Designing your garden

Landcare Broken Hill

We have been trapped indoors during the recent hot weather, unable to garden except in the early hours or the evening. However, these hot days are an excellent time to think about and research future plans for your garden. Bring out your pencils and paper and have a think about the cooler times ahead.

There are thousands of different approaches to garden design, many of which have ancient origins going back thousands of years into history. In our hot arid zone what is best for us to think about when we set out to establish a new garden or refresh the one we have?

The best approach is to be practical, to be sensible, and face the realities of where we are living, taking into account the climatic and soil conditions. Big factors out here in the Far West are (1) scarcity of water most of the time; (2) scorching hot summers; (3) not infrequent overnight frosts in winter; (4) poor, exhausted soils. Given these limitations, it is realistic to design your garden to work with nature, not against it. This may take some research.

If you want to create a little patch of green Tasmania in your backyard, be aware you will be up against it: spending more money on water and artificial props like introduced soils and fertilisers, shade canopies etc. You’ll also need a lot more available time and physical energy.

When Albert & Margaret Morris embarked upon the first greening of the Hill, they read the signs: they studied the local native plants, understood the soils, were aware of the weather conditions and observed what did well and what didn’t. In their private nursery, they experimented with thousands of plants, collecting seeds and cuttings, until they had the knowledge to show the Zinc Corporation what approach would most likely survive. The Regeneration Zone surrounding Broken Hill was born, but so was a growing awareness in the Broken Hill population and Council of which plants would do best in private gardens and in the streets and managed parks.

Edna Walling (1896-1973), was one of Australia’s most influential landscape designers. She drew inspiration from the Australian bush, creating a more naturalistic style with boulders, rocky outcrops and indigenous plants. In small suburban gardens, Walling created garden ‘rooms’ to make the garden appear far larger than it actually was. In the mid-1940s Walling concentrated her interest in native plants which she had begun using in domestic gardens in the 1920s. In the 1950s, she became interested in the conservation of roadside vegetation and was a prolific writer in the press on the subject, as well as in her 1952 book The Australian Roadside. Walling was an important influence on Australian gardening, moving gardeners away from our ‘cultural cringe’ for growing native species and stirring up a pride in our Australian plants.

Edna encouraged Ellis Stones (1895-1975) to develop his interest in Australian landscape design. In 1935 Ellis Stones had built a wall for her and recognizing his ability—which she called ‘a rare thing this gift for placing stones’ – Walling suggested that he work for her. She gave him a free hand to create walls, outcrops, pools and paths in her clients’ gardens at some of Melbourne’s finest homes which assisted in establishing a local garden tradition. Stones derived his inspiration from the bush and everything he did was influenced by his love of the bush. His landscaping style was so subtle and simple that his gardens often “looked as if they had just ‘happened'” (Latreille, 1990). He believed that gardens should relate to their natural surroundings. This was then a rare opinion in Australia where “the green of the average suburb [was] a horizontal veneer no higher than the reach of a diligent gardener’s snippers” (Boyd, 1960).

Very much as the Morris’s did, both Walling and Stones took their lead by observing nature. Stones, in his influential book “Australian Garden Design” (1971) wrote: “Most of the material used in landscaping is found in the natural landscape, so more can be learnt by observing nature than through any other form of teaching” …”

Another husband and wife team who have had enormous influence on creating gardens naturally with Australian native plants are the Rogers. In 1971, Frank J C Rogers wrote “Growing Australian Native Plants”. Again Rogers, like the others, highlighted the need to observe, saying in his introduction: “I have tried to include ideas and information on the establishment of a garden in which these plants will grow successfully. There are many climatic areas in Australia, but with a little personal interpretation it should be possible to select those plants which are best suited to the conditions in your area”. Understanding that some people, sadly, tend to think less of local plants, Rogers wrote: “The discovery of of a familiar garden plant growing in its natural habitat, sometimes miles away, is one of the pleasures of growing native plants. As more people experience this pleasure, I hope they will agitate for the retention of much more of our natural wealth of flora and fauna before it is completely removed from many areas”.

Cheryl Maddocks in her well-known book: “Let the Garden Go. A Romantic Approach to Gardening”(1989), agreed, and said –– “My central philosophy is that one should encourage the tendencies inherent in nature and oversee a garden which, once planted, will largely happen by itself”. …. One of Maddocks’ other influential books, full of ideas, is: “The Australian Backyard. How to create your ideal backyard”.

We therefore have an inspiring history of people looking at and thinking about Australia’s natural plant heritage. Some of these authors, may be in our local library, and some may be circulating via Under the Silver Tree bookshop, which will be re-opening this week. Have a look and ask what is available – you will be amazed at what an interesting browse these books can provide, and what a wealth of ideas they can deliver for your own planning.

Use the hot weather well, venturing out only to the library or bookshop, and plan a garden, a new bed, or an unused corner, that celebrates our heritage and our unique environment. It’s well worth the research!

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