The Heritage Garden, Clare Valley
Other people's gardens

After the fires

Last year I led a tour for Ross Garden Tours to South Australia and Victoria. We were off to see the great rose gardens of the south, and taking the Indian Pacific to get there. One of our group had to cancel at the last minute – her house was under threat from bushfires raging through the Blue Mountains.  Our train detoured around the mountains and travelled instead through still-smoking burnt-out country in the southern highlands. We  drank an anxious  toast to our missing companion.


Margaret was lucky  –  her house wasn’t one of the almost 200 that burned down around her.  Margaret and I have since travelled together to Orange and to Singapore and I am full of admiration for her determination to rebuild her garden from the ashes. Her story reminds me of how many memories we carry in our gardens. It’s also testament to the healing power of gardening. This is the story I wrote for I the Sydney Morning Herald:

Margaret Boyle lives in Winmalee, where last October almost 200 houses burned to the ground. “I know I was very fortunate,” she says, and you can hear the ’but ..’ coming. Boyle kept the house but lost her garden, a loss not just of the beauty she created over 25 years, but of the accretion of memories that are embedded in any garden. “The plants you put in the ground with your husband, and he’s passed away…” , she says, barely able to explain what the garden symbolised.

The acre-and-a-quarter garden was at its peak on the day the fires exploded, having been primped and pampered for Boyle’s annual charity open day. In the days following the flurry of opening, she was enjoying the colour from azaleas, hellebores, crabapples and roses. The box hedges were trimmed, the mulch topped up under the hedge of 170 sasanquas. When the fire arrived it blasted everything in the front garden – the roses, the box hedges, the mature trees; and at the side that neat mulch caught fire and burned the camellias. Heartbreakingly they still looked green on top, yet most died over the following weeks in a slow-motion tragedy. (Here is one of Margaret’s shots of what happened.)


Gardeners have to be hardy. Disaster is always lurking, shape-shifting from the small scale – a wild wind shreds the bananas, rust decimates the frangipani – to the awe-inspiring – drought, heatwave, unseasonal frosts, flood and fires. The litany of disaster inspired garden writer Mary Horsfall to write, ‘Australian Garden Rescue: Restoring a damaged garden’ (CSIO publishing, rrp $39.95). She covers the everyday disasters of pests and diseases as well as disasters caused by our increasingly frequent wild weather. Horsfall notes that fire impacts include much more than burnt plants. The ash changes soil pH, fire-germinated weed seeds and opportunistic blow-ins erupt in the bare soil, and the oil reside from burnt foliage turns the soil hydrophobic. Boyle experienced all these problems after the Winmalee fires and battled them with an extravagant use of seaweed tonic and old-fashioned muscle.

The amount of work was daunting, and so were the decisions about change. “It’s hard to know whether to keep it the same, or not,” she says. Ultimately she decided on a bit of both, resurrecting what she could, abandoning what she couldn’t afford to replace, and taking any horticultural charity – buckets of nandinas, a bootload of bottlebrush – that was offered.

Boyle held her charity open day again this year. Of course, it’s a very different garden without the trees, the hedges, the years-long development of layers of planting, but she felt it was a neighbourly thing to do. “It was a healing thing, a lovely relaxed afternoon,” she says. “People couldn’t get over what I’d done. After seeing so much black you just want things to be colourful.”


The picture at the top of this post is one of the gardens Margaret missed on the Great Southern Rail trip: Walter and Kay Duncan’s beautiful rose garden in the Clare Valley, The Heritage Garden.


In season

October 20

In now: Oxheart tomatoes are soft-skinned so are picked immature and need to be ripened on the kitchen bench or windowsill, out of direct sun.

Not at its best: Radicchio is not a fan of warm weather, and neither it, nor its partner trevisso, are at their best right now. When a salad needs a bitter crunch, look for radish instead.

Best buy: What a cool relief to have cucumbers at affordable prices again. I love them:

– smashed with the back of a knife till they shatter, cut into chunks and doused with soy sauce, black vinegar and a drizzle of sesame oil.

