Bells of Killcare. Banksia, Dahlia, Betula, Helichrysum, Grevillea, Prunus, Agave, Juniperus, Crocus, Strelitzia, Lomandra and wait for it, Rosa. Sound like a bit of a hotchpotch? Think again.
This garden is one of those gardens that doesn’t just fill you with joy, it makes you stop and reconsider all previous assumptions. You look at it and everything says that it shouldn’t work and yet it does. It really, really works.
And when you figure out why, it is super exciting. Because a whole new avenue of garden design opens up. Pinpointing and articulating the ‘why’ of gardens is one of the surest ways of developing design skills. Taking an idea is one thing, but figuring out a whole principle that you can apply in myriad ways, is quite something else.
It hit me that this was no ordinary garden when I saw this Miscanthus planted next to an evergreen Magnolia. Two plants that I don’t think I have previously seen planted in the same suburb, yet alone growing side by side. The Miscanthus, eliciting images of American prairies; soft, delicate seed heads floating above Piet Oudolf perennial designs and coverings of white hoar frost on the hills of Japan. The Magnolia; ubiquitous in formal, urban, Australian gardens; heavy and solid; huge brash flowers and a subtropical feel, whose large, glossy leaves blacken in heavy frost.
But I loved them together. Why was this?
I realised it was all about connections. It is important that adjacent plants have enough in common that they tie together, whilst having enough differences to create interesting, high impact contrasts. Without contrasts a garden is nothing.
Usually, we think of connections as being plants that grow together in nature. And this is a tremendously robust way of ensuring both design and horticultural success.
But it’s easy to rely on these rules of thumb, becoming lazy at the expense of broader thinking. Connections don’t need to be geographical, or historical, they can come from a million and one different angles.
It first occurred to me that the Miscanthus and Magnolia were in perfect proportion to each other. They were roughly equal sized, big, bold blocks. You are off to a good start with anything planted boldly and neither dominated the other.
It then occurred to me that the beige of the Miscanthus flowers were of a similar tone to the brown of the Magnolia lower leaf surface – both earthy accents. And when I looked further, I realised that both greens were almost identical.
Three strong visual links and the combination works. And how much more special and exhilarating is it, for being a relatively unique combination? We all love new things.
Another combination that I was amazed I loved, was that of roses popping out at the end of a driveway full of natives. Surely roses and natives don’t go together? But these roses were Banksia coloured, they were placed at the transition to an area of more exotics and their foliage blended into the hedgerow behind them. Again, that combination of catching your attention, but not standing out too far. It is finding that perfect balance that is the trick to good design.
Another example is the use of Helichrysum at Bells, to bring light and sparkle to the native trees. It is brighter than the natives, reflecting more light, but the tones blend perfectly, the leaves are small and the form, soft and informal. I am surprised I have not seen this combination before. Contrast without dominance; it is a match made in heaven!
Plants also look right to us when we see them in a certain environment often enough. Lilium longiflorum, above, almost looks right in Australian bushland because it has been growing wild there for so long. I find it hard to dislike it doing so, despite the potential threat to other species. A perfect example of an historical connection.
We can find new combinations of plants that work well together, if we ensure we have enough common ground; common ground on any number of levels. Find the connections and you could be the next Piet Oudolf! It is exciting to trial new styles but we need some principles to help improve our success rate.
Next time you visit a garden, it’s worth trying to articulate exactly why it does or doesn’t work for you. It’s amazing the impact this two minute process can have on your knowledge and understanding of design, and subsequently, your own garden. The power of connections was my key learning from Bells, along with the potential this brings to explore new styles of planting. But most gardens leave me with new thoughts of one kind or another – just ask yourself why each one works.
There was so much to take from this garden……the next blog post will be along shortly!