Tiptoe Through Instant Tulips

Tiptoe Through Instant Tulips

LAST week I was able to make a quick trip to Canberra to look at Floriade- the bulb festival which is held in Commonwealth Park in the centre of Canberra each spring.

Tulips are the dominant feature of the floral display, and the planting style of Floriade is strongly “park bedding” with geometric beds mass-planted with one colour. The effect is quite dramatic, especially when you look down on the beds from vantage points above.

The bulbs are bought each year from Victoria and this year were planted in raised beds formed by dumping about 30 centimetres of topsoil over what is normally lawn area. When Floriade is finished the whole lot disappears almost overnight.

It’s a big effort to produce this spring show, which attracts a lot of visitors to Canberra while it’s on. However, Canberra has lots of charms of its own to attract visitors, so just because the flash in the pan of Floriade is over don’t think that’s it for the year. The trees in Canberra are its glory and they are there all year, looking marvellous at present in fresh new spring leaf.

We visited the sculpture garden at the National Art Gallery after looking at Floriade, where there were hundreds of visitors looking at the tulips. At the sculpture garden we were the only visitors and it was looking wonderful. It is at the back of the gallery, on the lake, with native plantings providing a subtle background for the statues.

There are groves of wattle, some in bloom, some like acacia iteaphylla, already in decorative seed. Elegant groups of she-oaks and gum trees add great atmosphere and there are clumps of flowering native shrubs and grasses to soften the effect. No tulips anywhere, but well worth a visit. The statues are marvellous. I love the enigmatic fat lady who floats on the water of a shallow pool.

Just driving around Canberra’s streets with fence-free suburban gardens is a pleasure for the tourist. And you do spend a lot of time driving around the streets – with all those curving roads, it is very easy to get lost.

The all-native Botanic Gardens are at their peak during the spring months with lots of colour and perfume.

Canberra is a great town for nurseries – visit some of the ones at Pialligo(the main nursery area out in the direction of the airport). For the next month the old-fashioned roses will be blooming. Some nurseries have been landscaped with old roses and are well worth a visit if you are interested in the roses of the past.

If you are driving from Sydney, the countryside is unbelievably green at present (like being in Ireland without the aggravation), the hills are blue, and that come-and-go lake, Lake George, has definitely come again and is brimming with more water than it has held for many years. It’s all as picturesque as you can get for a four-hour drive without needing a visa.

Some of the plantings around Canberra look very Edna Walling, particularly the groves of crab-apple planted in the lawns at University House. I think they must use the Edna method of tree planting there. She was famous for her method of planting groups of trees, which involved standing on a likely spot and hurling a bucket of potatoes. The trees were planted where the potatoes fell, to achieve the random grouping of trees that spring up naturally from seed.

If you have room to plant a group of trees or shrubs I can recommend this method – it’s simple, fun, and it works.

For admirers of Edna Walling, there is some good news – a new book, Edna Walling’s Year (published by Anne O’Donovan $19.95).

It is an attractive book which combines Edna Walling’s photographs and writing (some previously unpublished) with pen and ink drawings by Jennifer Wilkinson, who is the author and illustrator of an attractive reference book, Herbs and Flowers of the Cottage Garden.

Edna Walling also features in a handsome new coffee-table book – Private Gardens of Australia by Sarah Guest, photographs by Jerry Harpur (published by Lothian, $50.)

Among the Walling gardens featured are Marwarra at Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges, a mountain garden on a steep site with lots of trees and stone steps leading from one level to the next; a country garden, Markdale at Binda NSW, which features her trademark stone walling; and a lake and large suburban garden at Benalla, Victoria. All retain their Walling design and have matured into gardens full of atmosphere – a credit to her skill.

A great variety of gardens has been chosen to feature in the book, from tropical far-north Queensland to cool Tasmania and across to West Australia, providing plenty of variety in planting material and design.

Some outstanding gardens are included, like the Valder family garden, Nooroo at Mt Wilson; Nindooinbah House at Beaudesert in Queensland, garden of artist Patrick Hockey and his wife; and Bolobek, Sir Robert and Lady Law-Smith’s garden triumph at Macedon, Victoria.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, though I felt a shade of disappointment that there weren’t more colour pictures. However, there are 98, so perhaps I am just greedy. The descriptions and history of the gardens is lively and informative and the pictures are inspirational, including the cherry walk at Bolobek.

I wonder how many gardeners have gone home after visiting Bolobek and tried to reproduce the pathway lined with flowering cherries framing a perfect vista. A statue of a girl with softly flowing clothes leans pensively from a pedestal set in a brick paved circle edged with a clipped box hedge. A huge rhododendron Pink Pearl provides the background of dark foliage lit by the luminous blooms. One of the prettiest garden scenes I have seen anywhere.

The Law-Smiths are leaving Bolobek soon, and I hope the new owners have a sympathetic understanding of this lovely garden.

This book is a must for anyone interested in the best private gardens in Australia, and a great gift for garden history buffs.

Garden Day: The Australian Garden History Society is visiting Rouse Hill House, near Windsor, on Saturday, November 3. Extensive conservation work by the Historic Houses Trust of NSW has restored both house and garden to their former glory. Tickets available for members and non-members $25. Bookings phone 953 1916.


  1. As a general rule “slow release” fertilisers are safer for plants in containers.
  2. Plant summer annuals now, such as petunia, portulaca, sunflower and zinnia.
  3. Mulch pots on balconies to prevent drying out.
  4. Repot variegated begonias, keep them well-watered and in the shade for good results.
  5. Consider planting a tree in your nature strip. First contact your local council for advice.

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