Saturday, December 20, 2014

Calendula officinalis aka pot marigold a greet self seeder in my home garden

Calendula officinalis the plant that keeps on giving

Calendula or pot marigold is a very popular and common annual flower in many ornamental gardens throughout the world. In fact it is so commonplace that I found inconclusive results as to which region this plant originates. Some sources say Europe and others India. It can grow to about 80cm tall in extreme cases and can be used in mass plantings as a complete ground cover. Calendula has many medicinal, companion planting, culinary and even cosmetic uses which I will write about in another blog entry.

Self seeding 

I planted Calendula in one of my flower beds at home a couple of years ago and it is still going strong to this day. Being an annual plant Calendula's tactic for reproductions is to produce as many seeds as it can which fall to the ground after the flowers are done. The flowers are at their best in spring and summer however in Melbourne they can pretty much have some sort of flower on display all year round. The seeds have an interesting shape and remind me of little dried and curled up millipedes. The first year they sprouted in my garden from self sown seeds I originally thought they could be forget me not seedlings (forget me nots are a bit of a weed in my area depending on whether you like them  or not). Luckily I suspected they could be Calendula seedlings and let them develop into full plants.

Escape artist

Calendula is such a successful self seeder that it can escape if you let it. It is not fussy about soil conditions and I have seen it growing in my Macedon garden in between pavers where the soil would be quite poor. If you want it to self seed as I do then leaving a few plants to die off naturally will ensure they are perpetual garden residents. If you don't want them around any more it is important to dead head or pull out the plants once they develop seed heads (see below the picture below).

Calendula flowers in my Macedon garden during early summer.

A close up of a Calendula seed head loaded with seed. If you don't want any more pot marigolds then you need to make sure these little seed bombs don't hit the ground.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Visit to the Geelong Botanic Gardens in spring 2014

The Geelong Botanic Gardens

Brief history of the gardens

The gardens were first established in 1856 and are the fourth oldest botanic gardens in Australia. The first curator of the gardens was the English born botanist and gardener Daniel Bunce who developed and expanded the gardens in terms of both its physical size and in the amount of established plants which it contained. In 1859 published a catalogue of 2,235 plants which he established in the gardens which is impressive considering he was only appointed curator in 1857. He was also responsible for many of the now mature trees, some of which are national trust trees.

The second curator was John Raddenberry who was responsible for reducing the amount of Bunce's blue gums and replacing them with more traditional English trees. He was also build a huge fernery (18 metres high) which was neglected then demolished. Around this time the gardens shrunk in size but in 1959 they were expanded again and in the present day they are large in size but also packed with interesting plants.

Entrance plantings

Upon arriving at the gardens I was impressed by the entrance which was announced with the flower spikes of several Xanthorrhoea plants and the swollen trunks of Queensland bottle (boab) trees. Xanthorrhoea plants are really expensive (you are charged per cm of height) and these ones were huge. Once I had walked into the gardens themselves I encountered what is known as the 21st Century garden which had a large pond (or billabong), a landscaped sand area, natives and exotics, a cactus bed and to my delight a tree named Dracaena draco (dragon tree). I had seen a another similar tree online called Dracaena cinnabari on the internet and didn't realize we had this similar tree in Victoria.

Xanthorrhoea plants complete with flower spikes 

The swollen bellys of these trees were a dead give-away that they were boab trees aka Queensland bottle trees.

The amazing branch structure of the dragon tree (botanical name Dracaena draco).

 Ponytail palm trees in the 21st century garden.

The cactus bed with the classic barrel cactus in abundance. 

Rose and tea gardens

The next part of the gardens was the rose garden which had all the different types of old roses on display. Unfortunately none were in flower that day because seeing them all in flower would have been a great way to see their differences and would have helped me in future identification of old roses. Following the rose area was a section called the tea garden which contained plants to make teas and herbal infusions such as fennel and calendula.

