I have visited three large Victorian country gardens in the past month – Lambley, Frogmore and Cloudehill. They have all left me with a sense of longing. If only I could have just a tiny slice of ‘that’ in my own suburban garden.
Beyond the manicured hedges and traditional perennial borders, part of what makes them so magical is their location: the hills, the surrounding forest or the wide-open spaces. But it’s also the sheer diversity of plant species, the plant combinations, colours, textures and the inventive use of unusual and everyday plants to create beautiful, soul-filled gardens. In culinary terms, these gardens are a seven-course degustation.
Yet as I trundle back into suburbia and the tingle of being in the country disappears, I’m left wondering why our city gardens have to feel so comparatively meat and potatoes bland?
This is an iceberg (rose?) of a question, and there are no simple answers. But I can’t help wondering, have we become ‘comfort planters’ – relying on a limited palette of plants that we know and feel safe with? Some of the world’s most talented garden designers have proven it’s possible to create a stunning garden with a very limited plant palette – but for most of us, this is incredibly difficult to do well. Perhaps we followed a garden fashion and forgot to move on, or falsely believed that drought-tolerance was a term saved exclusively for agaves and yuccas? What does it take to move us out of our gardening comfort zone?
I’m not suggesting we should all have perennial borders. I appreciate that most of us don’t have acres to play with, or the budgets, time or design skills. Gardening doesn’t excite everyone, and that’s fine too. But for those of us who do enjoy gardening and want to create great garden spaces, I can’t help feeling we’re sometimes stuck in a rut. I’m the first to admit that I am guilty of using plants such as dietes, buxus, Magnolia ‘Little Gem’ and ornamental pear trees to excess in clients’ gardens. They are all proven, useful plants and we are comfortable with them. But can we move beyond these plants to create something even better?
First, don’t give up on your local retail nursery. If you’re lucky enough to have a good nursery near you (difficult when so many have been squeezed out by Bunnings), you might be pleasantly surprised by the range of useful and uncommon plants on offer. Beyond the local garden centre, there is a mind-boggling range of plant diversity on offer from Victorian plant growers if you just know where to look.
As a starting place, all of the gardens I have visited in the last month (Lambley, Frogmore and Cloudehill), have their own nurseries and mail-order catalogues, coupled with decades of growing and plant selection advice if you seek it. If you want native plants and especially species indigenous to your local area, the Indigenous Flora and Fauna Association has an extensive list of indigenous nurseries located all over Melbourne and Victoria.
For more unusual plant suppliers, you can get lost (trust me) trawling websites of mail-order suppliers from all over Victoria and Australia who will package up plants, bulbs and seeds and send them to your door. The Diggers Club is probably the most famous, and some great examples for perennials include Country Farm Perennials in Victoria and Woodbridge Nursery in Tasmania.
Then there are plant fairs and ‘Growing Friends’ groups attached to many public gardens. Friends groups propagate some amazing plants that are often available at special plant sales.
So perhaps we can be a little braver in our gardens. I love meeting plants I’m unfamiliar with. It gives me the chance to expand my knowledge and appreciate the nuances and quirks of new plants and their growing habits. In my own garden project I’m hoping this will result in a space that is truly something of my own creation and completely different to my neighbours’ gardens. You have to be prepared to experiment and experience failures with successes, but that goes without saying if gardening is your passion.
Visiting country gardens will always provide that grand-scale inspiration, but being adventurous in our own gardens means we can have somewhere worth escaping to without leaving home.