A PAR­ADISE OF TALL TREES AND steep green gul­lies — that’s Vic­to­ria’s Dan­de­nong Ranges. Gi­ant eu­ca­lypts, known lo­cally as moun­tain ash, soar to the sky, while be­neath them lux­u­ri­ant ferns un­fold their fronds to cre­ate green um­brel­las over hid­den creeks. Driv­ing through what seems be a green fairy­land on a hot sum­mer’s day, the im­pres­sion of a cool haven is only re­in­forced by the street signs that lead off the main road into the bush — here’s Mead­owview Lane, Oak and Sycamore av­enues and Elm and Poplar cres­cents. There is even a Fairy Dell Road — and all of this ra­di­at­ing around a small town called Emerald. It’s not sur­pris­ing then to learn that John Rayner, univer­sity lec­turer in hor­ti­cul­ture, chooses to live in this lush re­li­able-rain­fall en­vi­ron­ment. Emerald gets an av­er­age of 1000 millil­itres of rain ev­ery year. Since 2008, John and his wife, Michelle, have been de­vel­op­ing Brook­dale Farm, a gar­den of nearly a hectare, com­plete with an old cot­tage, all orig­i­nally part of a much larger prop­erty in the Dan­de­nongs. For­tu­nately for John and Michelle, the pre­vi­ous owner, who worked at the his­toric No­belius Nurs­ery in the 1930s, was in­ter­ested in un­usual trees, and two mag­nif­i­cent spec­i­mens planted at that time are still stand­ing in the gar­den — an Al­ge­rian oak ( Quer­cus ca­narien­sis), and cop­per beech ( Fa­gus syl­vat­ica f. pur­purea). James’s legacy also in­cludes camel­lias, maples and a 20-me­tre tall tree fern close to the house. How­ever, John’s in­ter­est in plants is much broader than these cool tem­per­ate de­lights; he lec­tures in ur­ban hor­ti­cul­ture at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne’s renowned Burn­ley cam­pus and is in­volved in trial plant­ings in pub­lic gar­dens around Mel­bourne, as­sess­ing how well dif­fer­ent fo­liage plants per­form. In a small area close to Mel­bourne Park at Bir­rarung Marr, for ex­am­ple, 2000 eu­ca­lypts and smoke bushes are be­ing cop­piced. “We’re look­ing at plants that have no huge main­te­nance needs, yet have strong vis­ual in­ter­est,” John says. “Our own gar­den at Emerald is de­signed around re­cy­cled and re­pur­posed ma­te­ri­als, with the em­pha­sis on min­i­mal

main­te­nance and wa­ter use. The main en­try to the gar­den is built of re­cy­cled roof­ing iron with a door­way of pleached Ital­ian alders. “In the early days we made a lot of fences from sticks to en­close var­i­ous parts of the gar­den,” he ex­plains. “We even asked our friends to bring sticks to par­ties.” John likes to plant peren­ni­als and suc­cu­lents in big group­ings. “I choose plants with strong vis­ual im­pact, and that can come from plant colour, tex­ture or form,” he says. “The suc­cu­lents I like to plant are the dra­matic aeo­ni­ums and cotyle­dons; they com­bine well with salvias, achil­leas and can­nas. I aim for year-round in­ter­est in the peren­nial bor­der. I had great suc­cess with a huge bank of sun­flflow­ers — un­til they were dis­cov­ered by the crim­son rosel­las! But I do have a par­tic­u­lar love of fo­liage.” The drive­way plant­ings are clear ev­i­dence of this love. Here, dom­i­nant plants are sil­ver-leafed gum ( Eu­ca­lyp­tus pul­veru­lenta) and Cot­i­nus ‘Grace’ smoke bush, with dark bur­gundy leaves, grown as pol­larded shrubs. The smoke bushes are pruned to one me­tre an­nu­ally and the eu­ca­lypts bi­en­ni­ally. This plant com­bi­na­tion is the same as the one be­ing tri­alled in in­ner-city Mel­bourne. In an­other part of the gar­den John has used one of the most pop­u­lar grasses, Cala­m­a­grostis ‘Karl Fo­er­ster’, to weave a grass spi­ral with re­cent ad­di­tions of Mis­cant­hus x gi­gan­teus. These grasses are both ver­sa­tile and need al­most no care. The cala­m­a­grostis is one of the best for introducing move­ment in the gar­den, as it bends grace­fully in a slight breeze. Or­na­men­tal and dec­o­ra­tive el­e­ments aside, John and Michelle have made room for a kitchen gar­den, where a cen­tral bed of as­para­gus is sur­rounded by mul­ti­ple beds of veg­eta­bles and herbs. The perime­ters of this space are planted with Chi­nese quinces and fi­figs, and there are even baths with thriv­ing wa­ter chest­nuts. Es­paliered cher­ries and apples are net­ted, and the multi-grafted apples yield a long sea­son of cook­ing and eat­ing fruit. Black­ber­ries, rasp­ber­ries and goose­ber­ries also thrive in this cool-cli­mate gar­den. The veg­etable gar­den is the only area reg­u­larly ir­ri­gated. Hav­ing or­der is im­por­tant for John at Brook­dale — for the most part. “I love to work in the bor­ders over win­ter, clean­ing them up and cut­ting back,” he says. “But then I also gen­uinely like a bit of chaos, too.”

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