There’s a controversy which can stoke passionate debate in gardening circles all over Australia. It’s been on the agenda for over 50 years, and it still has the power to generate heated letters to the editor in gardening magazines. Here’s a clue.
A stunning Australian native plant, Banksia ericifolia (banksia), and an equally stunning exotic, climbing rose.
In the 1960’s, a new gardening movement emerged in Australia. It rejected the mainstream- traditional “English” style gardening- and promoted Australian native plants. This was part of a wider cultural and political shift away from our country’s place as a colony of the British empire. The reasoning was that native plants are perfectly adapted to Australian conditions, and that we should proudly grow them, rather than yearning for gardens which mirrored colonial traditions that had become irrelevant as well as being less suited to our climate.
That all sounds perfectly rational. Australian native plants are diverse, and include majestic trees, and brilliant wildflowers.
Isopogon anemonifolius (broad-leafed drumstick) and Actinotus helianthi (flannel flower), coastal heathland, Newcastle
Rainforest, Fraser Island, Queensland
But there remains a lively contest between native plant enthusiasts (“nativists”) and those who embrace exotic plants. That contest was given an airing in the Diggers Club Magazine 2017 “Festive Gardens” edition.
Diggers Club founder, Clive Blazey, points out what he regards as the flaw in nativism- which is, that native plants don’t provide us with the vegetables, fruit and flowers which we wish to cultivate. Clive also says “…when I look out my garden window I don’t want to see the bush. I want a cool and refreshing garden to enjoy during hot, summer days.”
Typical Australian coastal bushland- Muogamarra Nature Reserve, Central Cost, NSW
Essentially, as Clive says, “…a garden [is] a totally artificial construct designed to create our own sense of beauty”. Native plants can be part of that concept, but there is no place for a blinkered dogma which insists that Australian natives are inherently superior to plants from other parts of the world.
Clive, bravely, takes particular aim at the eucalypts (“gum trees”). He urges nativists to question whether they are “garden-worthy”. His criticisms of these iconic Australian trees include, that they provide “lousy shade” (because their leaves hang down), their roots “poison the soil”, they are extremely flammable in bush fires, and have a propensity to suddenly drop limbs, with potentially lethal consequences. He sums up by saying “Eucalypts may be extraordinarily beautiful in the bush, but they’re not garden-worthy in the city.”
Eucalyptus laevopinea (silvertop stringybark) forest, Coolah Tops National Park, Central Western NSW
I love eucalypts. I love the Australian bush. I travel far and wide, and climb mountains, to be in their presence. In a forest of tall eucalypts, like the silvertop stringybarks in the photo above, my spirit soars.
Eucalyptus pauciflora (snow gum) and me, Coolah Tops National Park, Central Western NSW. This forest is home to the tallest snow gums in the world.
In Spring I love to head out to the coastal sandstone country, to enjoy the spectacle of native wildflowers. My blog post, Good soil- who needs it?, celebrates this magnificent annual phenomenon.
And in the Blue Mountains, who wouldn’t be awestruck by incomparable waratah?
Telopea (waratah), floral emblem of New South Wales
But in my dream garden, native plants are not necessary, and an article in the same Diggers Club magazine, by Georgina Reid (founder of The Planthunter), shed light upon the reasons why. Georgina shares insights she has gained from her life-long gardening practice, and quotes interesting ideas from the writings of Michael Pollan (author and activist) and Wendell Berry (poet and novelist).
Michael Pollan sees the garden as “a place where the dialogue between humans and the natural world takes place”. Wendell Berry wrote that “A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home…has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us”.
For Georgina, a garden is a place of “culture, contemplation, connection and learning”. She recognises “the simple and transformative power of gardens and gardening” which help us to rebuild our connection to the natural world.
These thoughts resonate strongly with me. I imagine my dream garden as a tapestry, each plant selected for its pleasing, interesting or useful attributes (ideally with each plant possessing at least two such attributes).
My garden is where I express my creativity, passion, values and personality, by the simple acts of selecting and nurturing plants from all over the world. Some of those plants are Australian natives, and they do bring the birds to my garden, but so do many others which originate on the other side of the globe. A day’s bushwalking will provide me with an infinitely more satisfying experience of Australian native plants, than a domestic garden of native plants could ever do. For a notable exception, see the garden in my post An elegant transformation
Finally, my garden is the place to which I retreat, on a daily basis, to reconnect emotionally and intellectually with my inner life, and to absorb its vitality after my long day at work. When I tend my garden, even simply by weeding and watering, I feel myself being restored by acts which symbolise a rejection of everything that is harsh and wrong in the world. I know that whatever happens elsewhere, a fine purpose will await me with the start of each new day.
Are you a passionate nativist? Or not?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, whichever side of the fence you’re on!