5-10-5: Claire Takacs, Garden Photographer

A seasoned traveler (it must be an Australian imperative to have a passport and see the world!), Claire has the enviable position of photographing beautiful places, namely gardens, throughout the world when she is not home in Victoria, Australia.  I met her when she was in the East Coast US photographing gardens from New England to the Mid-Atlantic region.


claire takacs

Please introduce yourself.

I’m an Australian freelance garden photographer who travels 6-7 months of the year based out of England when not in Australia and to the US and Europe. I work mainly for magazines such as Gardens Illustrated and Garden Design and contribute to books.


The arts or horticulture?

It would have to be a fairly equal combination of both.

I studied art at school, with a keen interest in landscape painting and then completed a bachelor degree in Environmental Science.

I often see gardens as works of art and feel compelled to capture their beauty and I find light brings it all to life.

I have a great appreciation of nature and are always seeing plants I have never seen before. However,  I am not driven by knowing all of the details of plant names etc. It’s more about the bigger picture and feelings that gardens evoke when skilfully planted and created by expert and passionate gardeners and garden designers.


How did you first become interested in photography, especially garden and landscape photography?

Upon completing my science degree, I left Australia with a one way ticket to London.  This flight was the first time I really had freedom and time to explore the world and I became really interested in photography and constantly wanted to capture what I saw along my travels. I was often disappointed at how my images turned out when they came back from the lab, and really wanted to learn how to take better pictures that represented what I saw.

When I returned to Australia, I decided I wanted to do garden design or photography. Science was never really in the picture, but rather it was always a love of nature and wanting to work outdoors from the beginning.

I chose photography, and completed a two year full time course, beginning at 26. Initially I was really drawn to photographing landscapes and capturing light, which was about beauty in nature.

During the course, one of my projects resulted in photographing a garden, Cloudehill. Cloudehill is one of Australia’s best gardens by owner Jeremy Francis who inspired by the famous Arts and Crafts gardens of the UK. It just happened to be ten minutes down the road from where I’d grown up, but I’d never seen it until now. Francis’s garden reminded me of the great gardens I’d seen in the UK.

It was an absolute revelation having this garden all to myself at sunrise one morning and photographing it as I would for a landscape. There was just such beauty in this garden and I couldn’t believe how no one else was there capturing the moments. Cloudehill then became my initial inspiration for garden photography and the beginning of it all for me. It was the first garden I got published in Gardens Illustrated and it was the front cover image on the inaugural International Garden Photographer of the Year Competition, which I won in 2008.

Garden photography has been the focus for my life and travels ever since and it has taken me on such an interesting path to endless beautiful and amazing gardens and people throughout the world. I still love landscapes, but often I prefer just to enjoy them and concentrate my work on gardens. I find it’s so interesting to see what people at a really high level in horticulture are doing all around the world. I’m constantly surprised by the gardens I see. I too have a great love of gardening myself and I understand what it is to be totally swept away and consumed by gardening.

Great Dixter

When the first morning rays meet the mist: the Peacock Garden at Great Dixter, West Sussex, England.

Some photographers prefer the morning light for producing the best images, others the evening light. The majority of your images appear to be taken during early morning when the first rays of light breaks apart the horizon or the mist. Has your experience naturally steered you towards mornings?

Yes, generally I much prefer morning light. My favorite morning is a cool morning which is a little misty and then the sun breaks through the mist. I love photographing in autumn and cool climates when the light is softer. In Australia our light is often so harsh that you have to be very quick to photograph before the window of nice light passes. I find the gardens quieter in the morning and I am fresher, which really allows me to focus on the photography only. Generally the light is more atmospheric in the mornings; however, it does depend on the garden’s orientation, as some gardens have nicer evening light and the time of year can change it as well. If possible, I generally try to get both sunrise and sunset lights in the garden.


At times, weather can be uncooperative for photography, necessitating repeat visits until it is optimal. Given scheduling constraints, how do you circumvent the frustration of inclement weather?

Weather is probably the most difficult thing I have to deal with. Almost everywhere I go, I seem to get unseasonal conditions, or so gardeners tell me. Climate seems to be noticeably changing around the world and affecting flowering times in gardens.

For some gardens, I just don’t seem to be lucky with the weather and I will have three or four goes at it. However, it really depends on where I am and how flexible the owners and I can be. Often I am working freelance, sourcing gardens myself and working with writers remotely, so I have to weigh up how long I can afford to wait. Sometimes I will have to work with the conditions as they are, such as having two shoots – an evening followed by a sunrise shoot, which may might give five minutes of nice light, but sometimes that is enough for a double page opener for a feature. More often than not, it’s not plausible to get the whole shoot with good light, which is frustrating. There are certain conditions though, such as dark grey clouds and high winds that make it impossible to get good shots. I have photographed for hours in the rain underneath an umbrella for a couple of gardens yet this patience has resulted in published features. My winning IGPOTY shot was photographed in snow underneath an umbrella.

Generally I keep an eye on the weather closer to the date and ask for a little flexibility with owners if possible. If I really feel a garden is worth capturing in good light and the weather is just not cooperative, I will go out of my way to return to a garden and shoot in good light. I have been know to get up at 2am and drive 3 hours for a fourth attempt at photographing the one garden. I often also have 14 + hour days when traveling in summer, with a shoot in the morning, some scouting during the day, driving and then another shoot at night. It can get pretty exhausting, but it’s worth it if the gardens and light are good.


Do you have a preliminary session or discussion with the garden owners as part of your ‘screening’ process? I have heard that understanding the owner(s)’ philosophy and approach towards gardening can help the photographer hone on specific details that reflect the garden’s personality.

Yes, if possible I always have a preliminary visit and walk around the garden with the owner or designer.  It is important to have this time and get some understanding of the garden and the thought process and person behind it. There is much detail in gardens, thus it is helpful to have some special plants or specific garden areas pointed out. Then I like to take another walk around the garden by myself without my camera, look at it, and walk around it from different angles, so you can plan a bit mentally as to what you need to capture and some good spots to shoot from. I always make sure I know which direction the sun will be coming up and moving through the garden.


 

Bryans Ground UK

Bryan’s Ground, David Wheeler and Simon Dorrell’s garden in Wales, United Kingdom.

Any photographic tips you wish to share with your readers?

Light – this aspect is the most important thing apart from timing. It is crucial to time the photography for a peak time in the garden, whether that be spring flowering or autumn color if possible. Once you have the visit’s timing right, light then is critical because it completely changes the mood or feeling of the images and captures the beauty of the garden. I like to follow the light around the garden as it moves throughout the morning or evening. It essentially dictates the shots I take. When the light is at its best early in the mornings, I focus on the wider landscape shots. As  it then moves around the garden, I use it to highlight certain parts or plants on the garden for closer, more detailed shots. Finally once it is too bright, you often can’t achieve those overall shots without too much contrast between shadows and highlights.

Composition – good light is great, but you need to pair it with good composition.  Look for a shot that is balanced, and for the wider shots to have detail in the foreground, mid ground and distance.

Tripod  – As  personal preference, I still always use a tripod with a shutter release for low light conditions to ensure my pictures are sharp and I find it helpful for careful framing of images.

Ladder – lately I’ve been really enjoying the perspective of gardens while shooting from ladders. Particularly with gardens with tall perennials it really helps to capture the scene.

Shoot into the light – if you position the camera so it is protected from direct flare (although sometimes this tactic can work) either behind a tree or plants in the frame and shoot into the light, you can get some nice lighting effects when the light is low.


Please pick at least 5 of your favorite or best images and explain why they appeal to you the most.

Kenrokuen Kanazawa Japan

Kenrokuen, Japan. Winner of inaugural IGPOTY 2008

This is probably my most favorite image. One that I don’t tire of looking at. It feels timeless and a beautiful/magical moment captured. Reminds me of a painting. I saw this shot and framed it with the bridge, but then the couple crossing at the perfect moment definitely made the shot, for which I was very grateful.

