Grow chillis for health

If you really want to spice up your garden this summer then now is the time to plant a chilli bush or two.

Maybe you don’t much like the hot taste of chillis?  Then consider this – there is more vitamin C in a chilli than in an orange and other health benefits besides.  Chillis are also rich in vitamins A, E, potassium and folic acid.  And, despite their fiery flavour, they are (used in moderation) very good for stimulating digestion.

The hot zap is all in the seeds and the secret is all in the cooking.  If chillis are cooked long and well they lose some of their fire (and also some of their vitamin content).  If you want to reduce chilli heat in a recipe, remove some of the seeds.  Or buy one of the several less fiery varieties.

Chillis are dead easy to grow, in the ground or in the pot.  They will tolerate poorish sandy soil but not heavy clay.  The best growing environment is an improved, loamy soil and a sunny position.  Water well every day or so for the first month after which a chilli bush will only need watering a couple of times a week.  Feed with blood and bone or an all-purpose fertiliser though for best fruiting results I recommend using a special fruit and/or vegetable fertiliser. Cut the bush back once fruiting is finished.

The peppery fruit is, not surprisingly, repellent to most pests – but not all!  Birds will take the fruit so your plant/s may need protection. Caterpillars and grasshoppers will eat the leaves and if this starts to happen use a spray or dust recommended by your garden centre.  Chillis are in the same genus as tomatoes and though less susceptible are still subject to the same wilt diseases.  So make sure the ground or container is well-drained and always use a good quality potting mix.

Chillis today come in large and small fruit sizes, long or round or “udder” shaped and in decorative colours from white to purple as well as red and orange.  All can be used in cooking and green, unripe chillis are better than mature red for some dishes. If you have a large crop you can freeze or dry them and then use them whole or ground to make you own chilli powder. Crushed or powdered chilli spread on the ground around plants makes an effective slug and snail repellent.




Rainforest plants for a difficult corner

Lemon myrtle

Above: Lemon Myrtle – a lovely garden shrub


Plants from the rainforest are the best way to turn a difficult corner into an asset.

Just about every garden has a trouble spot where the soil is poor or the sun doesn’t shine – often a combination of both.  The fastest, easiest and most satisfying way of dealing with this is to fill it with a selection of flowering rainforest plants.

Why?  Because these plants not only look good but are perfectly adapted to the vagaries of our climate. They tolerate poor soil, sudden temperature changes and drought.  What’s more, they happily handle both sun and shade – deep shade will make them tall and straggly, full sun will make them more compact – and as a difficult corner may offer both these extremes, depending on time of day and season, rainforest plants are the ideal choice.  And they only need minimal management.

It’s important to select just the right plants so here is a selection of those that suit small gardens.  They are selected for suitable size, ease of growth and attractive flowers and foliage. Plant as wide a variety as space permits to create a mini-rainforest – but don’t overcrowd:

Lilly pillies – This name is given loosely to trees and shrubs in the Syzygium genus.  Best choice for the home garden are Blue Cherry (S. oleosum), the hybrid ’Cascade’ and the original “lilly pilly” S. smithii.  Riberry (S. luehmanni) is a good choice for larger gardens – in a small garden it must be regularly pruned.  Syzygium wilsonii has lovely powder puff flowers and is also small enough for a garden corner. The most commonly available lilly pillies are the many forms of S. australe, sold under a variety of names.  All are excellent plants but susceptible to infestation by an insect that distorts the leaves.

Other good garden choices are Golden Penda, Eleaocarpus reticulatus ‘Prima Donna”, Lemon Myrtle (Backhousia citriodora), Gossia ‘Blushing Beauty’, Native Fuchsia (Graptophyllum), Ivory Curl (Buckinghamia),  Pink Euodia (needs pruning when young for denser growth), Tulipwood (Harpullia pendula – a popular street tree), Native Frangipani and Diamond Laurel (Auranticarpa rhombifolium).  An attractive shrub for the understorey is Cat’s Whiskers (Orthosiphon aristatus) and if you want a ground cover you can’t go past the Native Violet (Viola Hederaceaea) which bears little mauve flowers for most of the year.   Your best bet when you decide to deal with that difficult corner is to visit a specialist native plant nursery or a garden centre with a good native plant selection, explain your needs and get expert advice.

