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.”

 

Clive Larkman – nurseryman

Horticultural heroes is a new series of features being run by Your Garden magazine.

The following article ran as its inaugural feature in Summer 2011


Clive with some some new abutilons due for release

RUNNING a restaurant is not the traditional training for entering the plant industry.

But then, despite being a second-generation nurseryman, Clive Larkman is not a traditional gardener.

For starters, he’s never had a garden of his own: “I’d love to have a vegie garden but I just never had the time to do it.”

Asked if it might take it up in his retirement, he quite frankly admits: “I probably wouldn’t have a garden at all – I wouldn’t have time. If I had the money, I’d pay someone to garden for me; an old English-style arboretum, or a botanic garden style with labelled and named plants and collections.”

Yet he has a burning passion for discovering new plants – a passion that sees him travel overseas most years to hunt down new species. He imports about 200 plants a year – although sometimes only half of them are ever released.

And every so often, he’ll come across a plant or genus that totally fascinates him, and he won’t rest until he’s learnt all about it.

This hunger for knowledge has brought a wealth of plants to Australian gardeners; after being checked through quarantine, plants that Clive and his wife Di bring back are tested for hardiness, propagated, then finally made available through the plant wholesalers that Larkman Nurseries supplies.

Long, slow process

It’s a long, slow process. Before leaving England or South Africa or wherever he’s been plant hunting, all plants must be bare-rooted, cut right back and jammed (carefully) into bags then boxed for the flight home; consequently he routinely loses 40% of stock in transit – he once lost his whole cargo after the plants were sprayed before landing – and a grass he imported in 2002 has only just been released from quarantine.

He was in the UK in September 2001 when the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place.

“As I was preparing the plants for transport, I was watching all the events unfold on TV. Then I had to catch the first flight out of London when they re-opened Heathrow Airport – it was the most nerve-wracking flight I’ve ever been on.”

But it hasn’t stopped his overseas plant-hunting trips.

Abutilon 'Waltz'

“We’ve got two new abutilons and some rather unusual Veronicastrums due for release next year. And on our last trip we collected 3 or 4 yellow, moisture- and shade-loving salvias,” he marvels of the unusual gems he discovered in a specialist nursery in north Wales.

While he names a few of his overseas sources, the Welsh nursery is a mystery he won’t share.

“Every time I go there I’ll spend 3-to-400 pounds and the car will be so full I can barely get into it.”

His wife Di rolls her eyes: “I have to drag him away; we get two of every plant in case one dies and there’s only so many we can bring back.”

The road to here

Clive is also fascinated by the stories behind plants; what the name means, why it was chosen, who discovered the plant and how it was brought into cultivation.

However plant lovers can’t rely on his being in the industry forever; he has not given up his dream of one day getting into politics, which is, bizarrely, how he came to be running a restaurant.

“My problem in life was choosing what to do – there were so many things that I wanted to do or could have done,” he says.

“I basically wanted to get into politics but I had a belief that if you hadn’t been successful at something else, you shouldn’t enter politics.”

So, after studying botany and zoology, he headed overseas to travel and get some life experience. He worked as a handyman in the US for 18 months, ran a restaurant in the UK for a year then explored more of the country via a truck-driving job.

“Then my dad (nursery founder Barry Larkman) had a heart attack so I came home, and five weeks later he was dead.

“So you have two choices; you either throw you and your mother out on the street or you sign on to take over the loans and the business and make the best of it that you can.”

Since 1989 he has built the nursery up from six staff producing 300,000 plants a year to a peak of 40 staff producing 2.5 million plants about three years ago, as well as adding a mail-order business and buying the Victorian agency of Renaissance Herbs in 2007.

“My aim was to build (the nursery) up to a certain stage before getting into politics. I got the business going well but then we had the drought and GFC and so now I’m building it back up again.

“But there are times when I’m sick of it – sick of running a small business and dealing with staff and the government and bureaucracy.”

Politics calling

Clive has already dabbled in local politics, serving a term as councillor on the Yarra Ranges Shire council and involved in numerous committees, boards and groups, including being president of the local chamber of commerce, Victorian state president for the Australian Institute of Horticulture and treasurer of the Australian Region of the International Plant Propagators Society.