Cloudehill Olinda Victoria Australia

Cloudehill, Victoria, Australia.

This garden is very special to me. My initial inspiration. I love the symmetry of this image. The beautiful planting and the soft light at sunrise. Your eye is really led to the seat in the distance and the path draws you into the scene.

Dan Hinkley Windcliff

Windcliff, Indianola, Washington State, USA (Dan Hinkley).

Hard to imagine a more spectacular backdrop for a garden. I love the soft light at sunrise and the beautiful plants in Dan’s garden and how he frames the view of Mount Rainier. I love how the sunrise is capturing the tops of the trees on the top right of the image. I find it is a peaceful image, completely still and almost surreal.

Gravetye Manor Tom Coward

Gravetye Manor, West Sussex, United Kingdom.

I loved this garden and its setting. The planting by head gardener Tom Coward was spectacular. I find this image has a lot of depth to it as I tried to capture the many layers and paths in the garden and then the soft mist in the distance at sunrise. There is a lot going on in this garden, but with a beautiful subtlety that I tried to capture it here.

Blair garden Queenstown New Zealand

Blair garden, New Zealand.

I really loved this garden and its location. This was taken on the fourth consecutive day that I’d visited the garden and walked up the hill multiple times to get some nice light there, to show the setting of the garden surrounded by the majestic mountain backdrop. I waited until the light highlighted the grass in the foreground, which then leads your eye to the owners house and garden and then the distant landscape.


Thank you, Claire!  ~ Eric

Follow Claire on Instagram. Her photography can be reviewed on www.takacsphoto.com


Dear Jimmy: Ode to Orange

 

"Orange and Red on Red" by Mark Rothko (image courtesy of The Phillips Collection)

“Orange and Red on Red” by Mark Rothko (image courtesy of The Phillips Collection)

Dear Jimmy:
As I leaf through the spring bulb catalogues and mark the daffodil and tulip varieties of interest, I notice that I am finding the orange ones appealing (apart from white and black). Perhaps orange is such an unexpected color in spring – its warm piquancy in sharp contrast to the cooler vernal tones. It never disappoints for it seems a simmering preclude to the full volume of summer. The color appears to debut with quietude and grow vulnerable like a flickering flame that leaps into a conflagration in summer. I always thought how fun the concept would be to set a border to orange, not necessarily a monochromatic one, but one that begins with geums, Tulipa ‘Prinses Irene’ and Euphorbia polychroma, swells up with Digitalis ferruginea, Eschscholtzia calfornica, and Stipa gigantea, and tapering off to the last Kniphofia, Leonotis leonurus and rosehips.

Left to right clockwise: Narcissus 'Geranium'; Geum, Kniphofia; Digitalis ferruginea

Left to right clockwise: Narcissus ‘Geranium’; Geum, Kniphofia; Digitalis ferruginea

 

The orange whorls of Leonotis leonurus are often the last to flower, and if frosts haven't threatened, the flowers look appropriately festive during Halloween.

The orange whorls of Leonotis leonurus are often the last to flower, and if frosts haven’t threatened, the flowers look appropriately festive during Halloween.

It is hard to understand why people harbor deep-seated prejudices towards orange – either orange or yellow is shunned while other colors are more or less welcome. White can be cold, pink insipid, and blue wishy washy if placement and tone is not considered. It is hard to find fault with orange. No matter how red or yellow the color orange registers on the spectral scale, it never lets go its sunny disposition. I cannot help smile in orange’s presence – and you can begin to see why Indians love the color in their jubilant celebrations – the marigold garlands, the billowing saris, and spices and seasonings. Even the Buddhist monks in Thailand and southeast Asia don orange vestments, a more lively foil to the ascetic white garments of their Japanese contemporaries. Unfortunately I cannot wear orange for my yellow skin looks sallow with it. Individuals with olive or even fair complexions look flattering in orange. However, I have no problems inviting orange in the garden – under sunny or overcast skies, it is a cheerful color. Sometimes our inclinations towards orange or other colors develop from our emotive reactions to the surrounding environments.

Rusty Motifs (clockwise beginning upper left): Wire Urn; welded abstract tree and corten steel planters; fuel barrel remade into a mailbox; shed with painted rust orange door - all in Australia

Rusty Motifs (clockwise beginning upper left): Wire Urn; welded abstract tree and corten steel planters; fuel barrel remade into a mailbox; shed with painted rust orange door – all in Australia

Australians are inordinately fond of brown, copper, and rust in the garden – perhaps they are responding naturally to their landscapes brushed with ochres and vermilions from the blazing sun. And their country itself is an incendiary one if you discount the tropical rainforests of Queensland and karri groves of Western Australia. Eucalyptus, which constitute much of their forests, are essentially matchsticks, fueled with combustable oils in leaves and branches that leave the trees a smoldering mess after a wildfire. Nonetheless the Australian embrace of earthy colors lends itself well to the rusticity of gardens. Gates welded of iron, barbed wire recycled into sculptures, and even oil barrels re-purposed into mailboxes. These ornaments would appear discordant in an English landscape, which is replete with green. Perhaps on a shingle beach like the late Derek Jarman’s iconic Dungeness Beach garden would distressed agricultural or industrial implements be appropriate.

Orange lichen-encrusted rocks at Bay of Fires, Tasmania, Australia

Orange lichen-encrusted rocks at Bay of Fires, Tasmania, Australia

Where other colors look dispiritedly bleached or withered under the intense Australian sun, orange matches the sun’s ferocity with its brilliance. As the sun weakens its glare, orange seems to glow more intensely than it did in midday. I remember walking through the Bay of Fires and Freycinet National Park, Tasmania, Australia during early evening when the lichen encrusted rocks literally became animated with orange. The color matched the crystal clarity of the blue skies, the angular contours of the rocks, and the blinding purity of the white sands. I felt swept up in a dreamscape only possible in a surrealist painting. Without orange, the coastal landscape loses its brilliance that is distinctly Australian. All these hikes served to heighten my appreciation for orange in all guises.

An edible study in orange: Salmon carpaccio with salmon roe, radish, and potato chips with breadsticks

An edible study in orange: Salmon carpaccio with salmon roe, radish, and potato chips with breadsticks

Sometimes the appeal of orange finally does not become apparent until one cooks and feasts with sensitivity for color on the plate. A memorable appetizer was a salmon carpaccio spangled with salmon roe, sliced radishes, and micro-shoots with a drizzle of aioli. Two breadsticks placed perpendicular to the plate broke the circular theme. What made this dish riveting was the color, that same saturated orange I saw on those coastal rocks, the Rothko paintings, and the tulips. I am sure that you would understand from living in Spain where oranges are unavoidable. May orange embolden your health!

~Eric

 

 

 

Anatomy of a Garden: Private Garden, Australia

The garden is essentially a series of interlocking terraces, like a stack of wooden boxes asymmetrically arranged, that affords several vantage points towards the neighbors' homes and the brackish River Derwent. The plantings are still raw, but eventually will fill out, softening the hard edges of the wooden walls.

The garden is essentially a series of interlocking terraces, like a stack of wooden boxes asymmetrically arranged, that affords several vantage points towards the neighbors’ homes and the brackish River Derwent. The plantings are still raw, but eventually will fill out, softening the hard edges of the wooden walls.

Buoyant from seeing my friend’s garden a few times, the client exclaimed: “I want a garden like Sally’s!” My friend Sally Johanssohn’s garden, the product of 20 or so more years’ hard work, has been featured in magazines and garden tours, and once played host to an biennial rare plant fair that draws people all over Australia. In addition, a specialist nursery, now mostly mail-order, carries anything from tree peonies to Canary Island endemics. While Sally enjoys propagating and selling plants, she takes a conservative stance on designing gardens and refers clients to a talented garden designer friend. Because her garden packed with rarities is not for mere dilettantes, Sally is aware that it is not a garden for everyone. After consideration, she graciously consented to select and design plantings for this client and her husband, recent retirees from Melbourne.  I was invited to come on board, and both of us were invited for tea to survey the place and have a discussion with the clients. The clients’ edict was simple – bulbs, flowers, and woody plants layered in Sally’s style.

