We started re-planting our front garden in early autumn 2014, but the transformation of this small patch of land really began almost from the moment we first collected the keys to our new home, just over fifteen years ago. Back then, it was a very typical Aussie suburban front yard.
The year was 1999 and, apart from the mature trees, I doubt it looked very different back in the late 1950’s when the house was originally built. Throughout summer, the roses bloomed and the lawn died back because we wanted to save water. During winter, the lawn needed mowing every 2 weeks and the rose bushes were bare. Back then, we just wanted a practical, low maintenance, water wise garden that looked good all year. We had no grand plan or design, and little knowledge of garden basics. We chose to remove the lawn ourselves, in sections, gradually re-planting each bare patch.
One easy, low-cost way to remove lawn is to simply mow it on the lowest setting and then apply a heavy dose of fertiliser. The whole area can then be covered with a thick layer of wet newspapers or cardboard and topped with at least 15 centimeters of mulch. This method delays planting for several months but leaves original organic matter in place and does not disrupt soil structure. The best time of year to do this is in late spring or summer. By autumn, the grass-roots will have started decomposing. After the first good autumn rains, plants can be dropped into holes punched through the paper to the underlying soil.
A few years later, two-thirds of the original front lawn was gone. Because our soil was sandy and lacking in organic matter, we introduced hardy plants to improve the soil structure and hold water. These came mostly from cuttings donated to us by friends and neighbours. Small cuttings from geraniums, daisy bushes, succulents and native ground covers were planted straight into garden soil in autumn. They only needed regular watering for the first week or so. We also planted a front row of native dwarf acacia fimbriata. After their first summer, they survived on annual rainfall.
Eventually, all the lawn was gone and its original border of pavers was pulled up and used to create a meter wide winding path. An abandoned, rickety garden seat was found a few streets away and carried home. There is no irrigation system in place. Rain and the occasional buckets of grey water during heat waves keep most plants alive. Every couple of years, we mulch heavily with wood chips. During the early years, the cost of half a truckload of mulch from our local tree cutter was only $25 . Today, it is twice that amount and still a bargain. The mulch preserves water, traps heat, creates clean pathways, prevents and control weeds, protects plant roots and eventually breaks down into organic matter which improves the soil. Because we spread it at least 20 centimeters thick, it takes a couple of years to completely break down.
The better informed we became about sustainable practices, the more we realized more changes were needed. Hotter summers, reduced rainfall, endangered native species and the need to lower carbon emissions, were compelling reasons to reconsider what responsible suburban land care looked like. Being water wise and low maintenance was not enough. We needed this front garden to also be a habitat for native plants and wildlife in danger of extinction and to reduce our energy use by increasing passive cooling to the house during the hot summer months. We also wanted a more varied and colourful garden. One that would provide interesting foliage and beautiful seasonal flowers all year-long.