Monday, December 8, 2008

Acquisitions from Lambley

Echinops ritro 'Veitch's Blue'

How likely was it that I would leave Lambley without a little clutch of plants in hand? Very unlikely is of course the answer. At least these days I am a little more restrained. I had thought about what I would like prior to arriving so that I could resist the siren song of other plants who wish to tempt me with their promise of beautiful bloom, foliage or scent.

So I thought I'd share with you my acquisitions and their companions that they will meet in my tiny front garden.

My son chose Kniphofia "Ascot Lemon" which by a small miracle fitted in with my plans - if you've ever tried to dissuade a 7 year old from his line of thinking you will know what a relief this is. He has no interest in my plans for the garden and on the way to school was gasping at the sheer beauty of a garish gladioli the other day - not one of my favourite garden plants, I confess. I hurried him past.

But back to my acquisitions; I managed to get my hands on a single plant of Echinops ritro 'Veitch's blue' (above) which as quickly as it appears in the catalogue is gone. You can see why, I hope it thrives in my garden.

My other choices were:

To go with my existing plants which include:
The tall and feathery - clockwise from L to R Urginea maritima (Sea squill), Stipa gigantea, Perovskia 'Filigrin'
and Verbascum olympicum

The shrubby and the strappy - clockwise from L to R Hemerocallis Stella D'oro, Santolina chamaecyparissus 'Nana',
Agapanthus 'Snow Storm' and Euphorbia griffithii

And beneath those my ground hugging friends:

Groundcovers - clockwise from L to R convolvulus sabatius, the silky soft artemisia
pedemontana and natives Wahlenbergia communis and Brachyscome multifida

At this stage all my plants are immature so I have not included photos of my own plot, so now it is a waiting game .... I shall report on developments.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Garden Bliss

An olive underplanted with Salvia Nemorosa 'Blauhugel' (syn.S. 'Blue Hills'), the spires of
Acanthus mollis in the background

We’ve had a week of insane weather – last Saturday I awoke to rain, hail and wind and winter temperatures but by Tuesday we were back to fine spring weather and as my Mum was visiting from New Zealand I decided that we’d take a little family jaunt out to Lambley Nursery and Gardens. So we packed a picnic and ourselves into the car and headed off.

I've been having a very hectic time of late and I couldn't have made a better decision. The day as you can see was perfect, the garden sparkling and there were only a few people about. My son made friends with Jedda the Labrador dog (picnic lunch nevers goes astray in making friends with a lab) and they both lounged beneath a cherry tree while Mum and I explored the gardens.

I not only take my hat off to David Glenn his wife the artist Criss Canning and the nursery staff but deliver them a low sweeping bow. How they maintain such a magnificent garden in such trying conditions is quite beyond me. The garden and nursery are located on the Western Plains of Victoria where the climate is by any estimation harsh. Strong winds, heavy frosts, searing heat - all are factors at various times of the year. And yet the plants thrive through all of this while receiving only three to four (deep) waterings a year.

Of course the plant selection is masterful. The plants on offer are great performers in difficult conditions. This is not always so of plants I have sourced. There is nothing worse than buying a plant or plants which one believes to be suitable to certain conditions to find that it will in fact only perform well when molly coddled within an inch of its (or your) life. "Good doers" is what most of us require in a plant but in our dreams the doers are magnificent, beautiful and breath taking and this is what Lambley provides.

Plant selection is assisted through David Glenn's concise descriptions in the catalogue and on plant labels. He gives the most useful information not only about colour but plant form, soil requirements and drought tolerance.

But back to the wonderful the garden - the garden is contained by a tall hedge and structure is provided by this and judicially placed olives and cypress trees. At this time of year the garden's colour palette is awash in blues and purple tones with large blocks of salvias, lavender and globular heads of alliums. Contrasting tones of yellow and silver are also a prominent feature.

One of the most interesting things I find about the garden is the skillful plant combinations. During our visit I found a couple of plants which individually did not have much appeal for me but in combination with others their appeal was vastly boosted. Usually I find for me this works in reverse I can be sucked in the by appeal of an individual plant but find that unless I have the right visual companions the individual beauty is diminished.

Ixia amethystina and with the exquisite Yucca rostrata, Salvia nemorosa ssp tesquiccola and Allium

As in many parts of my life I need to learn to suspend judgement. In this example I found the colour of this plant quite jarring and almost unnatural. I was about to dismiss it but when I walked around and viewed it from another angle I found it had a very worthwhile contribution to make to a grouping. As illustrated the complimentary and contrasting forms and colours worked beautifully. I think I've said before this whole plant combination lark can be very challenging - an artist's eye like Criss Canning's is helpful.

An on that note I shall say no more but let the pictures do the talking. Except to say that David Glenn's garden notes on the Lambley website are worth a look for more detailed information.

