In an Australian country garden …


Beau guarding a large Echeveria (he’s afraid of birds and butterflies so no worries there).

I have the amazing opportunity to create a garden from scratch.  Before we bought this house, I have always had to work with the garden I’ve been given… on more than one occasion I’ve lived in a rental house and my main aim has been to keep the garden alive for the next owner inspection.  When I last owned my own home I knew next to nothing about which plants to choose, how to keep them alive or even what I really liked.

Over the years of tending these gardens and killing more plants than I care to admit, I have learned a few things, I’m glad to say.  During those years, I experimented with plants in pots in lieu of my own garden so I planted bulbs and watched what would grow where; I planted a lot of succulents and absolutely fell in love with them.  Who can’t love a plant that replicates itself?!  Echeverias and Sempervivums  and other succulents create little clones of themselves and so you can create whole gardens from just a few plants and a bit of patience.  After a bit of investigation, I learnt that in some countries Sempervivums are called ‘Hens and Chickens’ because of this habit of replicating their own little baby plants.  In other countries they are called ‘house leaks’ as they are used in some countries to grow on the roofs of houses to little plug leaks. I love that!.

Australian natives plants offer an amazing range of subtle, hardy and in many cases, very beautiful plants that can be chosen to suit your local environment.  There are many varieties like the gorgeous Grevilleas. So while many of us still choose to plant up our gardens with roses and other ‘exotics’, Australian native plants are becoming increasingly popular not least because of their tolerance of our extreme weather and low rainfall.

If you’ve read earlier posts, you’ll know i love Australian birdlife and a native garden is a great way to attract native birds.  They need all the help they can get as their natural habitats are disappearing.  Many Australian birds are very small and need protection from large predators like our very large aggressive ravens, butcherbirds and magpies. Suburban cats are an absolute menace. So planting ground cover for little birds is essential if they are to find hiding places away from predators.

fairy wren

Australian Fairy Wren

So in beginning to plan my own garden, I can start with a few of these lessons:

  1. I love Australian native plants
  2. I love succulents
  3. These two broad plant types for the most part go very well together as they require little attention and not a lot of water – both useful things for an amateur (read uneducated) gardener in a state where rainfall is intermittent.
  4. I love Australian birdlife and want to attract them so that I can enjoy them and photograph them and give then a little haven in an inner city suburb

This all means I want to create an Australian native garden in my very own backyard.

Over the next few months (and years as gardens are a lifetime commitment), I will be changing my 60sqm of dirt into a native Australian garden.

The garden I have to work with was, until a few weeks ago, covered by a huge aircraft-hanger construction that was supposed to be a pergola.  Made of thick pine planks, many struts, brackets, screws and nails, this construction was not only incredibly ugly in my opinion, it took up 3/4 of the garden leaving me just room for a patch of scrawny grass with a few paving stones leading to a small and inefficient shed.



garden - 5

This is all gone… including half of the cedar deck which covered most of the garden. The decking was repurposed to create a new deck to host our spa.

Now that the pergola has gone, the spa has been repositioned, the shed has been dismantled and redistributed and the essential water tank has been rotated so it’s in a more practical location, we are ready to start to build the garden.

Actually.we are ready to start planning to build the garden.  I really couldn’t envisage what I had to work with until the space was cleared.  What I’m left with is a rather big hole… ! When I reduced the deck I realised the ground beneath it was more than 30cms below the deck. We’re going to need a serious amount of topsoil before we can even think about putting in a plant.

I am entering that wonderful design stage… I can see what I have to work with and I know roughly what I want to create. Next step is to get some professional advice (we used professionals to dismantle the aircraft hanger and move the deck and water tank around – couldn’t have done it without help).  Possibly I wont plant much until next winter/spring as in Melbourne we are entering the end of spring and beginning of summer and many young plants wont enjoy the 42 degree days we’ll get in the summer.  But I will wait to see what my gardener advises.  Until then. Stay tuned.

Blazing a Trail in a sorry, soggy mess


Sir Ernest Shackleton‘s Endurance trapped in the ice. Photo: Frank Hurley

The English traveller has a well-earned reputation for complaining and we do so mostly in relation to the weather.  Of course it’s usually our own weather we’re complaining about – the weather in England is usually too cold, or wet, or cloudy, or drizzling, or … very occasionally, too hot!  So forgive me if I do a minor amount in my post today as the weather is a subject for everyone in Sydney at the moment. Every taxi driver has an opinion on when the rain will stop and the cricket will start again. The discount stores are doing a roaring trade in umbrellas. I’m in Sydney; the town of all night entertainment, harbour views,  yachts and sharp men in very good suits… which have alas all disappeared under a swirling and unrelenting grey cloud which is choosing to deposit torrential rain on the city of sunlight for hours and hours (and hours) on end.

We are trying to explain, rather than show to our damp overseas visitors just how gorgeous the harbour can look and how the opalescent tiles of the Opera House really do glow in the sunlight, we promise! It isn’t the same.

As the clouds descend dark and brooding, I feel empathy for those involved in the opening night of the Sydney festival with its normally dazzling Spiegeltents set out in a Hyde Park now awash with rain with much mud underfoot.

As one does on a wet day, we visited a museum:  the Australian Museum to see its Trailblazers exhibition which included a surprising number of women explorers and adventurers including Kay Cottee who was the first woman to sail solo and unassisted around the world – good work Australia Museum.

