Abutilons – Chinese lanterns for year round colour


Chinese Lanterns (Abutilon hybrids) are one of my five top plants for a warm climate garden.

They ask so little and give so much; the dainty lantern-like flowers come in so many delightful colours; they provide colour in the garden for most of the year.

Though among the absolute easiest flowering shrubs to grow, they do need a bit of strategic pruning to give of their best – read on!

Chinese Lanterns have absolutely nothing to do with China because most of them come from South America. The majority have bell-shaped flowers that hang down, though there is at least one pinky-mauve type that holds its open face straight out to the sun. Colours range from yellow to various peach and salmon shades to red and yellow to mauve/pink. Leaves are usually soft and downy with three distinct lobes. They grow to 10 feet (3 metres) and the long branches tend to arch over if not controlled by pruning.


Subtropical to warm temperate (USDA 9-11). Will grow in tropical climates if given good drainage. Tolerant of mild frost but not prolonged, hard frosts or snow. In colder climates can be grown in tubs outdoors and brought inside in winter.


Sunny or part-shade. A good plant for filling a difficult corner provided there is good light or direct sun for at least half the day. Protect from strong wind that can break the long branches or uproot the entire plant.


Loamy soil that’s slightly on the sandy side is best but abutilons are tolerant of most soils if given adequate drainage.


Needs to be well watered during establishment; after that water only in prolonged dry periods as this plant is quite drought tolerant. Don’t plant in low-lying boggy areas because abutilon roots can’t stand prolonged wet conditions. If given reasonably good drainage they can take short periods of extreme wet and dry weather better than most shrubs.


Feed newly-planted abutilons with a liquid fertiliser after 4-6 weeks to encourage growth. Then feed with any balanced shrub fertiliser for the first year. After that, if you have good soil, no further feeding should be necessary. In soils where nutrition is low, add a dressing of blood and bone or compost in early spring.


Young plants will benefit from mulching with any organic material but don’t apply in winter so that sun can warm the surrounding soil.


Abutilons rarely suffer from pests and diseases. They MAY occasionally be subject to chewing by caterpillars or infestation by mites, or even fungal diseases, but these are rare. If problems occur, deal with them in the usual way (get advice from your local garden centre or read one of my gardening books); in my experience the plants usually recover from any sort of attack without help from me.


These are excellent shrubs as either background or specimen shrubs because the variety of available colours makes them ideal for co-ordination with other plants. Grown as standards (see below) they make dramatic and easy-care accent features.


This is the key to having handsome plants that will flower prolifically most of the year. Tip prune young plants to promote bushiness and discourage “legginess”. Mature plants should be cut back by at least one third (to the nearest joint) at the end of winter or whenever flowering has ceased or slowed down considerably. This is if you want a tall bush, which most of us do. HOWEVER, abutilons look stunning when grown as standards; just encourage the strongest stem on young plants but cutting out all the other stems, supporting the main stem until it is thick and strong enough to stand alone. Or, you can keep two or three stems and twine them, as with wisteria. I’m not clever or patient enough to do that but I’ve seen others do it with wondrous results. Abutilons grown as standards are great talking points in the garden; they look just so elegant with the bright flowers hanging off them like porcelain ornaments!

Also, you can turn the leggy habit of abutilons to good account by espaliering them to a support and creating an arbour or walkway, or tying the top branches of taller varieties overhead to train them into an arch (pleaching).

Abutilons need large pots to accommodate their size and fairly large root systems. Use a quality potting mix that drains well, water regularly, feed monthly with a balanced fertiliser that promotes flowering and re-pot once a year. They can be grown as multi-stemmed shrubs but look even better in the pot if trained as single-stemmed standards. Tip prune regularly and cut back by one third once a year to maintain size and shape.



True blue

This Rainbow Lorikeet tucks into some Blue Quandong nectar despite the rain

This Rainbow Lorikeet tucks into some Blue Quandong nectar despite the rain

The blue fruits and red fallen leaves of the blue Quandong lie thick on the ground

The blue fruits and red fallen leaves of the blue Quandong lie thick on the ground

When I hear the Rainbow Lorikeets squabbling even louder than usual outside my kitchen window I know the Blue Quandong (Elaeocarpus grandis, aka Elaeocarpus angustifolius) is in flower.