Cynara scolymus 'Romanesco' Purple Globe Artichoke, Lupinus lonifolius to the right and

Acanthus mollis at the rear

Amongst others the remarkable red spires of Beschorneria septentrionalis or False Red Agave

Salvia sclarea collected in the Taurus mountains in Turkey - "to my mind the best of its race" David Glenn

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Delights of Mail Order

Lambley Dry Garden

I have to admit I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to plant mail order catalogues. Even if I'm not ordering I love to leaf through those catalogues and read up on the virtues of new or newly included plant varieties. I don't receive many catalogues and there are only really a couple that get my heart racing but all the same my delight at opening my letterbox and discovering the latest issue has arrived is really quite delicious.

I remember when I was in the UK reading an article by Christopher Lloyd on his pleasure at this too. Of course in his case he was ordering vast quantities of seeds for his magnificent "
Great Dixter". I like to imagine him in a wing tipped armchair with a rug over his knees poring through the catalogues - all a bit Charles Dickens I know but if you've ever visited "Great Dixter" you'll know why my imagination runs away with me.

My two top poring catalogues here in Australia are the catalogue from
Lambley Nursery just outside Ballarat in Victoria and The Diggers Club Catalogue - which I love because not only do I get a garden plant fix but also a magnificent array of fruit and vegetables which I like to imagine growing in my garden. This unfortunately is not possible due to the size and shady nature of my yard but all the same I can dream.

My poring over catalogues usually does include sneaking off to a quiet corner somewhere cup of tea or coffee in hand and letting my own imagination run away with me. Many of the plants that I coo over are not necessarily terribly fashionable here in Australia at the moment. I've always had a bit of a penchant for large swathes of colourful or textural plants a la
Piet Oudolf or Oehme and Van Sweden. I get my fix on this front through the Lambley catalogue.

If you're in the Melbourne area the garden itself is worth a visit - how they do what they do in those dry, windswept western plains makes me wonder. What I love about their catalogue is that I know the plants have been tested in the most trying of conditions and if they're grown in the "
Dry Garden" they are incredibly tough and drought tolerant. That is always my complaint with some nursery grown plants that are used to a high level of water and cosseting and expect the same in the average suburban garden - and frankly they're just not going to get it.

Our handsome but expensive Halloween Pumpkin

The Diggers Catalogue always has an interesting array of plants and fruit and vegetables and also includes useful articles. Sometimes I must admit my musings are quite fantastical - for example lately my dreaming has turned to pumpkins - my son has a passion for Halloween and last week I found and paid a ridiculous amount for a large orange pumpkin which the vendor told me was a Canadian pumpkin. An American friend of mine informed me that in the US this is the only type called a pumpkin and that everything else we call pumpkins are in fact what they call squash. I saved the seeds from my magnificent pumpkin with thoughts of planting them but then turned to the catalogue and found such a magnificent array of pumpkin/squash that I had visions of tearing out all the plants in my minute front garden and just having pumpkins rambling everywhere ....

Some of the pumpkin delights from Digger's Club

So this is why I love a catalogue because not only does it feed the practical but also the fantastical which sometimes is so much more fun.

PS If anyone knows of any magnificent catalogues to add to my obsession please let me know!

I also must include this link to a recipe from my friend Bea who lives in Boston and has a rather fantastic food blog called La Tartine Gourmande - this particular recipe is for
curried winter squash soup and even if you're not much of a cook - her magnificent autumnal photos are worth a look.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Vertical Gardens (Part 2)

The succulent vertical garden from the Metropolitan Home article

The winter blues must have snared me and now it is spring. I'm back. There are good smells in the air. The trees blossom and then send out their beautiful green shoots and the weather warms up. A good time for gardens, a good time for me.

I promised another entry on Vertical Gardens. Recently I visited the Wall at Melbourne Central and was distraught to see that many of the plants had died. Hmmm not a good advertisement for the vertical garden. Why was this I thought to myself, lack of water, lack of nutrients? I don't think lack of light as the plants chosen looked suitable specimens. I had heard that the installation of vertical gardens is difficult and that Patrick Blanc was one of the few who was successful at it but in this case not so. Perhaps not enough had gone into the planning of the maintenance behind the wall. Anyway it alerted me to the difficulty of such a project.

Despite this I have been looking at two little vertical garden projects myself. One for a client whose neighbour has built the most enormous wall between the two properties. In this densely built part of Melbourne it is usual to have a good overhead height fence between properties as we live in terrace houses which run long and thin and share walls and a little backyard privacy is relished. A normal height for a fence would be about 180cm or 6 foot, perhaps with some trellis at the top. This fence is probably 250cm tall ... (I'm not sure what that is in feet) but the result is that it feels horribly forboding and overbearing. So I was discussing with my client what we could do to soften it. We discussed the idea of a vertical garden - she had read an article in the newspaper by designer
Jim Fogarty and was quite taken with the idea.

