Strikes me as garden variety sweetness

A year ago I wrote here about the attractive traits of gardeners and their wonderful, curious way of viewing the world. They don’t just look at a landscape, and take in the trees, flowers and foliage. They touch, compare, smell and ruminate and can explain what family connection this bush has to others and what-goes-with-this-goes-with-that, kind of thing (like an old Sussan store jingle).

Take a gardener for a walk and she/he will  stop, squat and poke their hands into the dirt, trace the veins of leaves and stroke tree limbs and trunks like they are prized children.

They hold the colourful  back story of many plants  at their fingertips, extrapolating a mere “red bush” into something of breathtaking origin, bizarre blooming or reproductive habit and fascinating medical use. And they nod sympathetically when something in your garden  is failing to thrive; they offer treatment, ponder vexedly and actually fret when a remedy is not immediately apparent or doesn’t work.

It is not faux concern. It really matters to them.

One of the joys of belonging to my garden club is being with a clan of people who can rattle off the Latin and common name of hundreds of plants and lose  hours debating the merits of this shade-loving ground cover over that one, talk loftily about PH levels and  soil acidity, yet kindly praise the humblest and commonest coleus slip or choko,  just because someone has tended and cut it proudly and brought it along. It’s a sweet and and loving adult show-and-tell that is not replicated many other places. They genuinely welcome and encourage newbies with no horticultural snobbery.

And this week, I basked in another lovely aspect of these gardeners.

Beaumontia grandiflora

Beaumontia grandiflora

They pay attention, remember – and follow through.

I only have to mention a cutting I’d love or a shrub or vine I’ve admired  and by the next month’s get together – yes four weeks later – a member will have potted that very plant to give me. When so much of the world seems to have the attention span of a gnat, the thoughtfulness and trouble taken to hear, note, remember and act on what someone else might take as a casual fancy, is truly touching.

I’ve been the recent lucky recipient of both a white and a pink bauhinia, a petrea vine, a speckled aspidistra  and a beaumontia that I had even forgotten I’d coveted. They were quietly

Petrea vine flower

Petrea vine flower

presented to me when I arrived at the meeting this week.

Another member whom I hardly knew, took the trouble to get my phone number from the president to offer me some worms to start my worm farm, after mine had all perished in the heat.

It’s not the gift per se that moves me on such occasions. It’s that they have me in mind and gone out of their way to share.

Sure, many people are thoughtful, kind and generous.  But I believe there’s more of them among gardeners. It may come from a “living in the moment” that gardening demands and so a better mindfulness is at play.

That’s why last year, when I met a woman in her large, beautiful garden adjoining her café (where we had just spent a tidy sum) who wouldn’t allow me even one slip of a common ground cover chrysanthemum pacifica, I was flabbergasted.

The odd noxious weed is inevitable, I guess.

Bauhinia (pink orchid  tree)

Bauhinia (pink orchid tree)

Pink bauhinia bloom

Pink bauhinia bloom

Two more valuable garden lessons this month:  1. cane straw mulch is  a no-no.

I’ve been using it generously for ages and in our long dry spell, was pretty under impressed with its moisture retention properties. Its waxy surface seems to cause  water to run off rather than penetrate and the sugar attract ants and earwigs – that have eaten my seedlings. It also has a wealth of bacteria, and toxic. Pesticide remnants go straight into the bed underneath and it draws nitrogen from the soil. I’m now using lucerne mulch which costs more but is way more nourishing. And have come across a hydromulch cubed product that is packed with microbial goodness to feed the garden and neat and easy to apply  – comes in biscuit-like form to which you just add water. It’s a sideline of a large scale operation made for revegetating roadsides and agricultural land disturbed by mining operations.

Lesson 2: don’t kill all the caterpillars on my pot plants. Many of them are Monarch butterflies in the making.

Monarch butterfly laying eggs

Monarch butterfly laying eggs

Former Gatton olive grower and  farmer Ray Archer has made a butterfly sanctuary at his Bribie Island backyard, cultivating butterfly-attracting plants there with the help of an army of volunteers. And he has urged me to leave the little black specks I’ve been wiping off my ervatamia (moonbeam plant)  and dipladenia leaves, (Monarch butterfly eggs)  and to turn a blind eye to a bit of chewed  foliage, ( “it’s not much to ask, Ray insists)  so the grubs can  hatch, grow and turn into chrysalises and reach their beautiful destiny.

Ervatamia where Monarch caterpillars love to feed

Ervatamia where Monarch caterpillars love to feed

Monarch caterpillar beginning pupation

Monarch caterpillar beginning pupation

And I’ve planted milkweed – the Monarch’s favoured food. Not a pretty plant, but a necessary one if we want to keep butterfly populations healthy.

A sharing lesson for me.




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Fools and other F words

It’s been quiet on the grapevine lately, but not from lack of gardening goss.

See, I started this post some weeks ago thus:

Yesterday, before I went to the beach, I potted fuchsias.

I love the sound of that. Potted fuchsias. The fuchsia part I mean. It’s the shhchhhh sound that pleases me. Kind of like zhooshing, the onamatapaeic word that indicates something is being schmicked up, revitalised, given a style and look that will make people look twice. Fuchsias sure do that. They’re  gorgeous,  but it’s not without trepidation that I venture into the fuchsia  world ….. and I hope it won’t all end in tears.

It’s a relationship littered with F words .

Well there’s been considerably more F words added to the relationship since I wrote that, because in all my excitement with shhchhhh-sounding plants, I splashed out on freesias, too, imagining a splash of delicate colour as the two lots of F girls met and mixed in the beds and baskets I put them.

