Author Archive for Undergardener

Christmas Down Under – Topsy-Turvy in the Antipodes

Christmas Down Under - Topsy-Turvy in the Antipodes

My Great-Great-Grand-Father Edward Hunter arrived in Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne, Victoria, on the 3rd of January 1853 aboard a three-masted barque called The Emigrant.  Edward, his wife Jane and their sons Robert aged 6 and Edward Jnr aged 2 spent their first Christmas in the Antipodes on a sailing ship rounding the treacherous southern coast of Australia (today nicknamed The Ship Wreck Coast after all those ships that didn’t make it to port).  After four months at sea, leaving behind the coal mines of Northumberland England, they caught their first glimpses of their new home.

What a Christmas that must have been, far from family, heading to a new world with landfall only ten days away I can’t image how they must have felt.  Instead of snow and an open coal fire the Hunter’s first Christmas was amidst the roaring waves of the Southern Ocean, Seagulls wheeling overhead in a blazing summer sky, the creaking of timber, sails and rope, the smell of salt and eucalyptus in the breeze and no doubt that feeling of sick expectation a mix of excitement and trepidation played on Edward’s mind and in the pit of his stomach.

E. Hunter - Well the beard is kind of festive?

Unfortunately, there aren’t any records of how the Hunter family celebrated Christmas.  I know that by their next Christmas Edward was the manager of Hartland’s Plant Nursery on the banks of the Yarra River in Ivanhoe Melbourne and that Jane had given birth to another son William.  Edward somehow made the leap from Coalminer / Bricklayer to Horticulturalist in a year, resisting the allure of the goldfields and re-inventing his life in a way that would never have been possible in Victorian England.

I’ve been trying to find out more about colonial Christmas in Australia, trying to imagine my way into Edward and Jane’s life and not having much luck until I found this really amusing scholarly article, “Revisiting a ‘well-worn theme’: the Duality of the Australian Christmas Pudding 1850-1950 by Rhiannon Donaldson. Rhiannon writes about the single-minded determination with which the new settlers set about recreating the traditional English Christmas.  Where Ox Tail was not available to make soup Kangaroo Tail was substituted (either sounds kind of yuck to me). Anyway I think it is extremely funny to trace our social history using pudding – I really am going to study in the social sciences next time round.

The thing to remember about transplanting the traditional Dickensian Christmas to Australia is that it is frequently over 100 degrees Fahrenheit here in mid-summer.  I love this quote from Rhiannon’s paper, which sums up the mid-summer Christmas dilemma “Writing in 1855, William Howitt described this process of pretence undertaken by settlers, as they attempted to recreate a traditional Christmas “with the good old orthodox roast-beef and plum pudding. We…drank a Merry Christmas to all our friends in Old England, in a tumbler of brandy-and-water. We tried to believe it Christmas, spite of the thermometer at 120°, of diggers’ tents in the distance, and the Bush around us”.

I imagine that Edward and Jane finding themselves newly middle-class and missing home would have re-created a traditional Christmas feast of roast and pudding. I hope for Jane’s sake that she had a kitchen with a nice high ceiling or that a least she was able to leave the doors and windows open to get a nice breeze without a million blow-flies (the other gift of Australia to the new settlers) descending on her kitchen. Now we may look back at Jane’s folly at creating this dinner in the blistering heat, shaking our head’s and smiling sagely, but we in Australia have persisted with the dream of Christmas for the 175 years since Melbourne was first settled, it made the journey with us in our cultural DNA.

Oh Christmas Tree, oh Christmas Tree!

As well as substituting Kangaroo for Ox tail the settlers needed to find a substitute for the traditional pine, spruce or cypress Christmas Tree as a consequence there are many different native plants which ended up with the common name: Christmas Tree or Christmas Bush.

My Mother’s Father, Edward and Jane’s Grandson, cut Cherry Ballart Trees for Christmas.  This native cherry looks like a Cypress tree and is covered by red fruit in mid-summer (these fruit are a strange flavour like sweet pine but very yummy). Another favourite in Melbourne was Bursaria spinosa or Christmas Bush a beautiful shrub covered in pure white star like flowers. The one I like the best is too big to bring inside as a Christmas Tree but is a wonderful feature of my neighbourhood around Christmas the beautiful paperbark tree called  “Snow in Summer’ by European settlers.

Snow in Summer

Good-bye from the Garden Shed

It is now Boxing Day in Australia and ironically it is so cold that we have the heater on. The drought has broken and it has rained so much that everything has really slowed down in the garden apart from the weeds!

I’ve really enjoyed writing for TQS and would like to thank SJ for the opportunity.  I’ve learnt so much about my family, the history of Australia and gardening over the last year. As I mentioned in a previous post I am going to continue to experiment by trying to grow vegetables using the advice of the Colonial Gardener published in 1854, so I will be moving this research to this blog.

By Christmas 1873 Edward had become a land owner and an Orchardist in Lilydale Victoria, both Head Gardener and Master and by Christmas 1890 he had was elected the founding president of the Wandin and District Horticultural Society – if only he was still around to help me learn how to garden!

The most important thing that I have learnt through this project is that like the Victorians we are trying to learn how to live on this continent – still.