There are a couple of things to overcome before we embark on such a project. The first is that a vertical garden needs to be built out from the fence - a waterproof membrane between the actual vertical structure to protect it, and in front of this a very solidly engineered framework on which to attach the growing medium and plants. As you can imagine that once water is added and plants the weight of the vertical garden is considerable. In my client's little backyard there is a fold out washing line in front of the fence that cannot be moved elsewhere - providing our first problem lack of horizontal space.
Jim Fogarty's column referred to the Elmich Green Wall system which does somewhat seem to simplify the whole installation providing a solution to framework issues but doesn't solve my horizontal space problem.

The second challenge is water or rather the lack of it. A vertical garden requires a drip installation system of water and usually nutrients to ensure its wellbeing. Before long we shall be on water restrictions which will not allow for any use of mains water in the garden. Without another source of water either a tank for collection of run-off from the roof or a grey-water treatment system a vertical garden would not last long. Again despite the plethora of various water systems including rain water tanks and grey water treatment systems, space and cost are an issue.

Having said that I was interested to see an article in Metropolitan Home on a succulent vertical garden which they claim requires only occasional spritzing from the hose. It was a rather beautiful installation. I was quite taken with it and am thinking of doing a similar installation as a little roof garden and when I say little I mean little - the roof of my dog kennel - project number 2 of a very minor nature! The dog rarely sits in the kennel and I'm tired of looking at the rather unattractive roof of it. I like the idea that the roof would insulate the structure too - cool in summer, warm in winter - foolishly thinking that my wee pooch will suddenly prefer the kennel over the house. I also like the idea of a little test run before unleashing (ooh excuse the pun) myself on clients with my ideas.

So as you can see I'm still very much working through the practicalities myself but hopefully shortly I shall come to a suitable solution for the aforementioned fence and be able to feast my eyes upon an abundant succulent roof!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Vertical Gardens - the work of Patrick Blanc (Part 1)

The gardens of Patrick Blanc clockwise from top left - Caixa Forum Madrid, Musee du Quai Branly Paris, Siam Paragon Shopping Center Bangkok, detail Musee du Quai Branly, Paris

I'm not sure when it was that I came across the vertical gardens of Patrick Blanc but I was immediately struck by their beauty and quite intrigued by their construction and the ideas behind them.

The vertical garden probably most known by Australians but ironically the least seen is in the Qantas first class lounge in Sydney. A collaboration with the designer Marc Newson many images of it have been displayed in various publications. Alas alack I am unlikely ever to set foot in the vicinity. So it was with particular delight that I saw as part of the Melbourne International Design Festival that Patrick Blanc would be creating a work in one of Melbourne's shopping centres and in addition giving a lecture on his work.

So one cold Friday night a couple of weeks ago I set off to attend Patrick Blanc's lecture. I had thought that perhaps his work was a bit of a niche interest but no - the lecture theatre gradually filled to almost overflowing with interested Melburnians.

He was duly introduced and took the stage - a visual delight in a black leather suit, fetchingly set off with a white shirt with a green leafy pattern and the whole ensemble topped and tailed by green shoes and black hair with a slash of green through it - it was worth leaving my warm home for the mere sight of him!

Patrick Blanc

With great energy he took the stage and began his talk on his gardens. He was quick to point out that he is not a designer but a "scientist". A botanist in fact who has travelled the world primarily in tropical regions and has studied the plants that grow on steep slopes and in the understory of tropical rainforest.

The fascinating thing about all this is that many of the plants he spoke of are often those most cosseted by us in our gardens and here they were, some living in quite extreme positions and conditions with neither great soil conditions nor constant water. As many of the photos were taken in tropical regions some of these plants are more commonly known as "houseplants" and are used for his indoor vertical gardens in cooler climates but others were quite hardy. Some of these common plants included hydrangeas, begonias, alocasias, cycads and various ferns.

He illustrated his talk of how nature's vertical gardens grow showing us examples of some very common plants which take on a quite extraordinary and somehow more beautiful arrangement when tumbling down a rock wall or similar.

It reminded me of how useful it is to know not only where plants originate but where they naturally exist. And for many it is on steep slopes particularly when they come from countries where any flat land has been cultivated for centuries confining the natural flora to the non-arable land. The other thing to note of course is that with plants taken straight from nature you are working with species rather than hybrids which are often developed to enhance characteristics that we prize more highly in our garden plants such as flower colour and size.

The Vertical Garden at Melbourne Central

So a few days aftern the lecture I visited Melbourne Central to view his latest work. As it had been completed only the day of the lecture I was keen to see it before it was fully grown to see how the entire structure works. I thought it would be a lot more sparse than it was - but it is planted much like a show garden is for a flower show - with plants at a much closer spacing than you would normally plant. Overall I thought it beautiful but was disappointed in the scale of the work. The shopping centre is vast and is dominated by a the central shot tower which is encased in a glass dome. The tower is at the centre of the circular, layered shopping centre and immediately my mind ran away with me thinking how one would look cascading down the side of the tower or around the sides of the shopping centre itself much like the one at the Paragon Shopping Center in Bangkok. Nevertheless I am excited that it is there and look forward to seeing how it grows and develops over time. The vertical garden certainly adds more to a shopping centre than a few mother in law's tongue plants in a planter or even worse dust covered synthetic ones!

