Driving around the back of Breamlea near Torquay this summer, I have been gazing at the coastal saltmarsh with its low-growing shrubs and free-form grasses, wishing I could get the same effect at my place. A thick, bumpy tapestry of green, grey and burnt-orange, this indigenous plant community grows in mud, is inundated by tides and looks effortlessly dramatic even when the temperature is hovering above 40°C and there hasn't been rain for weeks.
It's the same with the coastal heathland at Anglesea. All windswept sedges, nuggety shrubs and seasonal wildflowers, this cliff-top expanse has almost everything you want in a garden. Tough, sculptural and bird-attracting, it is totally at one with the salt-laden winds and dry summer heat.
Anglesea garden designer Peter Shaw says people are forever requesting that their domestic coastal gardens look like remnant landscapes such as these. They envisage random and relaxed outdoor spaces with fuzzy edges and sculptural twists but without much maintenance.
Only it never works that way. Once land has been cleared, houses built and the top-soil – and therefore seed bank – removed, it's very difficult to re-establish the plant communities that came before. While a growing band of enthusiasts is identifying remnant indigenous vegetation in their gardens and encouraging it to spread by rigorously weeding around it and protecting the plants from people and animals, few take this approach for their whole garden.
Shaw says it is a question of practicalities. "You can replicate heath with native local plants but it's very high maintenance. You have to keep weeds out and it won't naturally regenerate. If you plant it, mulch it and turn your back, most of the plants will soon be gone."
When it came to designing a garden that sits just metres away from the heath that towers above the Point Roadknight beach at Anglesea, Shaw wasn't only guided by the steep, natural landscape across the street. He also took into account the Robin Boyd-designed house, the garden's 1950s stonework and the fact that the site – of about 850 square metres – was going to receive about half a day's maintenance a month.
The garden, fashioned over the past two years, is open this weekend, along with Shaw's nearby home garden, "Sunnymeade", which has evolved over the past 17 years. Both places provide ideas for how to handle dry coastal sites using predominantly Australian plants.
In both instances Shaw has adhered to a rule of using at least 80 per cent "tough, bullet-proof" offerings (such as Pomaderris panniculosa, Correa alba, Melaleuca lanceolata, Lomandra longifolia 'Tankika', and Westringia fruticosa 'Mundi').
Among the 20 per cent more high-maintenance plants at his home garden, a series of buffalo-grass mounds come over as rolling hillocks in his front yard. Shaw installed under-surface irrigation inside and studiously whipper-snips the outside so they seem completely at one with the clipped westringias and twisting Stringybarks (Eucalyptus obliqua) all around. At the Point Roadknight garden, "Melba", the extra-care quota is filled with plants that (in Anglesea) are relatively short-lived, such as Stylidium armeria and Scleranthus biflorus or slightly temperamental (think Pimelea flava or Anigozanthus 'Big Red').
In an under utilised back corner, Shaw has introduced a sunken stone fire pit surrounded by some of the plants found naturally along the coast, including Leucopogon parviflorus and Olearia axillaris.
Being on a cliff-top, "Melba" is exposed to salty winds but Shaw says the biggest challenge has been that much of the planting was under manna gums and other large eucalypts that take all the moisture from the soil. To help counteract this, compost was added at planting and drip irrigation installed to run, over two sessions, for an hour a week.
But when "Melba" opens this weekend, one of the first things visitors might notice is the hard-pruned eucalypts along the street. It seems they have been cut – not by Melba's owners – to preserve beach views. It is a pity because it goes against everything that is good about gardening on the coast.
"Melba", 25 Melba Parade, Anglesea, and "Sunnymeade", 48 Harvey Street, Anglesea, are open today and tomorrow (January 27 and 28 ), noon to 6pm, $8 each or $12 for the two. opengardensvictoria.org.au