One year.

It has been one year since that fateful afternoon when, at around 1pm, we fled our house to escape a bushfire which tore through our property and many hundreds of acres of land around us. One year! How absurd! As per the cliché that is often reported but never seems explicable, time has flashed past and yet it seems like just yesterday. So much has happened in the year since 17 February 2017, and still I can feel that afternoon in my bones, as if it happened moments ago... minus the sudden, gasping-for-air sobbing that kept randomly bursting out of me, thank goodness!

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When hubby and I were talking this morning about how I might write about the past year on The Tree Diaries, we broke it up into what we have done well / what we still want to do / what we've done badly. The conversation got stuck on our failures and all the things we should have done better, sooner, more professionally. It was more than a little disheartening. I have decided not to include those thoughts here. Yes, absolutely, we have "failed" in many ways in this past year. BUT - and it's a justifiably big BUT - we have come a long way in the past 12 months, and I genuinely think we should be chuffed with our efforts, no matter the shortfall. 

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Our house is back to being fully functional (which took a full 11 months, and ours didn't even burn down!), and our garden is looking really rather lovely. Different, to be sure, but quite lovely. All in all, things are pretty great. The photos I have included in this post perhaps don't do it justice, being high (horrible) summer and all, but I've done my best to capture where the garden is at in this moment in time.

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Since I last wrote about it on here, several trees we thought had survived ended up dying and had to be removed - including, sadly, almost all of the ornamental pear trees. Amazingly, six trees we thought were dead actually recovered. They had to be pruned back to just above the graft in some cases, but we decided that if their roots were strong enough to survive a bushfire, it didn't matter what shape they ultimately took, shrubby or not. These included two birch trees, a gleditsia, a liquid amber and a tulip tree (which is a sad specimen at only around 20cm tall!). However the most significant of these surprise survivors was our claret ash. I can't even begin to explain our joy in that! The claret ash on our top terrace has been a treasured marker of time and experience in our garden. It was originally planted outside the fence line in our (ridiculous, in hindsight) attempt to plant trees all around the property with no way to water them. It received a lot of love from me and my watering can, but ultimately it was clearly doomed and I pulled it out and potted it up. We managed to keep it alive for another year like that, barely, until we finished landscaping and put it in the first garden bed we made. It was virtually ringbarked by kangaroos, it was straggly and tiny... and within the year it became the focal point of the garden! After the fire it seemed unlikely to recover, but we kept water up to it and fertilised it heavily on the advice of a family friend. Come spring it was showing signs of life, so we cut it back hard, allowing every bud plenty of room to grow. The plan worked and that ash is once again the focal point of the garden. I still have to pinch myself every time I look out and see it there - the perfect symbol of resilience.

Apart from the claret ash and some amazingly vigorous carpet roses, the whole top terrace is new. We decided early on in spring that we couldn't face tackling the whole garden this year, so we focussed our efforts on the top terrace and the back-front garden, the only part of the garden to have survived thanks to air waterbombing. We have invested a lot of time and money into those spaces, including making the fairly risky decision to buy a few advanced trees in the hope of getting instant shade and boosting our spirits. So far it has been a good gamble, and we have no regrets about investing into these spaces to make living here more bearable in the face of scorched everything. We haven't rebuilt the cubby house (which was hidden in the maple grove), but last autumn we built the kids a small sandpit next to the new-and-huge trampoline, and have slowly built a brand new garden space around that. It is now one of our favourite parts of the garden, where it used to be dry and neglected.

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In truth, everything else has been more or less ignored, or our half-hearted efforts have been largely unsuccessful. Sadly that includes our attempt to replant a smaller version of the maple grove but, as I mentioned earlier, this is not going to be a place to dwell on our failures, so let's not go there!

The Coopermarket (vege garden) has been part of our 'ignore-for-now' plan. The garden beds are rebuilt, but we haven't yet refitted the plumbing into that part of the garden and the whole large space remains empty. We intend to get to that this autumn (I hope!), and the kids and I have already started making plans for a small winter crop of veges. We are all still missing the chooks too, so a priority for the coming year is to rebuild the Taj Ma Fowl - the most epic of hubby's creations - and get some more feathery friends to share our garden with.

The orchard is similarly absent. A dear friend of mine popped round with a few fruit trees in the weeks after the fire, and we planted them and have enjoyed watching them grow since, but haven't made any plans to plant more at this stage. I suspect we will actually one day replant an orchard within The Coopermarket instead of the main garden, but it is not currently on our priority list. 

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My personal pet project for the past year has been to try to fill our garden with flowers and, by extension, insects and birds. My bee hives were destroyed in the fire and we haven't seen many foraging bees in the garden this year, unsurprisingly. But we have had an epic butterfly and bird year! I have become completely obsessed with sightings of winged friends - I even take notes of sighting dates and locations: #twitcher ! Just yesterday I saw the first supurb blue fairy wren outside my bedroom and I think I squealed! We had a swallowtail butterfly the size of a tea saucer around for a few days, although it was much too flittery for me to capture on film. I did catch some shots of our first scarlet jezebel butterfly on the fading buddleia though. It has been a total joy to see life come back to our garden, slowly but surely.

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Anyhoo, I'm sure I could go into much more detail about what we have and haven't done in the twelve months since that awful afternoon, but I think my time would be better spent getting out into the garden and being optimistic about the year ahead. It seems inevitable that we will experience another bushfire here one day - part and parcel of making a home in the Aussie bush - but I am desperately hoping that we can get another decade or two of gardening and growing time in before it happens, in the hope that much more survives next go-round.

Botanical heirlooms

This has been a week full of big emotions and nostalgia - my daughter started school. A bittersweet time, handing over the care of my constant companion for the past 5 years (longer when you think of the incomparable connection of being pregnant, travelling the world together, just the two of us…). Anyhoo, suffice to say that an awful lot of time this week has been spent in sentimental contemplation. 

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In one of those funny twists of fate, this week also happened to coincide with the inaugural flowering of some bulbs my mum had divided from her garden two years ago. As we put them in to our garden much too late in the season, they didn’t flower that first year. But the bulbs survived the fire and surprised us just this past week with their first blooms. These are Amaryllis belladonna, or belladonna lilies (commonly referred to as “naked ladies”). While they are certainly a pretty plant, the real joy is in their history  - these bulbs have a long story of familial division. My bulbs are from mum’s garden, via her mum’s garden, originally grown in the garden of their family home in Kirribilli when my mum was a little girl. True heirlooms, spanning many decades and places.

A friend of mine recently shared a beautiful note about the hydrangeas in her Canberra garden. They were grown by her mum from cuttings taken from her grandmother’s garden, which were originally from her mum’s childhood home. The thought of the history of my friend’s hydrangeas, and how much more meaningful they are than something newly acquired from a nursery… well, it makes this overly-emotional, nostalgic heart of mine super happy!

Botanical heirlooms are probably the only ones I take pleasure in - I’m not one for “stuff” or antiques or fancy, too-precious-to-sit-on furniture. I like to see old objects and think about their past owners, but I have no desire to own them. But plants which have lived in the gardens of the people I love, for decades before ending up in mine? Pure joy!