Terraced gardens pose a different set of challenges than gardens on even or flat terrain, but their multi-dimensions can yield interesting perspectives and plantings. Because terraced beds are essentially island beds, plantings receive closer scrutiny on all sides.  Although the garden does have some shelter, wind was another dictating factor for the plant palette.

Terraced gardens pose a different set of challenges than gardens on even or flat terrain, but their multi-dimensions can yield interesting perspectives and plantings. Because terraced beds are essentially island beds, plantings receive closer scrutiny on all sides. Although the garden does have some shelter, wind was another dictating factor for the plant palette.

A series of interlocking terraces, the garden had a L-shaped configuration that wraps around the renovated house situated at the hillside bottom. Each terrace had wooden retaining walls built by the clients, and the terrace beds were already enriched with fresh topsoil and compost. Although the garden had a south facing orientation, the surrounding trees reduced light levels to those of a east or west exposure. However, the garden’s coastal proximity meant a frost-free, warmer climate that afforded a wider range of plants than that of Sally’s garden at a higher altitude.

As ideal as a frost-free climate is amicable for gardening, it does pose certain challenges. Weeds grow unfettered throughout the year, and plants do not always enter complete dormancy, behaving in a strangely suspended growth. What are completely deciduous in cold climates are either semi-evergreen or evergreen. Winters can be unbearably damp and such conditions become conducive to foliar diseases.

 The clients were obviously keen to complete their garden since one bed, which ran the length of the house, was already planted a year ago. This bed not only had beautiful choice hellebores, but also rarer oddities uncommon in Australian gardens. Grevillea petrophiloides, a Western Australian shrub with pink bottlebrush flowers similar to Sanguisorba (burnet), marked the northwest corner, and enviable clumps of Mysotidium hortensia (Chatham Island forget-me-not) cascaded down near the front. The only major change we implemented was a Westringia fruticosa (coast rosemary) hedge split into the three lines that flowed upwards into the upper terrace. Three to four Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Golf Ball’ provided additional definition.

Difficult to cultivate, the Western Australian Grevillea petrophiloides has grown well unexpectedly  despite its preference for sandy or rocky soils. In the background are clumps of the rare Mysotidium hortensia (Chatham Island forget-me-not) cascading down the terrace. This bed preceded our involvement, and scarcely need improvement apart from more hellebores and Mysotidium hortensia to fill out bare areas. A Cotinus is beginning to leaf out, giving some needed mid-level screening from the road.

Difficult to cultivate, the Western Australian Grevillea petrophiloides has grown well unexpectedly despite its preference for sandy or rocky soils. In the background are clumps of the rare Mysotidium hortensia (Chatham Island forget-me-not) cascading down the terrace. This bed preceded our involvement, and scarcely need improvement apart from more hellebores and Mysotidium hortensia to fill out bare areas. A Cotinus is beginning to leaf out, giving some needed mid-level screening from the road.

Surprise rarities respond well to the garden's microclimate  - Mysotidium hortensia, an endangered endemic of Chatham islands off New Zealand with large ribbed leaves and thick cymes of blue flowers, has self-seeded.

Surprise rarities respond well to the garden’s microclimate – Mysotidium hortensia, an endangered endemic of Chatham islands off New Zealand with large ribbed leaves and thick cymes of blue flowers, has self-seeded.

Preexisting plants were mostly retained and helped us steer towards appropriate colors. Two mature Clematis montana var. grandiflora graced the grid fencing bordering the neighbor’s driveway. They guided us towards silver-leafed and white flowering plants. Since the clients desired better screening in winter, we added two more Clematis armandii, an evergreen Chinese species with white flowers at the far ends of the fence. The longer border backed by the fence were carpeted with Narcissus ‘Thalia’ and snowdrops, Stachys byzantina, and Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’.  Four olive trees (Olea europaea) give additional structure and eventually will curtain the driveway as they mature. To keep these trees within scale, we will prune them into columnar forms. The border lacked definition after the first wave of planting, but will be stronger with some editing and maintenance.

Two mature Clematis montana var. grandiflora, inherited from the previous owners, screen the wire fencing for the neighbor's driveway. While breathtakingly beautiful, they are deciduous, leaving the fencing more visible during winter. We added two evergreen white-flowering Clematis armandii on the far ends of the fence to extend the season and provide better screening.

Two mature Clematis montana var. grandiflora, inherited from the previous owners, screen the wire fencing for the neighbor’s driveway. While breathtakingly beautiful, they are deciduous, leaving the fencing more visible during winter. We added two evergreen white-flowering Clematis armandii on the far ends of the fence to extend the season and provide better screening.

Young olive trees, underplanted with Salvia officinalis 'Berggarten', Stachys byzantina.  will be clipped into columnar shapes over time, White-flowering spring bulbs, Narcissus 'Thalia', Leucojum aestivum, and Galanthus, spangle the ground too.

Young olive trees, underplanted with Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’, Stachys byzantina. will be clipped into columnar shapes over time, White-flowering spring bulbs, Narcissus ‘Thalia’, Leucojum aestivum, and Galanthus, spangle the ground too.

In front of the pole fencing behind the house, Acer griseum inspired us to dream up a rust theme – bronzes, ochres, and oranges, all hues that Australian gardeners are inordinately fond of. Shadier than other terraced beds, the site afforded us to place plants requiring afternoon shade from the intense sun. Beesia deltophylla, a Chinese buttercup relative seldom used en masse, and the New Zealand sedge Unicina rubra spiraled around the maple, and Isoplexis (Digitalis) canariensis has upright spires of orange flowers that attract nectar-seeking birds. The overall planting was very successful and sadly could only be realized in mild temperate climates.

The client's pre-existing Acer griseum became the template by which we carefully selected plants to pick up its bark's rusty hue - Beesia deltophylla has heart-shaped leaves burnished with bronze when young, the New Zealand sedge Unicinia rubra is a rich coppery red, and Isoplexis (Digitalis) canariensis has orange tubular flowers on black stems that attract the native New Holland honeyeaters. The latter was a consideration for the clients who are avid bird watchers.  On the upper terrace are Helleborus foetidus (stinking hellebore) and Astelia chathamica.

The client’s pre-existing Acer griseum became the template by which we carefully selected plants to pick up its bark’s rusty hue – Beesia deltophylla has heart-shaped leaves burnished with bronze when young, the New Zealand sedge Unicinia rubra is a rich coppery red, and Isoplexis (Digitalis) canariensis has orange tubular flowers on black stems that attract the native New Holland honeyeaters. The latter was a consideration for the clients who are avid bird watchers. On the upper terrace are Helleborus foetidus (stinking hellebore) and Astelia chathamica.

Fond of cooking and eating out, the clients requested herbs, vegetables, and fruit trees. These culinary plants are discreet because we chose to emphasize their ornamental attributes first. Cynara cardunuculus (artichoke),  Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’ (creeping rosemary) and Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’ fulfill their roles as garden plants rather than edible ones.  Two Meyer lemon trees signal the transition from the olive allee into the upper terraces and hopefully engulf the area with their fragrance in the summer warmth.

All, but one have culinary value - Borago officinalis for edible flowers, Cynara cardunuculus artichokes, and Pisium sativum peas, yet the initial impression is that of ornamentals rather than edibles. Beginning to bud,  Phlomis samia is the only outlier (middle right foreground).

All, but one have culinary value – Borago officinalis for edible flowers, Cynara cardunuculus artichokes, and Pisium sativum peas, yet the initial impression is that of ornamentals rather than edibles. Beginning to bud, Phlomis samia is the only outlier (middle right foreground).

