A Native Garden Welcomes the Locals

September 2, 2014

Whenever I go and visit my friend Ross’s place in St Ives I can’t help gorping out the window all the time. It’s positively rude, I know, but I can’t draw my eyes away from his garden.

The bushes press up against the balcony. Their leafy domes belie the tracery of dark branches within. I know if I watch long enough I will be rewarded with a moment of serendipitous pleasure because this garden is full of living sirens, plants that lure native birds from the valley below. It has lots of different places for animals to hide, feed, nest, burrow, tryst, bath and watch.

There’s always something in flower, in seed or in fruit here. There’s so much action: maybe an Australian King Parrot methodically chewing its way through wattle pods, popping the seeds into its mouth or Eastern Spinebills zipping around the grevilleas. If the banksias are in flower the Little Wattlebirds will be crowing and chasing one another.  If the lillypillies are in fruit, I might see a Satin Bowerbird gobbling berries. When the cones of the she-oak snap open the Brown Thornbills arrive to pick out the seeds.

And it’s not just birds. Ross has encountered antechinuses and Southern Leaf-tail Geckos in his woodpile, several tree snakes hanging decorously from various structures and a Diamond Python stretching into a bush to reach the morning sun. The odd echidna ambles through and water skinks skedaddle through the leaf litter and pop into holes between stones. The possums and insects are, of course, a given.

But things weren’t always this way. Once upon a time (in 1982 to be precise) this was a building site, bulldozed flat for a house, with excess earth shoved down a steep slope. Flanking the east side of the property was a public stairway. No-one could have guessed then what this place would become.

Initially Ross laid a couch grass lawn at the front and contemplated the inevitability of erosion at the back and its inauspicious south-eastern aspect. He set to work stepping the land, stone by stone, into terraces. Today you wouldn’t even know they were there unless you looked carefully.

‘Then I got educated,’ said Ross. ‘I was working at Taronga Zoo and I met a guy who was working in the native nursery that used to be there.’ He came and rotary hoed the grass out and designed a beautiful no-mow garden full of clumping kangaroo and barbed-wire grasses, both natives. They look after themselves and soon parties of Red-browed Finches and Silvereyes were bending their stalks as they plucked out the seeds.'

Ross was particularly keen to grow an endangered grevillea that has suffered from ridgetop development in a very restricted area around where he lives: Grevillea caleyi. His first plant agreed to stay and more followed. Buoyed by his success, Ross turned his attention to the backyard.

The aspect was a challenge. Mostly he bought tubestock of local plants. Tubestock is inexpensive and usually grown by dedicated nurserymen who collect local seed to preserve the genetic integrity of the plants of the area.

He met with mixed results. Grevilleas, wattles and banksias took off but there were disappointments, especially on the shady side beside the walkway. Lillypillies, tree-ferns and ferns seemed to like it though. Through trial and error the native garden began to take shape.

Ross was now ready to take on another challenge: waratahs. The waratah is the floral emblem of New South Wales and its flowers are eye-poppingly beautiful but it is known to be tricky to cultivate. As I sit on my stool overlooking the balcony I see several huge buds pointing skywards. But perhaps the greatest achievement are the small waratah plants yet to flower that have self-seeded just beneath the originals.

Until Ross took me down the walkway I hadn’t realized how his planting efforts had yielded so many self-sown plants. At its furthest limit, out of view of the balcony, the tangle of white epacris, pink grevilleas, boronias and she-oaks interspersed with occasional persoonias form a thicket of vegetation that entirely looks after itself and provides a matrix of safe places for small animals.

Ross is a busy man. Scientist, philanthropist, chairman an ethical investment company, his gardening activities these days are mostly confined to pulling out the odd weed but he still takes a keen interest in life in the garden he created…and so do his visitors, human and otherwise.

(All photographs for this article were taken by Ross Knowles.)

Locations visited

St Ives

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Written by

Louise Egerton


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