INTERVIEW: Get waterwise with Neil Delmage

Waterwise doesn’t mean brown and dry, maintains Neil Delmage, co-author of From Coast to Country.

Let’s go back to the beginning. What was it about gardens that inspired you to start creating them for a living?
Both of us had always been into gardens, it’s been a lifelong passion. And we’ve always been anti-chemical overuse (artificial fertilisers, that is, especially super phosphate). We have a particular interest in soil as a living thing, as well as creating gardens that have a certain style.

We jumped in at the deep end, twenty-five years ago. I’d been looking after a few gardens, mowing the lawns and such, and then Jenny and I met on a big project we were both working on. So that was the link. And Jen brought in the architectural side. We decided that if we were going to do the landscaping thing, we had to do it well and go for the biggest and best.

I first saw what I wanted in Melbourne, years ago. I saw these gardens that had gone the distance, that were aging beautifully. The penny drop came when I saw some Edna Walling gardens in Melbourne, and also Paul Sorensen gardens in Sydney. We knew then that if we were going to do gardens we were going to do them our way. And we were immediately doing jobs with a lot of exposure so it was important to be distinctive. There are a lot of fashions in gardening that don’t last, and we don’t really buy into that. We create gardens that last, and that has paid dividends. Gardens we made twenty years ago still look wonderful today. We get calls from people who say they’ve seen our work, or have heard from a friend. A lot of our jobs are from word of mouth.

How would you describe your garden design philosophy?
In one line, it would be ‘a sense of place’. A lot of gardeners say this, but it really does underpin what we do.

We design with a sense of responsibility. And we create gardens that are alive, not static. A recent client summed it up well; she said her garden is “formal, with a touch of wildness about it”.

If you look at the garden called ‘Pleasures Past’ [pages 99-105 in From Coast to Country] you can see what we I mean. The family has really lived in that garden, the kids used to climb out their bedroom window down the tree. The lady has stayed in that house for twenty years because of the garden.

But we’re not restricted. We’ve done contemporary gardens as well as the old-fashioned style you can see in ‘Pleasures Past’. We do contemporary, but we don’t follow trends and we marry everything with sensible design. ‘Classic contemporary’ is what we call our contemporary designs. In fact, twenty years ago we made our name with an Asian-inspired look, only we called it the ‘plantation look’ and kept it simple and elegant.

We’ve gotten to the stage were I don’t think we can be categorised. But we have numerous testimonials from clients who say, “we love our garden, it’s so alive”. So that’s really what it’s about.

Your waterwise attitude to garden design and landscaping has underpinned your work for more than twenty years. What was behind this idea, especially when ‘waterwise’ wasn’t a commonly held notion?
Yes, we’ve won various awards for our gardens, fifteen Design Awards of Excellence and several landscape architecture awards, two of which have been Water Efficiency Awards. We’re right up to speed with the latest technology. We prepare our soils by hand, keep the top soil, work on drought-proofing and sourcing hardy plants. So we’re very much into being waterwise.

It’s important to realise that just because a garden is waterwise doesn’t mean it’s not green. Waterwise doesn’t mean brown and dry.

Years ago I was telling people not to water four times a week. It doesn’t rain that much in the Amazon. The problem is, you’re not developing deep root systems. With shallow root systems, the plant is always looking for water. You have to make the roots go deep. If you look at ‘Pleasures Past’ again, you see quite a few established trees. What we did with these was work with the irrigation guys to set up a bubbler system. So a little bubbler would sit over the base of the tree (under mulch) watering deeply, and then we’d gradually wean the tree off water. Because the roots had gone deep. And they don’t need to be watered at all after that. We do that with a lot of plants, wean them off water. Too many plants are dependent on regular watering, and will do very well on their own if you establish deep root systems.

Our own garden [‘A Timeless Garden’, pages 122-129 in From Coast to Country] is literally seasonal. The plants are self-sufficient. We water less than the scheduled watering times under the water restrictions, taking care that the water is penetrating – for instance with the lawn we aerate it, use clay and rock minerals and hummus, and choose the right turf. Our garden has found its own equilibrium; we don’t do much gardening besides trimming and mowing. Every leaf goes back into the garden, not the bin. We even have ferns growing out of a rock wall, and acanthus, we strip the succulent leaves from the acanthus in summer otherwise they wither. Our deciduous trees – wattle, bottlebrush, paperbark, melaleuca – are full of birds all the time. We’ve established it so well it doesn’t need much attention.

I don’t like the idea of continuously fertilising. Like watering, we wean plants off fertiliser too. Of course, organic liquid fertilisers, that kind of thing, that’s ok, but only occasionally. Our garden has its own balance, it fertilises itself. Occasionally I throw around a bit of rock dust, but that’s all. I do give fruit trees and vegetables a bit of extra attention, since they’re putting something out, but it’s always organic.

