-----In 2004 we bought a falling-down house and 30 acres. This blog documents our progress-----

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

email minutiae: initial discussions with Prue

I made contact with Prue via the contact form on her website, then we had a series of email and phone conversations as per extracts below.

Prue's reply to my initial contact - 9th March 2004

Thank you for your enquiry regarding garden design for you Amherst property. I have had a look at your photos and the property looks blissful, a world away from life in London. It certainly has potential for creating a beautiful garden.

Some ideas to begin with would be the need for water by way of a large dam to support the needs of the house and garden. It will also have significant ornamental value. The establishment of larger trees to create structure, height and shade is important, while being mindful of retaining views across the paddocks and to the state forest. From here finer details of 'garden rooms' and levels can be created and installed. A long term project, but all good gardens take time to create.

My suggestion would be to talk with you in order to get a feel for your desires for your Amherst property and also for you and I to see if our ideas and personalities are aligned. We can also discuss the approach to the design and the fee structure. I look forward to hearing back from you to organise a time to talk.

My reply - 9th March 2004

Thanks very much for the initial ideas, they make total sense... and don't worry, I'm under no delusions about this being a long-term project! I should also say upfront, I don't know how normal this is for your clients, but I'm keen to be very involved and hands-on. For me the opportunity to create a garden is the biggest reason for buying the property in the first place and so I want to feel like I have a big hand in that creation because otherwise it would be giving up on part of the experience. But, I think it's foolish to attempt to do something on such a grand scale without guidance, even if it is just someone who I can consult to stop me making silly mistakes. I'm by no means an expert gardener and I have no clue about gardening in Australian conditions. When we lived in Australia I didn't pay any attention to gardening...it was only here, around 5 years ago when we bought our London flat, that I started and was almost instantly hooked. Now I would say that gardening is a passion that I can't imagine being without.

At one point I was considering taking a course in garden design - e.g., the English Gardening School in Chelsea offers correspondance courses. But I gave up on that since I didn't want to turn gardening into "work" because I didn't want to risk it stopping being fun. However, I bought the textbook and have read 2/3rds of it so far...so I have some idea of how to start, but a theoretical understanding from reading is very different to that borne of practical experience! I had been just going to start off on my own and see how far I got, but then I came across your website while looking for info about dry gardening in Australia, and thought I'd get in touch.

Following this we had a long telephone discussion and I also sent Prue links to some photos of gardens we'd visited over here...

Prue's reply - 16th March 2004

Thank you for all the photos. It has made me want to visit England again in a hurry to see all the beautiful gardens. Thanks also for the photos of your garden. You have definitely fitted a lot into a small space. I have sent you through some photos of my garden, the first few are 'under construction'. It is looking much more lush now. I'll send you through some updated ones soon.

I have looked through all the information you have sent regarding Amherst and will print off copies of some of the site maps in order to start the design process.

Some plant and nursrey sites to look at are www.flemings.com.au, www.dandenongs-online.com.au, the Yamina Rare plants site, www.rankins.com.au for roses, www.pga.com.au for perennials, www.dinsan.com.au for general plant lines, www.larkmannurseries.com.au for perennials.

Hope that keeps you entertained for a while. I look forward to receiving further info from you regarding your likes & dislikes in plants/gardens etc, and any other info you come up with.

My long reply... so excited to be starting! 16th March 2004

Thanks very much for your proposal. The only thing I would say is do you have any idea how long something like this might take, just so I get a rough idea of how many hours might be involved (and hence total cost)? I think I'd like to go ahead but am worried about embarking on something totally open-ended for which I have no idea what the end cost will be. Even just a ballpark estimate would help. Also, in terms of the research... if you are thinking of visiting Bendigo, Castlemaine, etc... you are very welcome to visit our property too. It's not far from Maryborough, apparently that has a botanical garden and is a really nice little town. Also, if you want to combine it into a nice day out, I just found there's a farmers market in Talbot (5 mins from our place) between 10am-2pm on the 3rd Sunday of each month, starting March 2004 (ie: it's just started). tel: 03 5463 2008 if you're interested in finding out more.

In terms of the research, I will definitely help as much as possible, I'm pretty good usually at tracking things down online. I've been combing through my gardening books here and picking out pictures showing the kinds of things I like. Dave, my husband, is helping me scan them in. Once they're scanned I'll load them up onto the ofoto site so you can see them. It may take us a week or two though to get through them all as there are quite a few, so if you can wait till I send them to do anything more then it might save time in the long run. There is a wide range... I've only been through half the books so far and already have photos of pools, lakes, vegetable gardens as well as various garden borders, etc. I figure if I gather them all together you'll get a great picture of what I'm looking for, better than me explaining it just in words. My problem is that I know what I want in terms of the jigsaw pieces, I am just struggling to work out how to put the jigsaw together, which is what I'm hoping you can bring.

