Our neighbours across the Tasman can certainly give some perspective when dealing with drought. A recently completed public garden on the outskirts of Melbourne has pulled out the stops and celebrates Australia's plant biodiversity amid the climate and landscape extremes of this vast continent.
We visited the Australian Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Cranbourne, in January, just before the huge fires swept through New South Wales and just as Tasmania's fires were starting.
You could feel the heat by mid-morning and the signs were there. Extreme fire risk warnings peppered the walking tracks off the main carpark. We armed ourselves with hats, white shirts and drink bottles.
Our first vision of the Australia Garden was a view of the dramatic "Red Sand Garden", which takes centre stage below the visitors' centre. It's a graphic representation of the hot, red desert of central Australia and is an Aussie masterpiece.
There are subtle touches evocative of Aboriginal paintings in the cream-coloured shapes which represent ephemeral lakes in sculptural form. Small mass-planted grey-green islands are like finger dots made by a giant hand. The grey foliage consists of inland plants such as Hedge Saltbush (Rhagodia spinescens), contrasting with the burnt-ochre colour of the sand. The painting offers seasonal interest, when Albany Daisy (Actinodium) and a decent swathe of Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos) bloom.
The 15ha Australian Garden site is designed to represent the diverse landscapes of the Australian continent. It is situated on an old sand mine, and the remnant bushland in the area is part of a greater 363ha park on the southeastern outskirts of Melbourne. The land (once a huge sandhill) was known as "Towbeet" and was the ancestral home of the Mayone-bulluk clan of the Boon Wurrung people (Kulin Nation).
The Cranbourne gardens are a division of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, and specialise in Australian native plants. In 1994, landscape architects Taylor & Cullity were chosen to design the "Australia Garden" in association with one of the country's leading planting designers, Paul Thompson. The first stage opened in May 2006, and the second phase and final part of the design was opened in October 2012. The garden is a "new kind of botanic garden", designed to "invoke and reflect the relationships between plants, landscapes and culture".
A meandering pathway leads around the giant central red sand garden to outer lying theme gardens (designed by a number of firms), such as the . "Diversity Garden", the "Water Saving Garden", and a "Future Garden". The "Home Garden" showcases fragments of Australian garden design history; the "Kids' Garden" is designed to inspire the most creative eco-friendly backyard with natural materials. The sound of water drew me over to the Rockpool Waterway, where visitors are invited to cool down by wandering through paved "rocks" in a river of shallow water. The weighty presence of the 90m red iron "Escarpment Wall" sculpture fits perfectly here.
Beyond the rock pool waterway lies a river walk and sequence of lakes which take varied and contrasting sculptural forms. The "Melaleuca Spits" feature a symbolic estuary and coastal plantings. Bright, white, serpentine sand fingers break up what could have been a plain lake edge. The experimentation with form and materials, the attention to detail, and playfulness in the hard landscaping make the Australia Garden a stand-out. And there's a message attached, to take care of these sensitive environments and live lightly on the land.
We made our way up Howson Hill, which provides a good lookout and a bit of breeze. Nearby, the recently built "Arbor Garden", with its fine metal framework, will in time be a valuable asset for local gardeners interested in researching appropriate plants for vertical gardening, as will the cultivar and research gardens. At this point, the heat was getting to me, and in a timely location we found a kiosk where Aussie ice blocks were on offer, and we refilled our drink bottles. Heading back we made our way through the "Gondwana Garden" and up the "Rift Path", which is flanked by two inclining, monumental rammed earth walls. I paused to soak up the relative cool of the earth wall, which was lovely to lean against.
A subtle highlight was the ironbark garden in the Eucalypt Walk. The elegant markings of the bark were showcased in repetitive plantings. The heat truly does release essential oils from the leaves of these Australian native plants. The peppermint garden is a particularly enjoyable sensory experience. The peppermint is not as we know it, rather a curious range of herbaceous plants native to Australia, such as Lemon-Scented Dawinia.
We made it back to the carpark and, as I suspected, the outside temperature on the car's thermometer was over 40C. It would be worth returning to these gardens in a few years' time as the plantings mature, to see the designer's vision fleshed-out more completely.
• Meg Liptrot travelled to Melbourne courtesy of Silversea (Sydney to Auckland Cruise). Thanks also to Louis Le Vaillant who provided inspiration (and transport) to visit the garden; he was great company, too.