One of my goals over the next few years is to learn to propagate plants from cuttings, and to get better at collecting and growing plants from seed (or acorn or… nut?). Obviously there is a thriftiness element to this plan, but moreover I’m motivated by the idea of being able to grow plants from the places and people I treasure. Perhaps one day my kids can take part of Widgetopia when they move to their own homes, even if it is just a bulb they force each spring in a pot in a tiny apartment. I’m also motivated by the idea of being able to pinch cuttings on neighbourhood walks and propagate them on a windowsill (just like I’ve watched my mum do for the last thirty-odd years!), not that I’m advocating botanical thievery ;)

I’m currently waiting patiently to see signs of root growth on some hydrangea cuttings from our family home in Wingello - a place so entwined with major life events for me it just seems fitting to try to have a piece of it here at Widgetopia. But in the meantime, we already have a few botanical heirlooms in our garden, which I treasure deeply and thought I’d share with you all.

These dutch iris bulbs (Iris hollandica) were given to me by a dear friend of mine, divided from her garden and her parents' before that. I truly didn't think they would survive the fire, but they did indeed and bloomed again in October.

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Last winter, my hubby's folks moved house, leaving behind my mother-in-law's extraordinary, beautiful, made-from-scratch garden. Thankfully, the garden was able to be thinned out a bit without damaging it's overall appeal, so we were able to take bags and bags of hellebores, violets and bulbs to put into our fire-ravaged one. I am so grateful not just for the actual plants, but for that piece of history from my in-laws' gorgeous garden.

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We've had bearded irises (Iris germanica) from my godmum's garden in ours for many years now, after my mum brought down several garbage bags full... they had travelled all the way from Toowoomba, 1200km north of us! They were the very first thing to pop up post-fire, and they are surviving with virtually no care this year as we deal with other parts of the garden. Very thankful to have this part of my godmum's garden bringing us cheer, year after year.

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We also have some little camellias and a few bigger shrubs from my mum-in-law and from my husband's grandmother's garden. So so special! 

I’d love to know if you have heirlooms in your garden too - who are they from, where did they live before they came to grow with you?

Garden notes // Buddleia

Early morning, high noon, the long hot dusk in our garden, throughout this summer, have all been a frenzy of fluttering. Butterflies everywhere! And it's courtesy of today's feature plant: buddleia. 

Buddleia (Buddleja davdii and other Buddleja species) is commonly known as the butterfly bush, with good cause - butterflies smother these shrubs when they are in flower. They become the garden honeypot in midsummer, attracting all the pollinators - honey and native bees, hoverflies, and every kind of weird and wonderful beetle you can imagine.

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Buddleia is a deeply unfussy plant. It needs watering, but not a lot, and that’s about it. Oh, and a vigorous prune at the end of every autumn or in early spring, as the flowers will only grow on new wood the following year. Don’t be gentle - the harder the prune the better. To keep a nice, manageable shape and avoid the bush getting leggy, you really want to get off all the old wood. We take ours all the way back to about a foot of growth.

But really, it couldn’t be easier to grow. And the reward for such little effort seems undeserving. Buddleia is madly floriferous - depending on the variety, you might get long “spikes” made up of thousands of tiny flowers, or small perfectly round balls of them. They bloom all through summer and into autumn, and will continue to reflower if you remove spent heads. Buddleia flower spikes also work beautifully as cut flowers and smell like honey - heavenly!

We have bushes growing very successfully in full harsh sun, with very little protection from strong winds. They are perfectly tolerant of our hard frosts/light snow, but as buddleia are deciduous they don’t offer much interest throughout those winter months. In fact, from our experience it also takes them a little longer than most plants to get going again in spring, so don’t rush to worry that they died over winter. 

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The only thing to be mindful of is that these bushes do grow quickly - really quickly! They can easily grow a couple of metres (yup, metres!) in height and width over early summer, so planting them in the right spot is important, to avoid them outcompeting smaller plants. As they are self-seeding, buddleia do have the potential to spread out of control in some areas. Whilst not listed as a weed in Australia, they are in many parts of the world so do your homework before planting. 

And then sit back and watch in awe as the pollinators of your area go mad with delight!

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It's in the name, silly!

Let it be known that this is the summer I FINALLY figured out how to grow hydrangeas!

I don't think hydrangeas are particularly known for being finicky or difficult to grow but, after several failed attempts, I was about to give up. To be honest, I fully intended to blame our location - we have no truly shady spots and a lot of very rubbish "soil", so maybe it is too harsh for hydrangeas in this garden. They're English cottage garden plants, after all... perhaps it just wasn't meant to be at Widgetopia?

Except, I didn't want to give up because I love hydrangeas! They look amazing in the garden, but equally as wonderful in a giant vase. And giant vases of flowers is the only kind of "decorating" I do.

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Furthermore, I know there are plenty of people working with harsh conditions who can grow them... 

Anyhoo, at the start of last summer I moved the remaining, almost-dead clump of hydrangeas (the last of three plants I had tried in various places, and which I had replanted twice previously) to the garden just outside our bedroom. It is not a true "shade" garden, but I figured hydrangeas do need a fair amount of sunshine to get decent blooms, just minimal harsh afternoon sun and protection from the worst of the hot, dry summer winds. The garden outside our bedroom is the only one which vaguely meets these criteria right now.

How lucky that we moved them there! Firstly, the water bombing aircraft had a direct hit over that corner of the house, so it was the only section of garden saved from the bushfire. And secondly, that sad, almost-dead clump decidedly loves this garden and has gone bananas!

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So, certainly, I think location counts for a fair bit. But you know what I really think made all the difference? WATER! Lots and lots of water! Who would've thunk that a plant with a name derived from two Greek words - hydor meaning "water", and angeion meaning "vessel" - would thrive with lots and lots of water. Duh!

We exist solely on tank water here. We have no dam (although we hope to put one in eventually) and no bore (which is fine by me, as I have real concerns about the ramifications of the large-scale removal of water from the water table). Our garden takes the majority of our water, but if we run out, the garden has to go without. As such, we water everything minimally and know that things will take a lot longer to grow as a result. But with so little garden left, this year everything remaining or replanted is getting a lot of love and a lot more water than in years past. As a result, this sad little hydrangea bush has taken off.

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Never one to do things by half, my surprise at keeping one bush alive has led me to put in five more. Four of them are doing okay but certainly won't flower beyond their potted flower heads this year, but one is starting to re-bloom. Very exciting! I honestly can't remember which variety this pink one is but I believe it is a lacecap type. This means that its colour will likely change to blue/purple over time as a result of our slightly acidic soil, like other H. macrophyllas varieties. 

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I've also decided that 2018 is the year I learn to propagate from cuttings, so I am trying my hand at that with some hydrangeas from my parents' house... not as confident about this project, but I will report back if I have any success.

Somebody else's garden (An interview with Beth Macdonald)

Many of you have found this blog because of my series of Gardening From Scratch interviews, chatting to people about starting a garden completely from a blank slate: dreaming up the perfect outdoor space and then trying (and sometimes failing and trying again) to create it. I adore talking to people who have achieved this, because it makes me truly believe that I can do that here at Widgetopia too. But recently I have given a LOT of thought to the flipside of that proposition - what if you move to your dream home and it already has a beautiful and established garden? How do you make that garden your own? How do you make it the perfect garden for YOU, not the little old lady who sold you the home (and made that garden her lifetime’s work)? Is there a way to respect the gardener who went before you, but get rid of the lurid variegated fuchsia standard tea rose (or insert other pet garden peeve here)?

