Archive | February 2016

The humble Oleander

The oleander is a much under-valued shrub, but it can be found all over Australia  in public places such as cemeteries, churchyards and old parks,  as well as being used as a street tree, often on beach fronts. The fact that it is poisonous in every part puts people off planting it in their gardens  I think, and yet it gives such a wonderful, colourful display right through summer and into autumn and lives happily while being completely neglected, in every type of soil.  There is no need for the home gardener to worry about cultivating it as sensible precautions such as wearing gloves  when working with oleanders  and disposing of prunings carefully will ensure there are no ill-effects.

 

After seeing oleanders in Seville,  Spain which were being grown as trees with a single trunk, I decided that this is what I would like to do in my own garden.  My oleander is only just over a year old and it's as determined to be a many-trunked shrub as I am for it to be a tree, doggedly putting out shoots as quickly as I take them off. I'm not sure at the moment who is winning, but I think I may just have the edge.  For the time being, anyway.

Until recently I believed that the oleander is related to the olive tree but it seems that this may not be correct and that people think this because of the similarity in the leaves.  This makes sense really, because of course olives are not poisonous, even though their fruit is very bitter until it has gone through a pickling process.  The Greek word for olive is olea which  forms the beginning of oleander.

There is a story I like about how the oleander got its name.  A young man called Leander was in love with a Greek damsel, but sadly he was drowned in a ferocious storm at sea.  Finding his body on the shore with a flower clutched in his hand, she cried 'Oh Leander, Oh Leander'.  She planted the cutting and it grew-an everlasting memory of their love.

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Where did all this start?

In 1999 my husband and I  purchased a couple of tired sheep paddocks in a narrow valley surrounded by high hills 20 km from the town of Mudgee in the Central West of New South Wales. We had lived in the Inner West of Sydney for 30 years and had miniscule garden, but longed to experience living in the country.

Although we didn't realise it at the time of purchase, the fact that the land bordered the Cudgegong River was gold in this often very hot and dry area.  During our inspection we had noticed the clear swift stream and admired it, but it wasn't until later we realised how important it would be to us.  After our purchase, we set about building a house and creating what we hoped would be a beautiful place to live, making a huge garden and planting  olive trees.

It was a very steep learning curve for an ex-banker and an ex-schoolteacher.  We had never been involved with  irrigation, water licences, tractors and the like, but learn  we did, and loved every moment of it.

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During our time on the farm we planted over one thousand trees.  Of these,  500 were olive trees.  Quite how we went from a plan of living in the country with 'a couple of olives' to 500, I've never been quite sure, but that is what we did, with every hole being dug by hand and every tree being nurtured as if it were the only one.  There was often great disappointment as kangaroos would use the little trees as sparring partners, and quite often we would find one broken off at almost ground level.  But olives are very resilient indeed and the poor little stumps would regrow and eventually, after some years, almost all of the 500 were out of danger.  Our first harvest was very exciting, and sitting the front veranda in the sunset, absolutely exhausted after picking all day (not missing a solitary olive) and dipping  crusty bread into our own peppery oil was a very special moment indeed.

We were very lucky that our neighbours had an olive press, where we could have our olives processed,  because speed is of the essence when dealing with olives.  The longer the olives  sit around before pressed, the less likely the oil is to be extra virgin and extra virgin olive oil is the olive farmer's aim.  Our olives were pretty much straight off the tree and into the press.

That first harvest took one day, but our best harvest took two weeks even with the help of friends and family!

 

We had this property for 15 years and during this time I learnt a great deal (but not everything) about gardening in a harsh climate: about which plants could survive temperatures from -8 to 40 degrees celsius, and which could tolerate lengthy periods of dry weather.

With a water licence and plentiful water from the river, we were able to maintain our garden and trees through the most challenging weather, but eventually the dragging around of hoses in boiling weather (amongst other things) got the better of us, and we decided to sell and move into the town of Mudgee.