithorne, who works with Kate two days a week and brings a love of historic plants, honed from more than a decade as head gardener at Jeanne Pratt’s mansion, Raheen.

The resultant range of plants is eclectic, exciting and skillfully arranged to offer interest in every season.

The borders tumble down the escarpment like a waterfall, spilling over stone retaining walls and splashing onto the paths, creating a flood of colour, foliage and texture, and slowing down only where the flow is broken by a sculpture here, a folly there, or to swirl around a calm, circular ‘pond’ of open space that serves as an alfresco coffee or lunch spot, mid-way down.

Old, new and originals

Plantings include Old-World favourites, Australian beauties and newly discovered exotics, such as the intriguing Mountain Cabbage Tree (Cussonia paniculata).

While she is a huge fan of native plants and has done a lot of revegetation work on the river flats, she’s not a ‘purist’.

Borders tumble down the escarpment to the billabong and wetlands in the valley below.

“I’ve been through this love affair of exotics and perennials and, as an artist, I think I love colour first and of course form matters, but I think that my current passion for Australian plants is about the texture that you get from many of these mostly evergreen plants and the rewards of growing things that are so suitable for your garden.

“It’s not just Australian plants I’m passionate about – it’s plants that come from a similar climate to Melbourne’s, that aren’t weedy, that aren’t going to be a threat to our bushland, that provide form and colour and look good with the natives too, because I like to mix natives with exotics.

“I also love evergreen plants; you get the texture and colour and form that is there all year round – you don’t get that bare, nude look.”

Salvias and ornamental grasses feature strongly, as do succulents, hardy native shrubs, perennials and old-fashioned favourites, such as Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, Melianthus major, roses and dahlias.

“I’m loving the Beschornerias – the Mexican lily – at the moment,” she says, rattling off the Latin names with ease. “Especially [B.] tonelli and [B.] yuccoides, the grey-leafed one.

“Australian correas are also wonderful, and I’m pulling out weedy Euphorbia wulfenii and replacing with sterile ones, such as Euphorbia x martini.”

Planning ahead

For the future, she wants to make the garden as sustainable as possible and hopes to incorporate some of the knowledge gained from studying a unit on sustainable farming and horticulture at TAFE last year: “I did a project on how to stop using roundup to maintain my reveg. areas  - more mulch and more plants is what I came up with; you pay more for labour and mulch and plants are $1 a tube, but I’m happier to do that.”

Her next garden project is to create an eight-bed vegie patch on the river flats that she will share with neighbours.

“I’ve got three neighbours going in with me so it will feed four households and I don’t have to do all the labour myself,” she explains, although after interviewing water-conscious TV gardener Josh Byrne, she is considering installing a new water tank.

“When you don’t get rain, you may need anywhere from 5-8 litres per square metre. For a 30 square-metre vegie garden that’s at least 150L a day, which is like having another person in the household.”

 

Kate and Inka

A gardening life

Kate’s first foray into gardening was as a teenager when her parents were “doing the hippy thing in late ’70s” in a controlled-living zone where cats and dogs were banned and the kids helped out at weeding working bees every month.

She has strong memories of her grandparents’ home in Ascot Vale where a “fake clam shell pond and white pebbles” were offset by magnificent, espaliered pear and apple trees, set against an asbestos garage.

“My first garden at about 16 was sort of permaculture-styled; I loved plants and I liked growing things but it wasn’t something I thought I’d do professionally.”

Her accident put an end to her finishing school but didn’t stop her learning.

“I spent six months in hospital and when I came out I didn’t know what I was going to do.” She settled on a plant identification course at Burnley – by correspondence – then took an Arts degree, finding work as a graphic artist.

“I’ve been working for myself since I was 16 and a half, which means I’m basically unemployable by anyone’s standards!,” she jokes.

“It’s nice I can now combine my graphic skills and love of gardening in designing gardens for other people.

“Plants are wonderful, and making people happy when you transform a bare mud pile into a garden is such a delight – meeting all those requirements people might have for function but making things beautiful as well.”

Her other talent is her interest in people, and this has found an outlet in her latest project – a coffee-table book on productive gardens, for which she interviewed 19 different gardeners across Australia, seeing what they grew and why.

“I really enjoyed those gardens that were so different to my own with different conditions and climates,” she reflects.

* Kate’s book, Kitchen Gardens of Australia, is published [2011] by Penguin.

Shona Nunan's bronze statue 'The Journey' is a central feature on the lawn below the house.

Garden Facts

Size: 6 acres/ 2.4 hectares

Aspect: South-facing on escarpment of Yarra River in inner-city Melbourne

Age: House dates to 1890; property run as a ‘clubhouse’ from 1980-94, when current owner bought and renovated.

Watering: Spray irrigation from dam for ornamental garden;

Dripline from 23,000L polytank for veggies;

Rain only for revegetation areas.

Compost: Garden produces about 25 m3 of green waste a year, which makes 6m3 of compost after being processed via a tractor-driven flail mulcher.

Mulch: Pea straw and compost on ornamental garden; 12mm recycled hardwood chips (fence palings) on reveg and dry garden.

Lawn:  Kikuyu.

 

Permaculture meets capitalism in this man of the earth

Your Garden magazine, Spring 2011

From his Blundstone boots to his wild and woolly beard, Peter Allen is unmistakably a man of the earth.

