From the archives: The Evolution of a Gardener (part 2)

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A water fountain and a change in level in the large courtyard.

A water fountain and a change in level in the large courtyard. Image: George Seddon

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Beautiful limestone walls built by a man
from Vaucluse.

Beautiful limestone walls built by a man from Vaucluse. Image: George Seddon

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From left: marble tesserae mosaics frame a bronze plaque of Ellis Stones; looking east through the courtyard between the house and cottage; the passage between house and shop.

From left: marble tesserae mosaics frame a bronze plaque of Ellis Stones; looking east through the courtyard between the house and cottage; the passage between house and shop. Image: George Seddon

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Plan of George Seddon's Fremantle garden.

Plan of George Seddon’s Fremantle garden. Image: George Seddon

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In part two of The Evolution of a Gardener, published in Landscape Australia February 1996, George Seddon reflects on his sixth and final garden in Fremantle, Western Australia.

VI
So we began again at the other end of this dry, flat land – in Fremantle by the Indian Ocean, which we look at while we have breakfast. We eat it on the upstairs back verandah of an old, two storey limestone house on a steep north-facing slope, built in the convict years for the Chief Warden of Fremantle Gaol. We overlook the Port of Fremantle, and beyond it, the turquoise sea, with Rottnest on the horizon. We like the port, with its giant gantries for the container ships, the wheat silos and silver array of big oil tanks – the dreaming cylinders of North Wharf – the liners as they come and go, and those extraordinary vessels we have come to think of as ‘The Sheep Hilton’, which light up like a luxury hotel at night, although the sheep will be far from clover on their long, crowded run through the torrid zone.

We pay for these pleasures. The house is sited by an intersection of two busy roads, and great lorries thunder past on their way to the port, or stop at the traffic lights with a squeal of air-brakes, but one gets used to it. We have known worse, and limestone walls nearly two feet thick, with double glazing on the most exposed windows, exclude most of it inside the house. There are many rewards. The neighbour below is very quiet – Fed Samson, long time mayor of Fremantle like his father before him, left his home to the State. Sir Frederick died in 1972, and the house is now a part of the Museum of Western Australia. The long stone wall of his laundry and carriage house is our back fence - designed by Sir John Talbot Hobbs in 1898. The intricate Victorian roof of Samson House and large old trees in its garden make the lower frame to our view. Another reward of living where we do, is to be able to walk down hill to the town centre, two blocks away.

From left: marble tesserae mosaics frame a bronze plaque of Ellis Stones; looking east through the courtyard between the house and cottage; the passage between house and shop. Image:  George Seddon

The house is not ornate, but strong and simple, with good proportions, and because the walls are so thick, the doors and windows have deep, splayed reveals. The windows all have glazing bars and panes, and this, with the depth of their setting, gives a beautiful light. But the house has been abused: it was tenanted by a government department, using it as offices, and it became run down. The ‘garden’ has been neglected for years, and part of the site had been made into a large car-park (which had come to be seen as public, so we spent some time repelling invaders in our first few years).

This is my fifth garden, so the first steps are automatic, but the context has been different each time, and dramatically so this time. First, of course, we surveyed the site. A big olive, an apricot, a grapefruit, and a big old mulberry with delicious fruit. A sickly Moreton Bay Fig, medium size. ‘It’s got to go’, said my wife, so it went. Three more figs with a delicious black fruit. A superb ‘llyarrie’ or Eucalyptus erythrocorys, with its great warty fruits. A poplar, and too many suckers- since removed, as were two Chinese Elms, which were poor specimens, and the Ilyarrie and a graceful little weeping mulberry, both of which were handsome but misplaced. There are two big Coral Trees (Erythrina indica). These are so common and so easy to grow in Perth that they are very much taken for granted, but they are a good shade tree in summer, with large heart-shaped leaves, and their profusely borne and brilliantly red blooms are winter cheer on bare branches, against a clear blue sky.

The soil, on the other hand, is not a joy, and it is a wonder that anything will grow in it at all. Yet plants will thrive if they are chosen well, sited carefully, and treated according to their needs. These are the universal rules of good gardening, but ones that must be rigorously applied here. The soil is not sandy, but sand, and not the deep, well-draining, rather coarse yellow sands of Claremont and Peppermint Grove, a few kilometres from the coast (the Karrakatta Sands), but a fine white calcareous sand, almost devoid of organic matter, and water repellent. Before planting, therefore, it is essential to treat the planting area with a surfactant – there are several commercial products, with names like ‘Wettasoil’. Without it, the water just runs off.

