We spent Christmas in Canberra. Why Canberra, you may wonder. Or you may not. We are one of those New Zealand families where all three of our children have headed off into the merry blue yonder and the daughter with our first and only grandchild lives there.
For those not in the know, Canberra in winter is very much colder than anything we ever get in Taranaki, but a dry cold. Canberra in summer is very much hotter, but a dry heat. I don’t think we had a daytime temperature that was below 30C on this visit and it only dropped a few degrees at night. It doesn’t make gardening easy, although roses are happier there and they can do corker lavender and other Mediterranean plants, along with their own natives.
Adapting to growing a different range of plants and gardening in different ways is one aspect – though their conditions are just a more extreme version of Central Otago, parts of Canterbury and Hawkes Bay. The wildlife is more of a worry.We were staying in a house at the base of Mount Ainslie, a large nature park literally 15 minutes walk from the centre of the city. As she dropped us off, daughter commented that we should take care on the back terrace “because this is Redback Central”. That struck terror in us, especially as I recalled her saying previously that cane furniture is not suitable for Canberra because it was altogether too accommodating to redback spiders. We carefully brushed down the underside of the outdoor furniture before the seating of our posteriors thereon. We weren’t keen on the ants either, though the scarily large ants were harmless sugar ants. Or so we were told. It was the small ants that were the bite-y ones.
Snakes are also common in this inland area and we were a bit neurotic about the ornamental pond in overgrown grass beside the outdoor terrace. Snakes are apparently attracted to water in the dry summer months. Kangaroos graze on the adjacent reserve and the presence of fresh kanga poop on the driveways and paths each morning indicate they extend to the road verges at night. As there is a city ordinance that bans most front fences (though hedges are acceptable), this must be a challenge for front gardens. The abundant rabbit and possum population did not appear as damaging to gardens as we would expect here, though daughter was bitterly disappointed when a possum (a protected species in the homeland) took out her entire apricot crop in one night.
It was protection from the abundant and intrusive birdlife that saw the next door garden shrouded in white netting. The owners, Croatian migrants who escaped then-Yugoslavia in the 1960s for a better life in free Australia, were keen food producers growing many fruits and vegetables. It was an interesting visual effect, the shrouding of the garden, though you wouldn’t be able to expect a fruit crop in our humid conditions with the tree foliage compressed into tight domes.
It wasn’t all hostile and locals presumably learn the routine precautions that are necessary to protect their physical safety while gardening. We loved the dry grasslands and the wild flowers. The shimmering golden light is so very different to the bright, clear light we get at home in our landscape of verdant green and bright blue sky. Being able to take our baby grandson for his first river swims without worrying at all about water quality was a poignant experience for us as New Zealanders of this new millennium. The streetscapes of Canberra are all dominated by wide avenues, even in the suburbs, lined with very large trees. There was no evidence of clamouring locals wanting to take chainsaws to these specimens. Instead, everyone sought out the welcome shade to make walking in the heat of the day bearable.
In terms of domestic gardening, those who were irrigating heavily to enable a style of gardening imported from wetter climates were very obvious. This looks increasingly irresponsible in today’s world. Astro Turf seemed an option for some who wanted the effect of green lawns without the stigma of irrigation. We bought our daughter a book on American prairie gardens a few years ago and she is delighted with the effect of her little patch of perennials and grasses and waxes most enthusiastically about the feather reed grass – Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’’. This style of gardening has very low water requirements so is well suited to her conditions.
We flew home to our own garden which, even though we know it so well, looked unusually lush, well-furnished and, above all, green as green. We’d rather garden here than in a harsher climate and we have much to be grateful for in this country when it comes to the absence of poisonous fauna and large kangaroos.
First published in the March 2017 New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.