Sunday, September 21, 2014

Author and illustrator Tania McCartney

Greenery and roses surround the deck. Photography: Tania McCartney
A bountiful veggie patch is a must in Tania's garden. Photography: Tania McCartney
Tania McCartney is one of those awe-inspiring people who is amazing at whatever she turns her hand to. She writes, illustrates and designs books, blogs, flies around the country speaking at schools and author events, and looks after her two children. She has a swag of awards and credits to her name for both her adult and children's books, and she founded Kids' Book Review, the No. 1 children's literature website, as well as the 52-week Illustration Challenge, which is exhibiting in Western Australia later this year. Phew! When she's not busy with work, Tania and her family love to chill out in their pretty garden, on the outskirts of Canberra, where she plants bulbs, harvests home-grown veggies and finds magic in trees. 
See more at taniamccartney.blogspot.com.

What is the story of your garden?
Our garden was placed into grateful arms the moment we moved into our house in late January 2009.
We had been living in Beijing for four years, so to come from a grey, polluted, built-up city (albeit an
amazing one!) to this pristine patch of quiet on the outskirts of Canberra, was the most moving experience. The previous owners were owner-builders and obvious garden-lovers. They had created the most tranquil, inspiring outdoor space, with beautiful, thoughtfully-chosen plants, and all we had to do was move in and enjoy it.





Azaleas in shades of pink and box hedging. Photography: Tania McCartney
I could hardly believe my luck when we moved in. I have a particular affection for birch streets, tulip trees, Japanese maples and cyprus, and the garden features four to eight of each of these, as well as other established trees including a bay tree and a massive ash tree; I absolutely adore them all.
Other highlights of our garden include eight standard iceberg roses along the front of the property, the little border of box hedge running along the drive, a decent thatch of purple agapanthus and the mass of azaleas and hellebores in the large beds at the rear of the house. The hedging around the property is also a standout. We have smaller hedges along the front of the property and then at the rear, one side is a cyprus hedge and two sides are established photinia that stands at least 15-20-feet high and runs over 100 feet all up. Dividing our back yard is a magnificent pittosporum hedge that closes off a large, risen veggie patch and a small tree orchard containing nashi pear, peach and plum trees. There was also a lemon tree but it wasn’t in the best position and we removed it recently. We adore our veggie patch, and each year we harvest a farmers' market full of produce, from potatoes and beets to tomatoes, peas, cucumber, squash, zucchini and masses of herbs. We’ve not had much luck with carrots, but we’re determined!


The family veggie patch is tucked away behind a hedge. Photography: Tania McCartney
Tania's gorgeous daughter harvests some beetroot. Photography: Tania McCartney
As we live on a small mountain, right on the ACT border, the soil is shallow, heavy with clay and sitting on rock. This has made keeping lawn very difficult and we’ve been through many ups and downs, with varying types of lawn, including a full re-turfing that promptly died. Coupled with Canberra’s woeful rainfall, we’ve thrown in the towel and recently decided to faux turf the back yard. We hope to do this within the next six months. It’s the only patch of lawn on the property (thank goodness) and our 11-year-old boy Riley is football obsessed, so it makes sense to invest in faux turf, both for his enjoyment and in regard to water consumption. I honestly think faux turf or no lawn at all is the way of the future.One thing that struck me when we moved in was the lack of native plants. I’ve made it my mission to add some, without compromising the delicate balance of the garden. We’ve added many native grasses in the front garden beds, which are drenched in full sun and therefore need hardy, heat-tolerant plants like our newly-added pink kangaroo paw (am obsessed with it). I also adore bulbs of all incarnations. Last winter I hand-planted over 200 bulbs, which was a challenge in such rocky soil, and the result was spectacular. I’ve also added French lavender, because I simply can’t resist.We have two small parts of the garden that I feel don’t work well. One is a line-up of small camellias along the side fence that never grow but we literally have nowhere else to transplant them. Another is a small bed that frames the window of our lounge room—it has full, continuous sun and currently contains some heirloom-style roses that are pretty much all stem and thorn. I’d like to remove them and put something else in. How I would love a bank of hydrangea (my favourite flower) but there’s simply too much sun. I keep hydrangea in pots on our back decking, along with camellias, gardenias, ginger, herbs and small citrus trees. I’ve also tried growing two small crows nests in pots—I pilfered them from the garden of a dear friend on the Sunshine Coast and they’ve done surprisingly well in this climate. I’d like to keep more pots but I’m very work-focused and I need really low-maintenance plants for now.

