13 clever ways to improve your garden – from Australia!
Different country. Different climate – but travel makes you look at gardens in a fresh way. It’s inspiring to see how someone else grows things, especially if you can talk to an expert.
Many Australian garden tips translate well to Northern hemisphere gardens – although I haven’t been able to resist passing on one that definitely doesn’t (see end).
We have just spent three weeks near Melbourne with Richard and Anne. They have just bought an 1880s Victorian house with a neglected garden. Unusually, it has survived the blazing bush fires that regularly ravage the area because it is surrounded by European trees, which don’t explode in the same way that local eucalyptus gums do.
The climate in spring and autumn is like that of South East England in a good summer– only much better . It’s very hot and dry during the summer, but cold during the night in winter.
The garden was designed at the same time as the house, and is now a glorious wilderness. Various owners have added the odd plant. Fuschias, ferns, tree ferns and cordylines self-seed themselves amongst the towering conifers.
The fruit trees are gnarled old men, and the possums help themselves to the raspberry canes, stripping the leaves down to stalks. Crimson Rosella parrots and white cockatoos flash through the pine trees, and the cocktail-party laugh of the kookaburra mocks the idea that you can ever really conquer nature.
Richard and Anne intend to restore the garden as much as they can. They started with inviting Australian TV gardening expert Stephen Ryan, who has known the house and its garden all his life, over to give his opinion.
Stephen has hosted ABC Gardening Australia, the leading gardening programme in the country, and he sells rare plants. I followed Stephen, Richard and Anne with my notebook because so much of what he said seemed so useful for British gardens.
Don’t start to improve your garden too soon…
‘When you move into a new garden, just clean up the beds and mulch,’ advises Stephen. ‘Be careful not to take on things you’re not ready for. Leave things where they are until you’re ready to replace them.’
How to deal with established trees when you move in
If your garden trees have got overgrown, it’s important to take expert advice on what trees are valuable locally and which are old or ready to go. ‘I don’t like getting rid of something you can’t easily replace,’ says Stephen.
(And I would add that there is a world of difference between Chain Saw Man and a qualified arborist. Many trees get dense and ugly because they are pruned by Chain Saw Man rather someone who knows what they are doing – be warned.) Qualified tree surgeons in Britain can be found via the Arboricultural Assocation.
Don’t feel you have to keep everything…
‘Every garden has things that shouldn’t really be there, so don’t feel you have to keep something just because it’s there,’ says Stephen. He advises Anne to root all the tree ferns out of the sloping lawn area in front of the house, and either give them away ( ‘there’s always someone who’ll take a tree fern’) or congregate them all together where they will suppress weeds.
Tree ferns, incidentally, came to Britain when Tasmania was being cleared because their ‘trunks’ were used as ballast for ships then thrown away when the ships docked in Britain. Soon people began noticing that the tree ferns sprouted where they’d been thrown – what people thought were their trunks were actually their root system. At least one of those original Tasmanian tree ferns still survives in Cornwall, apparently.
There was also a hole in the ground that Richard and Anne thought might be an old pond. They were thinking of restoring it. ‘It looks like an idea that’s never really worked to me,’ said Stephen.
In fact, it has turned out to be where home-made gas was manufactured. Don’t ask!
‘You’d need a liner if you want to retain water in it. And anyway a pond surrounded by trees will always be full of dead leaves, so it would be alot of maintenance.’ Bye-bye pond.
Take the theme of your garden from the house…
The house was originally built for a New Zealander, using rimu – a popular wood in New Zealand, so Stephen advises retaining the New Zealand trees that have been planted in the garden.
‘When these houses were built, the Mount Macedon hills had been stripped off all their trees to build Melbourne or turned into pit props for the gold mines in the gold rush. So the Government made re-planting the slopes a condition of being able to build, requiring a certain number of trees per square foot.’
Most people in the 1880s were newcomers to Victoria – the houses on either side of Richard and Anne’s have, for example, Scottish and Irish names, so were presumably built for Scottish and Irish owners. Incomers brought non-native trees, such as conifers, larches and oaks, many of which are now over 100 years old and are towering over the houses.
It’s considered that this forestry policy is largely responsible for the reason why so many Victorian houses near here have survived (although a number have also burned down over the years).
Trees need regular maintenance
Previous owners seem to have left the trees alone unless they looked dangerous or fell down, but there’s no need to let trees get to this state. In the few months since Richard and Anne moved in, two huge eucalyptus have come down – one just seems to have split. Proper management of trees will not only let in more light, but will stop trees getting dangerous.
There are several rimu in the garden, and Stephen advises retaining them, but cleaning up the lower branches, which will let more light in. The Nordman Fir needs a similar treatment, as do some Californian redwoods and an enormous Monkey Puzzle tree.
Sometimes it’s better to start again
Richard and Anne were concerned as to how to restore three old fruit trees to a reasonable size and shape. Stephen shook his head. ‘Once an apple tree gets too big, it’ll be difficult – if not impossible – to restore it to a nice vase shape at a pick-able level.
