Tag Archive | garden

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.

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.

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.


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.

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


What always looks gorgeous without any effort?  An Australian garden tree, that’s what!

Any tree in the home garden needs to be small and well-behaved, unless you have at least half an acre.  Australia, land of mighty gum trees and giant rainforest species, surprisingly produces many beautiful small trees that are perfect for home gardens all around the world because they tolerate a range of conditions.

These trees also bear splendidly large and colorful flowers.  I’ve grown most of them over the years and here is my Top Ten selection –  chosen for their beauty, toughness and good garden behavior.

Ivory Curl

Ivory Curl (Buckinghamia celsissima) – a wonderful home garden tree that can grow to 8 – 10 metres but takes many years to get that big.  Grows well (but more slowly) in poor soils and tolerates light frosts and temperatures down to zero (Celsius)/32 °F for short periods once established.  Tolerant of heavy rain and long dry periods. Cut back after flowering to maintain good shape.


Callistemon  (Melaleuca viminalis) –  The prettiest of the callistemons because of its willow-like dropping branches and generous flowering for much of the year.  Tolerates most conditions from water-logging to drought.  Comes in various shades of red and pink as well as cream.  Don’t prune except to get rid of untidy branches.

Golden Penda

Golden Penda (Xanthostemon chrysanthus) – A tropical tree which will tolerate light frost and short periods of temperatures down to zero (Celsius)/32 °F.  Likes plenty of water in summer but will tolerate long, dry periods in winter and spring.  Attractive foliage and) shape year round as well as big, fluffy yellow flowers.

Corymbia “Summer Red”

Flowering gum – The hybrid cultivars Corymbia “Summer Red” and “Summer Beauty” are the best for home gardens because of their small size and large, gorgeous, bird-attracting red or pink flowers.  They tolerate most conditions from zero (Celsius)/32 °F temperatures for short periods to prolonged heavy rainfall and drought.

Blueberry Ash “Prima Donna”

Blueberry ash (Elaeocarpus reticulatus) – A very tough small tree or large shrub which bears masses of tiny fringed pink or white flowers, like ballerina skirts or lampshades. The pink-flowering “Prima Donna” is best-known to gardeners.  Can grow to 15m but is best if kept cut back to maintain density.  Tolerates most conditions except extreme cold, heat or aridity.

Lemon Myrtle

Lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) – My signature plant – a small tree or large shrub with fragrant lemon-scented leaves that are marvelous as a food flavoring, especially in Thai dishes.  Makes a good lemonade too, or liqueur.  Bears large heads of creamy flowers.  Can be trained to tree size and shape (with single trunk), and pleaches well.  Needs a warm climate (warm-temperate to tropics) and plenty of water but will tolerate short periods of low temperatures (down to zero Celsius/32 °F), and drought to about 90 days if in good, well-mulched soil.  Prune well after flowering.


Wheel-of-fire (Stenocarpus sinuatus) – Another tough Queensland tree with interesting-shaped leaves, a columnar habit and lovely red flowers that are born well inside the foliage.  Tolerates the same sort of conditions as other trees in this article and is best  tip-pruned regularly when young to make it more bushy and compact.

Australian Flame Tree

Kurrajongs (Brachychiton species). – The gorgeous scarlet-flowered Flame Tree (B. acerifolius) is the best-known of these but grows rather too large for the average garden.  The lesser known B. discolor (pink flowers) and B. bidwillii (crimson) are smaller trees when grown in full sun and regularly pruned to control height and promote bushiness when young.  The latter, in particular, has proved popular in the southern United States.  All are tough trees that will grow in sun or shade but flower best in full sun.

Fruit and flower of Syzygium australe

Lilly pillies (Syzygium australe, smithii,  luehmanni and tierneyanum) – These are marvelous home-garden trees for most climates (except the coldest and driest) because they tolerate such a range of soils and conditions and need little care.  Riberry (S.lueuhmannii) is the most attractive because of its weeping foliage habit – it can grow quite large where underground water is available but is easy to control if regularly pruned when young.  All the garden-friendly lilly pillies have attractive year round foliage, exquisite new growth in shades of pink, bronze and copper (depending on species), delightful flowers and colorful fruit.  They are good hedging trees, too.  In some countries the many varieties of S. australe are subject to psyllid attack that blisters the leaves but doesn’t injure the tree.  If you want an easy-care garden with lots of shrubbery, team these trees with lilly pilly shrubs such as “Cascade” (a hybrid of S. leuhmanni and S.wilsonii) and blue lilly pilly (S.oleosum) which has fragrant leaves.

Australian White Oak

Australian White Oak (Grevillea baileyana) – This is a very handsome small tree for warm temperate to tropical climates.  The large, shiny leaves are lobed when young and have bronze undersides which glow brilliantly when tossed by the wind.  The long white flower spikes are like those of the Ivory Curl Tree.  It grows in most soils and likes regular watering, but will tolerate drought for up to 90 days.

All these trees give of their best when given good drainage, regular watering, moderate pruning for shape and the tender loving care of the home garden.  However, they will do perfectly well without any attention at all once established.  And if you have any questions about one of these lovely trees, contact me through this site or email me at jrlakemedia@iprimus.com.au.

In praise of old Azaleas



Good old favourite Alphonse Anderson


















People often ask me, what are the best azaleas to grow?

I always tell them – go for the oldies!  Because where azaleas are concerned, the oldies really ARE the goodies, if what you want are big, strong, floriferous and reliable plants to fill a space or make a show.

In this regard, the old indica species azaleas such as “Alphonse Anderson”, “Alba Magna” and “Exquisite” still out-perform every other type.  They go on blooming year after year, decade after decade, and all they require is a bit of water in very dry weather, regular mulching with acidic stuff such as leaf mould or straw, and a good cut-back after flowering.

Of course, there are lots of lovely azalea varieties available today in all sorts of colors.  And when it comes to selecting varieties of indica, mollis or kurume much depends on your climate – as a general rule indicas are the best for warmer climates while the deciduous mollis and compact kurumes thrive only in cold or upland climates.  Azaleas have been so hybridized and  genetically mucked about that the range available in a garden centre can be bewildering, unless you have a definite color scheme in mind.

The faithful old tall-growing indicas already mentioned here don’t produce autumn flowers, as do so many of the newer hybrid varieties .  But though they only flower in spring (with occasional  – but rare – spot flowering throughout the year) they do produce a good show for several weeks.  And they are much less prone to petal blight and just plain dropping down dead than the newbies, where breeding seems to be aimed more at bringing out yet another flashy-flowered brief sensation rather than a vigorous plant.