Spring in a cool climate

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Clematis growing on the house wall, Markdale garden, Binda, NSW

Nearly 30 years ago, I went on my first trip to England. My aim was to visit as many English gardens as possible so I could try to learn how to become a 'proper' gardener. I managed to see close to 40 gardens, large and small, and took many photos and copious notes. Upon returning home, I tried for a few years to create the look of those gardens in my suburban Sydney plot. Sadly, the plan failed. Basically, I hadn't acknowledged that there was one huge difference between here and there: climate. I thought that strength of mind and determination would be enough to allow me to grow gorgeous cool-climate plants in Sydney; I was wrong.

After a while, I reset my agenda to create my own form of a Sydney 'style', finding suitable plants by trial and error. Warm-climate plants (mainly shrubby perennials rather than the herbaceous perennials I had been growing in my English-y garden) from places such as South America, Mexico, Asia and South Africa proved to be stalwarts, and for a time I flirted with a frankly tropical look. I was not at all interested any more in visiting cool-climate gardens, as I considered them now 'irrelevant' and could not understand why my gardening friends still continued to enjoy seeing them.

Stone wall designed by Edna Walling, Markdale garden, Binda, NSW

In recent times, however, I have had something of another reversal in thinking! This year, for the first time in a while, I was free of work commitments in October, allowing me the chance to visit some country NSW gardens. I was determined to simply go along and enjoy them for themselves, without feeling I had to copy any of them or feel ill with envy at all the treasures that grow in these gardens. I thoroughly enjoyed the gardens I saw, and far from finding them irrelevant, I learned much from all of them. Having a bit better idea now about what will and won't grow in my Sydney garden, I found that I was able to look beyond the individual plants and appreciate all that was wonderful in these gardens: design, colour combinations, textural contrast with foliage, and fabulous, original ideas. I also saw plants that I could grow in Sydney, giving me a greater appreciation of the adaptability of a number of plants to different climates. Today I shall describe three of these gardens.

Penstemon Electric Blue in the garden of Jan Werner near Yass, NSW, photo: Jan Werner

In the garden of Jan Werner near Yass, Southern Tablelands of NSW, it was wonderful to see a wide range of Mediterranean and other plants that hate humidity (and therefore don't grow well in Sydney), growing robustly and happily in the predominantly sunny cottage garden at the back of the house. Large rocks from the property have been used in the construction of garden areas, with raised beds allowing excellent drainage; the rocks in the garden also provide an effective link to the surrounding landscape. Lavenders of different colours, Penstemon (pictured above, photo by Jan Werner), Achillea, Cistus, Hebe ... it could have been a roll call from the plants I had tried and failed with over time in my Sydney garden: here they all flourish! A prolific herb garden close to back of the house, with drifts of culinary herbs and low-growing perennials; structure is provided by standard plants grown along the bed. Olive trees provide a lovely silvery backdrop to the plantings.

Centranthus and Gazania nestle next to a large rock in the garden of Jan Werner near Yass, NSW

I loved the generous clumps of plants throughout the garden, merging with one another at their edges, realising that my own tendency is to not to mass plants in sufficiently large groups. In this garden, all the Salvia that struggle in Sydney (well, in my garden at least), the ones with a basal clump of leaves and tall spires of flowers, grow brilliantly, reminding me again that plants grow best when chosen to suit the climate! It was a pleasure to see them obviously in their element. Some of the Salvia grown in Jan's garden also do well in Sydney, such as the many S. greggii cultivars, S. leucantha and S. 'Marine Blue', underlining the adaptability of these specimens.

Pear sculpture amidst sun-loving plants in the garden of Jan Werner near Yass, NSW

In the garden in front of the house, an effective mixture of Australian native shrubs with Mediterranean and South African perennials and groundcovers reminded me how well these sun-loving plants combine together, with bold-leaved bearded Iris and Acanthus mollis providing good foliage contrast against the finer-textured Australian native plants. South African daisy plants such as Arctotis, Gazania and Osteospermum provided huge pools of long-lasting colour. A stylish sculpture of a pear (made from horse shoes) is well positioned in this area, and standardised plants are used here also to provide structure. Attractive gravel paths lead through the plantings and shape the generously sized beds. More of Jan's garden can be seen here on this website's Garden Ramble feature.

Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii with Ceanothus and tall bearded irises, Markdale garden, Binda, NSW

At historic Markdale, near Binda, Southern Tablelands of NSW (open through the Crookwell Garden Festival in early October), I was delighted to see one of Edna Walling's garden designs, dating from the late 1940s, then further developed by members of the Ashton family. Seeing the iconic low stone walls used to define the curves of beautifully shaped sweeping lawns in the garden, sheltered by magnificent mature trees, was a sheer pleasure (and reminded me of the importance of restful open areas). The lawns lead down to a stunning lake. A strong axis in the garden is created by a sturdy pergola covered in Wisteria and climbing roses. Ambling through copses of exquisite spring-flowering shrubs and trees, and the enchanting garden rooms created by tall hedges, filled with cool-climate treasures in this garden, I was able to enjoy them without wanting to weep because I can't grow them at home. I again realised how bigger masses of plants are so much more effective than my bitty compositions, especially in shaded woodland parts of the garden, with swathes of hellebores, honesty and Lamium cloaking the ground and providing a serene atmosphere.

Stachys byzantina with Cerastium tomentosum, Markdale garden, Binda, NSW

I admired some gorgeous colour combinations, such as the lime-green bracts of Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii against the deep blue blooms of shrubby Ceanothus and dark purple bearded Iris (pictured in the previous paragraph), and a pink Clematis grown against a white wall of the house with silvery Stachys byzantina at its feet, with self-seeded Erigeron karvinskianus amongst the stonework (pictured at the start of the blog). I also loved a grouping of the furry Stachys with the fine, dissected foliage of silvery Cerastium tomentosum here (pictured above), a plant I cannot grow in my own garden but which triggered ideas of combining other dainty-leaved silver foliage plants with the Stachys, which surprisingly does OK in Sydney.

Bearded irises in Chinoiserie garden, Mittagong, NSW

In Mittagong, Southern Highlands, NSW, I visited Chinoiserie, a garden that I have seen develop from a bare paddock over the past 16 years. This truly delightful garden has a succession of areas, with lush plantings of some of the most beautiful of cool-climate plants, and is at its peak at the moment. From a stunning collection of peonies, a potager, a woodland, to a water garden and an alpine garden with exquisite treasures, there is much to see. My favourite part of the garden is that consisting of the long, colour-themed herbaceous borders, similar in style to those billowing English borders I saw on my original trip all those years ago. Here, with a cold winter and a non-humid summer, perennials, roses and cool-climate shrubs grow to perfection, and they are combined with an artist's eye. Self-sown annuals such as poppies intermingle with the perennials, adding an element of informality.

Salvia nemerosa with gold feverfew in Chinoiserie garden, Mittagong, NSW

Even perennials that I can (sort of) grow in Sydney, such as Aquilegia and Solomon's seal, grow twice as tall here! It is a garden in which to simply luxuriate in the beauty of flowers and foliage, and to be inspired by colour combinations (such as golden foliage with brilliant blue flowers, pictured at left) and textural contrasts, such as lacy ferns grown with bold-leaved hostas in shaded nooks. Simply to see a peony in real life is reason enough to visit this garden! It is open daily until 15 November 2015.

I came home from these gardens inspired to get out into my own plot and improve it!