FOR JOHN RAYNER, A LECTURER IN URBAN HORTICULTURE, THE GARDEN IS A PLACE WHERE ORDER AND A LITTLE CHAOS COME TOGETHER.
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.”