I'm guessing this may have been the original entrance but it is now surrounded by the 21st century garden. There are two 'bollard people' one of which you can see in the picture below. The other bollard represents Daniel Bunce.

One half of the rose garden which unfortunately was not in flower at the time.

Part of a bed of calendula in one of the tea garden beds.

Rock pillar of the forgotten garden

After the rose and tea beds there was a large fountain close to several large banana trees complete with fruit. This area also had a section called the forgotten garden which I'm pretty sure is where the old fernery used to be. A large rock pillar which was covered in sprawling creeping fig remains in place. This pillar used to be at the centre of the massive fernery.

Banana trees complete with fruit.

The large rock pillar which used to be the central piece of the now demolished fern house.

National trust trees and the temperate garden

Beyond the forgotten garden I found several of the national trust trees such as huge Ginkgo biloba (maidenhair tree) and one of my personal favourites a Californian redwood tree. Near the Ginkgo was an extensive collection of pelargonium plants and a section called the temperate garden.

The national trust Ginkgo biloba tree. Ginkgo's are an ancient tree species that evolved before flowering plants.

Part of the temperate garden

A view from underneath the national trust Sequoia sempervirens (Californian redwood) tree. One of my personal favourites.

The next two pictures are of the Pelargonium collection.

Parallel beds with interesting plants

I ended the visit with a walk through several of the parallel garden beds. I'm not entirely sure but I think these may have been part of Bunce's original design. From there I walked back through the new fern area and as to end the visit I saw a bizarre looking tree that seemed to be directing all its growth to one side. I didn't have time to properly identify it but I think it may have been a monkey puzzle tree. If you are interested in plants and gardens please visit the Geelong botanic gardens if you are in the area. You will not regret it.

One of the parallel beds bordered by good old English box.

At first I thought the plant in the next two pictures was a Correa but it was called Justicia pauciflora.

 Aucuba japonica or variegated Japanese laurel.

Justicia brandegeana common name shrimp bush. I guess I can see why it got that name.

 A flower on a South African bottle brush bush.

A view of the fernery with soft tree ferns a plenty.

Maybe this tree was once shaded out on one side causing its growth to be directed to one side.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Art of Botanical Illustration Exhibition 2014 including Beverley Lewis's 'Separation Tree' artwork.

Botanical Art Exhibition 2014

About a month ago I was contacted by the convener of the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne in relation to completing some writing to accompany some botanical art for an upcoming exhibition. I was quite excited about the prospect as writing an accompaniment for botanical artwork was a new prospect for me.

The artwork about which I wrote was an illustration of the 'Separation Tree' in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. The artist is Beverley Lewis and the illustrations were done using graphite pencil. Seeing the art in person was amazing. Beverley emailed me some jpgs examples of the illustrations but I didn't realize how large (almost a 90cm high) and incredibly detailed they were until I saw them at the exhibition.  The Separation Tree tree has been the subject of some of my writing in the past and I've visited it on several occasions. I kept the writing to a few small paragraphs (see the finished product below). It is also interesting how the location of the exhibition mirrored certain details about he separation tree's history namely;
  • The Separation Tree is named so because Charles La Trobe made the proclamation of Victoria's split from NSW and the exhibition was next door to Charles La Trobe's cottage
  • The plaque under the Separtion Tree which briefly describes its history was unveiled by Sir Reginald Dallas Brooks and the exhibition was held in a building on Dallas Brooks drive.
In addition to Beverley's work there were 137 other spectacular pieces of art on display and all were for sale. They ranged from graphite pencil to pen and also watercolour. Another artist with work on display at the exhibition was Craig Lidgerwood. I've known Craig for a couple of years now as he lives Macedon which is my hometown. Seeing his two fabulous watercolour paintings was a suprise as I didn't realize he had anything featured.

If you are interested in botanical art I recommend you go see the exhibition. It closes on November the 9th and is open 10am - 4pm weekdays, 10am - 6pm weekends and 10am to 4pm on Sunday the 9th of November. The address is Dallas Brooks Drive, Melbourne.

