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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Garden notes // Crepe myrtles

Have you been driving around lately and realised you're puttering along at granny speed due to sticky-beaking at all the crepe myrtles that are in bloom? Me too! But worse, I've been pinching teeny cuttings of said flowers... Oooops! Recently when we were up in Sydney, I dragged my hubby around the neighbourhood streets to see if we could collect all the colours in bloom right now - he's very tolerant of my botanical thievery, thank goodness.

Crepe myrtles are the perfect backyard tree in my mind - they obviously have the crazy bursts of flowers in summer that brighten up the garden, attract pollinators and flop all about in a crazy Sideshow Bob kind of madness (to perfect "foraging" height, mind you!), but they are also a beautiful tree when not in flower too. Their mottled bark is lovely at all times of year and is a feature in otherwise bare winter gardens, especially when damp with morning dew. And their foliage, a gorgeous deep glossy green all summer, does a glorious autumn display and turns scarlet.

So, perfect backyard tree, and yet? Until recently we didn't have any in our garden! We have had two shrub varieties in our driveway for some years and I have just this year planted two dwarf varieties in one garden bed, but we have none of the big glorious trees, which is crazy given the size of our garden! My plan is to put another three or four at the very bottom of our terraces, which will add colour and a wind break.

Some garden notes

Botanical name: Lagerstroemia indica  //  Climate: Will grow well in most climates, from cool mountain through to hot, tropical regions  //  Height: very variable, so check the label - you can buy the big tree varieties that can grow up to 8m and are not suitable for smaller backyards, but there are also dwarf varieties which only grow to 1m, and shrubs/small tree varieties all sizes in between  //  Position: full sun  // Planting: in well-drained soil, with added compost. Can be planted at any time of year, and although you can buy them as bare-root stock, I think it is best to buy them when they're in flower to make sure that you are getting a colour that you love. They can also be propagated from hardwood cuttings, so if you find one that you absolutely love, see if the owner is happy to part with a piece (this is really way beyond "forager" territory, so it's best to ask!) // Pruning: some people believe that crepe myrtles should be heavily pruned back each year, but really this isn't necessary as they have a natural vase shape when left to do their own thing

To give you some idea of the colours available, these are the varieties we collected around a few Sydney streets... names are my best guess, and there are certainly even more shades in between these ranging from deep cerise through to the much subtler lavenders and white varieties.

Really, with the full range of sizes available and the variety of colour choices, it really is one of the very best backyard plants... Now I just have to take my own advice and plant a few!

Garden notes // Peonies

Ah, peonies! The flower that really ought to credit instagram for its current crazy popularity (seriously, if you need a pick-me-up, click on that link!).

I will be the first to put my hand up to say that (a) I adore peonies but that (b) my adoration was almost entirely fuelled by instagram floral-porn. I was totally unaware of their existence until a few years ago, but now I have well and truly jumped onto that crowded bandwagon. I will also sheepishly admit that I thought they were called "pee-own-knees" until I was corrected (twice!) at the plant nursery. 

But really, why wouldn't we all fall in love with them? "Pee-en-knees" (rhymes with Pyrenees) are gorgeous!

And what's more, peonies (specifically herbaceous peonies or Paeonia lactiflora) are very simple and unfussy to grow if you live in one of the cooler areas in Australia. My experience to date has been limited to the four that I planted two years ago, but I have 12 more to go in this weekend (although it is far too late in the season to plant them - they are best planted in autumn when you're putting in bulbs).

Something that has stopped me from putting in any new rhizomes until now is deciding where to plant them... It's one thing to know that peonies like full sun and protection from strong winds, but I'm unsure of what to plant with them and how to incorporate them into a garden bed. Peonies can survive for decades or even hundreds of years, but they really don't like to be moved. So wherever they are planted it better be the right spot and as we are still creating our garden, that's not so easy to work out!

Peonies prefer an open position and good airflow around them, so how can you integrate them into a mixed border or bed? It's actually really hard to find this detail anywhere because a lot of the information available is about dedicated peony garden beds (like the dreamy peony garden of Martha Stewart - perfection). For mixed plantings, it seems to come down to asking other gardeners for advice on what has worked for them... So let's do that shall we!

The lovely Felicite has been kind enough to share some photos of her peonies, and explain how she has them growing. Felicite's garden is also in the southern tablelands of NSW, just a little north of ours (so it has the perfect cool climate required for growing peonies). She has her peonies growing in a very sheltered position on an east-facing wall, and they are mixed in with roses, lupins, foxgloves and delphiniums.

The result is just perfect!!!

Gosh I adore these photos of Felicite's garden! I particularly love that first shot, where you can see the rising mist through the gum trees beyond the landscaped garden. 