Freesia alba

Freesia alba

Because not one of them has survived. What in tarnation was this major hardware store’s garden staff doing putting stacks of  pendulous fuchsias and delicate freesias out in prime display to tempt customers in January!

Catching fools like me, of course. In the searing heat, it was probably the dumbest choice and timing I could have made.

And it just goes to show how seductive a pretty face is. When I saw them and fell in love,  I didn’t really stop to think: “hmmm cool climate plant, probably not 39C degrees  material”.  I just lusted after all that pink, crimson, purple and scarlet little teardrop heads, that I imagined bobbing up and down each morning as I greeted them as if to say: “Yes, you are a clever gardener and what a gorgeous choice you’ve made with us.”

The label of the fuchsia hybrid that sucked me in

The label of the fuchsia hybrid that sucked me in

Despite their “heat hardy” label, they all curled up and perished, no matter where I put them and what tendering I did.  Sad, ugly brown leaves and dead stems mocked all my dreams.

I learnt, too late, that August is the time to plant out freesias and fuchsias here in the sub tropics – if you have the patience for them. ( And I’m not sure I will.)

I lay bare this episode of gardening stupidity because ( misguided) friends who think I’m an expert with plants, say they don’t bother with gardening because it’s just all too hard; that  I am so much more informed and adept, I could never understand their level of incompetence and lack of confidence at it.

Well, hello. Fess up time.

I have made  and am still making all manner of big boo-boos in the garden. It would take more space and time than I have here to list them all, but for starters:

I have killed all the azaleas but one that  were a transplanted gift from a friend’s garden

I cannot grow hibiscus without them succumbing to every grub known to mankind

“Easy to care for” Camelia japonicas hate me and refuse to flower no matter where I put them – although the smaller flowering camelia sassanqua gives me some compensation

Hydrangea make me blue

Hydrangea make me blue

I have picked all the wrong roses for our climate and in five years with 10 bushes, I have had about a dozen blooms in total, regardless of how much blood and bone, feed and love I give them

I planted the African tulip tree too close to the poinciana and they are fighting for light and space –  and competing orange flowers

Cocos palms we put in around the swimming pool make our life hell with seed and blossom drop and now they’re so tall we can’t reach to trim dead fronds and remove the seed bunches.

Tibouchina peace baby has been a triple failure for me

Tibouchina peace baby has been a triple failure for me

I have had four attempts to grow a ” sturdy” white tibouchina peace baby in a pot and still fail.

Hellebores in the shade under the frangipani  seemed a  lovely idea, but it’s a losing battle so far.

Coriander and sage just refuse to live in my world.

Hellebores - proving a handful

Hellebores – proving a handful

Hydrangeas wilt and shrivel wherever I put them.

I am on my third try to strike a piece of the hardiest vine known to mankind – the golden chalice – which a friend has growing rampant.

I have been know to kill impatiens – the common everyman perennial.

The daphnes I bragged about making  a scented driveway entry, have all died, despite the best preparation, care and attention I could muster. The so-called hot weather hardiness was just not robust enough apparently – or some mysterious bad chemistry between them and me prevailed.

There is always something fungus or “pesty” on my cycads no matter what I do to them.

Like my reluctant friends, I too remember being intimidated by all that I didn’t know about gardening.

Camelia sassanqa  compensation for the japonica which I cannot get to flower

Camelia sassanqa compensation for the japonica which I cannot get to flower

I have over reached and shrunk back. But something kept me at it. Being around people who had “green thumbs” helped, because they dispensed snippets of wisdom about soil, watering, striking, feeding, placement in small bites – and I could apply it in manageable doses. With each small success, confidence grew.

My advice to those wary of gardening is just start. Garden wisdom grows from the first dig. Begin with a few pots – or one small bed of colour or a shrubbery. And when the successes outnumber the failures, you are on a roll. If you let it, gardening will take your heart and soul and give you a reason to get up every day. It will soothe you, delight you and revive you.

Walk in lots of gardens. Look, smell and touch. I used to baulk at going to grand, beautiful show gardens, places that I thought  would make me feel inadequate and mine would look pathetic in comparison.

But I love visiting them now, because I get that every garden has its beauty both in small patches and grand designs. And there’s a garden osmosis at work.

I delight in getting even just one idea from a visit – whether it’s a new composition of colour, or undergrowth design -or where to put a birdbath.

And the feeling it leaves me with ….

Now that’s an F word I do use a lot in the garden!

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Beaumontia grandiflora vine cluster

Beaumontia grandiflora vine cluster

Bold and beautiful beaumontia grandiflora  bloom

Bold and beautiful beaumontia grandiflora bloom

SO gardening subtlety is not my strong point. It’s the bold and the beautiful that takes my fancy outdoors – loud, dazzling colour, big, blousy flowers, overdressed foliage, sumptious and splendid, scented and showy,

Some temperate people say it’s our climate that makes me so. I’m over-reactive in the presence of obvious glamour – hot and bothered and overboiled. They’re referring to both my temperament and my vulgar taste in plants. There could be something in that. We generally raise a good sweat in garden labour in the heat of tropics and sub tropics , so want something “big” back for our efforts.  A grand “thank you” from nature, writ large.

The sweet little spring bunches of dainty painsies, petunias, geraniums, pelargoniums, daisies  and similar pretty contenders on our garden club bench competition this month paled into insignificance when I spied the magnificent beaumontia grandiflora branch in their midst;  big, brash. white blooms, its heady seductive perfume permeating the hall. I was smitten – as I generally am with a statement item.

“Notice me” it screamed.  And I did – as did everyone present. You could smell it before you saw it; a pungent and voluptious siren calling everyone to follow their nose, come and admire.

