Wanted: shrubs that will survive deep frost; summers with the breath of bushfire; droughts and water restrictions; and the thin soil of what was once heavily cleared and overgrazed paddocks. Or rather, shrubs that adore or ignore all of that, and bloom and grow gloriously.
Like rhododendrons. This is the beginning of the 'glorious shrub' season, and rhododendrons are among the earliest of our region's spring and summer shrubs.
I had been growing rhododendrons for years before I realised I had them, when they suddenly burst into bloom. A friend had given me two minute plants which lurked for at least a decade among the camellias. The camellias duly bloomed - Japonica and sasanqua camellias are happy in our area too, and once they have been growing for a decade or so their deep roots will see them survive the worst of conditions. They may die back, but even if it takes two years, will sprout again.
The rhododendrons did nothing much. They are also slow growers. Some are exceptionally slow - about 1 centimetre a year. Others may make 60cm a year, but don't expect them to double in size each year like many other shrubs. On the other hand, rhododendrons keep growing, sometimes for hundreds of years. That, however, will be a problem for future generations.
Then one unusually damp year the rhododendrons suddenly bloomed, great extraordinary branches of the most flagrant reds. I still forget they are there, still slowly growing larger, till they bloom at this time each year.
I accidentally planted our rhododendrons in exactly the right spot, on a slope above the tap where they are reasonably regularly watered, but the drainage is excellent, and where they are shaded by the larger camellias and various deciduous trees in the afternoon but receive some morning sun. Rhododendrons also love lots of mulch as they are relatively shallow rooted, and that slope is where I chuck out all the spent flowers from the vases, tea leaves, coffee grounds etc, which works well, as rhododendrons also prefer slightly acidic conditions. Rhododendrons don't need pruning, but if you feel like a bit of neat fussing, clip of the flowers as they die off.
Our two surviving azaleas have also burst into bloom (the wallabies ate the others). Burst is exactly the right word - one day nothing, next day a haze of florid red-pink. Azaleas also thrive in a slightly acidic, moist soil with good drainage. They look great planted en masse, but a single one can still look spectacular. I am currently envying a friend's - she sent me a photo from her Melbourne garden. She claims to have done nothing but plant it, nor can she remember the variety (I wish I could tell from the photo), but she says passers-by stop to exclaim at it.
Azaleas bloom in either full sun or dappled shade in our climate. Those in full sun are a bit more spectacular, but the blooms last longer in shade. Possibly the best spot is under tall, late-leafing deciduous trees where they have almost full sunlight to bloom but are shaded in summer. Watch out for the mottled leaves of mite damage though if they are shaded by taller shrubs, as red spider mite is mostly a problem where the leaves don't get rain or other watering.
Both azaleas and rhododendrons will do well with a wetting agent given according to the directions on the packet, so water both penetrates dry soil and is retained. It is also essential to read the label, as the advice above is for your "everyday" varieties, and some stunning rarer ones have quite different needs.
Canberra is also possibly the native shrub capital of Australia, not least because our Botanic Gardens show exactly how stunning they can be, and what varieties grow best here. My favourite just now is indigophera, because I'm waiting for our wild ones to bloom, a great scarlet blaze across the ridges above the house. But every grevillea I've tried here has survived, even ones labelled "frost sensitive". If you choose the right varieties, you'll have grevillea blossom all year.
Thryptomene blooms here all winter, and purple hop bush always looks fabulous, and Banksia "birthday candles" is almost too cute. Go wild, almost literally - most varieties you buy will have been carefully bred to be hardier and more floriferous than their truly wild relatives.
Also remember that most native shrubs have a cunning way of surviving drought - they flower, seed and die, and their progeny emerge when it rains again. Don't expect them to be drought tolerant. They will need watering. They will also need pruning.
Wild flowers look fabulous in their natural setting - which is not your front garden. Wild flowers en masse are so stunning that you don't notice the dead or straggly bits. The smaller the space, the more plants need to be neatly tended, whether it be front garden or patio.
Most native shrubs also need excellent drainage - rockeries and raised garden beds are an excellent option. Some, like mint bush, tolerate shade. But Australia is a vast country, and her shrubs have their own needs depending on where they originate. Despite the "Braidwood Waratah" living wild only a few kilometres from our place, it grows naturally in deep basalt soil in rainforest conditions where the trees capture the regular sea mists. Waratah grow here only as long as I have water for them, i.e. about half a dozen years at a stretch.
Read the label, Mabel, and hunt out plants that are not only ones that you adore, but that will love being in your garden too.
This week I am:
- Trying to convince myself that not every cherry blossom is going to lead to fruit - and not every fruit will be gathered by human hands before the birds and fruit bats get them.
- Extending the guards on last year's small fruit trees, because the wallabies are ignoring the grass to nibble what must be delicious new shoots, breaking the branches in the process.
- Waiting for the enormous white banksia rose to bloom. It gets more vast and more wonderful each year, and is difficult to prune well. Don't grow her unless you have a post or fence where she can occupy an ever larger space.
- Resisting temptation. It is still too early to plant summer veg in the garden, though not to germinate them indoors.
- Loving the mass of white Florentine iris outside my study window. I planted them as they are the source of orris root, - the dried and round rhizome powder becomes more fragrant for years, and helps 'fix' other perfumes. It was also used as medieval toothpaste and for much else. I've yet to use the powder after first trial, but love their early colour before most other irises bloom.
- Picking as much parsley and silver beet as I can. Some goes to the chooks, and some as mulch, but the plants will keep giving leaves as long as I can pluck out every seed head before it begins to bloom.