‘Better to cut it down and start again, especially as it’s in the vegetable garden and casting too much shade. Espaliered fruit trees will be easier to maintain and won’t cast as much shade.’
Keep neighbours in the loop…
A holly hedge has grown toweringly high on the boundary of their land. Richard and Anne will be able to see the view more when they cut it down – and, presumably it’s also casting a shadow over their neighbour’s garden. ‘But always discuss something like this with neighbours first,’ warns Stephen.
‘To renovate a holly hedge, you’ll need to cut it right down to around waist height or below, so it’ll then thicken up lower down when it re-grows.’ Drastic action like that can worry people, so it’s always wise to talk first.
A moss lawn for shady, sloping sites…
The sloping area from the house down to the gate is very heavily wooded, and would be hard to mow. Stephen introduced us all to the concept of the moss lawn – easier to look after, and perfect for slopes because you rarely have to mow it. ‘This would originally have been a moss lawn,’ said Stephen.
‘Moss lawns barely need mowing and are a brilliant emerald green in winter. But you can’t allow leaf build up and have to be fairly gentle about how you get the leaves off the lawn. Use a light rake or a mower.’
My parents’ lawn in Surrey was almost solid moss and rarely needed mowing. They were faintly embarrassed by it, as friends all had neat stripes, but not quite embarrassed enough to spend the time and money to get it turned into a proper English lawn. They would be thrilled to discover there is something actually called a moss lawn.
Hellebores are wonderful plants for slopes…
Anne loves hellebores, and Stephen agreed that they would be perfect in this garden. ‘It’s always good to plant hellebores up a slope, because then you can look up into the flowers.’
How to grow roses where roses don’t grow…
Anne said she’d like to grow roses, because roses bloom for nine months of the year in Australia. ‘Roses are a lovely flower,’ says Stephen, ‘but a bloody awful shrub. And they’re difficult to grow here – the parrots and possums will nip the emerging shoots off and the mildew and rust will get any leaves that survive.’ (You may not be surprised to hear that he was a friend of the late, great Christopher Lloyd who removed his mother’s rose beds from Great Dixter for that very reason.)
Anne suggested a climbing rose, to emerge from the thicket of ferns and undergrowth.
‘A breakfast bar for possums,’ pronounced Stephen.
‘What if I used a chilli spray?’ asked Anne.
‘Well, it’ll be fun to see if you succeed,’ said Stephen. ‘But if you don’t, and I say “I told you so”, then you’ll have to forgive me now.’
‘And if I do succeed and end up telling you “I told you so”, you’ll have to forgive me,’ countered Anne.
‘It’s partly dependent on what varieties you choose,’ added Stephen. He explained that he had a friend who was determined to get roses to grow in an area where they didn’t normally do well. They experimented over a number of years with roses that survived and those that didn’t, adding more of the successful roses over the years.
Then his friend sold the house and the new owners decided to ‘improve’ the rose garden, ripping out the roses that were there, and planting what they thought would be new and better roses. All died. Which is another reason to talk to neighbours and locals before renovating your garden.
And weeds are different…
A weed is a plant in the wrong place… ‘alstromerias and leycesteria do so well here that you have to keep digging them out’, says Stephen. ‘Agapanthus are now forbidden on the edge of forests and wildlife parks because they spread so vigorously. Viburnum tinus is another thug when in Australia.’
How to stay on top of your garden…
Stephen says: ‘Always walk the garden with a pair of secateurs in your pocket, so that you can deal with something when you see it. Otherwise you make a mental note to deal with it – and then you forget. And if you have wilderness areas like Richard and Anne’s, go round once a year and get rid of seedling weeds. Sycamores are your enemy.’
And finally – what to do about possums…
Possums can strip a tree of its leaves. ‘They take a liking to a particular tree, and keep eating its leaves until it dies,’ explains Stephen. ‘You’re quite limited as to what you can do to control them as it’s illegal to kill them and you’re not allowed to transport them very far.’ You can ring the trees, which works up to a point, or you can capture the possums and drive them as far as you’re allowed.
Nature abhors a vacuum, so another possum will move in but it will probably choose a different tree. Old ladies in Melbourne drown possums in wheelie bins,’ he says, but he personally can’t face doing anything like that. Now there’s a tip that’s useful for the Home Counties…not.
Going round this garden reminded me of the Surrey gardens of my childhood. When I was a very small child, there were still great big Victorian houses built in the 1880s with gardens of twenty or thirty acres or more. They were planted with all the exotic plants you see here – cordyline, rhododendron, camellia, azalea – plus lots of conifers and evergreen shrubs.
As a child, you could ramble through these gardens, climbing neglected fir trees and using great banks of rhododendrons as dens. There was never anyone around to tell you off, and tennis pavilions and summerhouses remained locked and dusty. A woodland garden demands a certain amount of space, but perhaps the time is right to start thinking about reclaiming Victorian exotics and evergreen conifers and shrubs for our own more middle-sized plots…?
Stephen Ryan is a wonderful garden speaker, so if you’re anywhere near Melbourne, see if he’s talking anywhere…and if you’ve enjoyed this, do share it using the buttons below – thank you!