Next post in Part 2 I intend to look a little more closely at the construction and the plants used so stay tuned!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Courtyard Gardens

"City Calm" designed by Acres Wild

I love a little garden I think they are a treat they are remarkably easy to transform and this is very satisfying. A little patch of nothingness can very simply and often without tremendous expense be transformed into a place which offers a pleasant environment into which to take refuge, relax and revive oneself whether it be reading a book, sharing a meal, taking a nap or indulging in a little green fingered work.

They are often tricky spaces in that they often have to deal with a multitude of requirements in a very limited space. Not only those requirements of eating and relaxing but also practical ones too such as storage, washing lines, barbecues, sandpits and rain-water tanks.

When I started thinking about what I would write about courtyard gardens my initial thoughts were that it would be a practical discussion on the organization of a space, what works best in a small space, what to keep in and what to leave out and the need often to control one’s lust for plants. However as I’ve started to write I find myself thinking more about how I often find as I leaf through the pages of magazines that courtyard gardens which often require a lot of hard landscaping to resolve the multiple use issues seem sometimes seem to use plants as if they were a hard landscaping material themselves. As a result the spaces feel constrained and almost devoid of natural forms that for me, are conducive to relaxation in a garden space.

English writer Mirabel Osler wrote a book about her garden experiences with the delightful title “A Gentle Plea for Chaos”. Not that she was nor am I suggesting that chaos is suitable for a courtyard garden but I am fond of a little organized disorder if that makes sense. This is not an argument against formality in gardens but personally I love formality in contrast with informality. Courtyard gardens are formal in that they are always very defined spaces and for me the creation of a pleasant environment involves the contrast between the formal and informal or the hard landscaping and the soft.

Colour, form and texture contrast in "City Calm"

One of my favourite courtyard gardens is designed by “
Acres Wild” English duo Debbie Roberts and Ian Smith (who were my tutors when I was studying garden design in London). This design, City Calm successfully combines the formal and the informal into what I consider to be quite an inspired design. Their use of hard landscaping and formal plant forms contrast with the layered textures of looser plant forms such as ferns, bamboos and grasses. This creates a beautifully balanced environment. While Debbie and Ian no longer teach you can still feast your eyes and pick up a few pointers from their beautiful work featured on their website.

Contrast of the formal and informal forms

Sunday, July 13, 2008

To CAD or not to CAD

Oooh I have been a little held up with my post on courtyards - awaiting an approval to use someone else's photos and so thought I better get on with an interim post as it has been so long. I do apologize.

As I've said previously I do use this to download things that are swirling around my mind and this post I fear may not be relevant unless you are a professional or semi-professional designer. The thing that is swirling around my mind currently is CAD or computer aided design.

When I did my design training all of it was done on paper. We sketched, we bubbled (see below) we drafted our plans in pencil on paper then meticulously transferred these into ink onto tracing paper which we then took to the printer and had plan printed. I still use this process but I need to drag myself into the 21st century.
"Bubble" sketch - redefining the spaces in a garden

Partly this is driven by the fact that I have been carrying out some planting plan designs for another designer - they provide me with the concept plan which they draw up using CAD. They then print this design for me on a large A1 sized plan and then I go through my process and hand them a completed planting design on paper which they then have to transfer back to computer. Not the most streamlined process. Aside from this when I'm doing my own work all is fine as long as I don't have to make changes but if I do - everything must be redrawn by hand - an incredibly time consuming process.

So I have decided I must bite the bullet and invest in a CAD program. But what a dilemma - they are on the whole very expensive ranging from about $ 2,000 - $ 6,000 so it is quite an investment. Plus then there's the question of whether I work it all out myself or invest in some training another reasonably substantial investment of time and money.

Overall I prefer the look of hand drawn design - it has a life and an energy that you simply don't get from a computer design but the advantages of computers (like in many areas) are such that they cannot be ignored. Many have linked in plant databases so you select a plant and it will be drawn to the correct size and planting space. You can also add your own plants to the database. And of course when you change a plant it is automatically changed on the plan. Not to mention the ease with which you can make changes to measurements of hard landscaping. Aaah bliss. But getting to that bliss is going to be quite a steep learning curve.
Not to mention the decisions to made between AutoCAD, Land Cad, Vectorworks etc. Oooh my brain hurts just thinking about it.

I am glad however that my training was done without a computer. I will always probably sketch first to work out how something might look from a certain perspective, I will always pace around my house working out the actual physical space of an area and I will still make up plant lists under their visual qualities before I make my decisions on what to plant where and with what. I envy my younger colleagues for their ease with which they can manipulate their computers but a pencil and a sketch will always be the quickest method for me to initially come up with a design solution. I certainly feel that I will never have quite the same direct mental connection to a computer mouse as I have with a pencil. So I feel quite smug that I have this ability but in saying that I look forward to the day when I have more mastery with the mouse.