And what flowers they are – great masses of bell-shaped white blossom, each fringed at the bottom like a lampshade, or the dress of a tiny ballerina. They don’t always come out every year so when they do we take a particular delight in them, just like the lorikeets and other nectar-feeders.

This year the flowering is particularly abundant and though it’s easy to attribute this to a good wet season we’ve had similar prolonged drenching in other summers and yet the Blue Quandong doesn’t reward us with flowers.

After the flowers come the fruits and in a good fruiting year theses, too, are a spectacle. Large, round and of a blue so bright and clear it’s impossible to compare it with anything else in nature, the fruits litter the ground and provide a feast for all sorts of creatures – rodents and ground-dwelling birds. Pigeons love them too, and take them before they drop. The fruits have little taste because the flesh is thin; nonetheless they were a popular food with Australian Aborigines back in the day, and it is from them we get the name “quandong”. Pioneers of European stock sometimes used them to make jam and pies, when times were desperate.

This tree has a further aesthetic gift to offer; the long, serrate leaves turn a bright red when ready to drop and have a varnished look. This happens mainly in late winter and spring, coinciding with fruiting, and the sight of the bright red leaves and vivid blue fruit is quite something.
Blue Quandong grows into too large a tree for the average home garden because it throws out very long, spreading branches. It’s a handsome tree, though, and worth growing if you have the room. If not, try one of the several smaller-growing elaeocarpuses such as E.foveolatus, E. ferruginiflorus, E. holopetalus, E. eumundii or the darling little Blueberry Ash ( E. reticulatus). All have their slightly different attractions.

This is one of the easiest plants to grow from seed because the large kernels germinate fast and easily. Growth rate continues to be rapid and the tree can reach a good size within ten years.
Position: Anywhere in the garden, but well away from any infrastructure as roots are invasive and the long, long branches are a nuisance if allowed to overhang gutters. Leaf and fruit drop should also be considered – don’t plant too close to a driveway.

Watering: This is a tree from high rainfall areas but it will take at least 90 days without any rain or artificial watering once established with its roots down into the water table. Water well in the first couple of years after planting.

Feeding: Not really necessary but you can add any kind of balanced fertilizer at seedling and sapling stage to increase growth.

Pruning: YES! Blue Quandong tends to develop its side branches in layers out from the main stem; internodes are long and leaves born at the end of the branches, with an upright growth habit. Prune regularly when young, just cutting back the growing tips of the top and side branches about twice a year to promote a more compact, dense and bushy form. Flowering (and thus fruiting) may not occur until the tree is at least seven years old, sometimes not until 10 years old.

Propagation: As stated, fast and reliable. Some people have good success by just taking the fruits and planting them in a growing mix. I usually wash them first to remove any grubs, then peel away the flesh and crack the kernel within, to speed things up. Expect germination from 4 – 8 weeks. Other Elaeocarpus species are much slower to propagate.

You can also propagate from ripe top-of-the-stem cuttings.

Tea tip for healthy camellias


“My grandmother always used to say that if you dose your camellias regularly with what’s left in the teapot you’ll never have any health problems with them. It worked for her and it works for me! Tea, after all, is just dried camellia leaf”.

Where I live, the first sasanqua camellias are beginning to bloom – the faithful old ‘Hiryus’ that have made a brave barrier between our house and the road for many a long year now, and the cup-shaped white` Narumigatas’, are always the first to appear. They are our harbingers of autumn and bring colour to gardens at the end of the wet season when other flowers are too exhausted to lift their sodden heads.

`Jennifer Susan’ and ‘Setsugeka’ are other early-bloomers here and years ago I planted a hedge alternating the two, so that in full bloom it is a long swathe of pink and white down one side of the garden.