The central terraces adjacent to the kitchen and porch outlooking to the water required more finesse and attention than the ones already planted. To reflect the clear Tasmanian skies, we chose blue to purple-flowering herbaceous perennials. Penstemon ‘Sour Grapes’, Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’, and Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’ have a long flowering season. For levity, Stipa gigantea (giant oats grass) was mingled with Dierama pulcherrimum, a South African iris relative, and Peroskvia atriplicifolia (Russian sage). A camellia hedge in the back created an enclosed ‘tunnel’ to an alcove by the birches.

A view towards the top: The planting leans heavily towards blues and purples to reflect the Tasmanian skies - in the background we mixed Penstemon 'Sour Grapes', Salvia mexicana 'Limelight', and Dierama pulcherrimum with Stipa gigantea and Euphorbia x martinii, all of which are backed by a camellia hedge (where the stakes are).  In the foreground are Geranium Rozanne 'Gerwat' and Sedum 'Autumn Joy'.

A view towards the top: The planting leans heavily towards blues and purples to reflect the Tasmanian skies – in the background we mixed Penstemon ‘Sour Grapes’, Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’, and Dierama pulcherrimum with Stipa gigantea and Euphorbia x martinii, all of which are backed by a camellia hedge (where the stakes are). In the foreground are Geranium Rozanne ‘Gerwat’ and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’.

We always aimed for structural and textural strength in our gardens - Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Golf Ball' and Westringia fruticosa are both evergreen shrubs giving backbone for the herbaceous components, Digitalis ferruginea, Euphorbia myrinsites, Lilium "Casa Blanca', Geranium Rozanne 'Gerwat', and Sedum 'Autumn Joy'. The right picture was taken two months later, showing how the planting is still strong and will continue to do so.

We always aimed for structural and textural strength in our gardens – Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Golf Ball’ and Westringia fruticosa are both evergreen shrubs giving backbone for the herbaceous components, Digitalis ferruginea, Euphorbia myrinsites, Lilium “Casa Blanca’, Geranium Rozanne ‘Gerwat’, and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’. The right picture was taken two months later, showing how the planting is still strong and will continue to do so.

Sometimes people become fixated with flowers and colors that they neglect long-term seasonal interest - a visual comparison of the same planting (Alchemilla arygophylla, Digitalis ferruginea, Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus', and Sedum 'Autumn Joy') , one in color and other in black and white, can go a long way in helping clients see e what we perceive.

Sometimes people become fixated with flowers and colors that they neglect long-term seasonal interest – a visual comparison of the same planting (Alchemilla arygophylla, Digitalis ferruginea, Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’, and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’) , one in color and other in black and white, can go a long way in helping clients see what we perceive.

Color is subservient to form and texture - though  self-sowing Lychnis coronaria is a shot of vivid magenta, the planting's forte is its contrasting interplay of form and textures as the budding cymes of Sedum 'Autumn Joy' among the lacy Pelargonium denticulatum and silvery fine-leafed Westringia fruticosa.

Color is subservient to form and texture – though self-sowing Lychnis coronaria is a shot of vivid magenta, the planting’s forte is its contrasting interplay of form and textures as the budding cymes of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ among the lacy Pelargonium denticulatum and silvery fine-leafed Westringia fruticosa.

Not every planting was successful - Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' did not perform as anticipated, and its removal was earmarked. In its place we planned on adding more Echinops, Erygnium planum, and Salvia 'Indigo Spires'.

Not every planting was successful – Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ did not perform as anticipated, and its removal was earmarked. In its place we planned on adding more Echinops, Erygnium planum, and Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’.

The clients undertook the soil improvements and planting themselves while we monitored the progress at regular intervals. It was astonishing to witness the rapid growth within one year – what were mere rosettes and tufts had burgeoned into recognizable shapes, becoming the 3-D realizations of our sketches prepared before the clients. We had anticipated seeing the garden reach its full potential but sadly three years after the garden was completed, the clients sold the property. However, the project was an interesting exercise that forced us to rethink the multi-dimensionality of the garden.

 

~Eric

 

Summery Sunshine from a Fruit Tree: Apricots

 

At a farmstand known for its stone fruits, red nectarines seduce the eye with their color as much as the scent for their noses

At a farmstand known for its stone fruits, red nectarines seduce the eye with their color as much as the scent for their noses

Having eaten my fill from PYO farms and farmers’ market, I am a self-confessed peach and nectarine evangelist. One summer, I thought nothing ludicrous about driving 35 to 40 minutes to a local farm for peaches and nectarines. One can find me now in the farmers’ market holding each fruit close to the nose for scent and prodding it with a finger to test for ripeness. I always select a few ready for immediate eating and others, firmer in shape, for baking or future ripening. Use too soft fruit and one risks having a fibrous, but nonetheless delicious and sweet mess in the baked goods. Summer too brings fresh apricots, which are a welcome change from dried apricots all year long.

Tasmanian Apricots on Tree

Now apricots are accorded the same heroic worship after living in Tasmania. Californian apricots sold in East Coast US supermarkets were rarely flavorsome or even palpable with texture cotton wool-like and sparingly dry. Recently I have found salvation in organic apricots from Washington State sold in Whole Foods, and to limited degree, those from the Red Jacket Orchards in upstate New York. The trouble with apricots in the East Coast is how prone they are to pests and diseases (one Pennsylvanian grower bemoaned how susceptible the trees were to disease, especially brown rot). If the pests and diseases don’t befall the trees, then spring frosts can easily wipe one year’s crop. Apricots do best in Mediterranean climates where the dry heat ripens the fruit fully and wards off the diseases, and with its warm dry days and cool nights, Tasmania has the ideal climate.

Tasmanian Apricots 3

In early January, the first of Tasmanian apricots coincides with the dark cherries, providing ample inspiration and motivation to search or concoct interesting recipes for these stone fruits. Although the season is prolonged by growing different cultivars, it is still gloriously short, requiring one to preserve the glut in various forms. Many a Tasmanian country pantry is not without apricot jam or apricot preserves. Even the wharf upon which the old jam factory sits is made up of countless apricot stones. Fruit jams are often too sweet for my taste, but apricot jam has that exquisite balance of tanginess and sweetness. “Eating apricot jam is having sunshine in a jar,” I enthused to a friend after slathering the jam on my morning toast. A buttery croissant torn and dipped in apricot jam may land you in trouble with the healthy-eating brigade, but the flaky pastry interlaced with flecks of apricot jam is a gastronomic delight of sunny proportions. And the preserves beg for cream – ice cream, custard, and whipped cream.

Lone_apricot

“The flesh is commonly less juicy than that of the peach, and as a rule, perhaps of higher quality,” Wickson writes in L.H. Bailey’s The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture.” What the apricot lacks in juice, it compensates in flavour. Hold a perfect apricot close to the nose, and a honeyed fragrance hints at the ambrosial delights awaiting the taste buds. The fibrous orange flesh is soft, yielding nectar without resistance when eaten. I can think nothing comparable apart from a peach or nectarine plucked from a tree. It is no mystery why Shakespeare, like his fellow Europeans, alludes to them as aphrodisiacs in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. A perfect apricot is surprisingly hard to come by unless you are a fortunate beneficiary of a bountiful tree or a neighbour’s excess harvest. The ones in supermarkets have deceptive appearances – all golden smudged with rouge on their cheeks, only to taste like wet cardboard inside. Cooking tames them into submission as heat transforms the unyielding flesh into something more palatable and delectable. The hard ones can be halved and baked with lemon juice and sugar, eating them later with pistachios and yoghurt. Poaching them in sugar syrup does the trick as well. Sometimes I puree and blend the cooked fruits with custard to make apricot ice cream. In all, apricots enhance the reputation of stone fruits having versatile uses, and having access to Tasmanian ones has excited me.

