Now is the time to rethink your land

By Sarah Cains.  

The concept of the Australian landscape being harsh, poor and in need of improvement is firmly lodged in our national psyche. This has come about because, since colonisation, we non-indigenous Australians have disregarded what the land and its original inhabitants have been telling us, forging ahead in ignorant determination to make the land obey our commands. In a futile quest to turn Australia into Europe, we have destroyed vast tracts of natural vegetation, burdened the land with hard-footed animals and forced it to grow plants foreign to natural conditions. It is not news that this has led to horrifying degradation of the ground we stand upon. Images of land and waterways broken, compacted and exhausted by over grazing, poisoned with chemicals, gouged out for mining or scorched so deeply by fire that even underground life is exterminated, are now familiar to all of us. They blaze across our screens and cause us to gasp in horror.

Some of today’s farmers have learned from these mistakes. They are looking anew at traditional, introduced farming systems that have led us to the perilous situation where we now find ourselves. For many farmers today, it is no longer good enough to say,

‘This is the way we will do things because this is what we have always done.’

Farmers are beginning to read their land and to respect its natural properties. They are learning to nurture their soil and coax and persuade rather than force and demand. They are recognising the vital role of native vegetation and the attendant life it brings. And they are beginning to listen and look at long-term, successful results achieved by farmers who have been in the forefront of these practices.

On many farms, things are changing for the better.

But what of those of us who are not farmers? We, too, are horrified by such obvious evidence of environmental destruction and, prompted by the horrific bushfires of 2020, we have cried out,

‘What can we do to help?’

As with farmers, homeowners (and renters) are stewards of chunks of land. Home blocks account for some of the best land in our district and, indeed, in all of Australia. But this land is viewed in a different light. In contrast with farming land, it is considered to be something we own with no attendant obligation for good management. It is something to build your house on, it is a commodity to be traded, it is Real Estate.

Large houses on large blocks are a common way to live here in the Highlands, but surprisingly few owners are actually interested in gardening. The most common way of dealing with all this land is to give it over to swathes of grass dotted with exotic trees and shrubs. And ‘box’ (Buxus sempervirens) hedges.

Over many years, great effort has been expended in eliminating all traces of native vegetation. By doing this, we have turned great tracts of rich and productive land into a lifeless, foreign landscape.

Almost everything we have done to this precious place is about pleasing the human eye.

How many of us town dwellers chose the place we live because we love the native vegetation or because we want to nurture the soil under our feet or provided habitat for native creatures?

In Covid-time, often I walk up the hill to the top of my street and pass a house where a couple are enjoying their gardening. Recently I stopped to chat, admiring the lovely group of Acacia melanoxylon trees that grace their gateway. The wattles (remnant natural vegetation) have been respectfully pruned and left in place to display their slender, twisty trunks topped with generous crowns of healthy foliage. When I spoke to the owners and admired their trees they told me that the day before, a man had stopped his car, wound down the window, and, with a wagging finger, shouted to the gardeners that they were mistaken in leaving the native trees in place; that they are weeds and should have been cut down.

How has it come about that we are such plant racists?

The maintenance required for large gardens means that time spent outdoors is largely not spent on gardening. To the frustration of neighbours and users of public spaces, most hours of outdoor time are spent riding on lawn mowers and operating machine driven hedge trimmers, edgers and blowers.

To spend hours of labour and oceans of fuel on mowing swathes of the best land on Australia is a terrible waste. We only need to look at a well-run veggie garden to see the amount of produce can be grown on a small piece of land. 

 For a moment, imagine linking together all the house and garden blocks in our district. What a feast of space and rich soil we would have!

But this imagined picture has a flaw. Instead of rolling hectares of land linked and shared, the reality is a chequerboard of spaces marked out by fences. And if a garden does not have a fence, it will likely have tall hedging. These walls of green have become a signature of our district, turning roadways and footpaths into shaded and viewless tunnels. The inconvenience, expense, dust and noise caused by maintaining hedges is paired with the owner’s problem of unsightly patches of bare, compacted soil where growth of other plants is precluded by the roots of these tough and demanding plants. Tall hedges do not make efficient windbreaks. They cause wind to hit and swirl. The way to make a windbreak is to start with low plants, then, by using shrubs then trees of graded size, build up your planting into a shape like those ramps where kids ride skateboards, so that wind is fielded at a low point and swept up and over whatever is below. 