Once established, your rainforest corner will look good, add to your garden’s biodiversity by attracting birds and beneficial insects, and require very little watering, no feeding, and no maintenance beyond perhaps some annual pruning for size and shape.

Pink Euodia

Pink Euodia

Trim cordylines for better growth

Cordyline2 - Copy


Cordylines are reliable, hard-working plants from the tropics and subtropics and today are grown all round the world in warm-temperate to equatorial climates.  In cooler climates they are popular indoor plants and continued breeding now brings us cordylines in bright stripes and splodges of cream, peach, orange, red, burgundy, pink, yellow, cream and many shades of green.

This range of colour, and the leaf shape that varies from strap-thin to broad and fleshy makes them ideal year-round foundation plants.

Only problem is, cordylines get very straggly once the stems start to gain height.  Where I live, gardens are full of such sad and ragged-looking specimens, because people don’t know how to manage them.

The secret with keeping your cordylines in good shape – and colour – is to be ruthless and cut off their heads!  Yes!  Decapitate them with gusto and they’ll serve you well for many years.

Cordylines look at their best when keeping a low profile. So when a cordyline becomes too tall and straggly for its position, take a clean, sharp pair of secateurs, shears or loppers and remove top growth, leaving about 1 foot (40 cms) of bare stem.  The amount of stem left standing is not critical and may depend on what height you wish to maintain your plant – taller growth at the back of a bed, shorter growth in front.

This can be done at any time of year though I prefer to do it at the start of the cool season, so the plant can remain dormant for a while and gather its strength for a boost of new growth when the warm weather starts again. Where I live, most rainfall occurs in summer. HOWEVER, do NOT do this where you have a lot of cool season rainfall because the leafless plants will tend to rot if left in cold, wet ground.  In such climates, do your cutting back at the end of the cool season.

To encourage new growth when warm weather starts, add some compost or blood and bone around the base of the plant. Water well but don’t over-do it because cordylines will rot if the ground is saturated for long periods.  Like most tropical foliage plants, cordylines benefit most from regular misting.

Dracaenas can also be cut back in this way, when they become too tall and straggly.

For more information on managing tropical foliage plants go to


Permaculture in a hot climate


(A subtropical permaculture garden makes use of every available bit of space for food-growing and recycles whatever it can)

The principles of a permaculture lifestyle work well in the tropics and subtropics but certain principles need to be understood.

When I first started practicing this type of home food-production 30 or so years ago I based my methods on those evolved for colder climates where the difference between growing seasons is more marked – bearing in mind the Father of Permaculture Bill Mollison lived in Tasmania.  I soon learned that adjustments needed to be made for my sub-tropical garden – also bearing in mind Bill’s oft-quoted statement that permaculture is a philosophy of working with rather than against nature.  As opposed, of course, to AGRIculture, which works against it.

This, to me, remains the essence of a permaculture garden.  Permaculture is based on fine and lofty principles but for most of us it comes down to a practical way of turning our own backyard (and if possible our front yard too) into a self-sustaining source of good food, grown as “naturally” as possible without manufactured chemicals and pesticides  and with due regard to the surrounding environment.  Though as the latter is usually other people’s non-permaculture gardens this aspect is less important to the average home gardener.  I believe that understanding and adhering to the PRINCIPLE of permaculture is what is most important here, not sticking to every last finicky tenet of a practice that lends itself to infinite personal application.

So, before I get on to the different approaches dictated by a hot climate, here are what I see as the essential principles of permaculture for the average home gardener.

  • A design that takes into account natural landform, rainfall, water collection and distribution,  basic soil type, neighbourhood constraints (or advantages), available sunlight throughout the day,  local climate factors such as frost likelihood and wind force/ frequency/direction, sources and types of available power (mains electricity, solar, generator, wind etc), local authority constraints and requirements.
  • Understanding of the biodiversity of natural and /or existing vegetation including common weed types.  Assess what can be useful either as food (human and animal) or soil improvement (through composting/green manuring) and what must be eliminated.
  • Planning that takes into account age and capability of householders/gardeners and amount of food required. (No point in growing more than you need though some excess to give away, sell or re-process into food for the soil is usually a good thing).
  • Diversity of crops and critters; in diversity lies strength, interesting and healthy variety, and the ability to resist insects, diseases and natural disasters
  • Turning as many factors and features as possible into renewable resources – animal, vegetable or mineral.  Very few organic things can’t be recycled through permaculture.
  • Integrating growing areas so that you get aggregated benefits.  For example “edible fences” of vine crops to divide one section from another, or hedges of fruit/berry-bearing shrubs, or pathways of herbs, or low herbal plantings to separate one crop from another.  This makes more complete use of available (including vertical) space and has added benefits of surrounding susceptible crops with  barriers of insect-repelling herbs.  Always look at a bit of garden and say “how could I use this more productively?”