New sasanquas are coming on to the market every year and it’s hard work keeping up with all the names. Many of these have more spectacular flowers than the camellias of yesteryear but I’ve found not all are as vigorous when it comes to tolerating a range of garden conditions. It’s impossible to know just how well these pretty newcomers will perform in YOUR particular garden until they’ve been in the ground for a few years so my tip is to be wary. If you are not a very good gardener, don’t have a lot of time to fuss over your plants, and the conditions in your garden are less than ideal for camellias (soil too heavy or too sandy, exposure to harsh hot or cold winds, rainfall too frequent or too light) then seek out those that you know do well in your neighbourhood.

Having said that, camellias are tough plants. Just about the toughest of all when it comes to high quality, long-lived plants with good year-round foliage and beautiful flowers. Give them reasonable conditions in climates from warm temperate to sub-tropics and they need very little care.

Here are a few things you can do to make sure that your sasanquas do well this autumn:

. Lightly – very lightly – hoe or rake the ground around your camellias to open it up a little and let in sunlight. Camellias don’t like having their shallow surface roots interfered with so PLEASE do this with great care. Prolonged heavy rain will compact the soil in garden beds and around individual plants, preventing it from drying out and starving plant roots of vital oxygen. Cold, hard, wet soil is just about the worst thing for any plant.

. Mulch with something soft and organic such as stray, hay or leafmould. This will help protect the soil around the plant from compaction by heavy rain while at the same time the fairly open structure of the mulch will allow just enough water to percolate through. And of course the mulch will break down in time and improve the condition and structure of the soil.

. If you live where there hasn’t been much rainfall, or where the summer rain has diminished, make sure your camellias get adequate water throughout the flowering season. Don’t over-water them but give them a good soaking at least twice a week.

. Fertilising for growth should have been done swell before this, back in late winter, with a top-up in in early summer to promote good flowering. However, heavy rainfall may well have leached nutrients from the soil. If this is likely to have been the case, scatter a little blood and bone around the base of your plant and lightly hoe it into the soil. Do this before mulching. A light feed at this time will replace lost nutrients in the soil and help prolong blooming as well as maintain plant growth – but don’t overdo it!

. I always save my used tea leaves/left over tea and coffee grounds to put around my camellias. These break down and condition the soil and also help to maintain the right slightly acid pH level. My grandmother always used to say that if you dose your camellias regularly with what’s left in the teapot you’ll never have any health problems with them. It worked for her and it works for me! Tea, after all, is just dried camellia leaf.
You won’t need to fertilize or prune your sasanqua camellias until flowering time is over – but it’s as well to put those activities in your gardening diary now. In the meantime, when the sasanquas start blooming the japonicas and reticulates aren’t far behind. So at this time I always give mine a light dressing of blood and bone to promote longer and better flowering – this is necessary in the subtropics though not usually recommended in cooler climates where soil nutrients are not so easily gobbled up. You can, if you prefer, use a balanced chemical fertilizer with a high phosphorus content (read the bag label to see the NPK level).

Waterproof your garden

When the rain is pounding down, plants get a hammering and soil washes away

When the rain is pounding down, plants get a hammering and soil washes away

Where I live up here on Tamborine Mountain the wet season is well underway. We’ve already been through a wild cyclonic storm, three weeks back, which left us saturated, wind-wrecked and without power for several days. Now it’s starting again!

Like humans, plants can absorb only so much liquid and gardens can suffer badly during periods of prolonged, heavy rain. So here are a few tips to help you waterproof your garden.

Poor drainage is death to the garden so look to your soil. Mulch well with hay or straw at least twice a year to improve drainage. Do it more regularly if you are stuck with either heavy clay or very poor sandy soil (see my book How to Improve your Soil – The Natural Way on this website). If you live where there is a definite “wet season” mulch at least one month before the rain is likely to start. Keeping your mulch topped up also protects the soil from rain damage and erosion, while the open nature of a hay or straw-type mulch allows the sodden soil beneath to “breathe” and dry out between downpours.

If your soil is very heavy and poorly-drained; if the surface is impacted and muddy; if moss is growing there, you have a permanent problem that can only be solved by putting in drainage pipes and/or channels to get the water away from the bed. Poor drainage in one bed or area of the garden can impact on other areas too because when heavy rain falls instead of being absorbed into the soil it runs off, causing erosion and damage areas at a lower level.