– or cut into chunks, tossed with chunks of radish, halved cherry tomatoes, lots of parsley, and a sherry vinegar dressing.

– or peeled, deseeded and cut into thin slivers atop butter lettuce. Scatter over nigella seeds and roasted pine nuts,  and drizzle with a lemon and olive oil dressing.

In the vegie patch: As the weather heats sow lettuce where they will get a little protection from hot afternoon sun, such as in the shade of taller-growing vegetables.

What else:

  • last chance for the blood oranges
  • zucchini flowers are abundant
  • field-grown eggplant tends to be marked so is cheaper than the glasshouse-grown produce. Tastes the same.
  • broad beans are a bargain


Labyrinth, Wychwood, Tasmania
Other people's gardens


Wychwood has long been one of my favourite gardens in Australia and I felt a sense of personal loss when I heard that Karen Hall and Peter Cooper had put the property on the market and were moving on.  So when I  found out they had written a book about the garden, I had to have a look. This is the story I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald and at the bottom are some of the photos I took the first time I saw the garden, back in 2004.

Twenty-two years ago Karen Hall and Peter Cooper piled everything they owned into a VW station wagon and left the heat and humidity of Queensland for the four seasons of Tasmania. They ended up in Mole Creek, where a property with a little farmhouse and a platypus-filled creek was for sale in their price range. It became Wychwood, one of the loveliest gardens in the country. A few years ago Hall and Cooper decided that they had done what they set out to do at Wychwood and put the property on the market. Around the same time they were approached by Murdoch Books to write about the garden. The property is still for sale, but the book is complete, capturing the stories, great moments, seasonal beauties and practical lessons of a beautiful garden.

 Wychwood, Tasmania

As coincidence would have it, I too moved into my house 22 years ago and started a garden. It is not one of the loveliest in the country (though I like it) and it’s certainly not in any sense finished. So I read Hall’s ‘Golden Rules’ of gardening with interest. Her first is to grow what suits your conditions. A simple rule, yet one I am addicted to breaking. Next, says Hall, know your enemies. She had to deal with possums and currawongs; my mum (on the NSW south coast) swears about the lyrebirds, but here in the suburbs my garden enemies are mynahs, and only because they hunt out every other feathered thing in the garden.

Grow what you love, says Hall, and I’m with her on that, though what I love keeps changing, causing ructions in my garden. Worse, what I love is not always appropriate. (See rule #1). Plant small, she advises, which is both good financial and horticultural sense, and perfectly achievable if you are willing to practice some patience. Mulch and water are her garden’s other practical keys to success.

 Wychwood, Tasmania

Hall’s next tranche of rules gets into the big difference between Wychwood and my garden – the aesthetics of the thing. Create illusions; consider a bed a painting; take into account the colour, texture, habit, and form of plants and their partners and whether a screen or a see-through curtain is the better choice, says Hall. It’s these artistic choices that charm the visitor to Wychwood and create the magic that has them reluctant to leave. Beds of perennials and shrubs are colour-controlled and contain contrasts of texture and leaf size. A mown-grass labyrinth is an irresistible walk. Trunks glow silver in a grove of birch. Heirloom apples are espaliered along the fence in an orchard with a sense of having been there for generations. Everywhere the exuberance of the planting is balanced by the structural forms of perfectly trimmed hedges and balls of box.

Hall and Cooper are garden artists and having created these wonderful images they’re leaving Wychwood to a new gardener with a different eye. Meanwhile, I’m still breaking the rules and practising my garden painting. Who know when my sense of finished might be.


The photos above are all by Peter Cooper and are from the book, Wychwood, published by Murdoch books,  $60 .  My own photos of Wychwood show it about halfway through its development.

