Gardening

With the Bureau of Meteorology declaring El Niño over, the time is ripe for gardeners to replant. By Helen Razer.

El Niño, La Niña and flowering annuals

Winter daphne in bloom.
Credit: C11YG / THINKSTOCK

There is little that is more troubling than the glory of the daphne at number 10. Not even neoliberalism bothers me so deeply as that bush. Iris, the best gardener in the street, and possibly the climate zone, kept its lobed leaves glossy and upright all year. This season, it looks set to burst into absolute and even bloom. A grand perfume from dainty flowers will only choke me with the knowledge that my own drooping shrub barely made it through the summer.
I’m trying iron chelate on this yellowing, limp abhorrence. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

If your thumb is particularly green or your memory particularly good, you will know that this is the first direct reference made in this publication to plant fertilisation in several seasons. There is a reason for this, and it’s not just that your correspondent has been busy with the problem of the daphne – a lovely and temperamental species from northern China, whose cultivation should not be attempted in any city warmer than Melbourne. The real problem is that no one, save for Iris and a handful of superhuman horticulturists, has been able to meaningfully garden since the onset of El Niño, a rainless and godless phenomenon that turns all the nation’s pots and beds to chaff. El Niño is Spanish for “please, don’t bother planting anything new this year”.

Now, El Niño has been officially closed by the Bureau of Meteorology and naturally ended by a cooler Pacific Ocean. Senior climatologist, and gardener, Lynette Bettio confirms: “We have the cooler sea surface.” When the ocean shifts temperature, she explains, this can provoke a change in atmospheric circulation. Heat-fuelled El Niño is one that gives many Australian gardeners less rain, higher temperatures and more frequent cause for regret.

Still, I planted my tomatoes last year and so, I was gratified to learn, did Bettio. “It wasn’t,” she admits, “a great crop.” When I ask her why a climatologist would pay less heed to the knowledge that she herself produces and more to the gardener’s green hope, she doesn’t answer, but offers me some complicated line graphs depicting past La Niña rainfall events.

La Niña, Bettio explains, is the more valuable flip side to the oscillating climate coin. La Niña doesn’t always follow the destructive force of El Niño with her nurturing rain. But, she might. “We have to wait to see if the atmosphere responds,” says Bettio. “The bureau is on La Niña watch.”

Gardeners, all of whom, save for Iris, have endured recent disaster, can let the bureau watch the long-range forecast. We can return to watching our beds and our containers. For gardeners, says Bettio, things are looking better. At least, “We are no longer looking at El Niño. We are, at the very least, looking at a neutral year.”

With an enhanced chance of above-median rainfall over much of the nation, now is a very good time to either resume gardening or enjoy it for the first time. I look at the rainfall graphs that Bettio has shown me and see that their lines correspond to the most productive and gratifying seasons I have ever spent in the garden.

Now, before I bore you briefly with some dreary words on pruning and soil, let me cheer you with a few quick floral fixes that will shatter the season’s relative botanical calm. There is, in my experience, nothing that will lure me into my own garden, or dissuade me from looking at Iris’s, like a pretty flower.

If you have a little spare cash and a strong constitution, try the winter-flowering daphne. You’ll need to buy a mature plant to see its little flowers this year – if you want to propagate a cutting, do so around Christmas Day. If you are in Sydney and you want to try this plant, please be mindful of its distaste for heat and, particularly, afternoon sun. If you are a Brisbane gardener, forget about it and soothe yourself with the knowledge that you can grow hibiscus and frangipani and other gaudy glory whose names and whose beauty we southern gardeners will never know. Wherever you are, you might think about putting this lovely winter specimen in a pot. Daphne likes an acid soil and good drainage and constant flattery, all of which are easier to provide in a contained area.

I grow my daphne in a bed that is east facing and, somehow, composed of wonderful soil. I have no idea how I built a bed so aerated and productive. It has shown me yellow leaves in the past, which did respond well to the iron chelate. Who knows what she will do this year? I can only be certain that she will be shamed by Iris’s white daphne, which is surrounded by white hellebores, also known as the winter or Lenten rose.

