Lambley Gardens & Nursery, 395 Lesters Road,  Ascot,  Victoria 3364
Phone +61 (03) 5343 4303,  Fax +61 (03) 5343 4257

Lambley History at 'Burnside', Ascot

Thirty two years ago Criss and I were living in the Dandenong Ranges on the outskirts of Melbourne. These hills can best be described as temperate rainforests with towering mountain ash, Eucalyptus regnans, being the dominant tree. This Eucalypt is the tallest growing hardwood and the tallest growing flowering plant in the world. Rhododendrons were the plant of choice for most gardeners in the area. The spot where I had my nursery had an average rainfall of 60 inches. However the area was becoming more and more suburban and Criss and I both wanted to move further out into the Victorian countryside to make a modest garden which would combine my plant knowledge with Criss’s design skills. (Although Criss has always been a painter she is able to put her incredible feel for colour and composition into making the garden.)

In the end a modest garden wasn’t possible because the house we eventually bought, an 1860’s bluestone farm house, has an entrance drive some 130 yards long. We had to make a garden which was in scale to the drive and to our house which is, whilst not grand, quite large and certainly very beautiful. If you want to make a large garden quickly you either need lots of money or lots of time. I had neither. The nursery takes up much of my time and running a nursery is not the way to riches. We are still working on new areas in the garden twenty years later. My first passion is for perennial plants having been brought up in the English midlands with a love for traditional English herbaceous borders. I’ve finally learnt not to fight the climate.

The garden is situated in Central Victoria on a windswept plain some 70 miles from the sea at an altitude of 1200 feet. Summer temperatures can reach 115 Fahrenheit during summer although it mostly doesn’t top 110 F. Winter temperatures can go down to 20 Fahrenheit. Our first frost occurs during the middle of April, which is mid autumn in Australia, and we have the last frosts during November which is late spring here. Most rain falls during the cooler months. Good soil preparation is essential if plants are to flourish with very little supplementary watering.

The soil in the garden was very compacted and totally lacking in humus so at the start I dug the soil as deeply as possible and then mix 4 or 5 inches of compost through the top six inches or so. The compost both helps to aerate the soil and to hold moisture. My soil is very acid, about 4.5 Ph when we started, so I added the equivalent of two tons of dolomite lime to the acre at the start and dust the garden with ground limestone most seasons. It’s very hard to raise soil Ph quickly from such a low starting point. After the soil is prepared I try to plant straight away as I like to mulch before weed seeds start to germinate. The mulch I use is a fine composted pine bark. I never ever use raw pine bark or raw woodchips. Any mulch I use has to be composted. I water the garden well at the most four times a year but more usually two or three times a year depending on the season.

In the end a modest garden wasn’t possible in the end because the house we eventually bought, an 1860’s bluestone farm houseThe dry climate garden has only been watered once during the last two years as we have had two good seasons. When I do water I water well. I use an overhead sprinkler during a cool summer spell. I give each area about an inch and a half. A rain gauge tells me when I’ve watered enough. Watering during hot spells can be a problem for the many thousands of bulbs which are planted underneath the perennials. Growing wild in the dry parts of the world they can be cooked if they are wet during hot weather.

The plants which we select for the garden must be able to not only survive but thrive in our extreme climate. Vita Sackville-West once wrote that she didn’t want her garden to be an infirmary for ailing plants. I agree with her and I’m ruthless with plants. If they don’t grow and flower well they are replaced by others that will.

We grow plants from all the areas of the world which have hot dry summers and relatively cold winters. The Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Southern Europe from Portugal to Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, Iran and Central Asia, the dry areas of China and Chile, California, the dry parts of Mexico and Texas, Arizona and of course Australia. Criss and I first saw how we would garden here when we were looking at some old stock beds of Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ A. ‘Faith Raven’ and A. ‘Poquerolle. They had made such wonderful almost abstract mounds and waves of silver foliage that we decided there and then to make a garden that would give effect. It was whilst we were planting that we realised most of the varieties we were using were drought tolerant.

We removed any plants which needed lots of water and so the garden was born. We not only choose them for the ability to enjoy our climate but they must be beautiful too. We want flowering plants to play against bold foliaged evergreen such as Yucca, Beschorneria, frost hardy Echium and silver leaved Phlomis. The following are a few plants which flower through the hot summer months when many gardens are sadly lacking in flowers.

