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My Australian Garden

by Sarah Loxton Guest
photographs by Caroline Davies

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 88, April 2017

Sarah Guest writes: I live in Melbourne Australia which in terms of latitude is comparable to Athens. The frost-free climate is erratic with occasional massive fluctuations in temperature. Droughts, floods and winds both hot and cold are all part of the picture. In theory the rains (annual rainfall 602.6mm or 23.7 inches) come in winter but huge downpours, both welcomed and dreaded by gardeners, can occur at any time of year. My late father-in-law used to say “no climate, only weather.” My inner-city garden is small and, as the house is arranged to welcome the winter sun, much of the garden lies in shade – and dense shade at that. This is city living and ‘the next doors’ are both close and high. The soil, after thirty years of vigilant mulching, remains a free-draining, poor, black sand. 

Camellias are used to add structure and to link the oddly-shaped, man-made, immutable little plots of land which combine to make my garden. Three specimens, now 35 years old, of Camellia sasanqua ‘Mine-no-yuki’ (‘Snow on the Mountain/ Peak/Ridge’ – take your pick), grow in shallow dry soil and survive wind-tunnel conditions. These have been espaliered along a high wall. As you may have gathered, I am rather pleased with the arrangement as the eye-catching espalier does much to divert the eye from the Grand-Canyon-like effect of two closely-spaced tall buildings. Flowering begins in mid-autumn – refrigerator-white double flowers set against dark shiny leaves – and is followed by the equally pretty display of translucent new growth.

35 year old espaliered Camellia sasanqua “Mine-no-yuki” and a powerful wooden owl to deter possums

A plain-leafed West Australian willow-myrtle, Agonis flexuosa,stands at one end of this formal arrangement and flips a formal style into informality with its weeping broken canopy, irregular growth pattern and deeply furrowed curving bark. And that’s the way I like it. Sometimes the mix works, sometimes it does not, but to be absolutely frank I find all-formal dull and all-informal messy.

Espaliered Camellia sasanqua from the opposite direction with Agonis flexuosa

It took a few years to realise it but eventually I got it: camellias thrive in these challenging conditions (many plants do not) and today their rich gleaming leaves, floriferous enthusiasm and displays of sinuous bark tie all the little irregular spaces [of Sarah’s garden] together. 

I should mention that I prune stand-alone camellias my way, opening out the dense interior mass and exposing the branches at about eye level. This is partly for the sculpture their sinuous smooth bark provides, partly because this see-through treatment creates a sense of distance in what is essentially a small confined space, and partly because broken shade is just what species cyclamen and snowdrops seem to enjoy.

Sarah’s method of encouraging open growth is to hang heavy caste iron goat bells on the branches

My front patch receives some sun – about half a day in winter and a bit more in summer – and one corner harbours another willow-myrtle, this time a frilly-leafed variegated variety (Agonis flexuosa ‘Variegata’). Generally speaking I avoid variegated leaves but this one seems to enhance a feeling of open space and sunlight, both of which are in short supply. Besides, today its bark is deeply furrowed and I like the air of antiquity this imparts just as I like the all-Australian spicy scent its leaves exude when trodden on. This in itself is a good excuse for not sweeping the garden before a party. Possums take care of any necessary pruning.

Agonis flexuosa “Variegata”

There are two South African bulbous plants which can and do spread about more or less at will. The first is Scadoxus membranaceus, an almost evergreen autumn-blooming beauty, found years ago in an open-air market. The four-petalled sculptural flowers, bronzy-red with greenish markings, hang about for months. Finally they fade to mere shadows of their former glory leaving brilliant shining scarlet berries cupped in papery beige petals.

The leaves of Scadoxus membranaceus

I enjoy plants with strong shapes and leaf forms. Kalanchoe beharensis, for example, which now rises to a height of about2.5m, gives me a thrill every time I come through the front gate. I really like its scarred knarled stem and felt-textured leaves but I recognise that many do not share my enthusiasm.

Kalanchoe beharensis

Assorted succulents and Cussonia paniculata

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