By some enormous stroke of good luck, a few days before the Daffodils at Rydal event, someone asked Paul what his favourite plants were. By even better luck, one of the three plants that came into his mind happened to be daffodils. Aha, I thought. I’m not one to miss a garden trip opportunity.
Jo, one of the organisers of Daffodils at Rydal, had kindly emailed me about the event. It sounded like fun, but it was two and a half hours from Sydney and it clashed with so many other spring garden events. As the time got closer, I was also slightly unsure about daffodils. In Australia?
Spring is the big time for Australian plants. They all get their flowers out in one big spring burst before the onset of summer heat and drought. And really, daffodils couldn’t be more different to Australian flowers. Our flowers, generally so subtle, often small and usually spread amongst the foliage. Daffodils, well, they are bold and brash and bright and associated with English gardens; they could never pass for a local.
I’m not one for thinking that Australian gardens should only grow Australian plants, but I do think a sense of locality is a real asset. The English garden style has evolved over hundreds of years and whether it has any English natives or not, the traditional style and choice of plants fit perfectly along an English streetscape. The majority of plants have a similar tone of green to the natural vegetation and the same delicate, lush, herbaceous growth. They look like they are meant to be.
In Australia, so many gardens still take their lead from England, despite our radically different climate and natural vegetation. I feel we are really missing a trick in creating a new style which gives a nod to the Australian landscape, whilst still offering a cheery, beautiful outlook. Cranbourne manages this, as does Barangaroo, but how often do we see home gardens that have any connection to the landscape around them?
Boat’s End garden, in South Australia, seems to do this very well. I’ve not yet visited, but photos I’ve seen look outstanding, despite seemingly low numbers of natives. It’s the colours and the textures and the forms that seem to give a real feel of Australia.
There’s also a home garden in Western Australia that I want to share with you shortly, but I’m struggling to come up with many more than two. A couple of Victorian designers I know focus on natives, but they, along with amateur native designers, are very few and far between.
But I’m getting sidetracked. The point is that despite sitting in subtropical Sydney, thinking daffodils were a misfit, I was amazed and delighted to find that daffodils in the hills looked absolutely stunning. Not in the slightest out of place.
They looked perfectly fitting next to yellow Acacia. They set off the trunks of eucalypts almost as well. They integrated with the rolling hills and the local stone walls and I soon felt that Rydal without daffodils would be utterly wrong! The beautiful nineteenth century stone cottages and public buildings looked just right with a splash of yellow outside on a bright spring day. It really was a wake up for me.
The key lesson is that for a garden to look ‘right’, it has to fit with its surroundings in some way; it needs connections to other vegetation, to its buildings, to its people. But we have to think laterally and we have to relax preconceptions; the smallest little hamlet has its own unique sense of place that we can build on, magnify and bring a very special feel to.
It’s often hard to put your finger on the exact reason for a place–be that a house; a garden; a village; a park or a city centre–feeling so special. But as I’ve thought about this more and more, that phrase, ‘a sense of place’ is virtually always relevant. There is something distinctive about it, something that makes it unique, something that ties the place together, which our brains interpret as special. We may not be aware of the reasons, but we are very aware of connecting with a place, of understanding it as a whole and of the positive emotions we experience whilst there.
I looked at the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites when I got home from Rydal. Some, such as Angkor Wat, are extremely old, but others, such as the Sydney Opera House, are relatively new. And yet experiencing both these examples has sent shivers down my spine. They are unique, they are distinctive, they have created an incredible sense of place around them.
And whilst we might struggle to create an Angkor Wat in our back garden, we can use the concept of these places, to create something very special. Something that talks to its surroundings, something that becomes bigger over time as it connects up with more and more in the vicinity, something that eventually has the character of Rydal at daffodil time. We need to look for patterns and connections and build on these until the sense of distinctiveness is clear. Not to clone things, but to complement them and create a definite character and sense of unity.
If you live in the Sydney area, I’d thoroughly recommend a drive up to Rydal this weekend to see the spectacle of the Daffodils event. You can follow the heritage walk around the village, learn about its 1870s boom and see the stunning architecture from this time, you can pop into one of many gardens that are open, see my favourite Rose Cottage and the natural Pioneer Park. Then head over to Chapel House, for a completely sublime experience. I left these magnificent gardens with a very sad Paul who just wanted to move in tomorrow!
Not only will you have a wonderful day out, but hopefully, like me, you will feel the sense of place that Rydal has developed, and continues to develop, over the past one hundred and fifty years. By observing places with a unique identity, it helps us to see our own areas in a new light. To see what is special about our own garden, street, suburb or town and see how we can add to and grow that identity for the benefit of its residents for the next one hundred and fifty years and beyond. What better gift to leave behind?