Final Floral Flourishes

Old World - New World Buttonhole

Here is the buttonhole the Undergardener made for the Mistress to wear on Christmas Day.  It is a mix of English Rose, Teatree blossom and banksia leaves.  A mix of the old world and the new, the modern and the Victorian.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Are there Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden?

Are there Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden?

If you live in country Victoria or have the means to get there (I may have discovered the real reason why Airforce 2 dropped Hilary Clinton in Melbourne instead of our capital Canberra) then you have until this Saturday the 28th of November 2010 to see a fabulous exhibit of Australian Fairy Art from the Victorian era at the Bendigo Art Gallery.

After stopping in Castlemaine recently to visit Tute’s Cottage I drove onto Bendigo especially to see this exhibit – it was well worth the drive.

Beautiful Bendigo

Bendigo is an extraordinarily gorgeous town. The Victorian architecture surrounding Queen’s Park, at its heart, shows the amazing wealth and opulence of the goldfields at their peak. I would have liked to have spent more time exploring but I only had enough time to see the exhibit and get on my way back to Melbourne. I have been eagerly anticipating this exhibit since February as it promised to explore the transposition of the English Victorian Fairy Art craze into an Australian context – very pertinent to our interests at TQS.

The exhibition was beautifully mounted with works from national collections, ‘never been seen before’ works from private collections (fancy how special a family would feel to own their very own fairy art) and illustrations from period books. I loved it but left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

For me the best works of the exhibit were the two beautiful painting by the Australian painter Frederick McCubbin. Frederick’s work is well known to many Australians as his triptych called ‘The Pioneer’ has graced many a lounge room wall, biscuit tin and tea towel.  It is a stunning work that subtly shows the impact of settlement on the bush. As time passes from left to right in the triptych more and more of the bush is cleared until you can just see a hint of a city in the distance. Unfortunately familiarity has bred contempt for McCubbin’s work and I get the sense that we don’t love his painitings as much as we could – too sentimental for modern sensibilities perhaps.

McCubbin’s fairy paintings have the same sombre mood as ‘The Pioneer’ until you begin to catch glimpses of the winged creatures hidden in the bush. The only clue to finding the fairies quickly is following the gaze of the small children in the paintings. In a way McCubbin is encouraging us to look through the eyes of childhood to see the bush in a new way.

Another highlight of the exhibit was a chance to see new prints of the ‘Cottingley Fairy Photographs‘. These faked photographs from 1917 show two young girls and fairies frolicking in a garden. If you haven’t ever read about the Cottingley Fairy Scandal and the role of Arthur Conan Doyle, the creater of Sherlock Holmes, it is worth following the link above. Given that the girls cut the fairy images out of a popular children book of the time – it is a wonder that anyone thought they were real. I suppose sometimes we just need to believe – and that might be why I love the Cottingley Fairy Photographs. The Cottingley Fairies are also behind the plot of the 1997 fantasy film – Photographing Fairies.

So why did I leave unsatisfied? While the craze for fairy art was an English Victorian era phenomenon it didn’t really take off in Australia until the Edwardian period – so not so much Australian fairy art of the Victorian era. The catalogue to accompany the exhibition is OK but not great. I was left disappointed by the lack of Australian context provided in the curator’s notes. Here there is a brief discussion of Victorian England’s representation of the fae as mischievous, wanton and dangerous as a salve to the taming of the wild by the industrial revolution, when an enormous proportion of the population forsook the rural life for cities. In Australia the burgeoning of fairy art in the Edwardian period is seen as a retreat from the horror of war.

I think that Australian fairy art of the Edwardian period is another version of the ‘Lost in the Bush’ myth of Australian settlement. It might surprise non-Australians to know that in Primary School we are all read and re-read the story of three young children who stray from their parents and become hopelessly lost in the bush. The children become increasingly frightened, the older sister (my hero) snaps gum of Eucalypt trees for her brothers to eat and covers them with her skirt to keep them warm at night until eventually at the point of no hope they are rescued. This is our ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and our cautionary tale about the wild wood, nature as savage and unknown. Europeans decided very early on after drought and flooding rains that the bush was out to get us. Fairies are a way of making the Australian bush safe. They are chubby cherubs looking out for us or as the Australian Girl Guide rhyme says of the bush spirit the Melluka,  ’I'm a Melluka but you will find, though I play tricks, I’m always kind’.

The answer to the question is of course ‘Yes’!

Purple King Climbing Bean and Fairy

Victorian fairy folklore is full of cautionary tales about farmers who failed to heed the warnings of fairies: don’t plant your potatoes here, don’t call your cows without using their proper name, don’t use all the milk without leaving us a saucer by the front door (so like living in a share house) and the ever popular don’t forget to leave us a corn-dolly from your new harvest. Ruin, failed crops and disappointment in love follow all who don’t do as they are bid.

As a gardener I am fully prepared, if the fairies at any point tell me where they want the carrots planted, I will do as they say (actually I would do pretty much anything to get carrots growing properly)!

Pollen pants means that it is both 'Hammer Time' and a Bee - so not a fairy!

If you look carefully through my posts you will see that on a number of occasions I have been lucky enough to accidently capture images of the fairies that live in my garden – I could tell you how many there are – but the fairies don’t want me to spoil the fun.

Has Beans!

Has Beans!