Recently, my hubby and I toyed with the idea of moving. We even went to some open homes - we were actually quite serious about the plan, albeit very briefly. Turns out that we can’t move because we are completely in love with our house, our property and the idea of seeing this garden we have worked so hard on come to fruition over the next decades. But whilst we were on the hunt for the perfect garden with a house somewhere within it, these questions of moving into "somebody else’s garden" were front of mind. 

So, I posed the questions to a woman I admire and whose garden is dreeeeeamy indeed. Beth Macdonald is the voice behind the epicly honest, hilarious and joyously relatable blog Baby Mac. I have followed her for a few years now - in fact since the day that I was researching how to hedge a banksia rose and stumbled upon this photo of her yellow one (not hedged, but a glorious photo that stuck in my mind). 

Several years later and I feel like Beth and I are girlfriends, despite having never met (surely the highest compliment of her work as a blogger, no?). I have admired her garden in the beautiful Southern Highlands town of Burrawang from afar, and have loved watching her celebrate its beauty throughout the seasons. Beth writes so eloquently about the joy her garden brings to her family, but also about the steep learning curve when moving from an inner city terrace to a rural garden - and the sheer amount of work involved in keeping it up to scratch!   

As she moved to her home when it already had quite an established garden, I thought: who better to pepper with my questions than Beth?

The Tree Diaries: What triggered your move from Sydney to Burrawang? What did you dream of for your life there?

Beth Macdonald: The move was never really anything we planned long term or even dreamt of. It was pretty much born out of frustration of our life in Sydney - feeling like we were on a constant wheel enjoying nothing and just surviving. A one off drive home through the country (with me crying saying I don't think life is meant to be like this) had Rob say "why don't we just move to the country?!" And so we did!

TTD: Did you have a garden in Sydney, or any gardening experience before you moved? 

BM: Our garden in Sydney was just a courtyard - that's it! I was expert at pots and herbs but that was it. Growing up though we had gorgeous gardens and I spent every spring the Blue Mountains with our family visiting open gardens. I had posters on my walls of Monet's garden so while it wasn't a part of our life then, it was always a love affair thanks to my Mum.

TTD: Were you overwhelmed moving into a property with an established garden, especially in a town so filled with beautiful gardens? Was there any pressure from the neighbours and local gardening gurus to keep up the green thumb standards?

BM: Absolutely! The pressure was well and truly on and we had NO clue what we were in for. SO much mowing, hedging...while our garden is pretty low maintenance with hedges and trees and not many garden beds it is FULL on for so many months of the years and someone is ALWAYS paying attention to what is going on.

TTD: Any lessons you’ve learned in making an established garden your own, tweaking it to reflect you and your family? Did it take a little while to really start feeling like YOUR garden?

BM: I still don't feel like it's my garden. With little kids it has been almost impossible to try and create the kind of garden I would want because it would take SO much time and I just don't have that at the moment. So while small additions have been made, trees planted and stuff it's been us maintaining it and keeping on top of it rather than making it our own. I still love it though!

TTD: You’ve been living in Burrawang for about 7 years now - do you think you have a lot more to build, change or create in the garden, or are you at the enjoy-and-maintain-stage?

BM: Hopefully when Maggie grows a little more I will be able to add a little more of myself into it - I would love more flower beds, but right now it's perfect for what I can do. I went and saw Mickey Robertson last year who said that it's OK to acknowledge times that you can do more, and others when you can't. I've come to terms with what I can and can't do, and I'm happy with what we have right now.

TTD: Is this your “forever garden” or do you see yourself creating a new garden somewhere else in the future?

BMcD: One day I think Rob would love to build a house on some more land so that would involve a garden - which terrifies me but also how amazing to watch something grow from scratch. 

TTD: Who inspires you in gardening? Are there any gardens or gardeners in particular that you admire, or any books that you return to again and again for inspiration?

BM: Instagram is such a great place for me to get all my inspiration - so many wonderful gardeners and growers to follow. I have a friend @jennyroseinnes who is an amazing gardener and have been lucky enough to visit her garden. My sister lives in a  house with a gorgeous established English cottage garden that I am lucky enough to be able to enjoy. I love @hazelnigella and her garden account @hazelnigellaflowers , so many different florists @annabellehickson @paulbangay @clausdalby @floretflower @flowersvasette it's a visual delight out there that we all get to enjoy! My Mum is my original inspiration @suemacca52 .

//

Beth, thank you so much for letting us stickybeak in your garden and, more importantly, for sharing your musings with us everyday on Baby Mac. So many times you've said what we are all thinking (or screaming inside our overtired brains), and yet you ALWAYS find little joys and celebrate the small moments of life. And for that I am grateful.  

All photos taken by Beth McDonald and linked to her blog. Please respect her intellectual property in these photographs.

Catharsis

I suppose there are endless ways to process a dramatic event, many things you can do to help navigate the path through the inevitable mess that follows. This is the story of my path.

After the bushfire in February, I was feeling severely disenchanted with the Australian bush. I was becoming blind to the beauty, instead seeing it all as same old-same old - dry, dangerous and devastatingly hard to live within.

That pessimistic perspective started to shift when the eucalytpus regrowth began in May, three months after the fire. Suddenly our “dead” forest was alive again, and it was incredibly clear that there was nothing “same-old”  about our patch of Australia. The way the bark burned and shed and recovered, the variety of new leaves popping out of blackened trunks, the incredible fungi that thrived in the ashes… all of it made us acutely aware of just how biodiverse and special our 20 acres are.

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And so began a mission to, initially, identify every variety of eucalypt growing on our property. Sounds easy, but there are almost 900 varieties of gum tree in Australia, and a fair number of them are endemic to our part of the country. This was further complicated by the fact that all we had to go on were burn patterns on the trunks (different types of bark burn differently) and the new leaf growth that pops out all over the trees after a fire (called epicormic growth). I put a call out for advice and resources and, along with a huge number of reference materials, one friend suggested I go to an art exhibition at the Australian National Botanic Gardens by Sally Blake, who was exploring the dye potential of eucalyptus trees. WOW! What a wonderful worm hole that led me down!

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Anyhoo, to cut the rest of a 6-month story short, in this process we did indeed identify all of our gum trees, but I also became completely enamoured with the process of extracting botanical dyes and using them to dye wool. What resulted is two-fold: a unique dye-ary of our property, and such a strongly rekindled love of the bush that surrounds us that it defies explanation. 

I’ve been posting this process on instagram and quite a number of people have been in touch asking about creating and using eucalyptus dyes. Whilst all of this information is available online from people much more experienced than me, I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to add my much-simplified process here. 

