Spring in a cool climate

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Clematis growing on the house wall, Markdale garden, Binda, NSW

Nearly 30 years ago, I went on my first trip to England. My aim was to visit as many English gardens as possible so I could try to learn how to become a 'proper' gardener. I managed to see close to 40 gardens, large and small, and took many photos and copious notes. Upon returning home, I tried for a few years to create the look of those gardens in my suburban Sydney plot. Sadly, the plan failed. Basically, I hadn't acknowledged that there was one huge difference between here and there: climate. I thought that strength of mind and determination would be enough to allow me to grow gorgeous cool-climate plants in Sydney; I was wrong.

After a while, I reset my agenda to create my own form of a Sydney 'style', finding suitable plants by trial and error. Warm-climate plants (mainly shrubby perennials rather than the herbaceous perennials I had been growing in my English-y garden) from places such as South America, Mexico, Asia and South Africa proved to be stalwarts, and for a time I flirted with a frankly tropical look. I was not at all interested any more in visiting cool-climate gardens, as I considered them now 'irrelevant' and could not understand why my gardening friends still continued to enjoy seeing them.

Stone wall designed by Edna Walling, Markdale garden, Binda, NSW

In recent times, however, I have had something of another reversal in thinking! This year, for the first time in a while, I was free of work commitments in October, allowing me the chance to visit some country NSW gardens. I was determined to simply go along and enjoy them for themselves, without feeling I had to copy any of them or feel ill with envy at all the treasures that grow in these gardens. I thoroughly enjoyed the gardens I saw, and far from finding them irrelevant, I learned much from all of them. Having a bit better idea now about what will and won't grow in my Sydney garden, I found that I was able to look beyond the individual plants and appreciate all that was wonderful in these gardens: design, colour combinations, textural contrast with foliage, and fabulous, original ideas. I also saw plants that I could grow in Sydney, giving me a greater appreciation of the adaptability of a number of plants to different climates. Today I shall describe three of these gardens.

Penstemon Electric Blue in the garden of Jan Werner near Yass, NSW, photo: Jan Werner

In the garden of Jan Werner near Yass, Southern Tablelands of NSW, it was wonderful to see a wide range of Mediterranean and other plants that hate humidity (and therefore don't grow well in Sydney), growing robustly and happily in the predominantly sunny cottage garden at the back of the house. Large rocks from the property have been used in the construction of garden areas, with raised beds allowing excellent drainage; the rocks in the garden also provide an effective link to the surrounding landscape. Lavenders of different colours, Penstemon (pictured above, photo by Jan Werner), Achillea, Cistus, Hebe ... it could have been a roll call from the plants I had tried and failed with over time in my Sydney garden: here they all flourish! A prolific herb garden close to back of the house, with drifts of culinary herbs and low-growing perennials; structure is provided by standard plants grown along the bed. Olive trees provide a lovely silvery backdrop to the plantings.

Centranthus and Gazania nestle next to a large rock in the garden of Jan Werner near Yass, NSW

I loved the generous clumps of plants throughout the garden, merging with one another at their edges, realising that my own tendency is to not to mass plants in sufficiently large groups. In this garden, all the Salvia that struggle in Sydney (well, in my garden at least), the ones with a basal clump of leaves and tall spires of flowers, grow brilliantly, reminding me again that plants grow best when chosen to suit the climate! It was a pleasure to see them obviously in their element. Some of the Salvia grown in Jan's garden also do well in Sydney, such as the many S. greggii cultivars, S. leucantha and S. 'Marine Blue', underlining the adaptability of these specimens.

Pear sculpture amidst sun-loving plants in the garden of Jan Werner near Yass, NSW

In the garden in front of the house, an effective mixture of Australian native shrubs with Mediterranean and South African perennials and groundcovers reminded me how well these sun-loving plants combine together, with bold-leaved bearded Iris and Acanthus mollis providing good foliage contrast against the finer-textured Australian native plants. South African daisy plants such as Arctotis, Gazania and Osteospermum provided huge pools of long-lasting colour. A stylish sculpture of a pear (made from horse shoes) is well positioned in this area, and standardised plants are used here also to provide structure. Attractive gravel paths lead through the plantings and shape the generously sized beds. More of Jan's garden can be seen here on this website's Garden Ramble feature.

Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii with Ceanothus and tall bearded irises, Markdale garden, Binda, NSW

At historic Markdale, near Binda, Southern Tablelands of NSW (open through the Crookwell Garden Festival in early October), I was delighted to see one of Edna Walling's garden designs, dating from the late 1940s, then further developed by members of the Ashton family. Seeing the iconic low stone walls used to define the curves of beautifully shaped sweeping lawns in the garden, sheltered by magnificent mature trees, was a sheer pleasure (and reminded me of the importance of restful open areas). The lawns lead down to a stunning lake. A strong axis in the garden is created by a sturdy pergola covered in Wisteria and climbing roses. Ambling through copses of exquisite spring-flowering shrubs and trees, and the enchanting garden rooms created by tall hedges, filled with cool-climate treasures in this garden, I was able to enjoy them without wanting to weep because I can't grow them at home. I again realised how bigger masses of plants are so much more effective than my bitty compositions, especially in shaded woodland parts of the garden, with swathes of hellebores, honesty and Lamium cloaking the ground and providing a serene atmosphere.

Stachys byzantina with Cerastium tomentosum, Markdale garden, Binda, NSW

I admired some gorgeous colour combinations, such as the lime-green bracts of Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii against the deep blue blooms of shrubby Ceanothus and dark purple bearded Iris (pictured in the previous paragraph), and a pink Clematis grown against a white wall of the house with silvery Stachys byzantina at its feet, with self-seeded Erigeron karvinskianus amongst the stonework (pictured at the start of the blog). I also loved a grouping of the furry Stachys with the fine, dissected foliage of silvery Cerastium tomentosum here (pictured above), a plant I cannot grow in my own garden but which triggered ideas of combining other dainty-leaved silver foliage plants with the Stachys, which surprisingly does OK in Sydney.

Bearded irises in Chinoiserie garden, Mittagong, NSW

In Mittagong, Southern Highlands, NSW, I visited Chinoiserie, a garden that I have seen develop from a bare paddock over the past 16 years. This truly delightful garden has a succession of areas, with lush plantings of some of the most beautiful of cool-climate plants, and is at its peak at the moment. From a stunning collection of peonies, a potager, a woodland, to a water garden and an alpine garden with exquisite treasures, there is much to see. My favourite part of the garden is that consisting of the long, colour-themed herbaceous borders, similar in style to those billowing English borders I saw on my original trip all those years ago. Here, with a cold winter and a non-humid summer, perennials, roses and cool-climate shrubs grow to perfection, and they are combined with an artist's eye. Self-sown annuals such as poppies intermingle with the perennials, adding an element of informality.

Salvia nemerosa with gold feverfew in Chinoiserie garden, Mittagong, NSW

Even perennials that I can (sort of) grow in Sydney, such as Aquilegia and Solomon's seal, grow twice as tall here! It is a garden in which to simply luxuriate in the beauty of flowers and foliage, and to be inspired by colour combinations (such as golden foliage with brilliant blue flowers, pictured at left) and textural contrasts, such as lacy ferns grown with bold-leaved hostas in shaded nooks. Simply to see a peony in real life is reason enough to visit this garden! It is open daily until 15 November 2015.

I came home from these gardens inspired to get out into my own plot and improve it!

Reader Comments

  • By Maria 0 Monday, 26 October 2015

    English people make wonderfull gardens! Do you know portuguese islands, in the Atlantic Ocean, called "The pearl of the Atlantic"? Tere are Madeira and Porto Santo Islands, where everybody has beautifull gardens with endemic plants. There is a micro clime, sub tropical, and the vulcanic land make the plants grow wonderfully! They produce the unic Madeira wine, the Madeira bananas and have endemic Laurissilva scrubs, whith more thousand years. Best regards, Maria Thank you, Maria. That is really interesting to know. Would love to visit those places some day. Deirdre

  • By Alison 2125 Monday, 26 October 2015

    I love visiting cool climate gardens to admire the different plantings. On the weekend I visited "Mayfield" in Oberon. It"s a garden on a grand scale with lovely water gardens and amazing stone work. On the weekend the many rhododendrons were flowering. However, for me the most fascinating plants were the hostas, mass planted, often in very sunny positions. They looked fabulous. They are plant I have tried to grow in Sydney without success, believing they are shade lovers. Mayfield sounds great; it is on my list to visit. Re hostas, in Sydney they do need shade or the leaves will burn. They can actually grow OK in Sydney if kept well watered and in a shaded spot. In my experience, it is best to grow them in pots as you can provide good growing conditions for them; as long as there is time to keep them moist! Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 26 October 2015