Throughout this project I have been haunted by the question – what types of vegetables did people grow in Melbourne during the Victorian era (well haunted might be an overstatement … so Victorian). Discovering the answer to this question has not been straight forward. This is an update on an earlier post in which I searched through a collection of ancient seed catalogues in the National Herbarium of Victoria‘s library.  The selection of vegetable seeds available in each catalogue was surprisingly small.  There were artichoke, cabbage, carrot, turnip, onion and other basics. Mmmm…

…so I began trawling other other library collections…

My next step was to visit the State Library of Victoria, in June, a magnificent Victorian beauty, in the heart of Melbourne’s Central Business district.  I went to the State Library to read an original copy of ‘The Colonial Gardener : being a guide to the routine of gardening in Australia with a catalogue of select kitchen, garden and flower seeds as sold by Smith, Adamson and Co, 1854‘. This short pamphlet, with a surprisingly long title, published twenty years after the settlement of Melbourne is now digitized and available to read on-line (and as SJ has said – the Victorians would have loved the internet. I did however enjoy the experience of handling an original copy).

Reading Room at SLV - or what the afterlife looks like!

The ‘Colonial Gardener’ provides advice to commercial and beginner gardeners in an almanac style. I love the foreword to the pamphlet – authentic 1850′s marketing spiel!

“At considerable trouble and expense, we have got the following calendar compiled, by a thorough gardener to meet a very obvious want. It has been criticised by and had the approval of some of the oldest resident gardeners in the colony and though printed principally for the guidance of our non-professional customers, professional gardeners but of short experience in the colony might do worse than be guided by it. It may not enter sufficiently into detail to satisfy all, but we flatter ourselves that the information it does give is substantially correct. Smith, Adamson and Co.”

Finally, a proper list of vegetables! The interesting thing about the ‘Colonial Gardener’ is that it shows the beginnings of working out how to grow vegetables in the new colony. The entries each month provide general growing advice, invariably refer to the unpredictability of rainfall and the extremes of temperature. One of the interesting things I’ve noted about their advice is that they are encouraging gardeners to plant ‘a little and often’ this is still great advice as it means that you have a succession of vegetables available rather than them being ready all at once. This is something that I still struggle with as a gardener because once I’m out there with the seed packet open I’m in a planting kind of mood! ‘Little and often’ also has the advantage of ensuring that in an unpredicatable climate you are more likely to get at least some of your crop. Very clever Messers Smith and Adamson!

My next challenge is to see how many of the seed varieties listed in ‘The Colonial Gardener’ still exist in modern seed catalogues. This task is likely to take longer than the life of this blog – so at the end of December 2010 I will move this research to my regular gardening blog.

Making a start on this research in June the first Victorian vegetables to go into my garden were broad beans (Yes Fava Beans! Liver and Chianti fffff). The Colonial Garden lists two bean varieties for planting in June: the Mazagan and the Long Pod. Looking in the American Heirloom Seed Companies catalogue the Mazagan are described as an early fruiting dwarfed plant.  I can’t find seeds available to Australia so far.

Long Pod have also been hard to identify as there seems to be a long list of bean types that have been called Long Pods – the Mr Smith of the vegetable world. In Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management – The Art of Gardening, Mrs B cautiously promotes both the Mazagan and Early Long Pod with the following advice

“…but whatever sort is grown, the culture is the same, and as it is not a favorite vegetable with many persons, it should be carefully considered how much ground can be devoted to it without encroaching on space required for more important crops”.

Crimson Broad Bean in flower by October (mid-spring Melbourne)

Eventually I found an ‘Early Long Pod’ Broad Bean in the Australian Yates Seed Catalogue. I love broad beans so despite Mrs B’s warning I planted a whole garden bed and added some ‘Crimson Flowered’ Broad Beans another old variety of bean rescued from extinction by seed savers in the 1970′s. One of the main themes that I keep returning to in my reading, and it is especially evident when you look at old fruit catalogues or read ‘The Victorian Kitchen Garden’ by Jennifer Davies, we have far less variety of vegetable seeds available to us now than the Victorian gardeners had.  One of the losses that I feel most keenly is that we no longer have the knowledge of what grows well in our own neighborhoods and in many cases we have lost the plants.

Now it is November (late-spring in Melbourne) and there are broad beans ready to eat. They have grown so well this year as the weather has stayed wet and humid. Our first wet spring in ten years! I harvested a big pile and turned to Mrs Beeton’s Household Management to see if she included receipies for broad beans.

Has beans!

Young beans liberated from their pods.

Here is Mrs B’s receipe

1092. INGREDIENTS – To each 1/2 gallon of water, allow 1 heaped tablespoonful of salt; beans.

Mode.—This is a favourite vegetable with many persons, but to be nice, should be young and freshly gathered. After shelling the beans, put them into boiling water, salted in the above proportion, and let them boil rapidly until tender. Drain them well in a colander; dish, and serve with them separately a tureen of parsley and butter. Boiled bacon should always accompany this vegetable, but the beans should be cooked separately. It is usually served with the beans laid round, and the parsley and butter in a tureen. Beans also make an excellent garnish to a ham, and when used for this purpose, if very old, should have their skins removed.

Time.—Very young beans, 15 minutes; when of a moderate size, 20 to 25 minutes, or longer.

Boiled Ham Beans and Swirls of Parsley Butter - Yummy!

