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Garden Design for Australian Plants in a Changing World

Diana Snape

The Past

SGAP and the work of Study Groups

The Society for Growing Australian Plants (SGAP) began in the late 1950s, with the goal of growing Australian plants to help in their ongoing preservation. The emphasis has been on the cultivation of individual plant species (and often individual plants of those species). This is of course extremely important and the essential work of most Study Groups has focussed on this approach. There has been so much to learn about growing Australian plants successfully in gardens and, until recently, so little effort made by the majority of other possible contributors in this field.

Garden 'experts', nursery people, horticulturists and landscape designers tend to stay well within their area of expertise and, with notable exceptions, this to date has largely meant exotic plants. Their area of expertise remains the dominant culture. In contrast, most Study Groups have worked to observe, record, correlate and expand knowledge of their area of study of Australian plants. Some have written valuable books so this knowledge can become more widely available and help widen the horizons of others, both inside and outside SGAP/Australian Plant Society (APS).

Slowness of change

After 40 years existence of SGAP/APS, we might have expected its influence to have started to become more apparent in the general community, with increasing awareness and appreciation of Australian plants. I think in general it has not. What are the problems?

I think there are a number of problems involved in the slowness of change. These include

  • The cyclic nature of influence in gardening fashions. All aspects of the Nursery industry cannot change simultaneously. The availability of plants in Nurseries depends on their having been propagated for sale in sufficient numbers - those plants in Nurseries must be bought by the public (or by professional designers) and people tend to copy what they are familiar with. The plants must be known and recommended by the writers, broadcasters, etc, who are influential in the 'gardening world'. Their influence was probably largely derived from knowledge of exotic plants. For a long while education and training of professional designers neglected or even ignored Australian plants.

  • Working from a small base, knowledge of cultivation of Australian plants has grown relatively slowly. One example of this was the lack of pruning in earlier years, which we now know is essential to replace the pruning of plants by marsupials in natural equations. Until the needs of Australian plants in gardens are understood and satisfied, progress will be slow. Also the needs of our plants contrast so markedly with many imported exotics, eg in the use of fertilizers.

  • For many years SGAP/APS members concentrated on growing individual plants in their gardens and many did not 'see' the garden as a whole. Other uncommitted gardeners are often more influenced by how our gardens look overall, rather than by the beauty of an individual plant. Even when gardens contain beautiful plants, if they lack design they don't do justice to those plants. It's not easy to do both well but we can all try.

History of the Garden Design Study Group (GDSG)

After recognising the need to study garden design using Australian plants, I began the Study Group in 1993 with a small initial group who shared this interest. Its membership rose to 200 by 1996 and this membership of over 200 has been maintained since, with members in all States. This must reflect a need felt by many Society members. We are very pleased to include both amateur and professional designers among our members. Most of those initial members still belong and there is a small yearly turnover as members' needs and interests change.


What do GDSG members actually do?

Designing with Australian Plants
Book cover

The GDSG's book, The Australian Garden: Designing with Australian Plants was published by Blooming Books in 2002. It contains over 230 pages, includes over 100 colour plates and has a recommended retail price of $A55.00.

A review of the book can be found in Australian Plants online, December 2002 issue.

The concept of design and the knowledge of plants to implement that design are so closely woven together that they are hard to separate. There are many ways we try to advance our skills.

  • Members study garden design in their own and others' gardens; they design (and re-design) their own gardens and/or help others design theirs. This process often takes many years to realise so results may be slow. The time varies with the nature of the garden, from a groundcover/grass/ daisy garden (fast) to a tree garden (slow but long lasting). Changes can be made in a whole garden or just a section of a garden. Members also help those who are involved in designing gardens in public areas, when there is insufficient money available for a professional designer. The value of consultation with a professional designer is not forgotten.

  • Members read and review books, journals and magazines with articles on garden design. Hundreds of books have been written on garden design, especially in the UK, but almost none have used Australian plants to illustrate design concepts. Also these books are written for a different climate, different soils and quite different 'sense of place'. So we absorb interesting ideas from different sources and see if they have any application or relevance to designing with Australian plants. Often they need substantial "translation". Even most books about garden design written in Australia lack this emphasis.

  • Regular meetings are held in Melbourne, Sydney and north-east Victoria, when members visit gardens of interest, contribute to designs and exchange ideas on numerous topics. However newsletters are our main form of communication between all members. There have been 35 to date (August 2001), about 700 pages, and some members write articles for these. Some also write for magazines and newspapers and give talks on aspects of garden design with Australian plants.

