Gardening in the city

Sunday, 02 March 2014

In the garden of Peter Nixon in Sydney

This weekend, I had the chance to visit two inner-city Sydney gardens that were open to the public, and it was inspiring to see what can be achieved in compact spaces. In both gardens, warm-climate plants have been embraced as being ideal for our region, and have been used to solve the challenges of urban gardening.

Dramatic Vriesea hieroglyphica in the garden of Ian McMaugh in Sydney

I was fascinated to see that both gardens used a few big, bold feature plants to create dramatic impact and form, and as a way of dividing space. In Paradisus, the garden of Peter Nixon in Darlington, two giant bromeliads - Alcantarea imperialis Florida Clone, still with their tall flowering stems - greeted the visitor at the entrance. In the garden created by Ian McMaugh (known as Ian and Tom's garden) in Redfern, a large bird's nest fern, a well-established red-leaf Philodendron, Monstera, Vriesea hieroglyphica and other structural plants provided a sense of fullness and lushness - as well a feeling of being enclosed in an leafy oasis - and contrasted with underplantings of smaller-leaved groundcovers.

An orange tree with epiphytic plants provides a sheltering canopy of privacy in the garden of Ian McMaugh in Sydney

Screening out unwanted views and noise can be a requirement in inner-city gardening, and in Ian's garden, a hedge of Viburnum 'Emerald Lustre' in the front garden blocked out a tall building opposite and created privacy, and a mature orange tree in the back garden provided a canopy of seclusion. However, compact gardens can also benefit from borrowed views of nearby trees, and in Peter's garden this was achieved by blurring the boundary walls with plants so that tall street tree plantings seem part of the garden. One way this was done was by planting an unusual climber, Combretum coccineum 'Crimson Cloud', on steel cables along the top of the fence line, and placing pots with cascading flowers and foliage on the garden walls, including unusual Medinilla cultivars.

Blue ginger in the garden of Ian McMaugh in Sydney

Shade from building walls and privacy plantings is another challenge in inner-city gardens. These gardeners have used a multitude of shade-tolerant plants that flourish in our climate, all contributing exciting colour, form and texture to the gardens. Begonia are excellent plants for shade, and the flowers and foliage of some attractive cane forms decorated Ian's front garden, and colourful rhizomatous Begonia were grown in pots in Peter's garden. Other useful flowering plants for shady gardens I noted included New Guinea Impatiens, blue ginger (Dichorisandra thyrsifolia) and many Acanthaceae plants, such as Pachystachys lutea, Ruellia elegans and Odontonema, all in bloom now.

Shade-tolerant groundcovers in the garden of Ian McMaugh in Sydney

Foliage plants provided a wealth of colour in the gardens - brilliantly hued coleus, dark and lime-leaved forms of Colocasia, Ctenanthe, myriad succulent plants and an enormous variety of bromeliads. I enjoyed seeing a closely knit tapestry of low-growing Peperomia and Fittonia (another Acanthaceae plant!) in Ian's back garden - plants more often thought of as house plants, with enticing textures and patterns on their leaves.

Bromeliads growing with the African milk bush in the garden of Peter Nixon in Sydney

Both gardens made use of every bit of available space for plants, whilst still allowing room to sit and move around - including roofs and the entire nature strip in front of Ian's garden! Pots were also used extensively to add plants to paved areas, and were grouped together skilfully make stunning garden pictures. Walls were covered with exuberant climbers (including what appeared to be a giant honeysuckle!). In Ian's garden, the inner side of two large gates that open into the back lane have been covered in mesh and planted with bromeliads and other epiphytes (including Hoya and Epiphyllums) - creating two fabulous living walls, which also acted as a burglar deterrent, with menacing spiky-leaved bromeliads planted along the top of each gate! Another wall has a large metal draining board mounted on it, planted with a profusion of epiphytic Tillandsia, behind a shelf of potted succulents. In both gardens, bromeliads were attached to trees to create further planting opportunities. Peter had created a cocofibre-filled mesh tube for a host of bromeliads and attached this to a stunning foliage tree, the purple-leaved form of the African milk bush (Synadenium grantii, sometimes called Euphorbia grantii). The use of every inch of space for plants added to the feeling of being in a haven in the city in these gardens.