In the garden with Ben and Ros Walcott
Ros and Ben Walcott's garden is a showcase of almost 1000 native plant species in Canberra’s Red Hill.
Its owners, Ben and Ros Walcott are passionate plants people with a keen eye for design.
Seat and casuarina
A garden that is an empty slate is both exciting and scary. What’s the big idea? For Ros and Ben Walcott inspiration came from different directions. While living in the US, they’d noticed that gardens in dry states like New Mexico and Arizona were shifting their aesthetic from the lawned and flowered English model to something more indigenous and suited to the conditions. The Walcotts had also developed a strong interest in wildlife, and especially birds. Further guiding the big idea was the existence on their newly purchased property in Canberra’s historic Red Hill of two majestic gums that predated European settlement in Australia. The overriding idea called to them as loudly as the sulphur-crested cockatoos feasting in the gums – it had to be a native garden.
And so the Walcotts, who are not people to do things by halves, have created a magnificent and massive two-acre garden planted with more than 4000 plants from close to 1000 species. The block slopes gently up from the road, with the house and its surrounding terraces at the top. Gravel paths wind through the garden, over the creek and around the ponds, shaded now by almost mature trees, though the garden was only planted in 2003. There are always plants in flower to admire, and to bring the birds, but equally appealing are the textures and forms of the many different plants: the graceful sweep of a casaurina, the boldness of Wollemi pine, the softness of acacia cognate or the silver felty mounds of saltbush grown as a low hedge. The Walcotts aren’t fundamentalists: there are foreigners represented here too, notably the waterlilies in the pond, cypress echoing the neighbourhood’s historical plantings, and a grove of pistachio shading the northern side of the house. While this is a grand experiment in how various Australian plants manage in a garden setting, it is foremost a truly beautiful garden. Here they tell us about it in winter.
We’re loving banksias in pots
We’re loving banksias in pots
Ros loves banksias, and there are some 40 species planted in the garden. Another 17 are grown in containers, typically the stunners from Western Australia, of which this is one. It’s Banksia menziesii and its flowers turn a fabulous strawberry-wine colour in winter. Ros reckons more gardeners should expand the range of natives they grow by trying them in pots. As well as her much-loved banksias, she also grows qualup bells, Pimelea physodes, epacris, and pretty pink-flowered Hibiscus geranioides in pots on the terraces around the house. Two majestic potted Wollemi pines stand sentinel either side of the front steps. The potted natives are grown in a mix of sand and potting mix and are fertilised, along with the rest of the garden, in autumn and in spring, when 40kg of low-phosphorous, slow-release fertiliser is spread sparingly over the whole garden.
We’re filling bare spots
We’re filling bare spots
Winter is shifting season and the Walcotts make time to move plants that are not performing well. Ben reckons the dogma that natives can’t be moved needs to be overturned, though he does admit he wouldn’t attempt to move a plant that was over half a metre tall. Unmoveable underperformers are replaced. But with what? The Walcotts have exhausted the catalogues of local nurseries and mail order specialists. Friends pick up interesting thing wherever they see them – “I recently had two eremophilas from a petrol station in Dubbo!” says Ros – and some friends have collecting licenses and bring them seeds. They are members of the Australian Plants Society, (Ben is President of the over-arching society, treasurer of the local Canberra group and Leader of the Garden Design Study Group, while Ros edits the Garden Design Study Group’s newsletter). The twice-yearly plants sales held by the Society are a good place to hunt, as long as the alarm is set. ”We sell about 8000 plants and they are just about all gone by 10 in the morning!”
We’re taking notes
We're taking notes
“This must be the most documented garden on the planet,” says Ros, a former geology librarian. Every week she does a check of what’s in flower and adds it to her notes on plants growing in the garden. She quotes the old Chinese proverb – ‘the best fertiliser a plant can have is the footsteps of the gardener’ and follows it faithfully. The exercise is not just scientific data collection, but also a beautiful start to the day as the scents and sounds of early morning in the garden are given full attention. Plant breeder Angus Stewart is also taking advantage of the Walcott’s assiduous record- keeping, and has some of his new ‘Landscape’ kangaroo paws being trialled for frost and winter hardiness in the Walcott’s garden. So far the records show them performing brilliantly.
It’s time to
Fix the watering system
Ben and Ros refer to this as the irritation system. The drip and micro-jet irrigation, which is connected to the pond system and which also uses mains water, seems to demand constant attention.
Top dress the lawn
There’s not much lawn in this garden, but the dogs have a fenced-off space to play, and in winter it needs rejuvenating.
Callistemon salignus forms a hedge along the front of the property and is trimmed every winter, not to make it a formal green wall, but to keep it dense. Ben says that callistemons are one of the natives that will take a really hard prune, so that if yours has become straggly it can be taken right back to the ground and will regenerate.
Replenish the mulch
The coarse forest mulch the Walcotts use in most of the garden has greatly improved the structure of the clay soil. Where they want to encourage plants to self-seed they use a coarse pebble instead.
We’re watching the birds
pond with ducks
The opportunity to attract birds was one of the reasons for creating a native garden and it’s paid off. Down near the front fence two male bower birds court a clutch of females with their scattered collections of bright blue bits. Honeyeaters are drawn to the nectar-rich flowers, little wrens and finches come for the insects, and the ponds bring water birds. The pond system captures rainwater, mixes it with bore water, and circulates it through a series of pools, waterfalls, creeks and reed beds that keep the water clean. Ducks live in the top pond, nesting in the centre of the bridge to keep safe from foxes. Little pied cormorants and kookaburras come to fish from the roof of the pergola and one year an impressively tall Great Egret took to fishing off the bridge.
Come with us
We’ll be dropping in to the Walcotts garden as part of our NSW Spring Festivals tour September 21 – October 2. Join Libby Cameron on a tour of spring highlights around the state. For more details go to www.rosstours.com or 1300 233 200
6 great plants for winter
Grevillea ‘Lady O’
Breeder Peter Oehlenshaw named this one after his mother, and what a tribute – it flowers all year, with spidery red blooms over a medium-sized spreading shrub.
Grevillea Lady O. Photo - Angus Stewart
Scaevola ‘Mauve Clusters’
Scaevola is not a long-lived groundcover, but it self-seeds in the Walcott’s garden, popping up with generous mauve- purple fan-shaped flowers. Try it in sun or light shade.
Scaevola 'Mauve clusters'
Westringia ‘Deep purple’
With dark purple flowers and green foliage this is perfect as a loose low hedge in full sun or part shade and well- drained soil or as a stand-alone low shrub.
Westringia deep purple. Photo - Angus Stewart
Eremophila ‘Fairy floss’
One of many eremophilas in the Walcott’s garden, this one flowers from late autumn into summer. Handles drought, frost and winds, but needs well-drained soil.
Eremophila fairy floss
The common name is a clue to the vibrancy of Templetonia retusa which flowers in winter and attracts honey-eating birds. It likes well-drained soil in sun or semi-shade.
Templetonia retusa. Photo - www.pinkbayblog.blogspot.com.au
Ros grows Qualup bell, Pimelea physodes, in a pot so that she can admire the winter flowers up close. Grafted specimens are best able to handle east coast humidity.