November 29, 2020No Comments

Building a garden and then leaving it behind

Above: Grevillea 'Loopy lou' contrasting with underplantings of Rhagodia spinescens (bottom), Correa alba (top left), existing Dianella 'Yellow stripe' (top right) and Dianella tasmanica (middle right).

Gardening is a strange practice. As gardeners, we spend so much time thinking ahead, researching and applying best-case knowledge and hard-won skills and experience.

We plan for the future, using what we have learned to make an educated guess about how our garden might turn out weeks, months, and years down the track.

And yet despite knowledge, skill, and experience, the results are entirely unpredictable. Some days gardening can be a wholly humbling, frustrating, annoying dance.

Other days, though, it can bring unexpected rewards. That Grevillea you swore was centimetres from death? It's back! The olive you inherited that looked like it would keel over at any moment? Hey, those are new leaves!

In many ways, gardening is representative of the weird lottery of life. We can use our past experience to gauge where we're at, and our hard-won experience to try to prepare for what's ahead as best we can, but in the end we can never really know what's going to happen.

The more we try, the more we fail, but in failing we learn, and that's the real game here.

Above: Banksia blechnifolia beginning to initiate flower spike formation.

The joy and the curse of gardening in rental houses

I've rented houses for twenty years now. Rickety, freezing houses in the shadow of kunanyi in South Hobart, Uni sharehouses in Sandy Bay, cracking terraces with expanding and contracting clay underfoot in Fitzroy North, Kensington and Carlton, a lonely three bedroom house in Reservoir, a small Brunswick East first floor apartment with no outdoor space.

Besides a couple of early mangled attempts when I was at Uni, abandoned when the pub beckoned and assignments called, I've planted at least some kind of garden in all of them. It's been a great ongoing lesson in how to adapt to growing plants in a range of challenging conditions (hello West Hobart, with your pademelons, a 45 degree slope of a backyard, and two hours of direct sunshine in winter).

It's been sad to leave these gardens behind each time, but one of the things it's taught me has been not to hold too tightly on to anything. Change will come, and sometimes that change will mean saying goodbye to something you've invested in for a year or two.

And that's OK, y'know? Part of the joy of it is the slow strength you build, knowing that wherever you'll be next, you'll be able to grow something.

Above: One of the mass planted Anigozanthos 'Everlasting gold' in flower, with Grevillea 'Carpet layer' providing a low cover underneath.

Building a garden in Northcote

This is just a little run-down of the garden Bec and I planted in our past rental place in Northcote, in Melbourne's inner northern suburbs. The area has a thin layer of sandy loam over a hard clay pan. It doesn't get a lot of rain each year - around 650mm, on average. It can be challenging for any plants that need good drainage, but also hard to keep enough moisture up to some plants through the warmer part of the year. The climate ranges from 0C in the middle of winter overnight to 45C in the height of summer.

When we moved in the garden was dominated by ivy (Hedera helix), which we spent a couple of days digging out from under the jasmine. Here's a photo with the recently removed ivy, showing existing jasmine, Poa spp, Dianella spp, a few Wahlenbergia stricta, and a rather sad Brachyscome.

Below it is the garden as we left it, minus a bunch of container plants on the porch, and the raised planter box you can see above.

Here's a quick rundown of the plants we added to the garden:

Feature plants:

  • Correa alba
  • Grevillea 'Loopy lou'
  • Rhagodia spinescens
  • Banksia blechnifolia
  • Banksia 'Black magic'
  • Adenanthos sericeus.

Supporting / filler plants:

  • Poa poiformis
  • Anigozanthos 'Everlasting gold' (mass planted)
  • Bauera rubioides
  • Lomandra 'Lime tuff'
  • Dianella 'Tiny tas'
  • Grevillea 'Carpet layer'.

Existing local plantings encouraged to return:

  • Wahlenbergia stricta
  • Einadia nutans.

Replacement hedge (at left):

  • Metrosideros excelsa 'Mini xmas'.

These plants failed as a result of pest predation:

  • Chrysocephalum apiculatum
  • Arthropodium milleflorum
  • Rhodanthe chlorocephala
  • Pycnosorus globosus.

Above: Another look at Grevillea 'Loopy lou' and Correa alba contrasting nicely.

It turns out snails and slugs munched these plants as soon as they were planted out, so they weren't good selections for the environment.

By the time we left the garden was attracting many more butterflies, insects, skinks, and nectar-attracted birds, which was super satisfying.

If I had my time over again I would have given the Rhagodia and the Grevillea a little more room from each other as the Rhagodia was unexpectedly super vigorous and needed regular pruning to stop it from choking out the Grevillea.

Planning and planting this garden was a great learning experience and gave me a ton of ideas to take to future gardens.

