The call of gardening in less hospitable situations

Indubitably Australia

Indubitably Australia

I went to Australia last week – Sydney and Canberra. We have a daughter in each city and both are putting roots down across the ditch. Literally. It is very interesting watching one’s children become inspired by gardening.

Sydney daughter is the younger of the two and still in rental accommodation. But having lived in upper floor apartments before, she is now adamant that she needs outdoor space, be it ever so compact. Her current garden is not much larger than our dining room at home. I recall her growing huge and productive Sweet 100 tomatoes when she was a student at Waikato University. In an upper floor apartment in London, she acquired small window boxes to grow herbs. The current space, be it ever so modest, is palatial by comparison.

As the space also accommodates the accoutrements of modern life (outdoor dining table and chairs, barbecue and sun umbrella), her actual gardening space is limited to two narrow, raised beds along the perimeter and an assortment of pots. But she has made space for the two critical requirements for the hipster urban gardener – a worm farm and a covered compost box. She is limited to growing herbs and a few vegetables at this stage but I can see the makings of a lifelong gardener.

We could learn a thing or two from street trees in Australia - this pleasant leafy road is in in Canberra

We could learn a thing or two from street trees in Australia – this pleasant leafy road is in in Canberra

Elder daughter is now a proud home owner and that is an entirely different kettle of fish. She too started gardening as a student and is a reasonably competent vegetable gardener with over a decade of experience behind her. But now that she has some security and stability in her life, she is looking to expand beyond the quick turnaround of veg and herbs. She was after ideas to develop the ornamental garden.

Canberra is not the easiest of places to garden. Not at all. She commented it is not possible to put plants or seeds in with a reasonable expectation that they will grow and flourish. It takes hard work to get plants established. I walked around her pleasant, leafy suburb to get a feel for the place and it was clear that gardening was a challenge and it was the street trees that gave the area its appeal. We could learn a thing or two from street plantings in these Australian cities.

I realised, however, that this was not a place where that tenet of modern living applies – the indoor/outdoor lifestyle. That is because the winters are cold. I have visited in winter and I doubt that many people sit out in their gardens drinking their morning coffee, even on a fine winter’s day. The summers, on the other hand, are hot. Very hot, even as November became December. It was too hot to be outdoors after 10am and temperatures will rise considerably. So for a good six or maybe seven months of the year, it is an indoor lifestyle.

Then there is the dry. There has been a great deal more rain this spring than usual so the grass (one hesitates to call it lawn) is still green rather than dead. This is unusual.

There were clearly many who found the call of gardening too difficult so they just kept to a few trees and shrubs, mostly in hedges. Nandinas grow well, as do oleanders, crepe myrtles, camellias and pittosporums. The ornamental plum (a selection of Prunus cerisifera) is widely grown with its striking deep burgundy foliage which looked particular fetching with a white cockie feeding in it.

My advice to daughter was pragmatic. Because they have two small dogs (fur grandchildren, Mark and I call them), they only use the fenced back section, which now has a fine veg bed and a well organised compost alley. Concentrate her efforts there, I suggested, and indulge her interest in prairie gardening. It suits the climate.

What to do with a front yard which is merely access to the house?

What to do with a front yard which is merely access to the house?

The front can then become low maintenance window-dressing for kerb appeal. I suggested they get rid of all but one of the finicky garden beds and all the plant containers out the front. These need watering every day. What is more, the beds are raised which means they dry out even faster. Drop the level of the one remaining bed to ground level to reduce watering and the constant spillover of garden mulch. Plant that one remaining bed in easy care, shade tolerant plants – hydrangeas and hellebores – and retain the boundary hedges. Mow the rest. They only have to mow for four months of the year. I bought her my favourite tool for digging out the flat weeds. If you are stuck with fairly rough grasses, it looks much better without the flat weeds.

The same advice may well be applicable for people in coastal situations here. New Zealand lacks the extremes of temperature, but people gardening on sandy soils will experience similar problems. Emulating the lush growth more commonly prized in most gardens is fighting nature in such conditions. It is better to work with what you have.

Hydrangeas - easycare plants. They are all pink in Canberra.

Hydrangeas – easycare plants. They are all pink in Canberra.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.