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For this project, I chose to keep it as straightforward as possible - there are lots of way to get different colours from the same plants, but I was seeking a pure dye record of Widgetopia, not altered in any way. Eucalyptus leaf dyes are “substantive” dyes, which means that when they are used to dye wool it is not necessary to treat the wool first (“mordant” the wool) to get the colour to “stick”. To keep the colour as true as possible, I chose to only soak the wool in water (always untreated rain water, in our case, as that is all we have) before dyeing it. I found that the best ratio of leaf material to wool for consistent depth of colour was 3:1, so for every 50g skein of wool I dyed, I used 150g of leaf material. Beyond that, there is really nothing to it: 

1. Extract the dye by boiling leaves in water (the quantity of water is the amount you need to cover the leaves and keep it boiling for an hour - no different to cooking pasta, but for longer), and then let it cool completely.

2. Put the wool into the cooled dye pot, add more water if needed, and bring it to a simmer. Turn the heat off and let the wool cool completely in the pot.

3. Rinse the wool out and hang it to dry.

To avoid felting the wool (particularly a risk with non-superwash wool), always start and finish with all liquids at room temperature, and give the wool plenty of space in the dye pot. 

That’s it! There really is nothing more to it. I made a little video to show just how easy this process is, in case you are keen to give it a go.

The end result was a blanket made entirely of locally produced, superfine and totally luxurious merino wool (grown on a property just 20kms from us - at Millpost Merino), dyed only with eucalyptus trees growing on our property. And, more over, a rekindled love for my patch of this glorious planet.

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Bee School 2.0

I was lucky enough to attend another round of Bee School these past three weekends, which finished up yesterday. So. Much. FUN! 

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I got in touch with my teacher earlier in the year about my losing my hives in the fire and along with advice and commiserations, he offered a spot in this season's classes to help keep my skills up. So whilst this round was a generous freebie, once again I can happily say: bee school is the best school!

The location had changed - closer to home in a pretty riverside setting, and conveniently located next to my GP... not that one was required ;) - however the format was very similar to last time round. We suited up early on the first morning, and had plenty of time at the hives during all three lessons. I am such a fan of this type of immersion class - book-learning on my lonesome is my happy place... BUT when it comes to a skill like beekeeping, I really believe you need hands-on experience with a teacher guiding you, in the moment. You need the same things shown to you week after week until they have time to sink in. You need repetition, clear examples, and a teacher with endless patience for the "stupid questions". I'm not sure I would have the confidence to open a hive on my own if it weren't for this early guidance through the process before tackling it solo.

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By week three, everyone was confidently lighting smokers, opening hives, conducting hive inspections and even helping our teacher transfer a swarm hive into a new box. I'm sure many of us will realise we still have questions now that the course has ended, but they'll be questions we might not have thought to ask (or known WHO to ask) before taking the course. And isn't that great?!?! To realise that, actually, there's HEAPS I don't know and I want to learn the answers. My mind is wandering to Rumsfeld's "known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns" tangled truism, but it is so very true. Part of learning is realising how much more learning there is still to do. 

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Anyhoo, if you're interested in exactly how the course runs, you can check out my previous post and further information about the course can be found on the Canberra Bees website. While you're there, I definitely suggest joining the forum because it's an amazing source of information and support if you're starting out in beekeeping. Much of the advice is Canberra-region specific, but the "Renegade Bee Keeper" (or RBK, who runs the site) is unbelievably generous with his expertise and I'm sure he would happily help people further afield if he can. And because I've heard from lots of readers who've bought or been gifted a Flow Hive, I should mention that it's also a great spot to get advice about using, and adapting, Flow Hives.

And for all you beeple-people, a little bit of #queenspotting to end the post...

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Garden Ramble // Tulip Top Gardens

Tulip Top is one of those places I've vaguely thought about visiting for a few years, but never quite mustered the enthusiasm to make it happen. It always seemed like a bit of a tourist trap off the highway into Canberra, with its giant billboard and kitschy name.

But this year a girlfriend suggested a school holiday visit with the kids, and another garden-loving friend posted some gorgeous photos on instagram - through her lens it looked less cliche-tourist-exhibit, more gorgeous cold-climate garden in full spring blossom. I figured that it was worth a visit for inspiration, even if artistically-planned tulip displays really aren't my thing (and are free to see just down the road at Floriade right now).

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I'm pleased to say that my fear of underwhelm was tossed aside as soon as we got past the carpark. This garden is extraordinary! Seen from above, it is a canopy of deciduous trees, pines and conifers set into an otherwise totally unremarkable landscape. ("Unremarkable" in so far as that it is pretty typical for the NSW southern tablelands, in spring, after a long dry spell.)

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But just down that purple-hued slope covered with rosemary (and bees!) is a dreamy cold-climate rural garden, in full spring glory.

The tulips are certainly a feature, along with other bulbs and short-lived flowering annuals, but rather than being the only thing to see (as at Floriade), they are merely a fun seasonal display. They actually play second-fiddle to the extraordinary array of flowering ornamental trees in the garden.

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Not a single kitschy "flowers as art" display to be found - all the tulips were neatly tucked under deciduous trees, or formed into raised beds to divide the garden into smaller spaces for families to picnic and kids to run amok.  

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Our kids picked a picnic spot up the slope, hidden in a grove of crab apples, and it honestly felt like we were the only people there despite it being a super busy day in the garden. What a well-designed garden, that so many people can all enjoy it without feeling on top of each other.

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And the blossom! Oh the blossom! Cue the gratuitous crab apple blossom porn in 3..2...1...

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Another thing that really appealed to me about Tulip Top was that whilst exotic ornamentals were obviously the stars of the garden, they were so neatly mixed in with the occasional gum tree. Rather than completely erasing native trees (or trying to hide them), a few beautiful old eucalypts were incorporated into the main part of the garden, and they looked so wonderful included in this way. I adore eucalypts, and while they can be hazardous if allowed to grow too close to structures, I still want to be able to celebrate them at Widgetopia rather than build a garden that entirely ignores where we are located. Exotic trees and shrubs are shade-giving, bee-friendly, protectively fire-resistant and just plain glorious, but we live in Australia and have so many beautiful native trees and shrubs that can be worked into a mixed garden without losing those features. Tulip Top does a lovely job of that, I think.

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Anyhoo, suffice to say that Tulip Top well and truly exceeded my (granted, very low) expectations. If you live in the Canberra region it is totally worth the $16 entry fee (free for all kids). And if you are heading down for Floriade, definitely pop off the highway to see it - I would gamble that you will like it more than our city's famous tulip festival. 

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Plots and Plans // Windbreaks

Plots and Plans is a series of posts in which I daydream about ideas we have for our garden. Unless noted, the images in this series are not mine and have been found around the interwebs - all are clearly linked to their original source by clinking on the image and by clicking the links at the bottom of the post. 

We are pretty used to the "August winds" at Widgetopia - every year, right on cue, we spend the month of August making the most of any lulls in the crazy buffeting to go outside, and then dash inside to bunker down when it picks up and drives us mad for most of the day and night.

I'm reasonably confident that this year has been the most windy yet. I suspect that is partly because we lost a lot of the garden and all of our trees which previously diverted the wind nearest to the house. But I also think it has just been a much windier August (uhum, August, you ended weeks ago! Cut the winds already!).

Anyhoo, the upshot is that hubby and I have been talking windbreaks.

It seems extremely likely that the winds will only get more intense and last for longer stretches in the years to come. We don't want to spend the rest of our spring days hiding inside, so we have to think about how best to manage this issue. Obviously the simplest answer is planning and planting windbreaks - the trick is, where and what to plant?