Thanks for reading.

August 3, 2020No Comments


A few images from Polish photographer Alicja Brodowicz that I'm finding inspiring at the moment.

Alicja Brodowicz

July 18, 2020No Comments

Conospermums are actually bonkers

Over the last few years I've spent a fair bit of time at Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne, one of the flagship gardens for Australian native plants in Australia. It's such an inspiring botanic garden and every time I visit I find something unexpected and new and inspiring.

One of the plants I was drawn to at the gardens is Conospermum stoechadis. The common name for this plant is Common smoke bush.

From a distance it really does look like a light grey smoky colour, and when there's a light breeze, the shrub waves softly in the wind. It's easy to see how it got its common name.

What I didn't realise until much later is that some of the mechanisms this genus of plants uses to survive in the Australian bush are really incredible.

Above: Conospermum stoechadis, Royal Botanic Gardens, Cranbourne.

But first, some basics: Conospermum

Conospermum is a genus within the Proteaceae family (loosely, the Protea family), which is a group of plants primarily found in Australia and South Africa. Some of the other members of this family include Banksias, Grevilleas, Proteas, Leucadendrons, and so on.

The etymology of the Conospermum genus stems from the Greek words for 'cone' and 'seed', referring to the cone-shaped nut (it's actually a fruit).

Conospermums occur naturally in the south-west area of Western Australia, growing as far inland as Kalgoorlie and as far east as Esperance.

Their natural habitat generally features free-drained, deep acid sand with a pH of around 5.8 - 6.8. As with many other members of the Proteaceae family, they are reasonably intolerant of phosphorus in soil and doesn't like heavy soils.

There are around 50 recognised species within Conospermum and all are endemic to Australia.

Above: Conospermum triplinervium at Melton Botanic Gardens.


Here's where things get really cool.

Most members of the Proteaceae family have adapted to overcome difficulties with pollination by evolving a pollen presenter. In other words, pollen is located on the end of a style, thereby 'presenting' the pollen to a potential pollinator so they don't have to do so much hard work to get to the pollen.

Interestingly, Conospermums don't have a pollen presenter, which is a conspicuous absence for a plant within this family.

So how do they get around this?

It seems that the Conospermum genus has evolved to find new ways to attract pollinators and facilitate pollination, some of which are really cool.

A couple of sources (this ABC News article and this In Defence of Plants blog post) detail the way Conospermums have evolved to attract and reward potential pollinators.

The Conospermum flower is shaped like a long tube, with the nectar (the part that attracts the pollinator) located towards the bottom of the flower tube. When the pollinator reaches the bottom of the flower tube, the style flicks down onto the back of the insect and the coarse pollen is deposited onto the insect.

Researchers have recently found that native bees and, surprisingly, ants are both really effective pollinators for Conospermums, and in fact successful pollination depends on visits from both native bees and ants, which is super unusual, at least to our knowledge.

HIV-inhibiting substances isolated from Conospermum roots

Researchers have been able to isolate an alkaloid substance from the roots of a species of Conospermum that shows potential for treatment of HIV.

Conocurvone has, at least in a lab setting, been able to stop replication of HIV cells in some strains of HIV.

The substance is a napthoquinone trimer, a secondary metabolic substance that some plants, lichens and microorganisms emit naturally

However, it's not clear how effective this alkaloid may be, as some research has questioned the potential value of conocurvone, as it may not be able to be taken up by the human body effectively and may only be successful in stopping HIV cells from replicating in some, but not all, strains of HIV.

Above: Conospermum stoechadis, Royal Botanic Gardens, Cranbourne.


July 18, 2020No Comments

Here we go

Hi. This is my first post in what is going to be an ongoing, intermittent, and probably poorly explained series of posts about neat stuff I'm learning or reading or listening to.

Some of these posts will be about plants, some about music, some maybe about photography or design.

You might be wondering why I would be attempting to write a few words about some plants when I'm not a science writer, or a botanist, or a researcher.

Years ago I heard someone say that trying to explain something you'd just learned was the best way to cement the knowledge in your own head.

So, during 2018 and 2019 as I studied a full-time Diploma of Horticulture course at a local TAFE, I started thinking that I should be writing down some of the neat stuff I was learning, if only so I could better remember it later on down the track.

I figure I'm going to try to use this blog as a bit of a journal, to reflect and chronicle some of the cool shit I get to learn about in the course of reading up on plants, thinking about photography, or digging on interesting / inspiring music.

Maybe some of this will be interesting for you; most likely some or all of it won't be interesting at all. But, it's going to be a place where I can record some of the things I'm thinking about and learning about, and hopefully you can get something out of the neat stuff I get to jam into my poorly wired brain.

Here we go!