Janna SchreierThe Sydney Gardener

When my husband was offered a job in Sydney, in 2013, I was super excited about making the move. I was sad to leave Canberra, but couldn’t help but be attracted to all that Sydney had to offer. A tripling of rainfall was a bit of a concern, but really, an Australian gardener can’t, justifiably, complain about rain. With mild weather all year round, a huge range of cool temperate, warm temperate and subtropical plants available, and, it turned out, a nursery just 300 metres from our door, what could possibly be better?

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney are a great place to look for plant ideas. Photo: Janna Schreier

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney are a great place to look for plant ideas. Photo: Janna Schreier

I did, however, really struggle to find a Sydney-based gardening book, which puzzled me a little. The Canberra Gardener, produced by the Horticultural Society of Canberra had been my bible there and I couldn’t find anything like it. But no big deal, my studies had taught me enough to be able to work out most things from first principles, so I got stuck into my new garden with gusto.

My very well thumbed copy of The Canberra Gardener. Photo: Janna Schreier

My very well thumbed copy of The Canberra Gardener. Photo: Janna Schreier

Two other Sydney garden curiosities struck me, soon after. Firstly, the streets were full, day in, day out, with landscaper vehicles. Secondly, house after house seemed to have the same green, layered hedges in front of them. Few flowers, little variety, just line after line of repeated shrubs.

I started to get the sense that Sydneysiders weren’t really that into gardening. I had seen more enthusiasm in Melbourne, Adelaide and even frosty-one-minute-forty-degrees-the-next Canberra. And really there was no comparison to the zest for gardening that I’d seen in New Zealand and the UK.

Nathan Burkett's Melbourne show garden still has plenty of hedges, but there seems to be more variety of garden planting than in Sydney. Photo: Janna Schreier

Nathan Burkett’s Melbourne show garden still has plenty of hedges, but there seems to be more variety of garden planting than in Sydney. Photo: Janna Schreier

So why was that? I wondered if it was something to do with the history of Sydney. Rather than a city growing up in a gold rush, as Melbourne did, it had to find its feet (and cultivation of food supplies) in much tricker circumstances, way back in the 1780s. I also wondered if we were too much of a surfing and beach-going capital, at the expense of gardening or other activities.

We saw so many beautifully kept gardens, just walking around on our trip to Canada. Photo: Janna Schreier

We saw so many beautifully kept gardens, just walking around on our trip to Canada. Photo: Janna Schreier

But on the whole, I settled in and got on with life and didn’t think too much. Until, that is, we visited Canada, this July. Everywhere we went, there were freshly planted annuals, immaculately laid mulch and people busily working in their gardens. It just wasn’t the scene you see in Sydney.

And so I started asking around. I asked Canadians and Kiwis, who had lived in Australia; I asked long term local gardeners and those who were newer to the area. What did they think?

The message that came home loudly and clearly, was that it was just too difficult to garden here. The soils are poor and the summers hot and dry.

The Oakley Garden in New Zealand. One of so many well-loved garden that I have visited there. Photo: Janna Schreier

The Oakley Garden in New Zealand. One of so many well-loved garden that I have visited there. Photo: Janna Schreier

And then I had a light bulb moment, when a Wellington friend, who lived here for nine years, explained that the weather just wasn’t kind enough to gardeners, let alone plants. I nearly fell off my chair. Wet and windy Wellington, having a kinder climate to its gardeners than beautifully mild, sunny-all-year-round Sydney? I’d never heard anything so ridiculous.

But she’s a lovely friend who also loves Sydney, so I persisted with her story. She described how, in Sydney, there were always so many barriers to gardening. The mosquitos and the hot, humid summers; the need to don gloves and sunscreen and hats and to allow time afterwards for a shower on all but the coolest winter’s day. She couldn’t just pop out for ten minutes of weeding, in the same way that she does in Wellington.

Kangaroo paws flower all year round in my garden; they really do tick every box. Photo: Janna Schreier

Kangaroo paws flower all year round in my garden; they really do tick every box. Photo: Janna Schreier

And I realised it was true for me. Every so often I have a massive surge of activity, making huge progress with planting, pruning, weeding and generally getting things much more presentable. Then it can go weeks (dare I say, months?) before I do anything beyond keeping the status quo of watering and fertilising.