Below are two jpg images of Beverley's artwork. These pale in comparison to seeing the real thing. The level of detail and size of the illustrations must be seen with the naked eye to be fully appreciated.

Below is my writing which accompanied Beverley's incredible artwork


On the morning of the 15th of November 1850, Charles La Trobe addressed a large gathering to formally announce that Victoria would become a colony separate from that of New South Wales. He made the famous proclamation at the north-western section of the Melboune Royal Botanic Gardens, under a River Red Gum tree. 

On that sunny spring day the newly established turf in the Botanic Gardens was an ideal location for a celebration. Perhaps this River Red Gum’s established size was a natural focal point for La Trobe to make his announcement or maybe it merely provided shade from the sun. Whatever the reason, this tree, through circumstances favourable to both location and time, made its way into the state of Victoria’s history and is now locally known as the ‘Separation Tree’.    

The Separation Tree is 24 metres high and its trunk has a diameter of 1 metre. It is estimated to be between 300 and 400 years old which means it predates European colonization. The site of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne was an important meeting and gathering place for the Wurundjeri people and other clans of the Kulin nation. As such the Separation Tree holds significance as a witness to Melbourne’s pre and post-colonial history.

           Alexander Krasovskis 

Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne (undated) Aboriginal Resource Trail Teachers Kit, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne website.

Fagg, P (2012) ‘The ‘Separation Tree’: past present and possible future’ in The Victorian Naturalist, Vol 129 (4).


The sign just outside the entrance to the exhibition with Charles La Trobe's cottage in the background

I visited the actual Separation Tree after the exhibition.


Beverley Lewis's website 

Exhibition website (whilst it is still up) 

Craig Lidgerwood's website

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Wisteria is a spectacular and fast growing climber

Looking for a hardy climbing plant?

If a tough climber is what you need then Wisteria definitely fits the bill. Right now the purple flowers of Wisteria plants are on show throughout Melbourne. The eight species of twining Wisteria are native to China, Japan and Eastern USA. I have to admit I'm not sure which one is the type that is common here though I suspect it may be of Chinese origin (Wisteria sinensis). It is a deciduous plant that develops flowers in spring which are followed by foliage. The foliage is all gone by the time the cooler weather arrives. This makes it a handy plant to grow on a pergola or similar structure where it can provide shade in the warmer months and light in the cooler ones.

Caring for your Wisteria plants

Wisteria is such a tough plant there really isn't much advice I terms of plant care. I've seen it grow in all sorts of conditions and it always seems to do fine. It does like a sunny position and they say that the roots like to be kept cool if possible. This usually isn't a problem as the plant shades its base in the warmer months as that is when it grows its flowers / leaves.  The basic points of feeding the plant when it is in its growth phase and watering it when the weather dries up applies to Wisteria although I wouldn't call it a high water use plant. Wisteria can sucker and layer so you want to also keep an eye on that or you may have Wisteria growing all over the place.

Pruning Wisteria

The main problem you will probably run into with Wisteria is keeping its growth in check. Wisteria is a really fast grower and I'm always amazed to see how long the new growth is when it comes time to prune it. Speaking of pruning I use a pretty simple method where I just cut back the new lateral growth down to about 15cm (or close to that length as I cut above a budding point). Next year I'll do another more detailed blog entry this pruning method.

The glorious flowers of a Wisteria plant in bloom.

Below this Wisteria is growing on a frame which shades the area below in the warmer months and lets light through in the cooler months.

Wisteria trained onto wires providing an attractive wall covering.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Add some blue to your late winter / early spring garden with Spanish bluebells

Hyacinthoides hispanica (Spanish bluebells)

Around this time of the year a nearby town called Kyneton hosts a daffodil festival. The cooler climate that the area provides really suits daffodils and as such lots of people have them growing in their gardens. That being the case another bulbous plant commonly known as the bluebell has to take a back seat to the Narcissus plants.  It flowers at the same time as daffodils and jonquils and planted in mass is quite spectacular.

