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The New Australian Garden

by editor

Awareness of the greater environment is part of our Australian spirit, evolving into an Australian garden style. A garden with native plants reminding us of our stunning, resilient bush, blended with exotics while also containing the “essential infrastructure” we have all grown to love – BBQs, decks, pools, kid’s play areas..…

LCM caught up with two industry legends to discuss what is trending in Australian garden design, as well as their tips and observations on everything from soils to mulches, plant selection to attracting fauna and construction materials.

Landscaper, Christian Jenkins has exhibited at fourteen garden events, winning awards at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show and the New Zealand Flower and Garden Show. He is one of those “jack-of-all-trades,” who does not just lock himself away, designing and quoting in the office but most of the time you will find him on-site with his team, constructing top-end gardens along the Great Ocean Road, west of Melbourne.

Usually these days it is expected that Australian native plants will be utilised throughout a garden design. Cue, the amazing native plant breeders like nurseryman, Phillip Vaughan. He has shared his passion for Australian native plants with segments on “Burke’s Backyard” all those years ago, more recently appearing on ABC TV’s “Gardening Australia.”

LCM chatted with these two influential people in the landscape industry to get their insight on some far reaching questions.

What defines an “Australian garden?”
Christian commented, “it is all about being able to entertain outside but likewise it is also about functionality. Every element needs to work, especially in smaller spaces. Basic things like getting a seamless transition from inside to out, using sliding, stacker or bi-fold doors to provide at least a four metre opening to not using the cookie cutter approach with all lawn landscaping including garden around the perimeter. I like to use curves to create an organic shaped lawn which then creates pockets for planting, even the clothesline!”

How is landscaping changing?
Christian again, “everything is changing. Covid comes along and parents have more time to play with their kids. We grew up playing in the bush, yet a lot of that bush does not exist anymore, so backyard play spaces have become essential. One of the biggest problems around space on new developments is we have got huge non-permeable areas leaving us with as little as one metre access to the backyard when we return to do the job and the hot water service has been installed down the side! The size of blocks and how small they are becoming is a prickly subject for me!”

What are the best tips for improving the soil, particularly for native plants?
Phillip says, “the three most important things around soil for native plants is drainage, drainage and, no prizes for guessing number three, drainage! Try to use the existing soil on site and, if it is heavy, mound-up the planting areas by around 30 -50cm. By using existing soil, there is no introduction of any new weeds or soil diseases to the site.”

“On development sites where the top layer has been stripped away, you may have to use an imported soil, but make sure the mix does not contain bird manures which are high in phosphate. Phosphate does not leach out of the profile, it has to be used up. It will limit the native species that you can use, for example, you will have difficulty growing plants like Grevilleas, Banksias, Hakeas and Waratahs.”

Christian adds, “we do a lot of work in housing estates where the houses have just been built, but before that, the land has been pulverised for twenty-four months during construction, I have no faith digging a tree into such a lifeless, pulverised soil. I have a ripper on my excavator so I can break up some of that compaction, then I raise the beds using an imported mix and adding manures. Yet we can only use what we can get, I believe more research needs to go into producing better soils by even adding more coarse river sand and crushed gravel into the mixes.”

Tips around mulching
“We use a 50mm gravel mulch through the gardens surrounding our nursery. That is because in Pomonal, Victoria, rainfall is low along with quite low temperatures through winter. Even small showers will soak through gravel whereas it will stay within a bark mulch. Gravel mulches retain heat and can give you one or two degrees – which is huge when looking at the minimum tolerances of plants. Another consideration is stone does not burn,” advises Phillip.

Opponents to gravel argue that you don’t get the breakdown of organic matter, so the use of native fertiliser is required.

Angus Stewart and Simon Leake have done some great work, producing a native fertiliser trade marked as Bush Tucker.

Favourite plants
Phillip shares with LCM that there are so many. He often tells landscapers and designers that it is okay to use the same plants again and again, the ones that are your stone-cold certain varieties but for the last 10-15 percent give something new a go and introduce some wow factors.

“As a street tree or in a small backyard, you can not go past the grafted gums, particularly, Corymbia ficifolia,” he says.

“With Kangaroo Paws (Anigozanthos species), try to go for the taller varieties, especially those bred with Anigozanthos flavidus – they are bomb proof! A rough rule of thumb is shorter varieties have a shorter life than the taller varieties. “

Well-meaning people in the seventies stated that natives were low maintenance but most respond to pruning even if it is only tip pruning. If a mower is run over the Kangaroo Paws for example, they come firing back.

“If you build it, they will come” – Experiences in attracting native fauna to the garden
Phillip comments, “you really have to remember there are four seasons in one year! If you go to the nursery once and just take what’s in flower, you’ll have a garden that looks good and attracts wildlife only in one season. You also need prickly plants that provide protection particularly for the small birds. When I get reluctance from customers around choosing prickly shrubs, I usually ask how many times do you roll in your shrubs?”

“I don’t agree that you have to plant local species to attract local fauna. We lived on the Bellarine Peninsula for many years and the local plants were abysmal! The more conditions you impose, the smaller the range of plants at your disposal.”

Trend towards using weathered and recycled materials in construction.
Christian remarks, “it is great to recycle materials and it keeps the cost down but you need to be cautious as it will depend on the style you are trying to create. Great if you are going for a rustic look but hard to use recycled materials in a contemporary or a Japanese garden. I love reusing anything the client has left on site, like a pile of a thousand bricks but I might face them with a wall cladding or render them to match the style I am trying to achieve.”

Finally, the last words go to Christian…
“It was only the eighties that we were putting black plastic down on our gardens, it is a credit to our industry that we have come so far! We are now spoilt for choice in products and plants.”

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