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

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Sage Advice - Derek Jarman

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

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

Saturday, 1 October 2016

BOOKS: The House and Garden at Glenmore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Your Garden

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Sage Advice - Anne Wareham

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

Anne Wareham writing in The Bad Tempered Gardener (2011)

Anne Wareham (image courtesy telegraph.co.uk)

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Lord Howe Island

Despite its immense size Australia has surprisingly few islands off its coastline when compared to other large landmasses. One of the most distinctive is Lord Howe Island, 580 km off the northern New South Wales coast. A small crescent-shaped volcanic remnant, the 9 km long island is dominated by the dramatic twin peaks of Mt Lidgbird (777 m) and Mt Gower (875 m).

The twin peaks of Mt Lidgbird and Mt Gower at the southern end of Lord Howe Island

Depending on the time of year Lord Howe is home to between 250 and 700 permanent residents and tourists as well as a diverse and distinctive range of flora and fauna. The island was first discovered in 1788 by the HMS Supply under the command of Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball. This was the island's first human contact but permanent settlement did not begin until 1834.  The island is named after Richard Howe who was the First Admiral of the Royal Navy at the time of its discovery.

Flying into Lord Howe from the mainland is one of the most exciting air journeys you can ever do. After crossing over seemingly endless water you suddenly spot the island jutting out of the ocean. After a picturesque reconnaissance circuit the Qantas Dash 8 prop plane descends and comes to a dramatic halt on the tiny 900 metre runway in the middle of the island.

Qantas regularly flies to the island from Sydney and Brisbane

The flora of this small island is a mixture of native and exotic plants growing in a dramatic coastal setting. Unlike almost everywhere else in Australia you won’t find the usual types of dry sclerophyll flora here. Instead Lord Howe offers the visitor a cocktail of unique endemic vegetation (105 of the 243 species of natives on Lord Howe are limited to the island), South Pacific regional coastal flora and tough-as-old-boots international horticulture standards.

The most common endemic plant growing on the island is the kentia palm (Howea forsteriana) which is a grown as an elegant indoor plant internationally. They're everywhere, from formal plantations as well as wild in the fertile valleys of the uncultivated lower parts of the island. The kentia is just one of four indigenous palms found here. Other distinctive locals are the berrywood (Ochrosia elliptica), an attractive glossy leaf small tree and the wedding lily (Dietes robinsoniana).

The largest bloom of the genus, the wedding lily, Dietes robinsoniana, flowers in late winter and spring

Sadly, not all is perfect in paradise. The island would have been pristine when humans first arrived, but it did not take long for decay to set in. Goats and pigs were introduced as a food source and they soon went feral defoliating many plants. Not long after mice and cats turned up, and early last century black rats swam to the island from a beached ship. The rodents decimated thousands of native birds, insects and plants leading to mass extinctions and endangering the populations of many others.

While many of the animal pests have been removed or controlled the rats are a persistent problem. The small community and its administration – the Lord Howe Island Board – are evenly divided over what should be done to control them. Some conservationists want a one-off mass extermination of the rats by aerial bombing while many residents feel this is unnecessary and dangerous. In 2015 the islanders voted on the proposal in a referendum with the extermination option winning by a small majority.

Kikuyu grass is one of the most common weeds on the island

The introduction of kikuyu grass has also been disastrous for small birds and animals. When regularly mown this African pasture turf is ideal for a frost free warm temperate climate but when not trimmed it becomes a dense jungle undergrowth which is almost impenetrable to small birds and animals.Weeds such as bitou bush, cherry guava and asparagus are a major issue here too. Luckily there's no evidence of lantana and blackberry. 

Whether wild or cultivated the kentia palm is found
growing throughout much of the island

Lord Howe Island is not a backpacker’s destination as it's expensive. You have to have booked accommodation to visit, there's no camping, and the flight from Sydney, Port Macquarie and Brisbane is pricey. Fruit, vegetables, groceries and drinks are costly because everything comes to the island by ship or plane. So if you visit try to squirrel as many supplies into your luggage as possible. 

Despite its many problems, this World Heritage listed island remains a real paradise on earth. Every corner of the island is gorgeous and the locals are very friendly. Beach lovers will think they've died and gone to heaven, but so will enthusiasts of plants, birds and conservation.

words and images © Silas Clifford-Smith

Monday, 1 August 2016

Sage Advice - William Robinson

"One of the first things the lover of flower gardening should do is to get a clear idea of the distinction between gardening and botany. Gardening is an inexhaustible art; botany is a world science, and the great mistake is to consider gardening from the point of view of the botanist."

