“Each garden has its own surprise.”

Season after season, wonderful surprises pop up in the garden as if by magic. These unexpected elements create new landscapes that are delightful reminders of what gardening is actually about. Mirabel Osler calls it the ‘alchemy of the garden.’ A pleasing effect from a myriad of plants creates something more than individual details.

An unexpected grouping

“So what are we appreciating in a garden? The details or the effect? It’s the alchemy of gardens again — it’s woe to anyone who wants something else in life.”

Mirabel Osler 1989

Gardens are often painstakingly designed for maximum effect, but the happy accidents and the randomness of some plants create (at times) fascinating landscapes. The surprises just happen and are, at times, far more remarkable than the carefully designed elements of well-thought-out colour matching, heights and underplantings or companion plants. So, rather than always focusing on what we put in the garden, we should focus on how these plants interact, creating enchanting spaces.

Mirabel Osler, who adored the tousled abundance in gardens, advises us to learn the nature of the plants we are growing and then decide where to place them, bearing in mind how plants will interact with one another in the landscape. And to consider the people who use or work in the garden and their relationship with plants and the overall garden. This interaction between us and the landscape and between all the plantings becomes the alchemy of the garden.

The alchemy of the garden sounds like a mystic elixir that will produce the perfect garden. But like those that practised ancient alchemy who failed to turn metals into gold, all gardeners know degrees of failure and have learnt that there is no magic potion to growing a perfect garden. The key is to observe, test, experiment and enjoy the mistakes or errors because sometimes these happy accidents make gardens sing in ways unthought of by capable and careful gardeners.

As the season unfolds, the main surprise in the garden highlights one of two scenarios; either I have developed memory loss or eye problems. All I can say is one day, I wasn’t seeing it, and the next day, it was there as if grown overnight. Last year in the same position as a giant purple salvia (which I relocated as it was engulfing so many plants), is now a substantial rose bush covered in rich orange, yellow and pink roses. I always knew there were roses under the Purple Majesty Salvia, but not one so well-established and prominent. I removed the enormous salvia plant to another spot in Autumn. I thought underneath the salvia was a Princess Charlene de Monaco rose but sitting in front, this brilliant specimen appeared to come from nowhere.

Rosa Dame Elisabeth Murdoch is my guess, but once you lose the label ( or forget), it is hard to tell a rose from websites or books because the climate and soil conditions in individual gardens can change the colours significantly. I look at the shape of the bloom, the style and depth of colour in the leaves, the nature of growth and, of course, the colours in the rose flower.

Making a garden is somehow like conducting a symphony-different plants come forward at different times and you need to think very carefully about their placement in relation to each other.

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch

In my defence, I did know I had one of the Dame Elisabeth Murdoch roses but assumed it had died during the drought in 2018. Once the area was uncovered, and after the extra wet season, it has flourished and suddenly become a metre tall and spectacular. It sits in the corner next to Poet’s Wife, Floriana and Ice Princess roses with Princess Charlene de Monaco, Madame Anisette, and Sally Holmes that provide a brilliant light background to the rich colours- orange, pink, gold and crimson.

Ice Princess

Rosa Dame Elisabeth is a Hybrid Tea bred by Kordes and sons in Germany in 1998. This year it is one of the highlights of the corner garden, with yellow and pink blooms that brighten to red-orange as it ages. The foliage is gorgeous being, shiny and dark green. Dame Elisabeth Murdoch was a highly inspirational person who loved her garden and roses at Cruden Farm Victoria. She a much loved and respected public figure for her philanthropic and charitable works and was also one of Australia’s very early members of the Heritage Rose Society.

Love Affair roses with trailing petunias from last year,

The most serious gardening I do would seem very strange to an onlooker, for it involves hours of walking round in circles, apparently doing nothing.

Helen Dillon

Spirit of Peace Rose

The other aspect I have learnt in my short time as a gardener is the importance of time. It takes time for all these processes and patience to wait for observations, understand the nature of your unique plants and garden, develop the soil, and experiment with plant positions and microclimates. Roses, in particular, although the breeders ensure the bare root roses flower in the first season, it takes time for them to be well established and to fulfil the promise of their unique features. This is the first year the original roses planted five years ago have shown me their best attributes.

Fairytale Magic, unexpected delight

Title quote by Susan Allan Toth 

Content Di Baker 2022

Images Di Baker November 2022

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