People make gardens for all kinds of reasons. For Malcolm Fisher, a garden is an opportunity to connect with the natural landscape. And not just any natural landscape, but the pre-development landscape of his home. His garden is on its way back to what Captain Arthur Phillip trekked through when he explored the area around what is now Manly Creek in 1788. For Fisher, a resident of Manly Vale for 20 years, exotic species and clever new native hybrids bred for bigger flowers and easier gardening are anathema at best, weeds at worst. And when the locals include the gorgeous Sydney flannel flower, you can see his point.
Yet Fisher allows the introduced species camping in his garden to be overtaken by the bush, rather than ripped out. His is a patient approach to wilding the backyard. His only intervention is to plant seedlings of endemic species and to occasionally battle the onion grass. So gazanias still bloom over the front wall, and the lemon tree that was once the only living thing in the long narrow backyard is still there, though now dwarfed by banksia and hemmed in by humming casurina.
Is it garden or bush? The definitions don’t bother Malcolm. He doesn’t ‘garden’ his patch in any traditional sense. Weeds aren’t poisoned to avoid damaging soil microorganisms, shrubs aren’t pruned, dead sticks and leaves are not removed.
But before we explored his garden properly, Malcolm wanted to show me the place where it all began.
It was here – Mermaid Pool, at the end of his street. His path back to the bush started with a campaign to stop the sell-off and development of part of the catchment above Manly Dam. The campaign failed but the Save Manly Dam Catchment Committee stayed together and took on the project of saving Mermaid Pool. The rock pool at a bend in the road leading to Manly Dam Reserve was named in the 1930s for the naked girls who used to swim in it. This great shot is on the sign at the entrance to the reserve. No naked girls, but totally idyllic.
The idyll was smashed when suburbia arrived and the pool became a dumping ground for building rubble, general garbage and garden rubbish. It was here that Malcolm honed his bush regeneration skills, his awareness of the incredible diversity of Sydney sandstone and Cumberland plain flora, and his rage against introduced weeds. (I’d started talking to him after he sent me a terse note about my story on clivia a few weeks back.)
You can understand his fury at weeds, and the gardeners who let them escape into the bush. The beautiful pool and its rock face surrounds were choked with garden plants gone feral. Lantana, the tradescantia that is variously called wandering Jew or creeping Christian, morning glory, ivy, monstera, agapanthus and others had monstered the bush, and the pool was full of water weeds and garbage. Now the pool is coming back to life, though the arrival of mermaids is some way off. (Malcolm did tell me in passing, as we clambered over the rocks, trying not to the slip on the slimy wandering jew, that one of the Mermaid volunteers was an expert in native fish. He had identified seven species of fish who journey up the creek from Queenscliff beach to spawn in the pool. They still do, despite the rubbish, following a path their ancestors were taking 68 million years ago. Given these kind of time frames my Backyard Blitz urge to rip out those gazanias in his front yard does seem a bit misplaced!)
In his own garden too, Fisher faces a long wait before the incredible diversity of the local bush re-establishes.
But there are plenty of treats in the meantime – the scarlet lips of kennedia, spikes of fragrant rock orchids, giant clumps of swamp lily, weird local hakeas, hanging hands of hop bush and lots of wildlife. He welcomes signs of bandicoot action, the arrival of ring-tailed and brush-tailed possums, blue-tongued lizards, water dragons and geckoes. There are frogs in the pond and native bees busy in the lomandra. This is less a garden than an un-garden, and the very long-time locals are loving it.
The gorgeous ‘garden’ at the top of the post is Muogamarra Nature Reserve. It’s halfway between Cowan and the Mooney Mooney bridge and overlooks the Hawkesbury. It’s only open to visitors six weekends a year in late summer and early spring when the wildflowers are at their best. Low visitation means it hasn’t been loved to death and the diversity and beauty of the plants will have you convinced that all you want is a native garden just like this.