And here’s a little principle of my own – grow lots of flowers!  Some flowers are edible, some (pyrethrum) have insecticidal benefits, others smell delightfully and all are beautiful.  Your permaculture garden should be a place of delight and recreation as well as a food source or what the hell’s the point of it all?  It only takes a little effort to reap a great reward when it comes to adding scent and colour to your vegie crops.  Also, flowers attract beneficial pollinators and while some of these (butterflies) will certainly produce leaf-munching caterpillars an overall benefit of flowers is that they serve to confuse potentially harmful insects with an abundance of choice.  I’ve always been a great fan of potager gardens where flowers and edible crops exist happily together.

Non-edible flowering plants fill up empty spaces in a permaculture garden, confuse pest insects, encourage beneficial insects and enhance the aesthetic element.  Plants such as geraniums, roses and nasturtiums can be used for food flavouring, too.

Non-edible flowering plants fill up empty spaces in a permaculture garden, confuse pest insects, encourage beneficial insects and enhance the aesthetic element. Plants such as geraniums, roses and nasturtiums can be used for food flavouring, too.

Most plants of the daisy type have insecticidal properties in the leaves - yet their flowers still attract bees.

Most plants of the daisy type have insecticidal properties in the leaves – yet their flowers still attract bees.

Canning the heat

Hot climates (subtropical and tropical) have both benefits and disadvantages.  These can be summarised as:

Crops can be grown all year round, with some seasonal adjustment making it possible to grow the traditional “cold climate” fruits and vegetables of the European/western diet in the cooler season (especially in the subtropics).  At the same time, in summer, it’s possible to grow crops such as taro, cassava, chillis and edible ginger.  A far greater range of fruit trees can be grown in hot climates – bananas, guavas, mangoes, sapote, custard apples etc.  Some varieties of apples as well as peaches, nectarines, blueberries and strawberries can be grown in the sub-tropics, especially in upland areas.  Avocados thrive there too.  In fact a subtropical climate is just about the best there is when it comes to growing your own food.

Rainfall is plentiful, HOWEVER, it usually falls to a monsoonal pattern, in an immoderate amount that washes away soil and its nutrients, erodes earthworks such as ditches, mounds and swales, damages delicate leaves and fruit.  Most important of all, distribution is uneven and unreliable with periods of intense, heavy rain being followed by even longer periods of no rain at all.

Sunshine makes plants grow fast and strong.  Yet it can be so intense that it burns leaves, flowers and fruits; too much of it has a drying effect that reduces the moisture content of plants, so they are less “juicy”.

High humidity encourages growth but also encourages the development of moulds and fungal diseases.

Lack of frost is generally regarded as a benefit when growing food crops – but some root vegetables need frost and cool topsoil to develop full size and flavour.

While a greater abundance and variety of crops is possible in a hot climate this is matched by a greater abundance of insects and weeds.  How you handle these two “problems” is one of the most important challenges faced by hot climate permaculturists.

Making compost is easier and much faster in a hot climate and you can do it all year round.  However, once in the soil, compost breaks down faster and needs more frequent application – and this goes for any sort of fertiliser.

And let’s not forget that permaculture is not just about plants…

In a cold climate animals need indoor protection during winter and they are more subject to illnesses caused (or exacerbated) by cold and damp.  In a hot climate they can stay in the open year round but they will be vulnerable to insect infestation and annoyance (ticks, worms, flies, maggots) and heat exhaustion.  Clean water must be provided  more frequently.

Permaculture in a hot climate takes a greater toll on the gardener in many ways.  Of course, you don’t have to contend with ice and snow and a bleak, cropless garden that may even be covered in snow for several months.  You don’t have to suffer the urgency that comes with having to get everything harvested by a certain date and then appropriately stored for winter – there’s not the same need for pickling, preserving and processing.  In a hot climate permaculture garden you can have some fresh crops all year round and adjust your eating habits to your season, with just a little jam-making and pickling – and probably some freezing too – if you enjoy doing that sort of thing.  The downside is that you can’t ever take a break.  No sitting over a winter fire for a few months of pleasurable garden inactivity, pouring over your seed catalogues!  Permaculture in a hot climate means permanent labour!  And vigilance!

