Who dictates our garden styles?

This is a personal perspective from a serious sustainable landscape designer and should be read in this vein. The post is designed to be contrary and to make people think!

Most people have a tendency to copy trends with their gardens. A few individuals are brave enough to design their own garden that is different – and it is these gardens that buck the trend, that stand out.

When you look at the gardens that the English put forward at places like the Chelsea Flower Show, their gardens often have a much more simplistic and natural style about them – plants are used to make the pictures. So why are so many Australian gardens about the use of hard landscaping en masse with structures and decking used instead of plants?

McMansions as homes have come under a lot of scrutiny and criticism. Mostly because they make a statement – “look at me, I’ve got money!” Unfortunately gardens have followed this style to ‘complement’ the garishness of the homes. What has happened to ‘understated beauty’?

Consider the gardens that win the awards in Australia through the Landscape Associations and Landscape Architecture. With the exception of a  few, where specialist sustainable designers enter their gardens, the bulk are an expose of manufacture. And the bulk of these landscapers are from the building trade, many with little or no knowledge of plants and their ongoing care. With their knowledge being based on structures, walls and so on, no wonder the bulk of the award winning gardens are so artificial.

When home gardeners view these winning gardens, the assumption is that this is the way to do it. And so we get the home-owner do-it-yourself makeover that is a rendition of something that they have seen that the media fussed about because it won. These manufactured gardens look artificial, with plants often lasting less than 5 years.

If the home gardener just kept their ideas simple, then they would have a much better garden, and be proud of their efforts. There is so much competition in life these days with everyone trying to outdo others, the simplistic aspect of living is being lost. Gardens should be simple places of enjoyment. Not ‘Tea Houses’ or broad expanses of decking, concrete walls, with chunky chairs and tables for plants!

I feel that the encouragement through the awards processes, for both display gardens and real gardens, is enabling the artificial building aspect of gardens to be seen as the norm. I believe that we need to turn back the clock and realise that all of this totally unnecessary energy use is having a seriously detrimental effect on our environment and we need to reconsider what a good garden really is. The question needs to be asked “Are we making gardens, or extending our homes?” which of course is most definitely the case. And the McMansion owners are encouraging it. Obviously, I am not a supporter.

Trees in the landscape for native gardens

[post based on a native garden perspective]

I admit it; I am an unabashed tree lover! As a landscape designer, I find it frustrating when people can’t understand the need for trees in their gardens. The usual negative comment from the client is ‘the leaves will be a nuisance in my gutters!’ Clients who love trees from the outset or are happy to be guided into their use, end up with wonderful gardens. But some people are hard to convince.

Most people don’t understand that the vertical aspect of trees within their garden actually makes their gardens appear bigger – because it’s a further dimension that is being addressed with plant material. And the vertical accent also creates depth in a garden which is missing in most novice and too often professional gardens that are created.

Consider walking into a garden, as you do, without trees. Your eyes are constantly kept at ground level or a bit higher. Real trees, those above 5 metres, cause you to bend your neck to look upwards into the canopy. The art of taking a path to go under the canopy of the tree is without doubt one of the greatest means of creating depth in your garden. And canopies can be raised as the trunk grows, enabling you to walk underneath.

Trees are wonderful for insulating the home. Evergreen trees, as in the Eucalypt, Cupaniopsis anacardioides or ‘Tuckeroo’, tall melaleucas like Melaleuca styphelioides, Agonis flexuosa, Allocasuarinas and Casuarinas and so on, are great for the eastern or western boundaries. The deciduous tree, indigenous to Australia and South East Asia called Melia azederach or ‘White Cedar’ grows to around 12 metres tall with a spread of around 6 metres. It grows mainly along the northern aspects of the eastern seaboard, but I have grown it well in areas that receive considerable frost. Given some summer irrigation, this tree is excellent for providing summer screening of windows on the northern side of the home, while allowing winter sunlight in, for those wanting to keep the native garden theme ‘pure’.

I have always noticed that children prefer gardens with trees in them. They seem to have a better understanding of the creation of different spaces within a garden, with trees helping to break up not only the vertical aspect, but also different areas within a garden. I find that if you can make different rooms within the garden, this also adds to the appeal of the area, and the use of trees here is essential.

