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Al-Ru Farm

A canopy of mature trees hugs the garden and gives it a romantic sense of intimacy. Photo - Robin Powell

Ruthless choices makes the romantic pictures in Ruth Irving’s garden. Here we take the grand tour.


Ruth Irving’s garden at Al-Ru Farm in the Adelaide Hills is all romance and pretty pictures. Everywhere you look is a blossom-draped arbour, a flower-edged pathway or a swagged rose consorting with a frilly bearded iris in matching tones of antique lingerie. Given all this visual delight you might assume that Ruth is a garden sentimentalist. On the contrary! When it comes to a plant in the wrong place Ruth is completely…yes, let’s say it - ruthless!

As she shows a wide-eyed group of Ross travellers around her garden, she interrupts herself to lunge into garden beds and rip tall, proud, and beautiful Oriental poppies from the ground, snap them and toss them away. The crime of the poppy? Ruth favours the densely petalled double pink Oriental poppy that she calls the Al-Ru poppy and she won’t have that maddening single interfering with the genetics of her favourites.


Ruth's treasured double pink Oriental poppy. Photo - Robin Powell

The passion and energy clear in her rampage against the single poppy is in evidence through the whole garden, which was a sheep paddock not so long ago. Ruth, an antiques dealer from Adelaide, and her husband Alan, planted the first few trees around the old stone cottage in 1981. Since then the garden has expanded to ten exuberant acres, with 600m of perennial borders. All water is from bores, and at the end of long, dry summers Ruth’s priority is to protect the now-mature trees, which cannot be easily replaced. These trees give the over-arching structure to the garden. Against their strong backdrop and beneath their canopy she has created a series of gardens linked by paths and walkways so that a walk around the garden offers the thrill of new delights around every corner.


Tall panicles of Euphorbia wulfenii contrast with the terracotta tints of emerging canna 'Tropicana' and a haze of red alstroemerias in the background. Photo - Robin Powell


A tick of approval

As we take the tour Ruth talks of her plans, her dreams and her disasters, generously sharing everything she has learned in several decades of intense garden-making. Her opinions are as forthright as those insistent single pink poppies. So what does she like? Here’s a brief list of favourites:

1. “Lilac as a linking colour. It goes with everything, so I use it everywhere.” We admire it in clematis, columbine, iris and the lovely nodding bells of campanula.

2. “Golden and variegated foliage.” This is a new appreciation. Initially Ruth admits she found variegated plants a bit too garish, but in the right – shady - place she has come to love the way they seem to sprinkle light through the greenery.

A harmony of alstroemeria flowers, ferny yellow foliage and variegated ornamental grass. Photo - Robin Powell 

3. “Daylilies that hold their heads well above the foliage so they can easily be admired.”

4. “Madly striped Delbard roses.” The Delbards are a famous family of French rose breeders who stunned the garden world in the early 1990s when they released a collection of roses that were striped, slashed and stroked with colour. Called The Painters series, each rose is named for the Impressionist artist its colouration and ‘brushwork’ best represents.


It's the mix of order and chaos that makes this exuberant spring wildflower garden so successful. Photo - Robin Powell


And the regrets

Ruth is just as generous in sharing what went wrong, as she is in describing how things have worked. Some advice learned the hard way:

1. “Don’t plant climbing roses on a wooden trellis.” Ruth designed a lovely long wooden trellis, painted in a dark charcoal verging on black, and planted it up with two white climbing roses – ‘Iceberg’ and ‘Lamarque’. It achieved exactly the look Ruth was after. Her error was in neglecting to consider the practicalities. The wood can’t be painted without removing the roses from the trellis, which is a horrible job.

2. Ruth adores David Austin roses and she planted them in her picking garden to provide bunches of fragrant, dense flowers for the house. They grow beautifully in South Australia’s dry air so Ruth was disappointed to discover that they are so heavily full of petals they droop when picked instead of standing tall. So the picking garden is gorgeous, but unpicked.

3. Claret ash, she says, is too thirsty for this dry garden and given her time over she would have given up that glorious colour for something with less greedy water requirements.

4. Then there is quartet of conifers that she has tried, for the last two decades, to make fit the image in her mind. Finally admitting failure, they are now for the chop while she tries to work out which plant will give her the wobbly-jelly look she wants in the space.


The burgundy flower spike of Melianthus major echoes the blue spires of echium. Photo - Robin Powell


Painting with flowers

Ruth’s passionate picture-making is what makes a visit to Al-Ru so enjoyable. Everywhere you look there are charming combinations, designed in colour and texture. Alstromerias and iris perfectly accent the tint of a rose, a fuchsia echoes the pink of centranthus rubra, which Ruth lets self seed through the garden. These harmonious links are no accident. Ruth matches flowers and foliage by snapping off a piece and wandering the garden holding it against other plants to see where it fits best. This approach means that the garden is in a state of continual change and improvement.


Ruth's wild meadow garden is framed by the iron lacework of twin antique arbours. Photo - Robin Powell


Her big new project is a lake garden. She has broadened and deepened the dam and planted trees along its far edge, which in autumn will reflect their fire colours into the water. She has placed a bench at the opposite end and she says she plans to sit here and dream up beautiful new pictures. The only part of that sentence that stretches belief is the idea of this dynamo sitting down for any length of time!


Come with us: We’ll revisit Ruth’s garden this spring on our Great Southern Rail adventure, which takes in beautiful gardens in South Australia and Victoria, via relaxing train journeys on the iconic Indian Pacific and Overland trains. For more go to or call Royce or Ros on 1300 233 200

The nodding bells of campanula are scattered through the garden. Photo - Robin Powell

Text: Robin Powell

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Author: Robin Powell