Cassandra Hooke's Western Riverina Garden

Cassandra Hooke and husband Marcus started their garden, in the Western Riverina District, around their new house build in 2020.  Over the last three years, they’ve created a garden that softens the harsh landscape that surrounds them. With an annual rainfall of 350mm, bore water and varying soil types, there have been many challenges. Cass is defining her own garden style, taking inspiration from Mediterranean gardens and using plants that thrive in her environment.

Many of you would follow her garden journey through @outbackgardens. We asked Cass a few questions about herself and garden. Enjoy. 

Tell me a little about yourself....

I grew up in the outer leafy hills of Melbourne with my 4 siblings. My grandparents were avid gardeners and had a large suburban block filled with vegetable plots and fruit trees. I spent many childhood holidays at the coast, at a farm block near Nagambie and trout fishing in the country with my brothers.

I started gardening during high school working for a landscape architect. This spurred on my interest in plants and gardening further. I enrolled in a Bachelor of Biological Sciences at university and quickly leant toward botany and agriculture as majors. At the time I aspired to be a plant breeder. This is also when I met Marcus, my now husband. During university I worked in a bio-tech glasshouse, the university’s indigenous plant nursery and completed two cadetships in similar fields.

After university I went on to work in the wholesale vegetable growing industry. I moved to the farm on the Hay Plains to be with my husband in 2014. My husband and his family are Merino sheep farmers and own and operate just under 90,000 acres. I now work in Natural Resource management for the government with a focus on vegetation management.

Marcus and I have lived at three different properties since I moved here. Where we now live was a blank canvas and we built our home and started our garden in 2020. We have two young children Jack (4) and Sibyl (9 months).

How would you describe the style of your garden?

I can’t say I really have a certain style. My garden is inspired by Mediterranean gardens with some cottage elements. I believe that in the western Riverina and further north and west, we have created our own style of garden and I am becoming more inspired to create and promote that.

I am aiming for some strong evergreen structure, large shade trees with flowing garden beds. We have a lot of lawn compared to that of classical Mediterranean gravel gardens and this is due to lack of availability of materials, wanting to create a lush surrounding and also the cooling effect of a well-maintained lawn. Largely, the style of my garden is built out of necessity to have plants that will not just survive here but will thrive.

How important is it to you to have a garden?

A house can become a home quite readily, but to make a patch of earth a garden takes a lot of patience, learning and sweat. To have a garden to me is to have a creative outlet, a retreat from the sometimes harsh surrounding landscape, an extension of our home for the family to enjoy, a visual accomplishment, a green grocer and a micro habitat for native fauna. I take great joy in my garden and I always feel a sense of calm and personal accomplishment when spending time working in my garden. It’s been a place where I’ve been able to ground myself during challenging times.

Tell me a little bit about your garden.. When did you start to establish the garden?

I would describe my garden as in its infancy. We have minimal established trees, and all plantings are less than two years old. Our house is wedged between a dry creek line of gumtrees, the driveway, farm sheds, a dam and an existing pine log house. So we didn’t have much choice for the expanse of the garden. At first the garden was determined by a new fence line that would exclude stock,

contain our very adventurous toddler and give a defined boundary from the surrounding landscape. I started off small with the view that I’d rather have a smaller garden I can manage and expand later when possible.

We started with planting trees, installing an irrigation system, establishing a lawn from seed and marking out gardens beds. I later started to introduce Elaeagnus hedges throughout the garden to create evergreen structure, interest, screening a privacy. We always wanted to maintain the visibility of the view to the paddock out the north side of the house and garden so planted low growing plants in that area of the garden. I used a Westringia hedge along the fence line as I found the contrast to the surrounding vegetation not too harsh.

I also planted lots of Saltbush outside the fence line and along the driveway to soften the transition between the house yard and surrounding vegetation and to create protection from wind and dust. There is also a large orchard away from the house and a large undeveloped area surrounding the pine log house that used to be a tennis court.


What feel does the garden have?

To me it feels quite exposed due to being quite young especially with the absence of mature trees. As its starting to mature I hope it starts to feel more relaxing, has a soft transition between the surrounding landscape and just a  pleasant space to be in. When I’m in the garden I just feel a sense of possibility. What it will be or could become.

Plants you use to achieve your style and favourite plant combos.. 

