Gardening: The English country garden - Down Under

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The Independent Online
It's a curious fact that for the most part we don't garden with native plants, writes Anna Pavord. Nor do the Tasmanians, whose gardens replicate British planting - and seem to be an exercise in survival against the odds.

It is May time in Tasmania, where I have been for the last couple of weeks. Driving through the middle of the island, by way of Longford, the roads were hedged with great billowing banks of hawthorn. At Longford Hall, where we stayed the night (Tasmania has brilliant B&Bs), Rose Falkiner's garden was weighed down with huge mounds of creamy yellow Banksian roses and swags of wisteria. Aquilegias crowded her borders, and the camellias were only just going over.

"You'll love Tasmania," said friends in Melbourne, where we stayed for a couple of days before taking the ferry across the Bass Strait. "It's just like England."

It's not, of course. There are only about half a million people living there, for a start. You could drive all day through world-class scenery - the Gordon-Franklin river complex on the west side of the island is a World Heritage Area - and not pass another car. That is a rare treat.

And though the hawthorn, the Hereford cattle grazing in the pastures, the roses and the delphiniums give an English visitor a strange sense of deja vu (and a very pleasant one, since May is a better place to be than November any day), the English veneer is very fragile. Behind the gardens, beyond the pastures, the wilderness waits.

I brought some of it back in a box: waratahs with heads of fiery red flowers like enormous honeysuckles, banksias that look as though they have been carved from wood, with great, domed flowers surrounded by a ruff of shavings. Banksia marginata, with soft yellow candles of flowers, was just coming into flower in the bush in Tasmania, the new flowers appearing on the branches among the soft, faded, buff-grey cones of last year's crop. The flowers, standing now in a jug in the kitchen, look as outlandish as a kangaroo in Coventry.

I soon learnt how tactless it was to say that, in fact, I didn't think Tasmania was at all like England. That's not what they want to hear. Once I asked a gardener why she was struggling to establish silver birch when there were so many glorious eucalypts to hand. That was a mistake, too. Groves of silver birch with bluebells underneath are a potent symbol of survival against the odds in a Tasmanian garden.

We, too, rarely garden with natives, but because our countryside has been picked at, crawled over, sorted and organised for so many centuries, the contrast between gardens and landscape isn't so marked. And although we plant robinias, not ash trees, eucalypts rather than birches, the overall effect here is still green, the same kind of green as the wider landscape.

In Tasmania, it didn't seem like that. The gardens made deep, absorbent oases of green in a setting that was predominantly silver and bronze. Because of the intense heat and lack of rain, leaves on native trees such as the eucalypts have evolved to hang downwards, to reduce the rate at which water transpires from the foliage. The waxy surface of the leaves reduces that, too, so that when you look up at the trees against the sky, everything shimmers in the brilliantly reflected light. Our native trees, in contrast, with their flatly held canopies of green, absorb light.

So when we were driving through the Tasmanian landscape, the single-storey houses, with their shimmering tin roofs, did not stand out as much as the gardens. The older houses were often marked by pine trees, such as Pinus radiata, which gave them a curiously Scottish air. And the Tasmanian gardeners I met were keener to show off green foliage plants, such as their beautifully grown hostas, brunneras and hellebores, than to tell me the names of the gums that provided a strange backdrop beyond the boundaries of their gardens.

The strangeness of the out-there, and the danger of it, with its snakes and killer spiders, was the reason most often given for keeping native plants firmly at bay on the far side of the garden fence. In your garden, you wanted to feel comfortable and safe.

"Then there's all that cultural baggage," explained another Tasmanian gardener. "The nostalgia. The need to re-create the place that people still call home."

How much easier it would be for them if Italy had claimed Tasmania, rather than Britain. Mediterranean plants would need so much less propping up than the plants of the traditional English herbaceous border. Although it was still only spring when I visited, sprinklers were running non- stop to keep the green green.

I saw some triumphantly lovely gardens in Australia, with wisteria flowering in a way we never see here, (agapanthus likewise), ixias blooming in long grass, white arum lilies growing in sheaves along the creeks, white jasmine scenting shady verandas. And it wasn't hard to see that Australian gardeners have to work 10 times harder than we do just to keep their plants alive. But because this was my first visit to Australia, it was the bush that intrigued and entranced me.

Early in the holiday, we did a four-day bush walk which took us the length of the Freycinet peninsula, a limb of land hanging out from the dry east coast of Tasmania. The route led us to the top of Mount Graham, through dry sclerophyll scrub of ozothamnus, honey-scented leptomeria, hovea with flowers like purple vetch, and masses of yellow dogwood.

The subtlety of the colour combinations and textures could not have been matched, I think, by any gardener. The general ambience was set by the sheoak (Allocasuarina monilifera) which looks a bit like a droopy-needled pine. The leaves are just scales on long, thin, greeny-bronze growths. The gums were blue gums (Eucalyptus globulus) with powder puffs of creamy white flowers, or weeping gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora). Both had glaucous, blue-green foliage, with their new growth, of course, much showier than the old.

Under this top storey was a shrubby under-storey, mostly spiky, dry- leaved shrubs with yellow and cream flowers. And just as your gardening eye was thinking that a slash of deep blue would not come amiss in this company, nature provided it, in the form of the blue grass lily, or the brilliant purplish bead fruits of dianella.

Beneath the shrubs was a further layer of flowers - tall-stemmed butterfly iris, with white, wide-petalled flowers. They are not proper iris, though they are cousins, throwing up a mass of tough, grassy foliage from an underground rhizome.

Most touching of all were the orchids, such as the tiny, solitary caladenias, not more than 4in tall, with their white petals flushed on the outside with a pinkish wash.

Orchids saved me from disgracing myself towards the end of one walk, when we had already been going for almost 10 hours. From a camp at sea level we had climbed a steepish mountain, and picked our way knee-crackingly down the far side. I had golloped more water than I had imagined a human body could ever hold.

Eventually we emerged on to the sinuously curved beach of Wineglass Bay - white, white sand and blue, blue sea. It was a perfect place to camp, a fitting climax to the walk.

Except that it wasn't the end. Against all the advice being offered by creaking knees and howling muscles, the guide said we had to go on. Our camp for the night lay in the next bay. We had another steep climb ahead to get over the saddle on the far side of the beach.

Before we reached the top, I was near to mutiny. I sank on to a rock while the kookaburras howled and mocked. But next to me was a great cliff of stone, cracked in narrow fissures. Running down through the cracks were masses of tiny dendrobiums, hooded flowers of cream and primrose, flattened against the rock. Ten minutes looking at those was my salvation. For their sake, I'd do that walk again. And again and again and again.

Walks through the Freycinet peninsula are organised by the Freycinet Experience, 36 St George's Terrace, Battery Point, PO Box 43 Battery Point, Hobart, Tasmania 7004, Australia (00 61 3 6223 7565).

Collins Place Flowers, Shop 1A, 35 Collins St, Melbourne Victoria 3000 (00 61 3 9654 3155) will pack magnificent selections of Australian native plants and deliver them to the airport. The Celyn Vale Eucalyptus Nurseries, Carrog, Corwen, Clwyd LL21 9LD (01490 430671) will provide hardy eucalyptus and acacia for an authentic whiff of Australia in an English garden. Send two first-class stamps for a catalogue.