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Few Tasmanian orchards are without one or two apricot trees. Sometimes I pause to admire them – a large one used to grow at my rental place, and I take a detour on the way home to visit a tree in another garden. A mature, healthy apricot tree is a handsome tree in blossom, leaf, and fruit. It does not have the awkward gait of an ancient apple tree or the gangly stature of a pear tree. Instead, the tree spreads out its crown evenly and uniformly round. The dark bark is reminiscent of peach, scaly and furrowed, but smooth where the tissue have not ossified. Flush with orange in youth, the broad, dark green leaves fill out in circles, tapering towards their tips. They have no resemblance to the anaemic, sickle-shaped leaves of the peach or nectarine. Unripe, the fruit are smooth and jade-hued like the celadon vases that once graced the dwellings of Chinese and Korean nobility. They demurely hide behind the leaves, biding their time until sunshine teases out the crimson and golden shades, which rival those of a subtropical mango. Like jewels, the ripe fruit gleam against the lustrous leaves, making a tree look decorated for the festive season. Even the stones are spare in their simple flatness and grey-brown smoothness, not intricate and deeply incised like those in some stone fruits. In its last adieu to the growing season, the tree turns golden to yellow orange in autumn.

By no means am I alone in my reverence for apricots, which have been valued since antiquity. Their emergence in the Western World occurred with expansion of the Silk Route. Apricots became as pervasive as the silk and spices that dominated the trade, and began appearing in various cuisines under different guises. Even the etymological history is long as the apricot’s domesticated journey from Asia and Middle East – in Latin, the fruit was known as praecoqua or praecocia for its early ripening before transmuting to barquqor birquq in Arabic, and transfiguring in various Romance languages asalbarcoque (Spanish);albricocco (Italian); and abricot (French), hence the English derivation as apricot or apricock.

Apricot cultivation elsewhere in mainland Australia, Europe, and the United States is fraught with a long litany of pests and diseases, but in isolated Tasmania, it seems a clincher as long as certain requirements are followed. While appreciative of moisture, apricots dislike wet feet. In my friend’s orchard, the large tree has the benefit of the intermittent drips of water from nearby hosepipe faucet while sending its roots into the loamy soil. It is never inundated with water and the sunny location evaporates any excess moisture. Established trees can be drought tolerant. Because apricots flower on last year’s or older wood, pruning should be done carefully to thin out excessive branches and reduce the likelihood of alternate fruit-bearing years. Large trees with rampant growth can be contained by brutal pruning. The cruel irony of growing apricots is that the trees withstand cold winters well, but fruits none or poorly if spring frosts kill the flowers. For this reason, fresh apricots are hard to come by in East Coast U.S. and any available in supermarkets are from California or Washington State. As beautiful as the tree is, a fruitless tree defeats the main purpose of setting aside valuable garden space for it. European gardeners in frost-prone maritime climates often maximise their chances of fruit production by espaliering trees against walls or confining them under cool glasshouses. The introduction of hardier, late-flowering cultivars may encourage commercial growers in frost-prone areas. Tasmania’s mild climate is ideally tailored for apricots – winters cold enough for chilling requirements, and summers warm and dry enough for fruit set and ripening.

Still Life with Five Apricots, 1704 by Adriaen Coorte (image courtesy of the Frick Collection)

Still Life with Five Apricots, 1704 by Adriaen Coorte (image courtesy of the Frick Collection)

In Tasmania, the Coal Valley, with its drier and warmer microclimate, is ideal for growing apricots, and remains the centre of commercial apricot production in Australia. Several hundred thousand tonnes are sold locally and interstate, and visitors can still buy apricots from farm-door sales. Despite being superseded by more larger modern cultivars like ‘Rival’ and ‘Goldrich’, ‘Moorpark’, an old English favourite grown by Lord Anson at his Hertfordshire estate of the same name, is the standard in Tasmania. My friends returned home once with a bag of ‘Moorpark’ apricots, bought from a roadside stall in Richmond (Coal Valley), for fresh eating. Such was their flavour that I nearly risked their ire by eating one after one. The satisfaction of eating the apricots was enough to incite the Turkish expression “bundan iyisi Şam’da kayısı”, which means “the only thing better is a Damascus apricot.”

Coastal Reminiscences

Dear Jimmy,

As much as I enjoy gardening and seeing gardens, I sometimes welcome a respite. We’re constantly urged to make the last sowings of autumn vegetables and annuals at this time of the year, stake any perennials grown out of bounds, and monitor for insects and diseases. It’s a heady time, the sun high and hot, the air thick and reveberating with cicada song, and the vegetation overwhelmingly luxuriant. That moment of stillness creeps hither in midday when the heat’s oppression becomes clear. I find myself wanting to escape to more northern climates, or if more plausible, higher terrain with comfortable evenings of 50s, and nature’s quietude replaces the demands of a garden. It was never a problem in Down Under and the Land of the Long White Cloud where the wilderness was no more than a skip away. I look through these photographs, just marveling at the freedom I felt exploring these places. The open skies, the blue waters, and plants unfettered by our expectations are a visual salve.  ~Eric

Bay of Islands, North Island, New Zealand

Bay of Islands, North Island, New Zealand

 

Dramatic rock formations in nature, like the one here at Cathedral Cove in New Zealand, always seduce me - their unhewn shapes have a whimsy not easily copied - and even better if they are on the coast.

Dramatic rock formations in nature, like the one here at Cathedral Cove in New Zealand, always seduce me – their unhewn shapes have a whimsy not easily copied – and even better if they are on the coast.

At the Hokianga Harbour near Oporoni, North Island, New Zealand, Cordyline australis, naturalized Cortaderia selloana and  Phormium tenax punctuate the tussocks of grasses and shrubs on the coast.

At the Hokianga Harbour near Oporoni, North Island, New Zealand, Cordyline australis, naturalized Cortaderia selloana and Phormium tenax punctuate the tussocks of grasses and shrubs on the coast.

 

Black tree ferns (Cyathea medullaris)  grow in such profusion that the effort to cosset one or a few in conservatory just seems foolhardy after seeing them in the wild.

Black tree ferns (Cyathea medullaris) grow in such profusion that the effort to cosset one or a few in conservatory just seems foolhardy after seeing them in the wild.

Morning fog over the Adventure Bay, Tasmania, Australia

Morning fog over the Adventure Bay, Tasmania, Australia

There is something placid about watching a flock of birds, Arctic terns here, roost on this skinny sandbar in the relatively calm Isthmus Bay. We went clamming for cockles, which become our meal for seafood linguine.

There is something placid about watching a flock of birds, Arctic terns here, roost on this skinny sandbar in the relatively calm Isthmus Bay. We went clamming for cockles, which become our meal for seafood linguine.

 

I woke up one morning to catch the sunrise on Fossil Cliff, Maria Island, Tasmania, Australia. Seeing the first rays of light on a grand landscape reaffirms your sense of living and reinforces how insignificant you are in respect to time and natural forces. Sometimes a kind reminder of our mortality can refresh our perspective on life.

I woke up one morning to catch the sunrise on Fossil Cliff, Maria Island, Tasmania, Australia. Seeing the first rays of light on a grand landscape reaffirms your sense of living and reinforces how insignificant you are in respect to time and natural forces. Sometimes a kind reminder of our mortality can refresh our perspective on life.

 

 

Gray Monarchs of Australia

Tree from Undergrowth

It seems sad that the wanton destruction of giant trees was worldwide in the past – if one counts the coastal redwoods of California, cedar forests of Lebanon, kauri groves of New Zealand, and alerce of Chile. The initial admiration mankind had upon seeing the giants of the tree world did not always translate to sustainable harvest and environmental stewardship, and we are left wondering what centenarians fell by the wayside in the presence of the few survivors. Even Tasmania did not escape the arboreal destruction, and controversy over its logging industry still burns.

The height of the mountain ash is nearly incomprehensible, clearly cementing the species as the tallest angiosperm (flowering ) tree in the world.

The height of the mountain ash is nearly incomprehensible, clearly cementing the species as the tallest angiosperm (flowering ) tree in the world.