A hand coloured and hand drawn Concept Plan

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Dream Gardens

Fondation Maeght, with Empennage by Alexander Calder

I have been thinking this week about the gardens of my dreams and if I could create any sort of garden what sort would it be. So this got me thinking about the gardens I have visited over time and which are my favourites and it happens that all of them contain sculpture in one form or another.

I have to say that art and sculpture in gardens when well placed is one of my favourite things of all time. Why? Why? Why? I ask myself and it is a question not easily answered. Perhaps partly for me while I love art I do not find art galleries necessarily very relaxing places. I am always conscious of the other people, I feel exposed and self conscious especially if I sit and contemplate. Besides the places to sit are always floating in space which makes me nervy. In the outdoors I feel much more comfortable. I feel I can sit and look, I feel I can chat to a friend, I feel I can look at the art if I choose or just soak up the atmosphere. I can enjoy the sun, the plants and the smells. There is so much more for the senses to feed on than in a somewhat sterile environment of a gallery.

More often than not I find sculpture soothing. I’m not really sure why this is. I like the interaction the artworks have with the surrounding environment something that you really do not obtain in a gallery. There is no interaction. They are merely objects in space, demanding your full attention. Perhaps I like the fact that the outdoors reduces the artworks demands on you. I feel free to take them in or not. I feel free to eat a sandwich, read a book, close my eyes. None of which I can do in a gallery. A sculpture garden allows me to be human.

So that's the explanation and now for the gardens – these make my list.

The Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden, Surrey, England

Aaah how I love this garden. It combines the garden design skills of designer Anthony Paul (who by the way is definitely in my top 5 designers list) and some of the most extraordinary sculpture. One of glories of this garden is how well considered the placement of each sculpture is. Never have I seen this done better than in this garden. In my opinion the placement of sculpture it is often something that is either ill considered or could be done so much better. The sculpture in this garden is mostly not on the monumental scale that we associate with some public gardens but on a much more human scale. You wander through the garden finding extraordinary sculptures in exquisite settings at every turn it really does take your breath away.

Anthony Paul’s planting is outstanding. The garden is set in a woodland with many pools and ponds. His planting subtly melds with the natural environment enhancing it and the sculpture.

For copyright reasons I can’t put photos of the garden here but the website is lovely and worth a visit.

The garden of the Fondation Maeght, St Paul de Vence, France

Les Renforts by Alexander Calder and La Fourche by Joan Miro

As the garden of art museum, the work is more “monumental” than in the Peschar Garden but still the placement is lovely. There are lots of quiet places to sit, beautiful trees, courtyards and alcoves that provide a human scale even though some of the work is quite monumental. Again the planting and in this case also the hard landscaping enhance the work. The trees as you can see are sculptural in themselves.

The sculpture garden at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice, Italy.

Oooh I loved this relatively small courtyard sculpture garden. My memories of it fade a little as my visit was eight years ago now but I loved it. I was particularly fond of the two works side by side Mirko’s Architectural Element–Lines of Force in Space and Claire Falkenstein’s Entrance Gates to the Palazzo. I just remember that it used the courtyard space very well and had a lovely combination between the three elements of planting, hard landscaping and sculpture. My visit was in late October so it was not over-run with tourists.

Claire Falkenstein's Entrance Gates to the Palazzo

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, Moma, New York

My visit to this garden was even longer ago and it has since been redeveloped so I don’t know if it still retains its original charm (although these photos indicate that it has). This was probably my first experience of a sculpture garden and I adored it. My visit here was prior to my garden design training but I loved the combination of extraordinary artwork, use of water and planting and most of all I loved the fact that they provided moveable seating so that you could sit where you wished, with whom you wished. The quality of seating remains in my mind too – and I have coveted the Bertoia chairs ever since. Art museums can be so exhausting and this was a marvellous place to sit, relax and refresh before continuing on with the demands of a visit. If anyone has visited recently let me know if it still retains its charm.

Aaah and here I must end my flight of fancy. Next week or the week after depending on my time management I think I'll get back to real life gardens here in Melbourne - looking at courtyard gardens. If I could contain a pinch of the brilliance of any of these gardens in my designs I should be very content.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Bring Back the Danger!

This blogging is quite hard work I realize - hence the delay between my last musings and this one. After reeling off the first three I came to a grinding halt. However encouragement from fellow bloggers (thank you) has got me back in the saddle. Hopefully soon I shall find my rhythm once I work out exactly how my blogging time can be fitted in with the other demands of every day life. So please bare with me.

Grafitti in Hosier Lane and Centre Place, Melbourne City

I'm afraid I'm going to straddle my high horse again - this time to bemoan the lack of adventure in Public Parks - and by this I mean both for grown-ups and children. This age of safety is driving me crazy - I wish for the return of danger and the demise of litigation.