Nothing virginal and pure about this white lily-type specimen. It’s huge bell-shaped flowers are dazzling  and grow in clusters up to 30cm long and 15cm wide along the vine’s stem and pictures can hardly do justice to a fully grown bush in full bloom. It’s no cliche to say it’s breathtaking.

Eye catching beaumontia a long lasting cut flower

Eye catching beaumontia a long lasting cut flower

The beaumontia  is an evergreen tropical shrub, originally from the Himalayas ( although some in the cooler climates lose their leaves in autumn )  with large dark green leaves ( some can be 22cm long) with prominent veins. It’s a heavy scrambling climber , so will need strong support, or it forms a large clump like a wisteria. It likes sun and shade and generally thrives in temperatures over 30 degrees C.  I love the sight of it climbing a fence or wall, spreading its gorgeous flowers to the heavens. It can grow to 10m tall, and can be invasive, so judicious pruning’s needed. This is best done after flowering to promote new wood for blooms to spring from.  It can take a few years for a mature vine to come to full flower, but when it does, it ‘s an extended pleasure – from spring to late summer. Sometimes it flowers for the second time in autumn.  As cut flowers, they are also long lasting. Mine were fresh for four days, with a daily change of vase water.

Suited mostly to warm climates, it can tolerate frosts for a short period. It produces an oblong green fruit from the end of summer. You can propogate from hardwood cuttings, using the layering method, best done in spring.

Also known as Herald’s Trumpet, that’s exactly the beaumontia’s  soundtrack – a brassy announcement that a VIP is present and expects to be the centre of attention. The genus was named in honor of Mrs. Diana Beaumont (1765-1831) of Bretton Hall, Yorkshire who was described in the Curtis Botanical Magazine Volume 7 in 1833 as “an ardent lover and munificent patroness of Horticulture”. She was a wealthy and obsessive gardener, and grew  a dazzling array of plants in a huge conservatory at her home, which once stood in the grounds of what is now Leeds University. It’s said she flaunted her beauty and wealth and was a social climber par excellence.

A fitting namesake, I say.


There’s truth to the term “poetry in motion” in a garden, when you look  at all the running, jumping, and climbing happening right now in mine.

The walking iris  (Neomarica gracilis) are stepping out in fine form, looking a bit like a cross between an iris and an orchid  ( also called a poor man’s orchid). The graceful flowers don’t last long, but they continue through the spring and summer and are one of the least demanding beauties around.  Because of its habit of propagating itself, the iris appears to “walk” throughout the garden as it fills the area with additional plantlets. When the new plantlet is formed at the tip of the flower stalk, it bends to the ground and takes root and the new plant repeats the process,  giving the illusion of  moving about as it spreads.  It’s also called the fan iris for the fan-like growing characteristic of its leaves and also has been referred to as the Apostle plant because there are usually 12 leaves in a fan, and most Neomarica will not bloom until the plant has all 12.

Equally moving are the happy little violas or Johnny Jump ups, springing into life in colorful profusion. A weekly feed of liquid seaweed and regular dead-heading will keep these jumping in the sun for weeks.

And the lovely climbing mandevilla iaxa,  also known as the Chilean jasmine, is lifting hearts and minds.  I made the mistake of putting mine in too much sunshine, but now it’s moved to a shadier spot, it’s shooting onwards and upwards.

Climbing beauty mandevilla iaxa

Climbing beauty mandevilla iaxa

Hope gardening  is moving for you, too.

Johnny jump ups

Johnny jump ups

Walking iris a moving sight

Walking iris a moving sight

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Vicious, vibrant bougainvillea

Vicious, vibrant bougainvillea

JUST as there are bedroom eyes, so there are garden hands.

Like mine, which show that being a dab hand in the plot is not a good look from every angle.

It’s been a biting, scratching, poking, lancing and itching time among the plants here lately, so the damage is multiple and varied.

My hands are a casualty map of garden mishaps, bearing a line of attack that records assaults old and fresh and blood shed in the line of horticultural duty.

Tick terror

Tick terror

There are puncture marks from the needle-tips of the variegated agave hedge I have been trying to thin out.  A bloody and painful exercise and in retrospect,  I should not have planted out the babies of the fertile mother plant, which in three years have grown to my height ( 165cm ) and brandish spreading arms with lethal weapons.

Needle-tipped agaves

Needle-tipped agaves

Scabs and gashes from scratches while pruning the bougainvilleas and weeding around the roses dot my fingers, wrists and forearms and there’s bark missing from knuckles scraped tackling overgrowth on the barbed wire fence line. And those pesky little leaf barbs on the vines climbing the paperbarks that line the creek have done a job on me too, leaving a stinging red angry rash. My sweet little crown of thorns euphorbia has a bite, too, if not handled carefully, I have learnt painfully and well.

Even the benign, low-maintenance bromeliads, have made their mark, thanks to the sawtooth edge leaf of some  lurking in the throng as I, unsuspecting, poked my fingers into their throats to clear leaf debris overload.

Meat ant

Meat ant

Crown of thorns euphorbia

Crown of thorns euphorbia

Spikey dyckia agave

Spikey dyckia agave

And along the way, an ant, spider or a centipede had a nip of me, leaving a finger lump or two to negotiate my rings around and my cuticles ingrained with grass and soil stain that scrubbing and exfoliating can’t shift. And spring means a fever of  those little bloodsuckers that drop on you from on high and off just about anything that has leaves – ticks. No man or beast is safe from their attack and I have had more than a few attach already this season.

The midges and mosquitoes have supped well on me in late afternoons and the determined  flowering lantana with its rasping sandpaper stems I slash and burn, is retaliating by rubbing angry marks on all exposed limbs.

And don’t start me on my sorry flesh-slicing stories of mishandled secateurs, pruning saws, grass shears and star pickets.

