The art of patience
A resourceful designer has created a gorgeous garden with minimal outlay
Brenton Roberts fell in love with garden design from an early age. Growing up in the Adelaide Hills, he was exposed to lots of beautiful gardens, including his grandmother’s, where he dreamt away many childhood hours. “I loved the peaceful environment of gardens, and was drawn to the creative element of transforming relatively unsightly spaces into something inspiring and amazing,” he says.
He chose a career in sales and marketing, but later explored his passion at Burnley Horticultural College in Melbourne, gaining a Graduate Certificate in Garden Design. He created gardens for work colleagues, and spent every spare moment planting out his modest cottage in Flemington. “We gardened the life out of that place, and had done all we could.” With a wife, two kids, two kelpies and an ever-increasing urge for expressing his gardening ideas, Brenton was busting to get back to the Adelaide Hills, where he could spread out a little.
In 2012, Brenton found his new playground, 2ha in the Mount Lofty Ranges, surrounded by beautiful bushland reserve, just 20 minutes from Adelaide. It was a steep block, overgrown and unloved for nearly 30 years, but the soil was loamy and fertile, and the rainfall was the highest in the state. Then there was the magnificent house, a charming sandstone cottage built in 1868.
“We knew nothing of its history until we landed upon a map of the property from 1928 stashed away in a kitchen drawer. It showed an orchard, which we were keen to investigate,” Brenton says. “Also, a gardener who worked at a nearby mansion once lived there, so it had some interesting horticultural connections.”
Brenton and his wife Libby set to work immediately, clearing the scrub. They uncovered some significant plants, including four old oak trees, giant clumps of strelitzias, echiums that had thick, woody trunks like trees, euphorbias, roses, and thousands of bulbs and irises. Beyond the wild, weedy blackberry and hawthorn, they found the original orchard, too, with pears, cherries, walnuts and 100-year-old apple trees, some of which were huge. On top of that, they unearthed a bore, an old well and a dam full of water. “These were cracking finds,” says Brenton.
“It meant we could garden to our hearts’ content!”
They dreamt of creating a large, country-style garden, with gravel pathways meandering through beds of free-flowing perennials, with a touch of formality thrown in. Level spaces were needed for kids and adults to play, and retaining walls, fencing and sculptures had to be installed. Raised beds had to be built for growing all the vegies, and thousands of plants were required to fill the many deep and generous beds… and all of this work had to be done on a tight budget. It was going to take a lot energy, creativity and resourcefulness to pull it off. Thankfully, Brenton has oodles of these qualities.
The materials for structures and sculptures were salvaged from the property and local recycling yards, and plants were selected on the basis of their ease of propagation, visual appeal when repeated in the landscape, and ability to survive local conditions with little attention. A lot of the plants were propagated from the original plantings, and form the basis of the garden. “Those old plants that survived for decades taught me what would work, and they never fail,” says Brenton.