On our site, there is a cap-rock just below the surface. This is a very fine, hard limestone, formed by solution and redeposition of the lime in the aeolianite (the old calcareous dune sands). It is a fine building stone, if you can find a stone-mason who knows how to work with it. Our house seems to have been built from stone quarried on site, by cutting into the hillside, and we are doing a little extension and repair with our own cap-rock. It makes planting hazardous when you encounter it half a metre or less below the surface, although some plants seem able to force their roots through crevices. To plant trees, I have to probe until I can find a ‘solution pipe’, the hard-walled cylinders that penetrate the cap-rock.

Charles Darwin analysed their origins correctly when the ‘Beagle’ put in at Albany. The root-tips of some trees secrete an acid which dissolves a slow way through the dense limestone, eventually to form a vertical shaft. To the difficulties presented by a shallow, sterile soil, one must add further hazards: an exposed site, subject to very strong winds in late winter and spring, at times with a high salt content; and constant vehicle emissions. The rainfall is bounteous, but restricted to less than half the year; indeed, more than two-thirds of it falls in the four months May to August, and there is no effective rainfall from November to March. Fremantle has a slightly lower annual rainfall than Perth, with 768 mm (30.26 in), which is nearly twice that of other west coast cities of similar latitude, such as Valparaiso in Chile, and Mogador on the west coast of Morocco – for which we have the relatively warm coastal waters off Perth in winter to thank. The rainfall is also fairly reliable, significantly more so than that of south-eastern Australia.

The bottom line for gardeners, however, is that the summer months are very dry. The choice therefore is between constant watering, which is a very common practice here, or drought tolerant plants. We set out to design a garden that would flourish without constant watering once established; a deep soak once or twice a month is all we intended, and that was our choice at first. It immediately excluded lawn grass, and demanded paving in all areas of wear, as this sandy soil will not stand up to traffic.

We have not altogether put this into practice, for several reasons. We have certainly done a great deal of paving, and now have more bricks than most people have garden. We have also avoided all the water-addicts: no hydrangeas or azaleas or the plants from the humid tropics that are so popular here. But we do have a lawn, because we found that it was the only convenient way
to maintain the slope that it now moulds rather gracefully, but that three years ago was a metre high in wild oats. Weed invasion is relentless here. There were also some design reasons, which I shall come to presently, for not living entirely within the natural rainfall. And of course we weakened- there are always a few plants that insist on finding a place, for example, the roses. We have three stone buildings on the site, the two storey house, a small shop which we lease as professional offices, and a cottage, supposedly built around 1840, although the records are not good. The east wall of the cottage invited Rosa laevigata, ‘Sparrieshoop’, and the single white and deliciously perfumed variant of Rosa banksiae. They are all on fortuneana rootstock, which can cope with the sand and dry conditions, but they still need soaking at least once a week.

A final consideration is that there is a 120 year old well by the house, twenty metres deep, cut all the way down through the limestone, and the original source of domestic water. We tested it, and found that the water is of good quality, although of course alkaline. There are only about two feet of water in the bottom, but there is a good flow, and continuous pumping is feasible. So we reticulated about one-third of the garden. The rest is paved, or else planted with species that need no or little supplementary watering.

The choice of plants had to be made within a range defined by the ability to tolerate – or enjoy heat, a degree of drought, and alkaline soils. The latter immediately rules out the majority of Australian native plants, including nearly all the banksias (Banksia praemorsa is one of the few exceptions, and we have one that is coming along beautifully). Just what thrives under these conditions is not always easy to tell, and the available books are no help at all, not even Lord and Willis (1982), splendid companion though that is. For example, some plants of the humid tropics are remarkably drought tolerant. Frangipani is one example, but then it is a semi-succulent. The poinciana (Delonix regia) is more surprising – there is one near us in a neighbour’s backyard that never gets watered, sitting on cap-rock, and it is a superb specimen.

So we prowled the neighbourhood to see what grows well and looks good, and also to see what ‘works’; that is, what looks good against a limestone wall, what plants go well together, how different plants respond to windexposure and so on. These are the horticultural and aesthetic constraints. Then there was the constraint of availability, which I will come to in a moment. But there was also a basic choice of style, which we pondered long, and for a time, indecisively.