Hyacinthoides hispanica or Spanish bluebells are native to an area known as the Iberian Peninsula which as expected contains the Spanish coastline and other nearby regions. They are dead easy to grow and as with many other bulbs they are extremely hardy specimens. I have seen them growing in extremely dry locations such as under an archway where almost no rain would fall. In England they have hybridized with Hycacinthoides non-scripta and the resulting plant is quite invasive. In Melbourne this isn't the case and they are a great addition to your other bulbous plants.

After they finish up for the year let them die back and try to resist cutting back the browning foliage. If you leave the foliage to die back the bulbs will benefit and draw energy from the leaves. This energy will assist in the next years bloom. If left in place they will naturally propagate themselves and you should get more and more each year. If you get too many simply dig up some of the unwanted bulbs.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Funeral flower, calla lily or death lily. Zantedeschia aethiopica. Weed plant or ornamental plant?

Old school ornamental garden plant Zantedeschia aethiopica

Zentedeschia aethiopica is a really classic plant that is found in many gardens in Melbourne Australia. It is one I associate with the 60s because it seems to be in lots of gardens that look like they were planted out in that era. Often when I look in the established gardens of old orange brick houses or Californian bungalows they seem to have a clump of these somewhere. Often they are amongst all the other old style plants that are no longer used in todays planting, things such as the red berried Catoniasta or mirror bush (Coprosma repens). I clearly remember clumps of funeral flowers growing in my Grandparents house so maybe that's also why I think of it as an old school plant. It is native to regions in southern Africa, has a height of potentially 1m and a clump may potentially spread to approximately also 1m. It is well known for its large white flowers consisting of a white spathe surrounding a yellow spadix.

Is the yellow spadix of Zantedeschia aethiopica poisonous? 

The short answer is yes. However according to information I've read on the Kew gardens website the whole plant is poisonous not just the spadix. Eating this plant can cause irritation, swelling of the mouth and acute diarrhoea. Not my idea of a good time.   

Common names for Zantedeschia aethiopica

The other gardeners I speak to today almost exclusively give this plant the rather plain moniker of arum lily. It has many common names, the most popular of which seem to be funeral flower, trumpet lily, calla lily and death lily. Funnily enough my own mother had funeral flowers at her wedding (I'm not sure if she knew of the flowers name).

A plant so hardy that it considered a weed in some parts of Australia

Yes it is considered a weed as it thrives along creek lines and wet areas in Western and South Australia. I was once told that it is comparable to Agapanthus orientalis in terms of it being an almost 'unkillable' plant in Victoria. It is a clump forming perennial which has underground rhizomes that it uses as an energy store to re shoot in the cooler months after dying down during the warm season. Propagation is incredibly easy as it is just a matter of dividing the rhizomes with a spade and replanting them.

Close up of the classic white spathe and yellow spadix.

A clump of Zantedeschia with a couple of flowers on display.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

How to create and maintain a lavender hedge

How to grow & care for a lavender hedge


There are several reasons why people desire to have hedges in their gardens. Privacy, wind breaks, linear definition, ornamental purposes and probably several others that don't immediately come to mind. Lavender ticks most of those boxes though its short stature probably renders it less useful for creating privacy. That being said for what it lacks in stature it more than makes up for in perfume as there aren't many other hedge plants that have such a strong scent. This article goes through the process of planting a lavender hedge from seedlings and how to care for it until it reaches the desired size.

1. What variety of lavender should you choose for your hedge?
That's right there is more than one type of lavender you can use for creating a hedge. The basic two types are English and French however there are now several new types in nurseries with more showy flowers. Most of the new types I have seen tend to be more closely related to French lavender and should be cared for the same way. For more information on the differences between French and English lavender click here to see another blog entry I've written on the subject.