Life as a kid used to be fun and as a subset of that just a little dangerous - we rode bikes without helmets, swung from rope swings into rivers, jumped off rocks, climbed trees, built forts and generally risked life and limb without a thought or a care and generally came out unscathed (or only minimally so). The play equipment at the public parks was often quite thrillingly dangerous. Now, we complain our kids are obese and frankly it's no wonder all the fun has been taken from these things - unless you're lucky enough to live in the country your chances for wild abandon are severely limited or involve going to theme parks and spending vast amounts of money.

Laneway life

My son's life is so much more restricted than mine as a child and it took a wild storm for me to realize how much this is so. About a month ago the wind blew wildly here in Melbourne, the power went out, trees lost their limbs, roofs came off - you know the story. About two days later we went to the park for a birthday party and to my son's great joy the branches off all the trees lay littered around. Never mind the party he spent the entire time constructing a cubby house from fallen branches. He was engrossed, enthused and blissfully happy.

Recently I made a foray into outdoor furniture design for some of the same reasons I find what’s out there predictable, unadventurous and well I suppose on the whole boring. This particular piece was designed a domestic piece but following its creation my mind went off on a flight of fancy imagining the things that could be done in the area of public outdoor furniture…..

Melbourne as you may or may not know is a bit of a hub for street art and in particular graffiti. There are certain areas in the city designated as places where it can be legally placed. My confession is that I love graffiti – I find it exciting, vibrant and it transforms these laneways in the city from dull, dark and slightly dodgy places to glorious outdoor art galleries.

More Grafitti Hosier Lane

My love for graffiti is equal in weight to my hate of skate parks – often marginalized at the outer edges of public spaces they seem rather harsh places that you wouldn’t particularly want your kids hanging out at (of course that might account for the counter-culture thing that’s grown around it).

Don’t get me wrong I love skateboarding I think it is a great activity I just think you might get more kids participating if the skateparks were a little more welcoming in more appealing locations.

The Local Skatepark

Skateboarding is also a great spectator sport – and is deserving of being in places that more people would stop and watch. If I had my way I’d put a version of a skatepark right between the Melbourne Museum and the World Heritage protected Exhibition building. And no it would not be a skatepark as we know them dour, grey, unimaginative slopes. The opportunity for creating something rippling and beautiful exists - nothing too large but thoughtfully considered - and constructed. My sketches are far too inadequate as yet to publicly present. But the opportunity to combine the beautiful movement of skating, slopes and the art of graffiti exists as does the opportunity to revel in bringing youth, movement, life and vibrancy back to the city.

The space between Melbourne Museum (right) and The Exhibition Buildings (left)

I hope you’ll forgive me my radical ideas but I love public spaces and feel often that so much more could be done with them to make them more appealing to all of the public. If you have any opinions I’d love to hear about them. I could rave on about this all day there’s sculpture, better seating, better planting, and the list goes on .....

Friday, May 9, 2008

A Planting Conundrum

Here I sit on the driest continent on earth in a beautiful leafy city with magnificent gardens, parks and leafy boulevards. The only problem is it isn’t raining much anymore. We’ve lived for a long time here in Melbourne with the luxury of stable rainfall that supports all manner of plants. No longer. There is a call for Melbourne’s leafy European trees to be replaced with indigenous or native species more suitable to the ever increasingly extreme conditions. Some are vehement in their opinions that only indigenous will do and that plant appropriateness is on a continuum with indigenous plants being most appropriate and exotics being least appropriate.

This debate is of interest to me as I've never considered flying the flag for only one group of plants and has led me to reassess as to where my opinions lie on the use of indigenous, native and exotic plants.

Before I launch myself into the discussion I should define what I mean by the much bandied about terminology - indigenous and native. My understanding is that indigenous plants are those that are native to the local area. Native plants are those that are Australian.

The definition of a “local” area can be quite specific. Not long ago I attended a seminar run by SGA (Sustainable Gardening Australia) which covered amongst other things the use of drought tolerant plants and in particular suitable indigenous plants. The plants referred to were those that were native to the area around the southern area of the Yarra River. It was also suggested that plants should be sourced from a local provenance – those whose seed were sourced from the local area and that they were grown in local climactic conditions.

Of course the plants themselves are only one factor in the equation the other is the environmental impact of those plants. Obviously plants that are indigenous to a specific area will be suitable to that particular soil, not be considered a weed, likely to provide a food source for native fauna and their water requirements will match local conditions. All these are huge advantages.

