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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!