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.

Reader Comments

  • By Helen 2154 Monday, 11 October 2010

    What a lovely way to start my week - Deirdre's Blog. After 11 years in Sydney I am still trying to find my way. I dont want a cottage garden or a native garden any more either (at my age) but the alternative in Sydney is a struggle. I will never give up loving it and working on it. Helen.

    Thanks, Helen. I think it is just trial and error as to what works in our climate. I am still learning after 30 years! Deirdre

  • By Meg 2770 Monday, 11 October 2010

    Thank you Deirdre for your lovely blog. How lovely to be able to leave Sydney behind and go to the farm garden. I now have natives shrubs as I have a hive of tiny native bees which need the flowers. I also have bulbs which do not do as well here in Sydney but I keep on trying.

    Thanks, Meg. It is good to get out into the country every so often. Good luck with your bees. Deirdre

  • By Jill 3941 Monday, 11 October 2010

    Thank you Deirdre. You are echoing the philosophy of my garden guru Beth Chatto, who with her late husband Andrew, developed the theory that plants will thrive in conditions similar to their original home.

    Thanks, Jill. I love Beth Chatto's books and that philosophy has helped me with my garden - though sometimes plants still surprise me by flourishing when they really belong to a different climate. Deirdre

  • By Helen 2154 Tuesday, 12 October 2010

    Your reply to my comment caused me some merriment. I made myself sound very young by saying I had been trying for 11 years! I should have pointed out that it has been 11 in Sydney. I wont try to calculate how many years in other states, climates and soil types! Im a slow learner. Helen.

    I think we keep learning forever, Helen! Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Wednesday, 13 October 2010

    loved your tour of the country, and property. We who read about it can learn valuable lessons about gardening and plants, too. Thank you!

    Thanks, Margaret!

  • By Mary 2031 Thursday, 14 October 2010

    Thanks, Deirdre, I have just made a quick return train trip to Broken Hill.two very whole days. Greens all the way. Long,lush Irish Green to the pale grey greens of the desert. Colourful weeds and wildflowers galore. Flowing rivers, fat animals. Who would have thought so many hard years just gone.

    Thanks, Mary. It is wonderful in the country at the moment! Deirdre

  • By Carole 2230 Monday, 18 October 2010

    My first 45 yrs were spent in Tasmania and your description of the farm garden plants reminds me of my past gardens. Philadelphus, Tamarisk, ceanothus and the lilacs would also do well there. Your blog give me delightful reminders, thank you. Carole

    Thanks, Carole - Tasmania is a wonderful place for gardening! Deirdre

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