Another factor in the choice of a plant palette is the “sense of place”. Within much of the locality of inner Melbourne there is not a huge amount that tells me that I’m in Australia. The “sense of place” is determined more by the architecture and perhaps the fauna than the flora (only this morning I was walking through the leafy avenues of trees in the park with multi-coloured rosellas diving and squawking overhead). The architecture seems unsuited to the natural forms of the indigenous plants but that is not to say they can’t be used. Many indigenous plants can be shaped to provide the formality which suits the architecture we’re just not used to seeing them in these forms. Take a trip a few suburbs further out where the environment is dominated by gum trees (eucalypts), wattles (acacias) and other natives and the natural forms of indigenous plants seem entirely suited and the place could be nowhere else than Australia.


Take a drive south of Melbourne to the Mornington Peninsula and you will find two neighbouring gardens each which uses indigenous plants but in a subtly different way. The first is the garden of designer Fiona Brockhoff "Karkalla" and the second Jane Burke’s "Offshore". Both these gardens seem to seamlessly meld with the local rather wild beachside and windswept landscape. Karkalla uses a mix of indigenous, native and exotic plants. Some of the indigenous plants especially closer to the house have been shaped formally, others further away left to their own devices. "Offshore" is more strictly an indigenous garden which is unsurprising given that its owner is a botanist and an expert on the local coastal vegetation. Both these gardens are well designed. Ironically though Jane Burke states that design comes last for her with function coming first followed by the creation of an ecosystem as close as to what was originally there as possible. One of the interesting things about this is that in choosing only indigenous plants the plant palette is limited and therefore easier to make a cohesive design with than if selecting from a never ending choice. My inspiration these days is more likely to come from the landscape often than private gardens and it is probably precisely because of the reason that in particularly areas nature has a limited palette creating the unity and repetition that make design work. It is so easy to get carried away with the beauty of plants that consideration of how they work as a whole gets lost. The limitation of the plant palette by the indigenous grouping eliminates this problem.


In difficult climactic and environmental conditions such as this area of the Mornington Peninsula where wind, lack of rainfall and poor soil are givens sticking with the indigenous plants makes perfect sense. The likelihood of success is so much greater, the results are quicker and the maintenance less.

So in the end I think it is as the saying goes “horses for courses” – I look around and see what clues the landscape is giving me. If it gives me none I have free reign to work from a wide but always considered plant palette. If an indigenous plant works within the scheme then I’ll use it otherwise I’ll try to work with those plants that will live happily in local conditions (usually those whose natural environment is similar). If the “sense of place” is strongly local then I will more than happily work within that framework knowing that half my work has already been done by glorious mother nature.


Many publications have covered "Offshore" and "Karkalla" these include:

"Karkalla" Vogue Living Oct/Nov 2002

Gardens of Fiona Brockhoff, Your Garden, Summer 2006

"Sand castle" article on Fiona Brockhoff designed garden, InsideOut, Issue 60, March/April 2006

"Offshore", Gardens Illustrated, No 106, October 2005

"Offshore", InsideOut (if anyone knows which issue this was in please let me know)

"Offshore", in "Gardening the Mediterranean Way", Heidi Gildemeister, Harry N. Abrams Publisher, N.Y. 2004

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Colour and Contrast in the Shade

And so I begin, on this autumn day in Melbourne I feel compelled to write of a wonderful little plant combination that is dwelling in my backyard.

To some putting together successful combinations of plants may come quite naturally to others the successful combination of plants maybe a bit less intuitive and I confess to being one of the latter.

Before my garden design training I struggled to create successful plant combinations in the garden and have found a few of the principles taught to me a revelation. One of the simplest plant design concepts was to use plants that have complementing and contrasting characteristics. The little grouping below works within this simple guideline. It developed over time as I acquired plants and cuttings from various sources. Living as I do in a rental property I have to be more circumspect on my garden spending than I perhaps would be if the garden was my own.

Anyway back to the plants - the star of the show at this time of year is the lovely native Plectranthus argentatus, with its delicious felty grey leaves and delicate white and purple tinged flowering stems. While it can get a bit leggy a trim here and there soon brings it back into line. An Australian native it is as easy to propagate as a succulent which gives it a big tick in my book.

It is complemented by the blue/green strappy leaves of the Renga renga lily as it is known in New Zealand (Arthropodium cirratum). In this case it is the variety called “Parnell”. In sunnier spots than mine, sprays of white flowers would appear in early summer. In damper conditions this plant is a favourite for snails – however this variety is pretty vigorous and easily survives the occasional onslaught.

Background: Aechmea fasciata “silver vase plant”
Middle: Plectranthus argentatus and Clivia miniata
Foreground: Arthropodium cirrahtum “Parnell”

Also in the grey palette is the bromeliad Aechmea fasciata, the silver vase plant which is most likely the home for the aforementioned snails. However this epiphyte’s tolerance of intolerable conditions keeps it in favour it lives at the base of the Silver Birch tree. This one has strange pink inflorescences which appear in winter. I have become a bit of a convert to bromeliads of late finding them happily tolerating my difficult garden conditions.

