Friday, May 15, 2009

Gardening "Progress".

I’ve recently been reading about gardening achievements that others have described in their books and blogs. This has made me think more about what I’ve done in my own garden and what I want to achieve in the future.

The reassessment of my gardening “progress” perhaps started a few weeks ago when I came across the book “Velvet Pears”. This in one of those very attractive books full of gorgeous photos interspersed with personal memoir.

The book details the creation of a stunning garden and the restoration of a house, at Tilba Tilba on the south coast of NSW. It’s the kind of story that will inspire any gardener; but also has the potential to plunge them into frustration and despair when they realise their own efforts fall well short of the apparent perfection the book portrays.

Moving on from the book I came across the blogs of two people who have recently moved house and now have gardens that are blank canvases to work upon. Their situation is similar to my own when I moved to my current home almost three years ago. I had all kinds of plans and prior to the move and I enjoyed sketching them out – trying to picture what I could do.

The basic parts of my planned garden started with the desire for roses, native plants (in particular grevilleas) and a veggie patch. I knew more or less which parts of the garden I would dedicate to each and to a great extent I was able to stick to that plan. Unfortunately the reality has not lived up to the dream.

What went wrong?
I’ll ignore the fact that I had no gardening experience – even though my ignorance was most likely the cause of every one of my problems. I now always say that my gardening efforts have been a process of trial and error, with an emphasis on the latter.

The first hindrance to fulfilling my gardening dream has been the block of land. Its width exceeds its length, and on a smaller block I don’t see this as ideal. This makes it more difficult to create the individual areas I wanted. I tend to think a longer block makes it easier to divide a garden into separate “rooms”.
Every part of the backyard can be seen from the windows of our back room so with any attempt to create “separate garden rooms” the joins are clearly visible so the intended illusion of individual secluded spaces is lost.

We also had a large, fixed clothesline right in the middle of the back garden that gave a very “picturesque” view from the back windows of the house. That problem was recently fixed. We removed the old clothesline and put in a new removable one at the side of the house.
Other problems are not so easily fixed such as the soil. It is very heavy clay. When dry it tends to bake like concrete, and I have found that it forms a hard crust about six inches deep, beneath which it is soft and powdery. However, that powder soon becomes thick and sticky when it gets wet.
The soil has caused most of my problems, the most noticeable being an area of natives I planted near the fence-line of the front garden. I attempted to create raised areas of free draining soil for each native plant but the results weren’t good enough. After a promising start several of the plants died and others were uprooted by the wind, having insufficient depth to give them an anchor. The growth of those that remain is very stunted, creating a collection of bonsai grevilleas.

The clay soil also slowed down the success of my veggie garden. I was foolish enough to think I could deal with the clay by digging in a bit of gypsum and composted cow manure. While this did have a slight effect, it was no where near enough to turn the designated area into a veggie friendly garden.

I took similar short cuts with the area I set aside for David Austin Roses. Instead of building up a significant area with decent soil, I decided to restrict my work to improving the soil in and around the planting holes. This did not have the desired effect. While I’ve had reasonable results from the roses, they have not grown as well as they should have done. I spread thick layers of newspaper around the plants to suppress the weeds and I covered this with sugarcane mulch. While this MAY have had an effect on the weeds for a while, our resident blackbirds soon put an end to that effectiveness by turning the paper into confetti as they dug through it in search of worms.

The last of the physical aspects I want to highlight is the aspect of the block. The front slopes towards the south which doesn’t help with frost. Firstly it is sloping away from the low winter sun and secondly it performs the perfect conditions to funnel early morning cold air towards the back of the house, aiding the forming of frost on my veggies and other plants. Last year we lost several plants to frost burn including a couple of grevilleas. I am now tentatively awaiting this years -6 temperatures and hoping they don’t damage my prized Bulli Princess which has grown to more than two metres tall since I planted it last year. It is now too big to protect with a tree guard.

In addition to the physical aspects of the land, my impatience to make a start on the garden has left me with some less than perfect plantings. I made use of the plants we had already purchased in Sydney prior to our move. This included a selection of red salvias and lavenders. I planted these in the first section of garden to be built from imported topsoil. It was along the side fence and I didn’t make provision for any taller screening plants because the salvias and lavenders grew far wider than I’d made allowance for.

I added a few other plants that were available at the time, but apart from a standard rose, nothing in the garden grows higher than about a metre. I am now trying to rectify this by adding a few taller growing shrubs. The first of these is a pencil-like conifer that should grow to 2-3 metres tall but no more than 50cm wide. The second, planted a few days ago, is an Acacia Decora (Western Golden Wattle) which can grow to 3 metres high with a width of 2 metres. Unfortunately the only suitable position for this was beside the standard rose, which will now have to be transplanted when winter arrives.

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