Something to bear in mind is that if you salt and boil tender young broad beans for 15 to 25 minutes they will taste and look like grey sludge (hence Mrs B’s contradictory views on the enjoyment of beans). My advice is to get some unsalted water boiling rapidly and blanch for 3 minutes any longer and they are yuck, yuck, yucky.

Parsley butter (cut parsley up finely and mix with butter) was a revelation with the ham and beans and is really worth trying. I made little swirls with a piping bag rather than placing in ‘a tureen’ as directed – with only two to feed a tureen would be over-kill and the parsley butter doesn’t keep very well.

All in all I highly recommend growing and eating broad beans with or without cannibalism and Chianti.

Time Traveling to Tute’s Cottage, Castlemaine

There is a garden in country Victoria that I’ve been wanting to see ever since Mandy Stroebel’s fantastic new book ‘Gardens of the Goldfields – A central Victorian sojourn’ came out in July this year – Tute’s Cottage. This tiny cottage now jammed between a road reserve and the Forest Creek embankment was built in 1858 when the surrounding area was still being mined for gold. Tute’s cottage was occupied under miner’s rights – the right to fence off a small amount of land to create a productive garden, these types of gardens were amongst the first gardens of settlement, and were not owned by the occupiers but leased from the Crown.

Tute's Cottage - lived in by 'Miner's rights' from 1858 to 1997.

In Mandy’s book she describes her project to recreate an 1850′s productive garden in the bones of the remaining allotment garden at Tute’s. This garden is now looked after by a collective of neighbours who live near the cottage and is occasionally open to the public – especially on Castlemaine’s Open Garden Weekend – the weekend after the Melbourne Cup each year.

Broad Beans (Back Left) growing in Tute's Cottage Garden.

Mandy also notes the difficulty of finding nurseries and seed catalogues that still stock Victorian seed varieties and plants. You will see in the photo of Tute’s Garden that the beds are edged with local sandstone rocks. Miners had to be resourceful in creating their productive plots from materials at hand and gardens of this period were often edged with bones or bottles – these were subsistence rather than pleasure gardens.

If you feel like time traveling to the 1850′s and can’t afford a Tardis or Star Gate then a day in Castlemaine during the yearly Garden Festival is the strategy for you. Failing that boil up some broad beans and ham.

The Splendour of the Turf

The Splendour of the Turf

Today is the 150th Anniversary of the Melbourne Cup, the world’s richest horse race, which was run on the turf at Flemington for the first time in 1861. The Melbourne Cup Spring Racing Carnival has come down to us from the Victorian Era with many of its traditions intact. In many ways the Melbourne Cup became our equivalent of Spring (May Day) Festivals.

Turf Racing 1881

Almost from inception the Cup became a Melburnian institution with 100′s of 1000′s of people of all social classes attending. The Cup was a place to promenade and picnic, to see and be seen. To underscore its importance to the social life of the colony the Victorian Government made the first Tuesday of November, Melbourne Cup Day, a public holiday in 1873 closing all banks and government offices.

Fashions on the Field 1881

Today  as I enjoyed my public holiday I spent some time trawling through the internet looking at historic images of the Cup. There is very little to pick between images of 1881 and 2010. Men and women still dress in their finest and promenade on the lawn. Despite the waxing and waning of fashion hats have endured as a constant feature of race day – ensuring that millinery has remained a thriving art in Australia.

A traitor to my city I have to confess that I’m not interested in horse racing. I’ve never managed to get excited about the idea of dressing up and attending but nevertheless I feel a social obligation to place at least one small bet on the Cup each year (look in Melbourne parents take their kids to place a bet from the moment we are born). I have bucked the trend in my family who on both sides have loved racing from both sides of the turf. I’ve even found an extraordinarily wealthy ancestor, William Bailey, who (apart from being a career criminal) was exceptionally fond of a flutter. His 1906 obituary is online and a good third of the text lists the horses he owned, races won and the seemingly ridiculous amounts of money he paid for yearlings (1000 Guineas – This is why we are no-longer rich, ‘Damn you Bill’, I say as I shake my fists at the heavens).

Where did the money go Bill?

Fashion and flowers remain an important part of the carnival especially roses. Each of the major racedays at Flemington has an official flower. Victoria Derby Day is the Corn Flower, Melbourne Cup Day is the Yellow Rose, Oaks Day the Pink Rose and Stakes Day the Red Rose. There is a modern staff of 12 gardeners that tend the enormous race track rose gardens and lawns with modern equipment; in previous eras this staff would have been much larger.

By the 1860′s the vast expanses of turf at Flemington would have been mown using horse drawn mowers. Horse drawn mowers were developed in the 1830′s. Previously lawns were managed using scythes (think Grim Reaper). To protect the turf from damage from the horses’ hooves the horses were fitted with leather booties.

These boots are made for mowing...

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Garden Management has an extensive section on the newly developed Mowing Machines. All are a hand pushed version of the mowers that horses pulled along.

Mrs Beeton gives the following advice on when to mow the lawn:

“A scythe works better in the morning when the dew is on the grass, or when it has been wetted by a slight shower of rain, so when mowing is effected by means of the scythe it is better to get the work done early in the morning.  The mowing machine, which works on an entirely different principle, acts more smoothly and pleasantly when the grass is dry, and may therefore be used even at midday… to produce a soft elastic velvet-like surface of fine short, close grass, a lawn should be run over with the machine at least once a week.”