Another solution to improving drainage in your garden is to make raised beds, using timber, brick or stone. Drainage pipes can be installed if required.

Plants have evolved to deal with heavy rain but it can knock new, young plants about badly if they have not had a chance to establish their roots. Herbaceous plants with succulent, fleshy, non-woody stems (such as impatiens) are particularly vulnerable. So if you know very heavy deluges are on the way, save planting anything new until the rain has lightened or passed. If you are only concerned about one or two or just a few plants it IS possible to give them some temporary protection – an upturned bucket, a piece of fine netting or muslin, shade cloth, even a light covering of straw mulch will do the job. Shade-loving plants will be protected by overhanging trees and shrubs.

Heavy rain washes away soil and nutrients. After a deluge, check your garden to see if soil needs pushing back or replacing. Fertilize to replace nutrients – the heavier the rainfall in your area, the more you need to top up the beds with organic fertilizers and soil enrichers such as blood and bone, fowl pellets or ruminant manure. Conversely, DON’T fertilize just before very heavy rain is due because instead of washing this deep into the soil it is likely to just wash it all away. Fertilizer of any kind needs a bit of time to be absorbed into the soil and taken up by plant roots.

Plants in deep, well-drained beds are better able to withstand long periods of heavy rain. Terraced beds are particularly well-drained. Rockeries are the best place for arid-zone plants, alpines and succulents but make sure you check after a deluge to replace any eroded soil or gravel.

If you have pockets of chronically poorly-drained soil in your garden and improving them is beyond you, consider filling the area with pots instead. I have such a corner in my garden and have turned it into a container-growing area, filled with life and colour that doesn’t depend on the soil beneath. Shrubs, flowers, vegetables and even trees don’t thrive in poorly-drained waterlogged anaerobic soil.

If you live in an area with very heavy, prolonged seasonal rainfall don’t grow unsuitable plants such as those originating in deserts or dry, rocky places. If you do want to grow these plants stick to containers or create terraces and well-drained rockeries.

If heavy rain is due, try to pick any ripe or almost ripe fruit and vegetables. Rainspots can damage the outer layer and leave the fruit or vegetable vulnerable to disease pathogens; strong rain and wind will also damage plants and knock fruit from the stems. Root vegetables that are ready to harvest should be pulled up just before, during or immediately after a prolonged downpour or else they may rot in the ground.

Tea leaves and coffee grounds are both excellent soil-conditioners that help make your garden beds better able to absorb water. Don’t throw them down the sink, put them into the compost heap or directly on to the garden.

Don’t use black plastic under mulch (whether soft vegetative mulch or gravel/stones) if you live in a climate with heavy, seasonal, monsoonal rain. The soil will become sodden and lacking in oxygen, and easily compacted when it dries out, and all this will adversely affect any plants growing through holes in the plastic. If the plastic is there to suppress weeds, do any planting in containers placed on top of the mulch or gravel, bearing in mind that should you ever change your mind and want to remove the plastic and turn the soil underneath into a bed, or a lawn, it will take a lot of hard digging!

After a prolonged heavy deluge check your flowering plants for damage. If roses, dahlias, chrysanthemums or any other flowers are hanging from bent or broken stalks, snip them off at once. Broken stalks offer opportunities to disease-bearing pathogens and certain harmful insects.

Don’t dig very wet ground. After a prolonged and heavy downpour, soil should be allowed to dry out to a manageable, crumbly, moist but not wet condition before digging, or its structure will be damaged (and it’s very hard work, too!). Don’t dig a garden bed before heavy rain is due, either. Good soil develops a light surface “crust” that protects it from damage or erosion during a downpour. Digging it over exposes the topsoil to all sorts of adverse effects.

Finally, learn the habits of plants. Some are better able to take up and utilize water than others. If you live in an area where heavy and prolonged rainfall is usual, where the soil is full of clay, where you have steep slopes and bare, exposed areas without vegetation, where the ground is naturally low-lying and swampy, then you need to take all this into account when choosing plants. Sure, do what you can to make improvements but there’s no point in fighting nature by trying to grow unsuitable plants.

