Thinking Small in the Big Country

We had cause to travel to Australia a couple of weeks ago for a family celebration. Fortunately, given our timing, we were in Wollongong (south Sydney) and Canberra and our paths only crossed with the 125 000 Catholic pilgrims when it came to flying out of Sydney airport. We avoided the chaos of Sydney, which also meant we missed the Pope. But as I noted the austerity of St Peter’s Square and the near total absence of any vegetation in the Vatican City when I was there a month ago, I doubt that we would have been able to discuss gardening with him.

We have never been to Wollongong before and despite it being a somewhat industrial area, we were rather taken by it. Its location ensures a higher rainfall than many other parts of Australia and the climate was almost balmy. The soulangeana magnolias were at their peak (little sign of them showing colour here) and the presence of sub tropical plants, including an abundance of frangipani, indicates that the area never gets particularly cold. The beautiful blue sky and expanses of pristine beaches had us thinking that maybe Australia is indeed the lucky land. Certainly we did not hear the doom and gloom talk of home. Mind you, that may be a superficial judgement because the TV only showed wall to wall happy, smiling pilgrims.

After a tiki tour of the area which involved much bonding with her father identifying and discussing the multitude of exotic Australian birds, Elder Daughter drove us to her second home in Canberra. I have been to that city before but it was a first for Mark and he was a little shocked at the harshness of the climate. In winter it is very dry and very cold while in summer it is very dry and very hot. He whispered to me that he much preferred Wollongong. Gardening as we know it just is not possible in Canberra.

Daughter commented that none of the Aussie TV gardening gurus she has seen appears to have come to grips with practical design suggestions for front yards. The private courtyard out the back has been done to death, but there is a dearth of ideas when it comes to dealing with the waste of space out the front. Irrigation is on a semi permanent ban so the front lawn and garden does not survive. The only alternatives appear to be green nylon lawn (!) or dyed bark chip mulch (referred to as tan bark). Daughter was suggesting that if she had a front yard, she would be looking at buying a truckload of massive rocks and establishing a rock garden (more rock than garden). Or maybe try a meadow of anigozanthus (kangaroo paws) which, being native, might fare better.

Nylon lawn at up to $120 a square metre

Nylon lawn at up to $120 a square metre. Photo Abbie Jury

Post celebrations (no, neither a wedding nor a grandchild), Daughter and her partner indulged us by taking us to the somewhat remarkable Cockington Green Gardens which had possibly more than a nodding affilation to the genre of Fred and Myrtle’s paua house in Invercargill. No paua, but scaling hitherto unconquered heights of being twee to the point where it takes on a life of its own. It was started by a passionate Anglophile model maker and has recently been expanded with an international section (mostly sponsored by foreign embassies). Leaving aside the plethora of miniature scale buildings, cricket match, soccer match and all the rest of it (and there was a lot of the rest of it including fairy garden and miniature trains), the gardening was dominated primarily by dwarf conifers and clipped and topiaried buxus. Alas we can not get that excited about masses of dwarf conifers, but it was certainly clear that in a much colder climate the conifers colour up a great deal better. The silver blues and burgundies made our few at home look very subdued.

The Treaty House at Cockington Green

The Treaty House at Cockington Green. Photo Abbie Jury

New Zealand was represented by a model of the Treaty House at Waitangi. If I remember correctly, it was the only one not sponsored by the Embassy but I think by an individual instead, which may possibly be an indication that our ambassador to Australia has better taste. After our initial amusement, we were underwhelmed by the gardening at Cockington Green but envious of the evidence of large tourist numbers. Given that Canberra is hardly a tourist hotspot, it makes you realise how few we actually get in Taranaki.

Conifers and buxus and a toy train at Cockington Green

Conifers and buxus and a toy train at Cockington Green. Photo Abbie Jury

As an antidote to the OTT naff nature of Cockington Green, we headed off to the botanic gardens which are devoted entirely to native Australian plants with a purity of purpose which is not necessarily a populist position with locals, who may well prefer some bedding plants and colour. And the dry, open areas were a little arid with no underplanting at all. The hardy natural flora of Australia is nowhere near as exotic as their fauna and around Canberra is heavily dominated by hardy eucalypts. It wasn’t until we reached the bushland plantings that we went: oh yes. As New Zealanders, we take for granted our lush growth, both in the natural environment and in the contrived garden. It is a concept largely foreign to those who live in much harsher environments.

Mark was grateful for the relative absence of plant eating fauna at home. We would be less than impressed to have kangaroos peering out from the understory of the garden and effortlessly hurdling our fences. Possums here are a pest but at least we can shoot them – they are a protected species in Australia. The rosellas, vast flocks of sulphur crested cockatoos, crows and an abundance of other birdlife can wreak havoc in an environment where their main of source of food includes your garden plants. And at least we never got foxes courtesy of the British settlers. We saw tree ferns (yes, Australia has a range of tree ferns of their own) where the new growth had been stripped bare by rosellas in search of the spore.

There really is no place like home and the verdant green environment that we take for granted here is really quite rare. We would rather be here than there. They may be the lucky country economically, but we are the lucky gardening land.