The inconspicuous, the insignificant and the underwhelming

Sure, to the swanky author of a well-received volume on gardening it’s a throwaway line: “has insignificant flowers”, “flowers are inconspicuous”.  But how about some consideration for feelings, eh?  What’s wrong with “reserved”, “low profile”, “unpretentious”?

My 7 year old drew me aside the other day and whispered conspiratorially “At school I drew a picture of a plant’s bits!!!” In the light of this insight, which I really hope she didn’t share with her teacher, perhaps we could even go with “modest flowers”?

To be honest, I find persimmon flowers faintly perturbing when upended and exposed to the rude light of day.  Much better to let them shelter under their curtain of leaves.

I do, however, need to be rather forward with my demure custard apple flowers soon.  They may not look like much but there’s the smell of perfume in the air.  Time to wave my magical pollinating paintbrush and help create some atemoyan fecundity.  Or, given my pruning anxieties and the consequent fact that most of the new flowers are more than two and a half metres off the ground, perhaps it’s time to fall off a poorly located stepstool, crashing through branches, crushing multiple flowers and possibly poking myself in the eye with pollen-dusted painting gear on my way down.

Thankfully there’s no need to hand pollinate the midgen berries to get tasty little purple-and-white fruits.  Otherwise I’d have to get one of those three-haired brushes they use to paint a portraits on a grain of rice.

And then there’s the flowers that are not so much shy as downright recalcitrant.  On the left, a NSW Christmas bush down the road.  On the right, the unimpressive shade-dwelling specimen in our yard.

And another offender: Kunzea ambigua doing its thing elsewhere on the left and in our garden, not even making the effort to take a decent photograph.  Very poor form.

Thank goodness for institutional plantings.  Just because councils like to plant it on the median strip doesn’t mean I’m not happy to see the blue flax lily producing its, shall we say, somewhat coy flowers in the shade under the maple tree.  If your camera is close enough, even the teeniest flowers are significant. Could that be a metaphor for this blog? Or is it just a sales pitch for a macro lens?

Black wattle and a pile of rotting logs

We missed the October snowstorm in the Blue Mountains by a week, dammit.  But as we walked the historic (if annoyingly snow flake free) National Pass last weekend I suddenly realised why my callicoma serrata has been struggling in its spot right next to a humungous, thirsty pine tree.

Despite the lack of a 200 metre waterfall in our garden, our black wattle is finally enjoying life enough to flower. A rainy August probably helped, but I reckon our extreme torpor also played a role.  A few weeks back, our helpful neighbours stacked the severed remains of a casuarina tree on our side of the fence, right round the base of the callicoma.  It took us a while to move the logs into the woodshed and I suspect the callicoma enjoyed the hyper-mulch experience.

This unexpected flowering made me think again about hugelkultur – growing stuff in raised beds on top of a moisture-absorbing stack of rotting logs.  The idea has some appeal and it’s not just the fact that the word reminds me of delicious German pastries.  I’ve sometimes toyed with ad hoc terracing of the part of the garden into which storm water is unceremoniously decanted after big rain.  Since the yard is full of piles of wood, “hugelswales” (surely the name of a lime green chest of drawers in the IKEA children’s department) may be the way forward.

I admit, there’s a faintly faddish feel about the hugeltalk.  I’ve got a pretty good idea that eventually it will go the way of my superannuated chicken dome, parked up like a rusted out combi van at the bottom of the paddock, only used by weary, equally superannuated chickens.  But what the hell, may as well give this hippie thing a bit of a spin before we put her up on the blocks.

Possum pruning and chicken lawnmowers

I seem to spend a lot of time talking about animals behaving badly.  Or at least, animals doing sensible, survival enhancing things I don’t 100% approve of.  That means you, Treasure!  You can’t hide – I see you eyeballing that rocket!

But it’s not only the bowerbirds that do useful nibbling.  The chickens also make great lawnmowers.  Although, describing our patch of grass as a “lawn” is stretching the definition considerably.  I can’t say how delighted I was to read the advice recently from the RSPCA that “a weed lawn rather than a monoculture lawn is recommended for free range hens”. Anyway, thanks to the very dry winter, this year the backyard hasn’t turned into the Somme – we’ve got at least some grass and not just vast stretches of mud –  and the chooks are keeping the grass down just fine.

The same happy thoughts about animals as horticultural helpers come to mind when I inspect my NSW Christmas bush.  It has gorgeous pinkish red new growth which the possums seem to enjoy as much as I do, though their appreciation is expressed through the medium of chewing.   Every now and then they pop down and do some tip pruning for me.