Despite visiting the largest nurseries in NSW, I still struggle to source basic plant varieties. Photo: Janna Schreier

Despite visiting the largest nurseries in NSW, I still struggle to source basic plant varieties. Photo: Janna Schreier

Even when I want to do planting, more often than not, I can’t find the plants I want, despite 60 kilometre trips to the larger nurseries or agreeing to pay eye-watering prices closer to home. I’ve been searching for weeks for a single, white, New Guinea Impatiens to put by my front door, but can I find one anywhere?

Brugmansia (Angel's Trumpet) is another plant that positively loves my Mosman garden. Photo: Janna Schreier

Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpet) is another plant that positively loves my Mosman garden. Photo: Janna Schreier

And so I thought back to those other factors that made Sydney so great for gardening. Yes, we do have high rainfall, but it tends to come all in one go, drain, instantly, through my sandy soil, and two days later the soil is bone dry again, waiting for rain that may be three weeks away.

And yes, there is a huge range of plants that will grow here, but how many of them actually thrive, as opposed to eek out an existence? Crab apples with too few flowers, Hydrangea that brown off within days, Citrus that suffer from every pest and disease known to mankind. It’s easy to see why people revert to rows of hardy evergreens when it’s a minefield to work out the subset of plants that actually thrive. And with both soil and climate so dramatically different across the city, it’s no surprise that I couldn’t find that ‘Sydney Gardener’ handbook.

Stunning Mosman Bay. It's hard to beat Sydney's beauty. Photo: Janna Schreier

Stunning Mosman Bay. It’s hard to beat Sydney’s beauty. Photo: Janna Schreier

Sydney is the most beautiful place I have ever lived; no questions; hands down. And it has the best climate of anywhere I can think of for year round comfort. But it is, actually, a bit tricky when it comes to gardening, and it seems that over time, people have fallen away from it.

We’re not going to beat the mozzies in the near future, and we do have the soil we have. But I can see that a more hassle-free, enjoyable gardening hobby is possible here. I think the key to unlocking it, is to find our Sydney style. English gardens are no good; 1970s bush gardens, no good; boring, boring gardens, hopeless for evoking passion.

We don't all have quite the backdrop of Gingie, in Darling Point, but we can choose plants that like our locality. Photo: Janna Schreier

We don’t all have quite the backdrop of Gingie, in Darling Point, but we can choose plants that like our locality. Photo: Janna Schreier

It needs to start with identifying the plants that truly thrive in our area. They can’t be Sydney plants, they need to be Mosman plants, or Lindfield plants or Parramatta plants; selected for the vast ranging soil and climate types we experience. We need to start demanding more of this subset of plants from the nurseries, such that they can more easily provide what we want, where we want it, at competitive prices.

And finally, we need to find a broad style that fits these plant selections. Somewhere between the finely textured detail of English gardens and the monotony of hedge after hedge after hedge. A framework for home gardeners to pick up and personalise in their own space.

Grevillias on the harbour's edge at Lavender Bay. Photo: Janna Schreier

Grevillias on the harbour’s edge at Lavender Bay. Photo: Janna Schreier

With plants that thrive and compelling styles to guide us, gardens will be much more achievable, more beautiful and more enjoyable to work and play in. We will have plants that want to be there, that free up time for more fun gardening tasks beyond watering, fertilising and watering once more.

Aloes quite positively thriving outside the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Photo: Janna Schreier

Aloes quite positively thriving outside the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Photo: Janna Schreier

I have a vision in my head of these gardens. Of more engaging settings for our homes. Of places that we choose to spend time in, not just for the pool or the barbecue, but where we connect with the plants around us. It’s not an easy vision to realise, but all of us gardener types can do our bit to encourage, support and inspire the not-yet-inspired. And just maybe, one day, I’ll write that book, The Sydney Gardener!

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Janna Schreier

About Janna Schreier

Garden designer, writer, and blogger, Janna has designed and created hundreds of gardens across the three countries she has called home—the UK, Australia and Malaysia. Currently based in London, she loves to travel and explore gardens all over the world. Her passion is to capture beautiful garden images wherever she goes and evaluate what it is, precisely, that makes each garden work so well. She uses this knowledge in designs for her clients and in her aim to enthuse all whose paths she crosses on the wonderful, vast and diverse merits of gardening. You can find Janna’s blog at Janna Schreier

35 thoughts on “The Sydney Gardener

  1. Interesting Janna. The trend now is for gardens to be instant. Paths, gravel and spiky plants have been all the rage, encouraged by the gardening makeover shows which mostly follow that formula.
    Even paint colours, grey, grey and grey….
    Perhaps home owners in Sydney are too busy working to pay mortgages to have any energy left for gardening.