One of the models recommended by Mrs B.

Taking up Mrs Beeton’s advice I have been mowing our front lawn with the modern equivalent of the ‘Excelsior Junior’. The hand mower is definitely a lot more work than the petrol lawn mower. If the grass gets too long or sends up flower heads it wraps around the blades and jams the mower. This is one of the reasons that you do need to mow the lawn every week when using these devices. With out a scythe (I really think that me doing the lawn with the scythe would be the very last straw for our neighbors – which has almost inspired me to find one) I use hand clippers to cut down the long pieces.

As for a finish that looks like “a soft elastic velvet-like surface” well … it looks more like a neatly tossed salad.

The Junior Salad Tosser!

So now that Melbourne Cup Day is in its dying hours I can go to bed with the knowledge that while I didn’t back the winner again this year or solve the puzzle of where the Bailey millions went (I imagine it was all lost at the track) – a least my front lawn is almost up to scratch!

Beekeeping and the Steampunk Gardener!

Beekeeping and the Steampunk Gardener!

Head Gardeners have often kept hives to provide honey for the ‘Big House’ and bees to ensure pollination in their garden. Without pollination flowers don’t turn into fruit.  In many ways bees are the real Undergardeners in any productive garden. Coming into Spring it’s time for this Undergardener to tend her bees.

A smart bee sting or two in hot, sultry weather benefits gardeners by causing them to perspire more freely, and feel much lighter afterwards. Journal of Horticulture 1871

I have always been fascinated by bees and I have a hive of my own. I’m still a beginner and very much the apprentice to a few more experienced Beekeepers who live locally. Beekeeping is my first authentic experience of the apprentice – Master relationship which was the foundation of how men learnt their trade in gardens during the Victorian era. I’ve always been very comfortable learning from books. With bees it’s different. No matter how much I read my hands and my eyes need ‘to do’ and ‘watch’ to learn this skill. Like the ancient trades this has to be passed from Master to apprentice with time, care and many stings.

After a long winter hiatus it is time for this apprentice to begin actively managing the hive towards the reward of robbing honey.

I’m reading a lot about the history of beekeeping at the moment. I have learnt that how we tend bees today has changed very little since the Victorian Era. In fact the Victorian Era saw the innovations that created the modern box bee hives.

Straw Skep

Before the Victorian Era bees were kept in straw skeps. Skeps are essentially upturned straw baskets under which bees form their naturally curvy honey comb. In this system when the beekeeper collects honey the swarm of bees are killed or made homeless in the process. This means that each year the beekeeper needs to start again by collecting a new wild swarm.

The Victorian Era saw the rise of the amateur naturalist. Bees were cultivated by middle class gentlemen not for honey but science. The most famous of these amateur beekeepers was Charles Darwin who kept at hive in the garden at Down House. Darwin marshalled his children into an army of laboratory assistants in order to track the flight paths of Bumble Bees. It is postulated that keeping bees helped Darwin formulate his theories on evolution.

Nor ought we to marvel if all the contrivances in nature be not, as far as we can judge, absolutely perfect, as in the case even of the human eye; or if some of them be abhorrent to our ideas of fitness. We need not marvel at the sting of the bee, when used against an enemy, causing the bee’s own death; at drones being produced in such great numbers for one single act, and being then slaughtered by their sterile sisters; at the astonishing waste of pollen by our fir-trees; at the instinctive hatred of the queen-bee for her own fertile daughters. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species 1859.

In 1860 another amateur naturalist the American Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth patented his design for a box hive. With only slight regional adjustments the Langstroth hive is the standard box hive still used by 75% of the world’s beekeepers. The Rev Langstroth designed a hive that provides bees with frames in which to build their comb and store their honey.  The advantage of this design is that beekeepers can remove the frames to check for disease, control swarming by removing cells that will lead to the birth of Queen Bees and rob honey with out destroying the hive. This potentially allows beekeepers to increase the yield of honey they can rob each year as the hive builds its numbers.

An open hive box showing the frames.

The clever thing that the Rev had realised is that bees build their natural burr comb in sheets separated by a standard distance, the width of a bee, now called the ‘bee space’.  By designing frames a ‘bee space’ apart the bees don’t glue the frames together or to the hive box with comb. This is what makes the frames ‘removable’.

The second clever thing about the Langstroth hive is that by placing a grille (the Queen Excluder) between the box containing the Queen Bee and the boxes from which you wish to collect honey (called the Supers) you can stop the Queen from laying brood in the honey. The grille is also based on the ‘bee space’ – worker bees can fit through to stock honey, Queeny can’t get into to lay eggs – genius.

Hive frame with comb and bees.

Here in Australia there are more than 1500 species of native bees.  Most of these are solitary bees that don’t form large combs or colonies this makes them mostly unsuitable for hiving.  There is a native sting-less bee that can potentially be hived but not in the cool south were I live.  In order to ensure the pollination of the crops that European settlers brought to Australia eight hives of the European Honeybee (Apis mellifera) were first brought to Australia in 1822. Unfortunately they don’t record how they managed to bring hives of bees safely to Australia across rolling, boiling seas for six-months. I imagine that they feed the bees on honey or sugar-water and lashed the hives down tightly in the hold. Possibly the boxes were marked with a big ‘Don’t unpack mid-voyage’ sign.

