The Front Yard
When I first moved in, the garden was neatly laid out with concrete edging but was terribly ugly. An enormous conifer dominated my front yard and the garden bed in the middle had nothing but three overgrown shrubs in it that excluded any possibility of other plants. I had been in the house less than a week when the tree surgeons came around to remove that conifer. Gutting the rest of the garden beds in the front took rather more time and bribery of some good friends.
To my dismay, I found that my new home had been the victim of a 70’s gardening fashion disaster – black plastic and a layer of scoria pebbles lay on every bed, with soil and mulch forming on top. I would like to have a good long chat with whomever is responsible for that fashion. Upon removing the top layer of rubbish and plastic, the soil underneath was dry as a bone and rock-hard. I hired a rotary hoe and was able to churn it up a little, but some areas were just unmovable. I added about 1-2ft of delicious “vegie mix” – 50:50 manure/compost and topsoil – to the beds, turned it over a little and got planting.
Vegie mix arrives fragrant and steaming, so it should be watered in and allowed to sit for a couple of days before planting straight into it. In fact, I’m not much good at waiting so often skip that step, but you really can’t with Australian natives. I’ve lost many a Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos) to vegie mix – they just can’t cope with the richness and most probably the phosporus levels. All of my other natives have been fine though when I’ve waited a bit.
Three flowering crab apples ‘Golden Raindrops’ (Malus transitoria ‘Schmidtcutleaf’) form the backbone of the middle garden bed. They’re a particularly spectacular variety that has the usual crabapple flowers and golden fruit as well as vibrant Autumn colour and divided leaves.
They are surrounded by a mix of Australian natives including grevillias and callistemon, and non-native but waterwise plants such as lychnis, roses, euryops, osteospermums, hebes and bearded irises. More recently I have added gaura, wallflowers (Erysimum), pelargoniums, silver bush (nfi.) and rambling roses.
The front of the house has been a learning experience for me with plants. We get heavy frosts here in winter (though rarely snow) and it faces full west so in summer when afternoon temperatures get up to the high 30’s, the brick wall radiates even more heat and the plants cook.
I currently have melaleucas either side of the front steps and if they can’t survive there, nothing can. I am also currently attempting to espalier a nashi pear along that wall and so far it is dealing with the conditions quite well. It only went in the ground in Spring though but being Japanese it should deal with the winter fairly well (I hope).
One of my favourite plants along the front of the house is a dwarf ghost gum (Corymbia – but still a eucalypt in my mind!). It has received minimal water and the same extreme conditions and has flourished. Not just survived, I mean really flourished! It is an incredible little tree. I’m trying to growing it outside our bedroom window for some sun protection in Summer and for the smell.
In my two years in the UK, the thing I missed and noticed most when I returned was the smell of the air. The smell of eucalyptus is suffuses air everywhere and is so much a part of life in Australia that we don’t notice it at all. I adore it and missed it so much that I got a tattoo of Eucalyptus leucoxylon on my shoulder blade. That also made Burke’s Backyard magazine It is to me a representation of my home and now I carry it with me always on my back … like a snail! Now of course I miss the smell of wet oak that I knew so well in England, though it’s not quite the same as the deep, fundamental connection and longing I felt for home.
Nepeta x faassenii ‘Six Hills Giant’, a tall variety of catmint, is a real star in these beds. They billow out onto my path with silver foliage and spikes of lavender-purple flowers, softening the edges of the beds in a cottage garden style. I haven’t noticed any particular attraction for cats with this variety but as Tai gets older, he’s become quite enamoured of the catnip (Nepeta cataria) that we have growing out the back. He’s started rolling around in it, licking the leaves and getting quite high on it this season.
My other favourites in the front garden are my two ‘Mr Lincoln’ roses, propagated for my by my Nanna who passed away about 6 years ago now. They were from her favourite bush in her garden and are my treasures.
In a warm corner, I also have a limequat which is a cross between a cumquat and a lime. It inherited the cold-hardiness of the cumquat and flavour of the lime, with small teardrop shaped fruits that you can bite straight into. They are wonderful in Thai cooking. It also has the usual fragrant white citrus flowers, which I think I like even better than the fruit!
I built the garden bed along the front about a year and a half ago and it has come on quite well. I am growing Wisteria Sinensis over my wooden arch, well aware that it will tear in down in the not too distant future, but by then I’ll be able to afford a nice wrought iron one hopefully! I am attempting to grow a hedge of grevillias for some privacy and to create an enclosed, secret garden effect.
The paths are made of fine eucalyptus mulch and I mulch all of the beds with pea straw and lucerne hay. The straw has been essential in keeping the moisture in, weeds down and particularly in enriching the soil as it breaks down. I love pea straw for this – it requires reapplication every year, but it’s positively magical what it can do for gardens. My mother used it downhill of her house on material approaching bedrock and within a few years had a beautiful layer of rich black soil there. Its also fun to lay, tearing bales apart and tossing it everywhere, ending up covered with it. Kids particularly love it!
It has been a fair bit of work but definitely a labour of love. Surprisingly almost everything survived two years without my ministrations but it has certainly performed better with them.
Stay tuned for Transformation Part 2 – The Backyard!