The contrasting colour in all of this is the fat dark green strappy leaves of the Clivia miniata, I think this one is a Belgian hybrid (it came from a client’s garden). In my view the Belgian hybrids are the showiest variety having the glossiest leaves and brightest flowers. I love their bright orange flowers but equally if not more love the contribution their foliage makes year round to the garden. Totally pest free and undemanding they are my heroes of dry shade. They also thrive as container plants and I have a huge pot of them that I shunt around the garden depending on the season.

My plan now is to add at the front of the bed the cascading form of the native Dichondra “Silver Falls” whose beautiful habit you can see in the photo below. Another shade/part sun lover which is drought tolerant once established it would look delightful spilling over the edge of the bed.

Of course in planting it is not all about aesthetics and the plants must all be compatible with the growing conditions. In this case these plants live in almost permanent deep and very dry shade exacerbated by our strict water restrictions here in Melbourne. They are planted beneath a weeping Silver Birch (the lovely silvery bark is in the background of the photo) and an Australian Frangipani Tree (Hymenosporum flavum) and next to a 3m high brick wall covered with the beastly (in my opinion) creeping fig (Ficus pumila) which grows year round in a relentless and determined fashion. They are quite content in these conditions and their silver tones give this dark little corner of the courtyard a lovely lift particularly at the gloomier times of year.

Plant Notes:

Plectranthus argentatus: This plant seems virtually indestructible and while it does wilt in hot summer sun it will survive in sun or shade and can be easily grown from cuttings. It is native to the north coast of New South Wales.

Arthropodium cirrahtum “Parnell” this variety has the bluish tinge to the foliage that works so well in this combination. In my experience in full shade it doesn’t flower so if you are after flowers I would suggest planting in slightly brighter conditions. As I mentioned it can be susceptible to snail damage.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A New Found Respect for the Box Hedge

When I first moved to Melbourne my heart sank with dismay at the endless parade of box hedging and iceberg roses - I felt that Australia was a continent with such a wealth of plants that to rely on these two formulaic elements was very unimaginative. Ironically 7 years later I find myself living in a narrow terrace house with exactly those two elements in the front garden – and while if it was up to me I would without hesitation pull out the iceberg rose (I have nothing against roses per se I just think that there are more interesting alternatives than this particular variety) I have developed a new respect and fondness for box hedging. That box hedge outside my front door takes a beating. It is west facing and exists in baked, parched earth and thrives on little water and no love except for a bi-annual haircut and when spring comes that beautiful new growth in the most delicious green makes me feel ridiculously content. This little garden doer has brought to mind some of the more imaginative design uses of this fine plant that I've come across.

One of the loveliest garden spaces I have visited in recent years is the garden of the Chateau de Gourdon – and while it sounds grand the “castle” is of modest proportions and clings to a vertiginous cliff top not far from Grasse in the South of France. The garden by necessity is a terraced affair but the space that I refer to was on the small flat space outside the castle.

This particular space is said to be designed by Le Notre whose most famous work is the Palace of Versailles. He visited the Chateau in 1679 and at this time set out the design for the aforementioned garden.

The garden itself is simply designed with horseshoe shaped box hedges, grass and a couple of leafy lime trees but this simple combination created a space of great calm and peace. Which in the circumstances of my visit was fortuitous given that the drive was somewhat fraught (as many are when they combine winding roads with a four year old). My companions and I fortified by a delicious lunch in the village, descended upon the chateau and were delighted with what we found.

Regardless of its provenance it reminded me how beautiful simple green shapes and form can be. The colour green in gardens is perhaps often overlooked but here it was the key element.

The second use of box hedging that springs to mind was in a Chelsea Show Garden in 2000 - (I know - "show garden" you sigh - how unrealistic and they for the most part are but all the same we can marvel). The backbone of the planting of this Gold Medal Winning garden designed by Piet Oudolf and Arne Maynard was two long box hedges which framed the garden. Unlike traditional box though they were cut to resemble billowing clouds and were a marvellous foil for the rest of the garden which combined a series of circular pools and fountains and beautiful drifts of loose planting for which Piet Oudolf is best known.

It has to be said that the box hedging used was 40 years old so either we need to start early or have deep pockets and have excellent "hairdressing" skills to achieve this particular effect. Having said that I think in Australian conditions with its longer growing season it would not take quite so long to achieve a similar look. Excuse the photos here - the only one that I have showing the box hedging well is one when the garden was under construction. And my only shot of the finished garden only gives a glimpse of it.

So I raise my glass to the box hedge having coming to the conclusion that in the right place it can be more extraordinary than I had ever given this sturdy little plant credit for.


For more information on "Chateau de Gourdon"; Gardens Illustrated April 2006, Issue 112, "On a High Note"

For more information on the Piet Oudolf and Arne Maynard Garden; Gardens Illustrated September 2000, Issue 55. "Chelsea 2000 Best in Show"

For photos of "cloud hedging" and of the Piet Oudolf/Arne Maynard garden go to photographer Clive Nichols website and search on "cloud hedging"