The Argus VII

Murrurundi: a garden playground

In what can only be described as a continuing lockdown article double-down, amateur whore-to-culturalist Michael Reid will literally drift off whilst wide awake on discussing the joys of Long Bed planting which he shares in this month’s first story.

But wait, there is more. Possibly not to be read out loud to the kiddies, but Hell why not….as every parent scares their children, you could at least make a concerted effort… in our second article he shares his general thinking on the use of Blood & Bone in the garden. It is bone crunchingly revolting.

Mulch On or Mulch Off

During early January I was deeply concerned as to my Hellebores (Helleborus orientalis). Don’t you just hate that – when a pretentious garden writer throws in the Latin botanical identification- after having already provided the reader with the perfectly recognisable and widely used common garden name. Well, I have done it now, so let us move on.

So, there I was at Bobadil House, Murrurundi NSW, in 41-Celsius temperatures and my Hellebores, planted under the English Elm-forest (Ulmus procera), were wilting under continuing water restrictions. A body can stand a great deal in life – hypothermia experiments in the Arctic, having your ATM network go down, travelling Economy – but let me tell you, when your Hellebores droop in the shade, then the world’s gone to hell in a bucket. To combat this vegetative shrivel I was up from 6am till well after 6pm every day, watering, watering, watering from what was left of my rainwater tanks. Madness. Then it struck me – the answer is mulch.

Now mulch, for those of you who do not know, is not some trippy Nimbin, Age of Aquarius hippy thing. No, no! Mulch is shredded plant matter that you surround and lightly cover your plants with. It acts both as a slow-release fertiliser and organic blanket, designed to reduce evaporative water loss. So a-mulching we went, spreading about a dozen bails of old hay around the garden beds and under the young trees. It must be said that stock-feed hay is far from perfect mulch, as it tends to carry seeds, but we were desperate gardeners.  Therefore, the first gardening tip from me is that mulching works a treat but do avoid livestock hay.

Now for those that know me (and those legions who would rather not,) it may be apparent from this missive that in my late middle age I have become somewhat of a gardening convert. Displaying, unfortunately, all the signs of the zealous convert – an affliction that is vulgar when it comes to religion and no less so I suspect, when it comes to gardening. I have discovered gardening as an art form. It must also be said from the outset, that I am not a physical gardener as such. However, I do good ‘garden supervision’. My gardeners, Mitchell Black & Hayden Kayne, are a marvel of ability and small country town patience. I tend to water, potter about and contemplate improvements – I think of the Palace of Versailles and work my imagination up. Mitchell and Hayden on the other hand, tend to do.

I like scale in a garden and am fortunate enough to be able to design over nearly six hectares. In its early days the garden layout was dictated by the old garden plantings of the late Trixie Kelleher (my wife’s very distant relative), a garden of large gracious trees that had been slowly abandoned over the decades, too much blackberry (Rubus fruticosus) and privet (Ligustrum lucidum). The bones of the garden were resumed and redefined nearly twenty years ago under the talented eye of the late Sydney garden designer, Kimberly Appleby.

Like much contemporary living, the garden is intended to be an extension of the house. Above all I want the garden to complement the art gallery. Large sculptures will one day be placed in a parkland setting – a joy that one is unable even to consider in Sydney. I want the beauty within the four walls of the former convict cell block and new gallery to be echoed within the garden. The buildings themselves are on the whole old and established. The house and stables were built between 1840-1842, from locally quarried sandstone, for the A.A. Company surveyor, Henry Dangar. When Nellie’s great-great grandfather bought the house, it was called The White Swan Inn.  Later it was known as The Woolpack Inn and then The Mountain View Inn, finally being renamed Bobadil House in the 1860s. Maintaining the architectural simplicity of the buildings, which are early Victorian bordering on the austerity of the Georgian, the garden is straightforward and largely no nonsense.

  I like trees. I think in another life I was an Edwardian tree-hugger. Hopefully a wealthy, privileged, landed and wearing-of-tweed one, but a tree- hugger nonetheless. So, the garden is largely one of trees, with one significant garden bed – populated in summer predominantly by Hollyhocks (Alcea) and foxgloves (Digitalis). In the Long Bed I am not one for colour schemes, preferring a jolly good sprinkling of self-sowns. Self-sown flowers are a bit like self-made people, in the end you reap a vigorous mixed bunch that do not always play well together in the sandbox – their fission however, is most stimulating.

We are fortunate to have a forest of various elms surrounding the house, creating a moody break from the strong western sun. The trees and sun converge to direct much of the gardening action. Take another all too obvious tip from me: you cannot fight a garden’s microclimate. Deeply concerned as I was with my Hellebores over summer, I was nonetheless ruthless in expunging Hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) from the smaller front beds. Perfectly in keeping with the house they were, but in the wrong, way too hot spot they were a-planted. Their melted grandeur was transplanted elsewhere. In middle age and under the soothing influence of the garden I am learning to bend like the willow. Having said that, if that noxious bastard should end up on my garden, then out by the roots it would go.