There are some marvellous smaller Eucalypts that can be used, for example, Eucalyptus victrix, Eucalyputs pauciflora ‘Little Snowman’, Eucalyptus gregsoniana for colder climes, and Eucalyptus leucoxylon ‘Goolwa Gem’ which is a low growing form. I have a passion for plant research, which ensures that I choose plants that will work well in either my own garden, or that of my client. It is important to consider their original habitat when trying to work out which plant to use in the garden. For example, the much used but invariably badly grown Eucalyptus caesia seems to do well for a couple of years and then ultimately fails. I never use this plant as I find it too unreliable.

Trees that have an open canopy allow filtered light in to the plants growing underneath. Unfortunately, many a good tree specimen is ruined by the incorrect placement of plants underneath. Many gums have magnificent bark and/or trunks. The pictured Eucalypt for example has very interesting trunks, worthy of being made a feature; so to me the most ideal planting under this specimen would be the use of massed native grasses or grass like plants. And Lomandras are of the lily family and are not grasses. But they, en masse would look wonderful under this tree.

For those of you who don’t have any trees in your garden, try just one, a variety with an open canopy, and see what a difference it makes to your garden. Trust me, I can guarantee that you will be pleased with the result.

Gardens with Plants



The gardens of today, in the new subdivisions, are full of virtually nothing but hard landscaping. Paving, decking and white river pebbles are the order of the day. And many of these ‘gardens’ are being done by landscapers. And unfortunately, because they are so ‘easy’ to do, home-owners copy them, so the proliferation of these substandard gardens is becoming overwhelming. New subdivisions are just full of them.

Have you ever noticed that after about 3 years, if the home owner is lucky, the few typical strappy leaved plants that were added to the hard landscaping die, leaving nothing but the hard landscaping left? Is this really a garden?

I am an avowed plant person, believing that there is a plant for every position. This knowledge is only attained through years and years of working with plants and soils. This action is called gardening! If these so-called professionals, who construct ‘gardens’ of nothing but hard landscaping with a few nominal plants had gardened for as many years as I, then they may know a thing or two about plant selection. Most of my plant knowledge is empirical, but my industry, landscape design, SHOULD be based on empirical knowledge and not academia. And for a landscape designer to be able to call him/herself professional, considerable plant knowledge should be mandatory.

A designer is born, and a plant person learns through experience and research. Both of these characteristics are essential to the well-versed landscape designer of any worth.

Big garden design companies have a variety of different trades within the company – including a horticulturist. But not all businesses want to work as a company. The sustainable advocate, like my business, doesn’t need all of these different trades because construction is kept to a minimum.

Gardens that use plants en masse are far more sustainable than one that is modelled on those too commonly seen in suburbia today. Hard landscaping is not sustainable as it uses a lot of energy in the process of construction. The finished product is lifeless and provides nothing whatsoever of value to the environment. In fact, large areas of paving have a significant negative impact on the environment in the form of run-off, expensive drainage systems and lack of rainfall being utilised on site in a natural way.

As a sustainable landscape designer, I am horrified when doing an initial consultation with a new client, to be asked to provide a garden using the very products that I abhor. These people want their gardens to look like everyone else’s. Why? Unfortunately their houses are cloned and look just like their next door neighbour’s, except maybe a bit bigger, and so they then want their garden to look like just about every garden in the sub-division. People are becoming more and more like sheep; it’s easier this way as thinking about things is too hard, so just follow the leader! If only they realised that the leader is flawed.

Sustainable gardens are a haven for birds and so many other fauna, essential to a healthy ecosystem. Children need to grow up with the experience of birds in their garden, lizards, bees and ants. These critters are all part of a healthy soil biota, biodiverse plant life and pesticide and herbicide free zone.

Do people really think that there is little maintenance with the tasteless ‘garden’ that they espouse? If they only realised that a truly sustainable garden, once established requires far less maintenance and irrigation than the mass produced version.

