James BeattieAustralian Garden – Stage 2. Hmmm….

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.

Australian Garden Stage 1

Australian Garden Stage 1 Red Centre

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.

Australian Garden Stage 2 - The Spits

Australian Garden Stage 2 – The Spits

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.

Australian Garden Stage 2 Seaside Garden

Australian Garden Stage 2 Seaside Garden

Australian Garden Stage 2  Backyard Garden Gabion Screen

Australian Garden Stage 2 Backyard Garden Gabion Screen









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.

Australian Garden Stage 2 Lifestyle Garden

Australian Garden Stage 2 Lifestyle Garden

At the end of Elizabeth Murdoch Promenade sits another element in the garden I wasn’t impressed with – the kiosk.

Australian Garden Stage 2 Kiosk

Australian Garden Stage 2 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.

Australian Gardens Stage 2 Scribbly Walk

Australian Gardens Stage 2 Forest Garden’s Scribbly Path

Australian Garden Stage 2 Weird & Wonderful Garden

Australian Garden Stage 2 Weird & Wonderful Garden

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.

Australian Garden Stage 2 Weird & Wonderful Garden

Australian Garden Stage 2 Weird & Wonderful Garden

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.

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James Beattie

About James Beattie

James is a horticulturist working in the Melbourne area. His work in the industry has included landscape planting design, hard landscaping, bushland management, garden consulting as well as extensive experience in the horticultural media. He worked for four years as one of the horticultural guns for hire behind the scenes at ABC TV's Gardening Australia program and has been a semi-regular guest on Melbourne's 3CR Gardening Show (855 AM). You can follow his whimsical garden musings at Horticologist

13 thoughts on “Australian Garden – Stage 2. Hmmm….

  1. Thanks James,
    haven’t got myself down to the new Cranbourne as yet and while your review is measured, my enthusiasm for our new frontier in public space landscape architecture (would you say ..?) is now no further blunted than the last time I thought about it … I’m sure it should have our considered support and your first impressions encouraging enough to get me there some time soon I think .. many thanks :))

  2. Thank you James for your insightful review and great images of the gardens. I too loved Stage 1 and on a recent visit to Melbourne I went with two fellow Western Australians to have another look. It may only be one hour east of Melbourne by car but it may as well be on the moon. Our query at the Tourist office to find out how to get there by public transport was met with amazement – why would you want to go there and no you can’t go by public transport. We did eventually get there by train, followed by a bus and the final leg by taxi. Spent a few hours admiring the fantastic gardens but then the taxi that we had booked for the return trip never arrived, despite many followup calls to the depot. Fortunately a lovely lady drove us all the way back into Melbourne but the hour and a half that we wasted waiting for the taxi would have been much better spent in the gardens. Our experience wasn’t unique as I have spoken to others who had virtually the same experience as us.
    I am amazed that so many Victorians haven’t been to see such a fantastic site. Perhaps resolving the public transport problems and some promotion would go some way to encourage more Victorians to visit.
    Phew! I’m glad I got that off my chest!

    • Hi Linda,
      Yes, the public transport links to the gardens leave a lot to be desired, that’s for sure! How fortunate to have someone offer to give you a ride back into the city.

      Every time I visit I drive there, and unless you have an endless reserve of patience to draw on if you decide to try get there by some other means, I suggest others do the same!

  3. Hi James
    I like you analysis and when I saw your picture of the Australian Gardens Stage 2 Forest Garden’s Scribbly Path my eyes hurt and thought it is way too busy.
    Have a question: I heard there is an area with espalier gum trees. Is this true? I saw some espaliers at Heidi Modern Art Gallery in Heidelberg and they did not seem to be espaliering very well. The branches kept dying. I tried to look at the Cranbourne website, but couldn’t find anything.
    I am curious as to how well gum trees espalier.
    Kind regards Sandi Pullman

    • Hey Sandi,

      I liked the scribbly path! It just goes to show that taste is a always very personal thing.

      On the espalier front, I didn’t notice any around the Cranbourne gardens. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. There are so many little nooks and crannies about the garden that I may well have missed them.

      I was at Heidi on the weekend just gone, and I saw the Eucalyptus caesia espalier that you refer to. They didn’t look at all well. I can’t imagine any eucalyptus would lend itself to espalier – all those epicormic buds just waiting to burst the second you try to train a branch to grow any way but vertically – what a nightmare!

      I’ll have to keep my eyes out next time I’m in the Cranbourne gardens, though. Perhaps is can be done?

  4. thanks for this James. Did you see Stage 1 when it was new? – it was really quite stark. It is amazing how things change when plants grow. I feel confident that in two or three years – given some rain!! – your reactions to the parts that don’t ‘speak to you’ may be mellowed a little. Pity about those birds on the spits. I agree – the Weird and Wonderful Garden is a knockout.

    • Thanks, Anne.

      When I was a student we visited stage one not long after it opened and yes, I agree, it was quite stark. Even then, though, stage one had an interconnectedness and great sense of flow about it.

      When the plantings come to fruition in stage 2 perhaps the spits will be a dazzling feature, but who knows? I may have to eat my words in a few years’ time!

      And, yes, that weird and wonderful garden is a highlight!

  5. Thanks james, I am yet to see the garden, but have it on my to do list… I was curious about your comment about how stark the contrast is between gardens in stage 1 and 2 and wondered whether this could be a deliberate ploy? I personally am often amazed at how different the landscape and climate is in just a short distance in the australian landscape …I live only a 20 minute drive from my sister in law whom I regularly attempt to swap cuttings with yet her conditions rain fall and general landscape is quite different to. Just a thought…

  6. I never liked the first stage and was absolutely appalled by the second. Modernisms violent spasms couldn’t be made more evident than here. Strange how such kinetically vibrant hard landscaping can induce such an overwhelming feeling of ennui.

    Every architectural and environmental trope and conceit is on show and I think it’s the best example you could give any budding student of what not to do.

    You are too kind James.

  7. Pingback: National Botanic Gardens | A Word or Two

  8. We went to the gardens last Saturday before the rains and it was a stark reminder of our need to have solutions to water scarcity…even the plants accustomed to dry conditions looked stressed…
    Where the overhanging canopy had grown there was a much lusher style to the garden… (I think that’s why you have a garden in the first place…to transport ourselves away from the monopoly of the built environment and the tar and cement)
    There were some good ideas but I would have liked an irrigated section where people elect to pay for lushness…(I’m willing to give up coffee to pay for my 10 thousand litre water tank !!!)
    I think it would be useful to have a rideshare post at the front office so that people can drive the overseas /interstate visitors back to Cranbourne station.

    We will visit later on this year after the rains…

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