Dry and Shady: All is not lost

On those occasions when I own up to working at the botanic gardens, people often ask “What can I grow in dark shade?”. Given that plants fundamentally depend on water and light, this is rather like asking a doctor or vet, “Can I get away without watering or feeding the kids or Labrador?”. Nevertheless, I usually can’t help asking how dry and shady, and extolling the virtues of some well-established garden that has coped with seemingly impossible conditions.

Before the Sydney Olympic games, I worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney where I met Allan Correy. Allan was a guide in the Sydney gardens, but already known to me by reputation as the designer of Mount Lofty Botanic Garden. He was the first landscape architect employed in Adelaide when recruited by the Adelaide Botanic Gardens director Noel Lothian in 1961, and was eminently qualified for the position. A horticultural apprenticeship from RBG Sydney and undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in landscape architecture from the UK and the UK certainly convinced Noel!

Allan had a significant impact on the Adelaide Botanic Garden as well as Mount Lofty. On the Adelaide site, he designed the Western Wild Garden in 1964, ably supported by horticulturalist Ron Hill. Planting was completed by 1966. The Western Wild Garden is in the north-western section of Adelaide Botanic Gardens and is easiest to find if you walk due north from the old Palm House and through the Economic Garden (past the marvelously restored Boy and Serpent Coalbrookdale Fountain). You’ll literally walk into it. The Garden was important then, as a Modernist expression redolent with Brazilian landscape architect Robert Burle Marx’s hallmark – swatches of ground covers under existing and new trees. The Western Wild Garden is even more important today as a demonstration of what can tolerate or even prosper in dry shade. Most gardens of the 1960s lacked any sophisticated irrigation systems. Mains pressure was often limiting for large gardens, and overheard sprinklers were pretty well standards for lawns and beds alike. While the rainfall may have been more reliable 40 years ago, droughts have always been a part of the landscape – and the 1967 drought was severe. Bright and deep green gardens and lawns on the Adelaide Plans were rarities. The Adelaide Parklands were allowed to dry off each summer (although playing surfaces along the Torres were adequately defending). This isn’t to say that Adelaide’s private and public gardens weren’t well maintained – rather that waste of any resource was abhorred.

So perhaps we can learn a great deal about water-wise gardening simply by turning back the clock. As part of a master thesis at the University of Adelaide, Robert Murray-Leach studied Adelaide’s socio-cultural factors and conservation in Adelaide’s domestic gardens. Amongst other observations he noted that gardeners are more likely to maintain an existing garden than develop a new one. This is hardly surprising, given that families with young kids are likely to be spending their time and money elsewhere and then, by the time the kids have moved on, the home wears the garden effortlessly. The garden grows with the family, evoking memories in every bloom. Of course something may also happen to the dedicated garden student who experiences such a place – the commonplace might seem less ordinary and the rarity might seem greater rarity. The garden student becomes a peoticist.

The key message here of course is that old gardens can teach us a great deal about what to plant to deal with water restrictions, drought, and climate change. The Adelaide Botanic Gardens in particular can teach us a great deal. If plantings have survived the long haul through good and bad years (and still haven’t demonstrated propensity to become environmental weeds) we can guess that they’re tough! Once you’ve mastered the living collections at Adelaide, Mount Lofty, and Wittunga Botanic Gardens you might even join the Australian Garden History Society to find other survivors in historic gardens.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 26 October 2006.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.

@StephenJForbes
@BotGardensSA

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