Gardens defy dry

In 1943, the American cartoonist Robert Ripley of Ripley's Believe it or Not fame dubbed Ballarat's Old Curiosity Shop "the queerest house in Australia".

Thought to be Victoria's oldest tourist attraction, the historic property will be open to the public for the first time in 10 years during the Ballarat Gardens in Spring Festival.

The festival will feature 11 diverse private gardens that are flourishing amid the drought.

Ballarat has endured level-four water restrictions for more than four years. But it hasn't stopped passionate gardeners like Gardens in Spring co-founder Jan Todd, who has transformed a nondescript 1960s brick house on a stark block into a stylish home surrounded by a lush garden in just five years.

"Tough water restrictions do not mean resorting to a garden of grasses and pebbles," says Todd, whose garden is an outstanding example of minimum water use. "It's about learning to be a water miser, editing water-hungry plants from the garden and exploring the huge range of drought-hardy varieties available."

Todd's garden features bold sculptural succulents with contrasting foliage, mass plantings of feathery yet tough and long-lasting artemisia and a superb collection of David Austin roses under-planted with hardy perennials and self-seeded annuals, all watered by several tanks scattered throughout the garden.

Nancy Brewer is another green thumb whose glorious garden has thrived during four of the driest summers on record. Set around a rambling Federation villa, Brewer's garden combines exuberant plantings of roses, clematis, perennials, and an array of dry-tolerant plants set amid shady nooks, established hedges and old trees. Not a drop of water is wasted on Brewer's 1350-square-metre block: every downpipe is diverted to a tank, nothing goes down the sink unless necessary and there are bowls and buckets everywhere.

Landscaper Elizabeth Gilfillan's elegant garden surrounds a Victorian homestead at Navigators, 10 kilometres east of Ballarat. Originally a dairy farm, the garden now consists of old and new beds that include scented viburnums, camellias, and hardy shrubs, succulents and natives that flourish without watering, all flowering under a windbreak of ancient cypress trees.

Ballarat Gardens in Spring is on from Friday to Monday. There is a charge to visit each garden — from a gold coin donation to $6 — and maps are available. The Old Curiosity Shop (7 Queen Street South, Ballarat) will be open on Sunday, November 22, from 10am to 4.30pm, admission $6. See ballaratopengardens.com.au.

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