    I also enjoy visiting cool climate gardens - can admire the plants in their climate zone, without wanting them in my own garden. I visited the gardens of Bundanoon last Saturday and was inspired by the gardeners" use of plants, and how some of these can fit into my own garden. Many of those plants, grown by Jan, do well in my garden, particularly the penstemons, which are now in bud. You are lucky, Margaret! I love penstemons but they just do not survive beyond one season in my garden. There certainly were plants in Jan"s garden that do well here, which was interesting to see their adaptability to quite different climates, as Yass has much colder winters and a hotter, drier summer than Sydney. Deirdre

  • By Anne 2518 Monday, 26 October 2015

    I love cool climate gardens & hopefully Know my own limitations. I too visited Bundanoon - the clematis in one of the gardens left me breathless! Also visited the Robertson & Berry gardens a few weeks ago. Enjoy "country" gardens. seeing what people can achieve given a lot of ground to work with. The colours and textures of the leaves can be combined in wonderful ways. Also popped into the Blackheath rhodo garden yesterday. That place is not tamed like the garden at Olinda. Magnificent. You have been busy visiting gardens this spring by the sound of it, Anne! It is always inspiring and great fun. Deirdre

  • By Sue T. 2566 Monday, 26 October 2015

    I visited Chinoiserie recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. beautiful Peonies and gardens full of perennials that I only ever see in books. all those plants that i look ay and never buy at the Plant fair There were three colour variations of Ctenanthe and I came home and ordered some seeds online. That"s something that I can grow here even if it doesn"t self seed. sue Glad you enjoyed your visit there, Sue. It is a lovely garden and the owners are so enthusiastic and welcoming. I love the little nursery there too, and usually find some treasure there to try at home. Deirdre

  • By Jan 2582 Monday, 26 October 2015

    It was lovely to welcome you to our garden Deidre, and inspiring to hear about the other cool climate gardens you visited recently. If anyone is on Facebook I put up notes and pics at https://www.facebook.com/coolclimategardening You can access the page whether you "Facebook" or not :-) It was a joy to visit your garden, Jan. You have been a great help to me in developing the farm garden that is just 40 km away from where you are. Thanks for the Facebook link. That is terrific. Deirdre

  • By Maureen 2118 Monday, 26 October 2015

    Thank once again for sharing a fabulous journey into such beautiful gardens. Thanks also to Jan for the facebook info. It is good to have that link to follow the progress of Jan"s garden. Thanks for your feedback, Maureen. Deirdre

  • By Pam 2159 Monday, 26 October 2015

    Camellias Australia visited Cool Climate gardens in Bilpin, Mt Tomah and Mt Wilson in September. Lots of camellias, blossoms, bulbs and waratahs. Pictures uploaded to YouTube by member Waverley Vercoe www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uTMwMA8qdc

  • By Trudi 4223 Monday, 26 October 2015

    I loved cool climate gardens, as my first gardens were initiated in Switzerland. Now, since 40 years I grow plants in a subtropical garden and my wish to look and visit cold climate gardens has vanished. I love my subtropical plants inclusive so many Salvias, Bromeliads and so many more. It means on my agenda are warm climate gardens only.( Still enjoyed reading about all the wonderful gardens you featured.) That is a huge change of gardening for you, Trudi! You have obviously adapted to your new climate very well. Your plants sound very similar to my favourites. For a long time I did not want to look at cook climate gardens but now I just like to enjoy them for their own sakes and be inspired by colour combinations and design ideas. Deirdre

  • By Norman 2653 Thursday, 29 October 2015

    hello Deirdre; i like your story about iris time" i like irises; i think that you are lucky to be living around the Sydney area; i think that it is a very pretty area. all my best wishes to you & your family. Thanks, Norman! Deirdre

  • By Nikki 7325 Monday, 02 November 2015

    Deirdre,I have learnt you never stop struggling with the vagaries of climate & what grows where. Wanted an English garden with herbaceous borders - moved from Syd to Gloucester -cold winters to -6 but very humid summers up to 47 degrees. Found out that many plants that can handle low temperatures can handle high temperatures but NOT humidity. Moved to NW Tassie - mild all year - now find some dream plants need more heat to flower & maples cannot handle any wind. Constantly learning!

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