A private, 15 acre native garden overlooking Victoria’s dramatic Surf Coast was a project years in the making for one family…
Affectionately named Red Rocks, the expansive garden has become a weekend ‘Eden’ for the Melbourne-based couple, who bought the property on the Great Ocean Road seventeen years ago after falling in love with its rough, natural beauty.
Today the garden is spectacular in every way – an encyclopaedic botany of 844 native species. It includes flowers, grasses, shrubs, trees and leaves in every shape and hue imaginable, showing off the spectrum of eccentricity and beauty in Australian botanicals. This is a true ‘Australian garden’.
“We wanted to re-imagine the quintessential ‘Australian garden’ based on our extraordinary, weird and beautiful Australian natives.”
When the couple arrived in 2011, the site had beautiful flora but it was struggling in poor soil and strong wind conditions. They quickly decided to plant a mix of indigenous (local) plants and native (Australian but non-local) plants to give the garden strength and colour.
They were particularly drawn to the amazingly colourful flora of WA, and today the garden boasts several WA heroes including a huge array of flowering gums.
The site ignited a deep love of native plants for the couple: “My passion for native plants started with our beach house garden on the Great Ocean Road. We wanted to plant natives but I discovered that the market for native plants was very poorly developed. Ninety-percent of native plants sold in the world market were being grown outside Australia.”
As a businessman his initial reaction was disbelief. His interest then became entrepreneurial and he set about building a social enterprise to commercialise native Australian plants – with a mission to literally bring them back home. The couple began collaborating with Kings Park in Perth to breed and commercialise flowering gums (corymbia ficofolia) for the Australian market, while they simultaneously started planning their own native garden.
“It needed to embrace the classic gardening aesthetics of structure, beauty, proportion and balance, while creating a new look and feel because the plants are so very different..”
In contrast to gardening exotics, they found there were few reliable suppliers of native plants and even fewer people who could help them create a sophisticated native garden.
They knew about Paul Thompson’s work on Cranbourne Gardens.
“Cranbourne is magnificent. Its accomplishment is that it does two things at once – it’s a beautiful garden to behold and enjoy and it’s also a botanical showcase for a wide range of plants…”
With that duality in mind, they set about devising a master plan. At the time Thompson was committed to other projects so they started with a Melbourne-based landscape design company who devised the overall design and an additional native plant expert to help with the planting.
“We wanted the plants to be the hero of the garden, and not the landscaping. The native plant expert we hired was not used to working on the scale we needed and the project struggled. It was a confirmation of the inadequacy of the native industry. There were no catalogues, no precedents. We were very much on our own and it was a real struggle.”
In time Thompson became available and the couple have been thrilled to work with him since, watching the garden grow into something magnificent and ensuring the plants were the heroes the couple wanted them to be.
“Just like we can visualise an English garden and an Italian garden, a Moroccan garden and a Mexican garden, we wanted to imagine and execute our idea of a native Australian garden…”
Their brief was wholly centred on celebrating plants. “We wanted to re-imagine the quintessential ‘Australian garden’ based on our extraordinary, weird and beautiful Australian natives. Just like we can visualise an English garden and an Italian garden, a Moroccan garden and a Mexican garden, we wanted to imagine and execute our idea of a native Australian garden.”
“It needed to embrace the classic gardening aesthetics of structure, beauty, proportion and balance, while creating a new look and feel because the plants are so very different. We wanted a garden that could be large and dramatic but with low water and maintenance requirements. We had to be careful of the trap of thinking that any garden can just grow and be beautiful without significant thought and intervention.”
Some of the couple’s favourite species amongst the staggering variety in the garden include the range of kangaroo paws that flower prolifically in December, corymbia ficofolio, flowering gums in pink, red and orange; the structural beauty of the banksia coccinea; the year round elegance of native hibiscus and grevillia magnifica, a primitive and unusual West Australian plant.
They commute from Melbourne to spend every weekend there when not travelling overseas. “I love every part of the garden, even the sections that are not yet perfect because they represent an opportunity.” With paths winding through the expansive garden, the couple are able to enjoy the flora’s intricacies from every angle as they wander around.
“We made a lot of mistakes and we will continue making mistakes. That’s part of the joy of it. We keep adding and we keep expanding.”
It’s a philosophy that he offers to anyone wanting to start a native garden – large or small. “Start slowly, experiment and be ready for failures. It makes the joy of success so much greater.”