For years I have imagined myself gardening out my old age in Tasmania. The vision has been one of green fields, a mild climate, gentle rain and a soil so fertile that a magnolia will grow 20ft high in only five years. Why struggle on in the Cotswolds where camellias refuse to grow, roses are mostly wretched and even the hardiest eucalyptus has just been flattened in the late wintry spell? My Tasmanian old-age idyll has mentally included tall Hoherias planted in my nineties. My low timber bungalow would be surrounded by so many types of mimosa that their corpses in England would soon be forgotten. I might even welcome a few koala bears.
“You have got the wrong country,” Mark Fountain, director of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens in Hobart advised me, when I went out on the reconnaissance from which I have just returned. It is not just that Tasmanian koala bears are in short supply. All around us the green grassland had been browned in a prolonged summer (January) drought. Tasmanian gardening is not a pushover. Nor is it a fast track to maturity in only five years. It is something altogether else. It is fascinatingly diverse and just the place to visit when Europe starts to be miserable in November. Its gardeners’ problems are ours, but they have such a resilience and optimism about their work. The island has had forest fires but none of the excellent gardens which I visited has been damaged in any way.
Hobart’s Botanical Gardens are free to visitors, the practice I have found all over southeast Asia and Australia. It is reassuring to be greeted by the cosmos daisies that we grow in England, but how important is the “English style” in what Tasmanian gardeners do? “We are not still in the 1980s,” Fountain reminded me, “and the climate is increasingly against that sort of thing.” The Botanic Gardens may be Royal but they are not locked into herbaceous borders and the backwash of books on the English garden. The trees are often spectacular, including the best old cork oak I have ever seen. There is a good sense of cultivation in the garden, including raised beds for annuals and vegetables, resown yearly. On a torridly hot day I appreciated my time in the chilled house for the flora of outlying Macquarie Island. The gardens’ glasshouse shows the island’s spongy plants and green vegetables against a background noise of its pre-recorded penguins.
Each year 300,000 visitors go to the Botanical Gardens, the highest visitor-figure on the island, even though dogs are banned. There is no shortage of interest but has the English legacy left no more than the superb brick walls of the 1820s, all built by exported convict labour who made the bricks by hand? On Tasmanian radio, I tuned in to a gardening programme which cheered my heart. The king of Tasmanian garden-media is an Englishman, Peter Cundall, once from Manchester. Now aged 86, he is still giving out sound advice on growing courgettes at an age when the Pope has packed up. Could I combine my geriatric gardening with a primetime Tasmanian broadcast in exile?
I would have to widen my knowledge. The contrary movement of the moment is to plant only native Australian and Tasmanian plants. Fifteen minutes from Hobart, I looked down the steep hillside of two gardeners’ personal Eden and struggled to name more than a tenth of what I saw. Its doyen, Bill Chestnut, taught industrial engineering in Sydney and married his penfriend of 10 years’ standing, Margaret, from a one-room tenement in Scotland’s Glasgow. She emigrated to a sunnier future and, as a history teacher and psychologist, shared her husband’s practical realism. Together they opted to make a 10-hectare garden, planted with nearly 8,500 varieties of Australian native trees and shrubs. Inverawe Native Gardens are now a magnet for visitors and students. They also bring my Tasmanian dream back to earth. Water is scarce and nothing exotic grows easily. It is a garden best appreciated by looking upwards into its subtle canopy at all times of year. Would it at least keep me fit in old age? “No,” Bill corrected me, “I keep myself fit for the garden.”
Would it, then, be press-ups before picking my bush-berries and hunting for seeds on a bunya-bunya, a tree from southern Queensland? Native planting makes fascinating sense but I would rather not spend my flower-loving years only in its company. Up near Burnie in the island’s northwest I saw yet another alternative, the Emu Valley Rhododendron Garden. In October and November it now rivals the big rhododendron collections of the world. It is a great valley and hillside planted over the past 40 years with the world’s rhododendrons in a geographical sequence. The last survivor of its three pioneers, Graham Simpson, gave me the best sort of shrubbery tour round the floral map, the sort which is conducted in a motorised golf-cart. So much for native flora as the only option. The Emu Valley is an amazing tribute to its founders’ vision and the dedication of its volunteers. It is not all an uphill struggle. If possums eat your rhododendrons, unlike squirrels they will die.
In a favoured valley I could have a sweep of azaleas but I would need a Tasmanian’s positive practicality. For the moment I would be happy to visit each November and give my trail of good gardening a new dimension. Some 50 garden visits are offered by Blooming Tasmania whose chair, Jennie Chapman, explained to me that the organisation can advise keen gardeners on where best else to go. There are spectacular alpines on show in Kaysdale’s mountain garden, fine shrubs and trees round master-and-convict manors and plenty of forested hillsides despite the localised fires. The soil is often good, the climate is better in winter but I am not giving up on the English style and the 1980s. I will return to it and the visit of a lifetime in the next fortnight.
Robin Lane Fox travelled as the guest of Tourism Tasmania, www.discovertasmania.com