Fremantle has as many garden styles as any other Australian town, ranging from the utilitarian- rows of tomatoes and beans in the front garden – through to the latest, up-market ‘cottage garden’, with standard roses and box hedges, the like of which have never been seen here before. Rejecting the extremes, there are still three basic styles in Fremantle. They overlap, but they are nevertheless quite distinct in their feeling. One is Victorian; this is a solidly Victorian city, with many buildings from the 1890s, and a few that are older. They are nearly all either limestone, or cement render usually painted in pale or stone colours. The America’s Cup sold a lot of paint here. Date palms, Norfolk Island Pines, Moreton Bay Figs, roses, buffalo grass lawns, a few hardy shrubs, a few roses, a planting scheme that is basically symmetrical, and a bed of annuals for colour. These gardens look pretty good; they suit the houses, and of course the trees and shrubs are mature and handsome. The roses do remarkably well and are very popular everywhere.

The Mediterranean garden overlaps the Victorian; add olives, figs, mulberries, lemons, Arbutus unedo (known in Australia as the Irish Strawberry Tree; it does extend to Ireland, but is typically found in the maquis of southern Europe), Cork Oaks, oleanders, rosemary, lavender, planes, Italian Cypress. Many of these plants came by way of the Cape, whence came the freesias, which grow wild and flower freely all over the limestone hills. So, alas, did fennel and Pennisetum alopecuroides, although the latter has very attractive plumes in flower and we have used it at the front of a border, where it often provokes admiration from people who think they are seeing it for the first time, although it grows wild all over nearby Buckland Hill. Of course the limestone suits all these plants very well, and they can all survive the summer with little supplementary water.

The third possible ‘style’ is not a garden, but the natural environment itself. Fremantle is one of those relatively few towns in Australia which still relates to its natural environment, as do parts of Sydney on the North Shore. Its bones are good and they show in limestone outcrops, hills, cliffs, cuttings. Cantonment Hill and the grounds of John Curtin High School still carry Melaleuca pubescens, here known as the Rottnest Island Tea-tree, with its dark umbrella, and the Swan River Cypress, Callitris preissii, equally black-green, superb against the clear blue skies. Melaleuca huegelii flowers prolifically in early summer, with a profusion of creamy spikes. Acacia rostellifera is common, wind-sheared into a dense mound which protects the soil and moulds the landscape. Templetonia retusa puts out its brick-red pea flowers in late winter, and the Rottnest daisy (Brunonia australis) has sky blue flowers in spring. The natural environment of dune plants also survives along the coast and was restored at Bathers Beach near Arthur Head, with Bicentennial funding. Alas, the money now seems to have run out, with no funds for the maintenance of the very good work that has been done. We have used all of these local plants and more; in fact this natural vegetation is so important and so fitting that our first thought was to restrict ourselves to it. A few recent settlers have done so, where new houses of limestone have been built on virgin sites in East Fremantle near the river, and the effect is stunning, an object lesson in relating to the natural environment. This is quite different, by the way, from the ‘native gardens’ which abound on new subdivisions, using an ill-assorted melange of plants which have in common only the fact that they are of Australian origin, which itself guarantees neither harmony nor design, in fact not even survival.

A water fountain and a change in level in the large courtyard. Image:  George Seddon

But we have a house from the last century, and there is a good range of trees in it already, mostly what I have called Mediterranean, so we rejected the temptation to be purist. So we decided on a Mediterranean garden, but eclectic in the choice of plant materials. So far, we have planted eight species of Artemesia and four of lavender, lavender cotton, good old Agapanthus, utterly reliable here as in so much of Australia, a Cork Oak (Quercus suber), the Italian evergreen oak (Quercus ilex) and the Algerian Oak (Quercus canariensis) which is rapturously happy, as is everything from the Canaries, here. There is a mass planting of Swan River Cypress, Indian Hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis umbellata), and oleander. The Nerium we wanted were hard to get, and pot-bound, like nearly all the nursery stock we have encountered so far. There is nothing like either the choice or the quality of nursery stock that Victoria now offers, although one major firm offers something I have never encountered before. Waldecks give a guarantee – and they honour it without fuss, as I discovered when I returned the corpse of a Swan River Cypress, to be cheerfully replaced. The really frustrating thing is the inability to get plants that you can see growing well around you. There is a Pavetta species, probably P. capensis, with glossy leaves and heads of fragrant white four-petalled flowers in a garden near us. The nurseries haven’t heard of it. There is a wonderful Bauhinia hookeri in the Crawley Bay reserve. It took me a year to identify it, and another year to acquire one. My Gardenia thunbergia came from Melbourne. But even quite common things are hard, for instance the single-flowered oleanders. The double flowers, which are readily available, go a dirty brown and hang on the bush before they fall, whereas the singles flower and then fall at once, without a long drawn out death-bed agony. The only commonly available varieties are a harsh lipstick pink double, and a dirty white double. We found a stock of single pale pinks and bought them all. The single apricot was hard to find. The remedy, of course, is simple. Propagate your own. So we now have some apricot oleanders, coming along nicely, and a primrose yellow, and a champagne-coloured one and one that is almost white with a blush pink throat, all blooming profusely. The local cemetery proved a good hunting ground for cuttings, which will grow roots in a milk-bottle of water in a couple of weeks. Various seeds we brought from Melbourne. L. philippinense did so well for us in Richmond, it was worth a try here, where it does even better, and a few bulbs of Amaryllis belladonna ‘Hathor’ are now clumping well. All the Cape bulbs thrive.