    We grew up on the northern beaches and my dear mother, always a keen gardener, carted mulch, rock (in the days when it wasn’t illegal) and no doubt native plants to each garden she created. She would always plant poppies, wisteria, jasmine and magnolias amongst the bush plants.
    She had the time, interest and energy to do all of this hard work which, to her, and to us was an ongoing pleasure. Shade, colour, birdsong – all created from either clay or sandy soils.
    I think many people lack the time and the imagination, to plant what they want in a garden, preferring to pay landscapers to do the ho hum formulaic plantings.

  2. Janna, you’ve hit the nail on the head for my problem with gardening schedules too. It feels like a huge undertaking and all happens in a big chunk, followed by days/weeks of nothing but turning the sprinklers on and off! Relieved to hear I’m not the only one! I’m in Perth, but I would totally check out the Sydney Gardener book if you ever write it. 🙂

  3. I enjoyed your article and heartily agree with it
    Your article is so true about problems for Sydney gardeners . This long weekend I was all set to get stuck into some weeding and mulching, but it was too hot. The trick is to have the donkey work done by September if possible, then gentle maintenance until about March! Not possible for me . Fortunately I do have shady parts in my garden do can work there and move around with the shade. The decline in privately owned nurseries is a shame and the big chains all stock much the same. The plant fairs are our saviour! Good luck with your gardening. I will look forward to your book!

  4. This book is worth looking out for

    Sydney: Gardening by Suburb
    Author Tony Pile
    Publisher Murdoch Books Pty Limited, 2000
    ISBN 0864119453, 9780864119452

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Karl. I think I did read that one. A really good book that gives you a feel for just how varied our soils are. If it’s the one I’m thinking of, it covered from Newcastle to Wollongong and out to the Blue Mountains and Southern Highlands. I loved its breadth but obviously in covering so much, it was at a very high level. Always hard to fit everything into one book!

  5. I could SO relate to your blog Janna, speaking as one who moved from Tasmania to Sydney (Mosman) and gardened there for at least 15 years before moving again to the nearby mountains. I didn’t do too badly considering I was young and clueless and in those days, (1970’s) we actually had helpful, local nurseries. That’s before real estate prices kicked them out. I think the more experienced you are, the harder the Sydney coast would be. In my case, I didn’t overthink it, just jumped in head first with a L plate. At that stage of my life anything that survived was a triumph. I was very proud of my bullet like cabbages growing on a rock shelf. Certainly I think really BIG containers are the go and Leo Schofield’s book about Gardening at Bronte House was encouraging when I read it years later, after leaving!!!!! Go ahead and write your book my dear. Oh and I rather liked Richard Unsworth’s glossy tome, is it “Garden Life”?

    Thank you!

    • Ah, you lived in Mosman too! What different plants you are growing now. Your comment about it being harder the more experienced you are really resonates with me. When I’m designing I often know exactly the size, form, texture and colour of plant I am looking for and once I’ve eliminated the ones that I know won’t thrive I am left with exactly none! In the early days I would have thought there were hundreds that fit my specification! Bronte House is a great Sydney garden. I must read Richard’s book, too.

  6. Janna, I am amazed at what you have written and cannot agree with almost all of it! Gardening is no more difficult to do in Sydney than anywhere else! How would you cope with the Brisbane climate?!?

    Try to buy Shirley Stackhouse’s updated “Gardening Year”. It was updated withe her daughter, Jennifer, about five years ago. Out of print, I think but possibly you could get it on the web. Each chapter is a month of the year. It was supposed to be for all over Australia, but is rather Sydney-specific.

    With Sydney soils, like anywhere you must improve them with manures and mulch. A client in Wollstonecraft had soil the texture of coffee grounds from the the addition of cow manure. Of course, like everywhere, mulching is crucial.

    You inability to get the white New Guinea hybrid might just be that it is too early in the season.

    The one point you make I agree with is that in Sydney you can grow a wealth of plants. Some like roses, are ridiculously difficult to grow because they need so much spraying (hate humidity), but others, like hydrangeas, daisies, brugmansia, echiums, are easy, BUT YOU MUST CHOOSE THE RIGHT LOCATION (sun/shade, wet/dry etc), mulch well, feed well, water well, as in most places. You will have success.

    My garden was in the Open Garden Australia (Scheme) and is a rain forest garden which almost never gets watered. I was also a Selector, and there were wonderful gardens to see. It is a shame that OGA has disbanded.

    Perhaps you should join a garden club? I am sure Mosman would have one.

