Saturday, January 20, 2007

Maria and I arrived in Melbourne on October 12th after a fascinating flower adventure in WESTERN AUSTRALIA ( see July’s article). Western Australia is one of the most remote biospheres on the planet and its plants have largely remained in a kind of time warp . Eastern Australia with its two competing urban centres Sydney and Melbourne is much closer in feel to Europe than W.A. Our base was in the suburbs of CLIFTON HILL, a northern suburb close to the city centre, an area of early 20th century houses and gardens crisscrossed by motorways and railways. Within this once industrialised region parks and walking paths have been carved out often following the routes of rivers , such as the Merri , a tributary of the Yarrow , Melbourne’s’ main. River

From this very contained and urbanised vantage point we made our observations of the garden plants around us. The areas of observations were what people grow in their in suburban gardens, what was growing in the wild places adjacent to those gardens, what was being promoted in the public spaces such as new gardens in botanic gardens and who are the movers and shakers in the Australian gardening world. Beside these observations we managed to visit some famous private gardens.
1.Melbournes suburban gardens
The ordinary private gardens of Melbourne come straight out of European tradition . the picture of the formal chic garden in the picture is common in the wealthy suburbs of Toorak. The only native thing here is the bluestone rock of Melbourne. The box hedges , tumbling iceberg roses, privet balls, spiralling conifers are all part of the international formal garden palate. I have no criticism of this style . Here it is beautifully executed but it is not an Australian garden. It is a French garden.
Over a period of three weeks I saw no unique Australian suburban garden. They are there but largely to be found within the pages of Australian garden design magazines.


Figure 1 Melbourne chic front garden.
While the suburban gardens of Melbourne cling to their European parents the surrounding wastelands amongst these suburbs are welcoming with open arms any plant that wishes to escape from the confines of the picket fence or railing. A cycle up the narrow gorge of the River Merri and one finds oneself in familiar company. This cycle could be like a trip down the Dodder in Rathgar or Terenure on a spring morning . Both rivers flow through an urban landscape, are somewhat polluted and are dominated by willow . The willows proliferate rapidly along the banks of both rivers but in Ireland they are loved “ Down by the Sally Gardens “ and all that Yeatsian romanticism. In Melbourne they are an intruder, a destroyer of native habitats. On weekends” barbies” are organized for the many volunteer groups that try to eliminate this weed. To my mind it is all a little late . It is good to save native habitats but where they are gone it is futile to try and reestablish them . Nature is far too powerful. The Merri creek has changed utterly from the time that it was the meeting place of the Aborigine people .Crisscrossed by
Figure 2 fennel and friends
roads and bridges the resultant concrete debris now cascades down its steeps embankments and nature in a sense of decorum has rushed to cover the littering offense . It is ironical that it is the alien species from Europe that are to the forefront in doing such a wonderful cover-up; vincas, vetch, the perennial pea ,ivies and fennel in great swathes sprout in massive bunches sufficient for thousands of fish restaurants. The native species is represented in a token way by the zamnia. These plants are there to stay and the native species will be pushed further and further into the bush where many Australians in their gardening minds think they truly belong. This is maybe an extreme view but one founded on conversations with many Australians.
It is in the garden centers and nurseries that the public show their gardening tastes . Many garden centres carry a small section of native plants but they would not be amongst the best sellers . I asked in one garden centre about this . The expert in the garden centre felt that native species were “too bushy” Also he felt that Australians were a little unsure about how to garden properly with them . They are plants that need to contained by cutting them back , but most people don’t and they become far too dominant in the garden, like setting a wild thing free amongst the better garden worthy plants. One could appreciate this when one experienced the spread of tea trees in the National Park in Wilson’s
Figure 3Pimelea ferrugenea.
Figure 4Teatrees prime material for bush fire.