Lavender adds a shot of purple to the garden. Photography: Tania McCartney
How has it changed over the years?
Looking back at photos, I hadn’t realised how much things had grown, particularly the maples and cyprus. The agapanthus have also swarmed and multiplied. We have a typically inland, bush climate, meaning each year is very different. We go from severe drought (mostly) to too much rain, so each year, different parts of the garden have both flourished and struggled. We’re a little heartbroken over our pittosporum hedge, which is on its way out. It’s done well for 10-15 years in situ, but sadly, these things have a shelf life and it’s not doing well. We’re still wondering what to replace it with, and may choose mock orange.
As mentioned before, the lawn has gone through ups and downs and will soon be removed, and our beautiful cyprus hedge has also thinned out considerably. Even though pretty much everything else is thriving, I’m really mindful of the fact that our weather will only become hotter and drier, so replacing water-loving with drought-tolerant plants is a must. This means my dream of having a cutting garden of flowers is unlikely. Lucky I adore succulents.

Agapanthus are a hardy and colourful option. Photography: Tania McCartney
The pittosporum hedge and a photinia hedge. Photography: Tania McCartney
How do you like to spend time in your patch?
We have hammocks in the back yard, right in the middle of the largest garden bed, and it’s a lovely shady spot for reading. The whole family also loves the veggie patch and we spend a lot of time in it through the warmer months. We have a gated front garden that’s like a little slice of heaven, with stepped decking that leads up to the master bedroom. It faces north so it’s a little hot in summer but the rest of the year, it’s a divine space for reading, and I’ve started doing morning yoga on the decking, too.

A hammock beckons in a shady corner. Photography: Tania McCartney
Basil ripe for the picking. Photography: Tania McCartney
Nashi pears fresh from the tree. Photography: Tania McCartney
How does your garden inspire you?
My writing studio overlooks the front garden, a small maple and bay tree. It’s consistently inspiring because it’s just so darn pretty. I have little flamingos in the patch outside my window, and they make me smile. I spend a lot of time photographing our garden through the seasons; it’s one of my favourite things to do. I’m always chronically busy, so I guess my greatest inspiration from the garden is a sense of beauty and calm. It’s so nice to earth ourselves in nature, and to have that possibility right outside my front door is amazing.

What are your must-haves for a garden?
Balanced beauty - from large, vibrant trees to dainty jonquils popping from the soil in spring. Fragrance. Variety. Privacy. Alternatively, dappled light, deep shade and bright, hot spots for native plants to thrive in. Somewhere the kids can run and play, and somewhere we can sit still and be silent. Bulbs bulbs bulbs. Hammocks. Somewhere pretty to eat and read. Being able to take cuttings and bring them inside to enjoy, from swathes of flouncy iceberg roses to budding plum-tree branches.

A visitor enjoys the blossom in Tania's garden. Photography: Tania McCartney
A pretty patch blooms along the fence line. Photography: Tania McCartney
All-time favourite plant?
Goodness! How to decide. My favourite flower is the hydrangea (and the peony) but the first thing that came to mind was ‘bulbs’, perhaps because they epitomise earthiness and the miracle of intense beauty from such humble foundations. But I think I’m a true tree girl - their majesty and might is humbling. There’s a tree on the Swan River in Perth that I fell in love with when I used to stay on overnights (as a flight attendant) and I used to climb up that tree and sit in a branch overhanging the water and just Be. Brings tears to my eyes at the thought of it. We also had a beautiful willow tree when I was a child (in Hobart) and we used to swing from a long, twisted branch. I cried inconsolably when the tree was cut down. Trees have true magic to them (one of my favourite series of all time is The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton) and even now, if I’m feeling doubtful or stressed or blue, sitting on the ground with my back to a tree is instantly healing and energising. I highly recommend it.

Tania is drawn to the majesty and strength of trees. Photography: Tania McCartney
Dappled light and maple leaves. Photography: Tania McCartney
Tania's new book, Tottie and Dot, illustrated by Tina Snerling (EK Books)