fbook icon 60Frosty Tales

P6252262 

When I began planting my country garden, I had visions of French lavender hedges and geraniums in pots. By the end of summer that dream had become a reality. Then, one autumn morning, I discovered something very strange. Overnight the geraniums had turned brown and the lavender was drooping. Thinking that the plants needed watering, I gave them a generous soaking. For good measure, I trimmed off the worst of the drooping lavender stalks and removed the dead geranium flowers. 

The next morning, I checked my garden, expecting a recovery. Instead, the lavender looked worse than ever. The remaining flower heads had begun to wilt, as though they were grieving for their lost companions. And the geraniums were barely recognisable. As I touched the leaves, they turned to dust in my fingers. What had happened, I wondered, to cause such havoc?

You guessed it. The culprit was that stealthy morning visitor – the dreaded frost! As a coastal gardener, I'd never experienced one before.  Even now, when I know how destructive they can be, there are winter mornings when I find myself gazing out the living room window and marvelling at the white fields, glistening as if they’ve been dusted with crystallized sugar. But, believe me, the dark side of frost far outweighs its transitory visual delights.

So, how does a gardener fight back? You can monitor the weather forecasts and cover your plants in the afternoon or evening in anticipation of a frost. You can get up early and try to hose off the icy crystals – that is, if your hose isn’t frozen. You can accept the losses and plant suitable things next time. Or you can abandon the idea of a garden altogether and watch luxuriant weeds filling the space. (Wouldn’t you know it? Weeds are frost-hardy.)

What did I do? Something I should have done in the first place. I walked around town and checked out what was thriving in other people’s gardens. I even pinched some cuttings from a rock-rose in the garden of our old courthouse (ten cuttings; one survived to grow into a lush shrub from which I now plan to take more cuttings).

Then I visited the local nursery and sought expert advice. What I learned was this. Choose the right plants for your climate. Even then, protect them for the first few winters and allow your plants to acclimatise. Don’t remove frost-damaged tips until the frost danger has passed for the season – like a scab over a cut, they protect the ends of the stems. And don’t expect geraniums to survive the winter. Then again, they might surprise you in the spring with a burst of new growth.

Since then, I’ve accumulated plants that seem to do well in our harsh climate (hot, dry summers and bitter winters) – rock roses, of course, buddleia (summer lilacs) and real roses. Owing to the low humidity, my country roses don’t seem to have the fungal problems which afflict their city cousins.

Writers are fond of using the weather as a metaphor. Sometimes it works brilliantly; at other times it seems like a cheap trick. I have to confess I’ve incorporated a frost or two into my novel, MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM. Having read this article, you’ll know it isn’t merely a stylistic device I've thrown into the book to impress the reader. My feelings about the frost are real and visceral. So are those of my female protagonist, Angie Wallace, who hates frosts with a passion, even comparing them to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, creeping up to suck the life out of the little plants she holds so dear.

Angie’s right. The icy onslaught is likely to cause serious damage, and recovery can be a slow process. It may not happen this season, or even the next. And just when you start to bloom again, there may be setbacks. But slowly you will build frost-hardiness. And one day you may find that you have grown in ways you never imagined possible.

Deborah O'Brien

April, 2012

 


fbook icon 60 Life with a Platypus

DOB MCE 14

After years of fantasising about a weekender in the country, my husband and I finally bought a little cottage overlooking a creek on the outskirts of an historic town. It's a long drive from the Big Smoke, but we didn’t let a practicality like that stop us. After all, we had fallen in love with the town and its old buildings, its green hillsides and most particularly, the platypus that lived in the creek. As if by special request of the real estate agent, the creature had even made an appearance on the very day we inspected the house, providing the ‘wow factor’ which clinched the deal.

Some years later, the platypus is still with us, though I’m not certain whether it’s our original one or not. I’d like to think so. There’s been a baby too, otherwise known as a puggle. A tiny version of its parent, yet full of bravado, floating on the surface and enjoying the sun. Then again, a fully grown platypus isn’t very big – about 40 to 60cm, the experts say.

When we arrive at our cottage on a Friday afternoon, the platypus is usually waiting for us. Tired after the long car trip, we are instantly heartened by his presence, foreshadowed by neatly concentric ripples on the surface of the creek. Then we spot the curve of his back as he duck-dives for food. Sometimes he will move on quickly, but often he lingers and we watch him from behind a stand of reeds.

A couple of years ago, our slow-moving creek turned into a raging torrent after a heavy rainfall upstream. Willow trees cracked under the force of the water. Debris came hurtling past at a frightening speed. Creek banks were reconfigured by the tempest. As I stood in the rain, watching the creek rise, all I could think about was the platypus. What would happen to his burrows scattered at intervals along the banks? Would the little guy be washed away altogether? Panic struck as I recalled a story I’d read in a newspaper about a puggle found in the breakers of a South Coast beach. He had been washed all the way to the ocean by floodwaters.

So what became of our platypus?

By the next day, the water level had dropped and the creek was moving slowly again. Rubbish and tree branches had piled up against the stand of willows in front of our cottage. New pools had appeared and the course of the creek had altered. Oh dear, I thought. If the banks are gone, so are the burrows. I went and made myself a cup of tea and by the time I returned to the window, there he was, cavorting as if there had never been a flood.

Including a platypus in my book MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM seemed like a natural thing to do. In the novel, as in real life, he’s like a magician’s assistant, appearing from nowhere and vanishing just as quickly. All that’s missing is the puff of smoke.

Deborah O’Brien

February, 2012

P9225122



 


 

fbook icon 60Country Ways

DOB MCE 19

What’s so great about living in the country, people ask me? The nineteenth-century poet, William Cowper said it all in his famous line: “God made the country, and man made the town”.

Here are some of the things that make country life special for me:

  • Sheep bleating at night (in the city it’s police sirens)
  • Frogs mumbling to each other in the creek
  • Flocks of black cockatoos before a rain shower (you can’t get angry at them, even when they’ve littered your lawn with pine-cones and branches)
  • A lone bustard (Australian stork) patiently watching for prey among the reeds
  • A wallaby doing an elegant jump over a barbed-wire fence
  • Newborn lambs and calves at the end of winter
  • Tiny frogs as small as leaves
  • A baby wombat on the door step late at night
  • Church bells on a Sunday morning
  • A front-page story in the local newspaper about a lost teddy bear, complete with photo.
  • A mayoral election where the councillors’ votes have resulted in a tie, so they draw a name out of a hat
  • And people who smile and say hello when they pass you in the street, whether they know you or not

Deborah O’Brien

PC034331


DOB MCE 15