Wychwood, Tasmania

It was so long ago – 2004! – that I was shooting on film, and had to have the shots scanned, which has made them look a bit odd. I was garden editor of Good Taste magazine at the time and in the story I wrote, Peter recommended his top three perennial performers for a summer border.  The sedums are selected for special mention in the book, and I thinkteh other two are worth remembering too:

1. Sedum – carefree, good-value perennials that like dry summer weather, good drainage and plenty of sunshine. They can be cut down at the end of winter and will shoot straight back up again. Look out for ‘Autumn Joy’, with copper-burgundy flowerheads; ‘Vera Jameson’, which has burgundy foliage and pink flowerheads; and ‘Matrona’ which is taller than usual, with a pink tinge to the blue-grey foliage and pink chunky flowers.

2. Miscanthus – especially  Miscanthus sinensis,  ‘Sarabande’, with tall creamy flower heads in autumn; ‘Zebrinus’, which has striped stems like the shadow pattern through a bamboo screen; and ‘Gracillimus’, which has a finer leaf, a more upright habit and doesn’t grow as big as ‘Sarabande’.

3. Euphorbia – E. dulcis has purple foliage and feathery purple-red bracts; E. polychroma has bright green leaves and gold flowerheads; and E. characis wulfennii is a greeny-blue with yellow flowerheads.

Sedum and miscanthus, Wychwood




In season

October 14

In now: The shiny red pomegranates glowing like Christmas are imports from the US. Australian pomegranates will hit the shops next autumn.

At its best: The pea family hits its straps in spring. Choose podded, snap and snowpeas. Try a salad of chilled cooked mixed peas, fresh goats curd and torn mint. I usually dress this salad with a dressing made form melting finely chopped shallots (not spring onions, the little red oft-called ‘French shallots’ in quite a glug of olive oil. Let cool then add champagne or good white wine vinegar. Don’t dress until you are ready to eat because the vinegar turns the peas a dull olive drab.

Best buy: Asian vegetables are quick-growing so are usually cheap. Look for bunches with no yellow leaves. Don’t limit them to Asian dishes. Fry them up in olive oil with sliced garlic and serve with anything.

In the vegie patch: Don’t ditch the coriander when it bolts to seed. Native bees are drawn to coriander flowers and are excellent pollinators for eggplant and tomatoes.

What else:

  • loving fat asparagus grilled on the barbie to to just this side of burnt
  • the garden-fresh new leaves of sage are a good excuse to fry them in butter and toss the mix over poached eggs on toast
  • zucchini flowers will become easier to find over the next few weeks
  • enjoy the blueberries



Other people's gardens

Gardening on a grand scale

The first thing that strikes you about  Mayfield is the scale of the place. It’s massive, one of largest privately owned cool-climate gardens in the world. If Garrick Hawkins had set out with such a grand horticultural ambition he might not have chosen the challenging conditions of Oberon. But that’s where he runs cattle on 5000 acres, and where he built a grand weekender for the family, and started developing a garden. Here’s the house, from the top of the hill, where a private chapel, built for a family wedding, commands a great view of the property.

Mayfield Garden

“When we started we didn’t intend to make it quite this large,” says Hawkins. “It just sort of evolved bit by bit.” Hawkins’ collaboration with local nurseryman, horticulturist and garden all-rounder Peter D’Arcy has seen the garden ‘evolve’ into to a 160-acre project that employs more than 25 multi-skilled people.

Mayfield Garden

The garden pays homage to Hawkins’ personal favourites from the follies and features of the great gardens in England. There’s a Chatsworthesque cascade for instance:

Mayfield Garden

and an aviary based on the one at Waddesdon Manor. In the early stages of Mayfield’s development this ‘best-of’ approach seemed risky, but now, with the trees grown, the mid-storey flourishing and the delicate colouring-in between the structural planting starting to take shape, the features have nestled into the garden.“It has been interesting watching the spaces which once seemed large and open become smaller and smaller each growing season,” says Hawkins.

This spring Mayfield moves into a new phase. The lower part of the garden, called the Water Garden (and inspired by the stone and water features at Longstock Park Water Garden in England), will now be open all year.

