Read Playing With Water Online

Authors: Kate Llewellyn

Playing With Water (3 page)

Saturday, 25th March

I have been picking flowers. Visitors from Bathurst are coming for the weekend. Helen and Len gave a hundred trees they had grown from seed to my friends Barbara and Ruth, who had bought a small farm near Peel called ‘Girra Girra’. When I stayed with Barbara and Ruth we dug the hard earth among rocks and shale and planted trees. We watered them with buckets lugged up from the dams. So I am keen to hear, when Helen and Len come, if they have been over to see the trees at Peel.

When asked, Helen, sitting beside me, explains that she and Len learnt about tree-growing through trial and error and through getting to know the land they were planting on. That, she says, and understanding the seasons, helped them to grow seeds into trees. They went to a workshop on propagation of native species.

‘It is not always the case,’ she continues, ‘that eucalypts need fire to open their outer skins. The
capsule will open in a paper bag. In some types, it will open when the flower dies, without any interference at all. You see, the seed capsule forms, the twig dies, then it falls to the ground and can, in the right circumstances, without any fire or help from people, sprout and grow. After I collect my seed, I usually fill a tray with a mixture of river sand and potting mix. I just sprinkle the seeds on the top and cover it with more sand and water. When the seedlings get their first true leaves I prick them out into tubes that we get from Yates. Sometimes we use milk cartons, which are good, but there is a problem with storing them, because they take up more room than the tubes and also they get eaten by mice and silverfish. It takes up to a year, depending on the season, before the seedlings are ready to plant out onto road edges and paddocks. At least that is about the time it takes. I mean, if I sow in spring, sometimes they can go out in autumn, but it depends on the season. It may well be that it isn’t until the following spring that they are ready.

‘With the larger seeds such as
I pour boiling water over them and leave them for twenty-four hours. Then they go straight into the tubes or milk cartons with a mixture of half potting soil and half river sand. Wattles in trays grow too fast, and so the roots spread out and are a bugger to prick out. But some trees can be grown at first in seed trays.

‘We get about two-thirds’ survival rate, when we plant the seedlings out into the paddocks. That is, as long as it is a reasonable season. Len and I have propagated about five thousand native trees in the last three years.’

When my friends have left I stand and watch the stars glitter above the garden like sequins on night’s bow tie. It is said that it is wise to grow seeds on the waning, not the waxing, moon, which right now pours down its silver light. Night’s milk spills over the silent garden. All is still except the sea which roars on endlessly.

Perfume is to a garden as music is to religion. I long for some night-scented flowers. Then I turn, sigh and go to bed—a woman on her own, happy as a nun.

Wednesday, 29th March

Two days ago I sowed sweet peas
(Lathyrus odoratus).
It was one of the plants used by Austrian biologist Gregor Mendel (1822—1884) when he experimented in hybridising and so began the foundations of the science of genetics. I have never had any luck or success with sweet peas before, but that was because Leura is so cold. Also, I never mastered getting the wire erected in time for the plants to climb. They would end up sprawled among other low plants, tangled and rumpled with only
a few blooms. Sweet peas are demanding. They must, except the dwarf prostrate kind, have wire to climb. Unless you are prepared to have a wall of wire netting or wires strung between posts, which looks ugly (until it is clothed and covered like a pastel patchwork quilt on a washing line full of scent), the peas won’t thrive.

When I walked into Terry’s garden, while the peas soaked in a bowl of water, he told me that they are one of the few seeds that are best not soaked. They are treated with a chemical before packaging and the soaking removes this. I had gone to ask his advice on any last-minute things he might be able to tell me—too late!

One packet I had soaked is called Old Fashioned and is the highly scented frilly kind, and the other is from an old packet called Bijou and marked ‘Best used before August 1995’. This type is used for borders and window boxes and needs no training wires. So I shall see if they are still viable out-of-date and after soaking. Many seeds outlast their recommended planting dates. In nature, when there are droughts, seeds come up after years of waiting for rain. But perhaps the wild are specially adapted for that purpose.

