May 19, 2024

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After the fall: what a garden might look like at the end of the world | Gardens

Abandoned by humans, no longer inhabitable, a typical suburban Melbourne home sinks into a marshland – perhaps it was caused by flooding, or rising sea levels. A wild entanglement of vegetation creeps around and over the built structures, a forest of self-seeded garden escapers.

Or that’s the plan, anyway. At this stage, the exhibit is not so much a garden as a construction site from a builder’s anxiety dream. On 31 March, it will be ready for the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show in Carlton Gardens. The installation, titled Coming Soon, is a showcase garden by Akas Landscape Architecture and Nrth Landscapes, exploring a possible future for Melbourne’s suburban yards.

The corner, and only the corner, of a weatherboard house is tilted jauntily over a pile of bluestone rubble – volcanic basalt, the characteristic bedrock of Melbourne’s lava plains in the west and north. Over the next week, hundreds of potted trees, shrubs, and grasses will be moved in, tucked under soil and mulch to suggest a garden abandoned for decades.

The garden designers Ryan Parker, Anthony Sharples and Alistair Kirkpatrick.
The garden designers Ryan Parker, Anthony Sharples and Alistair Kirkpatrick. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

The exhibit was planned for the 2020 show, and then delayed twice due to Covid-19. Yet it looks eerily like images from the devastating recent floods in Queensland – close enough that another exhibitor called it “a little bit in bad taste, considering what’s going on”.

“Well, I think it’s in very bad taste for the government not to act on climate change,” says Akas co-director Alistair Kirkpatrick, with a touch of acerbity. He’s joined by other co-director, Anthony Sharples.

So which plants have they chosen as likely survivors of a climate catastrophe that forces humans to flee?

“A lot of the plants that we have in there are already really commonly used garden plants, which was intentional,” says Sharples. “Native, indigenous [native to the Melbourne region] and exotic plants – we wanted to use all three. If the landscape is left to its own devices, plants are going to form a new ecology. We’re going to have so many houseplant escapees, and so many different types of plants meshing together. All the plants that we’ve chosen, we’ve seen actually growing in abandoned gardens in Melbourne.”

Australian native violets that are planted in the garden
Australian native violets that are planted in the garden. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Trees like silver dollar gum (Eucalyptus cinerea), gingko (Ginkgo biloba) and coastal tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) will be packed thickly over typical council-approved shrubs and grasses like lomandra (Lomandra longifolia) and miscanthus (Miscanthus oligostachyus). The heaviest shade will provide shelter for tender carpet bugle (Ajuga reptans) and native Australian violets (Viola hederacea). And there’s a smattering of old-fashioned favourites like ginger lily (Hedychium gardnerianum) and lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina).

Kirkpatrick suggests that the distinction between “native” and “introduced” plants might not always hold up to close scientific scrutiny.

“Dr Angela Moles did this incredible study on Arctotheca calendula [cape dandelion], a South African weed. She’s found that it was so genetically divergent from its South African counterpart, that from a scientific perspective, it actually was an Australian native species. So I think we need to move beyond that binary.”

Meanwhile, Nrth Landscaping are finishing up the new-old house, a process that’s required some creative problem-solving.

To create the effect of peeling paint, landscaper Ryan Parker coated brand new boards with slippery lanolin, then painted without waiting for them to dry between coats – everything you’re not supposed to do. On the roof, carpenter Danny hammers rusty roofing nails at deliberately odd angles.

The result is uncannily decrepit.

Detail of the rusted roof
The house’s corrugated iron roofing and sash window were found in salvage. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

“We just bought all these materials in the name of sustainability, so we’re kind of contradicting ourselves, but as long as they can be hacked out and [we can] do it again in a way that can be unveiled and unpacked and taken to somewhere …” Parker shrugs.

In fact, the weatherboard is one of few things bought new for the project, with the house’s corrugated iron roofing and sash window found in salvage.

As sustainable gardens grow more popular, clients are more open to recycled materials, and prefer a less rigidly controlled aesthetic.

“A lot of people will say that they want to go out into their garden, they want it to feel like their own little oasis, and they want it to feel overgrown,” says Sharples.

But it’s a difficult balancing act: when sustainability is in fashion, it runs the risk of being reduced to an aesthetic. What can gardeners do to make sure sustainability is more than a vibe?

Sharples’s answer is immediate: build a pond.

“Water is the heart of the garden. It keeps the space cool. It brings animals and biodiversity into the garden. And it’s so relaxing to sit next to a pond.”

Volcanic basalt boulders around the pond
Volcanic basalt boulders around the pond; Anthony Sharples encourages gardeners to build ponds to attract animals and biodiversity. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

What about renters, and people in small spaces? Is it possible for me to have a water feature on my tiny balcony, I ask?

“Yes, absolutely!” says Sharples. Any large, wide-mouthed vessel that holds water, he says, can be a pond, provided it’s big enough for fish (to keep down mosquito larvae), and aquatic plants (to keep the fish happy). But even a simple bird bath can be a lifeline for birds and native bees on hot days.

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Also, he adds, don’t assume a native animal will always go for a native plant. Australian ecosystems have changed rapidly; an introduced plant might now provide a critical resource for native animals, especially if native food sources or nesting sites have decreased. Dense shrubbery is especially important for small native birds.

Ultimately, the team hope the exhibit inspires people to build not just fish ponds, but political momentum.

“If we don’t have radical action on climate change immediately,” says Kirkpatrick, “this is what’s coming soon.”

“And the world will be fine. But we won’t.”