In our region, large farms utilise windbreaks really well to help with erosion and crop and livestock protection. There are loads of beautiful examples of huge, acres-long breaks around here. However, most of the windbreaks we see are native trees (eucalypts) and shrubs (casaurina, acacia and grevillea, mostly), or huge pine trees or conifers. All wonderfully beautiful - and all highly flammable. Absolutely not going to happen here. 

So, we are exploring alternatives that are viable in our garden.

Last weekend we put in a line of bare root poplars (Populus simonii) along a fence line in front of the parking area and shed. We are hoping this helps to prevent the parking area from turning into an impenetrable dust cloud, and make accessing the shed a little less fraught on windy days. It should also provide good shade onto the shed and act as a last line fire break should a future fire come from the west again.

We are planning on putting in a deciduous forest below the bottom terrace of the garden (but within the backyard fence line) over the coming years. This will be a mixed, informal planting of deciduous trees that do well in our area - like robinia, tulip trees, ashes, elms, birches and the like. Think: lots of autumn colour and summer shade. It'll take a long time for these trees to reach a height to provide us with a windbreak for the house (which is on the top terrace), but they will hopefully help to make the bottom of the garden more useable in windy weather, even when they are small. Not to mention, of course, they will have excellent firebreak potential. We plan to underplant the "forest" with lawn first, but over time as the trees reach a full canopy, we hope to underplant with flowering bulbs and shade loving ground covers like violas, vinca and hellebores (to maximise bee forage). Something like at Kiloren, a garden in Crookwell originally designed by Edna Walling (you can find my full garden ramble post on that garden here).

We are also thinking about using well-placed hedges and small shrubberies to provide pockets of shelter throughout the garden. Hubby spent a few hours over the weekend moving soil onto exposed patches of the backyard which we will seed with grass, and with all that time pottering on the tractor he was inspired to make a plan for the rest of that area. At the moment it is a sad, wasted part of the garden - it adjoins the Coopermarket, right where the lovely chook coop was before being destroyed in the fire, and has been a bit too depressing to tackle until now. He sketched up his idea last night and I love it!

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You can see the recently planted poplar row on the left of the sketched image (they look a little forlorn and, quite ironically, wind beaten). Now to tackle the line of shrubs he has sketched on the right... hubby was thinking of something less formal than a neat hedge, which would require a level of maintenance we are just not willing to commit to. I think we could use photinia here, but allow them to be more rounded and free form than often seen when used as hedges. It would have to be the newer variety, Photinia x fraseri 'Red Robin', because Photinia glabra ‘Robusta' makes my tummy turn (it's that super stinky photinia that is planted all around Canberra suburbs - ugh!). 

We would like to include hedges and shrubberies like these at various places around the garden, to give us lots of smaller breaks. We can certainly replant the terrace garden beds with this in mind too, underplanting larger shade trees with mid-height shrubs to provide one continuous block of foliage.

Restarting the garden is such a lot of work to contemplate, but one thing at a time - let's get a few windbreaks in and allow them time to grow, to protect the garden (and us) in the years to come. 

The quick and the dead

I spent a few hours in the garden with my littlest the other day, tidying up the area outside his bedroom and getting it ready to replant. Unsurprisingly, we mostly pulled out dead things (well, he pretended to chainsaw them down with a stick, you know, “helping”) but, happily, there are soooooo many bulbs popping up all over that garden bed. This has been such a welcome surprise! Who knew they would survive?!

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The day after the fire, when we were allowed to reenter our property, my husband rushed around trying to replace some piping, isolate destroyed water tanks and do other vital things, whilst I fruitlessly tried to put out the fires still burning around the house with random, spoiled liquids from the fridge. After experiencing the initial overwhelming relief of finding we still had a house, I couldn’t get over the fact that everything around the house was still on fire. Every single garden bed was burning, a full 24 hours after the fire had hit. It was scary (could we leave our house overnight, which we had to do, and still find it there the next day?) and it was deeply distressing - I mean, flames were licking the windows of my kids’ rooms and it made me mama-fierce.

The amazing fire fighters who kept showing up to put out spot fires throughout the day reassured us that the house wouldn’t burn down - they were going to be there all through the night too and this was possibly the most protected our house would ever be - but that the fires around the house would likely keep burning for a day or two longer. The fire gets into the mulch (grrrrr mulch - a post for another day, but suffice to say we have completely changed our mulching plan from here on out) and then deep in the soil. Gosh this shocked me - I truly never knew that bushfires can keep burning long, long after the front has passed over. I mean, of course it makes sense, but I had never considered it before.

Anyhoo, the upshot was that the garden beds were burning for about 48 hours and I didn’t think a single plant could survive that. And while most things did indeed die, some plants (like those bulbs outside my son’s bedroom) SURVIVED!

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I thought it might be useful to share the things that are still alive and the things that we hold out hope for over the spring, in case you live in a vulnerable area and want to think about what might be best in your garden.

There are many amazing resources online (I'll link some at the end of this post) which provide well-researched advice to maximise the chances of your home surviving a bushfire. These include studies and resources about fire retardant and fire resistant plants, and they are great guides. But I wanted to share our experience because the theory doesn't always marry up with what happens in reality. For example, the flammability of plants is determined in lab conditions, using either fresh samples or oven-dried samples. Oven-dried is probably the most relevant because high-risk fire days are usually characterised by baking temperatures and the fire-front has so much heat ahead of it that anything which was fresh, or even freshly watered, is neither of those things by the time the fire hits. Certainly, some plants are far more flammable than others and really shouldn't be planted near your home, but realistically, all plants, even the fire retardant or resistant ones, are going to be potential fuel for a bushfire. Many of the plants listed in the expert advice were planted in our garden (because we had followed the advice!) and they didn't survive. Of course, had our garden been more established (with another decade or two of growing time before a bushfire), more may well have survived. And certainly, we are still very glad we had those plants in the garden - many of them probably had a protective factor for the house. I just make note of this because "fire retardant or resistant" does not mean you will still have a garden to return to after a bushfire.

WHAT SURVIVED

Ornamental pear trees - very few of our trees survived, and this is perhaps the saddest part of losing the garden. But what I found quite interesting is that even in parts of the garden where almost nothing survived, one or two ornamental pears look like they might be okay (time will tell for sure). They certainly didn't all make it - some burst into bud or blossom in a last-ditch attempt at life in the month after the fire and then promptly gave up - but a few look like they will be okay. Yay! 

Bulbs of all sorts - most of the bulbs that were at least 2 inches below the ground seem to have survived. In fact, some were thrown into an early spring and burst into life in the months after the fire (presumably because of the sudden increase in soil temperatures?), so they did suffer a bit through the first part of winter. Despite that, I’d say that about half of the bulbs we had before the fire seem to have popped up in the last month or so.

Hellebores - to be fair, at the tail end of summer the hellebores were mostly bare so there wasn’t much surface area to burn but, unlike the bulbs, they were still above ground. Yet even in garden beds that were alight a day later, many of the hellebores survived and are now in flower. They are bringing me so much joy this spring!

May bush - I have been amazed by how many May bushes survived - four are alive, about the same number dead. A month or so after the fire, I cut the surviving ones back almost to the ground, so they are all a fraction of the size they were, but I have a feeling that they will make a great comeback this spring.

