In our garden: Perennial Hill

Passionate plant lovers Julie and Craig Hulbert decamped from Sydney to the cooler climes of the Southern Highlands to create the garden they’d always wanted.

Words: Robin Powell and Julie Hulbert
Pictures: Robin Powell

In 2000 Julie and Craig Hulbert built a new house in an old style on a steep but sunny site on the Gib in Mittagong and set about creating the garden they’d always wanted.

Fifteen years later friends convinced them that what they had made was worth sharing with others, and the garden is now open every weekend in October, November and December, closed for a short break over Christmas and open again on weekends in January, February and March and for the local autumn festival on April 22 and 23.

It’s unusual for a garden to be open through summer rather than spring, but summer is the season when the perennials Julie loves are at their peak. In the garden’s division of labour (the couple do all the work themselves) Julie manages the perennial borders. She also does all the watering in the couple’s nursery of rare and unusual plants propagated from what’s in the garden, which are sold on-site and at the local Bowral weekend market. Craig does all the building in the garden, of walls, and structures and fences, while also building collections of cupheas, ornamental oxalis and elderberries.

The Hulbert’s garden has been inspired by the great flowers gardens of England, which draw the couple on a biennial fact-finding mission. Their favourites include Hidcote and Great Dixter, as well as the Bloom family’s Bressingham Gardens and Sue Beesley’s Bluebell Cottage Gardens. While these all offer inspiration, Julie and Craig find their own way of translating that into gardens that suit them, and their site. Here Julie tells us what keeps her busy in the garden in winter.

Perennial Hill owner, Julie Hulbert

We’re making supports

Craig makes the structures and supports we use in the garden. There are willow obelisks and cloches, and hurdles of Lombardy poplar, as well as really useful plant supports that mean I don’t need to tie anything in – the floppy perennials can just lounge against the supports. We’ll be making more of those this winter. Craig also does all the stonework in the garden, from walls to floors.

Pruning the hydrangeas

We have about 15 different varieties of hydrangea in the garden, from the low-growing patio types, some of which are in pots, to really tall types that tower overhead with enormous blooms. They are mostly under the shade of deciduous trees, heavily mulched as they love moisture. The trick with hydrangeas is that they want the protection from the sun offered by trees, but they don’t want to be sheltered from the rain as they love to be moist. So you can’t win and we have to water them. In the winter they are pruned back to two fat buds, and every few years we give them a hard prune, back to about 30-40cm tall. That allows us to get into the clumps and remove any old and dead wood and open them up a bit.

Hydrangias

I’m propagating

I love propagating. The thrill of watching something grow never diminishes. Most of the perennials in the garden I propagate by division. So in the late autumn or winter when they have died down, I dig them up and divide them. Some people put them straight back into the garden, but I prefer to pot each piece up, and let it establish a really good root system in the pot before I re-plant. The spares are sold at the markets, or here at the nursery. I also take cuttings, though I leave most of the hardwood cuttings to Craig, and I germinate from seed, though my success rate isn’t as high for that, as you have to get the watering just right to be successful. I have two bits of advice for success with propagating – try anything, you never know your luck, and get set up first. Success really depends on having mix to hand, and pots and somewhere to put the pots out of the sun, and the time to water them until they establish.

Stunning and unusual, Eryngium

To do

Mulch the prunings and fallen leaves. These are then composted to go back on the garden and feed it. Only the eucalypt twigs and bark are put into the green bin.

Plan our next trip – every few years we travel overseas when the garden is closed in the winter and look at other gardens. Our next trip is in 2018, when we’ll be joining a symposium at the wonderful Great Dixter.

Re-plan some things into bigger groups, as mass plantings have a better impact.

Collect leaves for the compost. We let nature feed the garden so we enrich the soil at planting time with compost, then mulch, and that feeds the plant.

Scour seed catalogues, including Jelitto from Germany and Chiltern in the UK, for new plants we’d like to grow.

I’m making changes

The garden is open for two long periods through the year, from early spring through to a Christmas break, and then again from early January until autumn. That means that plants have to look good and perform well over a long period. It also means that we are always changing things up and taking things out that aren’t working as we’d hoped. I am constantly assessing how thing are going as I walk around with a coffee, or doing the watering, and I take lots of photos to help me remember. You really need that historic record or you forget how things were. This winter I want to make some changes in my mixed borders. The plume poppy, Macleaya cordata, has walked forward to the front of the border from the back, and I need to put it back. That won’t be easy as the roots are difficult to remove, so once I get it in place, I’ll put in a metal barrier around the roots to stop it happening again. Also there’s a salvia in there, S. guaranitica, that has spread too far and is taking over. It’s time for that to go too.

Learn more

Julie runs monthly full-day propagation workshops that detail three basic techniques for growing perennials. The day is about hands-on learning, and includes morning tea and lunch, tuition notes and a 10 per cent discount on plants from the nursery. Contact Julie at www.perennialhill.com.au for details of upcoming workshops.

Plants to propagate in winter

Phlox
Border phlox are upright bushy perennials that are a staple in my garden, in sun and part shade. I have a number of different colours. Propagate by division.

Phlox

Golden rod
People think of this as a weed, but the dwarf variety of Solidago canadensis isn’t weedy, forms a good mound and has a brilliant form and colour. Propagate by division.

Golden Rod

Achillea
I use yarrow in a number of different colours. It needs well-drained soil and is another one that’s easy to propagate by division.

Achillea

Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’
People think of crocosmia as a weed, but this one isn’t weedy at all. It grows from a corm, with grassy foliage and arching sprays of flowers. I divide up the corms in winter.

Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’

Salvia ‘Celestial Blue’
Of my 120-odd salvias I think this is my favourite. It has candelabra-like whorls of mauve flowers that are reminiscent of phlomis. Propagate by cuttings.

Salvia ‘Celestial Blue’

Eryngium
This is a great self-seeder. I collect the seedlings and pot them up, and also collect the seed. My favourite variety is ‘Oxford Blue’ for its rich blue flowers and variegated foliage.

Eryngium

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