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This gardening blog is written in Bathurst, NSW, Australia.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Remembering Nanna's Irises

My grandmother grew bearded irises in ugly cement pots in our back yard. In summer, the ordinary garden dirt they were growing in became as hard as the pots themselves and the pale brown iris rhizomes lay beached and forlorn on the baked surface as the dusty leaves withered. 

And yet... every autumn, the new pale green spears began to rise and rise, widening out into great fans. In spring, huge blue and purple flowers expanded into their brief glory before the summer heat claimed them again.

I am thinking about Nanna’s irises because I have been reading a book by Fran Sorin, called “Digging Deep”, subtitled “Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening” (Warner Books, 2004). One of the early exercises in the book is to sit and remember significant childhood encounters with plants and gardens, ones that created an emotional and sensual connection to nature.

At first, I couldn’t think of any.Then, suddenly, I remembered those irises. After that, other memories began to come thick and fast.

I recalled Nanna’s bedroom, in my parents' house, where she sat on the bed and played the mandolin, the zither or the mouth organ, with me sitting on the carpet at her feet. I must have been four or five years old. The scent of a small pot of violets filled the room. In my memory, my grandmother always has a tiny pot of violets near her bed. I know this can’t be the case, as the violets came from our yard, and they only flowered in the cooler times of the year. And yet, in my mind, they are always there, breathing out their modest sweetness into the cool, dim room. The violets grew with maidenhair ferns along a damp, shady strip between our house and the fence. After rain, the scent was wonderfully fresh and clean. Violets still smell like rain to me.

And then I remembered childhood trips to visit my great-aunt in Canberra, a much cooler climate than that of Sydney, where I grew up. The visits took place twice a year, in autumn and in spring, and always included early morning walks around the block. The cold, crisp air, aching in my lungs, so different to the warm, soft air of home, my breath making puffs of white fog in front of me, all seemed magical. And so did the enormous street trees, with their thick, straight trunks covered in shaggy mahogany-coloured bark and dark, leathery green canopies spangled all over with vibrant red and yellow baubles. They were Irish Strawberry trees, Arbutus unedo. 

We ate the fallen “strawberries”, which were only faintly sweet and a bit mushy, but incredibly exciting because they had fallen from street trees. No one owned these trees. They weren’t in a back yard or an orchard. They were just there and you could walk along the street and eat their fruit. It felt like the most delicious kind of cheating.

Irish Strawberry trees are evergreen, but as we walked and drove around Canberra in autumn, the gorgeously coloured deciduous trees seemed to be everywhere, an amazing sight to a child from the more temperate east coast. I have visited Canberra hundreds of times as an adult, at all months of the year, but when I think of that city, the first things that come to my mind are walks on frosty mornings, giant red trunks towering overhead, the treasure of fallen fruit and the blazing colours of autumn.

The exercise in Fran Sorin’s book is designed to help readers start to think about natural preferences that might translate into choices in designing their own gardens: “We all have memories of beauty that transformed us, and by tapping into them, we can then find ways to surround ourselves with these sensations and emotions in our gardens today.”

The fascinating thing is that, without planning it consciously, I find that I have done exactly that.

My garden is not damp like that strip beside my childhood home, and yet I have more violets than I can handle. In fact, they have to be dug out of some gardens on a regular basis because they keep trying to take over. Sometimes, I have thought about removing all of them and making life easier, and yet I can never bring myself to do it. Now I think I know why.

Violets threatening a young, unsuspecting Diosma.

Living in a climate similar to that of Canberrra, I now have my own deciduous trees and shrubs that colour up beautifully every autumn. I love each one of them dearly.

I even have a big, handsome, shaggy-barked Irish Strawberry tree. It produces large amounts of almost tasteless but very decorative fruit that falls on the driveway every autumn and needs to be cleared away. I haven’t bothered actually eating any of the fruit for years. I think I’m going to savour just a few next autumn, even though I know they won’t taste as good as the magical street fruit of my childhood.

Blossom on my Irish Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo.

And the irises? They’re here too, oh yes. 

I have blue ones and purple ones, just like Nanna's, but also pink, mauve, white, plum, bronze, burgundy, yellow and rusty red. Mine aren’t confined in pots, but are scattered through all my gardens. 

For at least the past 30 years, whenever anyone has asked me to name my favourite flower, there has never been any question about the answer. 

I love the sumptuous blooms of roses; I adore the cheery faces of Cosmos and the vibrant colours of Cannas, Dahlias and Salvias. In fact, I am very fond of all the perennial and annual flowers I grow. But the tall bearded Iris is the undisputed queen of my heart. For the brief three weeks she is in flower, I am an almost unreasonably happy gardener.

Thanks, Nanna.

Do you have any fond memories of plants from your childhood? I'd love to hear all about them and whether you have managed to incorporate any of them into your own garden. Just leave a a comment below.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Love Me Tender

The group of potted plants on my front porch has been looking a bit tired (not to say boring) for a few years now and I've decided to do something about it. 

Something tropical. 

Yes, despite our cool winter climate, I'm reveling in a bit of climate denial and planning a tropical jungle on my porch.  

Next summer, you will find me relaxing in the midst of a shady paradise. 

There may also be tall, cold drinks involved. 

Okay, it won’t really be a tropical jungle; in fact I intend to cheat outrageously by using frost-tolerant plants that only look tropical, along with some tender ones that I can bring inside over the cooler months.
Foliage will be the star, with lots of big, lush leaves, but there will be a supporting cast of a few flowers, too.

Here’s a list of some plants I'm considering:

I  already grow some of these, so I can move pieces of them to the pots. Others are grown as indoor plants, so my local nurseries may have them. I'll have to try to source the others, probably by mail order.

Here are a few links to great gardens and gardeners who inspired me to try this (although they are doing it large-scale!).  Once you see what they've achieved, I guarantee you'll be inspired to try it too.

So, are you with me? Let's get tropical!

If you already have a "tropical" jungle at your place, in a few pots or over a few acres, or anything in between, I'd love to see and read about your experience! If you post a link in the comments section, I'll pay you a visit and say hi.

Who knows if  I’ll succeed with my tropical jungle, but one thing I’m sure of - it’s going to be a great fun trying.  

I will post an update in Summer to show how my jungle is progressing (or not).

Here’s to the tropics!