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Garden Design: Now and Then

Diana Snape

Anyone starting a new garden today has both advantages and disadvantages compared with say 40 years ago - or 47 years, when Brian and I began our first garden in Sydney. Then we could find only two books with information about Australian plants and how to grow them: one by Thistle Harris, the other by Ernest E. Lord (and that included a lot of exotic plants).

Now there are literally hundreds of books and a wonderful 8- (soon to be 9-) volume Encyclopaedia *.

Designing with Australian Plants
Book cover

The GDSG's book, The Australian Garden: Designing with Australian Plants was published by Blooming Books in 2002 and is still available. It contains over 230 pages, includes over 100 colour plates and has a recommended retail price of $A49.95.

A review of the book can be found in Australian Plants online, December 2002 issue.

Much research has been carried out by botanists, horticulturists, nurseries, growers and study groups. There's no shortage of helpful information, although there's still much to learn.

In the early years, the range of readily available plants was limited - trees and large shrubs predominated. Small shrubs were hard to come by and there was little variety. Nowadays the range of plants in cultivation is huge and this includes many small plants. Numerous special forms, cultivars and hybrids extend the selection. Plants still tend to come and go in fashion but this is no wonder as even the best nursery can never stock more than a small fraction of 25,000 or so species.

We did not know the word 'indigenous' back in 1960, let alone have indigenous plant nurseries. We had not considered the significance of indigenous plants in natural ecosystems. This was before Silent Spring was published and Rachael Carson alerted us to serious environmental problems. Nowadays children in school are more aware of many aspects of ecology than we were then.

So there are advantages now but also disadvantages. The major one is climate change, with lack of water in many areas of Australia, or else floods, or cyclones.

During 10 years of 'drought', most Victorians have gradually become accustomed to the idea that this is ongoing - a new, dryer climate. Though it will still rain sometimes, on average it will be dryer.

Another disadvantage for gardeners today is the shrinking garden size associated with greater population density and larger houses. Houses don't have to be larger, of course - this is merely 'aspirational'- and any size garden is worthwhile.

One result of climate change in Victoria has been a renewed interest in growing Australian plants. There has been general evidence for this and, for me, two examples close to home. The book The Australian Garden; designing with Australian plants, based on the first 10 years'work of the Garden Design Study Group, was published five years ago. Sales of this $50 (RRP) book have now passed 10,000 copies, so there are a lot of interested people out there! Also, when our garden was recently in the Open Garden Scheme, 950 adults (and at least 50 children) visited - that's more than 1,000 pairs of feet! People showed enormous interest and asked lots of questions (and our quarter-acre garden survived intact).

In the 1960s there was an upsurge of interest in Australian plants but it did not last long, for reasons outlined earlier. To design a garden then with any confidence would have been a real challenge. Now the situation is quite different - and the 'no maintenance' myth is dead and we know to prune.

Even with the challenges of adapting to harsher climatic conditions, we can hope to see more Australian plants growing in Australian gardens.

However there's one additional factor I think is very important to help ensure the future: good garden design. Our plants are beautiful; let's create beautiful gardens. With the current knowledge and marvellous range of plants, our gardens can all be inspiring. This is the goal of the Garden Design Study Group.

Visit the Garden Design Study Group's website

* The Encyclopaedia of Australian Plants, Volumes 1-8; Roger Elliot and David Jones, Lothian Publishing.

From "Growing Australian", the newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Victoria), December 2007.

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