Where passions bloom

Feeling like a weed in a manicured plot, Kate Armstrong embarks on a quest to find her inner gardener.

I'M EMBARRASSED to admit it but thanks to school science classes we - silly young girls that we were - equated "gardens" with "sex": the birds and the bees, gooey nectar and fragrance and pollination of flowers.

I think about this now, 30 years later, having accepted an invitation to my first garden tour. Fellow participants comprise six self-confessed green thumbs. It's only day one (of three) and already I've been asked to tell the group about my own garden.

The thing is, I don't have a garden. I don't do gardening. Whether through lack of time or fear of failure (or both), I've always felt a bit afraid to get my hands dirty.

An avid gardener takes the mic in my place. She coos over her echium and euphorbia. She tells of her failed attempts at growing peonies because she'd "wet their feet". The group murmurs in appreciation.

I'm like a weed in a manicured plot - out of place.

But, as I discover, strange things can happen on garden tours.

We are exploring the Western District of Victoria (geographically speaking, the state's south-western region, three hours from Melbourne) with Botanica World Discoveries, a garden tour company that combines visits to natural, created and kitchen gardens within Australia and around the world.

After the goldmining town of Ballarat, our bus hurtles through the one-horse towns of Skipton and Lake Bolac. The Grampians comes into view: this mountain range resembles a child's drawing of jagged peaks. But no one has captured the hazy mauve hues of the range better than 20th-century Australian painter Arthur Streeton.

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Declared a national park as recently as 1984, the Grampians comprises three massive sandstone ridges about 95 kilometres long and 55 kilometres wide. Known as Gariwerd in the language of the local Jardwadjali and Djab Wurrung people, the area contains about 80 per cent of Aboriginal rock-art sites in Victoria, as we later discover when we visit Brambuk, the National Park and Cultural Centre in Halls Gap.

Soon we are in river red-gum country; hundreds of eucalypts dot the landscape like giant, white, multi-armed scarecrows keeping watch over the sacred land. For the past decade, severe drought in the region had rendered the area scorched and white. Thanks to heavy winter rains, it's now lush, green and fertile.

This is how it was for the 19th-century squattocracy, the aristocratic squatters who claimed the region's most fertile lands and made their fortunes as pastoralists.

Our first stop is Lambley Nursery, run by the charismatic David Glenn. Given Glenn's British origins, it's no surprise his own property - integrated with his plant nursery, a commercial business - resembles a beautiful English cottage garden. He guides us through the garden faster than a climbing broad-bean vine on time-lapse photography.

Flowers - blues, pinks and whites - resemble a Monet painting. Their names are beautiful. Ranunculus. Dianthus. Hummingbird mint.

The garden, Glenn tells us, survives up to minus 6 degrees in winter and 43-degree temperatures in summer. His "secret"? It's an organic, drought-tolerant garden.

Glenn's plants extend way beyond natives and succulents. He sources seeds from countries whose conditions reflect those of Victoria's Western District - central Asia, North Africa, the Atlas Mountains, Turkey, the Mediterranean and Mexico.

When it comes to gardening, Glenn is encouraging: "If a plant doesn't work, it comes out. People get scared of gardening. As I say to people, you're not cutting someone's head off here. If it dies, it dies."

But it's our guide and gardener of repute, Simon Rickard, who opens up the hidden gardener in me. Rickard is solely responsible for growing produce in a kitchen garden for Annie Smithers's Bistrot in the Victorian country town of Kyneton. Somehow, around all this, he is also the principal baroque bassoonist for Pinchgut Opera. He has a magic touch.

At one point in the tour, Rickard runs his fingers over a Cistus creticus, a plant from the island of Crete: "In Crete, wild goats graze on it. People used to catch the wild goats for the sticky resin in the goats' beards. People would comb out the resin and trade the balsam for the perfumery."

And so it goes on: as we come across different plants, birds and insects, Rickard - our own cultured version of Man vs Wild - enthuses about their uses, origins and spelling (both Latin and common versions). We inhale the scent of the chocolate lily (yes, it really does smell like cocoa), touch the leaves of lamb's ears and taste petals of borage, an edible flower.

The noon sun beats down as we enter the gates of Wakefield Park, a private garden whose owners have transformed paddocks into a hectare of lush garden spaces with lots of shade. Rickard promotes this as "a real people's garden, an example of what people can do at home".