The traditional date to plant sweet peas is St Patrick’s Day. Since my friend Barbara married Patrick Pak Poy on that day, her birthday, it isn’t hard for me to remember. In today’s newspaper Cheryl Maddocks,
who was my neighbour in Leura, writes that dolomite or lime are good for sweet peas as they like an alkaline soil. Since I tossed lime around the outer side of the front fence for the hedge of lavenders I had hoped to grow there, and of which three big bushes now survive, it should be good for the peas. Cheryl also says that for the past seven years the Sweet Memories series of sweet peas has won the Chelsea Flower Show Premier Award in London. Mr Brackley, a fourth-generation sweet pea breeder, sells these seeds through Tesselaar mail-order catalogue. The telephone number for a free copy is (03) 9737 9811 or you can look at their website at

Arriving in Britain in 1699 from Sicily, the sweet pea became the symbol of Edwardian England. The scent of sweet peas, and that of stocks, takes me not to Edwardian England but to an old tin town hall on the Eyre Peninsula on the day of the Agricultural Show. The flowers were put, one bloom each, into a bottle for judging. They were also put into vases with other spring flowers for the flower arrangers’ contest. The flowers stood on trestle tables covered with white sheets with new wire netting around to protect them before the judging. After the judging, the netting was taken away.

The competitors and others streamed into the hall when the judging was done and we rushed to see how
we had fared. My mother had a firm idea that one should praise all others and ignore one’s own victories. But it was acceptable to point out one’s failures. It was a good lesson, painful and hard at first, especially when about ten years old. Yet I understood the ideals behind the attitude. After one show, my mother said consolingly to me, ‘Oh, Mrs Young gave you such awful flowers to arrange. I don’t know how she could have given you those terrible purple larkspurs with those orange wallflowers.’

I planted the sweet pea seeds along the outside of the front fence and along the cast-iron edging on the front verandah. Some were sown around the wire that wraps the olive trees and then they were all dosed with some buckets of bathwater laced with fish emulsion.

This garden by the sea has been made with mainly seeds and cuttings. There are some trees I bought, it is true, but on the whole the first packets of seeds have gone on to become flowers whose seeds I gathered and planted, or else they sowed themselves. Now I am keen to discover if cosmos will go on through the mild winter and if the rocket will do the same. I imagine the impatiens will go on forever as will the geraniums and roses. The basil might self-seed and the nasturtiums have gone two rounds already and could last through winter, perhaps. The idea of these cycles of planting and gathering is satisfying. Bog sage comes on again,
Philippa tells me, after it dies down in winter. Here on the coast, blue salvia doesn’t have to be treated as an annual as it is in other places, but continues for two or three years at least. I know this because the seedlings I brought from the mountain garden are in bloom here after a full year.

Friday, 7th April

Beside me, on the table I am writing at, are bulbs. They are from the international Melbourne Garden and Flower Show, where I went last weekend.

I am lucky to have them. I was robbed at Spencer Street Railway Station, but the fellow didn’t get the bulbs and for that I was grateful. I had been looking for some tulips that my friend Mrs Judd, who has one of the great gardens of the Blue Mountains, plants as her favourites. They are Angelique, a double pink and white, and Upstart, which is taller and a deeper shade that she puts behind Angelique.

There’s nothing like bags of bulbs piled up to give a feeling of hope that whatever the winter is to be, spring will come and with it waving flowers from these brown onions. And here there is not so much to dread at all, compared to the winter of the mountains which I used to find harrowing. In fact, I used to flee north and once, when hanging around in Queensland
for two months, afraid to go home to the cold, I decided it wasn’t the way to live. So I made up my mind to find a place by the sea. And now here I am, with white
Lilium longiflorum
(Christmas lilies); white Erlicheer daffodils; white Monet tulips; mixed daffodils; pink and white hyacinths; the semi-double tulips, Upstart, a delicate soft pink; and white St Brigid anemones. Also, Dutch irises and other things that have lost their labels.

