Just back from a week looking at gardens in Tasmania, I am trying to decipher my scribbled notes. But maybe I don’t need the notes to tell you about it. Because certain aspects of the landscape there – designed and natural – come straight to mind. These are, in order, water, rock, plants.
First, the water. Tasmania has had really good rain in the past couple of years – after a decade or so of drought – and everywhere we drove there seemed to be water glistening and gleaming. On the farms the dams were so full that they weren’t a defined shape any longer but a bit ragged round the edges. Like mirrors reflecting the sky. Filled with birds and beauty.
We saw some lovely private gardens that had contemporary water features – doesn’t a little pond or a trickling fountain really liven up a space? And there was the occasional piece of water history. Panshanger, near Launceston, has a water-tower built in the early 1800s, three stories high with narrow slit windows, a bit like a keep in a medieval castle. Originally there was a bathhouse inside it as well, and early on, the family and worked used it as a hiding place from bushrangers.
We crossed fabulous rivers, and little creeks where the water danced around rocks and made small mysterious pools. I’ll bet there were fish in there but it’s hard to see from a moving bus. One big new garden had a natural creek, shaded by huge old trees. This was in complete contrast to the space higher up the slope, with curving scrolls of box hedges set off by pieces of contemporary sculpture.
The other aspect of water in Tasmania is, of course, the sea that encircles it, because it is an island. When you’re looking at gardens in the countryside you don’t think about this. But when you reach the coast, you soon remember! The sea merges into the sky. You feel you are in another world.
The next memorable aspect was the rock and stone, which is mostly sandstone, gold and orange and buff-coloured, used in old and new ways. The “old” was in the architecture, wonderful houses and walls, even stables and shearing sheds, strong and straight. The “new” was in garden walls built recently to enclose plants, mark changes in level, define paths and walkways, always creating space and distance. There is absolutely nothing like stone to shape and give character to a garden, especially when it has come off the property where that garden is built.
And we saw some subterranean sandstone – at MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. Here the museum space claws deep into the ground and it has been hewn out of rock. This place is amazing and is absolutely worth a visit. Don’t miss it.
And then, of course, there were the plants! These were absolutely jaw-dropping. They have lapped up the rain. Foxgloves well over than two-metres high, with bees crawling in and out of the flower cups. Liliums with so many buds you couldn’t imagine they would be able to stand up when they come into bloom (except that the stems are super-thick). Crowded clematis like beautiful colourful dinnerplates, climbing up tree trunks and twining through other plants. Heaps of rare and fascinating plants that I couldn’t hope to identify – although the fine ladies who have made and maintained these gardens have all the botanical names off pat. Their skill and application is mind-blowing. As we asked question after question about plants we hadn’t seen before, one owner referred to a plant notebook that she had been keeping for around four decades!
The plants were pretty well all exotics, because that is the way of the old established Tasmanian gardens, and they grow so well in the climate down there. I simply could not believe the sheer lushness of flower and foliage, the colour and the many shades of green. And was most grateful to Trisha Dixon, who organised the tour and introduced us to the landscape, the gardens and their owners.