River Gardens Axedale - The Gardens Story
When we first looked at buying the property it didn’t have a name. It didn’t have thousands of artichoke thistles. It didn’t have much Patterson’s Curse. It did have grass a metre or more high, and it did have millions of rocks which were of course hidden in the long grass. The property was neglected. It hadn’t had stock on it for years. There were no buildings or fences on the property but that is what we liked. It was a blank canvas for us to work with.
Because of our particular plans, buying the property was contingent upon approval by council for us to subdivide the land. This resulted in us having to deal with council and objections from neighbours. Yes, believe it or not, two neighbours did object to us wanting to build a farm stay business on the land. Having messed with our lives and wasted our time, both objecting neighbours have since moved away. Not as a result of anything we have done, I might add. All of this took well over a year to sort out. A year in which we didn’t own the property, so we couldn’t do anything with it.
Unfortunately, in the time it took to get everything approved through council, the artichoke thistles and Patterson’s Curse took over the property. Acres of it needed to be dealt with – most of it in inaccessible rocky areas of the property. It needed to be dealt with on foot. Eradicating weeds was our first job. We brought in more than 300 lambs on agistment so that they could clear the long grass. After several months we finally got to see what we had to work with. It wasn’t pretty. Unpalatable weeds by the acre. Rock almost everywhere else.
Rock Rock Everywhere
Whilst we worked on weed removal, the building envelope for the house was cleared. By the time the building envelope was carved out of the side of the hill, we had much more rock than we knew what to do with. “Sell it” people said. “People will pay a fortune for massive big feature rocks for their gardens.” Yeah, right! If you can find someone in our area who does want a feature rock, they unfortunately don’t want to pay much for it. Competition is fierce in the landscaping industry. People expect their feature rocks delivered, so that means a loader and a truck is needed. It all got too hard. Selling rocks was not part of our big plans for the place.
Several piles of rocks now adorn our paddocks. They are playgrounds for our goats. If someone wants to buy them we are open to offers.
Time to Plant the Garden
In spite of all the rocks we carted up to the paddocks, we still have more than ample around the house. Many are level with the ground so the building envelope looks flat. However, in many places it is almost impossible to dig a hole for a plant. Unfortunately, you can’t grow plants on rocks. Moss does grow on rocks though, and we have no shortage of moss. It comes to life after a rain and looks splendid.
So, the battle to plant a garden begins. I don’t want to frighten you, but I do need to paint a picture so that you have an idea of the challenges we faced.
We have heaps of rock to contend with. Between the rocks we have heavy black clay soil. This clay dries out in the summer and cracks up to 40 millimetres wide to a depth of 400 millimetres. As the soil cracks and opens, it tears the roots of plants apart. This causes a sudden plant death. On the surface everything looks fine. The damage however is all happening below ground. Plants that do survive the cracking soil then have to survive the onslaught from rabbits, hare, kangaroos and cockatoos. All of which enjoy chewing plants down the ground. It’s sad how sun and frost both burn. We have baking sun in summer and up to minus 5 degree frosts in winter, both burn off most plants they touch.
With all of the above in mind, it was only natural that we call our property River Gardens.
Instead of simply planting this and that wherever we could dig a hole, we decided to set the gardens out in areas. We have a lavender garden, citrus garden, bearded iris garden and so forth.
We started developing the gardens in November, 2014. Following is the sequence in which they were established.
There are two main terraces. The soil is shocking and there is a lot of rock. Being on a slope doesn’t help with water retention.
We really didn’t have much choice other than to mainly plant out the terraces with hardy natives. Natives were not our preferred option. Sometimes you just have to work with nature and not against it. We have sneaked a few non-natives into the terraces where we can.
Fish Pond Garden
At a rocky corner where the driveway sweeps into the building envelope, we dug a fish pond. The pond is a metre deep at its deepest point. It is approximately five metres long by two metres wide. A waterfall of a metre or more in height has been set up with large rocks at one end.
The pond contains water lilies and water weed along with fish.
Behind the waterfall rocks we planted two bougainvillea. Either rabbits or hare chewed them down to the ground in the first week. We waited until the weather cooled to replant them, and the first frost promptly burnt them to death.
Other plants around the pond include canna lilies, geraniums, pigface and various ground covers. To date, the rabbits, hare and kangaroos have left these new plants alone.
The teardrop is a big island in our entrance drive. It makes driving in and out much easier. The teardrop is also where our septic treatment plant pumps out treated water. We planted over 440 natives on the teardrop. They are struggling to gain a foothold because the rabbits keep nipping the tops out of them. Fortunately, at the time of writing this article, it appears calicivirus has killed the rabbits off. Just wait a moment while I try to squeeze out a tear for them – nope, that didn’t work. Sorry but I don’t seem to have a tear in me for the rabbits. With a little luck the surviving plants may now start to grow before the rabbits breed up again.
The Trellis Garden
At the end of the teardrop in the drive we built a wire trellis to support several passionfruit and a green and purple table grape. The soil is shocking and full of rock and black clay. All went well until a minus four frost took out the passionfruit. Until that time, they were growing nicely. We are not sure if we will replant them. We also had passionfruit planted either side of our entrance gate and the same frost killed them both.
