Award winning garden set to find its home in Olinda

Phillip Johnson in the native Australian garden set to open to the public in coming months. PICTURES: STEWART CHAMBERS 298916_01

By Tyler Wright

An award winning garden being recreated in the Dandenong Ranges Botanic Garden will soon be open to the public after months of construction.

Olinda-based landscape designer Phillip Johnson’s Australian Garden, the first Australian-made display to win best in show at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2013, and admired by the late Queen Elizabeth II, will soon be a major attraction for residents and visitors to the Hills.

A replica 20 times the size of Phillip’s original 7000 square metre garden is being built on what used to be an old golf course in the Dandenong Ranges Botanic Garden, which is now home to an ecosystem of 400 Australian native and 80 different endangered and threatened plant species, as well as a Billabong sustained from water off nearby rooftops, including that of the Olinda- Ferny Creek Football Club pavillion.

“Most of all, it’s a really important space to educate people about native plants the importance of growing native plants, sustainable principles, habitat creation and definitely climate change,” Mr Johnson said.

“The whole garden’s powered off the grid on solar power… and we’ve set up ways of being able to connect to this garden from anywhere around the world, through to a series of cameras that will pick up certain beautiful aspects; show the mood, the mist, the emotion that the landscape can bring, the beauty of flowers.”

Mr Johnson said when he first started designing the garden for the Chelsea Flower Show, his purpose was to create the “most incredible Australian garden” for Queen Elizabeth II; complete with authentic sounds of the landscape and flora.

Melbourne architect Dylan Brady of Decibel Architecture even helped Mr Johnson construct the ‘Waratah sculpture,’ moulded to the eyeline of Queen Elizabeth II for her to have an interrupted view of the garden’s skyline, Billabong and the rock work.

Mr Johnson also recorded frogs chirping outside his Olinda home to play within the Chelsea Garden Show display.

“There was a beautiful moment when Her Majesty came to our garden and she said ‘Phillip, what’s the story with these frogs I hear in the background?’ and I said ‘Your Majesty, one late night in my garden I got on my boardwalk and I was recording the sound of the frogs, that’s the byproduct of creating a really important healthy sustainable ecosystem…frogs come.”

“She said ‘ah, you sound like a dear friend of mine – Sir David Attenborough.”

Now, with almost $2.5 million from the federal government’s Building Better regions fund, $3.83 million from the Victorian government and $340,000 worth of self-raised funds alongside the People and Parks foundation, visitors to the Dandenong Ranges and residents alike will be able to enjoy this slice of the luscious landscape for themselves.

“We’ve been building in the worst conditions of my life; so you don’t normally want to build on the most complex garden ever created in Australia, on top of the mountain, the wettest winter in history,” Mr Johnson said.

But nearing completion, Mr Johnson hopes the garden will be a place of “healing” for local residents after the June 2021 storm event.

“The Dandenongs have gone through such a difficult time in the last couple of years; Covid, the storms,” Mr Johnson said.

This is also to create an opportunity to bring tourists at different times of the year… to help our local industry recover from Covid and the storms.

It’s actually to celebrate native plants; and achieving what a group up of Australians created on the other side of the world 10 years ago.”

With the Queen’s passing on Thursday 8 September, Mr Johnson is planning to keep the Royal Palace updated with the progress of his Australian Garden.

“We have the Kings Park in WA, a famous native garden, now we might have the Queen’s Garden in Victoria… another exceptional Australian native garden that celebrates our incredible plant material.”

We will be developing web content, takeaway content [on] how you can learn and take these principles, really cool principles… concepts of landscape design and sustainable design and plant selection, how you can learn about these at home as well.

It would be a great facility for education and research and development as well.”