Outside my window the rain is getting heavier – we are in for a long, wet night of it. But at least I can stay snug indoors, knowing that my garden is as well-protected from the deluge as I can make it.

In the wet season young herbs succumb easily to rain damage.  Grown in pots like this on a raised, dry surface they can be easily managed and moved under cover if necessary.

In the wet season young herbs succumb easily to rain damage. Grown in pots like this on a raised, dry surface they can be easily managed and moved under cover if necessary.


Fire and rain

Red flower - these are born in spring and summer

Red flower – these are born in spring and summer

One of my three new young Metrosideros collina 'Fiji'

One of my three new young Metrosideros collina ‘Fiji’

If you want the ultimately tough but tasteful plant for your warm climate garden; one which looks good all the time and can take just about anything Mother Nature can throw at it, think about the metrosideros.

I recently had to make a tough decision. The tail end of a recent three-day storm – cyclone, hurricane, typhoon call it what you will – dumped about 30 inches (750 mm)on my garden. Yes people, that’s about London’s average rainfall for the whole year. Austin, Texas gets just over that amount for the whole year too while Los Angeles gets less than HALF that amount a year. And we got it in a couple of days! Combined with strong winds with gusts sometimes reaching 55 mph (90 km) or more, a lot of trees and shrubs lost limbs or were uprooted.

Among them was one of two large shrubs right in front of my front deck. These gave us privacy from the street and protection from the strong western sun but they were straggly things, too large for the bed and in constant need of clipping. They were also grevilleas and thus short-lived. So we pulled out both of them and then had to think what to put in their place in what was now a nice open bed.

After much thought I decided on the metrosideros ‘Fiji’, a cultivar of the little known Metrosideros collina var.’Vitiensis’.

I’ve long been a great admirer of the metrosideros, a genus limited generally to the Pacific, with most species occurring in New Zealand and one, I think, in South Africa. There is also a very beautiful, yellow-flowering tall tree species native to northern Australia (see my companion blog on rainforest plants) but this is outside the scope of this article due to its height (and has also been renamed as Thaleropia queenslandica). The metrosideros types I’m writing about here are those small-growing tough trees and shrubs with neat little leaves, dense growth habit and pretty red bottlebrush flowers. They bear some resemblance to the Australian callistemons (now classified among the melaleucas)and indeed are in the same myrtle family.

The best-known species is Metrosideros exclesa, a common hedge plant in New Zealand where it is commonly known as “pohutukawa”. This is a great screening plant because it can take strong winds, seafront conditions, heavy rain AND long, dry periods. Today there are several garden-friendly cultivars of this species available in garden centres, along with cultivars of other metrosideros species. They all take a lot of beating when it comes to attractive plants for marginal conditions.

I had a choice of several metrosideros types in our local garden center and finally opted for the ‘Fiji’ (indigenous to the Pacific area) because I liked its neat, dark green foliage with a slightly velvety texture when young. New growth is a rich burgundy. The red flowers are smaller than those of the M. excelsa varieties and make a less spectacular early summer show but I feel the small size (to 10 feet/3m maximum) and dense habit of this tree/shrub is more suited to the restricted space of a bed about 13 x 6.5 feet (roughly 4 x 2 meters). So I bought three, and set them off with a border of vincas in shades of pink and white (yes, I know the older vinca species can be invasive in some places but not the new, well-behaved, low-growing nursery types).

In this position, my new metrosideros will have to take the full force of the afternoon sun, westerly winds that can be very hot or very cold in season, heavy downpours of rain in summer and long, dry periods in winter and spring. They should be able to cope with all this very well, as well as temperatures down to zero Celsius for short periods – though not frost. Like all metrosideros types they need a well-drained soil and won’t thrive in heavy clay. They’ll do brilliantly in sandy, windy coastal areas, for which they have evolved, but they can also handle uplands back from the coast, and arid inland areas too. Their water requirement is low, they are great tub plants, and all they need is regular pruning to keep in shape. I plan to tip prune them when young to promote bushiness and, as they become mature, give them a hard cut-back in late summer-early autumn to promote the burgundy new growth for winter color.