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Carpet roses - in one of our terrace beds, the carpet roses at both ends have survived - and flowered again recently! They were so badly burned that we truly didn’t think they would come back at all, but a super heavy pruning did them the world of good. Other carpet roses around the garden weren’t so lucky. Sadly, not one of my beautiful old species roses survived. I’ll have to hunt around for some more in the coming years.

Lilacs - almost all of them survived and not one of them was a huge, established plant. I have been so impressed with the survival rate of the lilacs, and so grateful that some of them look like they are about to flower - I'm definitely going to be including more in our replanting!

Irises - goodness these recovered quickly! Almost all the irises started reshooting within weeks of the fire and have seemingly happily kept growing throughout the winter.

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Convolvulus - a few died, but many of them recovered and are already starting to flower. 

The lawns - I have made note of this in an earlier post, but the lawns have all recovered in varying degrees and almost certainly made the difference between a defendable house and a destroyed one. 

Everything that was directly water bombed - our house and shed were both water bombed, and there is one section of garden on the south east side of the house that didn't burn as a result of that water hit. Some plants in that area died from radiant heat exposure, but everything else survived including (we are fairly certain - tbc) the 6 lovely Robinia psuedoacacia mop tops just outside the laundry - yay!

WHAT DIDN'T SURVIVE

The maple grove - we had put loads of love (and money) into our maple grove. It was a large area directly in front of the verandah, on the west side of the house, which was the direction of the fire front when it hit our place. None of the trees were more than 5 years old, so we aren't talking about huge 10m specimens which may have had a better chance of surviving, but all of them were characterised as "fire resistant". Whilst not one maple survived we are fairly certain that its presence is part of the reason we still have a house. The kids' cubby house was in the middle of the grove and it was non-existent after the fire, just a small pile of dust, one piece of tin and some screws remained. And yet about a dozen of the maples were still in the ground, clearly dead, but not physically gone. The ones right below the verandah almost looked like they might recover (sadly none did). We think, although we aren't certain, that the fire resistant maples gave enough of a buffer for the firefighters who stood on the lawns and, eventually, the verandah to fight the fire. The fire investigators were very interested in the maple grove and took a lot of photos and notes about it, and I suspect that is why. Anyhoo, we will definitely be replanting the grove over the next few years, as time and money allow.

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The orchard - our very productive orchard was totally destroyed, which was heartbreaking. It was the first thing we planted when we moved here, and it provided us with so much delicious fruit in recent years. But like the maple grove, it was in the direct path of the fire and possibly helped to protect the house a little (fruit trees are considered to be fire resistant). We intend to plant a new orchard but this time we will include it in the Coopermarket so that it is easier and less inconvenient to net over the summer months.

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Our giant forest pansy - this loss is so sad, as we had such a huge, glorious tree outside the kids' rooms and it looked like it might recover for a while there. I suspect it was too damaged in its roots because the bed was burning for so long after the fire. We had a second smaller forest pansy on the other side of the house and it also died. Not the most resilient of trees (which we had always noticed in dryer times anyway - they need a LOT of coddling).

Ornamental apricots, cherries and crab apples - none survived, even when they were planted directly next to an ornamental pear that did survive. They were all young, but so were the pears, so I suspect that they are just much more susceptible to burn and heat damage, particularly to their roots.

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All other trees and shrubs - including some well established fire resistant trees like Chinese pistachios, liquidambar and tulip trees, as well as camellias, roses, smoke bushes (ironic really!), crepe myrtles and a few succulents (which are fire retardant, but evidently not in these conditions). I guess the heat and extended burning was just too much, which makes the fact that most of the ornamental pears survived the same exposure seem even more extraordinary.

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We know we are just so very lucky to have any garden left at all. Whilst it is devastating to lose much of our beautiful space that we've worked so hard on over the years, we have a lot to be grateful for. This is becoming more and more evident as spring progresses and things recover, even where we least expect them to. And, more than anything else, we survived and we still have our home. For that I will always, always be grateful.

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Other resources:  An incredibly comprehensive guide to landscaping for bushfire safety  |  A useful plant list  |  Advice about reestablishing your garden after a bushfire  |  Super interesting scientific study about the flammability of plants  |  

When one lacks a garden of one’s own

Well hello there friends,

Apologies, I haven’t been here in a while. It’s not so much been through a lack of inspiration (although that has ebbed more than flowed of late), but because… well, what does one write about on a gardening blog when the garden is no more?

I’d love to share some of the goings-on around Widgetopia without feeling overly restricted by the gardening genre of this blog… which isn’t to say that there will be a massive thematic departure on here - nature is my jam, after all - but I hope that the total lack of a garden of one’s own might not exclude me from writing here when inspiration does, sporadically, strike.

So —

Autumn passed in a perversely beautiful display at Widgetopia - who knew that the Australian bush could rival European forests for beautiful fall colours? I guess we found out the hard way, but it definitely can.

Not much got done here in those autumn months, sadly. I always kind of understood on some level that natural disaster recovery efforts were slow and drawn out, but I now know that huge reserves of patience are required. And we are a few of the lucky* ones after this bushfire, so we have nothing but gratitude for anything getting done at all (*though perhaps “luckier ones” is a better phrase because I am so sick of being told that we are just sooooooooo lucky after all of this - pardon my annoyance, but GRRRRRRR!). 

Insurance is a wonderful thing, but goodness me, it does not move swiftly. At all. In fact, it is just this past fortnight that the insurance subcontractors have begun any work out here. In the meantime of course we have done what we can, but it’s funny how limited that work can be when insurance claims need to be settled first. 

So, here we are, mid-winter and things are on the go. Fences are being mended, garden beds are being rebuilt. The shed is due to be torn down, panel-by-panel, and reconstructed in-situ next week. Hopefully (please please!) replacement tanks are imminent. We are getting there with the larger structural things, and come spring hopefully we can start on the garden. If I’m honest, I’m really not looking forward to that process… I feel guilty saying that the garden is too much, but it is. Emotionally, physically… it just seems too big a task to undertake all over again. But motivation will hopefully return a little, and things tend to get done eventually around here even without huge reserves of inspiration, so hopefully that will happen in time with the garden too.

I’ll leave it at that for now… sorry for being a bit glass-half-empty, but that’s the reality of things and I’d like this space to be truthful if nothing else. On a positive note, we have been loving watching the regrowth of the eucalypts on Widgetopia. It's stunning really, watching the leaves pop out all over the blackened trees. We potter around the property every day to see what's new. As a result, I’ve rekindled my (post-summer, seriously dwindling) love affair for our Aussie bush, and have fallen headlong down a rabbit hole of trying to really understand the native forest here. It's good and cup-filling-upeth. I will definitely have more to share on that front soon.

Until then, happy hibernating to you all xxx

Starting from scratch... from scratch

Where to begin? 

Oh goodness, where to begin? Actually, that is the perfect place to start because "where to begin?" is the phrase most repeated in our home right now. Where on earth do we begin?

On 17 February, a bushfire hit Widgetopia. It was dreadfully quick and thorough. It was utterly devastating. 