One of the books that has been brilliant, that I'll copy loads from for you, is "Natural Planting" by Penelope Hobhouse. I picked it up cheaply a few years back at a National Trust shop and it's full of loads of wonderful things. From reading that I learned about "new-style" borders, apparently a concept coming out of Germany / Holland. The idea being to naturalise perennials and grasses in plant communities so that they are self-sustaining and thus can be maintained with minimum labour. They have a wonderful wild look to them, so if I can get that with minimum labour then why not!! :-) They showed pictures of it from Westpark in Munich, is that where you worked? Apparently the guy who started this is called Richard Hansen at his Weihenstephan garden (which I've never heard of but maybe will go visit at some point). He has a book called Perennials and their Garden Habitats which was published in English in 1993 that I'm going to try and get hold of. Also, I discovered "Prairie-style" gardening from the US, some architects called Ohme and Sweden? (or something like that anyway).

Once I've done the pictures, I'll then turn to getting hold of a list of plants. At this stage, I'm thinking I will split them between those that will grow OK in the local temperature conditions (split into subsections depending on soil/water requirements), and those that won't necessarily but that I absolutely adore so that maybe we can explore a way of creating a microclimate that suits them, even if I have to cover a section of the garden with shadecloth in the summer to stop plants getting scorched! Actually, I'm hoping there won't be many in this latter category, if any, but we'll see. I can check out from the nursery links you sent whether they're available or not in Australia. Hopefully there won't be too many that aren't.

A couple of final things I was researching yesterday, that I'll just throw out as ideas at this stage... we're right near a forest, and our property was I think one of the ones that got decimated in the 1985 bushfires that destroyed Amherst / Talbot / etc. Hence, I think it would be wise to factor into the landscaping ways to reduce bushfire risk. I've just ordered a book from CSIRO that was released a few months ago which is called "Landscape and Building Design for Bushfire Areas"; hopefully it will arrive in a week or two and then I will summarise the relevant bits for you. However, one of the things I've picked up though from just looking at the CFA website is that having a green lawn is actually an excellent firebreak! Which then got me to thinking... since there is no way I'll have enough water to have a real green lawn other than a small patch, I wondered about artificial grass.

Please don't cringe, that was my initial reaction too. On the one hand I hate the whole concept, the artificialness, but on the other, if it looks real, feels real, helps out from a bushfire perspective (not to mention being easy to maintain and helping to catch water) then maybe it is worth considering? From a little digging around I found it's something that has just started in the US in terms of targeting residential property owners, because they've had so many problems with water there recently too. There are a couple of companies that claim to be able to make grass that you can't tell, from touching it, whether it's real or not. (other than the fact that it looks too perfect). They are http://www.synlawn.com and http://www.astrolawn.com and http://www.sprinturf.com). Now none appear to have distributors in Australia yet, more's the pity, but a lot can change in 5-10 years. The only one I found in Australia is http://www.superlawn.com.au but I would guess they're still not as realistic looking as the latest from the US. Now, who knows what happens to this fake lawn in a bushfire... does it burn, if it does, what does it do?... there are loads of things that might make it totally unsuitable, even aside from the issue of aesthetics, but I thought I'd just throw it out there as an idea anyway.

Extracts from Prue's response - 17th March 2004

I was thinking about plants suitable for Amherst climate and thought I would type a list of plants categorised 'highly, moderately and suitable under good conditions' for you to then look in to.

I have been thinking about how to structure the design process so that it fits into a workable budget for you and I to work with.

Primary stage -designing the overall view and structure of the garden
Initial consultations/research and concept design, detailing open areas,rooms, garden styles, pathways, structures etc in the garden (8hrs)
Site visit (2hrs + travel)
Structuring water and irrigation for the house and garden (3hrs)
Research, selection and positioning of trees/ major plantings (2hrs)

Second stage -attention to detail of plants and features within the garden
Research, select and detail understorey plants suitable for certain styles (5hrs)
Listing and detailing perennials and smaller plants suitable (3hrs)
Details of features, focal points and structures (4hrs)

This is an estimate of the time needed to create the design. The primary stage will be what we concentrate on perhaps for the first six months or so. The second stage we could spend a little bit of time looking in to but not as important at this stage until perhaps you have been home, or planted and established trees, structure, shade etc. It may be handy to have lists of understorey plantings for certain areas of the garden as a part of the first stage.

I know a landscaper who has been installing artificial grass as lawns, but mainly for backyard putting greens for enthusiastic golfers. He may know of some products other than the really fake looking stuff. In a fire the fake stuff melts as it is synthetic. I think lawn would be better if we can store enough water to water it. My parents live in southern NSW where they have had drought for quuite a number of years. Their little bit of sanity, and safety, when all the paddocks were dust bowls was to have green lawns around the house. They however do have irrigation although during the past 1 1/2 years they have had no water allocated to them for irrigating and have ahd to pay huge prices to get the water to fill the house dams and tanks. I think you might be relieved and thankful to have green lawns around the house.

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