The Aftershocks Continue...

Yet another shake-up.  Will I ever be left alone to dwell in a chubby, buffered comfort zone?  I’d barely regained my balance after being knocked for six in the gardens of the Marlborough region of NZ. So I’m just back from speaking in Brisbane, accompanied by a visit to half-a-dozen or so gardens there and on the Sunshine Coast that left me feeling totally beached, like I’d gone back to square one in my excruciating, torturous accumulation of plant confidence, and was faced with the challenge of starting over.

There is, of course, the sheer joy of seeing plants for the first time, whether brilliant or bizarre, spectacular or subtle, but my brain can’t help but immediately start to work at how I’d use such plants – how I’d integrate them into the overall picture, which to me as a designer is more important than any particular plant element in it (with a few notable plant exceptions like Galanthus, which transcend any such prosaic considerations.)

Dalechampia dioscoreifolia - put me in mind of Davidia (handkerchief tree), only purple, and on a vine
Dalechampia dioscoreifolia – put me in mind of Davidia (handkerchief tree), only purple, and on a vine

Being from the wet- tropics, most of the unfamiliar plants were woody.   Rainforest isn’t home to many annuals, nor perennials as cooler climate gardeners know them.  And for me, having more woody plants to choose from is not better.  All I really want is a few of the best of them to place very carefully, and use repeatedly, basically for structural purposes. Their flowers are just a bonus.  Every new plant got a minute or two (more like a few seconds) of the joy of first meeting, but what followed immediately and involuntarily was a too-rapid and ill-informed evaluation –  ‘if I gardened up here, would you make it into my garden?’

Then, beyond the rattling that the plants provided were the gardens themselves.  I can’t make up my mind whether they’re deeply different to what we know down south, or if they’re only superficially different, but sufficiently so that the framework within which I normally view and evaluate a garden is dismantled.

The garden of Barb and Rex Wickes
The garden of Barb and Rex Wickes

At least two of them were far ‘deeper’ than virtually any gardens I know down here, due to the size, density and verdancy of the surrounding trees.  Lawn spaces had and almost well-like quality.  My brain just couldn’t process them in the normal way.

Vetiver (Chrysopogon sp.) and Bismarckia palm in delicious juxtaposition at Stringybark Cottage
Vetiver (Chrysopogon sp.) and Bismarckia palm in delicious juxtaposition at Stringybark Cottage

So it was a joy and a stress in equal measure. But bring it on. There’s no better way to clear away the smugness, pride and plant prejudice that accumulates in the familiarity of your home-climate.

Snaking wall at Stringybark Cottage
Snaking wall at Stringybark Cottage
Some uncharacteristically restrained 'Steppe'-like planting at Roma Street Gardens in Brisbane
Some uncharacteristically restrained ‘steppe’-like planting at Roma Street Parkland in Brisbane
Berserk hedging at Roma Street Parkland.  That's the angle it's actually on!  I'm not holding the camera crooked!
Berserk hedging at Roma Street Parkland. That’s the angle it’s actually on! I’m not holding the camera crooked!

(With many thanks to the garden owners Barb and Rex Wickes, Leonie and Terry Kearney, Cheryl Boyd and Jenny and Allister Inch (though my pics of their lovely garden were a total wash-out, due to a heavy (and highly enviable) tropical downpour)


  1. Gosh, you have just described exactly what I felt when I visited Stringybark Cottage last year (with the exception that my plant confidence didn’t have quite so far to fall). All the questions just blew my mind. Fortunately, Cheryl Boyd gave me a pretty good model of answers but you do start to question why you design as you design, full stop. A great blog!

    1. I know! Both in NZ and Q’land I had to silence those voices that were asking what on earth I’ve been trying to do what I’ve been doing the last twenty years, and what right I have to claim any sort of confidence in it.

    2. I will never forget the feeling I experienced the first time I visited Stringybark Cottage. The feeling of not only being enveloped in the forest but the power of the spaces Cheryl has created in a usually busy sub tropical context, to make me feel in a bubble of beauty and calm. Her use of colour and textures masterfully restrained.

    3. So many gardeners are tempted to clutter their open spaces. No clutter at all at Stringybark Cottage. And the density of surrounding planting amplifies the power of the open space

  2. I’m a big fan of what Cheryl Boyd has done at Stringybark Cottage too. I saw it last year on my Tastings: Noosa tour. We all loved it – the planting, the pool, the studio, the giant home-made artworks and the way the garden dissolves into the bush and keeps offering surprises. I’ll be back again this year. Looking forward to it!

    1. I’d love to go back there some time and just sit until get a grip on what’s going on, and how and why it’s different from what I know. As it was, I was on something of a flying visit and arrived already feeling a bit disorientated from two days amongst unfamiliar plants used in unfamiliar ways..

  3. Most of the subtropical gardens I’ve seen have quite a different mass-void proportion and relationship to warm-cool temperate gardens. As you say, often much denser, especially around head height in that middle canopy stratum, which is usually left open in temperate gardens so that there’s a more distinct separation between tree layer and perennial/annual. That jungly lushness around head height gives subtropical gardens a slight (and welcome) edginess to me – a feeling of plant life relentlessly encroaching that needs to be beaten back for our survival.

    1. That’s it! You’ve nailed it.
      Dame Sylvia Crowe reckons (though I can’t remember if she was just quoting someone else) that the essential difference between the grand old gardens of England and France was that the former were created by gently manipulating open woodland while the latter were carved out of solid forest. It felt like the same kind of difference. At least two of the gardens felt like spaces carved out of solidity (one actually was, and the other only felt like it was). The density and height of the ‘walls’ of these spaces would have a powerful influence over the scale of the space carved, and how big it would have to be before it felt comfortable. Even then, you felt (very happily) like you were completely enveloped, even swallowed up, in them.

  4. You were obviously under the spell of the sub-tropics Michael, and lucky to see some of the best gardens in SE Queensland!

    Stringybark Cottage is such a treat. Cheryl Boyd has not only an extraordinary plant knowledge but also intuition and understanding of how plants complement each other. Her garden is a sumptuously rich palette of well-chosen plants balanced by quiet, often ethereal spaces. Then there’s the garden art – crazy and just fantastic – and each work given its own space, without overpowering the garden, or other pieces.

    There are more images of Stringybark Cottage on blog if you’d like to see them.

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