And if we get any more wet and windy weather this season I’m confident my fiery-flowering little ‘Fijis’ will be able to handle it.

Herbs, health and hot tips

A fine pot of mint

A fine pot of mint

A collection of newly-potted herbs on a sunny patio

A collection of newly-potted herbs on a sunny patio

There was a girl once who put her faithless lover’s head in a pot and grew basil from it. That’s according to Keats, anyway. Obviously she had relationship problems and no gardening writer of good repute would recommend so drastic a horticultural practice!.
All the same, growing herbs does make even the saddest and dreariest life better
You don’t have to be a New Age back-to-the-earth type to benefit from this life enhancing experience and you don’t need a lot of land either. If you live in an apartment in New York, or Sydney, or London, or Hong Kong, you can still put a bigger buzz into your life by growing at least one herb in a pot. Pot plants are good therapy and a lot less messy and troublesome than pets. Think a pot of thyme can’t love you back? You’ll never know unless you try it.
As a gardening writer who has been growing herbs for decades I actually recommend using pots and containers because this way you can better control them. Most common culinary herbs (the only type I bother to grow) are very easy to cultivate but they do have their funny little ways. Pot culture means you can give them just the right amount of sun and shade, food and water, protection from bad weather and badder insect pests.
So here are my Ten Top Tips for growing herbs in pots – trust me, you’ll find this a very life-enhancing experience.
1. Grow only those herbs you actually enjoy using to flavor your food. Otherwise it’s a waste of time and effort.
2. Choose those that suit your climate. There are few places on earth where ALL the common culinary herbs can be grown year round (unless you have a heated greenhouse). Most herbs can be grown in summer wherever you live; only in warm temperate to tropical climates can you grow most herbs in winter, though it’s possible to cultivate thyme and rosemary in a sunny spot in a heated apartment as long as the heating is never switched off!
3. Pick a sunny spot. Most herbs thrive only in full sun for at least six hours a day. A windowsill facing the sunniest aspect will do fine.
4. Plant in a good potting mix – this will nourish your herb nicely for most of its life whereas a cheap mix will become hard and claggy and either not drain well or become water-repellent.
5. Water regularly but not too much – herbs don’t like to be permanently drenched. If your plant starts dropping leaves or looking sick it needs better drainage so try re-potting. “Crocking” – using broken up pots or large pebbles or small bits of wood at the bottom of your part will improve drainage.
6. Fertilize lightly every couple of weeks with a weak solution of liquid fertilizer. Even if your potting mix already contains (according to the packet) slow-release pellets. I find this latter type of plant food is not really appropriate for herbs grown in pots, but nowadays it’s generally included in the better quality potting mixes anyway.
7. Protect potted herbs from extreme weather such as frost, hot and drying wind, hail or very heavy rain. The beauty of cultivating pot herbs is that they can be moved about to optimize growing conditions.
8. When buying, and unless growing from seed, choose plants that look fresh and healthy in the pot; avoid anything that looks too straggling and has obviously been there so long it’s starting to outgrow its container. I grow my herbs from seed but if you are buying seedlings you get better value from those in punnets of (say) four to six little plants, to be potted on, than larger single specimens in one pot.
9. If you are harvesting your herbs regularly you won’t need to cut them back – just make sure they don’t get too tall or straggly as they will lose vigour and flavor. Trim regularly for longer and better growth.
10. Don’t try hanging on to a herb past its use-by date – unlike diamonds, herbs are NOT forever! Annuals need to be replaced once they have flowered and begun to “bolt”. Perennials become straggly – repot them once a year and give them a good trim back but when they are obviously past their best, chuck ‘em out. After all, herbs are cheap!

And if there’s anything else you want to know about growing herbs, look for updates on this website or buy my lovely, cheap and very informative book on the subject at


Ten New Year’s Resolutions for Gardeners

Well, he’s not Richard Armitage but my Bob is still my favourite gardener!







