DESIGN NOTES

GarDENS

DESIGN NOTES

GarDENS

Doing Your Block
Being left with a barren patch of earth after the builders have gone is a fairly common occurrence. Here’s how to transform that moonscape into a beautiful green oasis.
Words Jane Canaway

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working with a challenging, steep block, garden designer Phillip Johnson used gravity to divert stormwater to the top pool, which then flows over the waterfall to a lower billabong. no mains water has been needed to keep the water feature running for the past five years. Photo by Patrick Redmond

Finally, the builders have left, the painting’s done and even the carpets and furniture are in. But as the sun rises on your first day in your new home, you see an increasingly worrisome blot on the landscape – a so-called “garden” full of nothing but clay and rocks. Many new home owners find they are not only starting with no plants – some have been left with no topsoil, either. “Most new developments have the topsoil scraped off before building starts,” explains Diana Cotter, who runs workshops for Sustainable Gardening Australia (SGA). “Most soils you buy now are scraped off a development somewhere then mixed with about 50 per cent sand and have mushroom compost added. There is no glue or substance to it; nothing to hold it together.” Ironically, the first thing a lot of new owners do is buy in topsoil, but while it may be easier to dig, few professional gardeners consider it better for plants. “One site I worked on was a sloping block so they’d imported some topsoil to try and even it out,” Cotter recalls. “On the top end – the natural clay – everything grew really well, but on the lower side, which was filled with topsoil, if you felt the soil, it just ran through your fingers and everything struggled.” Gardeners interested in growing native plants may find a scraped block is actually a bonus; dormant weed seed is removed, as is residual superphosphate, which favours weeds
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over wildflowers and is common on former farmland. University of Melbourne researcher Dr Paul Gibson-Roy has tried direct seeding native grassland species at a number of experimental plots across Victoria’s volcanic plains and achieved the best results on sites that had five to 15cm of topsoil removed first. But for anyone wanting to grow exotics, lawn or vegetables, a rich, friable soil is best. Cotter advises: “If you’re going to use topsoil then get one load first and mix it in, then a second load and mix it – otherwise you end up with layers that plants struggle with. It takes around 100 years to make an inch (2.5cm) of topsoil the natural way, and some of the soil mixes you buy are put together in one afternoon.” In their defence, suppliers say quality topsoil can improve clays and sandy soils by adding organic matter. A spokesperson from The Green Centre in Keilor Park, Victoria, said the company sells three qualities of topsoil: an economy version, comprising screened topsoil; a lawn mix with 25 per cent compost added; and a premium blend that contains compost and cow manure. But Sustainable Gardening Australia advocates against disturbing topsoil where possible, because it releases stored carbon back into the atmosphere, involves unnecessary transportation, can spread weeds, and disturbs the original composition of the soil.

Melbourne landscaper Phillip Johnson agrees: “You will never get better soil than what you get originally on your site.” Johnson likes to work with the builder to make sure any soil that needs to be dug out or scraped off to put in footings is saved for later use. “My goal is for nothing to leave the site,” he says. Discussing a project which he describes as “one of the most challenging sites for us,” Johnson essentially worked with the very steep slope, rather than fighting it. He brought in extra topsoil to help even out some terracing, but the soil was from a neighbouring site. “Stormwater feeds into the top pond, which cascades down to the bottom billabong, and both are planted with indigenous aquatic species that help purify the water and bring good indigenous seed to the area. “Having water used in the landscape also creates habitat and has a cooling effect, as well as the aesthetics.” His personal rule is to try and source all materials – rocks, mulches, decking and plant material – from within a 100km radius. “Ideally, it’s best to consult with a landscape designer from day one to zone off and protect key trees. Also, I like to design landscapes around the building so you are getting a functioning, sustainable design, and a seamless connection between the landscape and the building.” Brisbane-based company Sustainable has
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DESIGN NOTES

GarDENS

DESIGN NOTES

GarDENS

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Fed entirely by stormwater and rainwater, designer Phillip Johnson made sure all the rocks, plants and other materials used in this pond were sourced within 100km. Photo by Patrick Redmond

gone one step further to combine building and landscaping in one package. Its landscaping manager, Tobias Volbert, believes that a holistic approach to the site – instead of planning a building first then garden as an afterthought – ensures a connectivity between the two. “It avoids fragmentation,” he says. “It also means we can do any earth-moving in one go while the machinery is on site. “We can better consider how the wind moves through the site and put in place an integrated water management plan by, say, using the water coming down the driveway to water the garden or putting water tanks under the building.” With a master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from Hanover University, Germany, Volbert was intrigued by how some Australians view stormwater. “Many people want to get it off site as soon as possible, then you see them coming out later with their hoses; we try to slow down the water flow to keep the water on the property for as long as possible because that makes so much more sense in a drought environment.” Dislike of the one-size-fits-all approach to building is a sentiment Volbert shares with SGA-accredited garden designer Wendy Clarke. “On a small slope they’ll just cut and fill without thinking about using the house afterwards,” an exasperated Clarke says. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve come across a house with a steep drive that’s impossible to get a pram up – and cars have to back out. “A slope is lovely to work with – it doesn’t have to be battled and contained.” Clarke also advises builders and renovators to consider outdoor areas when planning doorways. “You can end up with an area you don’t engage with because it’s not visible from the house, or an area of house you can look out on but can’t access.
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“If you have a house that fits in with the block, you feel like your house is connected to the site rather than just stuck on it.”
sTArTING FroM THE ToP

Even where the topsoil has been left, heavy machinery may have compacted it and leftover cement, lime or mortar increased its alkalinity – so some soil first aid may be needed. Test your soil first. Not only will you know what you are working with in the future, but, by testing a patch near the house and another in an undisturbed area, you can gauge whether you need to correct its pH, too. Acidity can be increased by adding compost or, for more instant or localised results, by adding iron chelates. Garden lime can be used to increase alkalinity. Thick clays can be made more friable by digging and watering in gypsum, which does not affect the pH. After that, getting air and organic matter into the soil are the key goals. The easiest way is to dig in green mulch or compost. Organic matter in the soil: • Will bind soil particles together, creating stability • Will help the soil absorb plant nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and sodium • Will significantly increase the soil’s water-holding capacity, especially in sandy soils • Can increase the drainage of clay soils “It can be hard work and it takes time,” Wendy Clarke says. “You have to keep digging in compost and mulch and waiting for the worms to come. And when they come, you’ll know you’ve got it right.”

Gardeners interested in growing native plants may find a scraped block is actually a bonus.

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walkways link the garage with the main house on this steep Queensland block, designed by Sustainable. Rocks, plantings, swales and spoon drains help slow the flow of water to maximize absorption into the soil. The plan was to retain as many original trees as possible - ensuring the landscape dominates, not the built form – and to minimise disruption of the land. Photo by Sustainable www.sustainablebuildings. com.au

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