And after last summer, it needs to be said that many of the exotic plants employed for hedging are highly flammable. The unlovable ‘Leyland cypress’ (Cupressocyparis X leylandii), together with all its coniferous relations, are a notable fire hazard.

Private Property! In a command designed to exclude, fences and hedges declare that ‘others’ are not welcome. But it just so happens that the people we are ordering to keep away are the very same people who, in Covid-time, we have wanted to draw close. They are our new discovery. They are the people whose company we have quickly learned to value in our strangely isolated new world. They are our community – our neighbours.


Let’s return to the idea of a world without fences. First we will happily give fencing contractors and growers of (dreadful) Buxus sempervirens new jobs building footpaths and cycleways. These will bring us together. They will link gardens and weave between houses, creating new short-cuts and delightful walkways. Rows of houses will become villages where we can call to one another, wave, and share.

Because I live in a house with no front fence on a busy town street, I am qualified to assure you that passers-by will be discreet and polite, keeping their feet on the path and their gaze to acceptable places. If they see you quietly sitting on your front verandah they will avert their eyes, but if you look up and seem ready for a chat, they will stop to admire your garden and exchange news. They will bring reassurance and company into your life, as well as wisdom, experience, produce, plants and help. Their children will delight you, they will respect your plants and they will ‘pick up’ after their dogs.

And speaking of dogs, if you are keeping dogs and kids safe, you will need to fence off a portion of your land (though you might have trouble finding a fencing contractor, since they are all now busy building pathways). Perhaps you will consider making use of a section of land around the back or at the side of the house, thereby leaving your front garden to turn its inclusive and welcoming face to the street. And perhaps, by befriending and watching over one another, we will preclude the necessity to buy those big, ferocious guard dogs. After all, in this gentle and privileged district, what are we guarding ourselves against? Is it so dreadful if community members look at and enjoy our houses and gardens; if they stop to chat as we mooch around our patch in our slippers whilst we empty the teapot?

If they peep into our warmly-lit rooms and see someone reading a book or setting a table for a meal, are we diminished by such sharing? 

A European friend of mine tells that in Amsterdam (and, I suspect, in other such cities as well) it is a cause for pride to leave your windows uncovered so that people can admire your clean windows and see you enjoying yourself in your interior spaces.

And a final word on tall fences and hedges. I have a friend who is a retired member of the police force. She tells me that, if you want to burgle a house, you choose the one with the highest fence or hedge.

So what can we do to help?  Here’s a place to start.

Rethink your land.

If you have never gardened before, now is the time to begin, because if we either own or rent a plot of land, we owe it to our poor, beleaguered planet to give it a go.

Just start.

Start small, but start.

Plan a new garden space for native plants. Long term, aim for at least 25% natives. You will be so excited as you watch your land come to life. Before too long it will begin to wriggle and cheep and croak and splash and scuttle and slither and flutter.

Plan your native planting so that it reduces mowing. (I know! Everyone loves riding on mowers, but we need to reduce mowing time and turn it into productive gardening time).

Spend some time each day gardening. If you are super-busy, then just a tiny piece of time. You will be hugely rewarded. As you get drawn into your project and see results, your garden will become (hard work, and) a wonderful addiction.

Grow some food for yourself, your family and passers-by. Start with easy stuff like herbs, spinach and the like.

When your fence falls down, or hedge maintenance starts to drive you nuts, consider how things would be without it. Would a group planting of native trees to screen windows and bring birds close work instead of a solid barrier?

Heed this advice given to me long ago by and an experienced gardening friend. At the end of the day, look down at what you have achieved instead of looking out at what remains to be done.

 But most importantly, after you have started – persist.

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