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.

Cold comfort for tropical foliage

Tropical foliage plants can catch cold!  Truly!  Though most of the plants that fall into this category originate in the true tropics where days are hot and humid and night temperatures don’t drop very low at any time of year, these plants are nowadays grown in a wider temperature range from the sub-tropics to sheltered warm-temperate gardens where there is a decided “down” season when temperatures drop.  In the southern hemisphere that may coincide with the “winter” dry season where special care is needed.

What’s more, though plants such as bromeliads and many orchids come from the tropic latitudes, they occur naturally at high altitudes where lower temperatures occur and constant cloud cover prevents sun warmth getting through.  So they can tolerate – indeed may well require – quite low temperatures at times.

So unless you lived on a tropic beach with very little climate variation all year round, read on!

The two conditions which can send tropical foliage plants – or tropical flowering plants for that matter – into oblivion are cold and drought.  As most warm climates have a season in which little or no rain falls (for example tropical northern Australia, parts of Central and northern South America, India and Africa) and where temperatures are low at night, some tropical foliage plants have developed strategies to deal with this – they go to ground.  Caladiums and tropical gingers both do this.  In fact many popular tropical foliage “indoor” plants have a dormancy period when neither, new stems, leaves or flowers are produced.  Spathiphyllums, anthuriums and calatheas do this – and so, among the flowering plants, do orchids.  This is vital to their life-cycle.

Anthuriums are very susceptible to cold and have a cool-season dormancy period

This “down” period renders the plant very vulnerable, especially where there is a marked change between summer and winter, high rainfall and low rainfall.  The two important considerations here are COLD and MOISTURE.


Isolated plants are lonely plants and, just as humans can survive cold by huddling together and using their combined body temperatures to create and share warmth, so can plants.  This is especially true of all those plants that we categorise as “tropical foliage” – the spathiphyllums, pileas, aspidistras, calatheas, marantas and others (for a full list go to  www.wix.com/jrlakemedia/ezibooks )- which come from crowded jungles.  If you are growing these plants in pots you can bring them indoors for the cool season.  If you are growing them in the garden then they must be massed together so temperature and moisture levels can be maintained at a higher level than the surrounding air.  This massed planting also helps keep the soil warm and moist.

Shade from palms and other trees will protect your tropical foliage plants from frost danger and wind exposure.  However morning sun is beneficial in cooler weather so create (or recreate)your planting scheme so that it faces the sunrise.  In sub-tropical and warm-temperate gardens use palms and briefly deciduous trees such as coral trees (erythrinas) and tabebuias as the overhead cover.  These will allow sufficient sunlight to filter through to the plants below in the cool season. DON’T plant your tropical foliage garden where it has no shelter from chill cool-season winds and exposure.

Cold, wet ground is the main killer of tropical foliage plants.  If these conditions are prolonged they will just curl up their leaves and die.  Root-rot fungal diseases thrive when soil is wet and cold and poorly drained. An early warning sign is moss growing on top of the hard-packed ground.  I have a corner of my garden that has heavy, poorly-drained soil that gets very soggy in winter when the sun only gets to it for an hour or so a day.  This combination is fatal to plants like cordylines and crotons and I’ve lost a few.  I now mulch, mulch, mulch to improve the soil and have dug a drain to channel excess water away from the planted area.

The other tropical plant assassins are, of course, frost or hail.  I get both where I live.  If you have sufficient overhead cover light frost shouldn’t be a problem; if on a frosty morning you notice some plants are affected hose them down quickly – though you probably won’t be able to save them. If you live where regular, severe frosts occur then you shouldn’t be growing these plants anyway! Hail shreds the leaves of fleshy foliage plants and there’s not much you can do about it except trim them back so new growth is encouraged – this being a plant’s natural response to disaster.  More dangerous is hail bruising of plant stems which can cause deep cell damage and leave the plant susceptible to fungal attack.  The same result will happen if the ice remains for any time piled up against the stem.  So after a hail storm push back the hailstones as fast as possible and water down the leaves and stems.  As with frost, an overhead canopy will protect plants below from the worst of a hailstorm.  Of course, hail is usually (but not always) a spring, summer or even autumn problem but I thought I’d include it here because it comes under the “cold” category as far as tender plants are concerned.

