James BeattieRight plant, right spot

Over a year ago now, friends of mine gave up their city slicker existence for what one would assume to be a more subdued life in the country. Fresh countryair, rolling hills, the serenity, the vibe – the picture they painted of their future was in stark contrast with their hitherto inner-city existence. “It’ll be a real relaxing country place,” they cooed, making me green with envy of course. What my friends imagined as their idyllic country cottage ended up being a forty-acre property in Victoria’s north eastern district, five of which was established garden that hadn’t seen a hand-weeder or pruning saw for almost two years. To say the garden needed work when these friends purchased the property was an understatement. A year or so on and the garden is looking a lot better than it did. The last twelve months has seen a frenzy of pruning, weeding, mulching and composting on a scale unlike anything I have ever been involved with. Yet much still needs doing in the garden. Over last year’s Christmas/New Years break I had the opportunity to housesit for these friends, and of course I jumped at the opportunity. The weather was not very conducive to gardening so I took the opportunity to don a deerstalking hat and have a snoop around the propagating shed for the ghosts of gardeners past.

The garden notes were a treasure-trove of information

The sheer size of the garden was suggestion enough that the previous owners were very serious gardeners indeed. The contents of the propagation shed were definitive confirmation of this. Misters, ultrasonic fogging machines, heated benches, solar coverings, hardening off areas, pots, labels, trays, fertilisers, and climatic control systems; every possible propagation toy imaginable was present. I was in heaven! Despite the volume of horticultural toys the object that piqued my interest the most was much more unassuming. Upon rummaging through a set of cabinets full of plant ties and labels, I stumbled upon an unremarkable A4 folder containing some rather remarkable papers. The folder was chock-full of the previous owners’ propagation notes, detailing the successes and failures in propagating hundreds of plant species throughout the garden.

After spending time cataloguing the notes and bringing some semblance of order to the pages of plant lists, stories and lessons started to emerge. One thing was very clear – the previous owners were rhododendron devotees, growing at least a couple of hundred of their favourite cultivars. As astute readers might have noted, rhododendrons and Victoria’s hot central and northern districts have never had a reputation for being good bedfellows. The old owners of the garden once lived on Mount Dandenong in Melbourne, which is perhaps the foremost rhododendron-growing region in Australia. Plant a rhododendron pretty much anywhere on Mount Dandenong and it will thrive. The Nation Rhododendron Gardens is, after all, in Olinda on Mt Dandenong itself. With the previous owner’s love of rhododendrons knowing no bounds, their small property overlooking Melbourne soon became too small to quell their rhododendron fever, so they moved to a much larger property. What they gained in space they lost in climatic suitability; very few of the hundreds of rhododendrons listed in the propagation notes are to be found on the second property today. You can count the surviving cultivars on one hand, and even then a few look unwell, others terminal. There is a lesson in this for every gardener – always choose plants that suit your conditions over fighting or trying to change your conditions to grow certain plants.

A delicate grevillea that thrives on the sharply drained soil

While attempting to grow rhododendrons in such a location was almost certainly doomed from the beginning, many plants have thrived, even after languishing without any maintenance for several seasons. The soil on the property is granitic and sandy, so the drainage is quick and sharp. Any plant belonging to the protea family (Protaceae) in the garden is thriving. Leucadendron, Banskia, Adenanthos, Grevillea and Protea species all exhibit vigour and catch your eye wherever they are found growing amongst the five acres of garden. So too are other native genera such as Eremophila, Correa, wattles and gums. One wattle in particular caught my eye in the spring of last year.

Acacia denticulosa is stunning in full bloom

Acacia denticulosa is a Western Australian wattle that is listed as rare in the wild. It is a large shrub with the most profuse and incandescent yellow rod-shaped flowers I have ever seen in a wattle. It is a stunning plant when in full bloom. Out of flowering season its leaves are more than enough to carry it as a point of interest all year round. Known as the sandpaper wattle, A. denticulosahas leaves that do, literally, feel like sandpaper. The foliage is thick, stiff and raspy. Unfortunately this wattle has proved difficult in cultivation owing to its insistence on nothing short of perfectly sharp drainage. It grows so well at my friend’s property because their soil is almost exactly similar to the soil in which the sandpaper wattle grows naturally. The propagation notes list it as very easy to propagate but not very adaptable to other soils, which is a shame because it is a plant as beautiful as it is unusual and it deserves to be grown more widely.

Golden rod-shaped flowers of the sandpaper wattle

Reading through the notes made by the old owners of this garden was an informative experience. It was as if peering through a window to the past, and gaining insight on what direction in which to take the garden in the future. Noting the successes and failures of the listed genera, plants that hailed from environments that were similar to the garden’s location, of course, thrived. Those that were from environments far different fared less well. In this is encapsulated one of the central tenets of good horticulture: choose the most suitable plant for the location in which it is to grow.

Finally, the whole experience of finding the notes and getting a glimpse of the original owners’ efforts reminded me that although we may garden for our entire lives, the pleasures our gardens bring may very well extend beyond our own time working in them. We are but custodians of a living canvas upon which each successive artist leaves their impression, with accumulated knowledge about a dynamic medium being passed from one custodian to the next.

Until next time, happy gardening.

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James Beattie

About James Beattie

James is a horticulturist working in the Melbourne area. His work in the industry has included landscape planting design, hard landscaping, bushland management, garden consulting as well as extensive experience in the horticultural media. He worked for four years as one of the horticultural guns for hire behind the scenes at ABC TV's Gardening Australia program and has been a semi-regular guest on Melbourne's 3CR Gardening Show (855 AM). You can follow his whimsical garden musings at Horticologist

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