Hellebores – again: sorry, Brisbane, go grow some galangal and feel smug – have an otherworldly grace. Their stiff petals look less like the work of horticulture than they do a particularly funereal papermaker. New hybrids of this little shade-loving plant come in many colours, including near-black. No goth worth the price of their collected works of Baudelaire should be without this small but frost-resistant death maiden. Buy two- or three-year-old plants now and be pleasantly let down by their melancholy faces this season, which will show in small pots – but not the ones you bought them in – as well as beds. Do water them over summer. Mine are dead, even though they’re fairly hardy. I don’t want to talk about it.

For almost-instant winter optimism, you need a pansy, or its antecedent, the viola. If you have not germinated this dependable but slow grower – also, now, for Children of the Night, available in black – just buy some cheapies from your least offensive purveyor of plants. If you have previously grown the heirloom tricolour viola, sometimes known as heartsease or Johnny jump up or, indecently, come and cuddle me, you will probably find that it self-sows, which is to say that it propagates itself. Many of the artificial beauties from the garden centre will not do this, but such reproductive incapacity is forgiven in the dead of winter when they urge you into the garden so brilliantly. Goodness, I love these short-lived, shade-tolerant perennials, which should be treated as quick-fix annuals. They ask so little and will make a home nearly anywhere. They do seem to prosper when you pinch a few of their heads off and, of course, they like a bit of food and regular water. I do not feel so passionate about primulas, but will grow them in any case. I have absolutely nothing to say on the topic of winter’s cyclamen, which looks like the origami craft disaster of a preschooler. Only a grandmother could love these cottage atrocities.

If you feel, after this hard summer, emotionally prepared for the hardship of vegetables, remember to prepare your soil or potting medium. My beds are currently hosting nothing but weeds and a few tragic reminders of my tomato tomfoolery. Actually, there’s also some horror show corn still left. I can’t even look, so I’ve decided not to, and have just had some good new soil and compost delivered to dump on top of the lot. This is not proper gardening, but I am a psychological husk who will, this weekend, force herself to shovel and then plant ordinary greenfeast peas and the very pretty heirloom, crimson-flowering broad beans.

If you have yourself self-sown, these legumes are a great gardening hit with children, who can see them grow from seed and tear apart the pods for in-garden consumption in a few months’ time. Please, don’t even bother to buy these legumes, including sugar snap or snow pea, in seedling form. Simply soak the seeds for a day and whack them in the ground. This easy-care plant, which will fill your bed or pot with nitrogen, will not suffer transplant shock and everyone can feel that great sense of mastery over nature. Which keeps us in the yard or on the balcony to do the harder slog of winter.

Now is the time for that discontent. Prune your roses, or plant new ones, and then fertilise them a few weeks later. I find that pelletised chook manure brings good results in spring, but fanatics prefer a customised food. Cut back your summer-bearing fruit trees if you haven’t done so already. Just generally slash a lot of bad stuff from your beds or containers, pop back a lot of good stuff, such as manure. I would tell you to collect your leaves and make mould or compost, but, frankly, I’m still a bit burnt by El Niño and it will be a midwinter miracle if I manage to get in any cabbages. Or those 50 discount tulip bulbs I bought on the internet after I’d been drinking. Officially, it’s too late for spring bulbs. But, I say, throw them in the freezer for a fortnight, then bury them in soil or potting medium enriched by manure which, I trust, you did not buy from the internet after drinking. I was sure that I didn’t order an entire cubic metre. But there is a steaming monument to this truth in my driveway.

The manure tells me it is time to return to the garden. The Bureau of Meteorology urges you similarly. Let’s potter resentfully this June. By September, we will be up to joyous armpits in soil that is no longer thirsty and flowers whose loveliness cannot be in doubt.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 4, 2016 as "The devil you Niño". Subscribe here.

Helen Razer
is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.