Attila Kapitany loves succulents: loves writing about them, loves growing them and above all, loves talking about them. Attila’s a great advocate for anything with a juicy stem whether it be a cactus, euphorbia or even a juicy wattle.
On the weekend I visited his decade-old garden in Narre Warren North, on the south-western edge of suburban Melbourne. There is farmland in the distance but new housing blocks, with houses (generally), are fast filling in the checkerboard.
Attila and his wife Michele bought this 0.4 hectare property in 2002, but found after buying the land they couldn’t afford to build a house. At least this is what they say – I think it was a great excuse to create a landscape with textures and colours like no other. And I for one am glad they did.
Ground covering succulents are not as popular as they should be. They are a plant for the extrovert and, to my mind, need to be planted not only on mass but with plenty of different colours blended in. You need to be bold and brassy, and confident. I remember a spectacular display of local South African plants at the Karoo Desert National Botanic Garden near Cape Town, where nearly every conceivable flower and leaf colour blazed out at you from the red dirt. Unforgettable.
Flowing through Attila’s kaleidoscope of succulence is a sinew of blue-grey Chalk Fingers (known botanically as Senecio talinoides subspecies mandraliscae these days I think). Attila has designed this to be live a river running from the highest point, where the garden started, down towards the council lake which lies outside their property but forms an critical part of the landscape. (There is just a billabong towards the right of this picture.)
Attila and Michele have grown all but one of their 10,000 plants from seed or cutting. The only exception is the largest of the bottle trees (a Brachychiton rupestris). Atilla, past President of the Cacti and Succulent Society of Australia and editor of their journal Spinette, has a delightfully catholic definition of a succulent, including any plant with specialised water storing tissue.
So in addition to the usual suspects you get Gymea Lillies – with this wonderful Doryanthes palmeri in flower at the moment – bottle trees (their trunks store water) and, as I said, even wattles if they are juicy enough.
One plant that even Attila wouldn’t call a succulent is the Cupressocyparis leylandii ‘Castewellan Gold’ forming a protective hedge around three sides of the block. Even there the Kapitanys find a way to add a quirk. There are two large viewing holes so passers by can look through the garden to the lake, while still protecting their garden from drying winds. (Attila in the first pictures, two onlookers in the second…)
Every part of the garden has a story, and Attila is the one to tell them. The basalt stacks in the next picture are quite beautiful and fit in well against the succulent backdrop but apparently this is exactly as they are were arranged in the nearby hill side. The rocks were extracted and reconstructed in the same vertical piles to create sculptures reminiscent of say Chris Booth from New Zealand.
The Kapitanys garden on weekends, barbecuing in the evenings near a group of carefully chosen seat-shaped rocks, looking across the succulents and lake to the sun setting over distant hills. It was hard work at first, adding tonnes of mulch to the hard, dry soil, and they are clearly still working hard at adding detail to their artwork. On the day I visited, with hundreds of others equally thrilled by this stunning garden, you could see the pride in the faces of Attila and Michele.