Aims of the GDSG

The GDSG aims:

  • To improve the design of gardens of Australian plants by providing information that will help gardeners at any point in the lifetime of their garden. It is better if you can start at the beginning but it is never too late to start designing. The more creative aspects of maintenance are part of design - how you modify the garden as plants grow, how you prune, etc.

  • To raise awareness of the importance of garden design among APS/SGAP members. We all know individual Australian plants are beautiful but an Australian plant garden as a whole may not look as beautiful as it could. This loses opportunities to appeal to members of the general public (and potential new members of the Society). It's also more satisfying for the garden owner.

  • To raise awareness of the value of showing beautiful gardens of Australian plants to the general public, as in the Open Garden Scheme. Many members of the Australian public (70 percent in a recent survey) are interested in gardening and thousands of Australians visit gardens in this scheme. Showing our gardens to each other is fine but it doesn't expand interest in Australian plants. If we want the world to change in terms of Australia's gardens I think we must do a better job of showing off our plants in outstanding gardens. It varies markedly between States but currently only 5 percent or so of the gardens in the Open Garden Scheme are listed as featuring Australian plants.

  • To publish a book on Garden Design with Australian Plants. An editorial committee of the GDSG began writing such a book in late 1999 and the book was published in 2002 (see box). The book is based on the ideas and experiences of our members as recorded in our newsletters.

Future: some design aspects for Australian plants in a changing world

Small gardens

In the future there are likely to be smaller blocks of land for many people (along with larger houses). So suburban gardens will tend to shrink. Due to the past work of APS/SGAP and increasingly the Horticultural Industry, many more Australian plants are now available in nurseries. More recently, the Australian Cultivar Registration Authority and Plant Breeders Rights have given further incentive for the development of appealing new plants. These include wonderful small plants, appropriate for the smaller gardens which will be more common. Beautiful gardens displaying such plants can help erase the bad impressions of those straggly, suburban 'bush gardens' of the 1960s and 1970s, and the myths of no maintenance. In small gardens, there can be concentrated focus on the design with extreme care taken in the choice of plants from the abundance on offer and their positioning in relation to the hard landscape.

Importance of indigenous plants

There is increasing interest in restricting the palette of plants for design to those indigenous to the area. Strictly speaking, plants from distant areas of Australia such as Western Australia can be as botanically distinct as those from Gondwana countries such as New Zealand or (horror!) South Africa. Just as many of us have been fussy in the past in growing only Australian plants, environmentally aware and sensitive people in the future may be so with growing their indigenous plants, of local provenance. With a smaller palette, design becomes very important to achieve a pleasing, garden-like effect but it will certainly have a 'sense of place' using the plants that belong there. This is the opposite effect to that described in the previous paragraph, with the increasing range of attractive or 'pretty' garden plants.

Greenhouse effects and climate change

The threat of climate change due to the greenhouse effect may bring challenges to everyone in the short or long term. An awareness of this threat in the 'changing world' could influence our approach to garden design. It's hard to predict what will happen but grouping plants with similar needs in our gardens will be even more important and a readiness to be adaptable in our selection of plants will help.

Computer-aided design

A growing number of computer programs deal with garden design and an increasing number of gardeners are likely to take advantage of these in the future. Programs also have lists of plants to suit different requirements. To date, only a limited number of plant lists concentrate on Australian plants but this emphasis should grow in the future.

An age of technology

To finish on a more philosophical note, the 'changing world' is likely to take people more and more away from the natural world we are fortunate to enjoy today. If populations keep expanding, natural areas will shrink even further. If the current trend continues, with more hours spent in front of computers, longer working hours for many people, more dependence on virtual reality, people will need gardens to help retain their love of nature and their humanity. Those gardens will be more rewarding, peaceful and harmonious if they are well designed, rather than just a jumble of plants.

A brief conclusion

Don't just grow plants - grow a garden.

This article was originally presented at the ASGAP 21st Biennial Seminar which was held in Canberra, ACT, 1 to 5 October 2001.

Diana Snape has been a committed member of Society for Growing Australian Plants/Australian Plants Society since 1960 - first in Sydney and then Melbourne.

Diana's first book Meet the First 30 Elements was a chemistry text, written for junior high school students, to meet a need she saw while teaching. Her second book Australian Native Gardens: putting visions into practice was published in 1992, soon after she retired from teaching. The following year Diana began the Garden Design Study Group, again to try to respond to a perceived need.

Diana recently resigned as leader of the Garden Design Study Group but maintains an active interest in the activities of the group.


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Australian Plants online - September 2003
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants