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Garden Design

‘Bolwarra’: a rare rainforest garden retreat in coastal NSW

Stuart Read

Stuart Read

February 4, 2016

Why is rainforest so alluring that people want to live there? Is a forest’s up-close complexity its appeal or its apparent calm ‘same-ness’, from a distance? What is a rainforest garden? Can you ‘garden’ in a regenerating natural system? What is a ‘garden’ for that matter?

Bolwarra for saleSome say gardening is ‘holding a piece of land in a state of arrested ecological development’ – and conjuring images of places like Versailles, Stourhead, the Boboli Gardens or Taj Mahal, that’s certainly plausible. The urge to clear, terrace, clip or control nature to channel a view or vista, show off a building or area by ‘dressing it’, regardless of size, is widely-understood as ‘gardening’.

Bolwarra6Others say a garden is a medium to relate to and enjoy nature: a window into the world we inhabit. Cultures such as Korea, China or Japan revere nature and hold as ideal its emulation in gardens, touching the earth lightly with any structure or human intrusion. While Japan and China might bring to mind pruning and stylisation, both also set much store by striving to attain an appearance as informal and natural as possible – an almost ‘non-gardening’ of restraint, or apparent non-manipulation. Perhaps this is ‘curation’- a light-touch, but influencing nature all the same?

Bolwarra14Aboriginal peoples could be said to be landscape gardeners on a grand scale, as documented by writers such as Bill Gammage’s ‘The Largest Estate on Earth’, using fire-stick farming, seasonal restrictions on some harvesting or hunting, cultivating ‘yam fields’ of edible rhizomes and bulbs such as orchids to ensure food. Digging yams seems rather close to digging potatoes by later settlers. ‘Cleaning up country’ by low-intensity grass fires to bring on fresh feed and attract herbivores to hunt is not so different to ploughing and sowing a crop of rye grass or clover, fertilising or top-dressing to improve pasture mix. Is this farming? Gardening? Why not?

Bolwarra2Australians have long been fascinated by the bush and within that broad term, rainforest. Don Watson’s book ‘The Bush’ explores the evolving relationships we of all backgrounds have with our place. Even the choices we make of places to build, often on the edge of bush or woodland with a natural outlook, are clung to, often rebuilding after bush fire or storms.

Bolwarra8Rainforest remnants often occur in spectacular terrain, gorges, hill country with pockets protected from fire. They offer a cooler, darker, lusher world that might seem foreign, welcome in contrast to much of Australia’s blinding light, exposure and light shade offered by vertical eucalypt canopies. Even its colours are deeper, ranges of green, brown, red and grey contrasting with the blue-grey, olive, fawn and ginger of drier forms of vegetation.

Bolwarra7Increasing numbers choose to live in or near rainforest or bush, and to help revive and restore its condition. Knowing more about how much was cleared since 1788, in some cases needlessly or with little benefit is one thing. Germaine Greer’s book ‘White Beech’ recounts her attachment to a piece of rainforest land and trying to turn around its regeneration and future viability. This is to some a kind of national priority – re-setting our relationship to this land, our place in it and our ties to its cover.

Bolwarra17Illawarra rainforests have been much cleared for agriculture, mining and urbanism. This region is rich botanically and its fertile volcanic, sedimentary and alluvial soils, relatively high rainfall and dramatic topography make an appealing mix. Off the coast with its intense urban development, less-peopled pockets of foot slopes, escarpments and gullies are changing uses from mining, forestry and grazing to more mixed farming and rural living, at a gentler pace and lower density.

Bolwarra4Geoff and Ann Long’s rainforest garden at Bolwarra, Foxground is a splendid example of gardening of restraint, by selective removal – things such as exotic weeds like Lantana that should not be here, clearing around the house both to enjoy spectacular coastal views through trees. Their elevated home is an award-winning* modern interpretation of a medieval long-house (to my mind) clad in glass, to enjoy its sylvan surrounds. It has been designed to be sustainable to run, being off-the grid with natural ventilation in summer and winter heat retention.

Bolwarra9Four kilometres of paths trail off into and across fifty acres of rainforest, with four waterfalls and creeks. Varying aspects mean differences in vegetation as shade or moisture levels rise. Sited on the first bench of forest as the valley rises to the Barren Grounds, levels rise from 135m to 300m above sea level. The house is near the top of the property on relatively flat land.

Bolwarra16How complex can a rainforest garden be? This one has over 200 species of plants, including 27 exotics. Over time more natives have arisen as weeds are removed, nurse tree wattles were planted in grassed areas and compost has been added. Judicious pruning retains and reveals the delightful coastal views. Gardening of a more recognisable sort!

Bolwarra1Pioneer (short-lived) species of daisy bushes give way in time to longer-lived shrubs and trees. Canopy tree species like red cedar (Toona ciliata), Illawarra flame tree and Illawarra plum pine emerge. How encouraging to see bronze-orange tips of red cedar pepper the forest in spring, reclaiming that species of ‘red gold’ so mercilessly-logged in the 19th century from these ranges. Eastern grey kangaroos and swamp wallabies visit, wombats, echidnas, gliders, ring-tails and brush-tailed possums. The full range of Southern Illawarra birds enjoy this garden, including lyre birds, whip and cat birds, yellow robins and tree creepers. Scrub wrens flit near the ground, golden whistlers make their calls and wedge-tailed eagles soar above. Birdsong is very much a part of this garden, making a walk to the mail box a concert to relish.

Bolwarra10The Longs have used NSW Forestry advice to plant trees to harvest at 5 year intervals, from wattles, turpentines, red ash, coachwood, brush cherry to red cedar, plum pine and blush bloodwood. Is small-scale forestry another form of large-scale garden curation? Permaculture exponents would certainly say so: production at all levels of a garden is a goal they foster. Seed collectors from various botanic gardens in Canberra, Sydney and Wollongong have visited to collect here: this garden is provisioning other significant garden collections. Two enclosures protect vegetables, citrus trees and herbs from herbivores and birds.

Bolwarra12Amongst the richness of Bolwarra’s vegetation are some examples of rare and endangered species. Arguably the largest known stand of rare socketwood (Daphnandra johnsonii) and a citrus relative, Zieria granulata occur here. Scented sassafras and related coachwood, maiden’s blush, lemon aspen, red olive-berry, wild cherries and brown kurrajongs grow happily as does the namesake shrub, bolwarra (Eupomatia laurina) a primitive flowering plant and a link to Gondwanaland. In fact every Illawarra rainforest species is found in this garden. It has begun influencing its neighbours.

Bolwarra15Bolwarra is now for sale – and seeking a new owner and inhabitants who wish to continue its journey, care and enjoyment. It offers much to the right person or persons. Is that you? Visit the real estate agent’s website for more information.

Bolwarra3*Designed by Long Blackledge architects the house won the Timber Development Association’s 2000 prize for domestic architecture. It was shortlisted in the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (NSW) awards and featured in the Sydney Morning Herald’s 100 Amazing Sydney Homes in 2002.

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Alexander McRae
6 years ago

In the past year I’ve finally developed a passion for “gardening”, since learning about bush regeneration. I’m now seeking to clear my suburban block in Bundeena of invasive species, and it’s no longer just “weeding” as I’m uncovering the natives, including basket grass, dichondra, native iris and native geranium. It’s a joy just clearing space to give these humble Aussies a good chance. Seeking to eradicate many pernicious weeds including asparagus fern, green cestrum and madeira vine, but just to control and moderate a few including the appealing fishbone fern, and also planting natives from bottlebrushes and tea trees to big eucalypts. My scribbly gum planted three years ago is now the height of my two story house, and a stringy bark and grey gum have gone in just over the summer. It’s all about biodiversity; nothing to do with “keeping up with the Joneses”, as that would just be beyond me; rather, the exact opposite. I want to turn my land back into native bush as a deep protest against the money-addicted modern world. Habitat is shrinking worldwide, including Sydney’s tree canopy (Leafy suburbs quickest to cut down trees, Sydney Morning Herald April 22-23, 2017). We should be going the other way. Councils in Sydney should be working together to establish nature corridors to link areas of remnant bush. This is already happening to an extent with the Greenweb programme in the Sutherland Shire. There should be a vision and long-term strategy to criss-cross Sydney with a latticework of bushland to nurture and encourage native birds, bluetongues, all manner of native fauna – even seeking to introduce koalas back into suburbia. Sadly prospects are grim with developers determined to erect the biggest, most expensive homes they can, concreting yards over for “easy maintenance”, and creating an anthropocentric “utopia” which disregards completely all the fellow species with which we should be sharing our living environment. We are poorer for it, but some of us see through the illusion and are doing what we can.

Stuart Read
6 years ago

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Alexander. Sadly in parallel with good actions like yours and Greenweb, other antagonistic things are going on, such as the ’10:50 rule’ whereby anyone in ‘bushfire-prone/risk’ areas can clear vegetation anywhere within 10m of a house/50m of a fenceline (sic) with no prior permit/approval required – plus the new government Act/Regulations on biodiversity/land clearing – essentially outsourcing to land owners self-assessment and self-regulation on land clearing – in the wrong hands and mindsets both of these are highly alarming – and will ratchet up clearing for whatever reasons. We need a lot more people like yourself, working to harmonise with the bush and increase its cover, to appreciate it. Sadly our ‘human life is sacred’ attitudes, plus weak or dubious past planning decisions about where houses have been built, mean that the bush/nature is under active threat by our very selves, wanting to romantically live next to the bush, yet insisting on cutting it down, conforming with Australian Standards/ever-changing Rural Fire Service ‘asset protection zone’ clearing imperatives – with less and less quiet sober contemplation, less and less debate or discussion, and no balance. I agree the pleasures of gardening by editing -removal of thugs and seeing smaller, slower-growing things underneath take off with more light/water, space… or come back from latent seed in the ground/dropped by birds – are manifold and very energising. Even weeding of lawns to reduce thuggish grass species and encourage smaller-growing, slower species can negate the need, or reduce the frequency of needed mowing – more time for other pleasures. Much to contemplate and much to improve upon, it would seem!? Cheers. Stuart