Felicite's varieties are Karl Rosenfield (double flower in deep pink, shown in the above photos) and Marie Lemoine (double white). She buys a lot of roses through a mailorder nursery in Victoria - Misty Downs - which also sell peonies. I have spent far too much time flipping back and forth in the online catalogue since she sent me the link, so you can be sure that you will be seeing many of the roses and peonies they sell in our garden in future years. In the meantime, just so that I don't forget the varieties that I am planting this year...

  • Marguerite Gerard (double cherry pink)
  • Duchesse De Nemour (double ivory white)
  • Sarah Bernhardt (double apple blossom pink)
  • Felix Supreme (double ruby red)

So based on Felicite's experience, I am thinking of planting my peonies in beds with old Bourbon, Austin and species roses, and then including some flowering annuals and perennials of different heights to make a cottage garden-y mixed bed. This website also gives a huge range of plants that work well with peonies, although it is such an exhaustive list that it kind of makes me even more unsure of where to plant them in our garden!

Before I end, here's one more from last spring, just to fill the craving and because oh-my-gosh, don't peonies age so gracefully...

Thank you so much Felicite for sharing your peonies with us! (Also, yay for instagram for creating a little informal southern tablelands gardening community... let's keep it growing ;)

Garden notes // Hellebores

It has been such a wonderful year for hellebores in our garden and as their season is coming to an end, I thought I'd jot down which varieties we have flowering, which new ones went in this year, which are thriving... and then I can throw away all of the post-its and plant labels because it shall be forever recorded on this little part of the interwebs!

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Hellebores (pronounced HELL-ee-BORES) are also called winter roses or lenten roses, and all these names are used interchangeably. They are a winter flowering plant, and do really well in climates that have a properly cold winter like ours in the southern tablelands of NSW. My mum (in Sydney) has not had any luck with hellebores, but she panicked a bit when they died off in summer and pulled them out - DON'T DO THAT! They will die back a bit, just leave them and see what comes when the weather cools down again. It is usually suggested that hellebores are a shade-loving or part-shade loving plant, but ours have been in an exposed position for the past two summers and have survived and thrived... in saying that, some of my more fragile and rarer varieties haven't had a summer yet, so we will see how they fare. The position that they are in will eventually be a full-shade garden in summer as they are under deciduous trees, but those little saplings need a few more years under their belts before they provide proper summer shade for my flowers.

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This morning I popped out and picked a few of every type of hellebore that is currently in flower in the garden. Although we have had a few others flower briefly before now too, this is a pretty good representation of the mature plants. So far the only flowering ones are in our top and middle terrace beds... I have also planted a lot of teeny tiny plants in another bed, but they won't flower before next year at the earliest.

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Above are (to the best of my recollection and/or post-it reference and not in an exact order but roughly in colour order from left to right):

H. niger ('Double forms') - double white flowers 

H. niger ('Lucky dip') - white to very pale pink, some form doubles and some single flowers (hence 'lucky dip')

H. x hybridus ('Primrose yellow gold nectaries') - single yellow flowers

H. ballardiae ('Cinnamon snow') - single flowers that start creamy white but streak with rose and age to green

H. ballardiae ('Pink frost') - single pale pink flowers

H. x hybridus ('Penny's pink) - single dark pink flowers

H. x hybridus ('Anna's red') - single deep claret flowers

Each of these hellebores has a different clumping form with lots of variation in the foliage too, so they definitely don't get boring. Oh, and as an added bonus many varieties are self-seeding and will spread if allowed to (free plants!). And all varieties can be divided, so again free plants

If you are thinking of planting hellebores, I really recommend that you get them through Post Office Farm Nursery. It's a hellebore breeding specialist nursery that does mail order, and they truly do have the best varieties. In saying that, the nurseries in Canberra sell some great hellebores, so they are worth a look too.

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I won't get carried away with care tips here as they are pretty low maintenance. But one thing I learnt this year - definitely cut the thicker clumping varieties back a bit to allow air into them... Our Cinnamon snow and Pink frost varieties in particular have been overwhelming full of flowers and foliage, and it helped a lot to cut the flowers and keep the foliage to a minimum.

Just for my own reference, the other varieties that I planted this year and can't wait to see flower next year (fingers' crossed) are:

H. hybridus - 'Apricot-peach spotted'; 'Double bicolour'; 'Double green purple bicolour'; 'Double picot'; 'Double white'; 'Picotee'; 'Double rose pink'

H. foetidus 'Siena'

H. augutifolius 'Pacific frost'

H. niger 'Large flowered form'

Yup, I'm a bit hellebore-nutty! I'm sad that they are almost done for the year, but bring on the peonies, roses, sweet peas, irises, hydrangeas, oh my! So much floral goodness to look forward to!

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Garden notes // Polygala

Last summer I was looking for plants to butt up against the rockwall in our middle terrace garden bed and stumbled across a new-to-me plant Polygala myrtifolia (Myrtle-leaf milkwort).