If you live in a sub-tropical, warm-temperate or fairly arid area some plants can give you a tropical appearance while still being able to take greater extremes of cold and low rainfall; they include:







Philodendron (several types)





Don’t, don’t, DON’T over-water tropical foliage plants in the cool-season because few of them make any growth at this time and they can’t use the water – worse,  too much of it will cause root rot.  Yes, I know these are plants from high rainfall areas that thrive on heat and moisture and our instincts tell us to keep them soaked when the rain isn’t falling.  But nature gives them heavy monsoonal drenching alternating with dry periods, or in some equatorial areas a nightly drenching and a daily dry-out.  But they are not programmed to be waterlogged all the time.  So the only time you need to provide them with water is in prolonged dry periods, especially if it’s windy.  In such cases a light, misting spray twice a week is quite enough.

Caladiums need a lot of water in summer but die back and go underground in the cool season

Finally, DON’T fertilize your tropical foliage plants in winter (and that goes for those grown indoors as “house” plants, too!).  They won’t be able to make use of the extra nutrients anyway.  Save your efforts until late spring or just before the monsoon, depending on where you live,then give them a good dressing of blood-and-bone or chicken-poo pellets or well-made compost.

So that’s all there is to it.  When it comes to getting your tropical foliage plants through the cool-season dormancy period, keep ‘em warm and keep ‘em dry.  Bit like babies, really!

(And if you want to know more about growing these plants of creating a Tropical Foliage Garden you might like to look at my book on the subject, only $4.95 as an e-reader or PC download from Amazon, see the GardenEzi  website at www.wix.com/jrlakemedia/ezibooks )

Fall fascination in the garden

It’s back to work, back to school – and back to getting the garden in shape for winter.

But before we clip and snip and get things bedded down we ought to be making the most of fall, while the last of the warm days are with us.  Too often, gardens in this ‘twixt and ‘tween period look dreary and neglected.  It’s okay if you live in Maine or Vermont or some place where the trees turn to flame.  But if you live (as I do) where the winters are mild and the leaves don’t fall at all or, if they do, put on a less spectacular fall show then you need to think about putting some zap into your garden right around now.

First let’s consider the obvious candidates – the small (comparatively!) Japanese maples, the Acer palmatum with their dainty fairy-fingered leaves that turn on a spectacular red and gold show.  Most gardens have room for at least one of these and they can be grown in all zones except the tropics.

Then of course there are the barberries and these make a very solid mass of spectacular color in the shrubbery, though single accent specimens look good too. In a small garden it might be best to stick to one varietal color but if you’ve got plenty of room try a range of the different leaf shades available today – when it comes to small stuff nothing beats a barberry for fiery fall fascination.

Except, perhaps, the “burning bush”, Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ which actually grows to about 10 feet and is so fiery red it almost hurts the eye. This gorgeous shrub can be pruned to keep it compact.

Other shrubs or small trees which provide the foundation for an awesome autumn every year in your garden include blueberries (there are different types for northern and southern gardens so select those that suit your zone), native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana for cooler zones to Zone 9), smoke bush (Cotinus species) and the spectacular dogwoods with their scarlet to crimson-purple leaves and red stems that make the garden glow long after the leaves have fallen.  I like the variety ‘Arctic Fire’ (C. stolinifera), which doesn’t exceed 4 feet in height.  There are few things more splendid than dogwood stems against a blue late fall or winter sky. For warmer climates, pomegranates; both the fruiting and purely ornamental types put on a surprisingly attractive show.

While we tend to focus on reds and yellows, bronzes and coppers for this time of year, too much of all those flamboyant shades can be a bit overwhelming.  I like to break it up with some cooler contrast – Artemesia ‘Silver King’ is an excellent plant for this, as are the many varieties of euonymus with variegated leaf patterns that seem to sparkle in the chilling air of autumn – Sparkle ‘n Gold and Frosty Pearl are two varieties which will lighten up your garden well into winter.