The main feature of the garden is its individual "rooms" (a favourite, apparently, of garden designer Edna Walling): rose beds; niches of liquid ambers, ash and orchard trees; a silver birch walk; a crab apple tunnel; and arches and decorative entrances made using timber and stone from the property.

It's a relaxing meander. Magpies warble. Insects buzz. Sweet fragrances are everywhere.

Scents and flavour are equally as important in kitchen gardens. Dunkeld is home to the award-winning Royal Mail Hotel, whose extraordinary cuisine is based around local seasonal produce. Much of this is sourced from the restaurant's own kitchen gardens: healthy orchards of nectarine, peach and plum trees, an olive grove and a hothouse of herbs and greens.

Our sensorial experience extends beyond plants alone. At the Hamilton Art Gallery, we wander through the fascinating exhibits - many are decorative - although these are a fraction of the collection's 8000 pieces.

We enjoy lunch at Darriwill Farm, which proudly promotes and serves the region's gourmet produce - local beef, olive oil and caper dishes.

At Grampians Pure Sheep Dairy, 14 kilometres east of Dunkeld, we sample delectable flavours of different cheeses and award-winning sheep's yoghurt.

Then it's back to the gardens. The ultimate garden is nature's own; this area has more than 1000 species of wildflowers.

On our final morning we head into the Grampians National Park to hike up Mount Picaninny.

We reach the top and admire the vista: a green plain spreads out below, surrounded by low shrubs and ironbarks. Cicadas buzz, a fantail cuckoo emits its descending note and fairy wrens trill. Nearby, below a rocky overhang, an ironbark wallaby nibbles on grass, seemingly oblivious of our chatter.

On our return, Rickard, an experienced spotter, points to dots of colour on the ground, so tiny they're almost invisible. They're delicate wildflowers.

The Eureka moment for us all is spotting a duck orchid (we follow Rickard's lead; he's in a frenzy).

"Do orchids need to be pollinated?" he asks.

"Yes!" we cry, confident in our new-found knowledge. "This is a duck orchid's head. Watch what happens if I take a stick and pretend to be a bee landing on a flower." He places a twig against its duck-shaped head. It snaps shut.

Rickard continues. "It holds the bee in place. The bee will struggle free and think, 'Oh phew!' but, with no memory, will fly immediately into another." With the yellow pollen on its body, the bee pollinates the next "duck".

The tour over, I realise that I, too, am blossoming. Not only can

I finally tell a delphinium (poisonous) from the similar-looking borage (edible) but I begin to dream about my future garden: drought-tolerant lupins by the back fence, a massive bed of pink Moroccan daisies and my own organic vegetable patch.

A pile of gardening books is stacked by my bed.

Nowadays, when I lie back at night, I think of roses - with growing excitement.

The writer was a guest of Botanica World Discoveries and the Royal Mail Hotel.

Trip notes

Touring there

Botanica World Discoveries has more than 30 tours in locations including Australia, England, Europe and New Zealand. Tours range from three days (priced from $990) to 16 days (from $8950). Airfares are extra. Some trips have a gourmet focus. Botanica's Fork to Fork tour includes gourmet experiences based on local produce. 1300 305 202; botanica.travel.

See + do

Hamilton Art Gallery is open Monday to Friday 10am-5pm; Saturday 10am-noon and 2-5pm; and Sunday 2-5pm (admission by donation; hours vary for group and private tours), 107 Brown St, Hamilton. (03) 5573 0460, hamiltongallery.org.

Lambley Nursery, Lesters Road, Ascot. (03) 5343 4303, lambley.com.au.

Brambuk National Park and Cultural Centre is open 9am-5pm daily. It offers three-hour rock-art tours (adults $35, children $22), 277 Grampians Rd, Halls Gap. (03) 5361 4000, brambuk.com.au.

Grampians Pure Sheep Dairy is open Monday to Saturday (closed noon-2pm), Glenelg Highway, Glenthompson. (03) 5577 4223.

Royal Mail Hotel is open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday from 6.30. The 10-course degustation "menu omnivore" costs $150, "menu vegetarian" $110; 98 Parker Street Dunkeld. (03) 5577 2241, royalmail.com.au.

Darriwill Farm, 169 Gray Street, Hamilton, (03) 5571 2088, darriwillfarm.com.au.

More information

grampiansnationalpark.com.

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