Wounding lantana

Wounding lantana

It’s relatively trivial collateral damage, hardly noticed when I am happily ensconced  among  the trees and shrubs. But scrubbed for dressier pursuits, I look like the walking wounded, a gashed, slashed glaring advertisement for garden gloves and antiseptic.

I own several pairs of  the flowery cotton girly gloves and the heavy duty variety made of stiff industrial-strength canvas,  but  like many gardeners, I often venture outside to “just pull out a weed or two” and who can properly grasp dainty shoots except with bare hands?  Two hours later, sucked into serious, back bending and perspiring toil,  the damage is done.

I keep my tetanus shots up to date , but it  doesn’t stop me from looking wistfully at neatly manicured gardener’s hands and blemish free arms and wonder if their owners have paid help.  But it did cause me to inspect more closely a couple of garden products I came across lately .

Armed for gardening

Armed for gardening

The light and pliable protective sleeves, gloves  and associated apparel available at various garden product websites might save me from permanent scarring.

And a group of Californian university researchers have developed a way to keep pesky mosquitoes away, with a patch that makes humans invisible to the pests.  

Mosquito deterrent patch

Mosquito deterrent patch
Mosquito patch test

Mosquito patch test

I am sure many tropical zone dwellers would want to be patched through to them, suffering the dusk onslaught of mossies in summer.

Surveying your hard work across a perfumed, pruned and preened landscape makes up for all the pain, but one thing’s for sure.

Real gardening is not for pussies.

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Long lasting Phalaeonopsis orchid

Long lasting Phalaeonopsis orchid

LIKE all the best procrastinators, my to-do list ever lengthens and the best incentive to pay it proper attention is mention VISITORS. The likelihood of people calling in to cast a reckoning look over the house and garden moves me faster than a dose of salts.

I go regularly to garden calendars with monthly chores listed and cut and clip them with good intentions to the wheelbarrow or potting bench, but, alas, I am a distracted rather than a dutiful gardener, so the best laid plans to systematically tick off the jobs go astray when I dream up a new rose bed to plant or start reorganising the courtyard colour.

But anticipating friends dropping by on the weekend swung me into action 24 hours beforehand and I amazed myself at how fast I could scrub mould from pavers, clean out a water fountain, spruce up the bird baths, trim a scruffy murraya hedge, thin out and replant a bed of iris and agapanthus, weed out a vegetable tank garden. And just for insurance, I had the smell of a freshly baked parmesan herb loaf wafting through the windows when they arrived.

Garden whimsy can make up for its shortfalls

Garden whimsy can make up for its shortfalls

My ruse, you see, so their noses might lead them unseeing  past my scruffy driveway gerberas that are long overdue a dead heading and weed-pocked paths and other gardening shortcomings.

Because these visitors were real gardeners; organic, experienced, diligent, fastidious ones. They are not want to stop at the gate and gaze about, mouthing platitudes like” lovely” and “gorgeous”. They head straight to the “problem area”, click their tongues, plunge their hands into the dirt, pulling and pushing and picking with a furrowed brow and a solicitous air. They are the  kind that can tell you spontaneously to the exact ml how much sulphate, lime, phosphorous or other you give troubled specimens and have a wikipedia of successful germinations in their head they can reel off  at a moment’s notice. Who can tell exactly which pest is making holes in any leaf you point to, what its life cycle is and what to do about it. Who colour-code  their garden tools and store them in alphabetical order, religiously clean and sharpen -even polish  – them on the same day every week and whose food scraps are always pared to regulation size for perfect decomposition. They also roll up their hoses every day! Would never get the kinky problems I curse at when the water sputters at the bends and blockages my sadly neglected ones develop.

Welcome wheelbarrow with pansies

Welcome wheelbarrow with pansies

As we walked the outside inspection, which I both love and fear when in the company of garden royalty, I made myself shed my insecurity, drop the excuses and apologies and just opened my heart and head to accept their freely and lovingly given advice and encouragement. I always take in information better  face to face than any other means. It is the  ” I do and I understand” principle.

I learnt I should be laying newspaper around the base of my potted Ceylonese spinach, so the dark seeds drop on to a surface that I can see to collect and save them for later germinations. ( Assuming I start germinating, of course) my bush lemon tree doesn’t need too harsh a pruning punishment for not giving me more than a handful of fruit this year. Lemon trees have off years like all of us, so I will give it a small cutback and cut it some slack til next year.  My variegated hibiscus is shooting base stock dark green leaves and to keep it true to its graft, I have to cut these right back. And the grub that is a perennial headache for hibiscus can be sorted with Mancozeb. My roses aren’t covering themselves in glory because they don’t get enough sun and my powderpuff plant ( calliandra) is competing with a rogue lantana bush that a bird dropping spawned in its midst.

I also learnt Condy’s Crystals ( potassium permanganate) are a strong oxidising agent and hence are garden magic.

Potted white alyssium

Potted white alyssium

Never having been able to grow comfrey in any volume, I have kept a small patch of it in a polysterene planter box. I have heard this healing herb  is a fast-growing, abundant rich source of composting material and has wide ranging permaculture uses. But try as I might,  I have only been able to sustain a sparse few plants. And have also been tearing off the leaves for the compost, when they should be cut instead. Now, following new advice,  I am going to plant out a bed full of rich compost material,  transferring the plants cut back to ground level. And be patient.

Justicia in pink glory

Justicia in pink glory

My garden report wasn’t all “could do better”, though.

I was praised for my blooming violas, my pretty welcoming entrance wheelbarrow of pansies, my alyssium pots, long-lasting chrysanthemums, justicia, vigorous peas, cabbages and rocket, watercress and basil and my funny old cane chair-turned potplant for a tumbling .