His connection to his land is evident as he walks around his hilltop home in the Dandenongs, pointing out hydrangeas that remain from when the land was a cut-flower farm, describing the huge areas he and wife Silvia have reclaimed from the grip of blackberries, explaining how the geese, chickens, sheep and llamas complement each other with their techniques of ‘mowing’ lawns or scratching out bugs, and how the milk cows were the ones to conquer one particularly dense area of scrubby weeds.

It is this complementary inter-connection of life on the land that fuels Pete’s passion and led to him giving up a stellar career in retail in order to spend his days farming and learning – then passing on that knowledge.

More than 800 fruit varieties grow on the 3 hectares he cultivates (another 3ha has been returned to bush) and he can name them all, then give you a potted history of each one’s heritage to boot. Silvia’s expertise lies more with the animals, but their skills overlap a fair amount , as visitors to their farm shop or market stalls soon discover.

“It was my mum who taught me to fix the brakes on the car… so there’s none of this girl’s job, boys’ job stuff, it’s just a matter of who’s better at it – and who’s there,” he says.

Pete’s parents moved to a hobby farm in the hills when he was nine, but they had always been keen gardeners, growing much of their own food and keeping poultry, just as their own parents had.

“I didn’t have a childhood, I had an apprenticeship,” he says, only half joking.

“I like to conserve the old stuff – I’ve got apples that probably comes from Roman times but also modern varieties like ‘Pink Lady’. I like heritage things but also useful things,” he explains, going to extol the virtues of the East Friesian and Finnish sheep he and wife Silvia keep.

It is hard to believe that, for 15 years of his life, ‘Pete the Permie’ was the epitome of corporate man, working his way up the Coles business ladder and managing dozens of stores across Victoria – many of which were originally opened by his father during his own career with Coles.

“By the time I left [Coles] in 2002 I had a company Statesman and was on a six-figure salary but I gave it away to do this,” he says, gesturing to the teaching complex alongside his century-old weatherboard home.

“This” started out as a lifestyle choice, living off the land as much as possible and running permaculture and other courses to pay for the extras. However, Pete and Silvia’s constant thirst for knowledge and their enthusiasm to pursue new skills has led to an ever-evolving set of enterprises and plans.

“I probably run about four micro-businesses now, which isn’t bad considering I retired with no plans to do anything,” he laughs.

As Pete explains his different income streams it becomes clear that, alongside Pete the Permie, who loves nothing more than spreading the love about organically grown produce and age-old agricultural wisdom, sits Pete the Capitalist, master of the spreadsheet and natural entrepreneur, who can’t resist an decent business opportunity when he sees one.

Pete and Silvia’s central businesses are still running courses – the subject list grows each year – and a plant nursery, where gardeners can find hundreds of varieties of apples, pears, plums and citrus, as well as “old-fashioned” fruits, such as medlars, crabapples, quinces, figs, mulberrries and persimmons, and semi-tropical exotics, including babaco and taro.

Business Number Three is a cidery business, producing Snake Gully cider and perry, which grew out of what he calls “sly grog workshops” and a need to use the many tonnes of windfall apples that were going to waste.

Finally is his consulting business, designing passive solar home solutions and garden layouts, as well as pre-purchase land assessments for those planning their own tree change.

Added to that is his involvement with Petty’s Orchard, where he has co-ordinated the open day and run grafting sessions for several years, and other groups, such as the Heritage Fruit Society.

Then there is his writing: “English was my worst subject at school,“ he grins, loving the irony. “Now I’m paid to write for magazines and I’ve just released my first book, plus I’ve got about four more planned.”

Despite not enjoying school (“it was a bit regimental for me“), Pete’s overriding passion is for knowledge, and he reckons he has earned about 32 certificates on various subjects.

“I always had one night a week out studying – I didn’t know why I was studying all these weird things, they just appealed and Silvia was happy because she had one night a week on her own not listening to me,” he says. “Then when I did the permaculture class I realised it was all relevant to that, whether it was horticultural landscaping, meditation, accountancy or whatever.”

On his last trip to England, he bought about $3000 worth of books – mostly on apples and cider – and he has whole bookshelves dedicated to pet topics.

“Our trips are never really holidays, they have a theme – we spent nine weeks chasing around rare-breed farm parks in Europe and on another we did 50 cideries in four countries, including going to a festival that had been going for almost 2000 years in Spain.”

As well as making fruit wine, owning a still (he’s growing junipers to make gin soon), and producing 22 different dairy products, Pete was recently given a second-hand smokehouse, so his next project is teaming up with a local butcher to run courses such as A Pig In a Day and a preserving the harvest course.

It’s a busy lifestyle, but Pete reckons he’s never been healthier.

“When I left work I had six different health issues, and I used to work 90 hours a week don’t stop for lunch or eat properly – now I probably do more hours but the physical side of it keeps me fitter – I’ve lost about 10kg. Of course with making cheese and wine I’m never going to be skinny but the exercise balances out the love of food!

“We might do seven days a week and six nights a week … but it’s what we want to do … there’s a lot of embodied energy in me having acquired this knowledge and I believe I’m bound to pass it on, so if I don’t have kids I have to pass in on in some other way.”

 

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