Part of the permaculture philosophy is to reduce human labour.  So don’t bite off more than you can chew.  If you have a large garden – more than half an acre say – set aside a section of it for permaculture development.  You can always expand as required, once you’ve mastered the principles and put them into productive practice.

In its purest form, permaculture embraces both land and dwelling place in one self-sustaining practice. This wholistic approach means that your house should be built of renewable or non-environmentally threatening materials (mud brick, underground, wattle-and-daub, recycled bricks and timber), your water should be collected on site, and all your energy should be sourced from sun or wind.  Such an admirably idealistic approach is way outside the scope of my expertise; for the purposes of this article I’m assuming my readers live in “normal” suburban homes built on typical suburban lots or small acreages.  Even so, I would expect them to have them to get at least some of their power from solar panels and have tanks to collect rainwater.


“Good” soils are more frequently found in cold rather than hot climates (I may go into this in detail in a later article but for now, take my word for it!).  Even the soil that sustains large and complex vegetation systems such as rainforest breaks down quickly once exposed to the elements.  So garden soil in the tropics and subtropics needs to be thoroughly dug over once, to a depth of about half a metre (deeper would be even better but we are talking about the possible here).  This is quite deep enough for all vegetables and also young fruit trees. (If you are planting larger fruit trees then the planting holes need to be deeper and wider – but this is another issue).  You can do this bit by bit though it would be more desirable to get the whole cropping area done at once, before any planting takes place.  Yes, it’s possible to grow your crops in raised vegetable beds as many do, but we are talking PERMACULTURE here and long-term sustainability means getting as much of your growing as possible done in a deep, sustaining soil that can be regularly renewed for years to come.  There are extreme circumstances (very steep slopes, unworkably heavy or shaley soil) where alternatives to in-ground growing have to be considered but as a general rule it is best to take your natural soil, and its natural profile, and work it into a suitable growing tilth.  This will take time and effort.  In the meantime you might be looking at alternatives (raised beds, containers, straw bales) but in the end successful permaculture depends on good soil.  The goal is a soil that is dark brown to black in colour, not too heavy and sticky, nor too light and sandy, and which crumbles nicely in your hand.  (If you want to know all about soil you can buy my e-book Improving Your Soil – The Natural Way for $4.95 at

It’s also important to raise or lower the pH level of your soil so that it lies in the neutral zone between acid and alkaline.  This will suit most crops.  Those that require higher or lower levels of acidity or alkalinity will require localised adjustments. (This is outside the scope of the current article – but look for further detailed articles on this subject – there are some on this website).

Good soil is the foundation of successful permaculture - it should look something like this

Good soil is the foundation of successful permaculture – it should look something like this


Adding a cover of organic matter is the way to improve soil texture and consistency and once it is added to soil that’s been opened up and worked you’ll be amazed just how quickly this takes effect.  Again, you’ll find detailed information on suitable mulches in my soil book.  As a guiding principle, the best mulches for soil improvement in a hot climate are the straw residue of crops such as sugar cane (excellent for breaking down heavy clay), pea, bean and lucerne. Fine bark is good, especially if you wish to acidify your soil (but bear in mind that many vegetable and herb crops require a slightly alkaline soil). The hotter your climate the more frequently you need to apply mulch but usually laying a good thick cover twice a year in mid-spring when the ground begins to warm up after the cool season and again in late summer will be sufficient.  Topping up in between if required. The rule that you should never mulch dry ground is even more important in a hot climate where the evaporation rate is so high.  If there has been no rainfall always water the ground before applying mulch.  And keep it loose enough so rain can penetrate through to the soil.

Nothing improves soil like mulching with crop residues such as cane straw - but remember always to wear a mask because it's dusty stuff and can cause allergies

Nothing improves soil like mulching with crop residues such as cane straw – but remember always to wear a mask because it’s dusty stuff and can cause allergies

Mulch should be laid in a deep layer (about 6 inches or 15 cm) but not so densely that rain can't penetrate.

Mulch should be laid in a deep layer (about 6 inches or 15 cm) but not so densely that rain can’t penetrate.


