Tag Archive for 'Fairies at the bottom of the garden'

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.

Scented Geraniums and Stealing Cuttings

Scented Geraniums and Stealing Cuttings

We are coming to the end of the summer in Melbourne. Leaf-curl Spiders have strung their webs and leaf hammocks throughout the garden and the morning air is decidedly crisp despite the paper’s promise of afternoon heat. These are the first stirrings of autumn in the garden and the deciduous leaves will soon be turning and falling. As Mrs Beeton suggests it is time for the Under Gardener to plan for winter and time to take Geranium cuttings to increase the plants available for display next spring.

1817 Geraniums. Now that the planting-out season may be considered over, attention should at once be directed towards furnishing a supply of plants for another year. The class of plants which will require propagation first are geraniums, of which both the fancy and common bedding kinds must be struck in time to get established in small pots before winter, and the different scarlets and horseshoes and zonal sorts. There is no plant more useful for decorative purposes; many are, besides, deliciously fragrant, and there is none whose cultivation is more simple.

Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management.

Geraniums are great plants! They are fabulously egalitarian growing in just about every garden in Melbourne from the burbs to Toorak mansions. One of the reasons they are so popular is that they are very easy to grow from cuttings; so easy they are practically free. They were swapped and traded by early Victorian settlers and as an ongoing tribute to our convict ancestry they are still stolen from botanic and backyard collections today. I am descended from a man transported from Britain to the Australian colonies for the ‘term of his natural life’ for “using exciting language and inciting men to riot” so I know that crime is wrong – very wrong.

Striking Geranium Cuttings

Striking Geraniums

To grow a Geranium from a cutting all you need to do is break a piece off a large plant. If you are doing this by moonlight while hanging over your neighbour’s fence just remember not to make enough noise to wake their Pit-bulls.

Remove three sets of leaves from the bottom of the cutting carefully so as not to strip the stem.  Once you have removed these leaves dip the bottom end of the cutting in honey. The honey will help to stop the cutting from rotting and will promote root growth. Then pinch out or cut off the top pair of leaves, make a hole in a pot of soil with a stick or your finger and place the cutting into the soil.

Keep watered and warm.

The pots then needs to be keep damp and warm until the next spring. I place the pots on a sunny outside window sill through the winter.

In colder climates the pots will need to be taken into a glasshouse or sunny inside window until spring as Geraniums are not frost hardy.

When is a Geranium a Pelargonium?

If you are interested in learning the difference between Geraniums and Pelargoniums then have a look at this link. Confusingly Geraniums and Pelargoniums (both members of the family Geraniaceae) are commonly called Geraniums. To avoid confusion (and annoy the botanists) I’m going to just call them all Geraniums!

Biodiversity and the Collecting Bug

Geraniums from South Africa were first introduced to Europe in the 1600′s and to Britain via Paris by John Tradescant the Elder in the 1700′s.  During the Victorian Era they became extremely popular and the craze for collecting and breeding new hybrids sweep through Europe, America and Australia.

A very diverse family of plants!

Depending on which book you read there are now some 2000 varieties of Geraniums and you can see in the photograph on the left that there is an enormous variety of flower colour, form and leaf shape available in these genera.

The other reason that Geraniums were so loved by the Victorians is their enormous range of leaf perfumes. It is possible to find varieties that smell like rose, lemon, ginger, cinnamon, mint, incense, pyrethrum, southern-wood, nuts, balsam, apple-cider, nutmeg, orange, coconut and fusions of this list such as minty-lemon or lemony-rose.

The Victorians grew Scented Geraniums along the edges of pathways or placed pots inside in winter where wide crinoline skirts would brush past and release their scent.

A Vase of Geraniums for the Library.

Cut Flowers

I had a go at following the technique for placing flowers in a wide vase outlined in the BBC’s Victorian Flower Garden DVD.  Instead of modern green oasis block Victorian Head Gardeners would cut lots of small pieces of English Box and place these in the vase to hold the flowers.

I don’t have any Box in my garden so I cut pieces of Rosemary to hold up the smaller Geranium flowers.  I think it works well but it would look neater if I had cut all the pieces very short and evenly.

In the Kitchen and Household

Lemon Scented Sugar

The Victorians used Scented Geraniums to make flavored sugars. I have a Lemon Geranium in my backyard which smells just like Lemonade Icy Poles. Australians will know exactly the smell that I mean. I guess the smell is just about the same as Lemon Verbena but fizzy.

Rose Geranium leaves baked into Plain Cake

To make the flavored sugar all you need to do is layer the Geranium leaves in sugar and seal in a jar for two weeks in a warm spot.  As I have learnt from bitter experience it is a good idea to make sure that you have flicked all the insects off the leaves before entombing them in sugar. You then sieve out the leaves and use the sugar to flavor desserts or dust on cakes.

