How to make your autumn garden as good as Spicers’

Aaron Graham’s office is much larger than most of us would be used to. And much, much more attractively fitted out. The glorious subtropical surrounds of Spicers Tamarind Retreat in the Sunshine Coast hinterland are the horticulturalist’s 18-acre workplace.

Blessed with rich soils and reliable rainfall, the Maleny property is cradled in a wide loop of Obi Obi Creek. Aaron’s ‘office’ is shaded by the canopy of towering rainforest trees. Its walls are a lush swathe of foliage and ferns. But when we chat to the Sydney-trained, 20-year industry professional, who is in his 10th year at Spicers, he tells us of the battle to keep the site pristine. He also shares his insights into how we can recreate a little bit of this spectacular subtropical garden in our own backyards; and offers some great gardening advice for the autumn season.

Gardens at Spicers Tamarind RetreatLush gardens at Spicers Tamarind Retreat

Q: What was the driving objective behind Tamarind Retreat’s subtropical rainforest garden?
Aaron: What we’re trying to do is re-establish the original sort of flora that would have been in the area before it became a dairy farm. Maleny has a long history of logging. First there was the clearing of those big established trees, and then the opening up of areas for farming. There were mainly dairy farms up here.

Q: What have you put back into the area?
Aaron: We’ve planted thousands of indigenous rainforest trees. The ones that people would know would be things like Red Cedars, Blue Quandongs, conifers like Bunya Pines, Kauri Pines, and then a bunch of different types of palms. Not every plant we have on site here is a native plant; we also use exotic species. But we’re trying to re-establish the natural form of the garden. We work closely with Landcare Australia and we buy plants from their local Landcare nursery. We also work with the Land For Wildlife program which is an idea to re-establish – in particular in areas close to waterways – animal corridors. They help us with advice on plants and that sort of thing.

Q: What feature are you most happy with?
Aaron: I’m most happy with the growth of the trees which have been planted going back over the last 10 years. We do have a benefit up here of having historically high rainfall – 2000mm is our average annual rainfall. Of course, that’s varying a little bit in recent years – I’m talking about climate change and global warming. But we have a reliable, high rainfall and we have high-nutrient soils, so things grow really well up here.

Couple walking in grounds at Spicers Tamarind RetreatCouple enjoying a walk through Spicers Tamarind Retreat’s gardens

Q: How well?
Aaron: I’m absolutely amazed by the growth. Some of the trees we might have put in as tube stock – which were 30cm to 50cm high when they went into the ground – now some of those trees are 8, 10, 12m, in less than 10 years.

Q: On the flipside, is there a particular plant or feature that is causing you trouble?
Aaron: Oh yeah, sure. Weed infestation is always an issue. We can’t control what goes on over the borders of our property obviously, and we go into the Crown land of the Obi Obi Creek there. Yes we absolutely have infestations of Privet, Camphor Laurel, a lot of your introduced vines like Morning Glory. It’s a never-ending process of trying to control those.

Q: Now, say I wanted to bring some of that subtropical rainforest beauty home with me; how would I go about planning a similar garden for a reasonable-sized suburban block?
Aaron: The best thing you can do is research. Talk with your local nurseries, the council, local experts and bush-care groups to find out what is meant to be growing in your area. Plant selection is the most important thing.

Q: Any plants you recommend?
Aaron: For a suburban garden there are some beautiful small to medium trees, say something like a Lemon Myrtle. It’s got a beautiful scent in the leaves and you can use it in your cooking. Obviously it’s very site specific, but your grasses like Lomandra, of which there are a few varieties, are very good for retaining steep areas and stopping water flow. And then I would tend to go for a bit of a mix of exotics, plants like the Heliconias for flowering are interesting.

Lemon MyrtleLemon myrtle is easy to grow in a suburban backyard

Q: Their leaves are similar to the ginger plant, which, of course, is well-linked to the hinterland area around Maleny. Would they work?
Aaron: Absolutely, there’s a huge range of different gingers. Like the Heliconia they are very tropical in feel. Then you’ve also got Birdsnest Ferns and tree ferns, to further that feel.

Q: What jobs do gardeners need to be tackling now it’s autumn?
Aaron: The most important job after the crazy growth of summer, is mulching. There is a whole range of different mulches – pine bark or leaf mulch, or even gravel, mulch is anything that covers the surface of the soil. What you’re doing there is preventing loss of moisture. Most of those mulches will break down and add nutrients to the soil and are then improving the bioactivity going on in the soil. The other thing you do at this time of year is cut back all that wild growth that got a little out of hand on your flowering plants during summer. But mulching is the most important thing. Mulch is a gardener’s best friend.

Words by Geoff Shearer.