Archive | July 2013

Rosemary – a garden favourite

Rosemary3

People often ask me “what is your favourite herb?”. My standard reply is “It depends!”. When it comes to culinary herbs (the only kind I grow) I have several favourites of equal status, influenced by the time of year or the type of dish I’m cooking. Thus chives, dill, parsley, basil and thyme would be by more most-used herbs while mint (various kinds), sage, chervil and oregano would follow a little way behind. I’m not keen on the flavour of anise so fennel lags a little behind, though I still grow and use it quite regularly.

But the herb for which I have the greatest affection, just as a plant to grow and all culinary reasons apart, is rosemary.

Where cooking is concerned I class rosemary with my B list favourites, though when it comes to lamb and roast potatoes this has to be a Number One choice. To me, the main virtue of rosemary in a dish is that its resinous flavour offsets fattiness – one reason of course why it goes so well with lamb. But rosemary works equally well with both pork and beef spareribs, adding a keen edge to the overall eating experience.

The real reason I am so fond of rosemary, however, is because it is more aesthetically pleasing than most herbs and very rewarding to grow. A little rosemary in the kitchen goes a long way but because it’s a useful landscape plant I grow a lot of it anyway. It’s a great plant for borders (my herb garden is bordered with trimmed rosemary), rockeries (because it likes good drainage), dry spots, pots, or just as a single specimen. One of the most effective simple garden beds I ever saw was in Italy, on a dry hillside, where six parterres of clipped rosemary each encircled a single white rose bush.
Rosemary grows in all but very tropical climates with heavy monsoon rains and though it looks at its best and lasts longest in Mediterranean and warm-temperate climates it adapts very nicely to desert and subtopical zones. It can even be grown as a summer plant in cold climates, but heavy snow will kill it so it should be kept in a pot and brought into a warm, protected environment in winter.

Rosemary comes in various forms today; some have bright green leaves while others have the traditional grey-blue foliage.  This has the most flavour and comes from "hardening" the plant with full sun exposure and a low water regime.  Regular watering and part-shade will produce a softer, greener foliage with reduced flavour.

Rosemary comes in various forms today; some have bright green leaves while others have the traditional grey-blue foliage. This has the most flavour and comes from “hardening” the plant with full sun exposure and a low water regime. Regular watering and part-shade will produce a softer, greener foliage with reduced flavour.

This plant is so versatile that the different climates merely mean a slightly different management regime. As with lavender, in my subtropical mountaintop climate I don’t treat rosemary as a perennial in the real sense of the word but replace my bushes every five years for maximum good looks. The plant continues growing long after that but starts to look straggly. In colder and less humid climates rosemary bushes keep their looks a lot longer.

The basic rules for rosemary are good drainage, regular watering (but not over-watering), and regular tip pruning with a good cut back (about one third) in autumn. This means profuse flowering when spring comes round again – and my rosemary flowers from spring right through to the following autumn. I don’t give my rosemary any fertilizer as such but add a dose of compost around the base of newly-planted seedlings about three months after they go into the ground. I repeat this once a year in late spring, Pot plants get fed twice a year with a cheap all purpose liquid fertilizer . Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers or plants will be reluctant to flower. My soil is rather acid so I sprinkle dolomite around my rosemary bushes twice a year, in early spring and late summer.

The best mulch for rosemary is gravel – the paler in colour the better. This will warm the plant, help prevent root-rot diseases and protect the shallow roots from heavy rain and soil erosion. It will also keep down weeds. Coarse bark is also an acceptable mulch, or nutshells, but “soft” mulches such as hay and leafmould will encourage the root-rot pathogens that are the only problem that ever seems to effect this tough herb.

Whether or not rosemary actually stimulates the memory, as has been claimed, I’ve no idea. Some recent studies do tend to indicate that its scent has some beneficial effect on brain function but this isn’t conclusive. I DO know that this plant looks good all year, gives a healthful smell to the garden, is useful in the kitchen and as a dried herb for fragrancy in drawers and cupboards, is much-loved by bees, versatile in landscaping – and requires very little effort to grow.

The rose of Mary – you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the grace of this name. No plant, in my opinion, deserves it more.

Rosemary flowers are usually a deep lavender blue though various shades of this colour are available.  One form is so pale that it appears to be white.

Rosemary flowers are usually a deep lavender blue though various shades of this colour are available. One form is so pale that it appears to be white.

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The vision splendid in one garden

The Visitor Centre at Carnbourne, seen from beyond the "red centre" garden area.

The Visitor Centre at Carnbourne, seen from beyond the “red centre” garden area.

And he sees the vision splendid
Of the sunlit plains extended
And at night the wonderous glory
Of the everlasting stars

Most Australians know these lines from Banjo Patterson’s epic poem Clancy of the Overflow and they are very dear to our hearts because they so perfectly encapsulate a land whose beauty is often more subtle than spectacular.

When I visited the Australian Garden at Cranbourne the other day The Banjo’s words came immediately to mind. This garden, incorporated in the Cranbourne division of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, has been a long time in the making. And let me say two things up front – This is not the popular idea of what a “botanic garden” should be. It is the realisation of a vision of the Australian landscape and lifestyle through the medium of design and horticulture. As such, it has perfectly captured the very soul of this big, wide, wonderful and often very challenging continent. My second point is that this garden is very new. The vision is there for all to see and for my part I’m glad to have seen it at this early stage, so I can study the bare bones of each beautifully-realised concept. Others – those looking for something merely “pretty” – may find it all a bit bare and stark. To them, I say come back in a few years when it is more mature, but in the meantime strive to appreciate the textures and the land forms, the horticultural ideas and the in several interpretations of how this land shapes us and how we in turn have shaped it.