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There was a huge display of them at my favourite nursery, and several varieties and plant sizes were on offer, many of which seemed reasonably priced for a "hmmmm, will this work in our conditions?" kind of buy.

Cut to the end of a long, cold winter with six snowfalls and many many deep frosts... The Polygalas all look wonderful! They flowered all winter long, and have only recently dropped their purple pretties. The remained green and lush, and truly I couldn't be happier with the choice.

When we were filling a new bed in autumn I chose to include another Polygala variety, the Little Bibi (which I am fairly sure is a PBRed dwarf variety of the same myrtifolia). I'm not sure that it will work as well in that spot, but I hope to be proven wrong.

Garden notes // Hebes

I have sort of been half-heartedly working on filling the garden bed at the top of our terraces since we put it in last Easter... I found an established magnolia with no label on it (and got it wonderfully discounted as a result), and it bloomed beautifully and popped an incredible seedpod in its first year, so that has taken pride of place in the bed. 

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Other acidic soil lovers followed, including a few camellias and blueberries (mostly for their beautiful autumn foliage as we let the lorikeets enjoy the berries from these bushes). I also put in a couple of random teeny conifers (I'm not sold on them yet though), and a crab apple because, really, you can never have too many crab apples.

But the whole garden bed is still quite bare. This weekend we planted three roses along the fence (old Bourbon roses, the 1843 Souvenir de la malmaison, my favourite). Oh how I look forward to those flowering one day...

We also planted three hebes. I first noticed hebes (rhymes with "jeebies") when we were last down at the coast... actually, I had noticed this particular shrub the year before, but it had grown so much in the year since. I did a bit of research and stumbled down a wormhole of hundreds of varieties of beautiful flowering plants, some of which love alpine conditions (yay!).

Long story short, hebes have been acquired and are now happily flowering in our top terrace bed. The one that we have planted is Marie Antoinette. It is an evergreen shrub with purple flowers that fade to white as the weather warms up. It is considered quite drought resistant (always a plus), and "frost-hardy". That is a term I approach with caution because many a "frost-hardy" plant won't survive below around -1 or -2 degrees Celsius, and therefore hopeless where we live, particularly this winter... brrrrrrrrr! These shrubs survived a snowstorm in their pots before planting and still look happy and healthy, so I think we have a winner!

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Garden notes // Dahlias

I have lots of "oh, these are my faaaaaavourite flowers" moments, but truly, dahlias are where it's at for me. From the first time I saw the most perfect purple dahlia on the cover of a book about 10 years ago (The Book of Dahlia by Elise Albert, fyi), I have loved them dearly.

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A couple of years ago I started growing them in our back garden. So far, the sum total of my dahlia care has been deadheading them after they flower, and then cutting them back after the first few hard frosts each winter. Keeping them watered, but only when we water the back lawn in the height of summer... other than that, nada. I have left the tubers in the ground year-on-year, and because we have had relatively mild winters for the past few years, they have kept flowering each autumn.

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I want to grow more varieties next year, and I would love to make my plants more productive flowerers, so I am going to take a slightly different approach this year.

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First up, the best, most beautiful and succinct resource I have found for dahlia care is Floret's e-book (you can purchase it for around USD$10 here). Floret is an organic flower farm in the Pacific Northwest USA, and the advice in the ebook is based on their experience of large-scale production of dahlias for commercial growing. But don't let that stop you, because even with my tiny number of plants, I have found it so helpful.

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Today, I finally got around to digging up the tubers. We have had several months of frosts by now, and even one snowfall, and all the plants are frost-blackened and "dead". I cut them back to about 10cm above the ground, and then carefully lifted them to avoid cutting or damaging the tubers.

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Following Floret's advice, I just shook off the excess dirt, snuggled them into a storage crate and popped them in the shed. The tubers need to be covered with dry dirt or sawdust, because if they are left completely exposed they will dry out. By only shaking off the excess dirt, they will be fairly well protected, but I topped them with a bit of sawdust as added protection. The shed acts as a cool room, and stays around 5-10'C all winter, which is perfect for the dahlia tubers to stay dormant.

When it is time to plant them again in late spring, the tubers will need to be divided. Each of those tubers above were originally single tiny ones, and have now sprouted to around 20 tubers per plant, so there will be plenty more plants from our mother stock this year. I'll do a post on dividing the tubers when I do that in spring, before getting them in the ground. Fyi, a good rule of thumb for timing is to put them in when it is safe to plant tomato seedlings out in your area - every place has its own local lore for this, no? Ours is never before Melbourne Cup day. I read recently that in Hobart it's the Hobart Show, but just a short drive away in the Huon Valley it is a couple of weeks later on the day of the Huon Show... anyway, local knowledge rules on these things, and you know you're tempting fate if you try to plant early!