Making your own compost is an essential part of permaculture practice.  In a hot climate it’s faster and easier.  Just about anything organic can recycled into compost and used to enrich your soil.  Apply twice a year when mulching as your regular practice but top up every month in the main spring/summer growing season and you won’t need to provide any other plant food.  There is no better way of creating a really wonderful, rich, growing environment.  Obviously you will use your chook poo and old nesting/laying straw from the hen house as well as manure from any other animals you keep (except dogs and cats!).  But unless you have your own cows or other pasture animals in sufficient numbers to provide worthwhile manure, you’ll need to buy in a few bags a year.  A mixed manure such as Searle’s 5 In 1, formulated in an for a hot climate, is particularly good.


Weeds proliferate in the hot climate garden so don’t waste time trying to control them; harvest them for compost, turn them into a nutritional and biocidal “tea” or let your livestock eat them.  Chickens, ducks and geese all eat weeds.  So do goats, rabbits and guinea pigs.  Of course you’ll need to manage your livestock so that they can get at the weeds without eating the vegies and herbs.  The best way of doing this is by fencing off the vulnerable areas and allowing livestock free reign to keep weeds down in the in-between areas such as fallowing beds, pathways and the ground around fruit trees (if this isn’t already planted to some lower-growing crop).  Poultry and small animals can be kept in mobile cages that can be moved from one area to another.  A goat can be tethered.

Weeds also play a role in attracting beneficial insects to the garden.  They also attract pest insects and this can be a bonus too because, like cultivated flowers, they help to confuse the pests and provide alternative food to your valuable crops.  Of course, you don’t want weeds in your growing beds competing for water, nutrients and sunlight with your vegies.  Here you will use suppression techniques such as layered newspaper or cardboard or straw mulch, and be regular and vigilant in hand-removal.  But I’ve seen permaculturists with flourishing weed borders around the edges of their beds and these seem to help lure pests away from the good stuff.

Many weeds have valuable nutritional AND biocidal properties.  They can be gathered and put into a large container of hot (but not boiling water).  Let this steep for a week or so then skim all the debris from the surface and strain through a sieve or coarse cloth.  Pour or spray the brew over your plants – it will help condition the soil as well as encourage healthier plants.  Throw the mucky, smelly vegetative residue into the compost heap.  Nothing is wasted in the permaculture garden!

There are SOME weeds that are so anti-social that you do need to get rid of them, especially if their proliferation is likely to become a problem in neighbouring gardens or adjacent bushland.  Those which produce numerous seeds that stick or adhere to clothing are a problem, as are weeds poisonous to livestock.  They should be thoroughly exterminated by whichever method suits you best.  The really important thing here is to GET TO KNOW YOUR WEEDS.  Study the weeds in your garden as you would any other plant and learn which ones to throw away and which ones to keep – like poker!


I like lots of insects in my garden.  It’s the sign of a healthy and diverse biosystem.  They pollinate plants, make honey, feed birds and frogs and livestock, some even prey on plant pests.  And of course a few – a very annoying few – of these insects ARE plant pests.  Chemical killers have no place in permaculture.  Instead, we have to focus on repulsion.  And now I’m going to say something very controversial – in all my years of growing things I have never yet come across a really effective insect repellent for the home garden.  And let’s forget the word “chemical” here – everything in nature is full of chemicals.  And that includes all the so-called “natural” repellents such as garlic, Quassia chips, Neem, soap, eucalyptus and ti-tree oil.  They owe whatever anti-insect properties they may possess to their chemical constituents.  True, they can’t poison you in the way that manufactured and/or extracted chemicals can do – which is also why they don’t really work.  Some of the sprays made from these plants can have a short-term repelling effect on some insects but this is too short to be worthwhile – you need to spray at least once a day and more if it rains.

The only really effective way of keeping nuisance insects at bay is too put up a barrier.  Grow your vulnerable fruits and vegetables under netting.  Be vigilant with the rest; do a daily patrol to pick off seasonal infestations of beetles, caterpillars and grubs (spraying with any vegetable oil or just detergent and water will get rid of large infestations).  If your garden is a welcome place for birds and frogs, and if you have insectivorous livestock, then these critters will all help keep the number of pests down.  As with all permaculture practice, a multi-faceted approach usually gets the best results.