I really enjoyed seeing again some of the photographs by Frank Hurley of Sir Ernest Shackleton‘s expedition – what an amazing life this wonderful photographer and explorer had!  If you don’t know the story of Shackleton’s heroic expedition to the South pole and how his ship Endurance, named in honour of the the Shackleton family motto, I thoroughly recommend it. Hurley was the expedition’s photographer.  It is for the most part Hurley’s images that have meant we remember so well the amazing story of the South pole expedition. It’s an adventure story full of gallantry, bravery, true leadership and mad ambition that beats all. Hurley’s image of the doomed ship wrapped in an icy embrace (above) which inevitably crushes it to matchsticks leaving the men to make their way home across a frozen wilderness in unbelievably harsh conditions led by ‘The Boss’, Shackleton, is a wonderful representation of the challenges the expedition party faced.

So I can safely say that in the spirit of doing something new and different each day I did that in Sydney if a little unwillingly. We tramped around the city streets attempting cheerfulness as our rain wear proved to be shower proof but not flood proof!  We found some excellent restaurants and introduced our French guests to the joys of Yum Cha, Vietnamese rice noodle Pho (pronounced fur) soup and a steak at the local pub.  We refused to queue to get into Jamie Oliver’s Pitt Street Italian joint as it was just to mad to stand in pouring rain for an hour for pasta. We also refused to queue for 3 hours to get into the Aquarium (how ironic!) which overflowed with soggy visitors mostly with prams, sharing umbrellas and trying to look happy that they were experiencing this rare occasion of Sydney summer weather behaving more like that of London in July while they were on holiday!

After reading about Shackleton, Hurley and Cottee’s enormous efforts, I am reminded I should not revert to my English stereotype of moaning about the weather and should relish every soggy moment and be glad that I can return to my stylish hotel room and not have to battle ‘liquid himalayas’ as one wag described the seas on one of their solo sea voyages. I will rejoice in the rain now as, when I return to my Melbourne garden, I’ll be delighting in every drop that falls. I admit that I do spend rather too much time expectantly analysing cloud formations and carefully checking the rain-dar as it seems never to rain quite enough in Melbourne (although any Sydney-sider will confidently misinform you that it never stops raining in Melbourne!) So I’m doing my best to remember this under the deluge. It is but a minor inconvenience.

In the meantime, I’m getting through plenty of reading, plotting which new craft I’ll learn at, studying for my MBA and making great headway into those other English favourites: a pot of tea and a box of Milk Tray. There’s really nothing like a rainy day in Sydney to help you get your priorities sorted out.


It’s summer so I’m reading…

It’s these long summer days and mild evenings that see me sitting in the garden with a book. Or multiple books as is often the case. I also listen to talking books in the car thanks to so one way or another, I’m reading and absorbing plenty! These days I’m more likely to visit the local 2nd hand shop and bring home a bag of biographies, art books. theosophy or business strategy books. I can’t go past a good gardening book either and one day I’ll figure out how to care for my plants in pots so they last past their first blooms.

It’s usual for me to have a theme that carries through all of the books that I have on the go…sometimes deliberately, other times serendipitously. I usually prefer to read non-fiction over fiction (except in my early teens where I had an obsession with horror and science fiction writing and Stephen King was my master).

So the theme at the moment is ‘How to get out of your own way’ and do the things you really want to do. Not because your mother thinks it’s a good idea, and not because it’s a great way to pay the bills and not because it will look good on your resume. Just because you want to do it and it is, as one author put it ‘your silent scream’. The thing or things you want to do more than anything else in the world if only you could get out of your own way long enough to start doing it.

So I started with “When work doesn’t work anymore, Women, Work and Identity” by Elizabeth Perle McKenna. Rather an academic book but with some very good insights (while not offering too much in the way of guidance) which should have been a best seller when it came out in 1997 as it turned out to be an excellent prophecy of what the future would hold not just for women but for all worker bees. That money, power and world domination aren’t the measures of success that are driving us any more. And in particular, have proved pretty unhealthy for women and men alike.

Push forward to 2006* and the audio/book “Success Built to Last” by Jerry Porras, Stewart Emery and Mark Thompson and the theme continues except they are using more high-profile examples of success and everyone’s got the same idea that ‘money aint enough’ and you need to love what you do and do what you love to have real lasting success. (Just quietly, I think if “When Work doesn’t work anymore” had used more well-known people as case studies, it might have been more successful however it was published in a time when we didn’t light candles to celebrities but I digress). I really enjoyed ‘Success built to Last’ and recommend it. One idea struck me as useful (amongst others) that if you want to really spend your time on the things that matter most to you then figure out the things you should do more of and the things you should do less of. I liked this and set about making a list. We should all do more lists 🙂

In one of my charity shop excursions I picked up “there are only two times in life – Now and Too late” by Terry Hawkins. It looked like it might prove helpful in that ‘moving out of your own path’ way of thinking I was developing but in all honesty, the structure of the book was such that I lost interest after the first two chapters. It didn’t seem to have much direction. So I agreed with the title and decided now was a good time to stop reading it.

Another excellent audio book (yes, i spend a bit of time in the car and i cant bear commercial radio so I’m an audio book-o-phile) is ‘Buy-in: Saving your good idea from being shot down’ by John P Kotter and Lorne A Whitehead*. I really enjoyed this. Great strategies for getting your opponents to open up about their objections to your brilliant idea so that you can overcome them by calm discussion and get on with your project in peace having gained 70%+ support for it. This book has help me in my working life negotiations and would recommend their ideas.

So now. The sun is setting and I turn away from my business books, pick up my rose wine spritzer, stroke one of my cats who is sitting on the table guarding me against flies and other intruders and pick up my next book: ‘The French’, it was written by an Englishman, Theodore Zeldin, in 1983. My husband is French, so perhaps I’ll gain some new insights and maybe a new theme will develop… I wonder where this one will take me…..

*released on