Perched on the top of a windswept hill in the Hunter Valley, this Australian native garden started with some lofty goals: to offer beautiful views from the house; create a haven for local fauna; be a rewarding ‘walk-around’ experience with places to sit; provide a rich source of vegetables; and provide places for kids to play.
We fell in love with the land in 2003 and while my husband built the house, I started planting. Little did we consider the vicious westerly winds, shallow, compacted soils, clay, 45ºC days and the locals eating the plants. All we saw were the stunning views and the sense of space and belonging.
Garden opportunities and challenges
Part of a 100-acre block, the 1.5 hectare garden sits on the top of a ridgeline in the lower Hunter Valley, 2 hours north of Sydney and an hour west of Newcastle. At 400 metres above sea level, there are views east to Newcastle, south over the Hunter Valley and north to Barrington Tops (on a clear day). It’s a mix of native and vegie gardens, an orchard of about 30 trees and lawn.
About 40% of the 100 acres is cleared and 60% bush. It was previously used for cattle grazing. Over the last 100 years or so, selective logging took out very large red cedars (Toona ciliata), rosewood (Dysoxylum fraserianum) and other dry rainforest trees, but the bush is still dense and not too weedy. We have started reafforesting, so far planting about 6,000 trees across the property.
Being on the top of the hill, there are no frosts. But there are very strong westerly winds in spring, with gusts up to 150 km/hour. Not only do plants get ripped out by their roots, but pool canopies and their metal poles get ripped out of the concrete!
There is high rainfall, at 900 to 1100 mm per year, mostly falling in late spring and summer. Twice in the last 10 years, we’ve had 400 mm or more in a few days. This has led to rivers overflowing, bridges being washed away and electricity cuts. But the garden seems to cope.
The soil is fairly shallow on the top of the hill, silty loam, slightly acid with reasonable organic matter, but with patches of clay and many, many rocks, with fossils of ferns abounding.
Going Australian native
I went fully native after a couple of years. It was partly a commitment to sustainability (water and nutrients), partly to fit with the landscape, partly ecological and a lot about the subtle beauty and scents of Australian plants.
I remember walking around the garden one day and thinking, ‘I need to do my bit to protect these incredible plants’. I hope we can bring natives more into the mainstream so we can conserve as well as revel in their beauty and unique qualities. My ambition is to create a garden that is attractive and accessible, then not only will I and my family enjoy it, but perhaps others may be inspired to do the same, and support, in a small way, our environmental heritage.
‘There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.’
Janet Kilburn Phillips
Experiments in design and style
There was much experimentation with styles and plants – what would look good, what would survive, how to do layers, getting the scale right as well as managing for fire risk. I started with a few trees but not much else. I got some great ideas about layout, shapes and plants from a garden designer, Michael Cooke.
The garden is a mix of formal and informal:
– Triangles and straight lines provide some structure and complement the bush style and grass paths.
– The informality comes from repetition of plants, like mounds of Westringia spp. and mass plantings of Anigozanthos, although I admit to a bit of serendipity rather than design: ‘This seems to grow well here, I think I’ll plant more!’
– Scale and perspective has been a learning experience – I would buy a statue and it would disappear! Or I would create a design on paper, and then walk around and have to re-adjust.
– Getting layers right has been an ongoing experiment. I have well-populated upper and mid-level plant layers, but not enough lower level plants to create that layered effect. Sometimes they just get crowded out. And other times I miscalculated how tall plants would grow, or they just bolted!
– In terms of hardscaping, we have a wonderful big gazebo looking to the west, attached to the house by a walkway. There’s nothing better than sitting there with family and friends with a coffee or wine, looking out to the south and east. We also have the driveway, a few rock walls and, of course, big rocks in the garden beds.
I am constantly thinking about ‘design’, being more of a plantswoman than a designer. For me, design is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration!
Zones, not garden rooms
The garden has three zones with different needs and challenges, as well as an orchard and vegie patch. The zones have quite different needs and ‘look and feel’.
The north east zone is the first area I planted in front of the house. It is relatively well protected with a windbreak and has good sun, soil and moisture. Many plants thrive, including Banksia ‘Giant Candles’, Doryanthes excelsa, Hibiscus ‘Barambah Creek’, Grevillea flexuosa ‘Zig Zag’, Acacia cognata ‘Limelight’, Westringia fruticosa, Anigozanthos and Xanthorrhoea. The boronias last quite a few years and we have just planted a Ficus rubiginosa in the middle of the lawn to give shade in summer. Perhaps I’ll regret it in 30 to 40 years…
The south east zone is below the house with clay soil on a slope, surrounding the wastewater treatment system. It gets good water run-off from the house, but then sits in clay, requiring plants that don’t mind wet feet or bone-hard soil in the dry weather. Plants include Leptospermum spp., Kunzea baxteri, Crowea ‘Festival’, Philotheca spp., Lomandra cylindrica ‘Lime Cascade’, Westringia spp., Callistemon ‘Rocky Rambler’ and Doryanthes palmeri. Three Doryanthes were transplanted about 5 years ago, and I’m waiting with bated breath for them to flower! I’ve just planted a new garden of massed Anigozanthos, an idea courtesy of Angus Stewart, with Westringia ‘Smokey’ and Chrysocephalum apiculatum. The kangaroo paws are a kaleidoscope of red, orange, yellow and lime.
The rest of the south area is a steep grassy slope, looking out to the bush and views. It’s very peaceful. Kangaroos and wallabies regularly graze on the grass (and occasionally plants). We have regular visits of wombats and have even seen a spotted quoll. There’s a large Spotted Gum in the middle of the view, which some people say to get rid of as it impacts the view. But I think it frames the view perfectly, and the kookaburras use it to spy from.
The west zone is a very dry area that competes with mature stands of Corymbia maculata (Spotted Gum) and ironbarks. This area takes the brunt of the westerly winds, and has very poor shallow soil and many rocks. The plants have to enhance the windbreak, as well as look good and so are drought resistant, with a mix of colour and texture.
Acacia vestita creates stunning colour, texture and protection, against the silvery white of Eremophila spp. and the lime green of Acacia cognata and Lomandra ‘Little Con’. Stenanthemum scortechinii has put on a stunning display this winter. In this area Grevillea ‘Sylvia’ is now coming good while Grevillea ‘Sandra Gordon’ is going well, as is Grevillea ‘Poorinda Queen’.
In a separate spot around stands of spotted gums, a rock garden houses a mass of Dendrobium speciosum giving a beautiful display each spring (above).
My journey as well as the garden’s
Like any garden, this is a work in progress. My next evolution is to learn more about horticulture and planting design so the experiment continues.
I have created an arboretum extending down to the dam with trees like Eucalyptus scoparia, Eucalyptus saligna, Eucalyptus acmenoides, Eucalyptus amplifolia and Casuarina cunninghamiana, that complement 7-year old Eucalyptus pauciflora. I’m wondering how to complement these with lower maintenance, mass plantings of colour and texture. This area is definitely still a work in progress.
This quote from English poet laureate, Alfred Austin sums up gardening for me:
‘The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul.’
[This article first appeared in the Australian Plant Society Journal of Australian Plants, October 2015. For more information, please visit: http://www.austplants-nsw.org.au]