In Denise Greig’s book Scented Geraniums and Pelargoniums she describes how the Victorians flavored cakes with Geranium leaves. So I had a go by placing Rose Geranium leaves at the bottom of a buttered cake tin before pouring in Plain Cake batter.

Dust icing sugar over leaves as stencils

Once the cake was baked I peeled off the cooked leaves, placed fresh leaves on top of the cake and sprinkled over icing sugar. I think this makes a nice pattern on the cake. So did it taste of Rose Geranium? Well no actually; not to me. The Master of the house said that he could taste a faint herby rose flavor which he liked. Not sure I would try this again unless I find a really strongly rosy Geranium.

A Scarlet Geranium Buttonhole

Geranium Buttonhole

While doing the research for this article I came across what looks like a fabulous book, A Passion for Pelargoniums, by Anne Wilkinson. In one of the extracts of the book that I read online Anne describes the Scarlet Geranium as Charles Dickens’ favourite flower and one that he frequently wore.

Unfortunately this book has not been published in Australia and mysteriously we can no longer buy books like this via Amazon (what’s going on Amazon?). So my family in the UK will help out by sending it to me. I just wanted to share my frustration in not being able to get me hands on this book immediately!

The extracts speak tantalizingly of the Victorian craze for collecting plants and the criminal lengths that people would go to to get their hands on that elusive Geranium specimen. I have read about the wanton Orchid and the Orchid thieves in their thrall. Who ever would have though that the gentle Geranium so frilled, flounced and proper could excite such passions? There is something so addictive about the Scented Geraniums. I can feel the irrational need to seek out and find that Apple-Cider scented one – I need it now and I don’t know why! There is a Dark-Purple Flowered Geranium in a house around the corner from me; when you see me on the news being carted away in a police van you will know that it was all in the name of Victorian authenticity – your Honour!

Love Apples for Valentine’s Day

Love Apples for Valentine's Day

We are now in High Summer in Melbourne.  February brings warm weather, windy skies, very little rain but if we are lucky a glut of tomatoes for Valentine’s Day.

This week I am continuing my quest to find out how Australians gardened during the Victorian Era. Did we grow and eat tomatoes?

Turning to the esteemed Mrs Beeton it is clear that tomatoes were grown in Victorian England but were not as popular as she felt they should be.

Tomato, or Love Apple an admirable sauce by itself, it enters largely into a great number of our best and most wholesome sauces.  It also may be cooked and brought to the table like other vegetables, in several different ways; or eaten raw cut into slices like cucumber, but much thicker, and dressed with salt and pepper, oil and vinegar in the same way. When prepared in this manner, as a salad, a few slices of onion will be found an improvement. Further, it is extremely palatable when eaten as a fruit, dipped in sugar. Those who have analysed its properties say that the tomato is singularly wholesome, and very useful, especially in cases of bad digestion; still, it is not appreciated or cultivated as it ought to be.   Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management.

Mrs B's Simple Love Apple Salad - Yummy!

Inspired I prepared tomatoes with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper as Mrs B suggests.  The tomatoes were still warm from the garden; served with crusty bread this simple salad suggestion was simply fabulous.

Mrs Beeton’s advice for growing tomatoes follows the steps that would be very familiar to any modern gardener. Tomato seeds are planted in late winter keeping the pots in a glasshouse or on the window sill in the sun.  The seedlings are then planted out once the soil begins to warm up in spring in a hot and sunny spot in the garden.

In the reading that I have done so far one of the things that sings out loudly about Victorian Head Gardeners is how clever they were, if successful, at using and creating micro-climates within their gardens. If you have good soil and water in Melbourne it is easy to grow tomatoes. In colder British gardens large estates built walled gardens which allowed gardeners to take advantage of the reflected heat off the sun facing walls to grow crops such as tomatoes. It seems that really successful Head Gardeners needed to cultivate a strong connection to the seasons and the particular conditions and opportunities of their garden – I take my hat off to them!

The plants should be well watered with liquid manure to keep up a rapid growth. As soon as the blossom buds appear, watering should cease.  Stop shoots by nipping off the tops, and throw out all those sprays that show little signs of fruit, exposing the young fruit as much as possible to the sun and air, only watering to prevent check in case of very severe drought, of which the state of the plant will be the best index. Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management

When I first learnt about growing tomatoes from my Father nipping or pinching out the lateral tomato shoots was still the preferred practice.  It means that the tomato plant can grow neatly straight up a tall stake. The theory behind this practice was that you would get fewer but larger tomatoes than a bush that was allowed to sprawl unchecked. The Victorians were very interested in precision and efficiency and their estate gardens needed to be as beautiful and orderly as they were productive.  I can see that neat stakes of tomatoes would appeal to their aesthetic tastes. Interestingly research by the Digger’s Club shows that un-pruned tomato plants produce more (and a greater weight) of tomatoes than their pinched out cousins.