My favourite plant is Agastache ‘Swet Lili’ which arose in a bed of A. rupestris we raised from Jim and Jenny Archibald seed. ‘Sweet Lili’ is obviously a hybrid but is so much better than all the other Humming Bird Mint varieties which we grow. It has pink flowers with a hint of apricot suffused through and is in bloom from December until the end of April. It is also grows taller than most of its tribe making nearly 5 feet tall by 3 feet across. It is now used widely in the landscape trade in Australia. I named it for my granddaughter Lili.

Another plant which is particularly happy here is a statice from South Africa. Limonium peregrinum makes a small shrub some two feet tall by three feet across. From Christmas until Easter the leathery green leaves a hidden by large sprays of clear pink flowers. I’m always surprised it isn’t grown more in places like California as it is so tough. Salvia maderense ssp candidissima from the Canary Islands is an amazing plant with large silky silver, hairy leaves clothing four feet tall stems which carry 6 inch spikes of magenta-pink flowers. It is still in flower as I write in early winter.

Two evergreen Pelargoniums, P. reniforme and P. sidoides are frost hardy and both have beautiful, round greyish leaves. They make a superb ground cover and I use them in drifts two or three yards long by a yard wide. Every three years or so these plants get a bit scruffy so I cut them to the ground during winter with hedge shears. The following spring new growth shoots up and by summer there is a fresh carpet of foliage. P. reniforme has flowers like a cloud of hovering magenta moths. P. sidoides has flowers much darker almost blackish. I used to grow bulbs in beds on their own. It was more like stamp collecting than gardening. It was only when we started the dry garden that I started to use these jewels of the plant world in the garden. We cut many of the perennials to the ground during May.

We under plant these perennials with bulbs which carry star during winter and early spring. Galanthus, Crocus, Iris reticulata and Narcissus cantabricus flower during May, June and July. The wild tulips such as Tulipa clusiana and T. whittallii follow in September and the Alliums, Ixias and Gladiolus communis ssp.byzantinus carry on the display into spring. All these bulbs increase freely in the dry garden. I do grow some Australian native plants in the garden but I don’t like the rather intolerant horticultural chauvinism, I could almost say horticultural xenophobia that has become popular amongst some gardeners.

I choose plants because of their beauty and because I want to make a beautiful garden. I don’t want to make a political statement. I don’t think Australian plants are more beautiful than Californian plants. Of course we have to be very conscious of potential weeds but plants from one part of Australia have become weeds in other parts. I’m not interested in having a collection of plants just to have a collection. Although having said that I do try to grow every species of tulip I can lay my hands on. Phlomis is a genus for which I have a passion and I now grow about twenty species and hybrids.

Criss and I garden about three acres altogether. When I say that it should be understood that Criss is not a hands-on gardener in fact she never gets her hands dirty. She is much too busy painting. Criss’s strength is designing the garden. It never ceases to amaze me how good and original her ideas are not that I always agree with her. There are some fraught moments. We have a large vegetable garden where I grow both vegetables and fruit for the house and for a tribe of grandchildren. In this garden I also grow flowers for Criss to paint, Dutch tulips as well as poppies, lilies, sweet peas, zinnias, corn flowers, Delbard roses, wall flowers, Canterbury bells and many others. One of my most important jobs is to fill the house full of flowers.

Asparagus is picked from September until Christmas, globe artichokes, peas and broad beans are spring delights. Melons are grown from Johnny’s Seeds as they have such good short season varieties. I grow Daikon and Kabuchi pumpkin for my Japanese daughter-in-law. I grow enough onions and garlic to keep us going for most of the year. The gardens are open to the public every day of the year which means maintenance has to be kept up. I hate apologising for any neglected parts. We get visitors from all over Australia as well as the USA, Europe and Japan. 

We are always trying new plants in our trial areas. I love to grow plants from wild collected seed and I’m waiting anxiously for three hundred Iris unguicularis plants to flower for the first time. I grew the plants from seed collected in Greece. Wild collected Phlomis fruticosa has given me a few superb clones which are much better than the usually grown form. I’ve started a garden of small plants grown from seed collected from dry mountain ranges, a sort of dry climate alpine garden. A whole new adventure.