Angus StewartThe Body in the Garden

When I was invited to the inaugural South Australian Crime and Garden Writers’ Festival at the Adelaide Botanic gardens, creatively titled ‘The Body in the Garden’, and I wondered how the two genre would blend. Crime scene tape and chalked outlines of fallen bodies are sprinkled around the Botanic Gardens in a clever marketing ploy.

The Body in the Garden Writers Festival

An accomplished cast of writers has been assembled across a range of Australian gardening talents such as Adelaide locals Michael Keelan, Trevor Nottle to interstate identities Holly Kerr Forsyth, Trisha Dixon, Paul Bangay, Myles Baldwin, Fabian Capomolla, Richard Aitken and of course yours truly. The icing on the cake were overseas writers Charles (Chuck) Elliott and Toby Musgrave, one of the UK’s leading authorities on garden history and design as well as occasional TV presenter. Topics have varied from the humorous ‘Just Vegetating’ and ‘The Philosophy of Mud’ to the more philosophical ‘Horticultural Imperialism’ and ‘Dark Earth’.

National Rose Garden in Adelaide Botanic Gardens

It has been a fascinating experience to hear the varying inputs of writers about garden design, history and practice. The overwhelming feeling I am left with is a nation that is still grappling to find its own unique gardening style. Of course our European gardening heritage still looms large, and it is easy to see why when the national rose collection is blooming in spectacular abundance several hundred metres away.

Eremophila cuneifolia in Adelaide Botanic Gardens

Eremophila cuneifolia in Adelaide Botanic Gardens

In another corner of the gardens a small but burgeoning native garden features a far more subtle collection of Eremophila species and cultivars (Emu Bushes) that provide an interesting alternative. I am left wondering why there still needs to be a sharp dichotomy between ‘native’ and ‘exotic’ species. Can we not just look at all plants as part of a global gardening inheritance and blend them together in gardens to achieve a more sustainable Australian garden that still has room for the ‘wow’ factor of plants such as roses that have had thousands of years of genetic improvement.

The Body in the GardenBut I digress, back to the festival, where the crime writers seem to have a magnetic grip on their audience as opposed to the a more leisurely interest in the gardening writers as evidenced by the questions at the end of each talk. A fascinating comparison. A show of hands in response to a murder writer’s question of the audience draws a tentative show of hands as to those who read both crime and garden books. I ponder the idea that readers of garden books are most likely practitioners of the subject, but does the same hold true for readers of crime novels? Switching on the television at the hotel room confirms the public’s fascination for evil doing and the plot thickens.

A couple of gardening literature enthusiasts

A couple of gardening literature enthusiasts



The Festival has been a fascinating event from start to finish and I am left pondering an idea for a book on ways to finish off your out of fashion garden plants. Or perhaps a psychological thriller on the mysterious demise of that majestic Moreton Bay Fig that is blocking a whole neighbourhood’s view of the Sydney Harbour….

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Angus Stewart

About Angus Stewart

Gardening Australia TV presenter, author of 'Creating an Australian Garden', 'Australian Plants for Year-round Colour' and 'Let's Propagate', garden travel guide, native plant specialist and breeder. Central Coast, NSW. Find out lots more about native plants at Gardening with Angus.

6 thoughts on “The Body in the Garden

  1. Angus, I agree with your query about ‘why there still needs to be a sharp dichotomy between ‘native’ and ‘exotic’ species. Can we not just look at all plants as part of a global gardening inheritance and blend them together ‘ …. This is one of the points I’m trying to make in my new book ‘Garden Voices’. It’s all about recognising Australia’s heritage – which is surely unique, if you include our indigenous history – and then about trying to combine all aspects of this, past and present, to create gardens that are truly “ours” and not pastiches from other places. Well written!

    • Thanks Anne. I think the classic case of this lies in the proteas from South Africa. This group fits in superbly both in appearance and growing requirements with the Australian Proteaceae such as banksias and waratahs. Yet there are purists who would eject them from the garden because they are not Australian. By all means let’s not introduce any plants that are at risk of becoming weeds but let’s not exclude plants purely on the basis of which side of a national border they come from.

  2. hmmm..reminds me of the day I visited Oxford Botanic Gardens, and was greeted by the comment…”You should have been here yesterday, we had three murders!” Turns out they were filming for the detective series, Lewis, ‘knocking off’ three episodes in one day!

    I can’t help feeling, Angus, that one reason people are loathe to combine exotic and native plants is the notion that all native plants will die if given regular fertiliser. We must work to allay this fear, for there is beauty in the happy medium between a bush garden and a European garden.

    We are all struck with finding a true Australian style, but is there a true style in countries like the USA, where the range of climate is almost as diverse as ours ?

  3. I was really sorry I couldn’t attend this festival as it appealed enormously. I was intrigued by why Angus questioned the horticultural segregation between Australian plants and exotics at Adelaide Botanic Garden. This is after all, a botanic garden where thematic planting is a norm. In an international context Adelaide Botanic Garden has one of the oldest dedicated consciously themed Australian ‘forest’ gardens that dates from 1868. It also includes the Mallee garden designed and laid out from 1953, which demonstrated a commitment to educate gardeners about arid flora.

    Perhaps Angus was questioning why we don’t break down barriers in our own gardens. Many of us would like to successfully mix natives with exotics and some do so with a small amount of success. However, like Libby, I believe it also comes down to the basic soil/fertiliser issue. How could horticulturists achieve the good results they desire for some exotics without considerable amounts of fertiliser, a situation which would cause Australian plants to curl up their toes?

    As an aside Anne Latreille’s book ‘Garden Voices’ is terrific!

    • Thanks for the comments Libby and Colleen. Point taken about the thematic gardens in Adelaide and the way in which Botanic Gardens are structured. I can think of other thematic gardens such as the Palm Garden in Sydney that features species from all over the world blended into a spectacular display. Libby you have a good point about education regarding fertiliser. Through a lifetime of experience it is clear that there is a huge variation in things like phosphorus sensitivity. Most of the kangaroo paw hybrids, for instance, absolutely thrive on general purpose fertilisers and are not P sensitive at all. Kevin Handreck has published a lot of detailed data on this subject such as the following article
      The point is also taken about the diversity of Australian climates, however, we do have some iconic plants such as grass trees, banksias, gum trees and wattles that can be found over most of the areas where people actually live, and these have been used by various garden designers to create a rather unique style. I do not see why a designer with flair could not incorporate exotic species that have foliage types,colours and textures to either harmonise or contrast with those native species. Let’s acknowledge our multicultural heritage in the garden as well as in society!

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