The scent of eucalyptus and mimosa always seems Californian before I finally found myself in Australia nearly fifteen years later. Horticulturally I was only familiar with Eucalyptus cinerea, the silver dollar beloved of florists. Despite being pleasingly aromatic, eucalyptus had that incendiary whiff I found suspicious, only to learn that its flammable quality was essential to its regeneration on a fire-prone continent. In the United Kingdom, I encountered the beautiful sinewy trunks of Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp. niphophila (alpine snow gum), its gray mottling rivaled by Platanus occidentalis in North America and Pinus bungeana in China. It fascinated me that New Zealand had no eucalyptus (only introduced species) when the Australian continent was three hours away by flight. Tasmania itself has 29 species, which dominate much of the island’s vegetation. The record holder belongs to Eucalyptus regnans, a species too found in isolated patches on the mainland. It has suffered the indignity of being turned into woodchips exported to Japan.

Eucalyptus possess some of the world's most beautiful bark, and E. regnans is no exception.

Eucalyptus possess some of the world’s most beautiful bark, and E. regnans is no exception.

Eucalyptus regnans flourishes in high altitude forests full of Atherosperma moschatum (sassfaras), Nothofagus cunninghammii, Dicksonia antarctica (man ferns), and celery top (Phyllocladus asplenifolius) trees. These forests have high precipitation by Australian standards and such cool moist habitats are a rarity in a desert- to arid-rich continent. Eucalyptus regnans does not reach maturity until they are 20 year-old trees, which makes their large-scale destruction from logging and intentionally lit fires more heart wrenching. If left un-felled or unburnt, the trees can live up to 500 years. This longevity is one of the traits E. regnans shares with other trees in old-grown forests across the world. Like the spotted owl in the old-growth Douglas fir forests of the Pacific Northwest U.S., the mountain ash has its faunal emblem, the endangered Leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobedelius leadbeateri), reduced to a few hundred surviving individuals (the 2009 Marysville bushfire wiped out half of the population). This possum prefers forests neither too young nor old – a mixture of mature surviving trees for food and dead ones for shelter and nesting is essential to their long-term survival. A few insectivorous herbivores use E. regnans as its primary food source, and the rare swift parrot inhabits its canopy.

Dicksonia antarctica (tree ferns) flourish at the base of the trees.

Dicksonia antarctica (tree ferns) flourish at the base of the trees.

In its genus, Eucalyptus regnans has the unique distinction of being a true pioneer rain forest tree. Although it possesses the ancestral trait of fire-adapted eucalypt epicormic structure, E. regnans instead invests heavily in rapid juvenile to adolescent growth, compromising bark thickness in the process. The resprouting capacity of E. regnans is rather poor compared to other eucalypts. Where other rainforest tree seedlings are able to withstand the low light, E. regnans will die off in natural circumstances. Downed trees become excellent nurse logs for other species in the same way the redwood trees avail themselves for its successors taking advantage of light.

Last year I learned from friends about the discovery of the tallest E. regnans a mere 2.5 miles (4 km) from the popular tourist destination Tahune Airwalk, a hour’s drive from Hobart, Tasmania’s largest capital city. Knowing that I was to visit Tasmania this past February, we made arrangements for a day’s outing. Our drive took us past the apple orchards and farmhouses of the bucolic Huon Valley before the scenery shifted to arid forests. The route was so circuitous that I had to ask for the vehicle to pull aside since I was feeling unexpectedly carsick. It was easy to witness the destructive effects of forestry – the abandoned quarry that once supplied gravel for the roads, the burnt stumps of the clear-cut forests, and the Pinus radiata plantations. Logging has always been a divisive issue in Tasmania, with only a small minority supporting the industry. Gunns, the major logging juggernaut in Tasmania, recently was wrecked with bankruptcy and mismanagement, forcing it to scale down and eliminate forestry plantations. The logging roads, riddled with pot holes and creeping vegetation, indicated the beginning signs of neglect. Our 4 x 4 vehicle plowed down several shrubs in the midst of the road. There were no designated sign posts nor were any trails carving through the forest towards the trees. Altogether it was a 20-minute hike uphill through the tangled undergrowth before we were able to see the trees. Tallest and oldest trees are often found in valleys and gullies, which affords protection against logging and fire and abundant consistent moisture. It is this reason that the record holders Centurion and Triarius, sheltered by winds, fed by moisture trickling down the gully, and relatively inaccessible save by foot, escaped unscathed. The area already had a precarious history with wildfires in 1966 and 1967, which devastated forests and human habitations alike.

What led to the discovery of the trees only in 2008 was through an airborne laser scanner (LiDAR), which produces digital imagery in surveying. Within the imagery were two tall trees whose heights had reflected off the laser signals, piquing the forestry surveyors to visit and pinpoint their specific locations. They were incredulous at the trees’ stature, noting that Centurion, currently 327 ft (99.5 meters) was once higher, evidently regenerated a new crown at the broken top.  Nearby was a close second Triarius at 283 ft (86.5 meters).

The girth of this trunk is at least over 40 ft (12 meters), and the diameter at 13 ft (4 meteres).

The girth of this trunk is at least over 40 ft (12 meters), and the diameter at 13 ft (4 meteres).

île de jonquilles

Dear Jimmy,
Your post on daffodils reminded me how late spring has been this year in eastern U.S. Winter has been behaving like a dinner guest whose welcome has gone beyond stale, hence our ‘Tete-a-Tete’ and ‘Ice Follies’ have not flowered as they usually do at this time. The daffodils are only emerging, buds intact and tightly sheathed against the elements. However, their resilience has always reassure that winter has relinquished its grip, ushering in spring without delay. I long for warm days, with snow having lost its novelty.  My friends’ photographs in the Pacific Northwest already show Corylopsis, rhododendrons, and various spring ephemerals in full glory.
Narcissus 'Ice Follies' flowering early April in the Orchard at Chanticleer - these bulbs are only beginning to emerge now, and their late appearance indicates how late spring has been.

Narcissus ‘Ice Follies’ flowering early April in the Orchard at Chanticleer – these bulbs are only beginning to emerge now, and their late appearance indicates how late spring has been.

Islands seem to be flush with daffodils – the Isles of Scilly off the southwest coast of Cornwall, UK, and Tasmania. Warm sunny summers and cold moist winters on the islands create optimal conditions for growing bulbs. The mild climate in the Isles of Scilly allowed the islanders the bragging rights to the first daffodils of the UK, as well as a head start on the cut flower industry; large quantities of cut daffodils were dispatched by boat and then transported on the rail from Penzance to London. In fact, cut flowers formed the cornerstone of the Scillionian economy for over 130 years. The majority, if not all daffodils grown are tazetta-types, which produce up to 15 highly scented flowers per stem. Tazettas need dry warm summers during dormancy for successful flowering, and the long season of Isles of Scilly from May to August, combined with sandy soils, makes a significant difference. Another crucial factor in the industry’s success was the use of windbreaks, an absolute necessity on the gale-exposed islands. Growers depended on two salt-tolerant and wind-resistant New Zealand shrubs, Pittosporum crassifolium and Olearia traversii
A daffodil farm and garden at Isles of Scilly Photo Credit: The Cornwall Coast by Arthur L. Salmon (1910)

A daffodil farm and garden at Isles of Scilly Photo Credit: The Cornwall Coast by Arthur L. Salmon (1910)

