about this blog

This blog tracks the ongoing changes of my garden, and the wildlife I try to attract to it. It's a nature blog. It contains my thoughts and musings about anything and everything to do with nature - gardening, book reviews, philosophy, travel, science, history, art, design, politics.
Catmint is my signature plant because it has all the qualities I value in a plant: resilience, beauty and the capacity to spread prolifically . Unfortunately it's not indigenous. If I was starting again I'd probably choose an indigenous plant.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

harp and garden

Who knew that the Royal Botanic Garden in Melbourne had a resident musician, let alone a harpist? I only found out recently. Michael Johnson's job is to compose music inspired by the Garden, and give performances in the Garden.

Michael had the privilege of living in the Garden for two years. In the performance I went to, he told the audience how during this period he would regularly get up at dawn, go down to a spot near the Lake and play his harp. Every day a black swan would waddle up, settle down next to him, put its head under its wing and go to sleep as he played. This went on for about a year.

Then one day the swan didn't appear. Michael was upset. He wandered if the swan had been taken by one of the foxes that hunted in the gardens at night. After a few weeks, the swan re-appeared - accompanied by his mate and baby cygnets! The entire swan family sat down next to him, tucked their heads under their wings and went to sleep as he played. Inspired by this, he wrote a piece of music and named it Swan.

I couldn't find a video of Swan, but here is a video of Michael playing a piece called Forest.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

DIY garden design

Here are some ideas about garden design based on my experiences over decades of continual and ongoing planting, unplanting and replanting.

1. There are heaps of different styles of gardens. There are no formulas, no rules that can't be broken. You can't please everybody. Everybody has different tastes and ideas.

2. You need patience unless you're going to spend big and buy mature plants. And even then, they'll take longer to settle in and it still takes time for a pleasing picture to evolve.

3. It helps if you see a picture in your mind rather than randomly and desperately using what you've got to fill in gaps. If you don't have a picture yet, one will evolve eventually if you keep thinking about it, looking at other gardens and pictures, in real and virtual worlds.

4. I see the garden as a picture and a picture needs a frame, like some kind of hedge around it. I use Pittosporum a lot. It's very common and some gardeners are quite snobbish and don't like it. But I think it's great. It's easy to grow, quite fast, can be shaped and doesn't need to be watered once it's established.

5. The garden needs a structure, like a body needs a skeleton. You need to decide where and if to use lawn, and where to put the paths and the seating area(s).

6. You're creating a picture, but it's a complicated three dimensional picture that ideally looks good from every angle. And ideally it looks good all the year round. Annuals and perennials disappear for a while, and you need to have something else to look at until they re-appear. Shrubs of different shapes and sizes create variety, as do different types of foliage. I like to use spiky evergreen grasses like Lomandras as fillers.

7. Green is a colour! And there are lots of different shades of green. And similarly grey. You don't need to have continual flowering in lots of different colours to have an interesting garden. For my taste I find it more restful to have fewer colours. But it's always about finding the balance between restful and boring.

8. Use groupings of the same plants, often in 3s or 5s but not necessarily - there are no formulas that always work. Again, the challenge is about finding the balance between restful and boring.

9. Unless you are aiming for a purely formal garden, consciously try to ditch the habit of symmetry. There are no straight lines in nature. In her attempts to create a natural looking garden Edna Walling stood at one end of the garden with a sack of potatoes and threw the potatoes onto the garden. Wherever a potato landed she planted a tree. Maybe this can be called the random principle? Of all the books I ever read I was most captivated and influenced by Edna Walling, incredibly influential Australian garden designer and writer from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Markdale's Garden in Binda, NSW, designed by Edna Walling
Photo by AYArktos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5
via Wikimedia Commons
10. Garden beauty is transient. You'll get it right but then everything will grow and change and it won't look so good any more. When this happens passion and obsessiveness help, but sometimes you feel tired and out of sorts and wish you could have instant and unchanging beauty.

When I feel like this I think how boring that would be. Like happy ever after in a fairy tale - that's the end of the story, nothing more can happen. Or like the Garden of Eden. I think Eve did what she did because she got bored. It was only after they got expelled that life got interesting.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

end-of winter, beginning-of-spring garden - what's growing?

It was a cold, wet winter and the garden's flourishing. Here are a few of the plants growing, individually and in groups to form pictures ...