To me, every garden is a theatrical stage in which the show is ever changing.  All the plants mentioned so far provide a backdrop, and perhaps a featured player here and there.  Now we want to bring the foreground to life with fuss-free foliage plants such as ornamental grasses and phormiums (New Zealand Flax) which go wonderfully with euonymus and come in the same wide array of subtle colors – pink and bronze, green and yellow, copper and gold.

All this will give you a spectacular fall garden even if you live in the south. And the overall concept is adaptable to any size garden – if you have only a small plot then try just one of each; a small tree, a tall shrub, a foreground foliage plant, using rocks and ornamental pebbles in the open space between them, if you don’t have room for grass.  If you have a large garden then you can create a mass effect; trees at the back, then banks of colourful shrubs, then ornamental grasses and other small plants in the foreground, set off with an expanse of lawn.

Of course, you can add flowers to this scene if you wish.  Asters and sedums such as ‘Autumn Joy’ (both great for rockeries), heleniums, nasturtiums, celosia, chrysanthemums and coreopsis are all good flowers for autumn – and when they fade and drop as the weather grows ever more chill you are still left with a palette of vivid color that will gladden your heart every time you look out of the window.

A Garden in Africa

My book, A Garden in Africa has proved particularly, though not surprisingly, popular with those who still remember Kenya when it was a British colony.  I’ve decided to publish excerpts from it on my blog from time to time, especially for those who don’t yet possess Kindle e-readers.  It tells the story of an extraordinary garden – and the extraordinary woman who created it.  I wrote it for the pleasure of those anywhere in the world who love gardens – and who love Africa.  The following excerpt might be of interest to gardeners who complain about their struggles with slug  Here goes:

One of the things Flora had learned from her trip to Europe was that the sort of garden she wanted could only be achieved with a proper design.  The plan was drawn up by Alex who was obviously skilled at draftsmanship because he had made a similar, very detailed and beautifully drawn design for the farm.  I remember seeing this up on the wall in my grandmother’s office, back in the sixties but I can’t find either plan among her possessions now.  However Flora’s sketches on which the finished garden plan was based do still exist and, though rough, they tell the story well enough.  At this stage Flora was strongly influenced by the English landscape style and wanted what Edward Hyams called a “paradise” garden, where art imitates nature – but artfully.  Her first move was to alter the perfect circles of the rose beds to a more natural, free-flowing shape and this was extended to a new herbaceous border running from the eastern end of the house in a southwards direction to the edge of the drop.  Now she turned her attention to the drop itself, and to the gully at one side.  There was a reason for this; gardens are usually developed outwards from the house but Flora had decided to rebuild, in a position close to the existing house but slightly higher up and further back, to allow a greater expanse of garden at the front.

A new house was long overdue; the old one was only ever intended to be a temporary shelter and she had lived in it for fourteen years.  The roof leaked, the beams were rotting, the outside walls were full of cracks, the interior walls so dilapidated that animal hides were hung everywhere to cover the holes.  The divorce settlement had given her sole ownership and possession of the farm; she had been prepared to fight for this but my grandfather apparently had shown no interest in keeping it anyway.  His new wife, American by birth, had acres to spare, in various parts of the world. So no doubt he was happy to be rid of what he had come to see as a lost cause, consuming all and returning little.  Beyond the farm Flora had little money and a considerable debt.  My grandfather made no effort to support his children, nor did he keep in touch with them.  “I expect he wanted to,” my mother said to me once, “But she would have stopped it.”

There is no doubt that Flora was very bitter against her husband and could never in later years bear to talk about him, or have him talked about in front of her.  It’s even possible she would have discouraged contact, if the need had arisen. But my grandfather had never shown much interest in his children and had left them apparently without a backward look, going from England to America without even, according to Aunt Betta, bothering to tell his parents what he was doing.  My Uncle Claudio now wrote and said that under the new regime in Italy my grandfather’s ancestral holding had been ordered sold for unpaid taxes. The family had decided that his rights to further inheritance would be passed over to his children, and that in the meantime a sum would be sent to my grandmother, sufficient for her to build a house and pay for the children’s schooling.

