Extensive hedging and climate-resistant plants are just two of the many impressive features that make Sunnymeade so special.

Story By Trisha Dixon

The ruggedly beautiful Strathbogie Ranges of Victoria provide the setting for one of Australia’s most dynamic and striking gardens. Hidden away among the ranges is “Sunnymeade”, the creation of Craig Irving, one of those rare gardeners who is both designer and plants person.

Craig has prodigious energy, which is just as well, as the one-hectare garden not only grows year by year but also changes with the vagaries of the seasons. Rather than wait for the possibility of a return to a kinder climate, Craig is looking to similar areas of the world, such as Turkey and Peru – where their summers are sizzingly hot and dry – for inspiration.

The garden Craig started 20 years ago is one of inter-connecting ‘rooms’, perhaps inspired initially by gardens such as Hidcote Manor Garden and Sissinghurst Castle Garden in the United Kingdom. But it is no import from greener pastures – it is set in rural Australia and has a constantly changing palette of plants to suit our increasingly hotter and drier summers.

Extensive hedging provides an architectural framework for the garden, keeping it looking stunning even mid-winter under snow or crisp frosts. Within this framework, he uses plants with the same panache as an artist uses his paints. The hornbeam and holly hedges offset great sweeps of brilliant colour with immaculate gravel paths leading from room to room.

There are only the smallest lawn areas, as Craig simply doesn’t believe in squandering water. “In this dry country, we have to be so water conscious and I believe it’s far more important to keep a tree alive than have emerald green lawns,” Craig says.

Craig continues to dig out all the perennials that don’t cope with the hot, dry conditions as he uses very little water – and this February was a huge test, with the simmering heatwave that culminated in the horrific bushfires of nearby areas in Victoria. “There are so many plants that come from areas that have hot, dry summers like we do,” he says. “We went to Turkey and their summers are horrid and yet there was the Chaste Tree flowering away, looking so lush and beautiful on the hottest driest days. These are the type of plants I am now growing – incredibly hardy and colourful salvias from north America, Turkey and South Africa – bulbs from the Andes that are dormant in the dry weather, lots of silvery plants that seem to withstand the heat amazingly and lots of the roses are really tough too, especially the species roses.”

Craig’s passion for his garden is evident in every facet – every single plant is healthy and vigorous due to Craig’s soil preparation and ongoing maintenance of fertilising and mulching. He grows much of his plant material from seed or propagation and it isn’t all about display – he has a huge, incredibly productive vegetable garden with some of the biggest pumpkins around. Mixing decorative quasi-vegetable plants throughout the garden, there are stunning gourds climbing a stairway to a tower and artichokes making bold statements. There’s a tunnel with 30 different varieties of old apples and a framework of espaliered fruiting pears.

This story excerpt is from Issue #65

Outback Magazine: June/July 2009