Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Beautiful, soggy grevilleas

Rain. Though it's very welcome here, after a very dry January, I'd gladly forgo Sydney's dose of this morning's gentle rain if Huey could somehow send it southwards and put out all those awful bushfires in Victoria. But it doesn't work that way. As the American songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore sings "Rain doesn't fall for the flowers / Rain just falls." And so rain falls here where it's welcome, but hardly a life-saver.

Ever since I discovered the 'Photomerge' button in Photoshop I've become a sucker for taking panorama shots of all 9m x 7.5m of Amateur Land. All you need to do is take three or four shots, click the Photomerge button and then tell it to merge the shots taken, and in 20 seconds you end up with a slightly weirdly-bendy, but still quite impressive, panorama shot. Here's the scene this soggy morning, after a mere 3mm of rain overnight.

This is my native Grevillea 'Peaches & Cream', sagging slightly with the weight of raindrops. Lots of Australians will tell you that our Aussie bushland is at its most gentle and beautiful in the rain. Our bushland areas really can feel a bit scary on hot, dry summer's days, when fires, frisky snakes and constant thirst jangle your inner worry beads. But in the wet, it all seems so gentle and benign. You can really smell the scents of eucalypts and wattles in the wet and the ground feels soft underfoot. Of course a lot of that sensory thrill is lost in a mere garden like mine, but on a wet morning the grevilleas always catch my eye.

The spidery fingers of grevillea leaves hold up each raindrop for inspection.

The multi-coloured blooms of Grevillea 'Peaches & Cream' take on a darker, even more pleasing, tone when moist. So far this shrub has grown lots of leaves and produced only a few flowers. I know why. When young it had an iron deficiency, which one friend, an excellent gardener, guessed was probably a nitrogen deficiency. So we tried a nitrogen feed first, and it didn't improve. After we then tried option B, treating it with chelated iron for an iron deficiency, that worked a treat and the leaves greened up in days. But we're paying the price for the nitrogen hit now, with lots of leaf growth and not many flowers. The balance will return in due course, and with that hopefully we'll see more blooms.

Over on the other side of the fence is my star patient, no longer on the intensive care list, my Grevillea 'Superb'. It's blooming beautifully now, but two months ago Pam and I were seriously discussing what kind of plant we'd get as a replacement for it, as it looked terminally ill.

This is what I mean by looking 'terminally ill'. Eek, that's ugly. But this was made to look even uglier as it's taken just after a desperate attempt at pruning, in mid-October. The new leaves which appeared after this pruning came out looking sick, too, and that's when we thought its condition was terminal. And then it occurred to me that the problem could be fungal, and probably underground as well. And so I sprayed it with Anti-Rot, whose main chemical component is phosphorous acid.

Traa daaaa! And this is the star patient this morning, covered in blooms and healthy green leaves. It's had two treatments of Anti-Rot so far, at six week intervals, and this stuff has done the trick magnificently. If you think I'm pleased about this, the local native birds are even more delighted! Grevilleas are laden with nectar and this is the local cafe for a variety of honeyeaters.

Grevilleas are wonderful garden plants. The two varieties I have growing here are modern cultivars not found in our bushland areas, so they are second-generation natives, rather than being truly indigenous plants. The Grevillea 'Superb' is so long-flowering that it's in flower virtually year-round, although it does put on bigger flushes of blooms in autumn and spring, or at least several weeks after being pruned, as is happening now.

The general idea with grevilleas is that you prune them quite often – twice a year, usually after the autumn and spring flushes of blooms subside. This keeps the foliage dense and the flowers more profuse. Pruning consists of cutting back plants by about one-third, all over, but some gardeners cut off more, others less. Doesn't matter, as long as all the old blooms go. Lots of Australians who aren't keen gardeners, but who want a garden of some sort, make the mistake of growing flowering natives such as these grevilleas and then they neglect them entirely after planting. After a good first year or two, their native plants grow sparse, scrappy and untidy, and flowering drops off. They presume that all natives are 'low-maintenance' plants - because that's the common misconception – when in fact they need a fair bit of maintenance and care. And boy, there are a lot of really ugly native gardens out there in suburbia. All they need is regular pruning.

The only maintenance that grevilleas don't need a lot of is feeding. I give them one application of slow-release pellets formulated for Australian natives (ie with a very low phosphorus content). That's all they need. Over-feeding can kill them, as can normal garden fertilisers, and run-off from over-fertilised lawns. So underfeeding is best for all grevilleas.

Oddly enough, grevilleas such as these are a bit out of favour with ecologists, despite being native plants and so attractive to native birds. They're perfectly right in their arguments, too, which go like something like this: "Planting too many nectar-producing plants in suburban areas gives nectar-eating native birds an unfair competitive advantage over the various seed-eating and insect-eating birds. What you should do is also plant native shrubs, perennials and trees which provide a balanced variety of food sources (ie, seed-producing plants and plants which attract insects, such as tea trees.)"

Unfortunately, that then means that you'd need to devote your garden almost entirely to native plants to achieve a truly eco-friendly balance of plant types, and that's something I just don't want to do. I love my food plants far too much to do that. And besides, Australian natives are finicky, difficult plants to grow, especially here in my heavyish, rich clay-loam soil. They generally need lighter, almost sandy, soils to thrive healthily. And so I content myself with growing just a couple of the prettiest grevilleas I can find – and a soggy morning like this one is when they're at their best.


Anonymous said...

My husband calls rain "free water" and we always welcome a summer rain but it can be annoying when top-heavy plants fall over. The red grevilla is magnificent. I had a rooted cutting and killed it. And yes, that perennial debate on natives versus exotics...I don't think it's going to be resolved any time soon.

The fires!! We've been watching the news. It makes my heart sick, a tragedy. I hope they're put out soon.

Chookie said...

Native plants are finicky? The only natives that you'd have trouble growing are ones that don't naturally grow in your kind of soil and climate. I'm also on clay and grow Melalaucas, bottle brushes, local wattles and plenty of other plants without trouble. I can't grow the Sydney sandstone plants, though. Your Council should have a list of endemic species that you can grow.

patientgardener said...

we have family in Adelaide who have been suffering with the heat. The fires are terrible and some of the stories are terrible to hear. I was trying to explain to my son about the nature of the Australian bush and how they get so dry and the oil in the Euculptus makes the situation worse.

Jamie said...

Yes, Chookie, I've found natives to be the hardest plants to keep happy here. I've had lots of them turn up their toes suddenly. You're probably right about the policy of getting locally indigenous plants, but I started gardening in order to grow food plants mostly, and so natives are just a low priority for me. I love my Eucalyptus leucoxylon 'Rosea' street tree, as well as my two backyard grevilleas; and my whole front garden is all-native, too (Cootamundra wattle groundcover, lilly pilly hedges, Correa 'Alba' in the middle) but I've had more natives cark it suddenly than any other class of plants I grow here.

And Grace and Patient Gardener: the fires aren't over yet, and they say there are probably plenty more bodies to be found in areas where the police haven't yet been able to enter, and the death toll might get up to 300 or more. It's a terrible calamity for the whole of the country, people are just stunned.

Sydney Plumber said...

This is really nice post....Good work keep it continue....

Lana said...

Stumbled across your blog in the blogosphere and loved it! I am an Inner Westie as well and trying to get my garden growing. When we moved in, everything outside was completely concrete. We have had it dug up (urgh horrible job the greek neighbours thought we were crazy - why rip up perfectly good concrete!) and am starting my garden and lawn. Your garden is absolutely wonderful! Keep up the good work!!