Dr John Wamsley: The Bush Gardener

I’m sitting at the dining table at Proo Geddes and Dr John Wamsley’s house, out from Aldgate in the Adelaide Hills. John’s settled in at the head of the table – his glasses flung on top of some loose papers, an abandoned toy train lurching dangerously, in stop motion, towards us.

‘The grand daughters have been visiting,’ he says, smiling, and rightly unapologetic. We’re set up with cups of tea, and a plate of sticky pear tarts, but there’s a problem – and it’s coming from the kitchen. The previous night the glass door of the new oven cracked and now Proo’s on the phone, explaining to her supplier (in a voice that shows highly-evolved patience) that she needs it fixed – stat.

The reason? Homemade scones. And lots of them. Proo and John are getting ready for a two-day Open Garden event at their 1.4-hectare bushland property, Wirrapunga, in late September and there’s a fair amount of baking to be done. There are also plants to pot up, and Proo’s watercolours to frame, all for sale on the day. But, somewhat curiously, the garden itself needs no work. John has spent the past 20 years on that, actively nudging the bushland that surrounds their Adelaide Hills home back into pristine form, free of blackberries, pines and other introduced species. He describes their garden as ‘native grassy woodland’, and it’s as handsome as it sounds – assuming, of course, you know how to look.

Someone came to the house to fix my computer one day, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I see you’re not much of a gardener,’ John recounts, tea in hand, chuckling. ‘And I thought that was absolutely wonderful.

The fact is that Dr Wamsley’s reputation for ‘gardening’ usually precedes him – he’s the tall, nature-focused bloke who was named the Prime Minister’s Environmentalist of the Year in 2003, and who founded Warrawong Sanctuary, which later expanded into Earth Sanctuaries, in the 80s. Back then Warrawong was famous for its native wildlife – John and Proo had bilbies, quolls, and platypus on the property – and for its fox-proof fence. John was equally famous – for his wardrobe, or rather, one particular hat made from the pelt of a feral cat. His maverick work protecting Australia’s plants and animals certainly made ripples across the pages of our national newspapers at the time, but more than that he opened Australia’s eyes to seeing – and beginning to value – our native, often endangered, species.

‘I think it’s our job as Australians to save our biodiversity,’ John tells me, straight off the bat. ‘I think if we lose our biodiversity we’ve failed absolutely, we’ve buggered the country. So that’s the motivation for my work and life.’

Nowadays the cat hat has been retired (‘Too many dogs chase me, if I wear it,’ John explains, subtly), but the campaign to protect Australia’s bushland keeps on.

Wirrapunga – An award-winning native garden, only a short drive from Aldgate in the Adelaide Hills.
John has established a native water garden, in a raised garden bed. Here he holds the leaf of the rare River Buttercup – Ranunculus inundatus.

With Wirrapunga, John and Proo have created a truly indigenous garden. They’ve freed the bushland property from the choke of introduced plants, and gently managed the land back to health. ‘I started rehabilitating the property by removing what I call the ‘woody weeds’ – the blackberries, the broom, the Erica, the pine trees – and returning it to bush,’ explains John. ‘When I did that all sorts of new plants came up, and I had to learn how to identify the native species when they were little, so I didn’t pull the good ones out. It was a lot of learning, and a mass of work. I used to spend six months of the year weeding, but that’s not necessary now.’

The idea of a bushland garden is, in many ways, a living paradox. When we think of gardens, we tend to imagine manicured spaces, full of traditional garden plants such as agapanthus, roses, rhododendrons and azaleas. And the bush? Well, that’s a wild, untamed place with its own deep, unassailable mythologies. But can it be a garden as well?

In a welcome way, John and Proo’s regenerated bushland challenges our perception of what a garden is (it shocked the computer guy, for starters). Wirrapunga is a non-structured space, with native plants growing wherever they happen to appear, but that doesn’t mean it’s totally wild. Some traditional forms of intervention are, in fact, vital for maintenance of the space as natural, grassy woodland. Proo explains: ‘All of our indigenous shrubbery is quite capable of taking over without control. John gets out there on his lawn mower every few years, to keep things in check.’ Gardening doesn’t get much more traditional than a Sunday afternoon spent in the backyard with a Victa mower.

‘The bush has a mind of its own,’ John says, expanding on this.

Most of the plants in our bush won’t grow in a garden. So, if you want to recreate ‘our bush’, what is it? Well, it varies. But it’s basically a community, where everything depends on something else. The most visible are the trees, then the shrubs, the little plants, the things that live in the leaf litter, and the things that live in the ground. They’re all part of a community and if you take anything out of that community you degrade it. It’s a web of life.’

And there are signs that nature throws at us at times, pointing out the fragility of that web. Like tadpoles or frogs in the wider world, native orchids are a good indicator of how the Australian bush is faring – and they happen to be one of John’s plant favourites. ‘When I first purchased Warrawong (which incidentally borders our current home, Wirrapunga) there were 45 species of native orchid growing along a 3-kilometre stretch of adjacent road. That blew my mind,’ says John. ‘And I watched them disappear. Now there’s probably three or four species left. But nobody did anything to make them go – they just vanished. So that had a big impression on me.’