The house that Flora built with part of this money was not large by Kenya standards but she planned it from the start to be expanded as necessary, or when she could afford it. She preferred to bank the rest of the money as a nest egg for herself and the children; “cut your coat according to your cloth” was one of her favourite sayings in later life and she now put it into practice. “A few rooms but with lots of space,” she wrote in her diary and accordingly built a single storey home of grey stone, with a sitting room forty feet long, a dining room half that size, a large kitchen, pantry and scullery, two bathrooms and indoor lavatories (though “Beverley Nichols” was kept in use), four bedrooms and a small office or study.  The two rondavels used as living quarters by Alex were renovated and a new rondavel was built as temporary accommodation for visitors, until the house could be expanded.  The house’s best feature was the verandah which ran round three sides of the house; it was ten feet wide and supported on thick, square stone pillars. The verandah made the rooms inside rather dark but as most of the living was done within its spacious embrace, this didn’t matter.  And in those days before air conditioning cool, dark rooms were a welcome retreat from the African sun.  From the verandah,  sprawled in a hammock or on one of the vast, overstuffed sofas, you could look across the expanse of the garden to the plains that ran south to the Tanganyika border, with Kilimanjaro, which we called “Kili” and the Africans called simply “Njaro” gracing the horizon on a good day.

Most of the furniture for the new house came from the second hand sale rooms in Nairobi and these fitted in agreeably with good pieces that Flora had bought from England in her trousseau.  There was also a pair of exquisitely inlaid cabinets which had come from Italy and a carved Lamu chest that Lady J had given her.  Though a good housekeeper and clean to a fault, Flora was not much interested in interior decoration or the amassing of costly bric a brac nor were the meals served at her table notable for style or imagination.  She had a good cook in Mumbule who knew how to serve up simple dishes well prepared, such as soups, roasts and curries.  Beyond that he never ventured and Flora didn’t expect him to; she was never very interested in food herself and tended to snack between meals and then pick at the table.  Visitors seemed to enjoy the house’s unpretentious comforts and feel at home there; the only person I ever knew to dislike it was my mother.

Once the house was finished, Flora was able to concentrate on the garden. Directly in front of the verandah, and at a slightly lower level, was the area where the old house had stood. This was now turned into an herb garden so that the fragrance of it, changing subtly throughout the year, would flow into the house.  It made lying about on the verandah doubly delightful, and I spent a lot of time there as a child.  Today, when I smell basil or oregano or sage it takes me straight back there and I find myself sniffing for the dust-dry smoky dung scent of Africa behind it.

Flora’s interpretation of an herb garden was rather loose and the plantings included foxgloves, gerberas, stocks, snapdragons, a few roses grown for scent rather than appearance, a few bulbs in season and odd plants that she considered too delicate or otherwise unsuitable for the main garden.  The design was traditional, with small stone paths (the same stone that had been used for the house) radiating out from a central circle, complete with sundial.  The sundial was in alignment with the main verandah steps, so that you walked off the verandah and through the herb garden to the main garden beyond.  Though it worked well aesthetically, and the low-growing nature of the plants meant they didn’t block the view, there was a practical reason for placing the herb garden right at the front of the house.  Its contents were so tempting to such an array of creatures that Flora wanted it as close as possible, where the dogs could guard it and human presence deter marauders.  Nonetheless, it had to be enclosed.  A stone wall three feet high was built on either side, out from the verandah, and these were joined in the front by a picket fence with pointed palings.  The palings actually served as stakes and were quite sharp.  As an extra precaution, a hedge of thorny, bright-berried pyracantha was planted outside the walls and in front of the fence, on the outward side, where it was clipped short so that it didn’t block the view.  A gate was set into the fence with an archway over it, covered in a white banksia rose which most things found unpalatable and the duiker and dik dik couldn’t reach.

The herb garden was not completely unassailable behind its barricades.  The dogs could not be left out at night because of leopard, and duiker sometimes managed to scramble over the wall.  They are dainty feeders and mightn’t have done much damage, but once detected by dogs or humans they would panic and dash about seeking escape, their sharp little hooves scything through tender stems.  Once a whole herd of impala, on its way from the higher country behind the farm down to the plain, leapt with casual grace over fence and wall and within a short time reduced the herb garden to mulch.