William Robinson, writing in the Preface of the 1934 edition of The English Flower Garden

Image of William Robinson courtesy of telegraph.co.uk

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Sage Advice - Margery Fish

"I could go on and on. But that is just what gardening is, going on and on. "

Margery Fish We Made a Garden (1956)

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Sage Advice - Beverley Nichols

"By no means all of my friends are gardeners and I never say to people 'would you like to look at the garden?' because any lover of gardens, even if he sees only a lawn and a solitary herbaceous border, will ask to see it himself."

Beverley Nichols (1898-1983) writing in Down the Garden Path (1932)

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Floral Clocks

The floral clock—once a popular garden feature—has largely escaped the attention of garden historians, but it is high time these quirky timepieces were reassessed.

1970s English comic postcard with a floral clock theme
Art work by Brian Perry for Bamforth & Co

One of the horticultural oddities of the last century is the floral clock. Most of us have encountered them from time to time during our travels, often sighted on gentle slopes in manicured public gardens at tourist destinations. Apart from a moment’s thought at the sophistication of the technology and the intricate plantings used by the designers, most of these outdoor landscapes are soon forgotten. As a working gardener I’ve had a fascination with these quirky garden features throughout much of my working life. Not only are they a reflection of the design and propagation skills of their creators but they also express the civic pride and wealth of the community in which they are located.

Floral clocks are found throughout the world but usually within temperate latitudes within societies which can afford the high cost of upkeep. Hotspots for these horologically functional novelties include North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. But floral clocks of one form or another can be found in other areas of the world too—I know of examples in India, China, and Japan, and recently stumbled on one in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, hardly a city we connect with municipal prosperity.

While mostly associated with twentieth-century landscape design practice, floral clocks have a history that dates back to the eighteenth century (and even earlier if their horological cousin the sundial is included). The celebrated eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus was, for example, obsessed with the possibilities of creating a botanical clock, known as a Horologe or Watch of Flora, made up of 46 different flowering plants which opened and closed as the day progressed, thus informing the viewer of the time of day.

The Swedish botanist Linnaeus proposed the
 idea for a clock made out of living plants
image from author's postcard collection

Linnaeus’s plan seems solely an intellectual fancy restricted to observations of the habits of individual plants, and to the best of our knowledge his clock was never constructed. Despite this, his research in Uppsala found a reflective audience over the following decades and ‘dial plants’ were sometimes grown in botanical collections. The early nineteenth-century British gardening authority J.C. Loudon, for instance, listed a number of dial plants suitable for the purpose in his influential Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1822).

During the nineteenth century, floral or carpet bedding became increasingly popular and gardeners experimented in constructing intricate designs combining brightly coloured plants sourced from around the world. Reflecting the tastes of the time, gardeners tried to make plants look like something else. While many such bedding designs were laid out in private gardens the increasing establishment of public parks saw these skills transferred into a civic setting.

While carpet bedding began to loose popularity in the late nineteenth century there was clearly an interest to use the skills learnt in ‘bedding-out’ in a new modern way. Reflecting the advances in technology it is not surprising that someone would eventually build an outdoor clock decorated with living plants, with the time being articulated by machine (clock hands) rather than by the plants themselves.

The earliest known example of a floral clock was the l’horloge fleurie created by a French horticulturist named Debert in the Trocadéro gardens in Paris (1892). Not long after, another was constructed across the Atlantic at Water Works Park, Detroit (1893) and a decade later the still-extant clock at West Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh (1903). Another significant early example was the giant clock created for the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Missouri. Other early floral clocks were also constructed in Le Mans, Interlaken, and Budapest as well as elsewhere in Europe.

After the first wave of interest in floral clocks some of these were abandoned due to the upheavals of the Great War, but during the 1920s and 1930s interest in the concept returned. With the increasing popularity of the motor car many towns constructed floral clocks as tourist attractions and many new floral clocks were constructed in English coastal towns.

Edinburgh's famous floral clock in 1958

Floral clocks came on the scene at the same time as the fashion for postcard collecting so it comes as no surprise that these gardens would become a popular subject. Thanks to the popularity of postcard collecting we have a record of nearly all of them, and as plantings changed each year these postcard views offer a revealing record of changing design approaches. The best-known example of this chronological record is of the Edinburgh floral clock, photographed by postcard sellers most years since 1903. Designs used for this high-profile example have celebrated royal celebrations and civic achievements as well as anniversaries of significant local worthies.

