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THE REAL DIRT ON: Edna Walling: A Progressive Australian Landscape Designer

By Carol Buckley.

One of Australia’s foremost garden designers was born in York, England, in 1895. Edna Margaret Walling began her love of nature on walks with her father through the moors of Devon after her family settled there. At the age of fourteen, Edna and her family sailed for New Zealand, then settled in Melbourne. Encouraged by her mother, she was one of the first women to graduate from Burnley Horticultural College. She began working as a gardener, but wanted to design landscapes. When she finally had her chance, there was no stopping this strong and practical young woman.

At age 26, Edna bought three acres of land and built a cottage for herself out of local stone and wood from her father’s work. When constructing this and surrounding cottages (to form what she termed the village of Bickleigh Vale), she followed her own principle that window placement in a house should allow garden views from all angles.

Many of Edna’s gardens were formal and based on Italian and Spanish styles, with their emphasis on stone and water. Though influenced by British horticulturist and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, she felt the climate of Melbourne was more suited to Mediterranean ideals than English ones. She was partial to stands of silver birches but incorporated native gum trees. Later, she dropped the birches and became an early advocate of native plants. Even in her earlier gardens, though, she always left one "wild" area.

Edna Walling's handsome watercolor landscape designs reveal her principle of a garden made of “rooms.” (See her watercolor plan for Markdale, in New South Wales, pictured above.) She had a painter’s eye, and the moss-covered stones and variations of green in her palette softened her use of stone, which was often local basalt. This carpet of green led from garden to house, and her ubiquitous pool set off from the garden, often down a slope, was gathered into that connection by vegetation that didn’t stop until it got to the water’s edge. She blurred the line of demarcation between garden and wild plants by letting outliers ease into the plan. In one instance, a lovely undulating moss-covered berm was created from the dirt heap left from a pool digging.

Edna believed a garden should require low-maintenance, and she liked when flowers popped up in a vegetable garden. A devout Christian Scientist, she said, “The garden laid out with all the scientific skill of the trained horticulturalist so often misses the divine something found in gardens planted with the affectionate hands of those who personally tend their plants.” But Edna also loved and believed in structure. Jennie Churchill, who owned Kiloren, a surviving Edna Walling garden (see photo below) for more than three decades, said that architectural elements were what held her garden together (“Living with Edna Walling—at Kiloren”).

When Edna Walling was criticized by some for placing plants too close together, Jennie Churchill said, “She would refer her critics to the way trees and shrubs grew in the bush.” Churchill added that in her own experience, it was probably this close weave that caused the perceptibly cooler microclimate in the Kiloren garden.

Edna died in 1973, but her design sense, progressive thinking, and wit—published in Australian Home Beautiful, for twenty-five years, and in various books—continue to influence Australian design.

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