Why is rainforest so alluring that people want to live there? Is a forest’s up-close complexity its appeal or its apparent calm ‘same-ness’, from a distance? What is a rainforest garden? Can you ‘garden’ in a regenerating natural system? What is a ‘garden’ for that matter?
Some say gardening is ‘holding a piece of land in a state of arrested ecological development’ – and conjuring images of places like Versailles, Stourhead, the Boboli Gardens or Taj Mahal, that’s certainly plausible. The urge to clear, terrace, clip or control nature to channel a view or vista, show off a building or area by ‘dressing it’, regardless of size, is widely-understood as ‘gardening’.
Others say a garden is a medium to relate to and enjoy nature: a window into the world we inhabit. Cultures such as Korea, China or Japan revere nature and hold as ideal its emulation in gardens, touching the earth lightly with any structure or human intrusion. While Japan and China might bring to mind pruning and stylisation, both also set much store by striving to attain an appearance as informal and natural as possible – an almost ‘non-gardening’ of restraint, or apparent non-manipulation. Perhaps this is ‘curation’- a light-touch, but influencing nature all the same?
Aboriginal peoples could be said to be landscape gardeners on a grand scale, as documented by writers such as Bill Gammage’s ‘The Largest Estate on Earth’, using fire-stick farming, seasonal restrictions on some harvesting or hunting, cultivating ‘yam fields’ of edible rhizomes and bulbs such as orchids to ensure food. Digging yams seems rather close to digging potatoes by later settlers. ‘Cleaning up country’ by low-intensity grass fires to bring on fresh feed and attract herbivores to hunt is not so different to ploughing and sowing a crop of rye grass or clover, fertilising or top-dressing to improve pasture mix. Is this farming? Gardening? Why not?
Australians have long been fascinated by the bush and within that broad term, rainforest. Don Watson’s book ‘The Bush’ explores the evolving relationships we of all backgrounds have with our place. Even the choices we make of places to build, often on the edge of bush or woodland with a natural outlook, are clung to, often rebuilding after bush fire or storms.
Rainforest remnants often occur in spectacular terrain, gorges, hill country with pockets protected from fire. They offer a cooler, darker, lusher world that might seem foreign, welcome in contrast to much of Australia’s blinding light, exposure and light shade offered by vertical eucalypt canopies. Even its colours are deeper, ranges of green, brown, red and grey contrasting with the blue-grey, olive, fawn and ginger of drier forms of vegetation.
Increasing numbers choose to live in or near rainforest or bush, and to help revive and restore its condition. Knowing more about how much was cleared since 1788, in some cases needlessly or with little benefit is one thing. Germaine Greer’s book ‘White Beech’ recounts her attachment to a piece of rainforest land and trying to turn around its regeneration and future viability. This is to some a kind of national priority – re-setting our relationship to this land, our place in it and our ties to its cover.
Illawarra rainforests have been much cleared for agriculture, mining and urbanism. This region is rich botanically and its fertile volcanic, sedimentary and alluvial soils, relatively high rainfall and dramatic topography make an appealing mix. Off the coast with its intense urban development, less-peopled pockets of foot slopes, escarpments and gullies are changing uses from mining, forestry and grazing to more mixed farming and rural living, at a gentler pace and lower density.
Geoff and Ann Long’s rainforest garden at Bolwarra, Foxground is a splendid example of gardening of restraint, by selective removal – things such as exotic weeds like Lantana that should not be here, clearing around the house both to enjoy spectacular coastal views through trees. Their elevated home is an award-winning* modern interpretation of a medieval long-house (to my mind) clad in glass, to enjoy its sylvan surrounds. It has been designed to be sustainable to run, being off-the grid with natural ventilation in summer and winter heat retention.
Four kilometres of paths trail off into and across fifty acres of rainforest, with four waterfalls and creeks. Varying aspects mean differences in vegetation as shade or moisture levels rise. Sited on the first bench of forest as the valley rises to the Barren Grounds, levels rise from 135m to 300m above sea level. The house is near the top of the property on relatively flat land.
How complex can a rainforest garden be? This one has over 200 species of plants, including 27 exotics. Over time more natives have arisen as weeds are removed, nurse tree wattles were planted in grassed areas and compost has been added. Judicious pruning retains and reveals the delightful coastal views. Gardening of a more recognisable sort!
Pioneer (short-lived) species of daisy bushes give way in time to longer-lived shrubs and trees. Canopy tree species like red cedar (Toona ciliata), Illawarra flame tree and Illawarra plum pine emerge. How encouraging to see bronze-orange tips of red cedar pepper the forest in spring, reclaiming that species of ‘red gold’ so mercilessly-logged in the 19th century from these ranges. Eastern grey kangaroos and swamp wallabies visit, wombats, echidnas, gliders, ring-tails and brush-tailed possums. The full range of Southern Illawarra birds enjoy this garden, including lyre birds, whip and cat birds, yellow robins and tree creepers. Scrub wrens flit near the ground, golden whistlers make their calls and wedge-tailed eagles soar above. Birdsong is very much a part of this garden, making a walk to the mail box a concert to relish.
The Longs have used NSW Forestry advice to plant trees to harvest at 5 year intervals, from wattles, turpentines, red ash, coachwood, brush cherry to red cedar, plum pine and blush bloodwood. Is small-scale forestry another form of large-scale garden curation? Permaculture exponents would certainly say so: production at all levels of a garden is a goal they foster. Seed collectors from various botanic gardens in Canberra, Sydney and Wollongong have visited to collect here: this garden is provisioning other significant garden collections. Two enclosures protect vegetables, citrus trees and herbs from herbivores and birds.
Amongst the richness of Bolwarra’s vegetation are some examples of rare and endangered species. Arguably the largest known stand of rare socketwood (Daphnandra johnsonii) and a citrus relative, Zieria granulata occur here. Scented sassafras and related coachwood, maiden’s blush, lemon aspen, red olive-berry, wild cherries and brown kurrajongs grow happily as does the namesake shrub, bolwarra (Eupomatia laurina) a primitive flowering plant and a link to Gondwanaland. In fact every Illawarra rainforest species is found in this garden. It has begun influencing its neighbours.
Bolwarra is now for sale – and seeking a new owner and inhabitants who wish to continue its journey, care and enjoyment. It offers much to the right person or persons. Is that you? Visit the real estate agent’s website for more information.
*Designed by Long Blackledge architects the house won the Timber Development Association’s 2000 prize for domestic architecture. It was shortlisted in the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (NSW) awards and featured in the Sydney Morning Herald’s 100 Amazing Sydney Homes in 2002.