The first floral clock in Australia was built in Sydney’s Taronga Zoo in 1928 and since that time it has been a popular landmark destination. In 1930 a clock was built at the Royal Agricultural Showground in Melbourne. This example was constructed at the height of the Great Depression and the mechanism was made out of scrap parts, a thrifty showpiece which was a popular curio at the showground for many years. Following the construction of the large clock in Melbourne’s King’s Domain, however, the Showground dial lost its uniqueness and was later removed.

The former floral clock at the Melbourne Show Ground

As someone who has planted out formal annual beds I am in awe of the skill of the gardeners who plant-out the dials of these clocks. While some modern dials are decorated with mass plantings and coloured gravels, the true floral clock is decorated with thousands of tiny individual plants that have been raised from seed prior to planting out.

Many of the locations of the early clocks were found in temperate climates with cold winters. Therefore the annual planting-out of the dial face only occurred in spring, after the end of the cold weather, as many of the plants were frost tender. Plant selection was important but with the large range of plants imported from around the world designers have had a large range of plants from which to choose.

Succulents are a popular choice in many floral clock planting schemes. Hardy sedum and sempervivum are desirable as they are easy to propagate, diminutive in size, and come in a large range of colours. Less hardy choices include the larger-sized echeveria and agave. While there are many suitable non-succulent plants, popular choices include alternanthera, lobelia, alyssum, senecio, coleus, iberis, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), and salvia.

While most landscape themes have been well studied it is slightly surprising that garden historians have written little about these highly distinctive, much viewed landscapes. It is hard to explain such historical neglect as carpet bedding has been well documented and analysed. But perhaps these quirky landscapes have been perceived in some quarters as a form of horticultural kitsch, reflective of an earlier artistic aesthetic. But like the recent interest in garden gnomes—now sanctioned by Chelsea Flower Show—there is hope for a revival of interest in these intricate, technologically inspired, floral landscapes.

Listen to Silas Clifford-Smith talking about floral clocks with Michael Williams on ABC Radio National's Blue Print for Living programme (aired on 5th March 2016) http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/blueprintforliving/the-folly-of-the-floral-clock/7210984

This article was first published as 'Floral Clocks: Civic Pride of Horticultural Kitsch' in the July-September 2014 issue of Australian Garden History (the journal of the Australian Garden History Society). This issue is available online at the AGHS website.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Sage Advice - Hubert Reeves

“Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that this Nature he’s destroying is this God he’s worshiping.”

Hubert Reeves

Image result for hubert reeves

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Old Apples

I grew up in an English village which was noteworthy as a centre of apple growing. One apple grown in the district was a variety known as the Baddow Pippin. This richly aromatic and spicy apple was first found growing in a garden in the nearby village of Tolleshunt d'Arcy in c.1785. This variety was first known as D'Arcy Spice but the name was changed when it began to be commercially cultivated in 1848.

Around my home there were many acres of orchards given over to growing apples and pears, and the village supported 12 fruit farms in the 1960s. As well as the Baddow Pippin, popular varieties locally grown included Bramley's Seedling, Cox Orange Pippin, Laxton's Superb and Worcester Pearmain. In the 1970s and 80s many of the English orchards went out of business unable to compete with cheap imports from France and elsewhere following Britain's decision to join the European Union. With the rise of new imports of Golden Delicious and the Australian bred Granny Smith many old English varieties, sadly, went out of commercial cultivation.

The experience in Australia is somewhat different to Britain. Apple production in Tasmania, Victoria and the eastern Tablelands was once high and almost every home in cool temperate areas had an apple tree. The popularity of the apple was reflected in the lists of 19th century nurseries such as the 1889 catalogue of John and William Gelding's Nursery in Sydney which listed a staggering 133 varieties of apples for sale, mostly of British and North American origin.

The apple maintained its popularity in Australia for many decades, but late last century consumers developed a taste for more exotic fruits. The competition from other fruits, increased pests, and the ending of mass exports to Britain after they joined the European Union led to a steady decline in the number of productive apple orchards. As in Britain, the decline in fruit consumption has seen a reduction in the number of varieties available in supermarkets and fruit markets.

For those with an interest in growing unusual varieties of apple there are now many heritage apple lovers who are trying to encourage the growing of old varieties by commercial growers and home gardeners. One such devotee is Stuart Read from the Australian Garden History Society who has put together a list of farms and nurseries where you can source unusual apples from around Australia. Stuart's list also includes a link to the Heritage Fruits Society.

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