You might think that would have involved enough bureaucracy to last a lifetime, but Clive sees it differently: “If you want to make the world a better place you do it from the inside, not the outside.

“And when you’re on council or whatever you don’t have to deal with the everyday business of dealing with staff and getting people to pay you.”

Lavender love

Clive is also a life member of the Australian Lavender Growers Association, having dedicated much time and effort to discovering as many varieties of Lavender as possible, and writing a start-up guide for prospective lavender farmers.

“I’m a botanist so plant nomenclature is key for me; I started trying to sort out lavenders because their names were a mess – by the time I finished I knew more about lavender than most lavender growers in the country, so we just started expanding our lavender range; then we did the same with rosemary and we’ve got a huge collection of mints I’m trying to understand at the moment,” he explains.

Past imports that are now perennial favourites include Lavender ‘Avon View’, Sisyrinchium ‘Devon Skies’ and numerous penstemons and salvias. Of the 2,500 plants Larkman Nursery grows, about 40% are Australian natives and 250 are herbs.

New interest

The latest plant to grab Clive’s attention is Chia – a blue- or white-flowered salvia (S. hispanica) from central America now widely acclaimed for its health properties.

“I started researching that and we’re now releasing chia plants in our herb range in mid-October. If you believe all the hype, it provides more calcium than milk, more potassium than bananas, more omega oil than fish – you can live off a tablespoon of chia seeds and a glass of water a day – and Australia is now the world’s largest grower of chia.”

Research is a key part of Clive’s work and his office – part of a collection of sheds and plastic tunnels strewn across a steep hillside with views across Yarra Valley – has a bookshelf crammed with hundreds of titles, but he is finding he needs them less and less.

“The biggest change has been the introduction of the internet,” Clive observes. “Before uploading a plant into my database I have to learn about it – it used to take hours but now I can do it in a matter of minutes.”

Like his father, who launched, rebranded or wrote for a number of horticultural publications before starting the nursery, Clive writes for several trade journals, and is a regular guest on Melbourne’s 3AW gardening program as well as weekly presenter on Channel 9’s Garden Gurus show. Other hobbies are eclectic, from collecting antique books to riding his anniversary edition Harley Davidson.

With his mother still involved in the business, his partner Di in charge of its day-to-day management and one of their three sons, Simon, working in sales, it is a truly family affair – but Clive still believes a good business owner should aim to make themselves redundant. Working seven days on the business at the moment, he may still have a way to go on that plan.

Raingardens

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Imagine a way to reduce erosion and pollution in waterways and help water and fertilise your garden too. The solution might be as simple as disconnecting your home’s downpipes

and letting the water flow into an “ephemeral creek” – if you have a large enough block and the right soil.

For the rest of us, rather than risk flooding your garden and those of your neighbours, consider building a simple raingarden to capture and treat run-off before it hits the drains.

But don’t creeks and rivers need more water to stay healthy? The idea of reducing water flows might seem counter-intuitive, but the fast growth of Australia’s cities – and with it increased amounts of hard, impermeable surfaces – has resulted in waterways in urban areas across the country damaged by fast and too frequent stormwater flows and pollutants.

“The problem we have is the quantity and quality of stormwater flowing into our waterways,” says Phil Edwards, Melbourne Water’s team leader for stormwater quality.

“It flows into waterways too frequently, causing erosion; and the run-off from roofs and driveways also carries a degree of pollution and sediment, which is deposited in our waterways.”

Raingardens are designed to collect water from any hard surface – roads, driveways, footpaths or roofs – and to filter and clean it before it hits the nearest river. The filtering is largely done by the soil structure and microbes as well as through absorption by the roots of plants in the raingarden – a process called biofiltration.

AIR POLLUTION

As well as obvious pollutants such as oil, litter and animal faeces that are swept into stormwater drains from the street, dust, leaves and airborne pollution can also flow in from house roofs. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the main culprits, but the good news is that both are essential for plant growth. The goal is to feed raingarden plants rather than encourage algae in waterways.

Surprisingly, tiny amounts add up to make a huge difference even in large bodies of water. According to Phil Edwards, in 1999 Port Phillip Bay received 7000 tonnes of nitrogen – 1000 tonnes more than it is able to process. In Western Australia the Swan River has been hit by algal blooms and in NSW in July there were 11 “red” alerts for algal blooms in various waterways.

