A cul­ti­vated place

The Emer­ald City has a sur­pris­ing num­ber of flour­ish­ing hid­den gar­dens

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CHRIS­TINE McCABE

THERE has been a lot writ­ten about the spir­i­tu­al­ity of gar­dens but they can be dead sexy too, a no­tion borne out re­cently at the in­au­gu­ral Aus­tralian Gar­den Show staged in Syd­ney’s Cen­ten­nial Park.

I am trav­el­ling with a gag­gle of earthy New Zealand gar­den writ­ers who are struck al­most dumb by the ‘‘in­cred­i­bly good look­ing’’ Aussie-based de­sign­ers. The Life­Style Chan­nel’s Char­lie Albone is tweak­ing his lovely show gar­den — ‘‘I was de­lighted to track down some fox­gloves,’’ he says with a win­ning smile — while just down the way an el­e­gantly be­suited Bren­dan Moar is ex­plain­ing his best-in-show gar­den. It’s a groovy patch called Sus­pended, in­volv­ing trail­ing rhip­salis dan­gling over wa­ter and plenty of ‘‘nanna plants’’ (pan­sies and vi­o­las) pot­ted in snaking, in­dus­trial steel tub­ing.

And while green rules in the Emer­ald City’s first ma­jor out­door gar­den show in al­most a decade, there’s plenty of Dar­linghurst black to be spied — black deck­ing, black walls and black­ened tim­bers, charred us­ing the Ja­panese tech­nique of shou-sugi-ban, which is ap­par­ently quite the thing in the world of hor­ti­cul­tural de­sign at the mo­ment.

The show’s spe­cial guest, award-win­ning gar­den de­signer and Chelsea Flower Show judge An­drew Fisher Tom­lin, bucks the trend on open­ing night by wear­ing a very loud, short-trousered suit daubed with hibis­cus and frangi­pa­nis. ‘‘At Chelsea ev­ery­one dresses like a bank man­ager,’’ he says, ges­tur­ing to his en­sem­ble.

Fisher Tom­lin’s take on an Aus­tralian gar­den, Septem­ber Sky (an el­e­gant ta­pes­try of westringia, cal­lis­te­mon and lo­man­dra de­signed with fel­low Brit Tom Harfleet), is less colour­ful than his shorts but still one of the show’s high­lights, along with Jim Fog­a­rty’s The Last to Leave, a beau­ti­ful gar­den sig­ni­fy­ing the 2015 Gal­lipoli cen­te­nary.

De­sign­ers were given only nine days (com­pared to Chelsea’s 17) to put to­gether the show’s 13 dis­play gar­dens and the re­sults are im­pres­sive, aug­mented by a goodly se­lec­tion of gar­den-themed at­trac­tions.

Backed by Desti­na­tion NSW, the Aus­tralian Gar­den Show in­tends to make a splash on the hor­ti­cul­tural de­sign cir­cuit, with di­rec­tor Myles Bald­win hop­ing to more than dou­ble the num­ber of show gar­dens to 30 next year. ‘‘We’ve de­signed this early spring event to book­end Mel­bourne’s au­tumn show,’’ he says.

Vis­it­ing Syd­ney dur­ing the first balmy flush of spring, I’m re­minded again that this is a city in a gar­den, not a spick and span ur­ban space such as, say, Sin­ga­pore, where gar­dens have been man­dated, but a more spon­ta­neous, slightly raff­ish af­fair with bush vis­i­ble from the CBD, gawky win­ter-naked frangi­pa­nis peep­ing above walled court­yards and tow­er­ing gymea lily flow­ers wob­bling like bat­tle pen­nants on mo­tor­way me­dian strips.

It’s also a city of se­cret gar­dens. OnPadding­ton’s busy Ox­ford Street, just past Vic­to­ria Bar­racks, the ro­man­tic Reser­voir Gar­dens lie hid­den like a lost Ro­man ruin. Oc­cu­py­ing the belly of a long-aban­doned 19th-cen­tury un­der­ground reser­voir, built to store wa­ter from the Botany swamps, the gar­dens pro­vide a serene in­ter­lude from the busy street above and in the morn­ing are gen­er­ally de­serted (wheel­chair ac­cess is avail­able via a lift).

Amid pil­lars of rusted steel and iron­bark, the brick arches of this hand­some relic are laced with tree ferns, and deckchairs are scat­tered around a serene con­tem­pla­tion pool.

In the eerie East Cham­ber, old graf­fiti has been pre­served and is set along­side an enor­mous planter box bristling with grass trees.

Claim­ing some of the most en­vi­able real es­tate on the planet, Syd­ney’s 30ha har­bour­side Royal Botanic Gar­dens are no se­cret. And while most visi­tors to Syd­ney man­age a stroll closer to the water­front, many miss the suc­cu­lent gar­den (tucked away near the south­east cor­ner), a re­ally won­der­ful col­lec­tion of arid zone adapted plants fea­tur­ing a knock­out rusted-iron cen­tre­piece de­signed by Jamie Durie and planted with bar­rel cacti and tow­er­ing, pale, alien-like eu­phor­bia.

Be­hind the high walls of Dar­ling Har­bour’s Chi­nese Gar­den of Friend­ship lies another coun­try, where thun- der­ing wa­ter­falls and the squawks of nest­ing ibises do their best to drown out the noise of the city loom­ing around and above. This is an in­tri­cate and mag­i­cal gar­den, de­signed and built by Chi­nese land­scape ar­chi­tects 25 years ago to cel­e­brate Aus­tralia’s bi­cen­te­nary. Mon­u­men­tal amounts of stone and rock have been used to cre­ate the wind­ing path­ways, moun­tain­top tem­ple,

Clock­wise fr above, the C Gar­den of Friend­ship; suc­cu­lents a Botanic Gard Padding­ton Reser­voir Ga this year’s Au Gar­den Show

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