Spider on Christmas bush shoot

Ceratopetalum gummiferum is mostly famous for its flush of red “flowers” in December (in fact these are sepals – the real flowers are smaller and white and arrive in late spring or early summer).  The consensus seems to be that if you lop off branches for festive decoration the tree will “flower” all the more enthusiastically the following year.  Vindicating the view that if you give an inch, people will take a mile, some even claim you can cut them way down low and they’ll come back.  Eventually.   I’m not planning anything as brutal as that, though I don’t really want mine to hit five metres and mess with my view.  Regular snipping is the go but since I’m secateur shy, how kind of the possums to do it for me.

Ornamental manoeuvres in the dark

I’m hip to the food forest concept but there’s only so much food you can grow in the shade.  Naranjilla, tamarillo, monstera, babaco, finger lime, warrigal greens – ticked all those boxes.  But at a certain point, you’ve just got to give up the dream of a waving field of wheat outside your kitchen window, and actually plant something that’s going to grow there.  Even if it means going over to the other side, down the slippery slope towards… the ornamental garden.  The garden you can’t eat but which ameliorates the existential despair of staring down at yet another sinkful of dishes.  Gardening in the terrain between utility and futility.

Just now quite a few of those spirit pleasing plants are in bloom.  Libertia Paniculata has made me very happy: a lovely native that flowers in the shade, and is even named after a female botanist and mycologist, Anne-Marie Libert (or Marie-Anne, depending who you ask).  Okay, you can’t eat it, and you couldn’t describe it as flowering copiously in its sheltered spot under the pittosporum (also blooming now).  But the delicate white flowers when they come – some in May and again in August this year – linger, picked out in the odd beam of light that makes its way between the ferns.

Plecanthus argentatus has been a stalwart too, sprawling a bit unless snipped back now and then, but you can’t have too much silvery-grey foliage in my view and it’s a rarity in shade-loving plants, so sprawl away, I say. It copes  well with dry weather and even produces small sprays of tiny white flowers in autumn.  I’ve had less success with indigofera australis which I hoped to plant alongside it – one cheap but sickly plant finally croaked recently after sitting there rather miserably for a year or so, and I failed to get any of the seedlings I sparked up from seed bought online to survive in the garden.  But I’ve noticed new growth on a second plant, put in last year, so I’m hopeful I’ll see some of its purple flowers eventually.

Vines are a good bet for shade, since they are usually happy to climb towards the light. I’ve got two varieties of pandorea jasminoides swarming up a trellised fence, entwined with Tecomanthe hillii.  The Fraser Island Creeper has done nothing flower-wise, which may well be a good thing, since I’m not wild about the hot-pink colour scheme (it was an impulse buy), although I do like the mauvy-purple of the new shoots.  There’s been a bit of action from the “Bower of Beauty”: though it’s decided to set up its bower of trumpet-shaped flowers on the neighbour’s side of the fence (in the sun, dammit!).

Pandorea pandorana, the wonga-wonga vine, flowers for a only couple of weeks a year – just about now – but with the occasional bit of cow poo it has done a good job of disguising the shonky engineering of our garage. Having seen “old man’s beard” going the full Ned Kelly in sandstone country up the way, I was a bit nervous about putting Clematis aristata over the car port, thinking the extra weight on the roof might crush our car like a bug.  But no – after a couple of years it’s barely hanging on.  I suspect that lime from nearby concrete might be the offender.

The correas seem to have done their dash more or less, so no pics.  Correa glabra, quite an upright small bush with fresh lime-green leaves and pale yellow flowers, and Correa bauerlenii, with greeny-white flowers in the shape of an implausibly towering chef’s hat, shiny dark leaves and reddish stems, have both grown well and flowered in a gloomy spot, though Correa alba struggled, never really growing much at all and finally giving up the ghost.  Another “Chef’s cap correa” did really well for a while out back but succumbed during a very wet February, so drainage seems to be a thing.

The correas apparently attract birds, but the plant growing in the shady front yard that has attracted the most attention, not just from our “house” birds, the red and little wattlebirds who dangle upside down to sip its nectar, but even the occasional beautiful visitor like the gorgeous rufus-chested Eastern Spinebill, is not a native but the abutilon, the chinese lantern.