2. Choosing a location for the hedge.
Lavender is not an incredibly fussy plant but It does like sun and I wouldn't grow it in a very shady spot so don't plant it against a south facing wall (or a north facing wall if you are in the northern hemisphere). The other good things about lavender is that it is fairly drought tolerant so irrigation may not be required depending on your local environment. As an example I only really water my lavender at home in the very hottest part of summer and it is growing just fine.

3. Soil preparation.
Even though lavender is not a fussy plant you might as well do some soil improvement before you plant unless your soil is already in fantastic shape. My reasoning behind this is that hedges are usually planted with the view that they will be there for a long time so if you don't improve the soil before planting you wont have the chance to do so in the near future. Lavender being of Mediterranean origin prefers slightly alkaline and free draining soil so mushroom compost is an ideal candidate for soil improvement. Dig some through the area and its sweetness will ensue more alkalinity and because it is compost it will improve soil structure and therefore increase drainage in clay soils (or conversely increase water holding capacity in sandy soils).

4. Spacing the plants.
Spacing is important when planting a hedge. The main point is that you don't want to space the plants too far apart as they may not grow wide enough to mesh together which is what hedging is all about. Planting them too close is not so much of an issue as it just means they will mesh together faster (but will be more expensive as you are using more plants). The plant tags that come with the seedlings you buy will specify the spread and height of the plant when full grown and you can use that information to figure out what spacing is required. Different lavenders have different widths so using the plant tag information is ideal but if you want a precise figure I suppose if you planted lavender with a spacing of about 40cm it would mesh together nicely.

A row of Avonview lavender that I planted for a client. I used 40cm spacing which should provide a fast meshing of the plants.

5. Planting out the seedlings.
Some basic rules I like to follow when planting out seedling are timing and watering in. In terms of timing I mean planting the lavender in early spring which gives it a good chance to put on some healthy early growth. Also as with planting out any small seedling, don't plant it out in extreme weather (either extremely hot or freezing frosty weather). Watering the hole you dig to plant the seedling and then the seedling in situ also ensures a happy seedling.

6. Feeding the seedlings.
Adding some pelletized chicken manure after planting is a good idea to ensure adequate plant nutrition. Once established I would feed the plants every year when the weather starts to warm up and again a couple of months later.

7. Tip pruning the plants.
People have different ideas about when to first prune lavender plants. I like to let the little seedlings establish for some time before I give them their first pruning. I wait until I notice that the plants have put on some growth (say 25% of their starting size) then prune them back by about 10%. The first pruning I tip prune the entire plant to encourage more branches to develop all over the plant. After that I wait until the plants have put on more growth then after that I tip prune the top of the plant which has the effect of making the sides kick out. Keep doing this until the sides mesh together and form a rough hedge. After that I wait for more growth then I prune the hedge to a desired shape.

8. Shaping and maintaining the hedge.
Keeping your hedge trimmed to a desired shape is easily achieved if you keep on top of things but you may get to a stage where the hedge has vastly outgrown its desired form. From there you will need to cut back the hedge back to the desired shape. If you have let the grow too much the hedge may look very woody after this heavy pruning. If you have English lavender do not prune back to the point where you see no leaves and only woody stems as it probably will not grow back. French lavender and most of the new style French variants can be pruned back quite far and still come back. The rule I follow is that I cut back as far as I can so long as I see at least some leaves (often tiny) and no further. So far I haven't killed a lavender hedge by following this principle.

 French lavender hedging I maintain in desperate need of trimming.  You can see the shape is starting to degrade so the next time I prune this hedge I'll cut it back quite hard.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Crassula ovata aka Money Tree or Jade Tree. One of the easiest pot plants to grow.