Image source: ABC News

Image source: ABC News

Thanks to the incredible bravery of the women and men of the Rural Fire Service - people who travelled hundreds of kilometres to help save the homes of total strangers - our house and shed were saved. How that was possible I cannot even begin to answer. The roof of our house caught alight, the pylons of the verandah were smouldering, the walls of the shed were singed and yet, here I sit having a cup of tea at my kitchen bench. Bizarre. 

We lost a lot. All 20 acres were alight, much of our garden was destroyed, our beautiful cabin is no more (a dear friend described the photo of it below as a "puddle of building", and that seems most sadly descriptive). Infrastructure we need to live here - our water tanks, plumbing, septic system - were all destroyed. But, BUT, we have our home! So many of our neighbours lost absolutely everything and were not as fortunate as us. Twelve families on our street were rendered homeless, possessionless, in one harrowing afternoon. It beggars belief.

So, where to begin? We honestly didn't really know for the first month or so. We started to repair the essentials in the first few days after we were allowed to reenter the property. We are dealing with our insurance company and too many subcontractors to count. We are all set to start rebuilding our beloved cabin. And whilst many may not see it as a priority in the aftermath of a bushfire, we have begun in earnest to rebuild our gardens. Starting with the one corner of the house that sustained no damage beyond heat stress, we started tidying, mulching, replanting. We have spread 50kg of grass seed atop the charcoal that was our lawns, and our terraces are looking almost artificially green and lush as a result. Actually, things are looking rather beautiful in a perverse way. Like an autumn that arrived much too early and thoroughly.

Before I show the newest of our "before" photos (because of course we fully intend to have more beautiful "after" photos again soon), I should say here that we have ZERO regrets about putting 6 years of tireless work in to our gardens only to have it almost totally destroyed in minutes. We spent every evening after work and all our weekends before we had our babies, and then every "spare" moment with them (often with a baby strapped to my chest), in our gardens and on our trails: building, planting, slowly coaxing our property to the stage it was a few months ago. It has been an intense labour of love. The fire investigators spent some time around our house taking photos and data for future teaching, because by rights our house should not have survived. Yes, it was water bombed by aircraft multiple times, but given the speed, ferocity and direction of the fire, our house could easily have been expected to be destroyed. Certainly there is a HUGE element of luck to account for this outcome (just look at the images of the perfectly prepared houses in our street that are no more), but the landscaping and gardens seem to have played an enormous roll in the survival of our home. I might write a bit more about this one day and I have written previously about the benefits of lawn in bushfire protection, but for now I will simply say - no regrets. And we will re-plan and replant, to grow our beautiful, soul-filled and soul-fulfilling garden once again... because:

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.
— Audrey Hepburn

(In case you are new to The Tree Diaries, the most recent photos of our garden before the bushfire can be found here).

Widgetopia: The first 5 years

This blog is, at least in part, the story of our garden. The dreaming of it, the making of it, the sheer hard work of it. It is not a finished story (not by any means!!), but that doesn't make it any less of a tale.

This afternoon we did the first mow of the season and, as we looked around, it was impossible not to think about how much has changed since we first moved here in July 2011. Ordinarily the shame of our weeds and the list of Things We Haven't Accomplished threaten to blind me to what we have achieved, and definitely prevent me from sharing our garden (or photos of it) with others. I tend to focus on the single beautiful flower rather than the whole garden - much easier to tilt-shift out the bad bits that way ;) But that's ridiculous and totally misleading and not at all what I want this sporadic blogging thing to be. 

So, hereunder lies an unedited, warts-and-all photo essay illustrating the making of this little piece of paradise we call home. I didn't bother to pick up the things dumped on the porch, or pretend that we don't have tools and old gates and junk around the Coopermarket. I haven't taken the laundry off the deck or hidden the kids' toys dumped around the yard... No editing, just real life. Enjoy!

[Note: most of the "befores" in this post are from the day we came out to inspect the house before we put in an offer. There are a some in here taken shortly after we moved in and did the clearing, and after we built the eight Coopermarket garden beds, but many are pre-ownership photos. Every single "after" shot is from this lovely spring afternoon. The time of day and time of year don't marry up with the originals, but you get the idea.]

The Coopermarket

Out the back (the back garden)

The Terraces (formerly The Dustbowl)

The front entrance

Before I finish, I should point out that we fell in love with our property as it was, without wanting to make any landscaping changes. We both love the Australian bush and simply wanted to spend all of our time building trails to ride and run (which is what we did for pretty much the entire first year here, by the light of head torches each night after work and every spare moment on the weekends). I wanted the bush to come right up to the doors and windows of the house, just as it had when we first fell in love with the place. However the danger of bushfires made clearing around the house a necessity, so we cleared and then contemplated our next move. A few years later, this is where we are up to. Plenty more to do (these photos are SCREAMING at me to add to my list!), but totally smitten with where we're at.

And lest you think that we have our sh*t together... as I was uploading these photos from my phone today, I noticed this. Many years later and the shovel still gets dumped in the same spot every time!

Around here

"Living seasonally" seems to be a bit of a thing these days, albeit somewhat hard to translate into an Australian lifestyle. Australian seasons tend to blur into one very long hot summer and a mild, miscellaneous season of spring-like weather but, in the southern tablelands, winter is very real indeed. Living seasonally on our little mountainside is somewhat inevitable and, to me, it is all kinds of wonderful! 

Whilst we don't get the deep, months-long freeze that marks winter in some parts of the world, we do get much colder weather than the rest of Australia. We've had several deep frosts so far this winter and hibernation is in full swing. Unlike summer, where the chores seem endless and the days are loooonnnnnggg and busy and the water tanks run dry and the bushfires threaten and the snakes are every whichway and it is so flippin hot all the time and URRRRGGGGGHHHHH!!!!!! 

Ahhhh, winter. She slows everything way way down and is naturally much more simple. The days are short and the mornings are too cold to achieve much of anything. We write far fewer "to-dos" and the pressure to get through them is much less. Our weekends suddenly feel restful, rather than a 48-hour block of hard labouring. The garden also slows right down - very little maintenance required - but it is the nicest time of the year to be outside for the warm hours in the middle of a crisp sunny day. Gardening becomes a lovely pleasure again, instead of a frustrating battle against the elements. I slowly rebuild my much-waning enthusiasm and have the space to daydream about things I'd like to do in the garden when spring rolls around. Winter, a proper winter, is so restorative and I absolutely adore it... -10°C and all!

Our winter days revolve around the fireplace: collecting firewood from where we have left it dotted around the property to weather over the summer, collecting kindling on a walk with the pup, setting the fire in the way that I was taught when I was a little girl. And then playing with the kids in front of the fire, drying the washing in front of the fire, knitting or reading in front of the fire... The fireplace truly is the heart (or hearth ;) of our home for the three or four months of winter.

There's not a lot in bloom in the garden at the moment, unsurprisingly. But there is just enough colour to brighten up the gloomiest days, or make a little posy for the kitchen bench. Most of our camellias are taking their time to flower this year, but the deepest red one out the back is looking lovely. 

Hebes are still proving to be one of my absolute favourites for the fluffy flowers they just keep giving.

The first of the daphne is just starting to give off its Fruit Loop-y smell. Sprigs of daphne will be dotted around the house for the rest of winter so that their scent can cheer up my winter-hating hubby.

