A trip to the country

Sunday, 10 October 2010

An apple tree in the farm paddock, NSW Southern Tablelands

Anyone who has been travelling in the NSW countryside lately will have seen the wonderfully lush state of the place at the moment, after good rain this year. The long weekend last week saw me visiting the old farmhouse in the NSW Southern Tablelands where my grandparents lived for 40 years, and which remains in our family's care. The green pastures were a picture and the little garden there that I have struggled with for years, for once looked as if it was flourishing.

Muscari armeniacum in the farm garden

I have known this garden all my life, and it has taught me some important gardening lessons over time. The most important thing that I have learnt is that plants must be chosen to suit the climate where you live. The climate in the Southern Tablelands is extremely harsh, with cold, frosty winters and extremely dry, hot summers. This makes it sound horrible, but to compensate, spring and autumn are sublime in the region. The cold winters allow the growing of true cool-climate spring-flowering bulbs that simply don't thrive in Sydney, so the garden is overflowing with such beauties as daffodils and grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum), originally planted by my grandmother in the 1930s, which have now multiplied thousands of times over. I have fruitlessly tried to transplant some of the grape hyacinths to my Sydney garden over the years, but they have never bloomed: highlighting the need to plant what is suited to the parameters of one's own climate.

However, some bulbs that do well there also do OK in Sydney, so this has been useful for me to try to work out why this is. Sparaxis, Amaryllis belladonna and Ixia are some of these, all South African bulbs that cope with the dryness and heat of the area as well as the more temperate conditions in Sydney. This knowledge has allowed me to add more of these bulbs to both my own garden and the farm one, and sparked an ongoing interest in discovering the provenance of plants so that I can learn what will do best in each of the gardens.

An ancient Chaenomeles in the farm garden

My experiments in trying to establish other plants at the farm have been similarly salutary. The many warm-climate shrubs from South and Central America and South-East Asia that thrive in my Sydney garden have met frosty deaths when planted in the farm garden. I have had greater success with plants of Chinese origin, such as Buddleja, Viburnum tinus and Spiraea, and my grandmother had obviously discovered this too, as her Chaenomeles and Philadelphus have proved to be long lived. Fortunately these shrubs also do well in our Sydney gardens.

Mediterranean plants, on the other hand, often struggle in Sydney, because of our humid climate, yet they do extremely well at the farm: Cistus, lavender, rosemary and bearded irises all grow well and I am hoping to add more plants to these in the future. Roses do brilliantly there, and there are a number of tea roses in the farm garden that still flower 80 years after they were planted.

Newly planted trees reaching maturity at the farm

Another lesson I have learnt from the garden is the value of growing native plants! I have never been very involved with growing native plants, after an initial enthusiasm in my early gardening days met with disappointment, and then I was swept away by the cottage garden craze in the 1980s, followed by my current fascination with semi-tropical plants. However, the work at the farm of various relatives in re-establishing trees in the surrounding paddocks (the original trees having all been cut down by my axe-wielding ancestors) using specimens indigenous to the region has proved to be an outstanding success, with almost 500 trees (mainly eucalypt, wattle and Casuarina specimens) now really starting to look like trees. This exercise has taught me another garden truism: that eventually, trees will grow if given enough time. The 30-metre fir trees that surround the farmhouse were once trembling seedlings, when planted by my grandfather in 1933. The tiny saplings carefully planted in wire cages by my sister's family have burgeoned into sturdy trees that have really changed the landscape. My daughter's endeavours to add native plants to the garden have also been successful, and I am gradually coming round to the idea of integrating them with the other plantings.

The final lesson I have learnt is that much can be achieved by small increments of work. We don't get to the farmhouse as often as we'd like, but our efforts there over the past 30 years are gradually accumulating, both inside and outside the house. A 30-year plan, made at the farm kitchen table with the help of a few bottles of red wine, is finally coming to fruition. The same applies to our home gardens - they are works in progress that will eventually allow us to achieve some of our dreams.