As Flora was to say years later, when being interviewed by an English gardening writer: “Gardeners in Africa become philosophical about such set-backs and take them in their stride.  After all, a herd of impala is a beautiful sight and what gardener would not be thankful for it, even though it comes at a high price.”

Beyond the herb garden the main garden remained much as before, with lawn bounded on two sides by herbaceous borders.  This section was protected on the outside by plantings of the fast-growing bamboo Bambusa oldhamii which had formed an impenetrable screen and windbreak, with a wire fence behind it as a further deterrent.  Elephant would have easily smashed through this barrier but they very rarely strayed on to the farm and were found only in the low country at the further end of it.  Rhino, which ten years before had been a considerable nuisance even close to the house, and had devastated the early attempts at vegetable growing, were now much less numerous and stayed further back in the bush, away from habitation.  Once, though, a more venturesome rhino did come crashing through the bamboo screen and galloped around the garden, pursued by the hysterical dogs. It dug up the lawn and sent great gouts of turf flying, and what it did to the herbaceous borders came near to breaking Flora’s heart.  It must have been quite a scene; a maddened rhino charging everything in sight, the dogs dodging around it, the servants trying to scare it away by banging on kettles and trays, shouting their heads off but keeping a safe distance.  At one stage it came right through the herb garden fence and up to the steps of the house, but Flora threw a stool at it, startling it enough to turn and gallop back to the main garden where it stood at the top of the bank, huffing and lowering its head.    By this time Flora thought it might have to be shot, before it did serious damage and perhaps charge round to the back of the house, to the yards, where there were horses and chickens and children. But she was neither strong enough nor expert enough to handle the heavy rifle, none of the house servants could shoot at all and Alex was somewhere out on the farm.  Instead she called the dogs and the servants into the house and there they stayed, hoping that the rhino might calm down and go away.

Author in farm garden with a honey badger – another garden pest!

When Alex came back at dusk, four hours later, it was still there, but lying down.  They left it there overnight and in the morning it was dead, vultures already circling overhead.  When Alex and them men cut it open they found its intestines riddles with parasites as well as a festering wound in one groin.

“A. says that’s probably why it was eating the bamboo,”Flora noted in her diary.  “It’s a funny thing but I felt quite sad to see it lying there, even though it did so much damage.  It must have been suffering terribly.”  At least the dying rhino had left a bonus; great piles of manure which could be used on the roses.

Rhinos on the rampage weren’t the only wildlife problem Flora had to deal with.  Lion had always been very plentiful at Matu Maini, with at least two large prides claiming it as their territory.  Flora had always been rather proud of her lion but now that so much of the farm was under cultivation and cattle, much of the grazing game – the zebra and the antelope, the wildebeest and the kongoni – had been driven away.  This meant the lion had to go further afield to hunt, so they turned their attention to the cattle.  No thorn fence, however high or thick, can keep out a determined lion, which meant that the herdsman had to be particularly vigilant – and courageous.  In the early 1930s one of the herd boys was killed and another badly mauled.  There were also a few instances of lions turning man-eater and killing people in the nearby Kamba reserve. Several times Flora had to call John Hunter to come and shoot troublesome lion, but she hated doing so and would take no part in the hunts herself.  Killing is part of life in Africa and she had been there long enough to accept it, but she could never take pleasure in doing it for sport.  This feeling was shared by Alex who, unusually for a farm manager and a man of his background, refused to kill anything unless it was to protect people or the livestock in his charge.  Even then, like Flora, he prepared to get the game department to do it, or friends like Harold Hill, Phillip Percival or John Hunter who could be relied on to do a professional job, without causing unnecessary suffering.  This was not a common view in Kenya at the time, when the big game safari had become a status symbol for the rich.  Flora was often invited to join these safaris, but she never did.

