This is not the best spot, being 20,000 feet above the planet having just eaten the fish option that may possibly have been fished from the vanished seas of Mars or created in the lab of a Bond villain. In other words, nowhere near a garden nor in circumstances where humans flourish. Survive, possibly … but to do more than survive, you need the best spot.
The secret of growing anything easily is to choose the best spot for what you want to grow. This varies according to the plant involved. The best spot for a rose involves sun, fertility, low humidity and pruning by humans or nibbling by possums so you get new growth with fresh blooms.
Roses, though, mostly take work – fertile, moist soil with low humidity is not common in Australia. Proteas and leucodendrons, on the other hand, can be bunged in and ignored, because I've done it.
Admittedly, I am not quite sure how many proteas I've planted. More than the one that is a hardy, happy bush now. Relatively happy, and how – it does tend to twist and turn seeking more light away from the pittosporum tree that partially covers it. But it is growing in sandy soil, filled with boulders where there is no sand, but with a heavy layer of natural mulch as the trees above shed their leaves in cold or drought. It does get watered, maybe once or twice in a very dry year.
And it blooms. And blooms. Reliably, gloriously, whenever I want to take flowers to a friend all winter, there are at least three giant protea blooms. They're big. They are spectacular. And they last – not just failing to wilt during the two hours or more of a car journey to meet the friends, but for weeks in a vase, if you remember to change the water – or even top up the water as it dries up. And three in a straightish vase – glass, so you remember to change the water so it IS water, not thick green slime. Or if you fill it with ornamental pebbles AND change the water AND clean the pebbles now and then … you will have something truly stunning. If not, you will once more see green grunge, not flowers.
A note to all florists, however … proteas are not native flowers, no matter how gorgeous they look in bunches of blooms. Nor are leucodendrons.
They are, however, distant cousins – many thousands of kilometres and a few eons distant – as both are descended from the Proteaceae family back in Gondwana 200 million years ago. Australia got banksias and waratahs; South Africa has the proteas and leucodendrons growing in a similar climate to parts of Australia. But 200 million years is a bit too distant to bung either proteas or leucodendrons in with "native" flowers.
The right spot for a protea, of course, depends on what protea it is. There are well over a hundred species and varieties of protea – possibly even more in the time it has taken me to type this and drink the tomato juice and the peppermint tea the kindly hostess has brought me.
New hybrid proteas are being bred with extreme eagerness, mostly because of the aforementioned spectacular quality of their long-lasting blooms and the fact that florists can put them in bunches of native flowers to bulk them out and add to their general gorgeousness. A small selection of proteas gives a non-stop display of flowers and buds from May until mid-September. Proteas thrive best in cool and temperate parts of Australia – preferably districts with maximum summer temperatures of around 30 degrees. Areas with moist winters and heavier spring rainfall followed by dry summer weather suit proteas perfectly.
However, no proteas that I know of like rich fertile moist soil. Sandy is fine, reasonably dry is excellent, shale is quite good, excellent drainage their one true demand. One exception to the sandy, well-drained rule is Pink Ice, which has been known to thrive even in clay soils when enthusiastic gardeners water them twice a week.
Most like full sun but, in frosty areas, dappled shade is good as it gives them some protection. In coastal areas, go for slightly blue, furry-leafed or silvery-grey-leafed proteas. But mostly, head to your local garden centre, garden clubs or fabulous protea growers and ask what grows best in your area. You may not even have to ask – whatever is sitting out there in the garden centre backyard right now will probably sit equally happily in yours. Buy it or buy several, as those blooms are invaluable for establishing guest goodwill.
And do not feed. Superphosphate can kill them. Too much nitrogen can make then look good for a few years then they go phut, which is a technical term meaning they suddenly turn yellow or even begin to turn to dust while your back is turned. I'm sure I panted a protea there, you will say, when all that is leaf I is left is a dry stem and silvery-grey crumbling leaves.
But they do like a nice bare patch around them for three or four years. For some reason – possibly humidity, possibly root competition – they tend to die when grass is allowed to grow around them. Nor do they like weeds. The classic, cultivated, average garden soil is best for them, kept weeded or even a rock garden, in a raised bed if you have clay soil – just add a great pile of rocks and sand and then plant the proteas.
If you really want to cosset them, I am told they love magnesium, that is, a handful of Epsom salts over the root zones and then well watered in … but I have never tried it. I think my proteas might go phut in shock if they had any cosseting.