I was reminded that a garden doesn’t have to be spectacular or stunning and reevaluated the worth of the solid and reliable elements of mine that stand and deliver each season come what may. Like the jolly nasturtiums, the florid bougainvillea, the bromeliads, crucifix orchids, azaleas and lowly vinca.

Raindrops on pink calliandra

Raindrops on pink calliandra

And the star turn was a long-lasting pink phalaeonopsis orchid which even the herb loaf couldn’t top.

There’s an African proverb that says: Visitors’ footfalls are like medicine. They heal the sick.

Too right.

As they drove away, I felt all was well with me and my garden.


Funny isn’t it, the buying fetishes we develop in some subliminal Stalingrad of our psyche. A part of us believes we will be cut off from all supplies like the embargoed Russian wartime city and so, just in case,  we stock up – and up and up  – on some item we think we just cannot imagine being without. One friend gets all twitchy if she doesn’t buy toilet rolls every time she shops. Whole cupboards of her house are stacked with them. For another, it’s frozen peas, someone else keeps buying underpants, another tinned tomatoes.

If the world’s markets close  tomorrow, I will have cane mulch bales for half the country. Cannot stop buying – and spreading  – them. Wonder what straw will break this camel’s back.


The Queensland Sunshine Coast town of  Nambour is nothing if not totally behind their annual garden expo, which draws thousands of visitors from all over the country for the three-day event.This month, the local Uniting Church even gave up signage space normally reserved for delivering scripture to passing motorists  to offer parking  options.

The way, the truth and the parking

The way, the truth and the parking

Maybe  it was a clever way to pass the plate around.

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Vegetable beds line the walkways between classrooms at Mansfield State School

Vegetable beds line the walkways between classrooms at Mansfield State School

THEY can run NAPLAN tests til the cows come home, but if academics truly want to lift the education experience for young children, they need look no further than a scheme I spent time examining recently.

It’s a program where children taste and smell the curriculum and one whiff tells me it should be compulsory for all primary schools.

I travelled with a group of teachers and passionate practitioners to schools where the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program is embedded. I spoke to nine-year-olds who take responsibility for onion and bean crops, who know how to calculate plants per square metre, research what season broccoli is sown, can work out how to chop enough tomatoes for a lunch for 25, and can list the benefits of raw vegetables over canned.

Large kitchen timer in Wellington Pt State  School, keeps students on task

Large kitchen timer in Wellington Pt State School, keeps students on task

It was uplifting, breathtaking, moving to say the least, to see the pride and pleasure children as young as six take in their lettuces, garlic, eggplant and potato plants and 10-year-olds designing imaginative menus, placemats, featuring poetic beliefs they have composed about food, health and nature.  Their knowledge and confidence in gardening and cooking skills was a joy to behold.

It’s lifelong education, delivered in school grounds and kitchens with its eye on curriculum and its heart in getting children to observe and learn about the earth, fresh food, healthy bodies, the importance of community and how it all is interdependent.

Kids with the fruit of their garden labour

Students with the fruit of their garden labour

This wonderful scheme, now in 297 schools around Australia, has as its highest aims the end of childhood obesity from bad eating habits, and teaching the lost skills of growing and preparing fresh food and sharing it with friends around a beautifully laid table. It has been show to significantly increase children’s willingness to try new foods.

Productive garden beds built on steeply sloping grounds at Bulimba State School

Productive garden beds built on steeply sloping grounds at Bulimba State School

But in practical terms, it enhances and reinforces the educational experience of  learning English, maths, geography, history, science and social studies in hands-on and engaging lessons. The children are outside, they are exercising, they are moving, working in teams, talking to each other, solving group problems, making plans and managing time. They are having experiences that will inform and influence the rest of their life.

Stephanie’s concern was not merely the growing obesity in Australian children, but the discovery of how many did not know where their food came from or indeed rarely or never sat at a table for meals or used a knife and fork. Without judging modern parents who are under increasing time pressures to work, run households, shop, cook and parent, she saw an opportunity to stop the rot.

Garden practices an opening for literature and design

Garden practices an opening for literature and design

For children who learn better outside of the classroom, the SAKG program has already shown improved results and behavioural problems and truancy have lessened  and there has been an 86 pr cent improvement in team work skills reported in schools where it’s installed.

An Australian Government funded-assessment found real health behaviour change in participating children, families and school communities.

What subliminal enrichment for kids to skip past abundant garden beds of flourishing vegetables placed on the walkways between school buildings. What fun to design, build and dress scarecrows for the tomato crop, or collect eggs from the schoolyard chooks.

How much more does a maths lesson mean when it involves calculating the yield per bed per season of carrots that you plant, pick and eat, measuring ingredients for a soup, omelette or polenta chips.

These are schools that have no trouble attracting parents to working bees. They come in droves and in happy expectation they will learn, teach and enjoy garden and cooking skills, the shared camaraderie of a school community, make meaningful friendships with other parents and teachers in the process.

The schools with this program have truly regained their place as the hub of the community where businesses and local identities link with them in partnerships for mutual benefit. The local cafes send their spent coffee grinds, restaurants and take-aways their food scraps and other composting materials like waste paper, the mowing contractor saves himself tip fees by bringing his grass clippings to the school for mulch;  hardware stores offer product and services and reap more than an equal return from this sort of  in-kind promotion.

Mansfield students made this ''she-crow"  to keep the birds off their tomato plants.

Mansfield students made this ”she-crow” to keep the birds off their rhubarb plants.

EVERYBODY gains when schools over reach.

It happens, of course, with a group mentality, a shared commitment, started by the wonderful Stephanie and supported by the teachers and practitioners who have caught her vision around the country.