“I like live animals, not dead ones!” was her stock reply and some people were affronted when she said it to Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway came briefly to the farm with Phillip Percival who was taking the Great Writer on safari.  He showed no interest in the garden, which by then had becoming something she liked to show off, though his then wife Pauline enthused over the view.  When they met again, Flora found that Hemingway’s voice and opinions grated on her nerves and she disliked the way he propounded blood sports as an exaltation of manhood.  “There’s no heart in what he wrote,” she told me, when speaking of their meeting.  “You can tell he really hated women and didn’t understand them at all.” She classed his work with that of her other literary bete noir Karen Blixen – insubstantial and too self-consciously clever by half.  Theodore Dreiser and Arnold Bennett were, to her, far better writers than Hemingway, though her literary affections still lay in the past century, with Dickens and Trollope.  Mind you, when I read Hemingway today I can see she was right about one thing, he did hate women.

Hyena were another common problem on the farm and no night went by that you couldn’t hear them whooping around the sheds and yards, hoping to find a stray animal that had been overlooked when the herdsmen locked them in for the night.  They took to hanging around the dairy when the evening milking was taking place, ready to snatch a calf or rip the udders from a cow.  Though they could have ripped us to pieces just as easily, we didn’t treat them with much respect, convinced by the common belief that they were cowards.  It depends how you judge courage; one of my childhood tasks was to go out at night and chase the hyena away from the bins where the household rubbish was stored.  I would rush at them, waving a stick, and they always ran, with that ugly lope that reminds me of Charles Laughton’s hunchback.  Yet I have seen a hyena bite off its own leg to escape a trap, as foxes are said to do.  Hyena were not as much of a problem with the chickens as jackals were, because of their size which prevented them squeezing through the wire mesh, but they would attack just about everything else and once killed a bloodstock foal, out in the paddock not far from the house. Flora’s reluctance to kill wildlife didn’t extend to hyena; like most people she disliked them and put down poison bait without a qualm.

Leopard and baboon lived in the rocky heights of the hill behind the house.  This hill was typical of the country, rising like a pimple from the skin of the plain, its gentle grade suddenly steepening towards the top.  The lower slopes of the hill were cultivated but beyond the halfway line it was just grass, quite long after the wet season but otherwise grazed short.  Small, sparse-leaved bushes grew there, and whistling thorn.  Hyrax lived among the lower rocks and if you walked or rode up there you could sit in the sun and watch them.  I thought they would make good pets, but was never fast enough to catch one, nor able to persuade anyone else to catch one for me.  We kept an eye out for leopard and sometimes saw one sitting on a rock, looking half-asleep but ready to move if we got too close.  The hill was also home to a troop of baboons whose sleeping cave was tucked away at the end of a crumbling ledge.  In the evenings the adults would herd the families along the ledge, on all fours or swinging dangerously above the chasm on the branches of fragile shrubs growing horizontally out of the rock.  The big dog baboons would go last, looking back frequently over their shoulders to check on any possible pursuit. From time to time they would make forays into the orchard and vegetable garden, and a few of them would be shot to frighten the rest away.  Eventually there were just too many people around for them to venture close to the farm, though old men with older guns had to be employed to guard the maize crop when it began to ripen, even when I was a girl.  One of the thrills of my childhood was to lie in bed at my grandmother’s and listen for a leopard to come down the hill.  You always knew when it was on the move because the baboon sentries would begin to bark, and you could follow the leopard’s progress by the continuous barking that did not stop until the baboons considered themselves out of danger.

Flora loved lion and developed a great rapport with them but she was never so keen on leopard.  She thought them beautiful but sly and could never forgive their appetite for dogs; almost every dog she ever owned was taken by leopard in the end.  In the diary for 1934 Flora wrote about her feeling for lion vis a vis leopard.  During these years she wrote many such fragments, which read as if she might have been thinking of putting them into a book, or an article.  Or perhaps a letter to somebody.  I particularly liked this one:

“Africans greatly fear and respect Leopards.  Far more so than Lions, though Leopards never go hunting men (unless being hunted themselves) as lions sometimes do.  But Lions are everyday creatures, often seen in full daylight, appearing lounging and lazy unless actually hunting.  Whereas Leopards are creatures of the night, secretive and rarely seen, even their call no more than a discreet cough that seems to warn, “I am passing, perhaps it is best we don’t meet’.  Quite unlike the Lion’s bold, self-advertising roar.”