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Every garden is about love

Carmel Niland

Carmel Niland

October 9, 2014

Every garden is about love and it is not until you look at it through someone else’s eyes that you realise what you love about it.

As gardeners, John and I love drifts of colour softened by white that spread throughout every season. We love undulating shapes punctuated by exclamation points and rounded full stops. We love dry stone walls so much that there are now over a kilometre of craftsman built walls that curve through our one and a half acres.

Carmel and John Niland's garden Mt Victoria, NSWWe love plants that are vigorous and no fuss that scatter their offspring freely into unexpected places. That means poppies, foxgloves and aquilegias have total right of way in our garden. And we love any plant that reminds us of the month of May at the Bodnant Garden in north Wales. And that is why we embarked on the daft idea of growing a laburnum arch in our land of droughts and flooding rains.

It is blue bell time on the Rhodo Walk. The Banksia bed is to the left with one birthday candle on view at the path and Banksia serrata above it

It is blue bell time on the Rhodo Walk. The Banksia bed to the left has one ‘Birthday Candle’ on view at the path and Banksia serrata above it

We garden in tough conditions and at 1100 metres above sea level; ours is one of the highest gardens in Australia. Mount Victoria rests on the side of a mountain called in contrarian fashion Mt Piddington and it overlooks the escarpment of the Kanimbla Valley. It is shaped by south westerlies that can gust to 100 kilometres an hour in August and September when they snap the widow-maker branches from the mountain ash, scatter its ribbons of bark and regularly up end any fifty metre tree that gets in their way.

Taken one year later and the trunk of the fallen Big Mama visible

Taken one year after our ‘Big Mama’ tree fell

We built our house in 1984 as a weekender but it was not until the early nineties before we began seriously sculpting the mountainside into a stroll garden. Whenever I am asked whether my husband, a former Vice-Chancellor who rebuilt the campus of UNSW in 1990s, is a gardener, I say he is more like an enthusiastic Minister for Public Works. No job is too small or too huge.

When I asked him for a way of displaying my Japanese and Louisiana iris he oversaw the construction of a chain of four ponds to be viewed from above in our house Versailles style. They were dug, lined with tinted concrete and filled with reticulating rainwater from the tanks. As you know a pear tree, needs a pollinator and that gave rise to our orchard. A weeping maple needs a companion of contrasting colour and that became a Japanese inspired grove of twenty friends. And so our garden grew less by design and more by the accident of keeping each plant happy.

Red maples in Carmel and John Niland's garden NSW

Our grove of Japanese maples

In the long drought we almost gave up but not from lack of water. We have a very deep bore, we have water tanks, a Big Pond with a pump for fires and as a last resort, we have town water; but it was having water that caused our problem. We adjoin the Blue Mountains National Park and we became a refuge for the protected species that were the very symbols of the Park.

Hedges and paths in Carmel and John Niland's garden Mt Victoria, NSWBelow us, the shy Superb Lyrebirds live in the damp, dark gullies of the wet eucalypt forest and they abandoned their dry dells and moved in. Everywhere we watered they excavated furiously in their search for food and either exposed the roots of the plant or exhumed it completely and tossed it onto the path. Every second weekend, when we visited, we dealt with the carnage of hundreds of dying or dead shrubs or trees until John covered the whole garden with hundreds of metres of brown plastic webbing and disguised it under mulch. Then there are the Sulphur Crested Cockatoos who dig up bearded iris for the sweet juice near the rhizome, and the possums…everyone has a possum story. That is why we chose to live among creatures that have lived here for millennia and every day we enjoy their aerial displays, their bowers and nests and for their cheeky imitations of the chain saws and the double b’s changing gears as they go down the Victoria Pass.

Robinia Walk under canopy of Mountain Ash

Robinia Walk under canopy of Mountain Ash

Our garden is idiosyncratic. I love rare maples, rhododendrons, lilies, David Austin roses and of course, iris. We have no lawns but we have banks of grass. We grow artichokes but not to eat, instead we grow them for their silver statuesque structure and their striking purple thistles that grow from their buds. John loves natives particularly banksia, grevillea and waratahs and dry garden plants like echium, phormium and gunnera. I have a passion for bulbs and we have about 10,000 bluebells, 4000 white nerines, 1000 jonquils and around 3000 lilies. Just think in a good year they double. Fortunately we both like a good show.

Azaleas and maple in Carmel and John Niland's garden Mt Victoria, NSWIn a garden that usually avoids yellow why did we plant a laburnum arch? We saw the tunnel of gold at Hampton Court and were impressed, then we visited Rosemary Verey’s one under planted with purple Allium hollandicum at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire and we were in awe but that was before seeing the queen of them all: the arch at Bodnant. It was only after we put in our own arch over a set of stairs that we discovered Bodnant was planted 130 years ago, takes two days to dead head and nearly a month to tie back its whippy new growth before its display. And in Australia laburnum is invaded by a caterpillar that untreated, defoliates the whole arch. And we thought we could do it too! Anyway, it will be blooming when we open.

Pink clematis

Pink clematis

Last year, two days before we were to open our garden, the bush fire came within a kilometre of our property. We were compulsorily evacuated and our Open Garden, the Iris Show and its triennial Convention on the following weekend were all cancelled. Somewhat bravely we are trying to do it all again.


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Peta Trahar
9 years ago

I’ve visited Carmel’s inspiring garden many times and always see something different. It’s enlightening to have Carmel describe it in such an entertaining way. For me I love the way it contains many unusual exotics and yet it sits very comfortably, tucked into the bush. Make the trip!

9 years ago

I would like to know if the Mount Victoria garden is open this autumn 2015 or spring. I live only minutes away and would love to visit this exquisite garden. How do I contact Carmel?

Gail Midgley
Gail Midgley
8 years ago

Hello Carmel. So glad you have found that wonderful combination of peace and stimulation that comes from growing things.