Surviving? or celebrating?

By some outrageous and undeserved privilege I made my first visit to Chanticleer, just outside of Philadelphia, in our spring – their autumn – last year.

I think that I’d vaguely and prejudicially shoved Chanticleer into a ‘big, boring, institutional garden’ category for several years after first becoming aware of it, then had somehow been given the impression that this was not a garden to dismiss – that there were some really lovely and magical things going on.

One way or another, by the time I arrived at the gate I had some decent expectations of the place.  I wasn’t ready for the reality.  Even the car park planting was engaging, amongst which were great sweeps of reptilian-flowered Tricyrtis, along with a fabulous, smallish Callicarpa in full berry.  I asked for the name, wrote it on a brochure, then promptly lost it – unforgivable.  I’d only been familiar with the one species available to us in Australia up until then, and I had always considered it to be fabulous, but inconveniently tall.  This one was the perfect height and scale for the size and visibility of its wands of berries.

Just inside the entrance was a totally crazy – delightfully crazy – planting of about sixteen black bananas (Musa ‘Black Thai’) around what appeared to be an old stone well-head, underplanted with a range of black and silver-leafed plants.  It was a mad combination of formal, grid planting and tropical lushness, and it oozed that sense that you almost never get even in a private garden, let alone a public one, that someone here was having some fun.

I spoke to the gardener in charge of this section of the garden (yep – the staff are appointed a section each – surely the only way to keep a garden like this personal, and the staff deeply engaged) and fun is clearly what it was all about.  He’d bought and planted them at about 2m tall, and with a brilliant summer, they’d bolted up to more than twice that.

This was only the first example of many of using rich, tropical stuff throughout several sections of the garden, sometimes potted, sometimes planted.  The total madness of this is that it all has to be lifted and protected each year before the onset of frosts, then planted again after the danger of frosts is past.  It’s the very extravagance of this that makes it so impacting and unforgettable.  And it’s further evidence to me that low-maintenance gardening is over-rated; that low-maintenance nearly always means low-reward.

I couldn’t help feeling that there was something a bit Great-Dixterish about the floral and foliar orgy that was going on.  I wasn’t surprised then, when talking to Bill Thomas, the head gardener, to discover that there’s a long-term association between the two gardens.

A formal lawn surround by deep, lush, highly frost-tender planting – a huge investment into the summer and autumn

As we’re coming to the end of a long, hot and dry summer, and I happen across these pics, I can’t help but feel the challenge of the deep difference in mind-set between the way most aussies garden, and the way they garden at Chanticleer.  Our habitual outlook for summer – and I’m including myself right at the heart of this – is garden survival.  Theirs is, without doubt, celebration.

So much of this surrounding planting, despite looking comfortable and settled, would need glasshouse protection for the winter.  It’s no easy way to garden.

There’s some logic to the idea that the more emphatic the annual down-time that your worst season forces on your garden, the more it really needs to celebrate the corresponding conducive seasons. I’m sure that’s why so many gardeners from seriously cold climates have such a ‘sieze the day’ attitude over their summer. (The biggest hiccup in the logic being that the reverse is emphatically not true: ie that a benign annual seasonal cycle makes 12 months of mediocrity a satisfying option.  You’ll always crave at least one annual climax).  My climate combines a coldish (though not by Northern Hemisphere standards) winter with a dry summer, but I can’t give up on both seasons.

But it’s clear that in order to have my garden truly celebrate the summer, I need to overcome the water issue.  I don’t need a lot, but I’ve got to have at least a little.  I’ll always be restricted to tank water, so really need to have the biggest tanks my roof-span can fill.

I’ve just got to keep it up front – this message that Chanticleer and Dixter shout so loudly:

Find what your seasons can do – even what they can be stretched to do – and celebrate it for all you’re worth.


  1. The defining thing about Oz is our summers. It completely shapes us. I pretty much loathe summer, but it’s here and it’s ours and we need to deal with it best we can.

    I’m building a new garden at the moment. Probably a fifth of the way through the hard landscaping. No really decent tree on the block though the neighbours have some, so I’m building to have shade. Shade I can control (no textiles) through a lot of arbors. Mains water fortunately and I’m profligate in it’s use, but it’s the quality of light and temperature that is foremost in my thinking.

    Some around here garden for spring and autumn. Summer is an endurance marathon.

    1. I see that, Rosco. What you say applies to the vast majority of Australian gardens. And I kind of wish it applied to mine. But there’s a point of latitude and/or altitude at which you can’t write off the summer, as much as you’d like to, ‘cos it’s the only season that provides even half decent weather. I think I’m just over that line, in Woodend (just out of Melbourne, and at about 650m above sea level). Frosts define us from April until November. I feel like I’m obliged to acknowledge and embrace summer (which is relatively mild, as Aussie summers go), and to overcome its limitations (plural? I should have said limitation ie water).

      So much of good gardening seems to be about choosing your battles. I know I can’t beat the frosts. But I could do summer brilliantly- if I had a little more water.

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