South-east Queensland has had an especially bad 12 months, with rains last summer washing high levels of pollutants into waterways.

PUBLIC STORMWATER HARVESTING

Stormwater harvesting programs are being introduced in most major cities as planning departments adopt the principles of Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD).

“We’re looking at alternative technologies such as small-scale filters that can fit into urban streets,” says Edwards. “In all major cities you’ll see these appearing, built by local councils or water authorities.”

In Sydney more than 80 stormwater harvesting projects should save about two billion litres of water a year. The city of Orange has devised a scheme to supplement its drinking water supplies with stormwater. The scheme captures some of the high flows in Blackmans Swamp Creek during storms and transfers these into the nearby Suma Park Dam to augment the city’s bulk water supply.

RESIDENTIAL RAINGARDENS

At its simplest, a raingarden can be a swale or depression alongside a driveway or footpath, or even at a low point in your garden, where rainwater can collect and gradually soak into the soil. (Swales created close to buildings should be lined like a pond to avoid damage to the foundations.) We covered this style of raingarden in “Rainwater Gardens” in Sanctuary 4.

If you have installed rainwater tanks plumbed to your laundry, bathroom, or kitchen, you have already reduced the amount of water that’s going to the stormwater drain. Depending on the capacity of your tanks, during wetter months your tank may overflow. By absorbing and filtering the overflow water, raingardens can help ensure all or most of the water that falls on your home and garden remains on-site.

According to Anjali Brown, the Alternative Technology Association’s water projects manager, “Filtering the overflow from your tank into a raingarden will help you get the most out of the rainwater on your roof. Keep in mind, however, that a raingarden which only receives irrigation through overflow will need highly drought resistant plants. One way to provide more water to your raingarden in this situation is to divert your first flush device into the raingarden as well. A first flush device diverts the first flow of water from your roof, which may contain pollutants, away from your tank each time it rains. Usually the first flush water gets sent down the stormwater drain but by diverting it to the raingarden, your filtering plants will get a little extra water every time it rains which will help them survive.”

The best type of raingarden to work in conjunction with a water tank is a plant bed raingarden. Plant bed raingardens are either an above-ground planter box or an in-ground lined trench. Inside the plant beds are layers of gravel and sand that slow water flow, filtering out sediment and pollutants from the water as it passes through. The filtered stormwater is collected via a slotted drainage pipe at the bottom of the filtration bed, and can then be discharged into your garden or the stormwater system.

Raingardens should be planted out with species that are particularly good at removing pollutants, such as Lomandra longifolia or Carex appressa, and hardy, indigenous species that will survive the dry periods between rainfalls such as other Lomandra species and Dianella species.

It is important to remember that any run-off needs to be kept out of neighbouring properties and a registered plumber is needed to connect your raingarden back to the main stormwater drain. Some WSUD principles may clash with local council by-laws, while other councils may have incentive schemes that are worth registering with first, so check before you build.

INSTALLING RAINGARDENS

Melbourne Water is campaigning to get 10,000 raingardens built across the city by 2013. Its website (www.melbournewater.com.au/ raingardens) has a range of information sheets about above- and in-ground raingardens, including the materials you will need to make them yourself, as well as which plants to select, and how to work out the size of raingarden you’ll need for your situation. These information sheets would be applicable to conditions around the country (though it would be best to seek local information about indigenous plantings).

If you would prefer an above-ground raingarden you may need to buy or make a lined raised garden bed or buy a water tank and have a drainage hole installed – see the details on the Melbourne Water site to find out the size of the drainage hole you need.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Water Sensitive Urban Design
www.wsud.org
Melbourne Water, including links to instruction sheets for building www.melbournewater.com.au/raingardens
Stuart McQuire’s book, Water Not Down the Drain www.notdownthedrain.org.au
Healthy Waterways
www.healthywaterways.org
Alternative Technology Association
www.ata.org.au/sustainability/stormwater- capture/
Some tank suppliers include:
www.tankworks.com.au www.cessnocktankworks.com.au mtwatertanks.com.au/GardenBeds.php

Volcanic awakening

volcanoPublished in Green magazine, July-August 2010

 

One of the positive things to come out of the decade- long drought in Southern Australia has been the development of some innovative water-saving plans. One of the most impressive is that of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Jane Canaway meets its senior designer, Andrew Laidlaw.

