The view from the Western Freeway going to Greendale. That’s Mt Blackwood on the right
The Back Border
This is the first post of a series that documents how Peter and I built our garden at Greendale. Some of the photos are a bit grainy because they were scanned in from prints – but I’m so glad I had them. It’s amazing what you forget, how much we achieved in ten years. So come along, share the journey.
First things first. Greendale is west of Bacchus Marsh in the Pentland Hills, about 80km from the Melbourne CBD. The picture above shows the view from the Western Freeway at the exit we used. That’s Mt Blackwood on the right. Take that curving road past the paddocks, veer left, and you’re in rolling hills at the base of the Wombat State Forest. Pretty soon you’ll get to the Greendale Pub. That’s Greendale – pub, restaurant, and general store, and half a dozen houses. Up behind the pub are a bunch of small acreage properties, between two and five acres. One of those was ours.
Up there in the hills the temperature is general up to five degrees lower than Melbourne, with less humidity. Mild frost was quite common, and we had the occasional dusting of snow. Rainfall could happen anytime, but mainly in winter. In fact 1996 was the beginning of a long drought which hadn’t ended when we moved to Queensland. We had no town water, and relied for all our needs on what rain fell on our enormous roof, collected in a concrete water tank. Needless to say, we had a septic system.
We moved in in December1996. I’d always had a hankering to live on small acreage, and Peter had unfinished business. He’d built the house before his marriage broke down, so there were things to do, jobs to complete.
I remember standing at the junction of the road and the drive, huddled in my coat on a December morning, staring down the valley at scrubby grass and not much else – and wondering what the hell I was doing here. I hadn’t long moved from Perth, and in the West I would have retired my winter woollies for the summer. But that passed, and we got to work.
The house from the drive. We’d done quite a lot of work by the times this was taken
The long, narrow house had been built on a long, narrow slot cut into the top of a sloping block. The end of the house sat on the edge of a steep slope facing the forest. But there were slopes everywhere: the 100-metre drive was cut into the hill with a steep bank on one side. A gentler slope at the front of the house led down into a valley and the next-door block, at that time not developed.
Pete had built the house with his former wife, and she and her new husband lived there for a few years before we bought them out. But neither of them had the temperament for a place like this – that’s not criticism, it’s fact. It takes hard work, commitment, and a real desire to be there, in that environment, which is why the house was still unsold after several years. So we walked in with a lot of work to be done, starting with maintenance, then moving on to landscaping.
Rather than show all the ‘before’ pictures, I’ll concentrate on one piece of garden at a time. For this post, it will be the back border.
As I explained, the house was built into a slot carved in the hillside, so the actual land was, in places, higher than the house pad. So Pete had built raised sleeper beds to separate the house from the hill. The bed behind the house had not been developed. The dirt in the bed followed the slope of the hill, a thick layer of clay covered with sparse “top soil”. There was nothing here to build a garden with. The clay had to be broken down, the beds filled, before it could be planted.
Pete hacking back the grass on the slope by the drive
One of the first things we had to do when we moved in was cut back the high grass on all the slopes. The previous residents had mowed the flat bits – but not the steep slopes, or the bog at the bottom of the hill at the front of the house where the trenches from the septic system had not been maintained. Pete borrowed a brush cutter and got to work.
This gives an idea of the slope. The top of the concrete tank at the back is at the same height as the land, and sleeper walls held the earth back
A few days later he had to go interstate on business, so I came home from work in Melbourne on a balmy summer evening, and decided to move all that dry grass into the empty, neglected back border bed. I needed humus to help break down the clay, and although we would have to buy top soil to fill the beds, every little bit helped. We hadn’t had time to buy any proper equipment, but there was a child’s wheelbarrow, so I used it to cart all that grass up the hill and around the back.
Top soil arriving
The finished bed
Our first idea was to have a vegetable garden, conveniently located right near the kitchen door. For the first year we managed a crop of snow peas, cabbages and caulies (decimated by white cabbage moths) and, of course, lettuces and tomatoes.
We put in the zig zag path to make it easier to do maintenance
A nice crop of peas and beans at the top, herbs at the front, and lettuces and things in place. And it looks pretty, too.
Our first snow pea
But although we always had some tomatoes and lettuces somewhere, growing vegetables required time, maintenance and (above all) water we didn’t really have. So eventually I decided to develop an English style perennial border.
I had been a member of the Diggers Club in Perth. It is a Melbourne-based garden supply company which mails plants to its customers. Their main garden is in Dromana near Port Philip Bay, but they had recently purchased the Garden of St Erth near Blackwood. It had been an old miner’s cottage on five acres, where a retired school teacher and his wife had developed a lovely, diverse garden in difficult conditions. It was just up the road from Greendale, it sold plants, and I was a frequent visitor.
The back border in our last Spring/Summer
Our climate meant that I could use many of the perennials popular in English gardens (as seen at St Erth), so that was my approach. I tried to ensure that we had some colour in all seasons, but the whole garden was at its best in late Spring-early Summer. I had a backbone of small shrubs, supporting mainly Mediterranean plants like poppies, lavender, rosemary, diosma, gaura, seaside daisy, calendula, gazania, evening primrose, carnations. And roses. Roses love clay, so I planted a few rosabundas to scramble over the fence we’d eventually built to separate the garden from the scrappy grass of the main block. We never tried to grow a lawn.
Another view of the back border
Be assured there was a lot of trial and error, and if we’d stayed at the property the bed would not have remained static. Some things worked, some failed. It’s a cycle – and it means gardening is never boring. For me, it was a physical release. Here’s what it looked like at its prime.
Don’t forget to join me for my next post, where I write about the other half of the back border.
Hollyhocks and dahlias – Summer colour
Love the light from the setting sun