On the matter of tulips, Mrs Judd is peerless, ‘Now with tulips I plant them the second week in May. They are fed with blood and bone and dolomite. The whole area is dug up, fertilised and then that is turned down. Tulips have to be planted a spade’s depth. You mustn’t burn the bulb with the fertiliser. We never put them in the fridge—it makes them a month early. Growers tell you that it makes them deteriorate. I get my tulips from Tasmania from Vogelvry and Van Diemen’s and also from The Lakes in Dandenong. They must be fed again after they flower before they are lifted.’

I remember she said they are fed a week or two before flowering. I will ring her and find out what she uses then. She has over one thousand tulips and keeps the bulbs in orange netting bags in her cellar. Tulips won’t last long if left in the earth all year round. I found that out the hard way because I didn’t believe it.

Tuesday, 18th April

Quinces. I have been gathering quinces with Ruth and Barbara from wild trees on the banks of a creek at Peel. We drove out looking at the golden globes hanging by the hundred. A wrecked wattle-and-daub house stood in a corner of a paddock.

Cydonia oblonga
(common quince) grows to almost four metres but those old trees were probably taller than that. They hung tantalisingly over the empty creek and were swathed in blackberries that were also in fruit. Ruth went home and got a ladder. I remember my father slinging a ladder into a great tangle of blackberries at Yallunda Flat where they grew on the edges of the roads and in the ditches. It had seemed to me, at the time, a stroke of genius to think of the ladder. It was probably a common thing that he had seen others do, but to me it showed how clever he was.

So with me standing on the base of the ladder to anchor it, Ruth climbed up and flung the quinces back under her arm to the ground, where Barbara gathered them. Full-size quince fruit are about the size of a woman’s fist. A furry skin and bone-hard interior. Ruth said, ‘If gathering apples from trees is called scrumping, what’s the name for getting quinces?’ Barbara said at once, as if she’d been thinking about it, ‘Mincing.’

Now I am home, there is a big bag of small hard quinces here to cook. My friend Sheridan Rogers’ recipe for baked quinces with black rice pudding is one of the best autumn desserts I know. Black rice is sold in Chinese grocery shops. White or brown rice are not suitable.

Quinces do not withstand summer humidity so it is not clear to me that one would survive here. But there must be room down the back for a quince tree. When it stops raining I will ride down to Shirley and Jim’s Nursery and buy one. They are hardy and grew like weeds at Angaston in the Barossa Valley where my mother grew up. She and her sisters used to pelt each other with quinces. ‘One day you girls will want for fruit!’ screamed Granny from the verandah. And she was right. My mother went to live where the only fruit that grew freely and without cosseting was the native quandong. Many a day she’d have liked quinces to cook.


Waltzes on the radio

birds singing.

One breast heavier

than the other.

The sad young smell

of autumn.

The mutabilis rose

droops on the dressing table.

The celestial blue

forget-me-not is stalwart.

Wind swings sweetly

through the Ailanthus tree.

Daily I visit the pond

waiting for frogs.

Silver circles appear

but never the song

of the frog.

A small ramp of log

leads to the water

they only need to take it.

Here is the feast frog

insects galore

and deep water.

Here is the day, woman

everything ordinary

peaceful and blessed.

Thursday, 20th April

I’d like a rain gauge. The barrow I use just gets full and falls over. All night it rained and most of yesterday too.
The El Niño drought may be broken. A meteorologist speaking on the television said the waters around Chile are cooling and this could mean the droughts will break. The sea is a darker grey than the silver-grey sky. More and more of the sea is visible from this chair as the Tree of Heaven sheds its leaves.

I sowed coriander and more sweet peas yesterday in the rain. I forgot to tell Graham, the man who mows the lawn, that the sweet peas were planted around the olives, so they were lost. The slips of box hedging I took from my friend John Miller’s garden in Newcastle are dark green. They take about a year to grow to a few centimetres. Jane told me she is using a Greek myrtle
(Myrtus communis)
in her garden: ‘It’s got a white starry flower with a faint eucalyptus scent. Beloved by Zeus.’ Hearing that I went and got one and now this myrtle is thriving in the back garden’s problem area. It can be used in parterres and is faster than box. Jane is making a parterre herb garden with her myrtle hedging. Parterres are a whopping lot of trouble in my opinion.

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