After being held in the fierce grip of drought for the best part of a decade, the “wasteful” sound of running water has become a distant memory in much of southern Australia.

In Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, the Fern Gully has been dry for many years, except after occasional rain, and visitors have grown used to ducks dabbling in muddy puddles where lakes used to be. However, a solution is in sight, and a key to its success lies in the recent re-awakening of a long-dormant volcano in the Gardens’ south-east corner. That landscaping project – completed this March – is stage one of a longer-term plan to create a sustainable water supply for the RBG, starting with approximately 68 megalitres of stormwater harvested from the nearby suburb of South Yarra. This water will enter the gardens through two stormwater pipes that will deliver the water into the Gardens’ lakes where it will be filtered on-site through a series of wetlands. This has the added benefit of removing 68 megalitres of diluted oil, dog faeces, salt and other pollutants washed from nearby streets that would normally run into the Yarra River.

In 1876 William Guilfoyle designed a reservoir in the shape of a bluestone-lined volcano that appeared to rise from the highest point of the Royal Botanic Gardens, with lawns created to mimic the lava flows between massed planting of shrubs, representing outcrops of land. For nearly 70 years it was filled with water from the Yarra River, which was then gravity fed to the rest of the gardens.

“It was possibly inspired by Guilfoyle’s plant collecting trips around the South Pacific,” senior designer Andrew Laidlaw said. “The Volcano was designed as a ‘Garden Folly’, a feature that visitors would come across in their meanderings around the gardens. “It holds 1.4 megalitres of water, which is enough for one cycle of our current irrigation.” However, Guilfoyle’s plan was plagued with many problems – including the loss of fresh water in the lower Yarra after waterfalls at Queens Street were blasted in 1879 to alleviate flooding and allow larger boats upstream. By the 1950s the irrigation system was attached to mains water and the volcano was locked up and slowly forgotten. Hidden by dense stands of olive trees, eucalypts and weeds, it was passed by generations of joggers and walkers without its being noticed – until a 1997 master plan called for its redevelopment.

Then drought hit. Toxic blue-green algae became a regular problem in the Gardens’ lakes, and mud flats were a common appearance in the Ornamental Lake – so a rescue plan seemed more appropriate than a simple redevelopment.

Laidlaw considers himself “very lucky” to be the one who landed the “plum job” of revitalising the feature – and he believes the timing was perfect, too. “If I’d been doing this five years ago we would probably have just done a pretty water feature, but now with the current water crisis it’s become an integral part of the Gardens’ water system,” he said. Along with Richard Barley, Peter Symes and Stephen Paterson, Laidlaw is part of a highly water-smart team that meant the RBG was one of the first Australian Botanic Gardens to develop an award- winning irrigation management plan that has been used overseas as a blueprint for other gardens.

While working on a revamped layout and drought-friendly plantings, Laidlaw consulted with both hydraulic and civil engineers about the possibility of filling the volcano with stormwater. “It was discovered that large amounts of stormwater from nearby suburbs was going straight into the Yarra [River] or to Albert Park and into the sea. Because stormwater hits the river fast it stirs it up and affects the flow rate, as well as carrying road rubbish and pollutants. By redirecting water through the gardens first, it reduces the water flow rate and cleans it. “The extra 68 megalitres is not enough to water the whole gardens but eventually, as part of stage 3, we hope to siphon off 120–150 megalitres of water required through a sewerage–water harvesting scheme,” Laidlaw said.

Becoming totally water-sufficient will be expensive, but Melbourne City Council wants all its parks off potable water-irrigation. Revamping the volcano cost $1.5 million and the next stage is to build the Working Wetlands in the Ornamental, Central and Nymphaea Lakes, which will cost about $2.5 million. Project Manager Stephen Paterson said tenders have been called for and it is hoped the 12-month project will start later this year.

Of the 68 megalitres captured, allowing for evaporation and overflow, “the modelling indicates we will be able to substitute about 40% of potable water with harvested stormwater,” Paterson said. The sewerage-harvesting scheme – if funding can be found for it – will cost at least $10 million. By contrast, water costs the gardens between $100,000 and $120,000 a year – and that is after spending $4 million on a new irrigation system in 1993, which has cut water use by more than half to 130 megalitres a year. “What’s exciting is we’ve got a whole new way of working with water that is environmentally friendly. And we’re actually bringing water to Fern Gully for the first time in years and bringing water to the parts of the garden that need reinvigorating. All based around the volcano.”