We are happy with our choices. We began planting immediately after Christmas in 1990 and all but one plant (the one that was replaced) have survived four searing summers. The odd thing is that our choice is so far out of the current fashion, which is either for ‘native’ gardens, mentioned above, or a tropical luxuriance of Hibiscus, palms, Bougainvillea, Acalypha, Schefflera (the Queensland Umbrella Tree, it is called here), Ficus benjamina and the like. Such gardens can look very lush if enough water is poured on, but there is an obvious sense in which they are against nature. Turn off the sprinklers for a summer and they would wither and die. That there is something not quite right shows in the colours. This is not the light of the humid tropics, grey, subdued, in which bright colours glow like jewels. The light here is hard, clear, bright – and it needs the black greens of cypress, whether native or exotic, and the greys of lavender and olive, or Calocephalus brownii and the coastal Olearia and Rhagodia. The lush look is best kept to a courtyard, excised from the broad environment. Out in the open, it looks unnatural, and the colours rather garish – or so we think.

Beautiful limestone walls built by a man from Vaucluse.  Image:  George Seddon

The hardest decisions to make and put into practice were structural – the difficulties being that half the area was a construction site for the first two years, while major repairs were carried out on the buildings, with debris everywhere; and that the structural requirements were costly, and had to wait; and design decisions had to be made. The sloping site, taken with the orthogonal shapes of and between the three buildings, all linearly aligned with the boundaries, seemed to dictate formality, so we built a series of descending terraces with robust rectilinear retaining walls of limestone. Only the eastern hillslope, still a more or less natural slope, was left to run free. The old quarry east of the house from which much of the building stone had been taken when the house was built in the 1870s was excavated further to make a level floor that drained away from the house, and this was paved with old brick, the two intersecting axes now marked with a fountain. Our stone-mason hails from Carpentras in the Vaucluse, north-central Provence, and he built us beautiful walls that will endure long beyond our life-span. The result is a series of geometrically defined spaces, with three intimate courtyards and a large one on the northern boundary, each with different use characteristics. They are linked by axial walkways, all paved with brick. The forms are thus what is sometimes called ‘architectural’ rather than informal and ‘naturalistic’, although these are not very helpful terms. The garden is ‘designed with nature’ in that the plants chosen are well-adapted to their setting, even though they are not all indigenous, nor set out in irregular, sinuous forms.

This is not a ‘clearing in the forest’, either, and it is certainly not a meadow. It is nearer to another primary garden archetype, the oasis. There are three water features: the fountain, which gives the gentle splash of falling water, and two small ponds in natural cavities in the dense limestone caprock. One is planted with nardoo (Marsilea sp.), an aquatic fern whose sporocarps were ground for food by Aborigines; the other with water lilies. Paradise fish and fantails keep the water clear and take care of mosquito larvae. Water gives a different kind of focus to a garden, yet this one is also outward looking, and the boundaries are pervious, largely because of the slope and difference in levels. We enjoy this garden, which is just as well – I shall not make another. There is more maintenance than I intended, but there always is. We spent the first few years nursing plants through the fierce summers to keep them alive. Now they are established, we will spend the rest of our lives hacking them back to keep them within bounds. Plants that do well here do too well; Romneya coulteri, Erigeron karvinskianus, Lilium philippinense, Geranium sanguineum are among our worst weeds, while the worst are Lobularia maritima and purple toadflax, Linum purpurea. But we count our blessings; no frosts, and a garden the year round, much to be preferred to that grey, sodden mess that is all that is left of the garden for six months of the year in some places we know.

George Seddon died suddenly of a stroke on 9 May 2007, eleven years after this article was first published. His death occurred in the beautiful garden that he had created in Fremantle.


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