I enjoy the fact that in keeping bees and learning from other more experienced keepers I am participating in an authentically Victorian gardening activity – this is the most steampunk gardening gets!

Mr. White, the naturalist, says, that both horse-beans and peas sprang up in his field-walks in the autumn; and he attributes the sowing of them to birds. Bees, he also observes, are much the best setters of cucumbers. If they do not happen to take kindly to the frames, the best way is to tempt them by a little honey put on the male and female bloom. When they are once induced to haunt the frames, they set all the fruit, and will hover with impatience round the lights in a morning till the glasses are opened.  Mrs Beeton HM

Wattle Day – Welcoming the Aussie Spring

Wattle Day - Welcoming the Aussie Spring

Welcome to spring from south-eastern Australia!  The bush around Melbourne is a blaze of golden-yellow Wattle blossoms signaling the end of winter and offering the promise of sunshine to come. Now on the one hand I’m loving all the drought-breaking rain we are currently experiencing, on the other hand I’m OVER IT, bring on the sun!

In 1838 the movement to recognise the 1st of September as Wattle Day in Australia seeded in the island state of Tasmania.  This movement, grew throughout the mainland colonies, fully flowering as a day of national celebration in the early 1900′s. Traditions associated with this day include the wearing of a Wattle sprig as a buttonhole and the festooning of public buildings in Wattle garlands.

Our interest in Wattle Day has waxed and waned since 1838. Modern Australians don’t seem as comfortable as the Victorians were with overt demonstrations of national pride (unless we are beating another nation at a sporting event). So there has been no festooning this year. There was a flotilla of politicians wearing Wattle buttonholes just now on the News but that is just of whole lot of ‘baby-kissing’ as we still haven’t managed to form a Government (enough fussing with buttonholes guys and more focus on the politics).

Wattle - The Sprig for Spring

Historians argue that by tracking the history of Wattle Day and the debate to select our national floral emblem (the glorious Golden Wattle – Acacia pycnantha ) it is possible to track the creation of a national identity. This is a link to a really interesting article by the fabulous historian Libby Robin that follows that discussion.

Wattle Day is certainly the closest that we have ever come to developing a spring ‘May Day‘ tradition. Wattle Day was always more about nationalism than the rites of spring. It lacks the sex, drugs and rock and roll of an old fashioned fertility festival.

To the Indigenous Kulin Nations that lived in the Melbourne region Wattle has different associations. The blooming of Wattles signals a time to consider our ancestors and to acknowledge the passing of Elders in the late winter. The Kulin described seven seasons in Melbourne rather than the European experience of four. This time of the year is really a pre-spring or the Kulin Guling Orchid Season. While as a nation we are still battling to reconcile with each other, this landscape and our climate I take it as a sign of hope that the Wattle is often worn, as a substitute for rosemary in remembrance, by people of both Indigenous and European decent.

The Victorians urged us to unite as a nation beneath the golden blossom of the Wattle there may have been some deep wisdom in their musings after all.

I think the final word needs to go to Monty Python’s ‘Bruces’ Sketch.

“This here’s the wattle, the emblem of our land, You can stick it in a bottle, you can hold it in your hand.”

Suffering and Suffrage – Visions of Victorian Life

Suffering and Suffrage - Visions of Victorian Life

The Head Gardener has been muttering to me about the fact that I haven’t yet planted broadbeans! I’ve been spending time in doors researching my Victorian family tree, staying warm, surfing with a cup of tea in hand and imagining the lives of my Great Grandmothers. I agree this is a gardening fail but it has been a lot of fun!

This is what I’ve found while surfing (don’t be alarmed I’m not about to go on and on about family history):

Visions of Victorian Suffering

The Art Gallery of New South Wales has an exhibition ‘Victorian Visions’ on from the May 20 to August 29. Their website hosts a fantastic lecture on the depiction of Poverty in Victorian Art, which I highly recommend, as the film shows the artworks that the speaker is referencing. To prove that this is still a gardening related post this lecture features the role of the potato in Victorian life and farming -woot!  The audio tour for the exhibition shows images of the painting in the exhibit.

Suffrage in Australia

Great Petition. Artists Susan Hewitt & Penelope Lee 2008. Commemorating 200th anniversary of Women's Vote

Some clever people have transcribed all the names of the women in Victoria, Australia who signed the 1891 Women’s Suffrage Petition.  These names are now searchable on our State Government’s website. So if you had female ancestors living in Victoria, Australia in 1891(city or rural) put their last name into the search window and see if you can find them. If you know roughly where they were living at the time it makes them easier to identify.  Once you have found their names a link will take you through to an image of their actual signature.

The ‘Monster Petition’ as it has come to be called collected 30,000 signatures of women petitioning the State Government for the right to vote.  The petition itself is a 260 m long role of paper that requires hours to unwind. This petition played an important role at Federation in 1901 (the process by which Australia became a nation) as Australia became the first country to give women both the right to vote and the right to stand for government by 1908. There is a great history of the petition that was collected during a six – ten week period in spring 1891 at this location.

The Exhibition Building - Site of Australia's first Parliament 1901

I found the signatures of two of my Great Grandmothers one maternal, one paternal and some of their female relatives and neighbours. I wish I knew more about how they felt about the petition on that spring day in 1891 when a woman knocked on their door and asked them to sign. Are my missing Great Grans on there and I just can’t find them, did they refuse to sign or where they out the back digging potatoes when the suffragettes came calling?