I didn’t plant the chinese lanterns, but as time passes, I come more and more to like Val Plumwood’s idea of garden that is convivial – accepting the presence of foraging animal visitors and plants – local, native and imported – as long as they don’t go feral.  She was fond of daffodils – in part because the wombats and other critters that visited her garden didn’t eat them, and in part because they didn’t do a runner into the bush.  She was a smart lady: you have to respect anyone who survived a death roll with a crocodile.

Beyond the out-and-out baddies to be found in the noxious weeds list and the excellent Grow Me Instead booklets, it’s actually pretty hard to work out what to avoid if you don’t want to become notorious as the “Typhoid Mary” of the next generation of weeds.  I only know not to plant freesia, which I love, because of the fact they pop up everywhere at this time of year – in the wheel rut zone in the drive and the dog poo zone along the street.  The smell of murraya is gorgeous and it’s not listed on the plants to avoid pamphlets for around here but murraya paniculata “exotica” is a serious weed in South Eastern Queensland.  All sorts of scary things are for sale in garden centres and online, and there’s plenty to be worried about in my garden already (I’m going to have to hypnotise my neighbour if I want to uproot the avenue of seed-shedding agapanthus between our drives).  I try to grow local, but if all you can buy are hybridised natives, provenance unknown, perhaps you might be better off with some well behaved, hard working refugees from a South American rainforest or an English country garden.

Sweetness and light

On our shady south-west facing hillside (who went house hunting without a compass, then?) there’s just one spot that gets plenty of light year round: not a bad place for some solar panels on the top of a pole. But right in that spot there’s a native tree, sweet pittosporum or pittosporum undulatum.  And there’s a healthy specimen of the same species dead to the north of our kitchen windows, right where the winter sun might otherwise beam through.

Hornsby Council is pretty proud of its status as a leafy north shore suburb – “The Bushland Shire” – and dissuades its rate-payers in the strongest of terms from cutting down trees.  But not this one.  Until 2011, despite its status as a native, gardeners had a licence to kill sweet pittosporum, along with a select few imported nasties – cotoneaster, camphor laurel, privet and coral trees. But now it’s a different story.  You can chop down quite a lot in Hornsby these days – pretty much any non-native tree.  You can even gaily hack down Australian natives that don’t hail from this part of the Hawkesbury.  But put that saw down!  Pittosporum is now right there on that not very lengthy list of protected local trees, shrubs, grasses and vines.  It’s a dramatic turnaround, from big-league environmental weed to local hero, all in the space of a single year.

So what’s going on here?  Tim Low’s immensely readable book, “The New Nature: Winners and Losers in Wild Australia” (Viking, 2002), a fat but fascinating volume filled with stories about birds and trees, insects and frogs and their complex inter-relationships with human beings, has a lot to say about weeds and natives, and in fact quite a bit to say about sweet pittosporum.  The essential argument of the book is that any quest to preserve untouched wilderness or to maintain nature free from human interference is not just doomed, but essentially ill-conceived.

Human influence has been making plant and animal winners and losers in Australia for many thousands of years, and Low documents not only the way some pragmatic species capitalise on urban environments (think peregrine falcons nesting in high rise buildings) but the way many others rely on continuing human intervention (like firestick farming or stock grazing) to survive.  Sydney’s green and golden bell-frog survives at the Brickpits in Homebush, a location described as “one of the most industrially polluted in the Southern Hemisphere” (24) because these frogs are tolerant of high levels of heavy metals, while the frog-killing chytrid fungus is not. Low points out the limitations of the distinction between “native” and “exotic” as a way of gauging the impact of animals and plants on biodiversity, and argues that decisions about what to conserve and how to do it, are in short, very very complicated.  Koalas can be forest killers and cows can step into the gap left by extinct megafauna in maintaining diverse grassland.  As a greenie and a gardener, I found the anecdotes and ideas in “The New Nature” provoking and intriguing, making me take a good hard look at my weed anxieties and my fantasies of a bird-friendly, local provenance garden.

Hornsby Council’s change of heart about sweet pittosporum illustrates Tim Low’s arguments beautifully.  Don Burke, the Australian Native Plants Society of Australia, Grow Me Instead (The Nursery and Garden Industry Association) and the Queensland Government all agree that it’s an invasive weed. “The New Nature” with its ambivalence about such terms calls pittosporum “our worst native weed” (250), “replacing diverse systems with monoculture” (201).  While a canopy of eucalypts allows a rich understory, pittosporum shades out nearly everything else (although that nasty garden escape, privet, apparently copes well).  Birds enjoy the pittosporum’s orange fruits and disperse its sticky seeds.  Not needing fire or light to germinate, and tolerant of richer soils than many other natives, pittosporum is a native to this neck of the woods, flourishing on the shale ridgetops on Hawkesbury sandstone – most of which are now built on.  Run off from houses and gardens has enriched the sandstone soils on the slopes and pittosporum has moved on in.  According to Low, “If you take eucalypt forest, add fertiliser and water and take out fire, you have a recipe for rainforest.  The pittosporum invasion is really a takeover by rainforest” (248).

