MY SLOW GARDEN
Slow gardening is the opposite of instant gardening. A dominant look
today is Japanese inspired and consists of stones, pebbles and fully
grown shrubs. This is one aesthetic. Mine is different. As a slow
gardener I often sow seeds or very small plants and part of the joy is
watching them grow over time. Individual plants change, and the whole
context changes as well. In an instant garden there is no uncertainty
because the final look is what you start with. In achieving the final
result instantly it is as if there is an attempt to stop time. In my
aesthetic the opposite applies. I can guess what a look may be in the
future but I cannot be certain for as things grow there are bound to
be unpredictable changes.Plants may thrive, die, succumb to disease or
be eaten by insects or animals. It is a bit like a continually
evolving nonlinear picture.
When we moved into our house in 1979, the back of the house did not
contain a garden. It was just a large space with weeds, like an empty
field in the suburbs. The front garden had a traditional lawn
surrounded by garden beds filled fitfully with a number of uninspiring
shrubs. For a while we paid a series of gardeners who each contributed
their ideas, influenced by the fashion at the time for native gardens.
One gardener brought in earth and built a mound in one corner to break
up the flatness. Another planted grass in the middle and established a
border all around planted with a random collection of native trees and
shrubs. My father in law visited from England and planted a golden ash
in one of the back corners. He warned me it was a large tree, usually
a street tree, but he thought the autumn colour would be spectacular,
and anyway the garden was large enough to accommodate it.
The main and only established attraction came from next door. A very
beautiful tall and spreading tree, Quercus x hispinaca I believe, grew
over the fence. It gave much needed shade since the back of the house,
deck and family room faced west, getting the hot afternoon sun.
Assuming the tree would be there forever we planted ferns near the
fence, and paved the area so we could sit underneath. As the tree grew
the branches grew over the deck, allowing a path for the possums to
invade our roof. So we got some tree pruners in to cut it back. When
I got back from work that day I was devastated because the tree had
been brutally hacked back and it looked ugly. But the tree grew again,
and as it did so it started to feel like an invader. Its roots raised
the brick paving and it created so much shade it was too shady on the
deck. The possums found it delicious, and their chewing on its leaves
eventually outpaced its capacity to grow new leaves. In time the
owners had it removed. There was an empty space, but by this time I
did not mourn the loss of the past. By this time I had developed my
philosophy of slow gardening. So it was only with a modicum of anxiety
that I celebrated the opportunity to create something new and
After a couple of years, with the encouragement and assistance of a
friend who was a passionate gardener I dispensed with the professional
gardeners. I immersed myself in gardening books, particularly
interested in the history of the cottage garden. I discovered the
influential garden designer Edna Walling and devoured her writings,
from her early cottage gardens to her taking up gardening with
Australian natives in the 1950s. Another important influence was
Gertrude Jekyll, "whose legendary borders were planted with a
painter's eye, so that every flower bed made a picture." (The Cottage
Garden, by Anne Scott-James. Penguin, 1981). Inspired by these garden
designers of the past, my aim is to emulate them in creating
aesthetically pleasing, naturalistic and balanced pictures - in the
front garden, the back garden, even at the side where the clothesline
is and where few people go.
By the mid 1980s the once fashionable native gardens were looking
decidedly straggly and tired and the fashion went back to cottage
plants. Assisted by my friend and gardening mentor Jenny, I hired a
machine and dug up the grass and shrubs in the front garden. We
created a winding path and used lavender, rosemary and box for
structure, filling the spaces in between with bulbs and perennials.
This was radical and innovative at the time and I was interviewed and
the garden filmed for an ABC TV gardening program.
Soon cottage gardens were everywhere until people realized that it was
a lot of work to maintain them. Now in suburban Melbourne we see
gardens shrinking and new houses taking up nearly the whole block.
Paving has become increasingly important and plants are decreasing in
importance, numbers and variety. But I still pursue the cottage
garden ideal. I love the challenge of trying to make the garden look
natural yet pleasing to the eye. The front garden used to be cottage,
the back garden was native. Now I am much more eclectic. Whatever
goes, whatever works, is what I do. I love it best when the garden is
like a tapestry – not small bitty bits of colour, and not self
conscious overlarge drifts of one type of plant with an abrupt
transition to another group of plants. I often interplant 3 or 4
types of plants which associate well in terms of size and shape of
foliage, and have similar needs for water and light. One example of
this is a grouping of Japanese anemones, physostegia and plectranthus,
all thriving in shade. Another grouping consisting of both native and
exotic plants is rainbow fern (Culcita Dubia), euphorbia, acanthus,
brachysema and thryptomene.
Usually the design seems to work best with low plants at the front,
gradually increasing in size and the tallest in the back. Repetition
is important to ensure serenity. The challenge is to have just the
right amount of repetitiveness so it doesn't look contrived. There
are no dogmatic design formulas, only rough guidelines. In fact that
is the problem with many of the gardens I see now. They have been
designed and implemented following rules, hence lack inspiration,
surprise and wonder.
A garden is an environment, an ecosystem designed to house wildlife –
birds, insects, spiders, lizards, even the widely hated possums. I
never use chemicals because they inevitably harm the helpful wildlife.
Once I had an infestation of truly malevolent insects – Black Vine
Weevils. Even if I wanted to, spraying would not work on weevils.
Black Vine Weevils hide in the day and feed all night on the leaves of
favoured plants. Unless you grab them swiftly they drop to the ground
and escape. For one summer I spent many nights catching then squashing
or drowning weevils. Always strive to understand the enemy! In summer
they lay their eggs. In autumn the eggs hatch into grubs which live in
the soil and eat roots. When they were in their grub stage I bought a
quantity of dried beneficial nematodes, a biological control developed
by the CSIRO. I carefully immersed the invisible microscopic
creatures in warm water as instructed and poured the mixture on the
parts of the garden where the evil weevils had cavorted and laid their
eggs. Not that they need to cavort to produce eggs – apparently they
are all female, and do not need males to reproduce! Since then I have
seen and caught a few stray weevils but never again have they appeared
in plague numbers. The nematodes must have done their job.
I started my garden in 1979 but that does not mean it is 27 years old.
Hardly anything in it is that old. If I knew then what I now know,
learned through trial and error, anxiety, suffering and worrying,
there would no doubt be more mature trees and shrubs. Instead the
garden evolved, usually gradually as I tinkered at the edges. But
occasionally there would be a cataclysm when I would decide I needed a
blank slate to start again. Then I would pull out large chunks of the
garden, to the dismay and lack of comprehension on the part of many
among my friends and family.
For years now I have attempted to only grow plants that survive on
rainwater. Usually I only water plants when I plant them and then they
are on their own. If it is hot weather and it hasn't rained I will
keep an eye on the newcomers and water them if they are visibly
wilting. But I will only pamper them for a season – after this, harsh
laws of survival apply. The plants may be neglected in regards to
watering, but the soil they grow in is carefully nurtured by regular
weeding, composting and mulching. Absorbed in these activities,
dressed in old clothes and gumboots, I am truly happy. It is at times
such as these that I have earth – and time - on my hands.
about this blog
I started this blog in 2008. It started mainly as a way of tracking the evolution of my dry garden, and that led to an interest in photography and in the creatures that live in the garden. It's still about the garden and wildlife, but now my passion is thinking about how we humans can learn to co-exist with wild animals and plants, especially in urban areas.
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