It’s that time of year again, when wise gardeners review all the mistakes they’ve made in the past year and make strong resolutions for what they’ll do better next year.  Here are my ten resolutions for 2013 and I advise fellow-gardeners to take heed of them.

  1.  I will make a monthly budget for buying plants and garden tools and STICK TO IT.
  2. I will send in my catalogue bulb orders in time for the planting season and not frantically shove them into the ground long after the due date and then wonder why half of them don’t come up.
  3. I will buy only those plants that suit my climate, my garden and my lifestyle.  This means not being seduced by the latest award-winning rose that flaunts a demonic rash of black spot at the least hint of humidity and needs two full-time gardeners to minister to its finicky needs. (Though if Santa had granted my Christmas wish and brought me a gardener who looks like Richard Armitage I’d cheerfully suffer the black spot and a lot else besides!)
  4.  I will (cheerfully) do my exercise routine every morning so my ageing body doesn’ t succumb to gardener’s lumbago.  Exercise is a lot cheaper than a hip replacement.
  5. I will wear my knee-pads when weeding and planting.  Knee pads are a lot cheaper than a knee replacement.
  6. I will make my own compost and it will be perfect – crumbly in texture and sweet to smell, rather than a sloppy, stinking sludge.
  7. I will re-design all the areas of the garden that don’t work well.  I will put this down on paper and not just keep it in my head.  I will also ruthlessly chop out and throw out all those plants that are old and tatty and beyond rejuvenation, or just in the wrong place, but  for which I have developed a ridiculously sentimental attachment.
  8. All my new plantings will be in perfect taste and harmony, with careful selection as to colour, texture, height and width.  I will NOT buy plants just because I fall in love with them, or because my friend Maureen has one in her garden, or because they are cheap.
  9. I will not use any pesticides or weedicides, however tempting it is to kill things by squirting them with stuff out of cans and bottles.  I will instead use tried and true natural methods (even though they take hours and hours and don’t work anyway and I say this every year but run out of time and patience and all my plants get eaten and rampant giant man-eating weed aliens from distant planets invade the garden and…)
  10. By this time next year I will have the best garden in the street.  If not in the neighbourhood.  Possibly in the whole suburb.  Or even the town. Or the state….or the country…or the universe…of course I’m dreaming!

But that’s what New Year’s Resolutions are all about.  Dreams that just MAY come true.

So Happy New Year to you all.

Shady lady

Plectranthus 'Mona Lavender'

Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ growing in the shade of a large coral tree (Erythrina sp.)

Mona Lavender2

Close up of ‘Mona’s’ dainty mauve tubular flowers which appear in profusion in summer













One of the loveliest plants for a shady spot in a warm climate garden is the plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’.

This is one of the South African plectranthus bred from crossing P. saccatus with P. hilliardiae and the genetic combination gives ‘Mona’ some strong landscaping virtues lacking in others in the genus.

For one thing, this plant thrives in quite deep shade though it flowers better in the lighter shade of overhead foliage.  This makes it a good plant for growing around the base of trees – in my garden it flourishes in the shade of a large coral tree.  As the coral tree is deciduous for about two – three months in late winter the plectranthus, planted among begonias, cordylines and bromeliads, gets quite a bit of sun at the period when it is initiating flower buds.  Then, when the tree is lush again with quite a dense canopy of triangular leaves, the flowers appear in profusion.   In a sunnier position it will grow lower and tighter but plants will wither in hot afternoon summer sun unless given a watering at that time.

Each tubular flower is a deep mauve-blue with tiny delicate markings on the outer lip of the calyx.  When several bushes are massed in the landscape they form a long, sinuous  lavender-coloured cloud exactly at that height where so few other things flower.

Plectranthus are related to mints and the leaves are typically “mintlike”; a soft and bright green, hairy on both surfaces and with the underleaf coloured a deep, reddish-rich purple.  When windblown, the effect is quite dramatic, especially when the plant is in full flower.

‘Mona Lavender’ grows to about 70 cm (27 – 29 inches) and is quite bushy, with a naturally rounded shape.  I trim mine after flowering and tip prune in autumn to promote a low, well-shaped bush.  When it flowers, it puts out long, new spikes and I let these stretch to their full glory, with just a tiny bit of picking and pruning to keep them from getting too straggly.

