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.