Daffodils are popular in Tasmania where the Tasmanian Daffodil Council promotes them.  You can expect at least three months of daffodils if varieties selected for different bloom periods are planted, and the cold nights certainly enhance flower longevity. The nucleus of Tasmania’s daffodil industry began in the 1920s when several enthusiasts imported bulbs from England and started breeding programs themselves. Their work was exhibited at the Hobart Horticultural Society’s annual daffodil show. Dr. Tim Jackson, one of the early enthusiasts, eventually started a business still going strong today. Evidently his passion rubbed off on the second generation, and one of the Jacksons who fought in the World World II even kept a pot on the British naval warship HMS Wanderer. A cousin, a warplane navigator, was once invited to a country estate near his airfield where the owner boasted a new daffodil, exclaiming: “You’ll have never seen anything like this before”. One only can imagine the owner’s surprise when the cousin recognized the hybrid and credited its origin to his grandfather.
JD03
On a blustery gray day, my friends and I drove out a hour away for an open day hosted by Jackson Daffodils near the Southwest National Park, a scenic area. Their bulbs can be bought from an Oregon firm who sells them for a princely sum. They are not the ‘bulk bag’ types one can purchase inexpensively at the local home improvement center. The fields were resplendent with varieties in whites, yellows, oranges, and pinks, and the gusts played up the flowers’ robust gaiety. Even my friend’s dog was excited, recharged by the new scents of the landscape. Who knew how much glee these flowers imparted? Forgetting the dull skies, we left smiling from the simple pleasure of seeing them.
Daffodil fields at Jackson Daffodils, Surges Bay, Tasmania, Australia

Daffodil fields at Jackson Daffodils, Surges Bay, Tasmania, Australia

Across from my friends’ coastal property used to be a commercial bulb farm that exported bulbs and cut flowers to the mainland. Although the majority of the bulbs were dug up and sold before the operation ceased, surviving remnants still sprout defiantly each spring. I learned from my friend that flowering bulbs can be dug up and transplanted without problems, taking out the problematic guesswork that accompanies dying or dormant bulbs. The bulbs need to be planted deep. After obtaining permission, he was able to replicate those naturalistic groups of daffodils without that hodgepodge effect. At first I was skeptical, only to be convinced the following spring when the same bulbs returned to flower. They look terrific under the vibrant green drapery of silver birches.
Tazettas have been 'rescued', collected in a wheelbarrow, and wait to be transplanted.

Tazettas have been ‘rescued’, collected in a wheelbarrow, and wait to be transplanted.

No matter how many bulbs we dug up, there were always more. The sandy loam soil made it easier to retrieve the entire plants, bulb and all, easily from the ground. Occasionally we did accidentally cleave a bulb, but once you gained experience, you were able to gauge how deep and what angle your spade went in, teasing out the plants out without much damage.
Glowing under the clear Tasmanian skies, daffodils, remnants of a bulb farm, still return despite the ground being plowed.

Glowing under the clear Tasmanian skies, daffodils, remnants of a bulb farm, still return despite the ground being plowed.

The Iberian peninsula (Portugal and Spain) is considered the centre of diversity for Narcissus. Several years ago, I remember seeing wild white daffodils growing in wild scrub near the Spanish border – we never disembarked from the car to identify the species. Perhaps one of the days you will have a chance to drive to northern Spain and bear witness to fields of wild daffodils.  Sad as Narcissus and Echo’s fates were in Greek mythology, a love affair with daffodils is hardly narcissistic.
A bouquet of various daffodils connect with the bright yellows and blues of the abstract painting in a private home.

A bouquet of various daffodils connect with the bright yellows and blues of the abstract painting in a private home.

~Eric

Inspiring Tasmanian Plant Vignettes

Sometimes the best antidote to the artifice of gardens is an excursion to a natural area where the human influence is minimal or nonexistent. Wild plant communities can humbly demonstrate how plants coexist together and how they can be interpreted for gardens. Surprisingly they can reflect the principles of planting design well. It was a point driven again during my recent forays in Tasmania, Australia.

Looking across the subalpine vegetation towards the mountains.

Looking across the subalpine vegetation towards the mountains.

My friend and I decided to visit the Hartz Mountains in southwest Tasmania, Australia to see the leatherwoods (Eucryphia lucida and E. milliganii) flowering, and the weather was astonishingly cooperative as it was warm and sunny (my last visit several years was marked by high winds and lashing rainfall). Named after the German mountain ranges, the Hartz Mountains are recognized as a National Park designed as a World Heritage Wilderness Area. The mountains are a good 2 hour-drive from Hobart, Tasmania’s capital city, making for a good day’s trip. They contain varied habitats ranging from moist temperate rainforests to subalpine forests. The oft said expression ‘nature does it better’ is exemplified in the various plant communities we admired in the subalpine forest. Everywhere nature had created these gardensque vignettes that we could not help study.

Left to right: Eucryphia milliganii (dwarf leatherwood), the red-fruited Leptecophylla juniperina (cheeseberry), the silver prickly Richea scoparia (honey richea), Telopea truncata (Tasmanian waratah), and Eucalyptus coccifera (upper right behind Telopea)

Left to right: Eucryphia milliganii (dwarf leatherwood), the red-fruited Leptecophylla juniperina (cheeseberry), the silver prickly Richea scoparia (honey richea), Telopea truncata (Tasmanian waratah), and Eucalyptus coccifera (upper right behind Telopea)

In some areas, different shrubs covered the ground thickly, forming interesting assemblages of foliage, fruit, and flowers that we often strive to replicate in our gardens. Here Telopea truncata (Tasmanian waratah) breaks up the fine small-leafed shrubs, which include Eucryphia milliganii (dwarf leatherwood), Leptecophylla juniperina (cheeseberry), and Richea scoparia (honey richea). Such textural interplay is crucial for all-season interest.

Orites acicularis (yellow bush) on the left, Gahnia grandis (saw sedge grass) on the right, and Cenarrhenes nitida (Port Arthur plum) in central by Lake Osborne

Orites acicularis (yellow bush) on the left, Gahnia grandis (saw sedge grass) on the right, and Cenarrhenes nitida (Port Arthur plum) in central by Lake Osborne

The weathered trunk of a deceased Athrotaxis selaginoides (King Billy pine) is a strong focal point, a silver foil against the yellow and greens of the vegetation while the arching blades of Gahnia grandis (saw sedge grass) reinforces the trunk’s sinuous shape. The vibrant green of Cenarrhenes nitida is a textural and chromatic transition between Gahnia and Orites acicularis (yellow bush) through its foliar color of the former and its whorl-like leaves of the latter. Flowers are simply superfluous.

Without the Richea pandanifolia, the entire group would appear an undifferentiated amorphous mass, despite the fallen logs.

Without the Richea pandanifolia, the entire group would appear an undifferentiated amorphous mass, despite the fallen logs.

Just as we may place an agave or yucca to define a garden, the Richea pandanifolia performs a similar function in this landscape through its visual distinctiveness. Gahnia grandis reads as a vertical form, lending a fluid coarseness different from the Richea.  

A glacial rock outcropping is a dramatic backdrop for Nothofagus cunninghamii (myrtle beech) and Gahnia grandis (saw grass sedge).

A glacial rock outcropping is a dramatic backdrop for Nothofagus cunninghamii (myrtle beech) and Gahnia grandis (saw grass sedge).

Glacial activity had spewed and deposited rocks of immense sizes and asymmetrical shapes throughout the landscape. These rocks are natural backdrops for the vegetation, such as one of Nothofagus cunninghamii (myrtle beech) and Gahnia grandis (saw grass sedge).

Leptospermum lanigerum (woolly tea-tree) underneath Eucalyptus coccifera (Tasmanian snow gum)

Leptospermum lanigerum (woolly tea-tree) underneath Eucalyptus coccifera (Tasmanian snow gum)

The silvery new growth of Leptospermum lanigerum (woolly tea-tree) were emerging, and related well to the mottled trunks of Eucalyptus coccifera (Tasmanian snow gum). Imagine translating this combination in the Northern Hemisphere – silver birches (Betula pendula or B. utilis var. jacquemontii) could stand in for the eucalypts and phillyreas (P. latifolia and P. angustifolia) and Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’ for the woolly tea-trees.

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However, nothing can replicate the awe inspiring view of the eucalypt forests from the mountains. This view is one reason why nature will always offer more visually than we can give or take from it.

~Eric

Olive Harvest and Oil in Tasmania

Named after its namesake in Cumbria, England, the River Derwent winds through prime agricultural lands in southern Tasmania.