Interestingly there was an enormous difference in the living conditions between the two signing GGs. One a young unmarried woman living with her father and sister in a working class area of the city of Ballarat  and the other a wife of the local Mayor living on a large orchard in rural Lilydale. The struggle for women’s suffrage seems to have crossed class barriers I wonder if women at the time felt united by the petition? Clearly these women rocked and I feel very grateful to them.

There is a wonderful 3 minute clip on the Victorian Arts website that shows Diane Gardiner of the State Records Office talking about the petition and the petition roll itself.

This is something that I’m going to dig further into while it’s too cold to dig in the garden.

Bringing in the May!

Bringing in the May!

In the northern hemisphere the 1st of May is celebrated as the arrival of spring and a harbinger of summer to come. There are many folk traditions across Europe, that are still practiced today, that relate to this time of the year and all seem to have their origins in ancient celebrations of the Earth’s burgeoning fertility. We know that the Victorians were avidly interested in folklore but how did they interpret and incorporate fertility celebrations into their world view and its obvious associations with sex, intemperate behavior and fecundity?

What does Mrs Beeton have to say?

May, the Milk-month of our Saxon Ancestors, is said to have derived its name from the pastoral custom of English maidens – the Mays of our older authors – of rising early on May morning, and proceeding to the meadows to milk the cows, and elect the most beautiful of their companions as the Queen of the Mays. In process of time, when the name was established, and the custom in which it originated had become a tradition, another Mayday custom had crept in, when, according to old Herrick, Not a budding boy or girl that day, But is got up and gone to bring in May. Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management.

In this quote Mrs Beeton is referring to two country traditions that the Victorians, with their love of all things floral, were keen to embrace and promote.  The first custom is the tradition of electing a local ‘Queen of the May‘.  The May Queen is usually a young girl dressed in white and crowned with a wreath of spring flowers. The Queen presides over a village festival or local celebration for the day. In folk tradition the May Queen represents the Earth Goddess in her aspect as the Maiden. Maia, Mary, Flora and Persephone and the multitude of other virginal spring goddesses relate to this tradition across many cultures. From what I have read it seems that the Victorians promoted this aspect of the traditional Beltane celebrations as it is less ribald than many others (shagging a stranger by the local bonfire, spilling the blood of the May Queen to promote summer crops or getting stonking drunk and dancing around dressed as a horse). Dressing up like the Goddess of spring seems to have appealed to Victorian aesthetics (the internets are full of Victorian pictures of girls dressed as the May Queen) and obvious love of dressing up (Mmmm not a very scholarly conclusion but I’m going with it).

The second tradition that Mrs Beeton alludes to is ‘Bringing in the May’.  Bringing in the May means to rise up early on the first of May and collect flowers and greenery from woodlands for personal adornment, decorating houses and village streets.  In large Victorian households this meant that the Head Gardener would be expected to put on an extra fine show around the house in early May. In present day Cornwall this tradition is still honored in Padstow where the whole village is decorated with branches of greenery in preparation for the Obby Oss celebration.

Padstow Obby Oss Maypole - 1st May 2002

In Helston on May the 8th villagers collect Lily of the Valley from the surrounding countryside to wear as buttonholes during Flora Day celebrations. In the Victorian language of flowers the Lily of the Valley symbolizes the ‘return of happiness’. On Flora Day only people born in Helston are entitled to wear the Lily.  Men wear the Lily in its upright position and women wear their buttonholes pointing down (this might be to allow ease of telling gender once all the ale has been drunk).

Flora Day is believed to be a very ancient tradition where villagers dance and sing through the main street and each others houses all day.  Historians differ on how old they think the tradition is – most talk about this festival going into abeyance during the Victorian era due to the influence of the temperance movement on quietening down the drunk revelries.

The Victorian’s seem to have embraced Maypoles with maidens dancing around winding and weaving ribbons back and forth but were less keen on anyone talking about their obviously phallic associations with fertility.

The Obby Oss (Hobby Horse) at Padstow is a festival that I have watched twice and it is really something to experience in person. The crazy looking horse puppet rolls and stumbles into the crowd, the villagers dance, drink and sing all day as the ancient ‘heart beat drum’ leads the Oss round and around the village. The whole day feels very pagan but much of its tradition and custom are impenetrable to outsiders like myself.  The Obby Oss is documented back to the 1300′s; it may be older!

Historians mention that it has undergone a number of revivals with its popularity waxing and waning from era to era. In Donald Rowe’s book Padstow’s Obby Oss and May Day Festivities he talks about the Maypole being removed from the celebrations during early Victorian times. He portrays the Victorians as being in two minds about the Obby Oss festival on one hand idealizing it as an example of English rustic charm and on the other hand deriding the locals for the debauchery and drunkeness.

May Day Down-under!

In Australia by contrast May is the turning of Autumn into frosty winter weather. As you would expect European settlement did not transplant May day spring celebrations into the culture of white settlement. The thing that I find really interesting about colonial culture is how little of English folklore became incorporated into Australian culture – actually white Australia has very little folklore beyond Ned Kelly (bushranger), football (intensely boring) and mateship (?).  Spring for us Aussies is September and the 1st of September is Wattle Day.