HOW IT WILL WORK

Two stormwater pipelines will be diverted to the RBG, carrying about 68 megalitres of water a year into the Ornamental Lake and a receiving wetland in Nymphaea Lake. The water goes through a gross pollutant trap to remove larger pieces of rubbish and sediments before flowing through a series of wetlands where less visible pollution is removed. Wetlands will be constructed in the Ornamental, Central and Nymphaea Lakes. The lake silt will be removed and clay used to line the area and build levees, creating pools of varying depths to hold the stormwater and selected wetland plants, which will grow in different depths of water. A bio-film of bacteria and fungi will grow on the large plant surface area and act as the engine of the wetland, removing nutrients from the water as it slowly flows through the wetland. Plants are also chosen for their ability to take up nutrients and top growth will be harvested and composted to remove the nutrients from the system.

Water from the Nymphaea Lake then flows through the Fern Gully – where waterfalls and mini rapids aerate the water – and into the Central and Ornamental lakes. Water will be circulated through the lakes and wetlands and pumped to the highest point in the Gardens, Guilfoyle’s Volcano. From this reservoir, garden beds on the Volcano slopes will be watered by sub-surface irrigation. The water will then flow back to the Nymphaea Lake and so will circulate through the wetlands; the whole cycle takes about 30 days. By pumping water from the deeper parts of the lake any layers of warm and cool water are mixed, which helps reduce the frequency and duration of Blue-Green algae blooms. Floating garden beds will be installed in the lakes and act as treatment wetlands, as the plants’ bio film-covered roots remove nutrients and improve the water quality.

Greener lawns

Published in Sanctuary magazine, Issue 11

 

Words: Jane Canaway

Myoporum parvifolium used instead of grass in a nature strip.

Myoporum parvifolium used instead of grass in a nature strip.

A shady place to read; somewhere to catch the sun; a flat spot for games; lawns can provide all these and more, but their cost in terms of water use and maintenance has relegated them to the bottom of the green league.

Luckily, canny landscapers have been busy devising clever alternatives, including drought-tolerant turf and native grasses.

When considering the various options, gardeners should consider what it is they most want from a lawn. Should it be a place to play or to entertain, or do you want a lawn for purely aesthetic reasons?

Lawn Alternatives

Groundcovers

If your aim is to create an area of low-growing, lush greenery to set off surrounding beds, then groundcovers may suffice. “I like to use Myoporum parvifolium to create an area of green contrast, with stepping stones set into it,” says garden designer Wendy Clarke who, after training with Sustainable Gardening Australia, is accredited to offer environmental advice. “You can’t walk on it but it has pretty pink flowers in spring and it looks lovely all year round.”

Other hardy plants that create a dense cover include many saltbushes (such as Atriplex semibaccata, Enchylaena tomentosa and Einadia nutans), which are also fire-retardant and provide habitat and food for skinks.

Many non-grasses will not tolerate traffic, but the new fine-leafed Lomandra cultivars are impressively hard wearing. Garden designer Liz Turner used it to great effect to replace some dead lawn around a trampoline. “The site is in full sun and the soil was pure clay so I dug in lots of compost first, then planted it out with Lomandra ‘Lime Tuff’,” she said. Two years later and despite heavy use by four boys and a Labrador dog the soft, tussocky mounds are looking lush and healthy.

Synthetic turf

If you worry about embedded energy costs in petroleum-based products, skip this section, but if a perfect green sward is your thing, read on.

Pros of synthetic turfs include year-round colour, shade-tolerance, a mud-free edge to pools, great drainage, rain-permeability and no mowing. Cons can include high upfront cost, heat retention, limited warranties, sterility – synthetic turfs produce no oxygen and provide no habitat – and the need for maintenance.

Hard surfaces

For high traffic areas, timber decking or stone paving may be preferred. A major consideration, however, is the extra heat pavers retain on a hot day. Shading a paved area with a deciduous tree or carefully designed pergola can help. “I try to reduce the amount of hard surfaces I use,” says garden designer Phil Johnson. He stresses the importance of considering stormwater: “You need to think about using the run off; if you get in early in a project you can also collect the water from underneath by using permeable surfaces so it drains through.”

