I was super, super excited to be invited on a tour of the not-yet-open Barangaroo Reserve, in inner city Sydney, by the Horticultural Media Association.
And my goodness, Cranbourne native gardens in Victoria are being given a run for their money.
The Barangaroo gardens are incredible. Outstanding. Stunning. You get the picture?
They are completely different to Cranbourne, but only the second large scale native plantings that have totally blown me away.
Barangaroo, named after the wife of Bennelong, the interlocutor between the aboriginal people and early British colonists, was, until recently, a 54 acre dockland precinct, near Darling Harbour. But this prime land is now under major development and the residents of (and tourists to) Sydney have a massive treat in store.
Fifteen acres, surrounded by water and facing the two most iconic Sydney harbour bridges, have been developed into parkland: ‘a modern naturalistic interpretation of the headland which was once there’. This is parkland like you have never seen before. At a cost of over $250m, funded entirely by the wider project (as opposed to the tax payer), something quite magical has been created. And as long as I don’t think about those costs too much, there’s really nothing I can fault at all.
76,184 new plants have been planted to date. Yep, they were all counted in, each after passing a 31 point quality check. They include 84 different species, 80 of which are indigenous not only to Australia, or New South Wales, but to Sydney’s foreshore. Four other native plants were selected, as iconic specimens;
- Doryanthes excelsa (gymea lily)
- Tristaniopsis ‘Luscious’ (water gum)
- Eucalyptus saligna (Sydney blue gum; no it’s really not indigenous!)
- Corymbia maculata (spotted gum)
Planting commenced two years ago and the failure rate has been less than 1%. Our horticultural guide, Stuart Pittendrigh, who has advised extensively on the project, puts it down to good plant selection, exemplary nursery techniques, good construction site management and very careful planting.
It is quite mind blowing to see the scale of some of the trees that have been transplanted. Six ton Moreton Bay figs (Ficus macrophylla; yes, these are indigenous!) were craned into pre-dug, precisely measured holes and within one hour, roots were pruned, backhoes backfilled the soil, irrigation was connected up and the next tree was lifted.
And on an incredibly windy site, no stakes or guy wires are to be seen. The ingenious Stuart Pittendrigh developed a self supporting system of underground wire mesh, which, once tied and weighted down by the tree itself, provides stable support, whilst allowing just the right level of natural movement.
Some of the charm of the plants stems from the unorthodox nursery methods that Stuart insisted upon. Stakes were thrown away there, too, and twisted forms and unusual shapes celebrated for their character. All plants were also spaced three times further apart than normal nursery conditions, which ensured they had plenty of sun and water, producing excellent growth.
Much of the planting is on steep terraces that follow the line of the foreshore. Behind the terraces, the land has been lifted by a full 18m, which will enable local residents to walk straight out from their houses, through the park towards the harbour, for the first time in 140 years.
This feat of engineering has caused both opportunities and complications. Inside the new ‘hill’ sits a massive open space, some 120m long, which will be used for cultural activities. Above this, new soil has had to be brought in, aggressive roots considered and irrigation systems designed, to ensure zero run off into either the cultural space, the cafe, the 300 parking spaces or, perhaps most importantly, the harbour.
Alongside a water treatment facility, every cubic metre of new soil has been manufactured on site. Crushed sandstone has been washed to produce minerals with exactly 4% clay, glass has been processed to produce rounded particles the size of matchstick heads for drainage, and organic matter has been turned into compost. Mixed up, they form the perfect substrate for indigenous plants and expert soil scientist, Simon Leake, is working on optimal fertiliser components, that will adapt over time, alongside the soil.
The reserve has a wonderful mix of plantings; Livistona, Dicksonia, native hibiscus and Banksia in the south-facing moist gully, moving through to Acacia, Hardenbergia and heathland in the sunnier aspects. Ten times out of ten, grouping plants in terms of their microclimate requirements happily produces the best aesthetic results of all.
The links back in history add a wonderful further dimension. The brand new, low ‘1836 wall’ runs close to the harbour, following the exact shape shown on an 1836 survey map. There have also been boat construction artefact discoveries, dating back to the 1820s, which have further informed the design.
This site is so exciting to me in so many ways. For a couple of years, I have been studying the bushland that remains in so many parts of central Sydney and visualising how indigenous plants could be used to create a beautiful AND interesting garden. Take the best of the plants, find contrasting textures, forms and colours, plant them intensively and keep them relatively neatly maintained. Pictures had been developing in my head but I still hadn’t seen anything in real life that fully turned this into reality. Until now.
I now have crystal clear clarity regarding naturalistic gardens on a residential scale. And I’m raring to go! I even got some tips from Stuart about the journey. Of how figs and eucalypts can still come back, healthy and strong, after losing every single, last leaf and of the different effects that some judicious pruning can have on indigenous plants. I was so energised by how many beautiful plants can be grown in this area, almost entirely sustained by rainfall alone.
Barangaroo Reserve will take a decade to reach its vision and understory planting will evolve over time. But these gardens look as though they have been there a decade already. Whilst I struggle, a little, to feel comfortable with the number of advanced plants used, the early years of public enjoyment is not to be sneezed at.
Barangaroo Reserve opens, indefinitely, on 22 August 2015. There will be no gates, no closing at dusk; security patrols will be present throughout the night, every day of the year. And once it opens, it completes the last piece of the jigsaw for one of the longest foreshore walks in the world.
And I’d have to say, surely, the very best?