I find it interesting that few gardens meet my expectations. They either blow them away completely (fortunately, the most frequent scenario) or I leave feeling flat and disappointed, usually following an overly zealous review. I avoid reviewing these gardens – it is much more satisfying to write with genuine passion.
The Mount Tomah Botanic Gardens, just outside Sydney, are known for their waratahs and wollemi pines. These are, indeed, stunning, but I hadn’t appreciated that the gardens would be so much more. It was very quickly clear that I would be itching to review this garden!
Set in a World Heritage Area and covering 252 hectares, the Mount Tomah gardens are primarily a collection of cooler southern hemisphere plants. It was my first ever visit this week and this stunning garden had a significant impact on me. A few of my highlights follow.
1. The Herbaceous Garden
Surprisingly, my favourite section was the English style garden. I love English gardens in England but often find them misplaced in Australia. This has to be the very best example I have seen in this country.
Inspired by Edna Walling (herself, of course, originally from England), this garden is full to bursting with colour and flowers. My photos, taken in the midday sun, do not reflect its true vibrancy but as I walked amongst the perennials I got the ‘child in a sweet shop’ sensation. Another excellent herbaceous garden in Australia is at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, but there you can only look from afar; at Mount Tomah you walk within it, creating a very different experience; you are consumed by the flowers and plants. The Hobart Botanic Gardens are also beautiful, but more viewed than consumed. The experience adds so much.
Abundant, loose, informal plantings set within a bold, formal structure is always a winning formula and the colour combinations here are exceptional. Based on a painting by the Brazilian artist, Kitja, the colours look random but are in fact very skillfully chosen. There are themes, such as a small yellow section, but each blends seamlessly with the next; picture postcard beauty without looking contrived.
The flowers are almost entirely bright, deep colours; something that I currently lean towards in my own garden. I am not sure if this is due to living in the subtropics, where flower colours are naturally brighter, whether I feel bright colours are necessary to have impact in the strong, Australian sun, or if it is just a passing phase, but bright flowers make me feel especially cheerful. Pastels can be equally beautiful, but often one or the other works most effectively, despite mixings of the two being more common. It takes strong discipline to stick to just one!
I just loved the naturalness of the planting. Herbaceous borders are so often very staged, tall things at the back, low bedding at the front, but this has an air of things landing wherever the seed fell – it really feels alive. The enormous pergola gives height and presence, anchoring the garden within the eucalypts. Interwoven perennials create natural meadow-like walls surrounding the narrow pathways beneath. Absolutely stunning.
2. Naturalist Landscaping
Beyond the ‘Formal’ English sections, the gardens spill out over the mountain side, with magnificent views for 100 kilometres or more. Connecting with this natural bushland, the hard landscaping has been designed with a soft touch – meandering gravel pathways and large rocks fill the spaces between the plants and waterfalls and ponds bring the large rock garden to life. It still looks a little new; I will enjoy seeing it fill out and establish over the years, but it has truly been created to perfection.
3. Natives and Blended Plants
Mount Tomah Botanic Garden has large scale plantings that feel very Australian and yet are not purist Australian natives. There are many southern African and New Zealand plants blended in to great effect as well as less familiar species from South America.
The colours, textures and forms feel very Australian but the overall effect is so much more than a bush garden. Gardens, by definition, are different to bushland, but it is wonderful to retain a sense of the natural local flora within them, whilst adding that extra dimension.
Mount Tomah has a strong educational angle, which I strongly applaud. It gives design ideas for a broad range of garden styles, it demonstrates world class planting combinations and it surprises and informs the visitor with the plant species displayed. All this, set within beautiful landscapes, both inside and beyond the gardens, leaves you brimming with ideas and the desire to get out there and do something.
With free entry and a restaurant, kiosk and picnic area, I would highly recommend a day trip to the gardens from Sydney, perhaps combined with one of the open gardens at nearby Mount Wilson. With passionate and exceedingly friendly staff, there is a truly wonderful atmosphere at this garden.
If you live locally, do put this on your list for 2015. And to everyone far and wide, I wish you a very healthy and happy new year!