Once, I was the happy possessor of two grandmothers with exquisite gardens, and wide ranging gardening skills. Not that either Grandma or Jannie gardened. Jannie (combine Jean and granny) gave Granddad the required garden labour directions. Grandma had 'a man' who came two days a week.
Jannie's gardening consisted of deadheading the camellias, pursuing camellia catalogues for stupendous but still tasteful new varieties, and designing extensions for her maze of gravel paths that would then be planted out for camellias.
Her camellia year began in early autumn, with sasanqua camellias flowering in the sunniest part of the upper garden or next to the house. From mid autumn to late spring japonicas bloomed in semi-shaded spots, with a display of few almost but not quite vulgarly spectacular reticulatas with their massive, awe-inspiring flowers from late winter to mid spring.
Jannie could answer any camellia question, from ''why are my camellia leaves partially brown?'' (sunburn: move the camellia or give it a sunshade) to ''why do the buds fall instead of open?'' (add liquid magnesium or mulch with good and presumably magnesium-containing compost). Why pick off browning blooms? Partly so the display would always be as perfect as Jannie's neat asparagus and brown bread rolls, partly because decaying flowers can spread fungal problems to the other flowers so they begin to brown too early, and mostly so that the bush's vigor goes into flower, bud and leaf producing, not setting and maturing seeds.
Grandma's garden was the opposite of Jannie's immaculate paths. Grandma's garden tumbled down an almost 90-degree slope to Sydney Harbour. Most of it could be accessed only by the 210 steps up to the front gate, or sometimes with a brush hook.
The garden looked like natural bushland apart from its unsually lush flowering and well shaped shrubs, but wasn't, even though most of the plants - unusually for the time- were natives. The only level areas were a small stretch out the back big enough for a clothes line, and several vast sandstone rock ledges among the shrubbery that I loved to sit on and read or watch the harbor.
Various snakes also enjoyed the rock ledges. 'The man' was supposed to remove them, but the snakes sensibly declined to sunbake on the days he was there. I discovered that a girl who stayed immobile (apart from turning pages) and a dozing snake could co-exist. The snakes tactfully pretended they were sticks, and I pretended I couldn't see them, and never mentioned them to Grandma in case reading expeditions on the ledges were curtailed
Grandma knew that natives need to be pruned often for the best flower display and to stop them growing twiggy and deceasing prematurely, and that the native species in her garden all loved rocky soil and excellent drainage.
Grandma was also an expert on growing daphne, her favourite flower. Her knowledge could be summed up as: always plant daphne in exactly the right place, then ignore them apart from picking a scented bunches of flowers every week in winter. 'Exactly the right place to plant daphne' was coincidentally along the edge of the garden near Grandma's kitchen as well as by her front door. Her daphne had perfect drainage on the slope and light shade from the taller shrubs, with the house providing slightly denser shade from the harbour's reflected light in the morning. Other useful bits of daphne lore exist, but I've followed Grandma's advice and nothing more for our three daphne bushes, and all three have thrived and bloomed for decades.
Jannie didn't live to see my garden. Grandma was slightly shocked to see that I got my hands dirty here, and usually the rest of me too, but she was won over by vast white-fleshed peaches like the ones of her childhood that are too juicy to carry far from the tree. Some of my best memories are of Grandma eating her first peach here, juice running down face, hands and frock, and Jannie smiling at me from her camellias as I was delivered to her house. The smile was possibly partly because she usually had managed to find another six books I hadn't read, mostly Australian poetry or poignant stories or new Children's Book Council of Australia shortlists, and she had them waiting for me, next to the bud vase with two camellias.
This week I am:
- Suddenly discovering the garden has turned golden - or at least the pear, apple and gingko leaves have. No red or orange shades yet.
- Watching the world's slowest cucumber mature. It set about a month ago, and we have had several frosts and nights averaging 2-4 degrees since then, but it is still growing, double the size it was three weeks ago, which makes it about as big as my thumb nail.
- Picking the first camellias of autumn and watching the daphne buds swell.
- Not getting around to weeding the onions. If I don't do it soon we will have an excellent weed crop and no onions. I should have interplanted with pansies or alyssum, but there were no seedlings to be had and I forgot to plant the seed.
- Discovering that the parrots have just eaten our entire apple crop, all three of them. Three apples, I mean, not three parrots.
- Picking paperwhite jonquils, which scent the entire house.