Our polygala bushes (the ones that survived that is) are still producing flowers like crazy - they are so much more frost-hardy that I realised!

And the iceberg rose, she who I once maligned and now love completely, still has a few perfect blooms. It is just about to finally finish for the year I think, but I am loving each and every flower that has clung on.

Other than that, all is bare and quiet in the garden and I love it. What's going on around your patch this winter?

Thoughts on things. And camellias.

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but there’s been quite the hiatus here on The Tree Diaries.

I’ve noticed. I’ve had a crisis of confidence of sorts... a moment of questioning why on earth I feel authorised to write about gardening - something that I am learning from scratch and a hobby which stems from passion rather than any sort of expertise - and putting those words out into the world to be judged.

It’s weird, isn’t it, this internet age we live in? Where anyone with a laptop and camera can join the myriad of voices and pitch her views? For sure, I am overthinking this (it’s what I do!). And to be fair, I have a tendency towards an all-or-nothing mentality: not sure how to navigate the tricky world of social media and the blogosphere? Stop sharing anything, anywhere, with anyone!! Ever! Such a sensible, measured reaction… ;)

So in all my adult wisdom, I’ve decided not to be so extreme this time round and instead land upon a middle ground. I love gardens and gardening, and I am a writer to my core, so the blog stays. I’m not fabulous about letting people into all aspects of my life, so social media will take a back seat for a while. 

On that note, if you have been relying on instagram updates about new posts on The Tree Diaries, you might miss a bit (or a lot) from now on. I’m just working on the Winter Edition of the newsletter now, which hopefully will go out in a few weeks, so if you want to stay up-to-date (and get seasonal planting tips and the like), sign up here.

In the meantime, scroll down for a brand new interview in the Gardening From Scratch series, this time with Paul West of River Cottage Australia fame. And, in the spirit of jumping back in, later this week I'll have another post up about my absolute favourite garden in Australia.

And because no blog post is complete without photos of flowers, this one is peppered with beautiful camellias from a recent visit to Cockington Green (an over-priced but fabulously twee miniature village in Canberra). The camellias there are stunning and were in full bloom when we visited. The 15 ft camellia hedges flanking the back path are just incredible... and rub salt into the wounds of a recently failed attempt to do the same at our house, sadly. Anyway, there's nothing that cheers up the cold winter days like beautifully blooming camellias.

Varieties pictured (top to bottom) are: 1 Camellia sasanqua ‘Showa Supreme’; 2 Camellia sasanqua ‘Lucinda’; 3 Camellia sasanqua ‘Showa Supreme’; 4 Camellia sasanqua ‘Exquisite’. 

Bamboo do you do

We use bamboo canes in our garden for lots of different things - staking up tomatoes and beans, supporting protective bags around vulnerable saplings... one memorable time, trying to defend myself against a particularly jerky wallaby (not my finest moment). But, until last spring, it never occurred to us that we could use bamboo that we'd grown ourselves.

Hubby and I were at Glenmore House last year and one of the things we loved about Mickey's kitchen garden is her exceptional use of structures. Specifically, seasonal garden structures. Long lengths of bamboo tied neatly into teepees or crafted into a frame. Wooden pegs holding nets in place, and old rusted tin cans keeping them from lifting in the wind. By summer's end, beans have wound their tendrils 12 ft up around the supports and tower above everything else. Tomatoes have consumed a cross-hatched frame. Berries are running wild, but not out of control, along a temporary fence. It makes a functional space look beautiful. 

Our kitchen garden is not quite so picturesque as the one at Glenmore House, but you get the idea.

Mickey mentioned that the bamboo canes in her garden are ones she's grown herself - primarily because she loves the long lengths that she can harvest (typically, commercial ones are only available up to 1.8m or 6ft long, presumably so that people can fit them in their cars). Until that moment, it had never occurred to either of us that we could grow and harvest our own bamboo for that purpose!

In fact, we already had bamboo growing in the garden. Several years ago we replaced an ugly corrugated metal screen outside our shower window (it's a floor-to-ceiling window) with slatted merbau. It's waaaayyyy prettier, but not quite so private. This is hardly a problem given our location in the middle of nowhere, but when we have visitors it can feel a smidge disconcerting to shower essentially in the open. We planted a maple in the garden bed just outside the window, which is great in the summer, but a bare trunk is hardly going to cover the important bits come winter... So planted bamboo behind the maple. 

Bamboo has a justifiably bad reputation for being an invasive species - it can be incredibly vigorous and the running varieties can easily get away from you and take over. For that reason, we picked a clumping variety, which are far less likely to take off, and we made sure that the garden bed was completely contained by edging to about 3 inches under the soil. So far so good - it has certainly thickened up nicely, and is doing it's job to screen the bathroom window, but it hasn't broken its garden bed confines.

Because it's so vigorous, we've had to cut it back several times in the past few years. And being the somewhat tardy gardener that I am, often this job hasn't happened until the canes are twice the size of the wooden screen. Which, of course, means we have now the perfect super long canes for our towering garden structures! Yay for the to-do list fail! 

I can't imagine that The Coopermarket is suddenly going to be as lovely as the kitchen garden at Glenmore House, but it'll be so nice to build our supporting structures from our own bamboo next spring. 

A tomato epiphany

We are drowning under piles of tomatoes right now. There are baskets and tupperware containers and bowls, and a wheelbarrow for goodness sakes - all completely full of tomatoes. They are haunting my dreams. And we have yet to harvest four of the beds. Oh my.

This happened last year too... Spring finally drags itself out of bed after a long cold winter and I get waaayyyyy overeager in my seed-starting, desperate to make the most of the summer ahead. Plans of growing enough tomatoes to bottle a year's supply of passata seem entirely reasonable in early spring.

Come December and January, I am struggling to find the time and enthusiasm to keep tying up the plants and keep things neat, tidy and somewhat manageable in The Coopermarket. But I figure all will be okay! Wild gardens are healthy gardens right?!?!? 

Cut to February or March (or, as may be the case, April) and the final weeks of harvest - we are overwhelmed with the task of picking and processing and seriously question why we thought it was a good idea to put in 40 tomato plants in the first place. There are those horrible tiny fly/bug thingies hovering around some of the baskets of tomatoes in the kitchen... you just know that means something is rotting and about to liquify, taking a few others along with it. You know that you should be spending every evening processing tomatoes but the motivation up and left when the cold weather finally rolled in. The couch beckons but the tomatoes beckon (taunt) louder.

So, to my ephipany this evening: grow fewer tomatoes!

After much beating-myself-up-for-being-a-terrible-housewife in the past week, I suddenly remembered that our goal was never, and most likely never will be, self-sufficiency. We want to continue to eat seasonally, locally and grow what we can. But if the tomatoes are the break of me every year, there seems to be an easy fix... grow fewer tomatoes!

I will need to be reminded of this plan come September. Inevitably the seed catalogues will call my name and I will get overeager again... I expect that many of my friends will be receiving gifts of tomato seedlings when it comes time to plant. But I already feel a huge weight off my shoulders knowing that, you know what? I can just GROW FEWER TOMATOES!

{The top photo is all of the varieties that we grew this year - all Diggers seeds, a mix of heirloom, organic and hybrid seed types, and all extremely tasty!}