Bob and I found visiting this garden an inspiration. And a revelation – for this is more than just exhilaratingly contemporary, it is as new as tomorrow. Interesting to think, therefore, that when enough tomorrows have passed, The Australian Garden at Cranbourne will become as definitively “classical” as the traditional botanical gardens of the 18th and 19th centuries seem to us today.

I’m not going to give you any dry details about this wonderful garden – you can get all that from the excellent website at
http://www.rbg.vic.gov.au/visit-cranbourne/attractions/australian-garden

Instead, I’ll let my photos tell the story…though they are inadequate to the task they will at least give some idea. Various types of Australian landscape are represented and/or interpeted here: concepts include the dry river bed so common in arid zones and during drought; the seashore and in particular the granite splendour of Wilson’s Promontory (see article on this website); the Aussie backyard in all its aspects; the blue hills; the red centre; the eucalypt forests; the importance of water in the landscape and to the land and to our souls; the many forces of nature. There are wide promenades, giant metal “lily pads”, rocky “streams” in which children are encouraged to paddle, seating shaped like a long wave ripple, open swatches of grassland intercepted by serpentine land forms, imaginative uses for timber and rock and metal – and each has its story to tell. And, of course, there are more standard horticultural and botanical features such as plant collections representing their different habitats. Conservation concepts are expounded too – I was particularly taken with the collections of colourful watering cans in the water-saving garden. (On a more frivolous note, the chocolate brownie served in the cafe at the Australian Garden visitor centre is the best I’ve eaten anywhere in the world!).

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Best place to Veg Out!

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In the heart of Melbourne’s fun and funky St Kilda lies Veg Out, a community garden like no other I’ve seen.

It’s not very large, just about big enough for a large block of apartments. But it’s a little green gem in a busy metropolitan area, just a spit from the ocean, that has lodged itself firmly in the hearts of St Kilda residents.

The garden, which like St Kilda itself is full of colour and joy and good things to eat (St Kilda has the most best cake shops per square metre anywhere in Oz) is on the site of a former bowls club. The land has been set aside for community use since 1881 and is administered by the local city council on behalf of the State Government. Volunteers oversee the operation of the garden which is divided into 145 little plots plus communal space. Ten of these plots are leased by community groups, the rest by individual growers. Cost is only $8 a square metre a year (less for concession-holders) – but the waiting list is very long. Those keen to get started first join the “Friends” group, take part in working bees and generally demonstrate their commitment while waiting for a lot to become vacant.

Even in the middle of winter, when I visited, the Veg Out plots were rich with green leafy vegetables and herbs. I liked the way there appeared to be no obvious dividing lines between the plots; instead, you can make your way soft-footed along the mulched paths that wander throughout, admiring the contrasting crops along with the bits of garden art that add quirky grace notes. There are chickens, too, and quail and rabbits. The rich smell of compost fills your nostrils because, as you’d expect, composting is big here and the catchcry among the Veg Out volunteers is Stop Think Chop. Water conservation is also emphasised and restrictions on using the available town water are imposed.

St Kilda, with its long and curving sandy bay, has become prime real estate. And the community garden is very close to the beach, surrounded by multi-million dollar apartments and commercial buildings. And with the razzmatazz of Luna Park on one boundary. Yet there it is, thriving and full of activity. This is very much a family affair and the meeting area offers pram parking as well as chairs and tables and sinks and all the infrastructure for relaxing in between the hoeing and the mulching, and exchanging growing tips with plot neighbours. For novice gardeners there is plenty of friendly advice available, including a vegetable planting guide. And of course everything in THIS garden is organically-grown and chemical-free.

I really loved this happy little garden – it’s everything a community garden should be and then so much more. I mean it’s all very good worthy to grow your own vegies and take part in a community venture – but it should be fun, too. I think you can see that, in the pictures on this page – in fact you’ll probably get some good ideas for your own garden! And if you’d like to read more, visit the Veg Out website at http://www.vegout.asn.au/sitelinks.html.

Street view

Street view

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Water conservation is important here

Water conservation is important here

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Soft little paths meandering everywhere

Soft little paths meandering everywhere

The Luna Park ferris wheel and fun rides make a novel backdrop for a community garden

The Luna Park ferris wheel and fun rides make a novel backdrop for a community garden

Part of the community meeting and relaxation area

Part of the community meeting and relaxation area

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Colour everywhere to gladden the heart

Colour everywhere to gladden the heart

...and plenty of seating to relieve the back!

…and plenty of seating to relieve the back!

Whimsical garden art makes a conservation point

Whimsical garden art makes a conservation point

Pigeons, like humans, seek refuge in the garden from the busy streets beyond

Pigeons, like humans, seek refuge in the garden from the busy streets beyond

Another example of Veg Out garden whimsy

Another example of Veg Out garden whimsy

Good mulching and good composting are visible everywhere in the garden

Good mulching and good composting are visible everywhere in the garden

Some plot-holders keep chickens and quail

Some plot-holders keep chickens and quail

Bob wishes he could grow vegies like this

Bob wishes he could grow vegies like this

...and so do I!

…and so do I!

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