In mid-2008 my husband Mark and I bought our first home together in Perth. It is a small house on a 617 square metre block. I was a new gardener and the garden has presented some challenges. I thought that others might be interested in the challenges and the solutions that we have tried.
The front yard was adorned with a large frangipani and roses – pretty standard. The roses have gone (to a good home, not the tip) and some changes are afoot. However the real story involves the backyard.
The Backyard Challenge
The backyard was another story altogether – a sea of bitumen, and not just bitumen but bitumen with a good thick layer of road base underneath the bitumen. I exaggerate of course – there were also seaside daisies, a camellia, a NZ Christmas Bush, some rosemary and a large but sad looking jacaranda tree – but at least 90% of the available backyard space was bitumen.
Not being seasoned gardeners we didn’t really appreciate all the challenges the backyard represented. Had we known more we might have baulked at the work involved in turning the bitumen moonscape into a garden – but ignorance and enthusiasm are wonderful things. On the upside we didn’t have much of a problem with weeds, and we did have a bore. On the downside there were many, many factors. Our backyard is west facing so along with a total lack of any visual appeal, it was extra hot, hot, hot during Perth’s long and very hot summers. In winter the garage was in danger of flooding during rain. And when planting involves hacking through bitumen and road base, you have to be feeling very committed.
Where to start?
So far as our ongoing garden conversion is concerned, not much happened for the first 2 years. In early 2010 I did a 6 week evening course in garden design / landscaping. I really enjoyed the course, presented by a local landscape designer, but I was still a bit lost as to how to tackle the backyard, where and how to start. It was such a big task and I couldn’t seem to get started.
I mentioned this on the final evening of the course and the presenter suggested using straw bales to build some walls and define areas of the garden. This was the direction we needed and at least part of Easter 2010 was spent tracking down straw bales and deciding (arguing about) where they should go.
We used pea straw bales from City Farmers to construct a garden wall around a pre-existing bed with the bales sitting on the bitumen. This allowed us to maximise the garden area and followed the line of the reticulation. We found that the bales were sturdy enough and did not need to be anchored down. They were also a great height for impromptu seating. For us the straw bales worked a treat and allowed us to get started. The approximate cost per bale was $17 with approximate dimensions of 900m long x 450m wide x 350m high. We still buy bales from time to time. The dog adopts them to sit on and chew bones, they make a wonderful addition to the garden as they break down and the earthworms love them.
Since then the straw bales have given way to natural limestone walls, most of the bitumen has been removed and a lot of planting has taken place. An old derelict chook shed in the back corner has been removed – just in time as the roof was in danger of ring-barking the jacaranda, and the fences have been painted. Given that we have a bore and the associated stains that can result from bore water, my criteria for a fence colour was something dark to hide the stains. We chose a colour called Loft – a colour from the Colorbond roofing selection. It has proven to work well to hide bore stains and is a great background colour for the plants.
It is still very much a work in progress but we feel we are winning. If nothing else, the garden is now a much more pleasant place to sit. The photos below show the garden as it is today.
The blue circle ‘phases of the moon’ sculpture in the picture is the top of the bore. We had the top cut off the bore and I must admit that I expected to come home to find that it had been broken up and removed. Instead it had been moved, whole and heavy, underneath the jacaranda. As I possessed neither the strength nor the inclination to break it up and remove it, it has been painted and is now part of the garden!
In late 2011 the adjoining house to the south of us was demolished and the block cleared to make way for a new house. Out went a number of large trees (a eucalypt, 2 casuarinas and a tamarisk) as well as a variety of established plants. Whilst it was sad to see the trees and other plants go, it has allowed our jacaranda, the crown of which was being crowded out, to flourish. It is now sending out new shoots to the south which is great.
As mentioned earlier, the garden is west facing. Whilst the jacaranda does provide a degree of summer shade, we also installed two pergolas to the rear of the house to reduce the summer heat. After exploring various options for a permanent pergola we decided on a Bunnings solution as a short-term (2-5 year option) and this has worked well. As the fabric tops can be removed in winter, we can allow winter sun in without the need to swelter in summer.
We have used stone pavers and linkstone paving to create pathways. I am a big fan of the linkstone paving. It is very easy to lay and as the underlying ground does not need to be dead flat it was wonderful for our purposes. It is not easy to get road base dead flat and the linkstone paving was very forgiving. Ours came from Soils Aint Soils but sadly I believe it is no longer available. The large stone pavers came from Eco Outdoors and just add another interesting shape to the garden.
It has been both a challenge and a joy developing this garden. I hope that you have found this background story of interest and look forward to sharing further challenges, successes and developments with you.