The month of October always makes me nostalgic for my early gardening years, when I naively believed I could make a sort of mini-Sissinghurst in suburban Sydney. English-style cottage gardening was in vogue and I read tons of English gardening books at that time, drooling over the lush, billowing borders in the photographs. I tried every herbaceous perennial and cold-climate shrub which I could lay my hands on, in an expensive journey through the mail order catalogues and nurseries which had burgeoned at that time. I recall endless lectures which I gave to my parents about the beautiful, romantic English garden I was going to create, of towering delphiniums, proper geraniums, peonies, bleeding hearts, oriental poppies, clematis twining through old-fashioned roses accompanied by lavenders and bellflowers.
Sadly it all ended fairly badly for me, as few of the delicate English-style perennials and shrubs really liked the Sydney climate where I was living, and many of them either rotted in the heat and humidity of summer, or refused to flower due to the mildness of winter. None of them ever multiplied into huge, luxuriant clumps or reached the full stature of those depicted in my gardening books to produce that abundant look for which I had longed. At the time I couldn't really understand why this was so, but I decided that my next goal would be to move to a colder area of Sydney so that these plants might do better.
When I finally moved to Beecroft in 1993, I was able to have a measure of success with some of the cooler climate plants, but I still had many heartbreaking failures with my beloved perennials. Summer humidity and torrential downpours of rain often still spelt death to my much-cosseted treasures, which were totally unused to such assaults in their native habitats. The winters - though a little cooler than in Ryde - weren't really cold enough to give convincing blooms on many of the plants which required a certain number of hours of low temperatures in order to set their buds. I sadly realised that I was never going to be able to achieve the English garden look with these plants in my garden. I felt frustrated and deprived, and began planning my next house move, this time possibly to Bowral.
Just at this time, the tide of gardening fashion once again turned, and even in England, people started ripping out their traditional plants and putting in tropical-style plants - from South America, Mexico, South-east Asia, Southern China, New Zealand, even from Australian rainforests! I discovered these plants grew very easily for me, and my attitude towards gardening completely changed from the challenge of the endless quest for rarities and a constant struggle to keep alive sickly plants from the foothills of the Himalayas, to a focus on creating the lush, full look of an English garden using warm-climate plants that thrive easily.
But I still do have some vestiges from my cottage gardening years, perennials which have stayed with me that I love to see blooming at this time of year, which was when my erstwhile cottage garden looked its best. They seem happy enough in Sydney - some of them persist because they self-seed, others just appear to cope well with our climate. I would never be without them as they are part of my gardening past and are just so pretty. Dainty Linaria purpurea, Aquilegia species and hybrids and cerise, white or pink and white Lychnis coronaria are some which self-seed happily, though the plants themselves often last for several years. The arching fronds of Solomon's seal (Polygonatum x hybridum, pictured earlier in the blog) clump up well in shady corners; a variegated-leaf one is particularly pretty.
I always loved Campanula, and the two species which have proved long lasting in my garden have been the groundcover Campanula poscharskyana in its blue and white forms, and a species with tall spires of bells, which years ago I grew from seed labelled Campanula rapunculus. It is similar to C. rapunculoides, which we were always warned against as a terribly invasive species, but with which I never had any success at all. My version is tough and self-seeds a little bit, but is not a nuisance.
Another favourite of my cottage garden days was species Geranium. I have tried many in my time, but the best doers were Geranium macrorrhizum in all its forms and the wonderful hybrid Geranium 'Rozanne', with its stunning blue flowers. These have lived on in my garden for a number of years I hope I never lose any of these reminders of why I was seduced by the English dream in the first place all those years ago; an important part of my gardening journey!
For all those gardeners who love birds, please note that Birdlife Australia's Aussie Backyard Bird Count is on again! Everyone is invited to be involved with by simply counting birds for 20 minutes during the coming week 19 to 25 October 2020 and submitting the data. The observation point can be in your own garden, in a local park, at the beach or even in the middle of a city! This will provide invaluable information about biodiversity trends in bird communities at the present time, and give people the chance to connect with their natural environment and the amazing birds that live in it. BirdLife provides a handy app to help identify birds. All the information about the bird count can be found here.
This blog originally posted on 18 October 2009; updated 18 October 2020.
Creative pest control
25 Oct 20
There are lots of ways to outwit garden pests!
18 Oct 20
Although my garden is semi-tropical in nature now, I still have some vestiges from my cottage garden days!
11 Oct 20
Consider training a shrub into a small tree.
04 Oct 20
October is iris time in Sydney gardens: the best are the tall bearded irises and Louisiana irises.
One crowded hour
27 Sep 20
Much can be achieved in regular short stints in the garden.