James BeattieThe difference a year or two makes in the garden

It’s often said that when planting perennials, the first year they sleep and the second year they creep. How true this is, and a great account of the establishment of my front garden. I’ve written about it previously here on GardenDrum. After one or two false starts a couple of summers ago I decided to throw caution to the wind, renovating and planting out in early summer. After nursing the plants through their first traumatic summer, their second was thankfully mild, which has put them in good stead for this summer’s traumatic but typically Melbourne roller-coaster-like temperature fluctuations.

Front summer 2015Renovating a garden can come at a considerable cost, not least of all the plants but hard landscaping elements as well. Wanting to keep costs down as much as possible I decided to pull up an extensive concrete pathway and relay it as a very liberally reinterpreted form of crazy paving. It sounds easy enough but upon pulling up the concrete I was met with the dispiriting discovery of a double course of red brick pavers on top of which the concrete was laid some years ago.

Finding red bricks under the path

Finding red bricks under the path

After removing the bricks and laying the new path, planting day finally arrived. Labouring with the heavy elements sees planting a delightful task, like giving praise after a considerable amount of hard graft.

Planting dayPlanting Day 2I always recommend to people that preparing any soil for planting perennials should be the same as you would a vegetable garden. Organic matter, and lots of it, is key. After digging in several cubic meters of compost and cow manure and giving it a few weeks to settle, I spent a whole day laying out plants, staring at them for hours then shifting them around yet again.

Anthemis and Olearea

Anthemis and Olearea

Echinops and phlomis

Echinops and phlomis

I went for a mixture of cool colours, punctuated by small bursts of yellow and orange to give it a bit of pep. Plants like Agastache ‘Sweet Lili’, Cistus creticus, and Anthemis ‘Mrs E.C. Buxton’ have been standout performers in the hottest of hot weather. Ditto for the euphorbias like wulfen spurge and Euphorbia myrsinites.

Spurge and red hot pokers

Spurge and red hot pokers

Front (with Echium simplex)

Front (with Echium simplex)

In my final year of study I planted a few Echium simplex to lend a bit of sensation to the drab front entrance. One popped up from seed hard-up against our front verandah, which doesn’t get a lot of direct sunlight outside of January/February. It seemed happy and worked well with strappy-leaved plants around it so I let it be – it looks great is gearing up to flower in the next couple of months.

Although I obviously love playing with exotic perennials, they’re 90% of what I planted in my front garden, my background sees the indigenous plants of Melbourne holding a special place in my heart. I worked in bushland management for 4 years while completing my degree, a job where the work is honest, hard and far from glamorous. As I brush-cut away the hours, my brain was pouring over species lists from class as well as aiming to ID all of the local plants that I encountered on a daily basis. It was inevitable that the two would meet in my garden.

Wahlenbergia communis

Wahlenbergia communis

I have drifts of a local bluebell, Wahlenbergia communis, adorning pathway edges, which flowers prolifically in the hot summer. A local species of tobacco with the James Bond-like name of Nicotiana suaveolens performs remarkably well too. It’s a darling little plant that flowers for months, thriving on neglect – I’m surprised it isn’t more popular in Melbourne gardens.

My aim of only watering scantily in the warm weather has been half achieved. With each year’s top-dressing of compost and mulch in the slumberous winter months I suspect I’ll get there in the next few years. The current state of the soil sees me watering before every high-thirties day, of which we’ve had half a dozen days this summer sa far. It’s enough to see them through to the next downpour, which always has the Lazarus-like effect of reinvigorating everything in the garden, no matter how tired it looks.

Refreshed after rain

Refreshed after rain

Despite how far the garden’s come I’m still not satisfied with it. I’ll be moving plants and getting rid of others all together come Autumn. As with all gardeners I suspect it will ever be thus. I plan to work in a few clumps of Panicum for late summer and autumn interest this year, but like the rest of the garden they’ll sleep before creeping. No doubt I’ll be consolidating, moving and trialling plants and marvelling at the difference a year or two makes again in the future. And so it goes.

Until next time, happy gardening.

Like this post? Why not share it with a friend?


James Beattie

About James Beattie

James is a horticulturist working in the Melbourne area. His work in the industry has included landscape planting design, hard landscaping, bushland management, garden consulting as well as extensive experience in the horticultural media. He worked for four years as one of the horticultural guns for hire behind the scenes at ABC TV's Gardening Australia program and has been a semi-regular guest on Melbourne's 3CR Gardening Show (855 AM). You can follow his whimsical garden musings at Horticologist

7 thoughts on “The difference a year or two makes in the garden

  1. steven on said:

    That is looking a treat James! Lovely work! It must be so rewarding to see the results of your hard laboring. It is picturing this stage of the garden in ones mind that usually helps to spur oneself on during the hard grunt stage of creating a new garden. So, well done on your efforts!
    Isn’t it funny that us gardeners are not satisfied … I’m already planning changes too, out with the poor performers and in with some new planty treats!! … and quite possibly changing my mind again, and again …

    • James Beattie on said:

      I guess it’s that thing about a garden never being finished. Restlessness is a common trait among gardeners!

  2. Great article James! I love your colour combination in front, and your choice of indigenous plants at the rear, especially Nicotiana suaveolens (which I must try to find). I’ve been enjoying Anthemis tinctoria ‘Mrs E C Buxton’ for almost 30 years, it’s one of the toughest and most rewarding plants in my garden. I sometimes wonder who was E C Buxton – the plant seems to be named both for him and for ‘Mrs’! Good luck with keeping your soil up to scratch.

    • James Beattie on said:

      Hi Anne,

      The nicotiana is regularly available at Newport Lakes Native Nursery, and intermittently available at VINC in Fairfield and the La Trobe nursery in Bundoora. I have a dozen of them in the nature strip, which gets no supplementary water, and still they flower some six months after first beginning to. No wonder we are so enamoured with it.

      I also suspect my love affair with Mrs E C Buxton will stretch into decades as well!

  3. helen on said:

    James, how lovely your garden looks! I have many gardening skills but creating beautiful paintings with plants is not one of them. Your concrete path is wonderful too.

  4. Kate Wall on said:

    Hi Helen, you are not alone – I would not have believed you as it comes so naturally to me, until I have seen some real shockers and wondered how someone could take such lovely plants and make them look so terrible! But on the plus side, as a consulting gardener I love helping people like you to create those beautiful gardens, knowing that you have the skills to take what has initially been created for you and turn that into your own beautiful garden as it grows and you love and care for it – there is a magic and a skill in that part too, which I have also learned is not to be taken for granted.
    I also agree – beautiful garden James! and a wonderful use of a small area.

  5. Anne Vale on said:

    wel done James good article and great to see the progress of your garden

Leave a Reply (no need to register)