Netting is the best protection against birds, insects and other pests

Netting is the best protection against birds, insects and other pests

If you can't keep chickens or other animals at least make your garden a bird-friendly place and they'll repay you by eating insects and adding a bit of manure around the place. Of course some of them will also eat your fruits and berries so you'll need some protection (no, not a cat!  Some bird-friendly netting!)

If you can’t keep chickens or other animals at least make your garden a bird-friendly place and they’ll repay you by eating insects and adding a bit of manure around the place. Of course some of them will also eat your fruits and berries so you’ll need some protection (no, not a cat! Some bird-friendly netting!)



The efficient collection of water is a major part of permaculture practice and this is even more important in a hot climate where rainfall is very seasonal and the evaporation rate high.  The roof of every structure on the lot should be used to collect water, channelling it into rainwater tanks.  The more the merrier!  Take advantage of natural contours on your land to create swales (large shallow channels with comparatively high, rounded banks on each side) to direct water to in-ground collection points such as ponds or underground cisterns.  Smaller channels can be dug to guide rain runoff onto garden beds and all beds should be raised in the middle with ditches around the edges.  In this way, very little precious rainwater is wasted and can be stored until needed.  The creation of swales and ditches also gives you control of heavy monsoonal deluges, channelling the water away from where it can cause erosion or waterlogging and into collection points.


Permaculture practice integrates animal and vegetable.  It IS possible of course to adapt the permaculture philosophy to small gardens where no livestock can be kept.  In such cases, animal manures will need to be purchased.  Keeping livestock adds a whole new dimension to basic gardening practice and means more responsibility and hard work but most permaculturists accept this, even if they only have room for a small hen coop.  Chickens, in fact, are very little trouble to keep, considering their many benefits.  It’s possible to design chicken houses and mobile structures that are almost self-sustaining and advice on how to do this can be found on the internet.  Along with advice on the best breeds for your purpose.  Chickens not only lay eggs and provide very nutritious poo but are great consumers of weeds and insects.  If you live in a suburb chickens (without a rooster) are probably all you’ll be allowed to keep.  But if you have a few acres/hectares then you can keep other poultry (geese, ducks, guinea fowl) and perhaps a goat or two.  Cows are too much hard work for the average permaculture gardener and require special handling.  Goats are a much better bet and though they need good management if they are not to gobble up your vegies and ornamental plants, their eclectic appetites make short work of weeds.  And of course they produce milk, cheese and manure. They are also able to tolerate heat, if you buy the right breed.

A chicken house made from recycled materials

A chicken house made from recycled materials

Do not despise guinea pigs in the home garden.  They make good pets for the kids and if you keep them in movable cages they can graze different parts of the garden, keeping down weeds and consuming unwanted vegetative matter such as carrot tops and the outer leaves of brassicas.  Their manure is not copious (unless you keep a lot of them) but it’s useful in the compost heap.  And you can keep quite a few of these clean, lovable little critters in a small backyard.

If you live in a hot climate, the permaculture system offers a better chance of successful fruit and vegetable growing than the traditional English-style neat-beds-in-a-row type system.  The somewhat chaotic-appearing profusion of a garden developed along permaculture lines, in which just about every bit of ground is used to grow something, tends to confuse insect predators by its very abundance.   Instead of the hard and arbitrary division of beds by bricks or sleepers, growing areas and working/walking areas flow seamlessly into one another with only plants dictating the areas of separation.  This more natural approach also fosters disease-resistance: vegetables grown in beds isolated from other crops are the most prone to fungal and other diseases. The recycling of all organic waste keeps the soil replenished despite the constant assault of sun and heavy rain alternating with drought.  The use of livestock adds the necessary balance to create a “natural” system and helps with pest control.  The creation of a living jungle of edible plants is, once established, a lot easier to maintain than lawns and neat flowerbeds and sterile paved pathways.  What’s more, all this vegetation cools the air around your house.  If you don’t believe me, try taking your deckchair out into your green permaculture paradise and comparing this with sitting on a paved patio.

