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This gardening blog is written in Bathurst, NSW, Australia.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

In Search of Spring

When does the start ... start?
Garden writers often call Spring the start of the gardening year. This makes sense if you live somewhere that is cold enough in Winter to stop all plant growth. In such places, the ground is frozen hard and is often covered in snow. The world is white rather than green for a while. The tools are cleaned, oiled and put away.  Then the green starts to come poking through, the snow melts, the ground unfreezes enough to be dug, and the gardening year begins.

But in the place I live, the garden year never really stops. The ground doesn't freeze in Winter. It's cold, but there are still plenty of jobs to do.The tools don't get a rest and neither does the gardener. There are weeds to pull and plenty of winter pruning to be done.

So Spring to me isn't really the start of the gardening year, but still every Spring feels like a new beginning. Bare branches suddenly become clothed in green. Shoots push up out of the ground everywhere.The garden is renewed. There is an energy in Spring that is inspiring and contagious. But just when does it start?

I know - let's consult the calendar.
Here in Australia, the calendar  says that Winter ends at midnight on the 31st of August. So we go to bed in Winter and wake up next morning in Spring.
Every year.
Regardless of the weather.
It's an astronomical thing, you understand.

So when I woke up on the 1st of September this year, I opened the curtains and looked out of my front window to greet the Spring. I saw fog and frost and bare, black branches. Did I feel as though Spring had begun? No way.

I realised that, to me, Spring doesn't begin when the calendar says so. Spring isn't a just a season; it's a feeling: a feeling of warmth, growth and new life. So I started to wonder: what signs do I look for to convince me that Spring has started? I was sure that whatever the signs were, I would find them in the garden. So, on the 1st of September, I went to look for them.

Read the signs
First, I searched for flowers. I found Snowflakes, Jonquils, Daffodils, Violets and Hellebores. But it still felt like Winter to me.

Snowflakes, Leucojum aestivum.

 Helleborus orientalis hybrid

Next, I considered shrubs. Deciduous shrubs look bare and dead in the middle of winter. So perhaps Spring begins when they start to bud and  flower?

But the Chaenomeles japonica begins to push out its gorgeous red blooms in August, with frost all around. By the first day of September this year it was in full bloom. But it didn't feel like Spring to me, even when the sun came out in the afternoon.

So I thought about trees. Perhaps Spring rises with the sap in deciduous trees? 

On the 2nd of September I gazed up through clusters of almond blossom to a clear blue sky, trying to sense the Spring. It still felt like winter to me. 

I was beginning to get a bit intrigued. What would it take to make me feel that Spring had arrived? 

Your mission, should you choose to accept it...
I was determined to catch that elusive first day of Spring. So, every morning I woke up at my usual time (6.30 am) and pulled back the curtains with a flourish. I even made notes.

3rd September: Rain overnight. Frost followed by sun. No sign of Spring.

4th September: Cloudy all morning. Cold wind. Spring-like feelings still delayed.

And then, on the 5th September, I noticed something new. A thin stripe of golden sunlight was shining on the wall next to the closed curtains. I opened the curtains and ... it was Spring! 

In the end, it wasn't about what the plants were doing at all. 

It was all about the sun on my face first thing in the morning and the way that made me feel.

Mission accomplished.
So now I know.

Spring begins on the very first morning I see the sun shining in my front windows at 6.30 am. 

A very idiosyncratic way to look at it, I know. But one I'm happy with. 

So, when does your Spring begin?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Remembering Nanna's Irises

My grandmother grew bearded irises in ugly cement pots in our back yard. In summer, the ordinary garden dirt they were growing in became as hard as the pots themselves and the pale brown iris rhizomes lay beached and forlorn on the baked surface as the dusty leaves withered. 

And yet... every autumn, the new pale green spears began to rise and rise, widening out into great fans. In spring, huge blue and purple flowers expanded into their brief glory before the summer heat claimed them again.

I am thinking about Nanna’s irises because I have been reading a book by Fran Sorin, called “Digging Deep”, subtitled “Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening” (Warner Books, 2004). One of the early exercises in the book is to sit and remember significant childhood encounters with plants and gardens, ones that created an emotional and sensual connection to nature.