Wattle

Wattle Day has its origins in the surge of nationalism that seems to have occurred late in the Victorian era in Australia. I can imagine that my Cornish ancestors, waking in a canvas tent, on a cold and frosty May morning on the gold-fields in Ballarat in 1852 perhaps feeling a little bereft at not being able to find Lily of the Valley.  I wonder if they walked into the bush and picked sprigs of green and tucked them into their buttonholes. I can imagine that they felt along way from home in a very alien land.

Unite and unite and let us all unite, For summer is acome unto day, And whither we are going we all will unite, In the merry morning of May. Padstow Morning Song.

Oblique Floral Reference – cause she’s Gorgeous!

Oblique Floral Reference - cause she's Gorgeous!

I visited Ballarat last weekend and saw for the first time this beautiful statue of Queen Victoria. Ballarat was the site of the 1851 Victorian Gold Rush and the town, if you squint and look up slightly (so as to avoid the cars) looks much as it would have in the late 1880′s.

Her Majesty

The detail on Her Majesty’s dress could be Wattle Blossom – but the leaves aren’t right.  I wonder if anyone knows what plant this is?  I wonder if the plant is symbolic of something?

I’ve looked at images of the Orb that Victoria is holding in her left hand and they all have a cross on top rather than an angel.

The Victoria Memorial in London is surmounted by the angel Victory.  This statue was commissioned in 1900 the year before Victoria’s death so I wonder if this little bronze angel was added later as a reference to a bigger sister in London. Looking closely at this little angel I could see that she / he is holding a trumpet so perhaps it is Gabriel and his horn calling Victoria to the last judgement.

The Orb itself is meant to be a symbol of a world ruled by Christianity. The cross that usually sits on top of the Orb symbolises the office of the Queen as the Defender of the Faith. So Gabriel calling the world to judgement upon the sovereign’s  death might be the story that the artist is telling.

What does the angel on her Orb symbolise?

Ballarat is well worth a visit if you feel the need to immerse yourself in some genuinely gorgeous Victoriana.

Experiments in Victorian Floristry Continue…

Experiments in Victorian Floristry Continue...

in which I am both Under Gardener and Lady’s Maid.

Well time travellers I feel that I have a good handle on how to make floral buttonholes now. Emboldened I decided to tackle the task of creating a floral hair decoration and dress garland. “Why ?”, I hear you ask – well as I have learnt floristry in large Victorian estates was the responsibility of the Head Gardener.

Roses for 'The Duchess'.

Supplying flowers for an exacting Mistress must surely have been one of the Head Gardener’s most terrifying tasks – I can imagine many a stout and tweedy fellow quaking in his Wellingtons at the though of displeasing ‘Her Upstairs’. Luckily my dear friend ‘The Duchess’ has a beautiful head of hair and the patience to put up with a very inept Lady’s Maid.

The hair do.

Step 1: Make a Pony Tail.

Step 2: Pull the Pony Tail back through the hair.

Step 3: Split Pony Tail into 3 Plaits.

Step 4: Turn the plaits up and pin.

Step 5. Place pinned roses in hair.

Step 6: Poke small flowers around roses.

My own unruly head of hair is evidence that I don’t know very much about hair styling. In order to work out how Victorian ladies wore their hair I looked at more than a hundred images on-line – these were not very helpful for the uninitiated and frankly a little scary. Severe was definitely the ‘new black’ of the Victorian age.

It seems that early in the Victorian period hair styles were very controlled and neat and as the era unfolded hair styles became looser and less formal. Clearly my untidy hair marks me as a natural Edwardian. I watched the film ‘The Young Victoria‘ again for inspiration and found Queen Victoria’s hair do’s were just too complicated to try as a first go – all those tiny plaits, perfect neatness and twirly bits. I decided to pick an informal style which would allow for some margin of clumsiness. I found this clip with a demonstration which was a big help.

Well the Duchess and I had a very fun afternoon but I learnt that I would be a rubbish Lady’s Maid. It took me about an hour to put together a hair style that probably should only take ten minutes. Luckily as an Under Gardener all I would need to do is make sure that I grew the appropriate roses and picked them as instructed – whew!

Dress Garlands

Next step was to make a matching dress garland for the Duchess.

Rose Garland.

The DVDs that I ordered of the BBC’s Victorian Flower Garden, Kitchen Garden and Kitchen have finally arrived and I have loved watching these three fabulous series again. This clip shows the enormous amount of foliage that really grand Victorian women would wear on formal occasions. Attending a ball must have been like watching a swaying garden!

In the photo above you can see my attempt at a garland.  I used thin paper-covered milliner’s wire and tied the roses to the wire using green paraffin tape. The paraffin tape melts as you mould it with your hands and gives a very realistic effect of all the roses growing from a single stem. I’ve not been able to find out what Victorians would have used but a very knowledgeable gardener I work with suggested that Head Gardeners would have used thin gauze silk. I think the garland turned out OK but would be better if I had added more greenery and some smaller flowers amongst the roses.

Next floristry challenge will be to dress a full dining table but I plan to leave that to the spring – which for me here in Melbourne is next September.  In the mean time back to the garden as it is past time for getting the winter seeds in the ground.

Finally we have a photo of the Duchess’ beautiful companion modelling her own garland.

Beautiful B