Colleen Southwell's Central West garden
I was very lucky to visit Colleen Southwell’s (aka the Garden Curator) stunning country garden, near Orange in Central West NSW, in January 2021. This original Q&A was posted on the Garden Club Instagram.
You are in for a bit of a treat with this garden visit! I was lucky to wander through Colleen Southwell’s stunning country garden, near Orange NSW. The garden provided me with plenty of inspiration as it is relatively young. I love how Colleen has created so many contrasts throughout – rambling perennials with tightly clipped buxus.
I have admired this garden from my comfort of my home for a long time and it was great to see it in person. Keep reading to see how Colleen achieves the look, what plants she uses and her words of wisdom.
Style of garden
Mostly an informal country garden of perennials and grasses with a few formal elements thrown in!
We built the house 11 years ago, though the garden is 6 years old on average.
Basalt loam, though it varies from one end of the yard to the other.
Dam, so it’s limited!
How you achieve your look?
Sweeping curves and soft planting within “bones” of structured and evergreen planting. I feel that sinuous curving lines work best in a rural setting, certainly in our hills. Curving lines help the garden to sit within the landscape, not upon it. A sharply structured formal garden can be jarring in a rural setting.
How do you create contrast within the garden?
I love the contrast of feathery grasses and perennials with solid clipped elements like spheres of Teucrium and buxus. Hedges and these clipped forms are a great way to give the garden “bones”, and think too about rounded or cloud pruned hedges, their sinuous shapes are lovely against the landscape. I use a mix of plant and flower forms, like the frothy and ethereal flowers mixed with the baubles of alliums. I love plants that have interesting form and colour in decline to see us through the long winter months.
How did you establish your garden?
Determining the lines first, then evergreen planting. This gives structure when the filler planting sleeps in winter, and allows pockets in between for creative planting. Windbreaks too, we’re hilltop and the wind is horrendous!
We’ve done all work ourselves, no landscapers, so definitely bit by bit. I feel strongly that this is a wonderful way to learn, and also to develop a garden that tells the story of those within it. A garden developed this way has heart, is built on sharing and memories, and is ultimately treasured.
Most of the beds were marked out then layered with newspaper and lucerne hay, without cultivating the soil at all. Unless the soil needs substantial improvement (eg depleted or compacted soil), often it’s best to leave it uncultivated to keep the soil structure intact, just add layers of organic matter on top and let the worms do their job. Our most successful beds have been done this way. A light hand is best! And work as much as you can with the natural lie of the land, there is no need to be heavy handed and terrace every inch!
Did you do the design?
Yes, I have a background in horticulture and landscape design, though I didn’t plan this out in detail. It has really evolved and continues to do so, I’m always planning new beds, or reworking the older ones. Gardens are everchanging, they’re never finished.
Perennials (eg salvia, sanguisorba, cardoon, phlomis, veronica, lysimachia, euphorbia, dahlia, achillea, rudbeckia, eryngium, echinops, helenium, agastache, aquilegia, lychnis, Siberian iris, bearded iris, heuchera etc), and grasses (eg miscanthus, calamagrostis, stipa, panicum,carex, lomandra etc), and Allium bulbs among them.
Prunus laurocerasus (Cherry laurel), pittosporum, Eleagnus ebbingei, Viburnum tinus, Lonicera nitida (box honeysuckle), buxus, and clipped teucrium spheres.
Viburnum, artemisia (wormwood), ballota, centaurea, buddleia, cistus, raphiolepis, cotinus (smoke bush), philadedelphus, lavender, ceanothus, sambuccus (elderberry), and many more.
Mostly David Austin and old English roses, (Abraham Darby is my all time favourite, Jude the Obscure, Comtes de Champagne, Martine Guillot, Alnwick Rose, Lichfield Angel, Troilus etc etc), Silver Ghost floribundas, Crepuscule climbers.
Crabapples, pears, Chinese elms, oak, claret ash, prunus, birch, maple, Chinese pistachio, golden and English elms, medlar, etc etc and natives Euc. Cinerea (silver dollar), Euc melliodora (yellow box), and Euc, sideroxylon (Ironbark). Orchard trees.
Advice on getting through a dry spell
Select plants suited to your region and the site! Organic matter is key, it helps soil retain moisture. Mulch using an organic mulch like lucerne hay or a good aged compost. Position plants with like needs together and only water as needed. When you water, it’s far better to water occasionally very deeply, than a little every day. Overwatering is often more detrimental than dry periods!
Most hardy plants
Roses, often considered fussy but much much tougher than given credit for! Many of the perennials like Salvia Anthony Parker, and of course the tough as boots lavenders. Native grasses like Lomandra are super tough, though all of our ornamental grasses survived the drought with very little water. Perennials and grasses are great too because if you keep one or two alive, they are easily propagated to refill parts of the garden that have been lost, cost effective too!
Words of wisdom...
A garden is a process not a product, and the most beautiful garden is one which is allowed to evolve to reflect the people who live within it. It is also a partnership, with the land, the creatures that share it, the environment. Don’t reach for the bug spray, if you have a good mix of flowering plants and shelter in your garden, the good bugs will appear. A good gardener doesn’t aim to conquer, but rather to watch, listen and care. Don’t strive for perfection, it’s impossible! And remember who you are gardening for – if it’s for glossy appearances, then the true joys of gardening are lost. Finally, forget the idea of a “green thumb”, it’s a myth, everyone can learn to garden – I can guarantee that even the most highly regarded and skilled gardeners have killed numerous plants in their time, the learning never stops! One more thing, NEVER put plastic weed matting on garden beds!!!