Named after its namesake in Cumbria, England, the River Derwent winds through prime agricultural lands in southern Tasmania.

Despite being an experienced gardener, I am always fascinated by how one plant can spawn countless domesticated forms. For instance, wine itself is the byproduct of Vitis vinifera, which masquerades under varietal names, such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, or Shiraz (Syrah). The same would be said for Olea europea (olive), which is cultivated in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and Greece, as well as California and Australia. To an extent, olives dictate the foundation of the cuisines in these parts of the world. Pickled, salted, or garnished on cocktail swizzles, they are either consumed with relish or revulsion. Pressed and filtered, they release an oil of startling green intensity. Olive oil is to the Mediterranean world as much as soy sauce is to east Asia.

Olive grove in Corfu, Greece

Olive grove in Corfu, Greece

Most people would associate olive oil as an accessible, versatile cooking oil or condiment especially if their first experience with it was either as a light drizzle over salad greens or a dipping sauce for crusty bread in an Italian restaurant.

La Dispute de Minerve et de Neptune pour donner un nom à la ville d'Athènes, Halle Noël (1711-1781), huile sur toile, Hauteur 1.56 m.; Longueur 1.97 m., Paris, musée du Louvre

La Dispute de Minerve et de Neptune pour donner un nom à la ville d’Athènes, Halle Noël (1711-1781), huile sur toile, Hauteur 1.56 m.; Longueur 1.97 m., Paris, musée du Louvre

I will forever connect it with the Olympian competition between Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, the god of the seas, over the unnamed, new city in Greece. Kekrops, a demigod, was summoned to act as an arbitrator who asked them to produce something of value for the city. To woo the city inhabitants, each deity took themselves to proffer an invaluable gift of sustenance. Athena put forward the humble-looking olive tree and extolled its stoicism in adverse environments, ornamental silvery blue green foliage and gnarled, personable bark, and edible permutations as oil and preserved fruits. Poseidon promised the unlimited availability of fresh water for everyday use. The city inhabitants chose Athena’s offer – the city was christened Athens after the goddess and the olive tree not only became entwined with peace and prosperity, but too become emblematic of the Greek world and the region beyond and to this day, Athens has to cope with water shortages, given its arid climate.

Left to right: Silvery sheen of olive leaves; Olives ready for harvesting; Olive Grove at Ashbolt Farm

Left to right: Silvery sheen of olive leaves; Olives ready for harvesting; Olive Grove at Ashbolt Farm

I have tasted olive oils of varying quality—from the low-grade, industrial ones sold cheaply in large tinned containers to the home-pressed one stored unflatteringly in a recycled Coca-Coca plastic bottle, but beautifully crafted by my Grecian friend’s family in Drama, Greece. I have had the back of my throat recoil and revolt from the acrid aftertaste of strongly herbaceous oils sold expensively on this boutique olive ranch one hour outside of San Francisco. I was to experience what I regard as one of the best, if not sublime and unadulterated, example of premium olive oils in Australia. Galvanized by my housemate Kevin, Robert and Anne Ashbolt invited the public as part of the Slow Food Movement to assist with the annual harvest of olives from their young grove on their 375 hectare mixed farm in the scenic Derwent Valley. Sensing that the Australian market for premium olive oil was opening up, the Ashbolts decided to convert a portion of their hectares to olive trees in the late 1990s. Like stellar winemakers who do not underestimate the significance of terroir in grapes, they chose their site carefully and visitors from Italy and Greece often remark how excellent their microclimate is for olive growing. After weeding out the ones that failed to thrive or produce in the cool-climate of Tasmania, the Ashbolts now grow ten varieties for their olive oil, which has regularly won medals at shows, such as the Wrest Point National Fine Foods and the Australian Olives Association (AOA) Awards, within the last six years. Their recent purchase of an olive oil press has allowed more control over their product than when they had depended on an outside contractor to process their olives. Although the Ashbolts would like to propagate their own trees, their lack of time commitment and expertise necessitates purchasing young plants from the mainland. Frost has been their chief challenge for it damages the fruits and renders it useless for processing. Last year, a severe frost in mid June had wiped a large percentage of their crop. Anne half-jokingly remarked how she and the family scampered like rabid rabbits to recover any usable crop before another frost. Robert kindly showed us how the olive oil press machine was operated. I was amused to see the waste product resembling gray feces, but it is scooped up to determine whether the press was running at the correct pace.

Left to right: Olives ripening on tree; Olive harvest; Olive oil - a vibrant green and rich in antioxidants and phenols

Left to right: Olives ripening on tree; Olive harvest; Olive oil – a vibrant green and rich in antioxidants and phenols

Italian and Spanish olive oils may be held in high esteem in gastronomic circles, but Australian olive oils will soon and have rivaled them in quality. Anne has less than kind words for some of the European olive oils as she feels that they have been altered unscrupulously with preservatives, additives, and chemicals. For instance, some of the Greek olive oils have the unsavory addition of sulfuric acid. To draw out fruitiness of the oil, some dishonest producers may add sweeteners, which are easily disguised. Such adulteration is not practiced at the Ashbolt Farm—instead, the terroir of the farm is the key ingredient. The lack of consistent summer heat and warmth in Tasmania is outweighed by the cool winter temperatures and long summertime sunlight hours, as well as clean water and relatively unpolluted air. The Ashbolt olive oil certainly reflects its terroir for it is of this vivid iridescent emerald-green, has a sweet and fruity, but complex nose that recalls rain-streaked vegetation and crisp apples, and seduces the mouth with a velvety texture underpinned with a slightly bitter and “hot” pungency. Because the production is of small scale, people often subscribe to secure the Ashbolt premium olive oil. The oil is not cheap as it commands AU$100 per liter. One would not liberally douse their cooking pans with the Ashbolt premium olive oil, which is best appreciated in its raw state.

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Curious about the olive harvest and processing for oil, I willingly went as an eager participant spending the better half of Sunday morning gingerly running my fingers through the branches and dispatching the olives, unripe and ripe, into the buckets. There is a tactile, but comfortable pleasure in harvesting olives—you do not have to fend off hazardous prickles or thorns nor do you have to stoop your back painfully downwards. The fingers rub pleasingly against the lustrous silvery leaves and branches while distinguishing the plump oblong fruits, which sometimes release a whiff of the oleic acid if lightly bruised. Yet there is an adult element for it is no child’s play to detach the olives from the tree. With ease, a child can pluck apples, pears, or large-bodied fruit from the tree, but would lack the ambidexterity or deftness for olives. Save for specially designed rakes, no pruning clippers are required. Although machinery has supplanted human labor in commercial groves, harvesting the olives by hand allows you to step in the flow of history for ancient civilizations have long depended on the olive tree. The topography of the sloping Ashbolt Farm towards the mountains and Derwent River farther invites contemplation and contentment with life.

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Growing, harvesting, and processing olives is a monumental undertaking, like any other agricultural ritual, as I recognized from the time spent picking all the olives from one tree. As the Ashbolts do not rely on machinery except for a truck to cart away the crates, harvesting by hand or hand-held rakes is a time-consuming activity. Soil enrichment is via organic compost, seaweed fertilizers, and cover crops, water is pumped through efficient irrigation systems from the Derwent River, and strategically planted shelter belts mitigate the effects of wind. The Ashbolts would have easily adopted the conventional approaches, but their conscientious stewardship of their land eschews them and is truly reflected in their product. Forking AU$100 for their premium olive oil may be excessive, but it supports a sustainable farming business with clear, respectful goals. It is no surprise that my housemate saw how the olive harvest would dovetail well with the goals of the Slow Food Movement. In Tree to Table: Cooking with Australian Olive Oil, Patricia Newell enthuses about the olive: “I love the fruit, the trees, the oil, even the word. You can play with it in the mind. O live. Try doing that with peanuts or canola.” I am inclined to agree for the Athenians chose wisely with the olive tree and will one day honor the mythical settlement with a potted olive oil or where hardy, a specimen outdoors.