Repeated plantings I have throughout the garden are Westringia fruitcosa, Sedum ‘Autumn joy’, Pencil pine ‘Glauca’, Rosemary, Russian sage, Arthropodium cirratum, Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia), Guara, Nepeta, Olives, Jacaranda, Old Man Saltbush, Lamb’s Ear ‘Big Ears’, Miscathus transmorrisonensis, Elaeagnus and Liriope.

A plant that performs well in your garden?

Westringia is a reliable dense evergreen native shrub that is suitable to a variation of climates and soils. It now comes in many different varieties and forms to suit all garden style. It can be pruned into hedges, topiary or just left to grow into a screen. It has small dainty flowers that insects love. It also survived being waterlogged during the floods of the past spring.

What are your major challenges? How do you overcome some of your challenges?

Soil health and structure. Building up the organic matter of the soil will be an ongoing task and I do this by adding compost, pelletised chook manure, blood & bone, mulch and bought garden soil.

There’s also a variation of soils throughout the garden with sections of water impenetrable clay. Some of this clay was bought in after completion of the house build to level out the surrounding ground. By far our biggest regret.

Access to bulk garden supplies is a challenge. I’m having to buy bagged garden supplies regularly as the nearest bulk supplies is 85km away and the freight ends up costing more than the product.

Low rainfall with an average of 350mm/year. The garden is watered from bore water and while plants will survive and grow, bore water has its impacts. We use drip irrigation over sprays to avoid bore water on the foliage of the plants.

The exposed nature of the site with heat and wind and also due to the maturity of the garden. I’ve purchased some established trees and have planted fast growing hedging and screening plants to create a more sheltered environment.

What are your future garden plans?

I’m currently in the process of expanding the garden by a small section. We’ve just laid some turf and will now start to plant out the garden beds as Autumn has arrived. Autumn is the ideal time for planting in the Riverina.

I’ve also got plans to expand some existing garden beds as I made the error of making some beds too small for the scale of the surrounds.

We are also building a new chook yard with an integrated composting system.

Long term plans are to create a garden around the existing pine log house by removing the tennis court and integrate the area with our garden by removing two of our current garden boundary fences.

Tips for finding time to garden, especially with young kids?

I try to garden when the children are sleeping, are in the pram or engage my son in whatever I’m trying to accomplish. My gardening usually occurs on the weekends when husband is home and can occupy the kids or help keep them engaged in what we are doing.

I’ve found the vegetable garden very rewarding lately as you can easily achieve small projects without much fuss or time with little kids in toe.

The Husqvarna automower we have definitely helps with reducing the amount of time spent on one singular gardening task.

Water source

Bore water. I’m grateful to have this reliable source of water.

Soil type

A mix of loam and clay. This has been a steep learning curve as my previous garden only 15 minutes away was pure sand. This had its own challenges, but I much preferred the level of drainage.

Who inspires you?

Oh I have quite an eclectic and long list. My Nan, nature, Pinterest, Robert Boyle, Paul Bangay, Rosedale estate, Brenton Roberts, Peter May, Tess Newman Morris, Amber Lewis, Susie Nugent, Colleen from the Garden Curator, Natasha Morgan’s passed garden at Oak & Monkey Puzzle, Polly
Wilkinson, Willow Crossley, Susan Playsted of Hopewood home, other local gardens, Ladysmith Park Perennials, other Instagram gardeners I have meet who are gardening in a similar climate, botanic gardens and other mothers on the land like Annabelle Hickson who are paving an inspiring path for other rural women. The list goes on!

Any words of wisdom?

Start with a broad plan or mud map and then break it down in to realistic sized projects with priority rankings. This also helps with not putting off starting, as it doesn’t feel like such a daunting task.

Gardens are ever changing and that can be both a blessing a curse. Try to use it to your advantage.

Start with your soil health and watering plan. With improved soil and reliable water source, you have a solid foundation for building a successful garden.

Use plants that are commonly grown in your region and then expand on them. Just because there is Oleander, crepe myrtles and Ornamental pear trees everywhere, doesn’t mean that you should only use those plants and others won’t grow in your garden. But they can be a great reliable building

Before purchasing plants, I always try to plan what plants I’m using in the garden by looking at work is working, researching other suitable plants and talking to nursery staff. This eliminates potentially wasting money and time on plants that may not be suited to your garden.

Favourite garden tools?

My favourite garden tool is a Japanese sickle. It has many names and may also go by weeding hoe, gardening sickle, hand sickle, Nee Waki or hand hoe. It is a great tool for weeding and easily removes weeds with roots intact with minimal soil disturbance to surrounding plants. My husband comes in pretty handy too!