Crassula ovata

Without a doubt Crassula ovata is one of the hardiest and neglect tolerant plants I have grown to date. It has a few different common names 'Money Tree' being the most common. The problem with common names is the confusion that arises when different plants are given the same common name and Crassula ovata is one such plant. I have found that people often give all Crassula's the moniker 'Money Tree' especially the smaller leafed Crassula (I'm unsure of the botanical name). The great thing about this plant is that it is almost a 'pot and forget' plant. Being a succulent it requires very little water in the summer and even less in the winter. It is also almost fail proof in terms of its strike rate when propagating it from cuttings which can be either stem or leaf cuttings. It flowers in winter and can be planted outside in the ground or potted up and placed either inside or outside. The only trouble I have had with my potted Crassula is frost damage which occurred when I moved the plant from its original position where it was protected by my verandah. Crassula ovata is originally native to South Africa but is now found many countries. It is often used as a Bonsai plant. Crassula ovata is a great plant to gift somebody who desires a low maintenance plant. 

This Crassula was located in a car park in Brunswick Victoria. This attests to its hardiness as it would have to endure all sorts of damage in that location.

A close up of a tiny white / pink flower cluster.

As with many other succulents the appeal is mostly in the foliage. 

This is what heavy frost will do to a Crassula. This poor fellow is from my home and it had to endure not only heavy frost but also snow this winter. If I had kept it under the cover of the verandah it would have been fine. I'm predicting it will bounce back once the weather warms up.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

How to prune a rose bush

How to prune your rose plants

Winter pruning;

For standard roses the best time to prune (in Melbourne) is late winter when the plant is dormant. I pruned my roses a few weeks prior to writing this blog entry.

Why do you need to prune roses?

  • To remove weak spindly growth and direct energy to stronger braches and therefore give a larger flower size.

  • To remove dead or diseased branches which can harbour pests and disease.

  • To direct the growth of the plant outwards to produce the classic vase like shape of a rose bush and also increase ventilation by eliminating inward crossed over branches

  • To shorten back last seasons growth by two thirds or maybe a little more to encourage regeneration and keep a more compact shape
Making the cut;

So you are ready to make your first cut. You will need a sharp set of secateurs and if you want to get really thorough you can sterilize the blade(s) with some Alcohol or bleach. Sterilizing them can help prevent the spread of diseases. Commonly it is taught that you need to make an angled cut 5mm above an outward facing bud. You want to cut to an outward facing bud to direct growth outwards and create what is known as a vase shape.

 Cutting 5mm above the bud is important as it prevents die back. Die back occurs to all the stem above the last bud which you cut to which is why a close cut matters

The theory behind why an angled cut is necessary is that an angled cut directs water away from the bud. Some people have told me they don't believe in angled cuts as they increase the size of the plants vascular plumbing and therefore encourages water to pool in the vascular entry points. Personally I don't worry too much about the angle and concentrate more on the position of the cut in relation to the bud.

The last point I will make is that if using bypass secateurs you want to cut with the blade facing towards the part of the stem you want to keep and the anvil facing the direction of the part of the stem you are going to discard (see picture below). This is to prevent bruising the stem / bud.

Summer pruning (dead heading);

Which is essentially dead heading old spent flowers from the rose bush. If you do not dead head the flowers then a rose hip will develop from below the spent flower. This has the effect of suppressing further flower bud development. I've always been told that when pruning off the old flowers you should go down to what is known as a five leaf set. People have told me that if you do that you should get new flowers appearing from the bud which develops from the base of the five leaf set. I'm not sure whether the science supports that theory but it was worked for me in the past. As I'm writing this during winter I can't provide any pictures for this procedure but I will write an entry in the Summer which includes pictures to help you understand this method.

Picture of a rose bush during mid - late winter in Melbourne. More specifically it is in the garden of my main workplace (one of many) which is the college called International House (Melbourne University). This is the 'before shot'.

Hopefully you can see important things in the picture below. The first is that I have the blade of the secateurs positioned on the side of the stem I want to keep and the anvil on the side of the stem I will discard. The second thing that I hope you can identify is the little bud which I'm aiming to cut roughly 5mm above.

This is the 'after shot'. It looks bare now but will look fantastic once it has new growth and flowers.

After a few weeks that little bud you pruned above should be putting out new growth like the one in the picture below which is a rose bush in my home garden. This particular but looks a bit rough maybe I should have sharpened my secateurs before pruning.