Trunk of Snow Gum with self seeded Borage around contrasting Lomandra grasses

Magnolia stellata
Euphorbia Silver Swan
Ipheion uniflorum
Periwinkle flowers growing on the fence, weed but lovely
Viola odorata - English Violet
Ginger Lily - gone to seed
Eucalyptus gregsoniana - Snow Gum
Indigofera australis, Australian Indigo
Gastrolobium celsianum - Swan River Pea - growing through Westringia fruticosa 'Blue Gem'
Self seeded Borage, loved by bees
Acacia floribunda - Gossamer Wattle
Acacia spp.
Euphorbia characis
Westringia fruticosa 'Blue Gem' - Native Rosemary
Eucalyptus leucoxylon
Borage with ladybird beetle
 distinctive serrated leaves of Banksia marginata - Silver Banksia
Euphorbias in front of Santolinas, Rosemary in backkground
Side path with Rainbow Ferns and white and red Camellias in background
Echiums in front of Snow Gum with flowering Euphorbia characis behind 
Tangle of ferns and different species of  lilies
I want to link this post with the Lessons Learned meme at Plant Postings. To participate you need to share what you have learned in the garden during the season that has just ended. I don't think you just learn something and then you know it.  I think learning is ongoing and cyclical. I knew that in time things would grow, but I kind of forgot that I knew this. At the start of winter I was quite depressed about the garden because so many of the new plantings were still too small and insignificant to give a pleasing picture. But after 3 months with lots of rain, it's looking good again, and I've relearned, or learned more deeply, that plants grow in their own time, and they will grow. You just have to be patient.

I'm also linking this post with the End of month view at The Patient Gardener's Weblog, in Helen Johnstone's blog. This post gives a snapshot of my garden at the end of August. For details of Helen's garden in the same timeframe, and many other gardens all over the world, it's definitely worth checking out this blog.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

dead bodies in the garden

Forensic pathologists conduct autopsies to determine the cause of death. I'm no forensic pathologist. I'm also not a zoologist. So before I can speculate about the cause of death, I need to work out what animal these were, when they were warm blooded living mammals. This post may seem horrible and grisly, but in the bid to attract wildlife to the garden, there are bound to be dead, as well as alive, bodies ... it's the cycle of life.

The skeleton in the photos above is of a ring tailed possum. The reason I can confidently identify it as such is because I remember seeing it soon after it died. How and why it died is a mystery. I have since learned that if you find a dead possum or other marsupial, you should immediately check its pouch to make sure there is not a baby there.

After that, there are a number of options regarding disposal of the carcass, like putting it in a rubbish bin or burying it. I just leave them where they are and let birds and beetles and flies and other insects get nourishment and strip the carcass down to the bones. This is what happened and the possum skeleton remains in the same position that it died in, with the backbone and tail bones no longer connected but hardly disturbed and still in position.

When I first noticed the tail hanging out of the possum box, I was thrilled to have such a cute photo opportunity. I wondered whether the possum had a hot tail and was cooling it while it slept.

When the tail remained in the same position after a few days, I started to be concerned. To make sure my suspicions were correct I went out with a torch at night to check on it. It was still there. The possum must be dead, I assumed, although I haven't climbed up to check. How and why it died is unknown.

possum entrails
headless possum

The possum on the footpath had been viciously attacked. Something had ripped its head off and its entrails had been ripped out as well. The fact that it hadn't been eaten implied the killer killed for the sake of killing, not for food. I assume that would have been a fox or maybe a cat.

When I found another dead carcass in the garden, I first thought it was a possum. Only when I looked more closely at the tail did I realize it wasn't a brushtail or ringtail possum tail. Nor was it a rat's tail. What could it  be? Maybe a dog or a cat, or maybe a rare black fox? Black foxes are part of Australia's introduced fauna and there have been occasional reported sightings since the 1920s. They are a darker variant of the silver fox. Whatever it was, I wonder how it came to die in the garden.

mystery tail

Friday, 31 July 2015

where are the microbats?

There are Australian Magpies that make themselves at home in the garden.


I'm not sure what animal has made a home in this nesting box.  I suspect it's a possum.


 There's a Pied Currawong that often pops in...


I put up this special nesting box for microbats. They may be inside but I haven't noticed any coming in or out, and I haven't noticed any in the garden.

This is what they would look like if they were inside their specially provided accommodation.

Australasian Bat Society - with permission
Bats are the only mammals that can fly.  

In Australia bats consist of large fruit-eating Flying Foxes and tiny insect-eating microbats. In Melbourne there are 17 different species of bats. All bats in Australia are native - none are introduced.
White Striped Freetail bat - photo by Robert Bender
Microbats are enormously beneficial for ecosystems. To get the energy they need to fly, they eat huge numbers of insects - up to three quarters of their body weight every night - including pests like mosquitos. And if there aren't many insects about, their metabolism slows down and they go into a state like hibernation.

Apparently microbats  are quite common in Melbourne and its suburbs, but hard to see because they are small, nocturnal, use ultrasonic calls that we can't hear and are concealed in roosts during the day.

I hope they are in my garden. If they are, I wish they'd give me a sign.

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