Mixed plantings of vegetables in beds works best with permaculture

Mixed plantings of vegetables in beds works best with permaculture

Permaculture gardens are like edible jungles

Permaculture gardens are like edible jungles

No space is wasted

No space is wasted

The result is lots of healthy vegies, in soil that is always being replenished the natural way

The result is lots of healthy vegies, in soil that is always being replenished the natural way

Australian Frangipani has flowers like cream and honey


The Frangipani is the only flower I know that is named for a perfume, rather than the other way round. It was a famous perfume in its day, invented in the 16th century by the Italian Marquis Muzio Frangipane. According to legend, the tree’s seductive perfume led to its discovery for horticulture by the French monk Plumier. Apparently he’d planned to travel the world and grow rich (an unlikely ambition in someone who became a Franciscan monk at the age of 16, in a monastery famous for its austerity but still) and was told by a fortune teller to “search for a tree that grows near churches and graveyards; its blossoms are the colour of the new moon; its fragrance will overpower your soul; if you uproot it, the leaves and flowers continue to grow. When you find it you shall be rich.*

Well, he found it, when collecting plants in the Caribbean region during the 17th century and though he didn’t name it after himself, others did – Plumeria. How it came by the common name of ‘Frangipani’ nobody seems to know.

The funny thing is, the description of the blossoms of this plant, as given in the legend, resemble the Australian native frangipani, Hymenosperum flavum, far more than they do the plumeria types commonly known as ‘frangipanis’ today.

For one thing, the Australian frangipani has flowers that resemble the ‘golden coins’ described in the legend, which plumerias do not. Hymenosperum flowers start off as a creamy white, deepening to old gold as they age. Thus a tree in full flower looks as if it’s had a great bowl of cream and honey poured over it. For another thing, the flowers of Hymenosperum, like those in the legend, have a much stronger perfume than those of plumeria species.

This is a very good small garden tree for many climates because though it originates in the subtropical rainforest it does very well in dry Mediterranean and warm temperate areas too. In fact, it generally does better, in purely ornamental terms. This is because in the rainforest it tends to grow tall and thin and straggly with very large internodes and sparse branches. Take it out of the rainforest and put it in full sun and it is more compact, bushy and floriferous. It flowers in spring, usually for about a month.

Hymenosperum flavum makes an excellent street tree, requiring little care after establishment.


Where: Sun or shade but flowers better in full sun. Grows faster in good soil but will survive in just about any reasonably well-drained ground.

Buy: Available from most nurseries in Australia but overseas buyers might need to shop around a bit.

Water: Give plenty of water during the establishment period for faster growth. At least twice a week after planting out. After the first year, leave it to nature and only water during long, dry periods (more than two months without rain).

Fertilising: Feed with an all-purpose tree and shrub fertiliser in early summer and again in late autumn. Fowl pellets or blood-and-bone will do fine for general growth but a formulation containing phosphorus will encourage better flowering.

Pruning: This is the secret of growing a really handsome Native (or Australian) Frangipani. Tip prune right from the start after planting and keep doing this on a regular basis to the young tree to promote density and a good shape. The tree may not flower for five years or more – once it does, a good prune of the top growth after flowers have finished will encourage compact growth and prolific flowering the following year.

*(from Hidden Stories in Plants), by Anne Pellowski,
Hymenospeerum3 - Copy

Roaring Meg is pretty in pink


Last year at this time I did an article on the lovely Fraser Island Creeper, especially the cultivar Roaring Meg which is more florific than the original species sold in nurseries.

This year my own “Meg” put on a really great show. She’s about three years old now and really coming into her own – this is a climber/creeper that needs a bit of patience before you get a really good floral output but once Meg comes of age she really is a generous beauty.

One of the best things about Meg is that she is perfect for small areas and lightweight supports because she knows how to behave herself – doesn’t grow too vigorous, or too heavy, and is very easy to keep under control with minimum trimming. And, she flourishes well in a nice big pot.

Another good thing is that Meg is a low-maintenance lady who likes a reasonable amount to drink but can go a long time without one. Yet, provided her feet aren’t wet for long periods, she’ll handle heavy wet seasons well too. As for feeding; she’s permanently on a diet and only needs a bit of a feed in late winter to really give of her best.

And here’s another good point: Meg will grow in full sun or light overhead shade, though she’ll flower better with plenty of morning sun.

And if you want to know where Meg likes to hang out – subtropical and mediterranean Australia, Florida, southern California, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, Hong Kong, Singapore, most of Africa, anywhere in the tropics and subtropics. And if you have a warm, sheltered, well-watered spot in a temperate garden where there is no frost or snow, she’ll probably do well enough there too.

For more on this plant, go to the October 2012 archive on this site.



Rosemary – a garden favourite


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.