We have two gardens, one in the city and one down south, and neither are on the bore. Our gardens are experimental grounds. The garden down south is watered periodically over summer, because it does get hot, but for the most part it looks after itself. We’ve used plants that have proved themselves, pulled through over the years. One of our design principles is to use native and exotic. Although if someone asks for a purely indigenous garden we say, yes we can do that. We’re not purists, we’re not against exotics, but we really only bring them in for the look, and we’re careful not to bring in exotic plants that might be dangerous or unhelpful to the surrounding environment.

You have designed gardens for a wide variety of properties – how do you approach each individual project?
Each project is assessed on merit. We really listen to what the client wants, then we do a design and present it to them. We find that we don’t have to do the hard sell, people are keen on what we do already. Actually there’s one street in Peppermint Grove that has three of our gardens in it. Word of mouth has been pretty effective for us.

We usually design with children in mind. We have things to pick, lots of herbs. And we match the garden design to the owner’s personality. For example, in the ‘Coastal Charm’ garden [pages 64-71 in From Coast to Country] the owner wanted an outdoor pizza oven, a place to play bouche, things like that. Three-quarters of our clients have young kids, others have teenagers. So our gardens are not sterile, they’re gardens to be lived in.

Landscaping is about observation and learning. We’ve created gardens in many different places: Darwin, Dongara, Melbourne, Kojonup, Costello in Victoria, not including Perth and the south-west. In each place you have to look and learn and fit in with the natural environment.

Of course, there are ideas that we apply to every project. Using organic fertilisers, creating gardens that don’t need constant watering. I think it’s really important to re-mineralise the soil. So much super phosphate has been used in the soil, especially on farms, and it’s locked up other minerals. We use things like rock dust to re-mineralise depleted soils. I really think re-mineralisation is the way forward.

I read a lot of books, for example Peter Bennett’s Organic Gardening. He talks about the ‘chemical dilemma’, and what we can do to turn it around. And Peter Andrews’ Beyond the Brink – he has some fantastic common sense. Andrews is really talking about hydrology, retaining water.

It’s exciting. We want to help people in this area. We all need to be aware. For example, we make sure we get a professional soil analysis, so that we really know what’s needed in the ground. We’re re-educating as we go, but still producing pretty gardens and performing at the vogue end. You need an eye for beauty as well as this practical knowledge.

From Coast to Country is your second book. What prompted you to start displaying your work in illustrated books?
We want people to know about our style, that if they really look at our gardens they’ll see that they’re soft. If they’re let go over the years there’ll be a certain wildness, but if you look underneath you’ll see a stone wall or some sweeping steps. We blend formal with informal.

People can see from our books that we design for their lifestyle, and for the architecture and orientation of the house. It’s all about scale and balance. ‘Tranquil Views’ [pages 24-35 in “_From Coast to Country_”:/books/1206] is a classic example of this. If you stand on the other side of the lake and look back over the garden from a distance, it’s all in proportion. It can be enjoyed from a distance as well as close up.

How did you choose which gardens to include in the book?
It was really hard. Really hard. I mean we had forty gardens to choose from, and only put thirteen in the book. It came down to finding a balance between big-scale and small-scale gardens. We want to show the variety of our work. And to reflect what clients say; we often have people ring us up (especially if they were building and put the garden in as an afterthought) and say, “we didn’t realise what you’d done, and now we absolutely love it”. People really appreciate a garden that they can relax in. You want that feeling of being able to discover the garden, of being invited into the garden.

The book doesn’t name the location of each garden on purpose. This is so that people don’t feel restricted, or think it’s WA-centric. We’ve been working nationally for twenty-five years and we want to show what’s possible across Australia.

Do you have any general advice for people trying to make their gardens attractive (and affordable) with tight water restrictions?
Above all, be responsible. Act as though we’re in constant drought (since we often are). A few ways to do this are to:
•choose drought-resistant plants
•reduce your lawn space to a manageable size
•plant dwarf citrus as they’re a manageable size
•harvest your roof water and use a tank
•be environmentally responsible with bore water
•prepare soil to hold onto water at the root zone
•drip irrigate where water is needed in the root zone

Currently, we take a phenomenal amount of water from the ground – the statistics are that Perth’s residential outdoors water use consists of 87 gigalitres per year from scheme water, and 114 gigalitres per year from bore water. We can’t continue to take so much water from the ground. We need to recharge our underground aquifers. The best way to do this is with technology that recycles waste water (simply pouring untreated grey water onto your garden is a bad idea because of the chemicals and pathogens it has in it). In Perth, we recycle 6% of our waste water currently. We should be recycling 90%. The technology is there, it’s just not in place yet. This water should be used to recharge our aquifers.

You must cut back on water consumption – but this doesn’t mean you can’t have a beautiful, stylish garden anyway.

From Coast to Country is available now.

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