Wednesday, 8 July 2020

A thorny issue

Recently, I was impaled on the knuckle of my left hand by an old rose thorn. Not an unusual occurrence for a working gardener but this time the snag left a lingering soreness. Several days later my hand was severely swollen and I could barely move my middle fingers. Thinking potential blood poisoning, I went to see my doctor for help. After consultation I was prescribed an antibiotic and promptly began my treatment. Within three days my hand was feeling better and a week later I was back to normal.

Rose, by Jobo

While hardly the first time I had been stabbed by a rose this infection made me appreciate the joys of thornless roses as well as antibiotics.The biggest danger in having thorny roses is not when they are grown as bushes but when they are used as a climber near paths and high-traffic areas.

Although not totally thornless, Crépuscule  is the perfect choice for a moderate  growing climber to grow over an arch or fence . It has attractive red new growth and the flowers almost glow in late afternoon light
There are a number of thornless climbing roses which look great in warm temperate gardens. Who can go past the Banksia Roses for their thornless canes and robustness. Coming in white and golden forms this climber covers a large pergola with little effort. So mighty is this plant that one late 19th century specimen in Arizona is said to be the largest growing rose in the world. Its main flowering season is in spring but can spot flower during other times. 
Zéphirine Drouhin, is a moderate growing climber known for its vivid pink flowers and lovely fragrance.
From a distance Renae, looks more like a luxuriant climber than a rose. The plant has disease resistant soft pink repeat flowers and glossy green leaves and is suitable for growing over a shed or over a small pergola. Lovely fragrance. Another fine pink climber is China Doll, a fragrant rose that is almost always in flower in a warm temperate climate.
While not completly thornless the Tea Rose Crépuscule makes a lovely choice for growing along a fence or over an arch.

While researching this article I discovered that it was a wound given by a rose to the cheek of an English policeman at the beginning of World War Two that saw the first human trials with the wonder drug penicillin, an antibiotic first identified in the 1920s by Englishman Alexander Flemming (1881-1955). 

Australian- born scientist Howard Florey

In 1941 Albert Alexander scratched his face on a rose thorn. He was soon suffering from severe blood poisoning and was close to death. After an earlier successful experiment on mice the Oxford University research team led by Howard Florey (1898-1968) decided on a human trial and penicillin was administered to the patient. The policeman's temperature began to reduce and after five days he seemed to be on the road to recovery, but with the marked improvement of the patient and stocks of the new antibiotic being critically low the treatment was stopped. This neglect proved fatal and the patient soon died. This first experiment taught the scientists that antibiotic treatment, although effective, had to be followed for a full course. By late 1943 penicillin was being given to British soldiers in North Africa and soon became the first of many antibiotics which have saved millions of lives around the world.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

The Black and White Garden

While doing research on several artists involved with the Bulletin I became aware that a small, but significant, number of their illustrations had garden related themes.  Later, I decided to explore some of these cartoons in an attempt to discover how gardens were perceived by Australian cartoonists, a group who like to be known as ‘black and white artists’. 

"I can't get him out of the house since he took up gardening."
1949 Bulletin joke block by Percy Lindsay

The Bulletin was one of Australia’s longest running publications and was in print from 1880 until 2008. During its early years the paper was proudly radical, racist, chauvinistic, nationalistic and republican. Its readership was diverse and the paper was extremely popular in rural areas where it became known as the ‘bushman’s bible’. From the early years of the 20th century the Bulletin became increasingly conservative and slowly moved its editorial gaze away from rural subjects towards the suburban values of the growing cities. In cartoon terms this meant an increasing focus on humour related to middle class leisure activities such as golf, motoring, shopping, dining, and of course, gardening.

‘If only the Joneses would try to keep up with US!’ 
1957 Bulletin joke block by R W Coulter  

Garden related cartoons were mostly seen in the paper from the end of the First World War up to the time the paper changed ownership to Sir Frank Packer in 1961. It can be no coincidence that this four decade period was also the time when the popularity of home gardening as a leisure pursuit was arguably at its peak.

A dominant theme in garden related cartoons was the labour disputes between married couples. A typical cartoon would show the man of the house labouring in the garden (sweat invariably pouring from his head) while his bossy wife would scornfully direct works from the comfort of the veranda. This sort of image would have appealed to the mainly male target audience of the weekly.

1960 joke block - artist unknown

Other popular subjects include the ignorance of new gardeners, adapting to technological change in the garden, conflict between owners and their garden staff, and the public’s interaction with statues in our public parks. Another surprising subject was the antipathy to the growing of cactus and succulents which followed the infestation of prickly pear around the country.

Ideas for jokes often came from Bulletin readers themselves, who would receive a small fee if their idea was used. Contributing artists were then commissioned by the paper’s art director. No Bulletin artists stand out as preferring to work with garden related subjects although the many images of Juan Endean and Percy Lindsay are noteworthy.  

The Bulletin was not the only publication to include such comic images. Other periodicals included them and the specialist gardening press occasionally included garden cartoons, although many were sourced from popular overseas artists such as Norman Thelwell whose work was often reproduced in Your Garden.

Jokeblock by English cartoonist Norman Thelwell
published in Your Garden in 1960

By the late 1970s jocular cartoon images of gardens disappeared from the printed page. Hopefully the tide of garden ‘good taste’ will turn and like the increasing respect given to political cartooning we will see a return to seeing comic imagery in our gardening periodicals.

An updated version of this article was published in the October-December 2012 issue of Australian Garden History, the journal of the Australian Garden History Society. This article includes different images to the ones shown above.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

New ways to ID plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 8 October 2017

When to water (in Sydney)

One of the most frequent questions I get asked as a gardener is when am I allowed to water? As rules about such matters change from time to time I thought it opportune to review the current restrictions for Sydney home gardeners as we move into the warm season.

In most areas watering by sprinklers is forbiddon

Watering, including with sprinklers and irrigation systems, is allowed any day before 10 am and after 4 pm to avoid the heat of the day.

All hand held hoses must have a drigger nozzle.

No hosing of hard surfaces such as paths and driveways. Washing vechicles is allowed.

More info at

I will update this page when rules change.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Exotica in Monaco

Dramatically positioned on a high cliff overlooking Monte Carlo and the port of Fontvielle, the Jardin Exotique de Monaco (Exotic Garden of Monaco) must be one of the most well sighted gardens in Europe. As well as stunning views over the small principality, the garden also has sweeping vistas along the French Mediterranean coast towards Italy in the east.

Looking up to the top of the garden

Based on a design by local engineer Louis Notari the garden was first opened to the public in 1933, and since that time it has welcomed over 21 million visitors. With current visitor numbers averaging 300,000 people a year the garden has been designed to include wide paths to allow the easy movement of the many tour groups that descend on the garden.

The royal family of Monaco on a formal visit to the garden in the 1960s

The garden includes a fine collection of cacti and succulents which are easy to see as you descend down the gardens zig-zag paths. Luckily most of the plants are well labelled or else keen gardeners (like me) may have been tempted to climb over the safety rails in search of illusive identification tags.

The view from the top
There are many fine gardens located on the Riveria and this succulent garden is well worth a visit. An entry fee is charged and there are parking stations near to the entrance.

TIP: Try and get to the garden right on opening time, lunchtime, or late in the day, that way you avoid the tour bus crowds.

Link to the garden's website

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

BOOKS: Disobedient Gardens by Michael Cooke & Brigid Arnott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

BOOKS: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

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

Image result for the hidden life of trees

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

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

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

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

Image result for Peter Wohlleben
Peter Wohlleben

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

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

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

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

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

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