Mayfield Garden

There is also a café; a shop stocked with locally-produced goods, including Mayfield relishes and chutneys; and a nursery selling a range of plants, some of which have been propagated at Mayfield. This part of the garden, initially begun as a simple dam, will now operate as a tourism business.The rest of the garden will be exclusively for the Hawkins family, except for six weeks in spring and in autumn when the private garden, with its cascade, walled kitchen garden, chapel, aviaries, deluxe hen houses, orchard, croquet lawn, maze, rose garden and 500-seat amphitheatre, will open.

So now’s our chance. As you can see from these pictures, I’ve only ever visited in autumn.  But I know the drill.  Arrive early, allow the whole day and start with the big picture. Don’t be distracted by the details of the Water Garden’s irises and lilies; the wisteria hanging in curtains; the cherry blossom and rhododendron in bloom; the incredible stone walls, you’ll get to them later.

Mayfield Garden

Head to the top of the hill. From the terrace, the vast expanse of the garden stretches beneath you, bisected by curving lines of dark green conifers as emphatic as exclamation marks. Beyond the garden, lines of velvet hills roll across the horizon. Take in the scale – of the ideas, the work, the cost and the effect. In the world of Australian gardens, Mayfield is a rare treasure.


Plants I love

We’re going on a fern hunt

My parents live above a rainforest gully on the south coast of NSW. On a misty morning it looks like this: beautiful and impenetrable.

Bundle Hill Bawley Point

On a sunny afternoon it looks just as impenetrable but a couple of weekends ago Dad and I donned long sleeves and long pants, grabbed a bucket and an adze and journeyed into the gully on a fern-hunting expedition. We had been inspired by a visit earlier in the year to Verdigris, a specialist fern nursery halfway up the Clyde Mountain between Canberra and the coast. The owners Dwayne and Kylie Stocks had wanted to grow something commercially. The looked around their property and decided to focus on what was already there –  ferns. (You can read a bit more about what they do and about the glory of the fern here.) Dad and I were keen to see what else we could find right here on Bundle Hill.

Bundle Hill Bawley Point

There are no paths in the gully, beyond what the wallabies and lyrebirds make when they return home from pillaging expeditions in mum’s garden. So the ground is uncertain beneath our feet, sometimes it’s earth, more often air under a pile of fallen branches on their way to compost. The soil is a sandy decomposed leaf litter that doesn’t have the body to ever make a mud pie. Perfect drainage in other words.

We had no trouble finding ferns; they were everywhere.

Fern hunting

Ferns are notoriously hard to identify. You need a mature frond, because the spore pattern on its underside is like a finger print of the family it belong to, plus information about the rhizome, the stipe (which is the stem of the fern) and details about the growing habit. So I’m foggy on precisely what we saw – but there were members of the Apslenium family, of which the bird’s nest fern is the best known; a few different maidenhairs Adiantum sp., and the wonderfully named doodia, whose new fronds glow red, especially when backlit.


We saw little white lilies, ancient staghorns, orchids growing out of the top of the rotting stumps of blackbutts that had unaccountably been logged and, best of all, the inspiring architecture and display of a bowerbird, complete with blue pegs, feathers and broken bits of crockery, and a blue wall plug.


We made one more stop a bit further on, where a watercourse rushes down the gully after rain. A movement caught my eye. We had wandered into a disco of dancing leeches. Their glossy black bodies were twisting and arching all over my shoes looking for a way in. I instantly reverted to childhood and screamed ‘Daddy Daddy get them off!’ while stamping my feet like toddler. He saved the day, coolly wrenching the blighters out of my shoes and socks with his fingers. We called it quits and clambered out of the gully.

Back in the garden I felt as if we had returned from a journey across space and time. We planted up our finds in little pots of the soil and mulch we had collected in the gully and now have fingers crossed for success. Most are camped in a sheltered spot at mum and dad’s, but I brought this one home:


It might be an immature Polysthichum proliferum. But then again, it might not.

(If you’d like to, you can stay on Bundle Hill. Mum and Dad have built four tree houses that look out over the beach and the ocean. Find out more here.)