At first, I couldn’t think of any.Then, suddenly, I remembered those irises. After that, other memories began to come thick and fast.

I recalled Nanna’s bedroom, in my parents' house, where she sat on the bed and played the mandolin, the zither or the mouth organ, with me sitting on the carpet at her feet. I must have been four or five years old. The scent of a small pot of violets filled the room. In my memory, my grandmother always has a tiny pot of violets near her bed. I know this can’t be the case, as the violets came from our yard, and they only flowered in the cooler times of the year. And yet, in my mind, they are always there, breathing out their modest sweetness into the cool, dim room. The violets grew with maidenhair ferns along a damp, shady strip between our house and the fence. After rain, the scent was wonderfully fresh and clean. Violets still smell like rain to me.

And then I remembered childhood trips to visit my great-aunt in Canberra, a much cooler climate than that of Sydney, where I grew up. The visits took place twice a year, in autumn and in spring, and always included early morning walks around the block. The cold, crisp air, aching in my lungs, so different to the warm, soft air of home, my breath making puffs of white fog in front of me, all seemed magical. And so did the enormous street trees, with their thick, straight trunks covered in shaggy mahogany-coloured bark and dark, leathery green canopies spangled all over with vibrant red and yellow baubles. They were Irish Strawberry trees, Arbutus unedo. 

We ate the fallen “strawberries”, which were only faintly sweet and a bit mushy, but incredibly exciting because they had fallen from street trees. No one owned these trees. They weren’t in a back yard or an orchard. They were just there and you could walk along the street and eat their fruit. It felt like the most delicious kind of cheating.

Irish Strawberry trees are evergreen, but as we walked and drove around Canberra in autumn, the gorgeously coloured deciduous trees seemed to be everywhere, an amazing sight to a child from the more temperate east coast. I have visited Canberra hundreds of times as an adult, at all months of the year, but when I think of that city, the first things that come to my mind are walks on frosty mornings, giant red trunks towering overhead, the treasure of fallen fruit and the blazing colours of autumn.

The exercise in Fran Sorin’s book is designed to help readers start to think about natural preferences that might translate into choices in designing their own gardens: “We all have memories of beauty that transformed us, and by tapping into them, we can then find ways to surround ourselves with these sensations and emotions in our gardens today.”

The fascinating thing is that, without planning it consciously, I find that I have done exactly that.

My garden is not damp like that strip beside my childhood home, and yet I have more violets than I can handle. In fact, they have to be dug out of some gardens on a regular basis because they keep trying to take over. Sometimes, I have thought about removing all of them and making life easier, and yet I can never bring myself to do it. Now I think I know why.

Violets threatening a young, unsuspecting Diosma.

Living in a climate similar to that of Canberrra, I now have my own deciduous trees and shrubs that colour up beautifully every autumn. I love each one of them dearly.

I even have a big, handsome, shaggy-barked Irish Strawberry tree. It produces large amounts of almost tasteless but very decorative fruit that falls on the driveway every autumn and needs to be cleared away. I haven’t bothered actually eating any of the fruit for years. I think I’m going to savour just a few next autumn, even though I know they won’t taste as good as the magical street fruit of my childhood.

Blossom on my Irish Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo.

And the irises? They’re here too, oh yes. 

I have blue ones and purple ones, just like Nanna's, but also pink, mauve, white, plum, bronze, burgundy, yellow and rusty red. Mine aren’t confined in pots, but are scattered through all my gardens. 

For at least the past 30 years, whenever anyone has asked me to name my favourite flower, there has never been any question about the answer. 

I love the sumptuous blooms of roses; I adore the cheery faces of Cosmos and the vibrant colours of Cannas, Dahlias and Salvias. In fact, I am very fond of all the perennial and annual flowers I grow. But the tall bearded Iris is the undisputed queen of my heart. For the brief three weeks she is in flower, I am an almost unreasonably happy gardener.

Thanks, Nanna.

Do you have any fond memories of plants from your childhood? I'd love to hear all about them and whether you have managed to incorporate any of them into your own garden. Just leave a a comment below.