Tigerella and Cherry Bite Tomatoes

So did Australians grow tomatoes during the Victorian Era and what other vegetables were grown in colonial Melbourne gardens? In order to answer this question I visited the library of the National Herbarium of Victoria which has a small collection of seed catalogues from the mid 1800s. I have a thing for seed catalogues I love reading them so this was a great treat.

The selection of vegetable seeds available in each catalogue was surprising small and didn’t list varieties.  There were artichoke, cabbage, carrot, turnip, onion and other basics but no tomatoes! In a present day Australian seed catalogue produced by Eden Seeds there are 162 varieties of tomato listed from Black Russians, Green Zebras to the delicious Tigerallas.

I’m finding it difficult to believe that this meagre list of seeds represents the only vegetables that were grown in the mid-1800s. It could be that settlers were still purchasing seeds from England. If they were free settlers rather than convicts it is very likely that they brought their favorite varieties with them on the voyage to Australia. I’m reading a really interesting book called Green Pens by Katie Holmes, Susan Martin and Kylie Mirmohamdi.  In this book a reproduction of a letter from a land agent Henry Widowson in 1829 to prospective settlers of Tasmania encourages them to bring seeds “I should recommend every one to purchase a quantity of the best kinds of seed previous to leaving England.”

I’m still dipping in and out of Green Pens but it seems clear from the letters reproduced that settlers were sending seeds back home as they found native plants that they liked and requesting seeds in return from home. Plants, cuttings, seedlings and seed were also swapped between settlers as a means of making friends or establishing status. It isn’t difficult to imagine that creating a garden as a way of establishing a sense of home and belonging let alone growing food would have been a priority for settlers.  Interestingly gardening seems to have become the province of women very early on in Australian settlement. It isn’t until the late Victorian / Edwardian era that gardening is exhorted as a suitable occupation for women in Britain.

While the seed catalogues in the Herbarium have very few vegetable seeds they are full to overflowing with fruit trees, roses, azaleas, fuchsias, geraniums and pelargoniums. Roses don’t seem to have ever gone out of fashion here in Melbourne; they are just as popular today as they were in the Victorian era.

Ballam Park Homestead 1855 - The view from the rose garden

Roses and Chocolate

On the weekend I visited Ballam Park Homestead a local property maintained for public display by a volunteer historical society. Ballam Park was built in 1855 and where I live now in suburban Melbourne was once a field in this 8000 acre estate.

The great thing about Ballam Park is that much of the 1855 ornamental garden, gravel paths and orchard are still intact. I took this photo standing in the recreated rose garden.  To the left of the house is an Oak tree which would be one of the oldest oaks in Melbourne to the right is a Carob tree – the only Carob I’ve ever seen.  The pods of this plant were used by the family who built this house to create a chocolate substitute – good to see they had their priorities straight – get settled grow chocolate!

The orchard follows the main road way to the house and was planted with apples, fig and olives.  There isn’t any trace of a kitchen garden and the guide book to the house doesn’t talk about a location for a kitchen garden. Apparently the President of the society is a font of knowledge and I have been invited to call in again to talk to her at the tea-rooms now run next to the homestead. It maybe that the archive has records of the kitchen garden. So I will report back on our meeting.

Ripe Carob Pods - still fruiting 165 years on!

Again not possible to take photos in the house.  One of the interesting things about the house is that the dairy is attached directly to the kitchen with a stable door for bringing the cows into be milked. It looks a lot like a cow garage.

Ballam Park was in the middle of nowhere when it was first built and was accessed by boat across the bay from Melbourne and then a long walk along the beach, through swamp and then scrub.  The house has a small lantern room at the front of the top storey of the house. It is believed that a whale oil lamp was hung in this top window, which faces the bay.  This was to provide a guiding light at night to people trying to find the homestead. This seems a risky strategy during the days of bushrangers.

I still haven’t tracked down a copy of the Colonial Gardener but I have found that their is a copy on fiche at the Victorian State Library.  Once we get some cool weather I will make time to visit the VSL and to sit and read it in the great Victorian domed reading room – sounds like fun.

A Button-hole for Valentine’s Day

I think the Victorian’s would approve of this button-hole with a dusky red rose for love on Valentine’s Day. This variety of rose is called Tradescant and is named for one of the most famous Head Gardeners of all time John Tradescant the Elder born in 1570. Not a Victorian obviously but his work was tremendously admired by Victorian Head Gardeners so it seems an appropriate choice. The rest of the button-hole is purple Plectranthus flowers called Mona-lisa (because the Mistress is a big fan of purple), Yellow Lomandra flowers a sweet scented Australian native plant and a Rose Geranium leaf. This button-hole has a very fragrant rose perfume. Happy Valentine’s Day for this coming 14th February 2010!

Happy Valentine's Day