There are native nurseries in the Melbourne region . There were two last October but now there is only one. We visited the Kuranga NATIVE NURSEY just prior to its closing down . The nursery was choc a bloc with native species and here with a few photographs, and since this is a plant magazine, let me show a few of the botanical jewels that make up the Australian flora.
Figure 5Kurranga native nursery a verysmall selection of native plants calllistemon on the left amidst the blues of lechenaultia and the pale blues of the trigger plants ,three very popular plants in Australia.
The owner , a friendly talkative woman in her thirties , looked sadly out at the passing traffic and reflected that the Australia public was committed to consumerism and was not interested in buying and celebrating native species in their gardens even though they were much more suited to the soil and the environment . They preferred the high consumption of scarce water resources in maintaining the traditional garden. That was why she was forced to sell up and embrace the hippy dream in the outback.
Further out from Melbourne was another more commercial successful native plant nursery, complete with coffee shop and all the ethnic paraphernalia that goes with the local . It was well supported and had only native plants so there is seemingly a future for the native species as garden plants.
I’ll end with a brief comparison of two contrasting gardens . One is the Robinsonian garden of Nooroo ,high in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney . Even though it is hidden away amongst the eucalyptus forests it is garden that could be an Australian Fernhill or Mount Usher .The roads and Gardens are filled with exotics from all parts of the world , all possible because of the cool climate and the high rainfall. Here glades and pathways are ablaze with the garlands of wisteria, the cherry pinks, the delicate leaves of acers and the voluptuous blooms of rhododendrons and azaleas. The woodland floors are carpeted with bluebells, bugle and spring irises. For us it was like home an irish garden but reproduced in an Australian way. Then we were biased
Figure 6 NOOROO GARDENS " a shady place" . This woodland gazebo view was made into an Australian stamp.
Figure 7Kuranga
Figure 8 The commercially successful native plant nursery.
The second garden is the Karawarra Australian plant garden found in the MT. Dandenong Range north of Melbourne. It is a woodland garden . Soil is clay ,an exception in this largely ericaceous area. To contrast with the rather smoky impression of the shrubs much use is made of the white bark of eucalyptus, and the use of rocks and seats and sheds and cut logs to create focus and context.
Only disappointment was the lack of plant identification as the tags were not replaced when the shrubs had outgrown them.
Australian gardens have yet to achieve their own unique identity but there is a sign that Australian art is ponting the way to a new Australian garden consciousness. In my next article I will explore the influence of Australian art on the new exciting project in the Cranbourne Botanic Gardens.
Figure 9 These are all native plant species in the Australian plant garden . It has the same relaxed feel as the Nooroo garden but with native species, It shows the way to go for Australian gardens.
On the atlas, there it is, Australia a vast island slowly floating northwards parting the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A vast desert at its heart, while on its ocean coastlines a rim of diverse floral regions abound. If one was to build great garden reflecting the great diverse flora of the continent, how big would it have to be and would it be feasible?
This is, like one of those classroom projects where a project is trying to reflect a reality on a 1 to 1 basis e.g. having a map on a 1to 1 scale. Impossible and impractical I hear you say. What about some kind of reduced world?- a Lilliputian representation . Then we are merely moving into a disneyfication of reality . Disney World despite its charm and appeal to childhood does not make good gardens.
Great gardens are usually powered by a vision, an understanding of mans’ relationship to nature. Man’s power and control over nature is evident in the great gardens of France, Vaux le Vicomte, and Versailles …. , while the English Landscaped garden is reflective of a harmony between man and nature. Wordsworth and Capability Brown are kindred spirits.
In my two previous articles I explored the search by Australian gardeners to create gardens typical of an Australian flora .An Australian garden should only have Australian plants. What if one started from such an extreme premise?. It is not a statement of gardening jingoism but in these environmentally aware times it may be the right thing to do, right plant in the right place , a garden that recreated and represented the Australian species in their own habitats. Cranbourne is such a garden and is the brainchild of the director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens Dr. Phil Moors.
The Australian Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne was opened in May 2006 to great acclaim, has won many architectural prizes and is now one of the most visited sites in Australia.
As a prequel to this great public success ,our own private odyssey through some personal contacts, found us as guests of Phil and his charming wife Debbie and were given a behind the scenes tour of the Cranbourne site in October 2005.
Six months away from a grand opening the main outlines of the garden was nearing completion ,the visitors’ centre , the vast red central desert garden, the spectacular Rockpool Waterway which has the greatest and longest sculptural piece ,standing like a great escarpment beside the waterway.
Now as I write on New Year’s Eve 2006 Cranbourne is a wonderful success and can be viewed, with wonderful descriptions of the design and plants on the very comprehensive website. Just load and even on the internet marvel at the great achievement of it.
I was there before it was finally completed and I give only a viewpoint as a garden thinker reflecting on what I saw. Time has elapsed so therefore this piece will tend to be more reflectively intellectual rather being preoccupied with plant nomenclature. Those plants are on the website.

