Late last year the Royal Botanic Gardens here in Victoria opened the second stage of their much-lauded Australian Garden in Cranbourne. Until now I have been busy finishing up jobs before beginning anew, but I finally made time to go and see the second stage of the garden last weekend.
I loved the first stage of the garden, which opened in 2006. I first went there as a student on a field trip for university in early 2007 and I have been back many times since. Watching the plantings come to fruition over the past five years has been a pleasure. The ‘red centre’ feature of the first stage wows you as you first enter the garden – it’s one of the best entrances to any botanical garden I’ve visited. It sits at the heart of the first stage of the garden, and its gentle sloping hills of red sand mirror the gently curving paths that guide you through an impressively laid out native garden. There is a wonderful sense of cohesion in the design of the first stage of the Australian Garden, which is no mean feat given its hefty size of nine hectares. I was shocked upon arriving at the second stage of the garden to find a paucity of cohesion that made the first stage work so well.
The second stage is made up of an array of different precincts that, to me, all seemed cobbled together. There is a lot to like about most of the individual areas themselves, though some areas decidedly pushed my buttons. An area called ‘The Spits’, a representation of the coastal landforms that bear the same name, was one area in particular that I had problems with. The stylised spits are large, curving protrusions made out of off-white material that could be plastic. They are already beginning to be encrusted with duck poo, which goes no way towards increasing their appeal. Having grown up in Southeast Queensland I’m familiar with the look of a spit, and the representations of them in the Australian Garden are not it. I think the problem is that they are too stylised and look as though they belong more in a Salvador Dali painting than a botanic garden. Perhaps with time the plants will soften the area and its stock will rise.
The Spits area gives way to a seaside garden, which then leads on to a series of display gardens along Elizabeth Murdoch Promenade. The display gardens are categorised into Greening Cities Garden, Lifestyle, Backyard, and How-To Garden. Each of them has a unique look and some great ideas for the home gardener to take away. There is a gabion wall in the Backyard Garden that wonderfully blurs the boundaries between screening and sculpture.
At the end of Elizabeth Murdoch Promenade sits another element in the garden I wasn’t impressed with – the kiosk.
The kiosk is a modern building with ferocious red trimming that stands out very noticeably from the gardens around it. I’m no architect but the building just doesn’t seem to fit into the landscape very well at all. Where the original visitors centre is sympathetic to its surroundings, the new kiosk is its antithesis. The view from the kiosk out over Ian Potter Lake is pleasant enough, but for me the sheer volume of different materials used in this section of the garden is a visual bombardment that leaves one feeling a little overwhelmed. Natural stone, rusted steel, gleaming steel, dry stone walls, concrete, chain link fencing, pavers, slate, boardwalks, the lake and the lily pad bridge feel disjointed, at least at this early stage. Again, perhaps the area will grow to feel more peaceful as the plantings mature. At this very early stage the plants are still young and establishing.
Areas that work well in stage two tend to border the original stage one garden. These include the Amphitheatre and Research Gardens, the Forest Garden, the Arbour Garden, the Weird and Wonderful Garden and Gibson Hill, atop which you get an uninterrupted 360-degree view of the whole 15-hectare site. The Forest Garden and the Weird and Wonderful Garden were two of my favourite areas in the second stage. The forest garden is comprised of gums and the wonderful Scribbly Path that intersects the walkway is a beautiful touch. The Weird and Wonderful Garden was set with many Brachychiton specimens amid large slabs of vertical rock, all softened with a variety of foliage shapes that will look dynamite when they fill out. For me this was one of the best areas in stage two, both in design terms and plant combinations.
Despite this blog being a bit of grumble I would still encourage others to go along and see stage two of the Australian Garden. Tastes are as individual as those who hold them, and one mans gripe can be another’s compliment. It’s not that I disliked stage two of the gardens; I was more disappointed with some aspects of it. The contrast between the initial stage of the gardens and stage two, for me, is too stark. To get a good sense of the contrast I recommend standing on top of Gibson Hill and giving the two stages a thorough looking over. Like I said before there are a lot of good ideas kicking around stage two for home gardeners to use, which is what botanical gardens should give to the gardening public. Based on this criteria alone stage two is a huge success.
Until next time, happy gardening.
The Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne is about an hour east of Melbourne and is open every day of the year except Christmas day. Entry is free. Visit www.rbg.vic.gov.au for further information.