One of the earliest to share the dream was Brisbane’s Bulimba State School principal Michael Zeuschner, whose school has won a series of awards and special mentions  for sustainability, green and healthy environments and excellence in schools .

Michael’s school is built on the vertical, so all the kitchen garden beds are staggered up its hilly grounds and no space is wasted.

He was inspired by both Stephanie and a book by David Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Louv suggests children’s shrinking area of geographical freedom around their homes has caused the broken bond between them and nature. Where once they walked, explored, dawdled around neighbourhoods and scrambled through bush and along creek banks, the radius of this childhood experience has shrunk to one tenth of what it was 40 years ago.

Student s serve lunch they prepared

Student s serve lunch they prepared

Michael is the first to acknowledge the importance of community in making the scheme work.  The generosity and support local businesses give in kind and time to the school are a big part of its success, and its value is returned 10-fold in threading the people together, bringing expertise and enrichment to the school environment that might not otherwise happen. Once a month, the students prepare a “thank you’’ meal from their garden produce to which they invite local community members. They take great pride in planning and preparing the menu, dressing and laying  the tables, writing the placemats and serving on the day.

Proud as he is of his school’s lead in this area,  quietly spoken Michael Zeuschner doesn’t seem like someone much concerned with awards. He is more impressed with the way the school is integrated into the community and supports the adage “it takes a village to raise a child’’.

There are some things in life for which you want to get down on your hands and knees and give thanks to whoever is your God.

Stephanie Alexander sees her dream in action with a former pupil at Mansfield State School

Stephanie Alexander’s joy at seeing her dream realised at Mansfield State School

This is one.


My mysterious beauty unfolding at the top of a long shoot in what I thought was a pot of lillies is revealed.

It is  a glorious tuberose, ( polianthes tuberosa) which is not actually any kind of rose. It’s name derives from the Greek word polianthes, which mean many flowers.  The tuberosa is latin for swollen tuber root. It’s related to the agaves and thought to be a native of Mexico along with all the other polianthes and its pungent and opulent  heady perfume is legendary. It has been described as carnal.

Tuberose reveals itself at last.

Tuberose reveals itself at last.

The prudish straight-laced Victorians forbade young girls to inhale its scent for fear they might have a spontaneous orgasm. So when I took it along to my local gardening club to enter it in the most scented specimen section, I stood back and waited for an interesting reaction from the members who sniff and vote.

The earth didn’t move for them – but I won second prize.

Now its fragrance is filling the house .

I live in hope.

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COULDN’T help feeling sorry for the speaker at our last garden club meeting. He was operating 21st century technology, trying to convey his message about organics, composting,  fruit and vegetable growing and all manner of soil and horticultural wisdom with a mouse and a laptop.

But he was standing in front of people with timeless curiosity who didn’t give a tweet for it.

True, he travelled light, and his website and pictures were stylish – but they were at the mercy of the meeting venue’s problematic wireless connection, which kept dropping out, leaving his screen blank and the audience of keen gardeners  ditto. They were firstly a bit nonplussed and eventually bored and disengaged. The speaker had no living specimens with him to fall back on, to wow the watching members with a dazzling leaf, stunning colour, or a bloom to sniff, or plump produce to admire, so he broke the oldest rule in the teaching book;  show don’t tell.  Instead he told and didn’t show  – and most in the room dozed off. A pity really, as he knew his stuff , but relied too heavily on the prop of the power point.  And when it failed to fire, he went off the boil.

He would have been better off closing down his Apple Mac and putting out  a bowl of real apples to describe his garden,  what it grows and the organic benefits.  More the pity for the old-fashioned eyes and ears in attendance.

That’s the thing about gardening. It’s visceral. We want and need to touch, feel and smell it. And you can tell me til you’re blue in the face about a gorgeous lily, rose or shrub foliage, but to really know it, I need to see it in the flesh, maybe compare it to similar relatives and observe how the folds are arranged, how light falls on it, whether it’s glossy, velvet, textured,  ribbed, solid or feathery, what its perfume is, how the buds form … and a host of other attributes to file away.  Like all greedy gardeners, I am always on the lookout for yet another plant for the plot and everything that takes my eye is a contender.

Gardening talk needs less of this Apple

Gardening talk needs less of this Apple

....and more of this type of apple

….and more of this type

The most popular speakers at our garden club are those who bring a selection of their plants  for display and the materials they feed them to make them thrive. It is harder and longer work than packing a USB stick, but the listeners are real, not virtual gardeners. They can look up a book or a website any day for information.

It’s inspiration they are after.


So,  what is inspiring me this lovely autumn? Lots really and I don’t have to go far from my front door.

Yellow baby chrysanthemums happy in hanging basket

Yellow button chrysanthemums happy in hanging basket

The chrysanthemums have been abundant and particularly sweet is the little yellow variety hanging from a basket. The bigger white ones I grow are dazzling, but I like these little buttons and the way they drape and swing in the breeze.

I have just acquired a stem of a small bright green chrysanthemum, taken from a bouquet that a friend received for Mother’s Day and hope I can strike several plants from it in due course. Its cheery lime colour is an unusual and stunning shade for a flower. Stay tuned and cross your fingers, please,  for its progress.

The  cherry red celosia or cockscomb bloom is an interesting addition to my pot family. Also known as wool flowers ( they really do look like fur) they can bloom up to 10 weeks and are great for full sun mass planting in beds or in pots. There are stacks of colours to pick. Mine is the Celosia spicata  Intenze. It’s been easy to grow, liking good feed and watering and high light.