Once they are established, don't dig around them – they don't like root disturbance as their roots have evolved to do their very best under trying circumstances, extracting all possible nutrition from nutrient-free soils. Disturbing the roots upsets this balance.
Mulch with sugar cane mulch but keep it away from the stem, as proteas can get collar rot if there is damp mulch – or weeds or lawn – next to them or even mulch with rocks, which will increase warmth as well as help keep down weeds.
I don't prune ours but I do cut a very large amount of leggy stem each time I pick a bloom. Our proteas are leggy because they are in too much shade, so if you find a perfect spot you may not need to do this nor any other pruning either. If you want them to look neat, then neaten them in whichever way you see fit, though the usual rule applies – if you cut a branch back beyond leaf level/where the last leaves grow, it will probably die and, in dying, cause an infection that can cause severe phut in the rest of your plant.
But mostly: find the right plant for your climate, the right spot for your plant (try reading the label for more specific advice for that particular variety) then plant, weed, and then neglect, except when they are in bloom, in which case pick often and give away as many as you can. Proteas are the perfect flower gift: not native but glowing in the vase for a long, long time. Just make sure it's in an opaque vase, not a glass one, unless your friends are very careful housekeepers.
This week you should:
* try not to even think about gardens at 20,000 feet or you will get Garden Deprivation Syndrome, which may lead to you buying half the next bulb and perennial catalogue that lands in your in tray;
* prune any leggy proteas or leucodendrons or waratahs;
* heap those daggy autumn leaves into what will be a new garden bed next spring, or use the leaves from under established trees to mulch the young ones – they are going to need them this coming summer;
* decide what spring and summer annuals you are going to plant when the frost is over, or you will end up with spreading petunias … again … think red Californian poppies;
* pick a frost-softened, sweetened orange or mandarin, nibble some of the peel too, assuming it is fungicide free, which it should be if it's home grown and didn't have to survive long, weary, transport fatigue – frost-softened orange peel can be a delight;
* find a recipe for cumquat marmalade or cumquats in gin or brandy or vodka, which takes less time but may not be a breakfast option – at least it's not in our house – but is extremely good with large amounts of ice cream in a few months' time; and
* in a case of cumquat deficiency, find someone with a tree and remember the "boomerang" rule – one jar for whoever gives you the fruit and then plant your own. Now.
Jackie French recipes
The chocolate sandwich
Possibly as a result of the food that airlines claim is only tasteless because it is eaten at 20,000 feet I am dreaming of simple food that has flavour. Like a warm chocolate sandwich. The chocolate isn't warm by the way, just the bread.
2 slices crusty white bread
a thin scraping of butter
3 tbsp extremely good at least 70 per cent dark chocolate, chopped – not grated, but chopped
Thinly butter each slice of the bread. Scatter the chocolate on one of them. Put on the top slice and insert into a hot oven – as hot as it gets – for two minutes. This is to warm the bread but not melt the chocolate so you get the delicious contrast between warm soft bread, crusty bread and the crunch of chocolate warmed just enough for the best mouth feel. Eat in small nibbles, to make it last as long as possible.
The best ham and cheese sandwich
Note: I do not eat ham, but I have made this, under orders, in a restaurant. And by the repeat orders, suspect it is very good indeed.
2 slices thick crusty, crusty white bread or multigrain, or even rye
grainy Dijon mustard
2 or 3 very thick slices of strong cheese, like cheddar, wide enough to cover the bread
3 slices of ham, each big enough to cover the bread
Spread each slice with mustard. Add a layer of cheese on one side the of bread slice, then put the ham on top of the cheese, then another layer of ham, then top with another mustard covered slice of bread. This will mean that the melted cheese sticks the bread and ham together so you can eat it without melted cheese and bits of ham dripping down your shirt. Or not as much, anyway.
Lightly butter the outside of each slice of bread. Place in a frying pan on medium and fry till one side is brown and crisp, then turn it over, carefully, so it doesn't slip. Cook about the same amount of time on the other.
Remove, place on a hot plate, cut as needed and eat. The bread should be crisp outside, soft inside, the cheese just on the point of turning liquid and the ham hot. If it needs more, place in a hot oven for few minutes.
We had customers who never ordered anything else on the menu, just one of these, with possibly a green salad on the side.
Fiddly to make, yes. But if you find in mid-winter you need a toasted sandwich – or a hot one – that is very good indeed.