Conventional wisdom says that  ‘Mona’  likes a humus-rich soil and plenty of water – and so it does.  However where I live, on a sub-tropical mountain at a bit over 600 m (2000 feet) with basalt soil I find it pays best to give the girl a bit of rough treatment.  I mulch the bed around the tree in which she grows, never give her much water in winter, and never treat her to a dose of artificial fertilizer at all.

After all, pretty girl though she is, and highly-bred, ‘Mona Lavender’ is still a plectranthus and, like all her kind, will do quite well in light, rocky soil without too much artificial watering.  In the wild,  Australian plectranthus (of which there are several species) are found mostly in rocky soils in areas where they get heavy summer rain and very little or none at all in late winter and spring.  The one thing this plant DOESN’T like is overwatering and poorly-drained soil.

So, in summary, plant ‘Mona’ in a well-drained bed of sandy, loamy soil, mulch it regularly, add compost if it’s the kind of soil that depletes easily, water well in summer when it isn’t raining, water sparingly in the dry season, and give at least one good trim after flowering each year.  This is a plant for the sub-tropics, dry-tropics and shady gardens in arid areas where plenty of water is available.  It will do well in sheltered warm temperate gardens too, in the ground or in pots that can be moved into warmer spots in winter.  In my garden it survives zero temperatures, being protected from frost by taller plants.

And if you’ve got one of those shady spots in the garden that’s hard to fill with colour, or a place which gets sun for only half the day,  plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ is a good choice.  It makes a pretty pot plant, too, requiring minimal care.

Landscaping tips:

Plant ‘Mona’ in a row or mass behind a low-growing white plant such as alyssum for a soft, cool effect.

Lavender plants get leggy in summer and flower poorly, especially old plants.  Replace them with ‘Mona’, in ground or in the pot.

Use for borders, mixed beds and warm-climate cottage garden effects.

A Gardener’s Christmas Wish

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Santa baby,
Here’s my Christmas wish-list.  I’ve been an AWFULLY good girl this year so DON’T HOLD BACK.

A gold-plated trowel with a diamond-encrusted handle – only joking but I WOULD like a new  trowel with matching fork, in designer colours, not because I really need one but because I want to look as good when I’m weeding as Maureen next door.

Ditto new gloves and gardening apron.  Not just the usual tacky old stuff from Bunnings that my husband always buys me, but

something from an upmarket gardening shop.

A new, big compost bin that really works.  I’m sick of forking it over in my old plank-and-netting two bin system.  Perhaps in a

designer colour rather than basic black.

A selection of roses that are really and truly and honestly resistant to black spot and aphids.

A gardener who looks like George Clooney – well, maybe a little younger than George.  Maybe Richard Armitage.

A hose that doesn’t kink, on a reel that doesn’t give me a hernia when I try to wind it up.

One of those exquisitely elegant Dean Durrant water features,  teamed with something new and exciting in garden statuary that isn’t either fake Italian classical shit or Balinese.

A new pair of knees – titanium would be good.

A pair of self-sharpening secateurs

An endless credit card so I can buy as many plants as I want (I say this every year and never get it – but I buy ‘em anyway!)

So that’s it Santa honey.  All pretty simple really.  Just get out that sleigh and whip up those reindeer and get shopping.  You know my address and yes, I’ve got the milk and cookies waiting.  And I’ll be wearing that sexy red and white thong you bought me last year…
Santa cutie, hurry down the chimney tonight…oh bugger, we don’t have a chimney.  Never mind, I’ll leave the back door open…
( And you might like to check out this great YouTube video – Eartha Kitt with Friends singing “Santa Baby”)

Spring fire

Flame tree just coming into flower

The flame tree (Brachychiton acerifolius) is a spectacular tree for the warm-climate home garden, flaunting its vivid scarlet blossoms throughout late spring and early summer.  If you’d like to know more about this lovely tree and how to grow it you’ll find all the information you need at our sister site

Juvenile leaves – on a mature trees the leaves are not deeply lobed