This retirement community sits on a hill in a blaze of colour surrounded by countless garden spaces – and it's a challenge to maintain given the heat, the sand and the limited rainfall.
If you were a seagull sitting on the top of Perth city’s iconic Bell Tower, and you decided to fly almost due west towards the ocean, you’d end up at City Beach. And on the way, you’d have swept over the roofs of Ocean Gardens, a retirement village sitting on a sandy hill with glorious views to the sea. This story is about the gardens at the village and how they’ve been encouraged to thrive in what is a deceptively tricky location.
Built just under thirty years ago, Ocean Gardens was set out across a little over six acres – capping the hill with a series of villas, apartments and central service buildings with a network of gardens running throughout the site. The hero of this landscape will always be view of the Indian Ocean, but the many garden moments sitting between the buildings also need to make their mark.
Like most public green spaces, their success waxes and wanes, and at times over the years, these gardens have struggled, often through no fault of the horticultural staff. Current grounds supervisor Shaun Brewer explains.
“Conditions here mean that it’s a lot harder to grow something than out east.” Shaun’s perspective comes from the fact that until seven years ago he’d worked in turf and then horticulture in and around Sydney – caring for lush gardens in Mossman, Balmoral and Bondi. At Ocean Gardens it’s a different story. “It’s hot and windy; the soil is sandy, hydrophobic and low in nutrients; and there’s no rainfall over summer.”
The residents are big fans of flowering colour – the challenge is to find what works then fill the spaces with it.
Yet even with these limitations, the expectation remains. The residents want to be surrounded by greenery and as much flowering colour as possible. How does Shaun know this? The residents tell him. “In the early days, we’d often be stopped while we’re out working or have a request logged through the system. And that’s natural as people usually only comment when they’re not happy.” But in the years since, the garden – under a professional regimen – has bloomed, figuratively and literally. “We’re getting more favourable comments.”
So how has the team managed this shift? Given the grounds are common areas – no one owns anything – and very few residents actively garden, the Shaun and his team take responsibility to cover everything, apart from the mowing which is subcontracted. “It has been hard to find gardeners who can actually garden, but we now have Carl and Louis who are knowledgeable and thorough.”
Having good people alongside makes a difference. On top of this, Shaun uses a common sense approach to garden design and particularly species selection. “It’s such a large site so we aim to fill it with the plants we’ve worked out will survive and thrive here with minimal maintenance. Since the views are important we also choose varieties that don’t get too big. And apart from some areas near the reception building, we avoid planting hedges that will need constant trimming.”
For flowering colour, Shaun has had good success with Alstroemeria, Kangaroo Paw, Callistemon, Statice, Geralton Wax, and annuals like Pansies, Petunias and Polyanthus.
Ocean Gardens is cleverly laid out so that pockets of green are tucked in everywhere. Each has its own maintenance quirks.
As relaxed as Shaun makes it sound, it’s obvious that the real difference being made at Ocean Gardens comes from a professional, systematic application of text-book horticulture. Get expert hands on deck. Check. Design and plant appropriately. Check. Shaun also believes in scheduling and keeping up with maintenance (check); in planting with TerraCottem to boost a plant’s chances of survival come the first summer (check); in assuring summer irrigation (a new bore is to replace the old, complete with an iron filter); and in renovating garden sections periodically during winter to add interest and prevent a net loss of green.
Before: the reception building was smothered in green and overdue for a refresh.
This is clearly the part of the job the team loves – who wouldn’t – and the latest addition to the Ocean Gardens landscape is a river garden near the reception area. “It was a slow process because we had to work around our usual maintenance schedule. We mapped out where the river would go, dug it out, put in the liner, river rocks and then planted it with grass trees, lomandra, and some hot colour from Kangaroo Paws, Scaveola and Geralton Wax. We even added in some water falls so you have the sound of water as you walk past.” Yup, it sounds like fun for everyone.
During: this is the point in every project where you wonder if it was such a good idea.
After: it’s early days but you can see how the grass trees will grown out to give some height (without blocking the view), and the flowering perennials fill in the understorey.