Good-bye Victa

The heatwave may have done significant damage to your garden. The Adelaide Botanic Garden suffered, but the damage
wasn’t as severe as I had feared. As with people, the old trees and the young trees found the going hardest. And there were some surprises. I had thought maidenhair trees (Ginkgo biloba) were amongst the most resilient of trees, but our youngest ones look particularly destitute.

One of the reasons the Botanic Gardens endure is that they were established before there was a reticulated water supply for Adelaide. Consequently, many of the shrubs and trees that survive from 1855 are ideal for Adelaide’s climate with little supplementary watering. Another reason, of course, is the outstanding horticultural and trades staff who look after the gardens!

But the old ones have something to tell us. Now that most of us have come to terms with water restrictions, and are thinking about reworking our gardens to make do with little additional water, the resilience of the older varieties is worth remembering.

For example, at this time of the year, even those gardens left to their own devices flaunt some of the most vibrant and exuberant flowers of the garden calendar. Hibiscus, crepe (or crape for Americans) myrtle, frangipani and bougainvillea are quite strangely flamboyant during a season when most of us are flagging in the face of endless summer.

While the forms surviving in old gardens might not be the latest cultivars, or the latest fashion in species, their endurance and success is part of the poetry of the suburbs. I’d stick with these faithful companions that reflect the planter’s intention even where the house occupant no longer has the capacity or interest to invest in the garden.

You can see the point of revisiting the traditional flowering trees and shrubs that provide an escape from the harshness of Adelaide’s summer. But what about lawns? It happens that this year, 2009, is the fiftieth anniversary of Victa introducing the slogan, ‘Turn grass into lawn’. While Victa might no longer be an Australian brand, a more significant dialogue for the future of the mower in suburban yards is around the future of lawns.

I’ve got two little kids and am pretty convinced by the utility of a suburban lawn. That said, I can see the change in both culture and water availability being played out in my street. My neighbour has replaced his nature strip lawn with knotty club-rush (isolepis nodosus), a native of the Lefevre Peninsula that manages to grow despite the drought and the wretched hungry hydrophobic sand. Knotty Clubrush is not actually a grass, but the process of turning Australian lawns into grass or something like it seems to counterpoint the sale of Victa to Briggs & Stratton last year. Maybe they anticipated a national trend.

Trend might not be an exaggeration. Environmental reconciliation begins at home, and water restrictions, community interest in sustainability and sustainable landscapes, and changes in design sensibility over the past few decades have seen grasses taken as seriously in a garden setting as lawns. While I haven’t been convinced to change my own garden – yet – even though I once co-authored a book on Australian grasses, I’m happy to admire either ecological gardens utilising grasses or good design with grass. I struggle with grass gardens that are neither.

To learn more about South Australia’s grasses you can’t go past the definitive Grasses of South Australia – a title from the Board of the Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium. A good companion for this learned work is the Grass Identification Manual for Everyone, produced by the Native Grass Resources Group. It is not confined to native grasses, and it is a useful spotters’ guide for beginners, because it has lots of photographs.

Among my favourites I’d list the wallaby grasses (Danthonia species & Joycea pallida) and most of the members of the Andropogonae such as kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) (apparently the same species that the wildebeest graze on in the Serengeti where it’s certainly not called kangaroo grass!) and the delicate feather spear-grass (Austrotipa elegantissima). If you want something like a lawn, weeping grass (Microlaena stipoides) is worth trying – there are a range of more and less successful forms. The tussock grasses (a grab-bag common name for various tussock-forming Poa species) include a range of beautiful colours from blues and sage greens to silky pale leaves. Also worth considering are dune spinifex (Spinifex sericeus), with those wonderful tumbleweed flower-heads, and the Desert Spinifexes from the Mallee and deserts that are performing so well outside the State Herbarium along Hackney Road.

You can buy native grasses from a range of nurseries but you might start with, for example, State Flora in Belair, Coromandel Native Nursery in Coromandel Valley and Provenance Indigenous Plants in Hendon.

Obviously you won’t start planting until autumn. In the plant world, this means after the equinox, three weeks into March. Don’t rush in at the start of the month.

If you are looking for design ideas, the American Prairie tradition ranging from Jens Jensen to James van Sweden is well covered in gardening literature. For Australia, Diana Snape’s 2002 The Australian Garden remains a favourite and John Patrick and Jenny Wade’s 2008 Contemporary Australian Garden Design will bring you up to date with some current perspectives.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 2 March 2009.

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

@StephenJForbes
@BotGardensSA

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