    Good Luck! Bernard Chapman

  7. Hi Janna, Loved your article but I think the real reason Sydneysiders don’t garden is that everyone is too posh to get dirty and sweaty in their own garden. Look at Brisbane, they are much hotter and have much bigger mosquitos but they have lovely innovative gardens. I work as a horticulturist and a designer, and all most customers or clients want is a hedge. One that grows fast so the neighbours can’t see over it, one that does not flower, as it might bring bees, one that does not drop leaves as they may have to clean the pool in between visits from the pool guy. Sadly the average Sydneysider would never even consider reading a book about gardening. But it hasn’t always been like this. When I first came to Sydney 20 years ago there were many lovely gardens where people took great pride in unusual plants. Our sub tropical climate allows us to grow a vast variety of plants from around the world. Sadly somewhere we lost the joy of gardening, the challenge of growing a garden all our neighbours would envy. Good luck. I will look forward to you book.

    • I believe one factor often overlooked in a successful garden is the use mainly of slow growing (hardy) plants. Most people ask if a plant is fast growing and view this feature as positive only. Most of my favoured plants are quite slow and therefore low maintenance. Examples include clivia , bromeliads and succulents. A customer was telling me of her garden near the beach which was largely sun tolerant bromeliads and succulents and how the passing comments were mainly how nice it was but also how much work she must put in. She said she spent very little time at all on maintenance, just a trim and mulch now and then.

  8. As a horticulturalist in the Sydney region since the early eighties, I find the climate to be fantastic. Most of my experience has been on the northern beaches but now on a couple of acres on the central coast with some frost. The plants available now are amazing compared to the eighties but I am surprised at the lack of great gardens and I often say to people when you drive about you see many great houses but very few great gardens.
    I believe this is costing the homeowner huge amounts when they sell as I believe some astute planting of some Dragon trees, to name one plant, will add enormous amounts to the price and saleability especially compared to an inappropriate mix.
    I have long thought our industry does a very poor job advising buyers of plants as to what is suitable and reliable for their individual situation. I suspect a retail nursery which only stocked plants which were suitable for this region and promoted themselves as such would develop a great following. Of course added to this would be an accurate label on the plant. I still work in retail part time and find myself telling people not to buy something because it is not reliable or unsuitable and of course directing them to something else. An example being the bushy forms of the magnificent Mandevillas which I promote as the world’s best flowering pot plant ( big statement I know) but, correct me if I am wrong, almost completely useless in the ground. It dies in the ground. Has anyone seen an old one in the ground? maybe I am wrong?
    So much time and money is wasted planting plants which people imagine to be tough, such as many natives from dry regions, and the deceased plant then comes back and someone tries to explain its demise. It is dead because it does not like the conditions in Sydney.!!
    Accurate specific labelling of plants would be a major step forward. For example many of the succulents I grow in the garden thrive in rich soil, plenty of nutrition, some frost and when it rains for weeks on end they thrive. The commonly available Crassulas are an example but if you read a label or asked in a shop you may not hear this but the opposite.
    Sydney botanical gardens is a great place to start if knowledge is to be gathered and the idea that they are doing anything special to these plants other than basic good practice is not true. I love the climate for gardening here and on the hottest days I get out after the sun goes away. I would be happy to hear from anyone who has some opposing views.

    • Interesting on the flowering pot plants. I think I’d have to agree, Mandevilla could well be the best. I do like my kangaroo paws (but they need more water than Mandevilla to stop the flowers drooping) and I so love the soft mound that a potted Sedum spectabile forms, but of course that is only good looking for half the year. I have seen a very large Mandevilla growing in the ground against a north facing wall; perhaps it liked the overnight warmth. And I think you’ve hit the nail on the head; Sydney should be great for gardening, if only we planted the right plants!

  9. I loved gardening in Sydney, but once we moved to Canberra, we just had more time to garden. Our extended family, living in Sydney spend long hours just driving around the city…they don’t have time to garden!

    • I hadn’t thought of it until you mentioned it, but I also spent far more time gardening in Canberra. Probably part ease of buying plants but also, you are quite right, you can fit twice as much into a day in Canberra than you can a day in Sydney!

  10. Hi Janna,
    I did have a fair bit to do with “Gingie” at Darling Point years ago when its N/Easterly hot house harbour micro climate was, at that time, nursing a plethora of standard iceberg roses, companioned with dwarf azalia & lavander hybrids slowly dying a death by a thousand cuts during each long humid summer. The current owner was brave enough to go with me to a warm temperate coastal frost free combination and that garden has since benefitted from the exceptional talents of fellow Designer Ian McMaugh, well done Ian.