‘I started to realise what was happening. The management of our bush has changed. It was managed in a certain way, either meaningfully or not meaningfully, it doesn’t matter, but it had a certain management regime and that stopped. If you’ve got a garden and you look after it and tend it, and then you stop, things change and yet we expect our bush not to change. We expect to be able to change the management and for our bush to stay the same. Australia is losing its biodiversity because of introduced plants and animals, and changes in bushland management. Change is causing massive loss of biodiversity and that saddens me.’

But it also motivates John to power up the Victa mower every so often, and maintain balance in his garden. The work is recognised. Wirrapunga was the first indigenous garden to be included as part of the Open Garden roster, and, in 2011, it won Gold in the Sustainable Landscape’s Native Garden Awards. ‘When we started being involved in Open Gardens, we came under all sorts of pressure to neaten up the garden,’ says John, wryly. ‘I cleaned up some of the areas that had lovely orchids so that visitors could see them. Well, the orchids left. They didn’t want me to clean up,’ he says, nodding outwards to the bushland. ‘I’ve made some awful blunders out there.’

‘But observation is a great teacher,’ adds Proo, philosophically.

What do you call a wild gang of Nodding Greenhoods? Pterostylis nutans.
The Pink-eyed Susan (Tetratheca pilosa) can grow to 1 metre high, and flowers from April to February.

At last count, there were about 45 species of native orchids growing on their block, which is impressive by any standard. ‘That’s what I was aiming at,’ says John. ‘But basically all of those came back by simple management. The giant sun orchid – Thelymitra grandiflora – was the last to appear. We discovered it again a few days ago. I’ve been trying to coax them to return for years!’ (Yes, this is a household and relationship where botanical names get bandied back and forth with ease.)

With any luck, the giant sun orchids will be flowering at Wirrapunga come the end of September, just in time for the Open Garden. ‘I hope to raise $5,000 through the Open Garden for ongoing work at Scott Creek Conservation Park,’ says John. ‘We’ll be selling copies of Proo’s children’s book, ‘Send it Down Huey’, baked goods, Proo’s original water colours, and hosting a silent auction of rare plants over the two days.’

The rare plants include saplings of an ancient clonal gum thought to be over 2,000 years old. ‘It has beautiful red flowers,’ John tells me. ‘There are probably three of them in the world – and two of them are for sale that weekend.’ There’s a water plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica), classed as critically endangered, which sends up a flower stalk just right for dry arrangements. ‘I’ve got a matted Pratia covered with a mass of little blue flowers, which hasn’t even been described. It’s an undescribed plant!’ says John, genuinely rapt. Lastly, there’s a single, pale vanilla lily (Arthropodium milleflorum), which has only been recorded a few times in South Australia. The plants will go to the highest bidder on the day.

A rare Eucalyptus species, originally discovered in Scott Creek Conservation Park by botanist Bob Bates, who described it in his journal as ‘An ancient clonal gum, over 2,000 years old’.
It’s a cool day at Wirrapunga, with rain clinging to the small plants – here Hoary Rapier Sedge (Lepidosperma canescens), with Pink-eyed Susan in the distance (Tetratheca pilosa).

Scott Creek is another conservation project John has on the go. The park is a protected area twenty minutes south of Adelaide, where he likes to bushwalk. ‘Working on Wirrapunga, I’ve learnt how precious our bush is – what’s left of it. That’s why I spend a lot of time at Scott Creek now, because I know I can achieve something for endangered native plants down there.’

A few days after my visit to Wirrapunga, I meet John, Proo and eight or so others for a guided tour of the park. We gather at the site of old silver mine, called Almanda, where there’s a creek, manna gums with resident koalas, and where John has completed a substantial amount of weeding work, as a member of the Friends of Scott Creek. Weeds here include the usual suspect – blackberry – but also watercress, garden-variety mint, and the beautiful (but pestilent) Cape Tulip.

One of the first things John says to us – the gaggle of early-risers crowded around him – is this:

‘Are people more important if they’re good looking?’ He pauses, just long enough. ‘If we treated people like we treat our gardens, we’d be in awful trouble. We’re not interested in growing ugly plants.’ I interpret what he’s saying as ‘keep your eyes open’, which may well be the secret to seeing our native landscape.

John proceeds to manoeuvre through the bushland like it’s his own backyard, while the rest of us slip, tumble and trample on what I suppose are a bunch of rare and endangered plants.

‘Almanda Creek was overrun by blackberries when I first visited,’ explains John, looking around us at the creek scene, now full of native ferns, grasses and even clumps of delicate caraway. ‘I asked the Friends why nothing had been done, and the response was ‘It’s too hard, we can’t do it,’ so I said, ‘Do you mind if I do it?’ and they said, ‘Go your hardest.’ I don’t think they believed I could do it. But I finished clearing the first area of blackberries within a year, working alone. Now we can stand here, and within 20 metres of us are more than a dozen rare species of plants. There’s nowhere else you can do that.’

John and Proo’s garden, Wirrapunga, will be open as part of Open Gardens SA’s event calendar on 26 and 27 September 2015, from 10am to 4:30pm each day. For more information, and how to support the work of the Friends of Scott Creek Conservation Park, see:

A maidenhair fern (Adiantum aethiopicum) in the wild! John says ‘They like a moist semi-protected position, and resent total shade.’
‘We sprayed all the blackberries here last year,’ says John, looking around over the skeletal forms of dying bushes and assessing the damage. ‘So, we’ve had a pretty good kill. The intent is to get some native water ferns growing here again.’