So, there I was in January mulching, working with the local microclimate and, best of all, moving all and sundry hither and yonder with a bobcat. Gardens, I have discovered, are moveable beasts capable of being settled only when they are successful. Possibly the most fun boys’ toy ever invented, a bobcat is like a highly manoeuvrable toy Tonka tractor on steroids. I truly recommend everyone have access to one. Lose the four-wheel drive.  Bobcats are so much more fun in the suburbs. Darryl Walsh – my almost permanently employed bobcat man – rips, tears, digs, clears, rebuilds, levels-out and repositions the land with swift skill. You see, if you plant a tree and then want to move the whole thing elsewhere- then a bobcat is for you. With said bobcat, and some care and skill you can almost do anything.

The entire architecture of a garden can, and possibly should, be continually honed and defined. Good gardens require constant reinvigoration and improvement. This summer, I moved the fence line closest to the house about four metres to the left. A bobcat and two fencers did this job in four days. You see, when we first took possession of the house we immediately dog-proofed the two hectares of the grounds surrounding the house. Instead of clearing a portion of dense forest adjacent to the house, we fenced in front of the forest, and the result was just a tad too close to the house for comfort.  So it has been moved. Oh the joy of a bobcat – simple and quick in achieving its goal!

Seventy-five eucalypts of varying species have been planted in the Creek. Eucalypts are a selfish species by nature- so big, and yet they throw so little shade. On the topic of blood and bone alone, one could bang on for days, and in the next article I do.

Death in the Garden

If I stop to think about it, and rather macabrely I quite often do, the garden at Bobadil House Murrurundi is the last resting place for a good many beasts of the field.

Having presumably been butchered for their meat, livestock (or one could then say deadstock) have their bloody carcasses brutally crushed and finely ground down to make an aromatic, tasty little garden meal, known as Blood & Bone. The killing fields that are my garden are lightly sprinkled (not) – almost carpeted (yes)- with the Blood & Bone fertiliser from dozens of deceased beasties. I fear the ghosts of dead cattle are everywhere. I mourn them – but I do love their work.

An animal product rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium, the fertiliser Blood & Bone, due to its slow release of organic nutrients that do not burn, is ideal for preparing garden beds, planting shrubs, trees or roses and when feeding all garden plants especially Australian natives… blah, blah, blah.

To my mind, if it stands still in the garden, then it could do with a handful of Blood & Bone.

All the advice you will ever receive on the subject of applying Blood & Bone to the garden recommends a light sprinkling of the preferably genuine article, heavily watered-in. Shock, Horror there are some Blood & Bone products out there that are only BASED on Blood & Bone. Buyers beware of the difference. The pros and cons of organic versus composite fertilisers aside, on a metaphysical level I have a sneaking suspicion that the granularly add-in fertilisers are an insult to dead cattle everywhere. My God, if stock are going to be slaughtered and reduced to a dry bloody pulp, then I am quite sure that they would want to end up being a part of the real 100% deal.

In terms of application, the light sprinkling of dead animals is a rather namby-pamby conservative nonsense, for, as anyone will tell you, if steroids work a treat at the Olympics then an excessive use of Blood & Bone in the garden is guaranteed to bring home a gold medal in horticulture. Throw the stuff around; I buy 20 kilo sacks of the wonder.

As for the gardener, dutifully watering-in Blood & Bone, that is so yesterday. Any web-literate gardener in their right mind will tell you to log on to weatherzone.com.au, punch in your postcode, follow the weather map and throw around the Blood & Bone on the days designated to 90% rain. Remember it is upstairs for dancing, and if you use just a little web nous, all your effort and your subsequent water bill will be greatly reduced. Natural fertiliser combined with natural watering-in methods work for me.

Blood & Bone smells – death generally does. In regards to sensitive issues of the nose, you need to let this one go. If the somewhat sweet pungent reek of carnage is a problem for you, then I suggest you book a holiday in Rome around about the time your gardener gets down and dirty. It is surprising however, how nostalgic many gardeners are about the lingering waft of pong. The stench of Blood & Bone is to many- like the smell of Napalm in the morning – one of victory.

Take a few tips from me; do NOT liberally apply Blood & Bone to the garden in the midst of summer, on the day friends are popping over for a BBQ. Like the eyes of the Australian Taxman turned towards a Cayman Islands revenue shelter, the application of Blood & Bone attracts the attention of others. Our Border Collie loves to eat the stuff, and although doing so does save on dog food overheads, their little paws do tend to leave the ‘ground-in body of a cow look’ on the bedroom sheets. Flies, flies, and more flies can also be expected to attend the party. Oh, and having ‘sprinkled’ the vegetable garden with Blood & Bone, do not forget to thoroughly wash that little green salad before serving it up at the BBQ. There was the little episode of the slightly tinged pink, crunchy garden salad, but let’s not go there.

Deciduously yours,
Michael Reid OAM

Michael Reid OAM

“You can take a whore-to- culturalist to the garden, but you cannot make him dig.”

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