The Vegetable Garden
Even before the house was completed we built our vegetable garden out of straw bales. Read our review of a straw bale garden. The soil we used wasn’t very loamy but we have worked on it and added compost. We also added cow manure from the property across the river. We have gathered several boat loads. We row over in our punt, gather up huge bags of dry cow manure, load up the punt, and row back.
The vegetable garden sits on the north side of a storage container that we use as our shed. The storage container is positioned to protect the back of the house from cold south winds. It also protects the vegetable garden.
A hedge of rosemary has been planted between the drive and the vegetable garden in an effort to obscure the vegetable garden from the rest of the back yard.
The Rose Garden
The rose garden takes pride of place in what will be a lawn area in front of the house. Jennifer and I are both in our mid 50’s. Everything we are planting, with the exception of the rose garden, is planted specifically to be low maintenance as we get older.
The house was built with two bed and breakfast areas, one of which Jennifer’s mother lives in permanently. The rose garden is Jennifer’s mother’s domain. It is something she really wanted so we broke our own rules about the gardens being low maintenance, and put in a rose garden. It shouldn’t take much to maintain it.
The rose garden has around thirty roses planted. We have planted Peace, Mr Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth, Pope John Paul and Double Delight to name a few.
The Horseshoe Garden
Outside the bed and breakfast is a small area for lawn. We edged the lawn area with a garden in the shape of a horseshoe. The garden separates the lawn from the drive.
The horseshoe garden is planted out with grevillea. The south side grevilleas will grow to two metres whilst the north-east side will grow to only one metre. Once the grevilleas grow they will turn the lawn area into a nice private court yard and BBQ area for guests.
The Bulb Garden
Just like the large teardrop in the drive at the front of the house, we have a small teardrop at the rear. We plonked a couple of feature mossy rocks on the teardrop. We planted over 400 bulbs, three flowering pears and two old roses that Jennifer’s mother has carted around for years, but doesn’t know the names of. Bulbs include daffodils, hyacinth, grape hyacinth, ranunculi, tulips, anemones, ixia, Dutch iris and more.
The Bearded Iris Garden
At the front of the house, but well away from it is a huge red gum. This spectacular gum is a real feature. We actually positioned the house to have the tree as a feature framed in our large kitchen window. The red gum sits in a depression in the ground. The depression has been planted out with over forty different varieties of bearded iris. The depression should protect them from wind and make the garden somewhat of a surprise to stumble upon.
The Citrus Garden
Our small citrus garden sits the other side of the road from the bulb garden. There’s a Washington navel orange planted along with a lemonade tree and tangelo.
Behind the storage container we have planted six lemon trees. What we don’t use ourselves may be sold at farmers markets. Lemons are good value plants, fruiting most of the year and the fruit keeps for ages. We will probably plant more citrus in our orchard.
The Lavender Garden
Adjacent to the vegetable garden is the lavender garden. The lavender garden is planted mainly on solid rock so we brought in a load of soil and made a small hill feature of the garden. In addition to several varieties of lavender, which have all been direct planted as 115 cuttings, two crab apple trees have been planted on the hill.
The lavender will attract bees which will be excellent for the vegetable garden. Lavender trimmings may also be dried for potpourri.
The Island in the Donut Dam
On a rise behind the house and 400 metres to the south is the donut dam. It was supposed to be named Lillie Lagoon but Fred our neighbour, christened it the Donut Dam, and the name has stuck.
The island has a large dead and dangerous tree on it. Periodically large branches drop from the tree. The tree however is a wonderful habitat tree for birds with heaps of hollows in it. Around the dead tree we have planted flowering gums, melaleucas and a date palm we were given as a gift.
The orchard is positioned at the entrance to the house yard and is a work in progress. Fruit trees are so damned expensive – especially if you are looking to plant thirty or more.
Our first trees planted were two loquats. One either side of the drive. The kangaroos ate them. We replaced them with three black mulberry trees. We then planted two new loquat trees in the gardens near the house and so far they are surviving.
Spring and Autumn Forest
Behind and above the fish pond in an area of rock that slopes and is so rough and uneven that it is just waiting to break an ankle or hip. It is like the Bermuda Triangle. Things go in there never to be seen again. Are you listening to what I am saying? A delivery guy backed his semi-trailer in there to turn around three weeks ago and we haven’t seen him or his semi-trailer since. Get the picture? So, what do you think someone suggested to do with that area? “That’s a good place for your orchard” they said. What do you say to someone like that? They couldn’t see that you couldn’t stand a ladder on the ground to pick fruit. They couldn’t see that you would risk a broken leg every time you wanted to pick an apple. They knew we were having guests stay at the property but were happy to have our guests wander into the land of no return to pick some fruit? I’m really not sure what our insurance company would make of that.
Anyway, what could we do with this useless piece of ground? We could plant it out to be admired from a distance. We could plant it with trees that needed no attention. Trees that would blossom in spring and put on a colourful autumn display. So that is what we did. We planted forty different trees. We also included a few evergreen trees just to provide winter life to the area.
The Stock Plant Garden
As the name suggests, we have planted a garden with plants to use as stock for replacing plants in our own gardens. We will be able to take cuttings from these plants whenever we like. The stock plant garden is positioned behind the vegetable garden and alongside the back road down to the river. We have planted plants that are easy to grow from cuttings.