Celosia Spicata or cockscomb plant

Celosia Spicata or cockscomb plant

One of the newer begonia varieties, sunny side up, so named because it’s like a fried egg, is proving a long lasting bloomer with its double and semi double  white flowers around yellow centres. It won the Glass Tulip award last year for the most promising new variety. It’s a hiemalis begonia, a hybrid, a cross between a tuber and a wax begonia and the flower stalks grow to about 30 – 45cm, indoors or out. I have mine in the semi shade under a poinciana and where I can see it at a glance out my front windows and it seems to like showing off there.

Close by is the  Lady Lavender Schlumbergera spineless zygo cactus has delivered its seasonal show of unusual  and vivid pink flowers at the tips of its flattened stems .Also called the Thanksgiving cactus ( coinciding with November in the USA when its their autumn flowering season). It’s looking healthier and thicker this year because I pinched off bits to encourage branching and fed it well in summer as it lounged in the shade.

Zygo Lady Lavender

Zygo Lady Lavender

Sunnyside Up Begonia heimalis

Sunnyside Up Begonia heimalis

Down in the vegie patch, the peas are reaching up towards the support wire,the rocket is powering on, the cauliflower plants are thickening and growing taller, four shades of lettuce and kale and mustard greens are filling out the raised tank beds and the “super food” ceylon spinach is abundant in its pot. I pick leaves from this for nearly everything I eat, from salads to stir fries and stuffing canneloni, and the more I take, the more it produces. Rich, green and glossy, it’s eye catching and a “wellness” source.

Wellness food Ceylon spinach

Wellness food Ceylon spinach

Everything is thriving due to my kind friend and neighbour namesake, Jenny Thomson,  who trucked me bags of mushroom compost from an organic mushroom grower this month. It’s beautiful rich organic matter which is the spent waste generated by the mushroom growing and consists of wheat  straw, dried blood,  horse manure and chalk . It’s a great source of humus. I have dug some in and the rest scattered on top of beds for mulch.  For soils that are slightly acidic like mine, it’s a great boost. The plants seem grateful and as  some of it was not truly spent, there are some creamy round surprises  popping up  about the place.

And there’s no denying Jenny is a show don’t tell gardener. That’s her in the picture dropping it off ( note always wear a mask when handling compost to protect from inhaling spores).


And to finish, here’s a mystery. I have a lily-type of plant in a pot with a highly developed sense of theatre. In a former life, it was probably a stripper, it has such a teasing way of revealing itself. This spike has emerged  from the base over the past several weeks and the bud’s unfurling is agonisingly slow.

I don’t recall it ever flowering before.

What is this?

What is this?

I am loving the suspense, but I would like to give it a name.

Can you help?

And in the meanwhile, enjoy your garden time.

Generous friend Jenny delivering mushroom compost

Generous friend Jenny delivering mushroom compost

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ON A day when all manner of people  turned out to publicly and conspicuously commemorate ANZAC Day, marching, singing, praying, dressing up in uniform, waving flags, wearing medals, beating drums, playing trumpets, bagpipes and horns,then gathering noisily with family and regiment mates in waterholes from Gallipoli to Goondiwindi to Greymouth, I dug deep to gather my thoughts of war and the fallen in my garden.

I thought of the solace and comfort that trees and plants give to the families and loved ones of those buried in war graves all over the world and the peace and beauty they lend to the final resting place  of the thousands of young servicemen and servicewomen lying there.  The calm and serenity of the gorgeous parks and vistas that organisations like the Commonwealth War Graves Commission work so splendidly to maintain,  are an abject contrast to their former life as a battlefield where those who lie there now met a noisy and messy death.

There are tens of thousands of Australians buried in marked and unmarked graves in 82 countries. Many thousands more of all nationalities lie in foreign lands bearing a headstone that may or may not identify them.

The war cemeteries’ groomed and majestic walkways, the silence except for the twitter of birds, rustle of branches and whispers of visitors evoke a solemnity that is both soothing and  stark. You can be mesmerised, even charmed,  by the neat and precise rows, crisp white headstones, carpets of lush lawn until jolted by the realisation that you are walking on a huge waste of young lives. So many  mere boys who for all their dignified and honoured resting place, were robbed of  years of feeling the sun on their face, the wind at their back and their family’s loving arms to grow old in.

The sharply manicured grassways at Varennes cemetery, France are softened by the delicate pink roses, tendered lovingly to almost year-round bloom.

I hope the  bright scattering cherry blooms at Bordon Military Cemetery, Hampshire are a balm for the families of the young Australians, Canadians and South Africans buried there.

Fallen World War II German soldiers and internees are honoured on British soil at the lovely Cannock Chase cemetery, Staffordshire. The shadows that fall across the paths to their graves carry the patterns of lovely beech and oak branches, their reflective shade contrasting to the bright lights of so many lives forever dimmed.

The serene and beautiful wooded park of Bedford House Cemetery, near Ypres, in Belgium has a grace and distinctive feel, enhanced by the bright red geraniums among the tombstones.

Bedford House Cemetery Belgium

Bedford House Cemetery Belgium

Perhaps the most poignant and sombre is the mass grave at Langemark, in the Flanders region of Belgium where 24,900 German soldiers lie in  mass grave,  known as the comrades grave. More than  7000 of these are unknown. Most of them were inexperienced German infantry who perished in the first futile battle at Ypres against the British and French in World War I.  Majestic oak trees line the site, standing guard over the fallen and a rose garden thrives there. The atmosphere is dark and foreboding, enhanced by the German choice of black granite for headstones, in contrast to the Allies’ choice of white marble.

Langemark Cemetery Belgium mass grave rose garden

Langemark Cemetery Belgium mass grave rose garden. The bronze figures at the rear.

Touching addition are four slightly larger than life size shadowy bronze figures, sculpted by Emil Krieger, who says he was inspired by a picture of grieving soldiers at the graveside of a comrade. The four stand eerily at attention,  and silhouetted against the countryside,  make a memorable impact on visitors.