Most great gardens have one viewing point be it from a terrace or great windows looking south or from some great height where the maker looks back at the great achievement of it all. Cranbourne doesn’t disappoint on the viewpoints. It has many.
The central viewpoint is from the VISITORS CENTRE, not a great house but having more the look of a stockade. The publicity states that the “weathered timbered building has been designed to give tree top experience for visitors” It is now among the trees , probably a reference to those frontier days. The wooden building is louvered throughout keeping it naturally cool thus saving on expensive air conditioning plant already anticipating the immanent era of low carbon footprints.
From parapets and windows one looked out on a mini botanical Australia stretching to a blue horizon. The Red desert Garden , seemingly natural, was as deliberately constructed as an Elizabethan knot garden . Carefully built sand crescents , presumably made of man made materials and then encrusted with sand . ON the plains were salt ceramic sculptures representing the salt lakes of dry regions. The artist worked from templates informed by aerial pictures. Here was art taking a lesson from nature. The space was drawing literally from something Australian _ an Australian sensibility once rooted in a European view of nature, now turning to an Australian vision.
While visiting the NGV Art gallery in Melbourne I discovered the landscapes of the Australian Artist Fred Williams. The garden before me had the same feel
Williams has been described “as Australia’s greatest landscape artist. Williams clarifies our vision develops our understanding, defines our land” Here is a landscape reminiscent or maybe informed by Australia’s modern artists, a garden that in its own mission statement has a touch of that visionary approach.
Where are the plants? They are now there and here I am merely repeating the website.
“ –mass plantings of Acacia binervia and spinifex sericeus are used to stabilise the sandhills. The lower slopes are covered by a carpet of muntries (Kunzea pomifera), the fruit used for food by the Aborigines.”
The description continues with a plant inventory of the red rockery which overlooks the desert space on the west. I include these plants since this is garden plant publication.
“ planting in this area includes the Albany Daisy, Kangaroo Paw ( a plant that can be seen in the car park of Fernhill Gardens Co. Dublin) , Pincushions, Pineapple Bush, Rope rush, Grass tree and other rockery plants.”
When we were there this central Red Garden was devoid of plants and could only be viewed from the terrace of the Visitors’ centre. It was a space for reflection, a necessary quiet moment before one began to explore the garden.
From this initial quiet we turned to the spectacularly active ROCKPOOL WATERWAY, which is representative of the river landscapes of Eastern Australia .Framed by a slope of newly planted Australian red smooth-barked Apple( Angophora costata) , three fountains bubbled up in a great white spume of water . The resulting stream gushes down over a computer designed surfaced stream made up of square concrete pavers. These are of three different thicknesses Some are seemingly level with the water level, others are submerged and some pavers stand above the water , inviting a child or even an adult to walk across, but then like an 18th century garden joke the water increases in flow and the unsuspecting sojourner turns and runs to the bank with their feet wet. “No worries” .It is Australia not Ireland.
Stone seats provide a chance to enjoy the stream but there is more, much more. The river is dominated by a monolithic iron cliff. This is an iron sculpture stretching the length of the stream. Here one moves into superlatives. It is reported to be the longest and largest sculpture in the world. It seems like a large Redstone one sided canyon something that Ned Kelly might have spent along lifetime forging. It is a tour de force of sculpture within a garden setting. When one arrives at the source pool one looks back up the stream
Figure 1 ceramic tiled flat sculptures representing salt lakes.
Figure 2 Spumes of water herald the beginning of the stream. The Visitor’s Centre is in the background.
Figure 3 The monolithic sculpture overlooks the computer driven stream.
Figure 4 The end of the sculpture. Note the fine finishes to all the surfaces: the waterfall, the copper pipes in the sculpture, the steel decking and the gabions at the end of the slope
Figure 4 The end of the sculpture. Note the fine finishes to all the surfaces: the waterfall, the copper pipes in the sculpture, the steel decking and the gabions at the end of the slope
Figure 5 Master of all he sees. Director Phil Moors explains the concepts of the project.
Figure 6 A grass tree (Xanthorrhoea) is nurtured by a little copper piping back to robust health.
Figure 7 The already maturing rock garden representative of the flat land river environments.
Figure 8 The garden's burgeoning nursery .There are over 100,000 plants in the planted up garden.
, it is cascading in a loud torrent down its course and then it slows to a quiet flow and the final waterfall caught by the wind collapses into a small wave. Silence.
Now we climbed onto the northern hills (man made) to view the central Red Garden from the other side the native saltbush was planted into hessian to contain sandy soil. The hill was topped by a deep recessed waddi complete with a termite mound.
There was a constant reminder that this was garden in the face of nature’s incompatibility to any plant imposition on it. Trying to shape dry river beds on slopes with plastic edgings ended with the plastic fraying buckling and breaking. Ancient transported Grass trees and patently very expensive found it difficult to adapt to the sand. Luckily they were saved by gentle watering. When we were there, there were coils of fine water tubing at the base of each Grass tree. To make sure every tree was at home all the trunks were fire blackened.
From viewing the website all these adaptation problems seem to have been successfully sorted. We turned toward the Visitor’s Centre and we were now passing through the well planted Western Australian Rock Garden and like a home key in a piece of music we were returning to the familiar flora of our first few weeks ( see article in July edition)Darwinias , boronias leschenaultia, melaleucas and so on ----. Seeing these flowering plants one had a sense of seasonality not that emphasised in Australia’s flora .
We were fortunate to experience a great gardening project near its completion – the creation of a unique Australian gardening aesthetic- sustainable and ecological.
Is there a lesson for us here in Ireland? Could one foresee a great Irish Garden project representative of all our unique habitats bog lands, woodlands, fields, hedges mountainsides? The Botanic Gardens have an educational mini version, but for the present let us protect and cherish our own native habitats.