Yalamurra, a “garden of survivors” in South Australia offers Texas inspiration

January 14, 2021

Yalamurra garden, the creation of Australian gardener Kurt Wilkinson. Photo by Kurt Wilkinson.

Want to know what’s inspiring me this week? It’s the South Australian garden of Kurt Wilkinson, a professional gardener and topiarist in the Adelaide area. Kurt’s work came to my attention via a Danger Garden post about Gardening Australia, a TV show from Down Under with episodes viewable online. The “Yalamurra” episode about Kurt’s garden caught Danger’s eye, and boy, did it grab mine as well.

The first thing that struck me about Kurt’s garden is a feeling of sympathy with our own Texas Hill Country landscape. Hilly, rocky, scrubby, and hot, his property northeast of Adelaide presented him, he says, with the necessity of ditching familiar garden plants and experimenting with tough natives and roadside weeds to see what would live. Sound familiar, my fellow Texans?

The second thing that struck me is his use of clipped topiary to add structure and punctuation amid airier, dry-loving plants that grow in a meadowy matrix with native grasses.

Here in central Texas, with our sauna-like but drought-prone summers — unlike Kurt’s dry Mediterranean summers — we can’t always successfully grow the fabulous maroon euphorbias aeoniums he favors for foliage color, nor his rivers of lavender. But look, we have our own unique and well-adapted plants that we can use to similar effect. Pop some zig-zagging, lead-the-eye topiary spheres or spires in there, and it’s magic.

I reached out to Kurt on Instagram (check out his stunning images of his garden), and he kindly agreed to send me some photos to use in this post. When I asked if he’d ever been to Texas, he replied, “I have never visited any other gardens other than those I work in, in Adelaide. I do visit gardens vicariously through books, YouTube and Insta but that’s it.” Instead he focuses intently on his own plot of land, trying out anything that occurs to him and seeing what works. He also works hard on his photography skills, and it shows.

After watching his segment on Gardening Australia, I looked for more and found an article in Country Style magazine and a fascinating, in-depth interview with Kurt on the podcast Horticulture Rising. There I learned that Kurt is a self-taught gardener with a predilection for topiary and hedges. When he and his wife moved to their current home, he found himself gardening in a climate quite different from where he gardens for clients. So he needed a new plant palette for his thin soil and hot summers. As he says on the podcast, “I’m a professional plant killer. What’s left is just what has survived….I can’t be babying plants.”

Formerly he favored formal gardens. But now that he’s growing what desert garden designer Steve Martino appreciatively calls “weeds,” he blends native, tough-as-nails plants with the formal topiary elements. And he’s not afraid to topiary natives to see what happens, which reminds me of former Austin designer (now based in Santa Fe) James David, who once showed me an oak he’d topiaried. Kurt says, “Once you understand a plant, then you can really start getting creative with it.”

Pruning advice

Kurt believes in trimming plants regularly, even the “pencil pines,” aka Italian cypresses, that most people allow to grow into tall spires. He controls their height and diameter by starting young with side trimming and staying on top of their growth. Don’t let them grow to the size you want and then start trimming, he advises. Instead, trim them tight from the start and then let them expand to the desired size amid regular pruning. “Don’t be scared of the plant,” he says. “Cut it hard. Just do it.” For demonstrations, check out his pruning videos on his YouTube channel.

I learned a lot about experimentation with plants, finding one’s own way with what works, and just the sheer joy of playing with plants from my deep-dive yesterday into Kurt’s gardening world. Dive in yourself, and see how it inspires you.

Photos courtesy of Kurt Wilkinson. My thanks for their use.

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