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Garden Design

Real gardens – gardens with plants

Alison Aplin

Alison Aplin

June 6, 2012

Are you like me and fed up with the sight of homes with no eaves, that all look virtually the same and then have the same garden – river pebbles en masse with a few tufty grasses or flax growing out of them?

A real garden, with depth, character, ambience, biodiversity and PLANTS

Maybe a Yucca elephantipes or coloured Cordyline to break up the monotony has been thoughtfully added!

Do people realise how big these Yuccas eventually get? The ‘elephantipes’ refers to the ‘large feet’, the swollen base of the plant that becomes quite a size over time. Often planted too close to homes, these plants spend their lives being cut back on a regular basis because of inappropriate plant selection in the first instance.

 Like fads with clothing, these boring gardens will hopefully not last; they have already been around long enough like the Iceberg rose craze. But like the Iceberg rose, the flax, cordylines and yuccas are great plants when used properly and in the right setting.Unfortunately too many people copy others’ gardens without looking at whether it suits their home, the soil, or climate. Too many presume that the garden with a couple of flaxes and river pebbles is low maintenance, so let’s do it! These ‘gardens’ require as much maintenance in the initial instance as any other garden, because any turning of the soil requires at least 2 years of constant weeding to get on top of the issue of germinating weeds.

A garden filled with the graceful arch of canopy trees, the structure of shrubs, the exuberant flowers of perennials – a perfect real garden ambience

Where have the ‘real’ gardens gone, where plants make up the garden and not hard landscaping? The hard landscaping that I am referring to as being hostile to our environments are concrete, river pebbles where the rocks have not been sustainably sourced, decking from unsustainable sources, non-porous paving and so on. Good hard landscaping comes in the form of gravel and crazy paving without infill of concrete. I suppose that the river pebbles are at least an improvement on the vast areas of paving so often seen in homes today. At least any rain that falls on the site is utilised on site and doesn’t run off into the stormwater

As a sustainable garden designer, I use a variety of plants to make my gardens. They don’t have to be all native – variety is the essence. Even hedges in gardens are not verboten in sustainable gardens. As long as there is a balance of hedging plants mixed with various other plants that will encourage birds, lizards, frogs and good bugs to the habitat.

Real gardens are not made up of concrete and non-porous paving which causes so many issues further down the track. Too often these gardens are hot with reflected heat off the paving, do not utilise rainfall on site, have no character [albeit the owner may think so], and they do nothing to help the environment – they are cold and manufactured. Most don’t have any trees, and if they do, they are the fastigiate or upright forms that cast little shade.

A birdbath in a garden will give you the joyful sound of birds as they chatter to each other

One of the great joys of a real garden is the sound of different birds chattering to each other. Some enjoy nectar filled flowers, others the seed pods. Some are ground dwellers after tiny insects or worms. And of course there are the frogs that we cannot forget. What a wonderful sound they make when there is rain coming.

Like the picture at the heading, a real garden has depth to it, mostly achieved through the use of trees and shrubs that hang over paths. Too often we see shrubs in gardens that have been pruned so that any ‘wayward growth’ has been firmly controlled. Ambience in a garden is created by allowing the canopy to rise up and then arch over the walkways. Instead of pruning off the top of the shrub, thin the lower

Raised canopy on Cercis chinensis ‘Avondale’ with lawn forming a path beneath

part of the plant that then forces the growth upwards. I often use forked branches from our trees to hold this young growth that is initially too floppy, to arch without collapsing. After a few months, this support can be removed and the branch has strengthened to manage without.

There is a place for solid concrete and/or paving in high density populated sites, but there needs to be continuing research into alternatives. King William Road in South Australia is a good example of using concrete as sustainably as possible – see here based on the use of concrete pavers for high usage traffic. It is just a pity that this practice has not been the model for roads throughout municipal Australia. The drainage issues in general would be significantly reduced with rainfall utilised onsite instead of going into stormwater drains.

Even commercial gardens can be real gardens, as shown at Taylor’s Wines with its rhythm of clipped shrubs and canopy trees

We have also used recycled concrete in client’s gardens – it looks fantastic but is not an easy product to use because it is clumsy to use and heavy to move around on site. But at least it is using a by-product appropriately. When used in native gardens, with mallee eucalypts and low shrubby natives and grasses, it is a very good product as it doesn’t seem to reflect high heat like ordinary paving would [maybe because it is in large pebble size and the colour may have something to do with this] and it retains moisture really well underneath.

There are so many different ways to make a real garden that is environmentally friendly but also aesthetically pleasing– far more so than the too often seen characterless gardens surrounding McMansions – which I regard as dumpy piles of concrete. Softening these facades is essential, but one or 2

Trees are essential for shade and reduce heatload, and hard surface are should be minimal, as in this sustainable garden in a harsh, dry part of South Australia

plants with nothing but river pebbles, is not a garden, nor does it provide any natural insulation to the property. Too often these square boxes take up most of the block leaving no room for trees to insulate them, with air conditioners set to come on in late afternoon to either heat or cool the home. No thanks, I will stick with my plot of paradise any day. 

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David Richards
David Richards
11 years ago

I couldn’t agree more! In my bayside suburb, our council continues to encouarge the subdivision of existing blocks to accommodate two or even three massive McMansions, usually larger than the single relatively modest house which they replace. The gardens are often designed by so-called landscape experts, using a limited range of inappropriate plants which will ensure an unimpeded view of the architectural masterpieces around which they are grouped. Some homeowners magnify the overall effect by savagely attacking any plant which dares to grow more than two metres tall, carrying out their annual pruning with a chain saw in one hand and a hatchet in the other. The final aim seems to be to make an old established suburb resemble a raw new housing estate on the city fringe. I should have thought that the opposite effect would be a more desirable goal.

11 years ago
Reply to  David Richards

Hello David
I love your response – it is wholesome and so true. What is happening to our gardens? So many really good plants are being lost from the market-place because too many of the current garden design companies hail from a building background and so don’t have a large plant repetoire. I am really concerned at the direction our gardens are heading.