The soothing air at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire where German war dead lie.

The soothing air at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire where German war dead lie.

Pink peace surrounds graves at Bordon Military cemetery, Hampshire

Soft pink peace surrounds graves at Bordon Military cemetery, Hampshire

Grassways and roses at Varennes military cemetery, France

Grassways and roses at Varennes military cemetery, France

And to demonstrate just how big a part the trees and their spread and shade play in the ambience of all these solemn sites,  the 60 distinctive spreading hornbeam (carpinus betulus)  trees were removed four years ago at Villers-Bretonneux cemetery, France to devastating effect. The row of 81-year old trees were dying, so were taken out in 2009.

However,  their replacements are developing well for the town’s battle centenary commemorations in 2018.

Walking under the shadows and past the lovely plantings, to read the epitaphs is almost too sad and painful, but one on the grave of Private John Thomas Holdroyd is worded to speak succinctly for all the ache left in hearts back home: “Too far away thy grave to see

  But not too far to think of thee.”

Before and after the horbbeam hedges were removed at Villers-Bretonneux cemetery

Before and after the hornbeam hedges were removed at Villers-Bretonneux cemetery

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YOU can always pick gardeners on holidays. They have these funny habits they indulge when they are away from their familiar terrain. I speak both of my own behaviour and from watching fellow flora enthusiasts.

On our recent interstate holiday, for example in Perth, Western Australia,  I felt I was in a very different topography.

I only had to look down to know this. Well, look down and scratch around. The soil, you see, is so different from our own heavy clay. It is sandy. Like the whole city is built on a big beach.

And once I’d discovered this,  I couldn’t avoid crouching down at every opportunity to check how far within the state this sandy loam extended. And I would lock eyes with people watching and nodding who shared and endorsed my curiosity – and soiled hands. Like me, they were the ones turning away from capturing panoramic views to focus their cameras on bark patterns, leaf formations and flower petals.

While most city visitors were looking at towering skyscrapers, the wide beauty of the Swan River and the impressive watercraft, I was looking down, marvelling at the plant life the sand supported, and how quickly rainwater seeped away, with hardly a trace of it lying about minutes after a heavy downpour, unlike our boggy mud that persists for days in wet weather. I was fingering new foliage, sniffing new flowers, running my hands along unfamiliar tree limbs and gazing up through strange and lovely canopies.

If I stumbled over a botanical name or gushed over an impressive foliage, and an onlooker corrected me kindly or joined my enthusiasm, I knew why.

That’s what gardeners do.

Perth’s magnificent King’s Park is a joy for any gardener to savour, incidentally, not just for its magnificent position overlooking the city, its wonderful and sombre memorials, gracious entrance avenue of lemon-scented gums, poignant war remembrance trees honouring fallen servicemen and women and gorgeous wildflower displays, but also for the riding and walking pathways, the viewing and doing experiences and sweeping outlook it offers for those who don’t give a toss about gardens and plants.

Magnificent WA red flowering gum

Magnificent WA red flowering gum

Blossom on WA scarlet flowering gum ( corymbia ficifolia)

Blossom on WA scarlet flowering gum ( corymbia ficifolia)

Vive le difference when it comes to appreciating new landscapes. The WA eucalypts tend to the dramatic, from the towering ghost gums, stately salmon gums ( eucalyptus salmonophloia) with smooth trunks that shine like

Copper trunks of salmon gum trees

Copper trunks of salmon gum trees

polished copper and the dazzling scarlet flowering gum (corymbia ficifolia) in full bloom that stops you in your tracks.

Sand bottlebrush in Kings Park, Perth

Sand bottlebrush in Kings Park, Perth

I lost count of the different, wonderful and brilliant grevilleas, and drawn to one especially dazzling prostrate variety, called sand bottlebrush (beaufortia squarrosa) . It’s a glorious flame red and with the backdrop of  the singularly wide blue WA sky, the palette is one that has you grasping for superlatives.

But,  as I was saying, gardeners have a different way of looking at the world.

In Christchurch, the earthquake destruction, slow recovery, road closure disruption and ongoing fear of more shakes makes life for the city’s population hazardous and grim.

But a gardener’s sense of humour shines through.

A friend send me a heroic little image of a bunch of flowers recently poked into a road bollard. Whatever ugliness the road reconstruction works prolong for the residents of the city, known traditionally as the garden capital of NZ, someone is determined to see the ubiquitous and ungainly roadblock items as vases and beautify the scene accordingly.

Christchurch road bollard beauty

Christchurch road bollard beauty

What grace and wit it shows. It says to me: Hey, nothing is so barren and broken, it cannot be brightened by the sharing of the loveliness of a flower. Nature is both brutal and beautiful.

Blooming roadworks in battered Christchurch

Blooming roadworks in battered Christchurch

That’s what gardeners do.

But closer to home, a visit to a local country cottage cafe, set in a pretty sprawling garden, planted out with annuals, natives, palms and significant herbs, found cracks in the theory.

On a quiet mid-week visit, when we were the only guests, after spending a considerable amount of money and time with the owner/gardener over lunch and then an admiring  walk around all her hard work, asking about the what and where of some of the plant varieties, I thought we were doing the bonding thing you do when you share garden talk. So I asked if I could have a small cutting of a specimen I didn’t know, but particularly admired.

A firm “no” was her response. Seems I would set a dreadful precedent if she allowed me  ( ” everyone would want to take some”), despite there being not a soul within cooee of the place.

Unidentified ground cover plant,  but not for sharing

Unidentified ground cover plant, but not for sharing

Alas,  she was not a sharer. All she let me take was a photo ( perhaps someone can identify it?).

That’s NOT what gardeners do.

Is it?

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