Massed plants, once established and properly spaced by a real professional, become living mulch. Debris from these plants is put back onto any open space, so that this also forms ‘forest mulch’ on site. Massed plants, using plants for different purposes, i.e. nectar for small birds, seeds for bigger birds, any rocks from the site utilised within the design to provide habitat for lizards and so on are all part of the sustainable experience. And this experience is so much more rewarding than the treeless charade being mass produced in so many new gardens.

The mass produced inert garden is forever full of weeds. The pebbles are a magnet for weed seeds and once germinated, the weeds are difficult to hand-pull from the stones. So home-owners use the ubiquitous herbicide, glyphosate, little realising that any tad hint of spray drift has a profound effect on grassy foliaged plants. So these few, sparing plants either die, or look shocking for the rest of their life, until someone eventually removes them.

As a multi award winning landscape designer, I am fed up with seeing these awful gardens being ‘professionally’ constructed by so-called professionals. Because they have no plant knowledge, they are just copying everyone else. The client is paying them to provide the labour [brawn] for a job they could do themselves but can’t be bothered. There is no skill in these gardens, just pure monotony.

Managing Frost In Your Garden

It is the lack of through-breeze that is probably the most significant factor in whether a frost will settle in your garden. My former garden in the Clare Valley of South Australia is situated in a low lying pocket in a region that is relatively high in altitude. Because of the topography of the region, this garden is situated in a dumping ground for gale force winds from the west. In order to reduce the impact of these winds, windbreaks had to be planted along the western boundary.

Unfortunately this also reduced the through-breeze, with the frost settling more readily in such a garden, than maybe the garden next door which was left more exposed. Because this former garden experienced frosts as low as -­10ºC, the objective was to manage the frosts through wise plant selection while limiting the gale force winds, desiccating to an exposed garden.

It is remarkable how the canopy of trees can have a profound effect on air movement – even the framework of deciduous trees is better than nothing. Not only is this framework essential in a summer garden, especially for those further inland, but this framework also proved its worth in the garden over the years during winter.
Under-planting beneath these trees in garden beds exposed to the east is more likely to be frost affected than those facing west. This is because the easterly facing areas thaw more quickly than on the opposing side, and it is the quick thaw from the sun that often causes damage to plants.

Frost damage is more likely to occur when the plants have been well irrigated in autumn, and even during dry winters. When nature is left to manage on its own, it is remarkable how effective this can be we just need to be more observant of how this is being done.

The leaves of plants are full of cells. When these cells are full of water (following supplementary irrigation), it is this water that swells when frozen. If the cells are kept dry, as nature intended (when it doesn’t rain for instance), there is no water to freeze and hence swell and so the damage is significantly reduced.
‘Black frosts’ are far more damaging than the rime frosts that are more evident. These ‘black frosts’ are prevalent when drought is impending and are usually associated with a dry winter. Nature intended the affected areas to remain dry for a reason, so that the damage to the plants’ cells is reduced.

Black frosts’ are often not noticed until a few days later when a particular plant can appear blackened. Vehicles that are left out overnight will have ice on their windscreens whereas none will be evident on the ground in such a frost. They are always higher off the ground with the damage occurring above ground level. Don’t irrigate your garden in frost prone regions during winter – it is dry for a reason.

Another very important strategy to consider is how you irrigate and manage your garden during the growing season. In frost prone areas, it is essential to “harden” the plants leading up to winter. The best way to do this is to irrigate your garden very infrequently, say every 4 weeks, but for at least 3 hours at a time. This is the best way to harden the wood of susceptible plants, and it is remarkable how well this strategy works.

Once the night temperatures drop in autumn allow nature to take its course. If your garden needs extra water at this time, it is suggestive that you have chosen the wrong plants for your site which are not compatible with the climate, the soil or both. New plantings can be hand watered to get them through til winter sets in.
Gardening is not hard if you allow nature to have more control. The role of the gardener is really only to observe, and give a guiding hand where necessary. The sustainable garden isn’t heavily pruned or controlled in any way. It can still have its formal elements, but even these are more natural and uncontrived. Leave nature to take control and enjoy the pleasure of observing.