    Michael Dent’s aloes around the Con, I dobbed his plants in for that gig also I’m afraid and haven’t they done well. We just wanted a high profile public space to show anyone who would notice, how good his range is, not as cactus alternatives but as the superb perennial plants they really are for the Sydney climate .. and free plants seemed to suit RBG Sydney at the time so it was a Win/Win.

    Sydney gardens and that book of yours…. yeeeeees, well go ahead of course and as suggested, there’s always “Sydney- Gardening by Suburb”. Something similar I have contemplated and at the time Unwin’s wanted a broader geography on a national scale to limit their risk on a returned investment, (as most publishers do, I later discovered). Consequently, trying to be all things to most people, these books tend to have content that’s nothing much to anyone in terms of planting fit to local growing conditions. Shame really, as Sydney conditions support a bulging band width of planting from similar latitudes near the coast globally, including our own beautiful natives.

    I agree with Ray Henderson especially across the industry front and certainly wouldn’t be waiting for the species impoverished grow lists of general line production businesses to deliver gardens from inappropriate selection to tough, energy charged and sparkling textural contrasts, heightened with seasonal flowering interest. No, for that, one must rely on a plucky band of non-general line resistors. These are growers whose day job is not always growing plants (some do ..) but for whom the next interesting one IS a shining beacon of dazzling desire, transforming empty stalls into pot covered counters & tables at plant driven events like the recent Central Coast Plant Lovers Fair, Kariong and Collectors Plant Fair, Clarendon.

    You could try writing the book, I’d be the first to buy it or you could just pop along to one of these events (I bet you’ve already been..) to get plants to make gardens from Janna …. cultivate a connection with a bunch of these lovely “plant people” with whom you will be on the same page and make gardens like you’ve never made before…. no ?

    Yes these growers might be far flung, yes their supply will be limited and seasonal but together your burning interest will find a freighter and have plants contract grown if necessary; together you will overcome EVERY obstacle and you will make that warm temperate coastal frost free garden that belongs to Sydney. How sensational it will be … FOR SURE !!!

    • Gosh, roses and azaleas at Gingie? Thank goodness you came to the party! Australian gardening books really are, on the whole, ‘nothing much to anyone’; I couldn’t have put it better myself! You really need to understand quite a lot to be able to interpret them, but by that point, broad brush generalisations are not overly useful. I’ve always loved the plant fairs, although you are right, I should follow up with the growers much more. In fact, when I arrived in Sydney I asked around about which plants really thrived here and your name came up, Peter. If only I hadn’t been too shy to contact you, I’d have saved myself an awful lot of learning the hard way!

      • Thanks Janna, well its the same warm temperate coastal frost free (or nearly free) string to pull along with the richly prized treasures this climate brings tied on that can be discovered by anyone interested enough to notice.
        And yes, you could have just made yourself known Janna but the time is now any time for industry networking that makes constant win/win opportunities.
        Call away or come along to the 6th Paradisus home garden incarnation, “Sea-Changer” here at Forresters Beach on Saturday 19th March ’16 for plant sales, sculpture and a selection of other gardens and interesting non-general line growers to visit here on the Central Coast only an hour from the Wahroonga Motorway on ramp …
        Love your work Janna.

    • Your long, hot summers must be a real challenge, Ann, but having gardened in numerous cities across three different continents, I do find it interesting that it’s not always obvious how easy each will be.

    • Thanks Lyn. Deirdre’s igarden website actually is my Sydney bible! I often look up plants there as Deirdre is so experienced at knowing exactly which cultivars are the best for our climate. She has tried and tested them all over the years. I am a bit old fashioned though and find there is nothing quite like a good, solid book to flick through. At some point I will move into the digital era!

  11. I came across your article as i browsed for growing Angel’s Trumpet in Canberra. Have you ever had any success in keeping them healthy? I have recently moved to Canberra from New Zealand and i missed my beautiful garden heaps

    • Hi Daphnie. Sadly, I can’t imagine Angel’s Trumpet surviving the minus fives of Canberra winters. I’ve certainly never seen one in Canberra. But don’t despair, you can have a truly beautiful garden there. I can highly recommend the Second Canberra Garden Club as a place to meet like minded friends, visit some of the best gardens in the city and have an opportunity to have all your gardening questions answered. If you google it, you’ll find a contact number. Good luck; Canberra is a great place to live.

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