When nothing else will do:

Native lawns

Native grasses have low water use, provide great habitat for all forms of wildlife and can offer interesting colours (red leg grass), seed heads (wallaby, kangaroo, windmill and spear grasses) and textures (silky blue and plume grass).

However, most are grown from seed (the deep roots make turf production difficult) and develop slowly, so need patience, hand weeding and some watering until established; chemical broadleaf herbicides are not recommended for the first few months.

Also, because many are tussock forming or have only short rhizomes they are slower to regrow if damaged by heavy foot traffic. Two showpiece lawns have been sown at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, where they survive well but daily footy matches are not recommended.

At most, native lawns will only need mowing up to six times a year – usually to remove seed heads – and the blades should be kept high, around 25-40 mm. Weeping grass may benefit from an application of fertiliser if the leaves show some yellowing, but redgrass and wallaby grasses rarely need it. All will appreciate watering but have much lower needs than exotic species.

Microlaena stipoides (weeping grass) is the best native lawn grass,” says Phil Johnson. “Having said that, we need to educate people about what is an acceptable-looking lawn. I don’t like a scruffy look, so I choose Microlaena, but I can still see the beauty in an expanse of Danthonia (wallaby grass) with flower heads blowing in the wind.”

NATIVE GRASS VARIETIES

* Microlaena stipoides (weeping grass) will survive frosts and extended hot, dry periods, but may lose leaf if not watered during these times.

* Austrodanthonia (wallaby grass) is heat and drought tolerant, green all year round and hardier than weeping grass.

* Bothriochloa macra (red grass) is heat and drought tolerant. It is adapted to acid soils and low fertility soils.

SUPPLIERS

Ko-Warra Native Grasses – www.nativegrasses.com.au; (03) 5480 9778

Native Seeds Pty Ltd – www.nativeseeds.com.au; (03) 9555 1722

Drought-tolerant Exotic Turf

If you want a lush green lawn and you can’t live with a native lawn then the following turfs have been developed for Australian conditions:

* Sir Walter buffalo is one of the best for Australian conditions and lifestyle, combining soft texture with resilience and low water use.

* Buffalo Sapphire is a warm-season grass. It reportedly retains good winter colour in most southern states but will become dormant in colder areas such as Canberra.

* Matilda is a semi dwarf buffalo that is recommended by NSW-based Bill’s Turf Supplies as one of the most drought-tolerant grasses. It tolerates full sun, part shade up to 80 per cent, temperatures below zero, salty soil and clay and rocky soils.

SUPPLIERS:

Bill’s Turf Supplies
02 8999 7684; www.billsturfsupplies.com.au
turf, including Matilda, empire and Durban

Buchanan Turf Website
1300 554 442; www.sirwalter.com.au
Sir Walter buffalo

Ozbreed
1300 25 2000; www.ozbreed.com.au
sapphire, native species and strappy plants

Exotic lawn maintenance

“Anyone can have a lawn if they reduce it to a sustainable area and use whatever water is on site,” says Phil Johnson. Harvest as much water as possible, including stormwater and greywater. Wendy Clarke estimates 40,000 litres can sustain up to 40 square metres of lawn, based on an average rainfall of 650–700mm.

Preparing the soil for a lawn is also important. “Normally I avoid having too much sand in soil, but for lawns you need a fair bit to avoid the soil becoming too compacted,’’ Wendy says. “To make sure the soil can still hold enough water and nutrients, I always use Hydrocell water retaining foam and try to get as much organic matter into the soil as I can.”

Adding sand to soil will permanently improve its drainage. Gypsum dug into clay soils will improve friability and drainage by chemically binding the super-fine clay particles together to improve drainage.

Turf is best laid in spring; if warmer weather cannot be avoided, help it settle in by deep watering with Seasol or similar shock-reducing fertiliser, and regular watering.

Then there’s maintenance. “One of the most important aspects of having a lawn is how you mow it,” says Phil. “The easiest way to kill a lawn is to mow it so low that the roots burn and the soil dries out. Keep it long and lush and it can retain more water that way.”

The national website of the Savewater! Alliance, www.savewater.com.au, recommends using a slow-release fertiliser once a year and a liquid boost as needed.