John Arnott hopes the new garden will inspire visitors to embrace Australia's distinctive flora. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
A LILY-pad bridge, a Weird and Wonderful Garden and a forest glade are three new horticultural attractions in the final stage of Cranbourne's award-winning Australian Garden.
The first stage opened in 2008, and the completion next week of the second stage ends 20 years of planning, construction and planting, which have come together in a joyous celebration of Australian flora and the story of water across this wide brown land.
While the first stage concentrated on arid environments and the journey of water, the second stage, which officially opens on Friday, depicts river systems, coastal and urban environments and forests.
As well as the completion of the garden, the second stage includes the extension of the visitor centre and the woodland picnic area, at a total cost of $49.5 million for both stages, which includes contributions from a number of sources.
Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne manager of horticulture John Arnott says the completed 15-hectare site, designed by landscape architecture firm Taylor Cullity Lethlean and plant designer Paul Thompson, has two themes: the nature of Australian flora and its culture; and the landscape that supports the plants.
''It's capturing the beauty and diversity of our flora and trying to engage people in knowing, understanding, growing and loving our wonderful flora,'' Arnott says.
There are also ''takes'' on old horticultural techniques, such as an arbour walk, but instead of traditional plants, such as roses and wisteria clambering up arched trellises in the English tradition, a collection of Australian climbers, including gum vines and kennedias, has been used on industrial-style galvanised-steel frames - with dramatic effect.
The northern display features 120 advanced ficus trees, which are being trained to create a pleached walk - a European technique, but again, with an Australian twist.
''We're using Australian plants, but it's not a one-size-fits-all approach,'' Arnott says.
''A diversity of plants and landscape techniques is being exhibited at Cranbourne, and it's as much an inventory of what is possible with Australian plants as the plants themselves.'' A highlight of the first stage is the red sand garden, which contrasts dramatically with the grey foliage of the plantings. A dry garden represents the desert landscape, while the eucalypt walk showcases a range of plants, including Xanthorrhoea johnsonii, or grass tree. Marrying sculpture and garden architecture, there is art and contemporary design in features such as the rock-pool waterway and escarpment wall.
The final stage is equally dramatic, with 11 new precincts, including: a river walk; a cultivar garden; Howson Hill, which is capped with rare mallee eucalypts; Melaleuca Spits, a representation of estuarine coastal topography; and a rainforest heritage area in the Gondwana Garden. Nearby is a lily-pad bridge, which takes the visitor to the Elisabeth Murdoch promenade and various small gardens, where one can learn to till the soil.
The Weird and Wonderful Garden has a surreal edge, with huge Castlemaine vaulted stones rising into the air, water features and unusual Australian plants, such as cycads and the wonderful Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris), a feature at the children's garden in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens.
The Australian Garden is at the heart of 363 hectares at Cranbourne - an adjunct of its Melbourne counterpart - offering visitors 170,000 plants representing more than 850 varieties of Australian flora and remnant bushland.
Arnott says the collaboration between the landscapers and Thompson produced strong landscape architecture and challenging horticultural techniques.
''The Australian Garden is the opposite of the bush garden, so there's something for everyone, especially for people who are looking for more of a design ethos,'' Arnott says. ''The lovely thing about the site is there's a hallmark display garden for Australian plants which is surrounded by an area of high conservation values, with more than 20 species of native mammals, almost 10 per cent of the state's flora, and 25 per cent of Victoria's native orchids in a national park.''
Gardens director and chief executive Philip Moors has presided over the Australian Garden from its inception in 1992. Calling it a garden for the community, he says it is about being immersed in the landscapes of Australia and the colour and diversity of local flora.
The garden has won 18 international, national and regional awards for landscape design, tourism and sustainability, including a gold medal at last year's Chelsea Flower Show for a Jim Fogarty-designed garden that reflected the antipodean landscape, complete with red sand and a waterhole.
To celebrate the garden's completion, a two-day community celebration will be held next weekend, including a gardeners' day on Saturday with workshops, demonstrations and advice. Sunday is family day, with activities, arts and crafts and a treasure hunt. The Friends of the RBG Cranbourne will hold an Australian native-plant sale on both days and there will be live music and bush dancing, too.