Alex Mungall’s garden is situated in sizzling Melbourne, where the hottest temperature in recent years was 46.4 degrees Celsius in 2009! Alex moved to Australia from Britain and, despite the heat, manages to grow some excellent plants, including some delicious edibles. His garden sits on a slope and consists of clay covered with a layer of top soil.
1. Please tell us who you are, where you live and what you do for a living.
I’m Alex Mungall, I live in Melbourne, Australia, although I was born in Scotland and I am a gardener for a living, working on local domestic gardens as a second career.
2. Please give some brief details about your garden, e.g. size, aspect, general soil type.
I live on a slope above a park built on a flood plain. The soil is clay, but we’ve brought in top soil. As a full west facing garden catching the afternoon sun, it is more suitable for solar panels than garden plants. But with a little help from drip irrigation and smart plant choices, we can have a beautiful garden that survives several 40C days plus every summer, and low rainfall.
3. Why is it important for you to create a nice garden?
Soil has miraculous health-giving properties. I think everyone should have to stick their hands into it once a week! I love the views from my windows, I love the beauty of plants – much more so than the “landscaping” – and I love the contrast of one plant with another which enhances the impact of each specimen.
4. How many hours a week do you spend working on your garden?
5. How much leisure time do you spend in your garden and what do you do?
I love to get out there! I am not a fan of lawns, so it is mainly about tending my shrubs, trees and vegetables.
6. What is your most prized plant and why?
I will say my guichenotia. I am in love with Australian plants as they are so different to the British plant life I grew up with, and so I am continually entertained by them and learning. This particular one can look very drab in summer! However the reward of this amazing lilac shade in deepest winter, when my surrounding succulents are also glossy and rich, is beyond belief!
7. Which plant do you feel gives the best value in your garden?
My acacia lime magic has very little downtime throughout the year. The only sign I know that it is not in the height of its growing season is when it is slightly duller shade of yellow. Most of the year it is so vibrant, and always catches your eye. It has the height that means that other shrubs have a plant backdrop and in the centre of its bed, I see so many plants with it as a back drop from each angle. I love this bed as it has lime, green, grey and bronze shades working together, and the white and purple flowers around it are in such good harmony. It is also so satisfying that it has grown from very little and become my favourite garden area.
8. What is/has been your biggest challenge in this garden?
Australian plants often tend to like acidic soil. I have experienced plants struggling with iron deficiency because the soil I have is on the alkali side of neutral. So dealing with this involves treating plants and soil to rebalance things. I want to get it right, because some of my favourite plants are involved! An example is chorizema.
9. What has been your biggest gardening disaster?
Over watering Australian plants. I did have a phase where I wanted to combine cottage flowers with Australian shrubs with attractive foliage. However to get growth from seedlings for lush vegetative plants that grow in northern Europe requires significantly more water, and this will promote rot in the roots of grevilleas, kangaroo paws and some other Australian plants from desert or sandy conditions.
10. What is your favourite gardening shortcut or tip, and who taught you it?
Always plant 3 or 5 of something, never even numbers. I think I learnt this from a class. It is funny how awkward even numbers of plants look!
11. Which plant do you wish you could grow, but cannot?
Peonies. Big blousy flowers with an extraordinary range. However they will not grow in Melbourne’s heat, so we need to visit show gardens in the surrounding hills to see them. Ditto tulips.
12. What is your oldest plant, and how old is it?
I suppose a camellia from the old couple who built the house before retiring. I had most parts landscaped, but left two structural trees. I’m not sure how old it is, but I haven’t see an older one! 30 years?
13. Where do you find information on which plants to grow and how to care for them?
I like to visit specialist nurseries in person at several times of the year. We also have a facebook group called Australian Gardening Enthusiasts which is very inspiring. Rather than just looking at pictures in a reference book, we can interact immediately with the grower. I use an app called plantfile which contains some cultivation advice.
14. Do you grow anything to eat, and which have you had the most success with?
I always grow something. I have a lime tree and always have spring onions, thyme and basil or coriander growing, along with various edible flowers. Then I plant up my major raised veg beds with something for the season. This year I did eggplants, and had a big success! Tomatoes last year was not a success.
15. Do you admire any famous gardeners or gardens?
Piet Oudolf is inspiring. I went to visit one of his gardens in a housing block in Copenhagen. I love that he uses grasses, which have a lot of variety amongst them, interest throughout the seasons, and can be interplanted with simple flowers enmasse to create a naturalistic look.
16. What have you learnt from your own garden?
Small leave shapes and large leaf shapes contrast each other so well. Large differences in leaf colour work well together. Salvias from Mexico and Australian plants are made to work together, even although they are from other ends of the earth!