Pittosporum undulatum has its defenders.  Jocelyn Howell from the Royal Botanical Gardens suggests that pittosporum can shade out and outcompete other more troubling weeds (although Tim Low would argue that even invasive weeds like lantana can play their own role as a habitat).  Others argue for it in terms of the food supplies it offers and the fact that it *is* a local really. Obviously, Hornsby Council has plumped for this point of view.  Most of the advisories suggest that it’s a weed only outside its home range, using provenance to distinguish true locals from native invaders.

But according to Low’s arguments, its home range isn’t the home it once was.  His book gives poignant examples of Sydneysiders talking about the impact of pittosporum (“pittos”) in terms of solastalgia, the sense of homesickness you have when you haven’t left home, but your home has changed forever.  Orchids and grasses gone, along with the smell of eucalyptus (248).  There are no easy answers here: it’s “a hard one”, “one of the most sensitive issues around” (249).  Are the eucalypt forests of the Hawkesbury slowly morphing into (monocultural) rainforest?  Will the catastrophic fires I expect and dread drive it back?

From a more selfish point of view, it seems like my kitchen windows will remain gloomy and my solar panels a dream, even as my fantasy as a kid growing up in the arid lands of the South Australian mallee, of coming home to a rainforest seems to be coming true…

A hoarder’s confessions

Impulse buy online this week: Rock Samphire.  I set out to get a couple of extra galangal plants to join the one that’s doing well in a shady spot at the foot of a banana tree transplanted from my sister’s garden.  Galangal look great – too great to dig up for a Thai curry, it turns out. WIth three plants on the go I figured I might get up the courage to be more brutal next time I’m considering a tom yum.  This is one of the problems of the whole food forest concept.  Your turmeric plant, for instance, makes a terrific understorey plant which, if undisturbed, generates a gorgeous, long-lasting white flower.

Image   Galangal

A powerful incentive to leave the roots in the ground, and that’s leaving aside the tedious multistage process of actually making tumeric powder from the rhizomes.  Even a brief description of this sounds implausible at a number of levels: “sweating”, curing, drying, “polishing”?? removal of the “mother”?? With the passing of time, I am beginning to draw the conclusion that my painstakingly assembled collection of food plants functions more in the realm of the hypothetical or fantastical (“I could source all my herbs and spices in my garden if I really wanted to and/or when civilisation breaks down“) than in the practical domain of producing stuff for tonight’s dinner.  In fact, it’s a sort of epicurean hoarding.

So, with that revelation, back to the online plant acquisition.  It’s a slippery slope: once you’ve decided to order a couple of plants you think, well, since I’m paying for freight anyway, I may as well get a better bang for my buck.  Native mint Mentha Australis: looks and smells just like your bulk standard mint, it turns out.  Wormwood, for the chicken run, to deter mites.  The upside there is, if I lose another chook (possibly as a consequence of an infestation that artemesia absinthium alone fails to resolve), I can always chuck the wormwood some in some low grade spirits to make up my own absinthe and go out in style like a debauched French Impressionist while weeping over my decorative poultry corpse.

And on a whim, Rock Samphire, which along with the unrelated Marsh Samphire (both names a corruption of “St Peter” – it’s a rock reference) seems to be a thing in British wild foodie circles.  I’m always faintly nervous about bringing a new non-native into the garden, and this one is an umbrelliferae which often seem to be a bit weedy though useful for attracting hoverflies and the like.  But I reckon I should be okay with this one, since it grows naturally on exposed maritime cliffsides, presumably with plenty of sun.  Any escapes at our place, on the shady side of the ridgeline, are unlikely to enjoy their freedom.

When this one arrived, I realised that I had seen it before, at Worm’s Head on the beautiful Gower Peninsula in South Wales.

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Seen it and, entranced by its delicate winter skeleton, taken loads of photos of it.  Today’s garden treasure, avariciously gathered, and yesterday’s digitised booty, reunited in the hoard.

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