Honouring a garden vision

This Australian plant garden is just as much about committed conservationism as celebrating native flora. Megan Backhouse uncovers the visionaries and volunteers behind Karwarra Native Botanic Garden nestled in the foothills of Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges.

In 1950 a firebrand conservationist named May Moon called a public meeting in Olinda and set off a chain off events that continue to be felt in the Dandenong Ranges today. Not only did Moon – together with Melbourne University botanist Professor John Turner – establish the Save the Dandenongs League but she got people thinking about the rugged beauty of these low mountain ranges just east of Melbourne.

Moon fought tree removals, subdivisions and the setting up of new quarries and, in the 1960s, she and the Mt Dandenong Horticultural Society (of which she was also a member) began lobbying for an Australian plant garden to be established in the area.

In 1965 the Shire of Lillydale (now the Yarra Ranges Council) obliged by providing two hectares of weedy, mostly cleared one-time farm-land. Six years later the place now called the Karwarra Australian Native Botanic Garden was born.

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Some of the biggest names in Australian garden design have had a hand in it, including Edna Walling who is thought to have assisted with the clearing in the late 1960s and Ellis Stones, who rearranged the site’s rocks in naturalistic clusters. But the biggest influence on this garden was the late Kath Deery, a self-taught designer who began working on the place in 1978 and had completely overhauled it by the time she finished there in 1984.

Deery volunteered her time, never drew up plans and didn’t brook dissent. A great observer of nature, she became so enamored of Australian plants that she once described azaleas, camellias, silver birches and other such exotics as “a blot on the landscape”.

“She was a dynamite woman who had her own mind,” says Lindy Harris, who has been the garden’s horticulturalist since 2009. “She would have said, if I do it (this garden), it would have to be my way.”

Deery’s way was to establish meandering paths and naturalistic drifts and to build up layers of different forms and foliage. She introduced a series of ponds, mounded beds to aid drainage and retained tree stumps both for wildlife habitat and aesthetics. While she paid much attention to scale and proportion, and to texture and color, her hand was so subtle that you might think her gardens appeared all of their own accord.

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“…there’s an intuitive understanding of shapes and how to put plants together… a delicacy that makes people relax.”

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Below the existing eucalypts (including /E. obliqua/, /E. cypellocarpa/, /E. radiata/) she introduced sweeps of /Thryptomene saxicola/ and /T. calycina/. She planted /Bossiaea cordigera/ so that its intricate network of branches and discrete orange-yellow pea flowers poked up through other plants. She introduced the stocky, rough-barked /Angophora hispida/ that has red flowers buds followed white blooms that are magnet for beetles and birds. In came more snow gums (/Eucaluptus pauciflora/), native mint bushes (/Prostanthera/species), waratahs, boronias, banksias and much more.

But by the time Harris started at the garden, many of Deery’s plants were failing or had disappeared entirely. Harris’ job has been to renovate the garden while trying to maintain Deery’s original design intent.

With the only written documentation being plant lists that don’t specify placement, Harris says she has been guided by Deery’s general approaches to plant selection, arrangement and management.

Deery, who also designed a native garden at Burnley in the mid 1980s, was an early advocate for choosing plants to suit the conditions and for grouping plants according to their water requirements. While she was big on pruning, she didn’t go in for sculptural shapes, instead trimming plants in such a way that you couldn’t tell they had been cut at all.

“For me part of the beauty of Kath’s work was that she had an intuitive understanding of shapes and how to put plants together. She wasn’t necessarily into loud flower colour but designed with a delicacy that makes people relax.”

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That’s not to say everything went to plan. At her home in East Ringwood Deery was gardening on heavy clay but at Karwarra the soil is deep and volcanic. While Karwarra had about 1200mm of rain annually there was such good drainage that Deery felt free to try her hand at a wide range of Australian plants, including several from Western Australia. “They didn’t all go very well,” Harris says. “In winter it gets cold and dank and that’s when you get fungal things.”

But one of the WA plants to succeed was /Melaleuca violacea/ a prostrate shrub with purple flowers that Deery introduced around the ponds. Harris has replanted those as well as other species on Deery’s list and has also introduced many new plants, including those that will handle the garden’s increasingly dry conditions.

In a nod to the way Deery’s design drew attention to the delicate details of plants, Harris has been wary of introducing new cultivars specifically bred for bigger, brighter flowers. But she has avoided some of Deery’s weedier choices.

“On her plant list she has /Acacia baileyana/ (Cootamundra wattle) but I knew Deery enough to know that she would now say, rip the bloody thing out. She wouldn’t mince words,” Harris says.

“In any garden like this there is an obligation to be familiar with the garden’s history and Deery’s vision is the soul of this garden but I don’t see point in slavishly mimicking the original design. I want to honor it.”


The Karwarra Australian Native Botanic Garden is at 1190-1192 Mt Dandenong Tourist Road, Kalorama. It is open 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Friday and 1pm to 4pm Saturday and Sunday.

We suggest checking these opening hours due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

About our guest writer

Megan Backhouse has a Masters of Urban Horticulture and writes the weekly garden column for The Age. She has been a journalist for 30 years and is an avid home gardener. 

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