Green oasis full of secrets

TRADITIONAL walled gardens were divided into quarters, separated by brick or gravelled paths with a central axis such as a pool or statue. Dating to Persian times they had various uses, from ornamental spaces with box hedge parterres to potagers and lush summer perennial borders.

There are many fine examples of walled gardens: Sissinghurst in Kent, the vegetable garden at Chateau de Villandry in France, Villa Gamberaia in Tuscany, Rousham in Oxfordshire.

Walled gardens were enclosed by either hedges or brick structures that offered protection from bad weather (and stray animals), creating a warm micro-climate in which to grow a variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers that normally would not fare well in open spaces, especially in cold climes.

They also offered privacy; a place for lovers' trysts.

The walled garden at the Melbourne Club probably holds a swag of secrets shared over a gin and tonic. Political deals and business transactions. Or gossip about the philanderings of some of Melbourne's upper crust.

That won't be on the agenda tomorrow, though, when the club opens its garden for the first time in spring to raise money for the Friends of Burnley Gardens. But you will discover the secrets of the garden, which is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register and is usually off limits to the hoi polloi.

The piece de resistance of this private leafy oasis at the corporate end of town - built in the English tradition of walled gardens surrounding gentlemen's clubs and colleges - is the three London plane trees (Platanus x acerifolia) that tower over the garden, nestled between Little Collins Street and Ridgway Place. Their green canopies screen the neighbouring office blocks and car parks.

The largest tree was planted in 1895 and is on the National Trust's Register of Significant Trees of Victoria. It has a canopy spread of 30 metres, a height of 34 metres and its stately trunk is 5.47 metres in circumference.

Once threatened with demolition to make way for a car park, the enclosed garden is planted around a square courtyard with a large central lawn. There are paved and pebbled areas, a verandah and places to sit and take coffee or a wee nip, depending on the time of day.

Nearby is the women-only Lyceum Club, which overlooks the garden. No doubt there's a bit of ribbing from the women about the ''lowly'' status of their male counterparts.

The garden, which is predominantly foliage and form, given the deep shade from the plane trees, is maintained by horticulturist John Fordham. Various species come into flower throughout the year, including camellias, oak hydrangeas, hellebores, winter daphnes, magnolias, rhododendrons, Pieris japonica, Chinese star jasmine, Choisya ternata, ginger lily and pineapple or scaly zamia.

But spring is clivia time and the garden will be alive with colour from the C. miniata donated by a member years ago and now augmented by Belgian hybrids.

New plantings include blue ginger (Dichorisandra thyrsiflora) on the Little Collins Street and the Ridgway Place sides. Another inclusion is Begonia fuchsioides. Fordham has also planted Tricyrtis lasiocarpa , or the toad or amethyst toad lily, a native of Taiwan, hoping for a blue floral display in late summer ''if it flowers''. He says one of the highlights has been the new growth of the Vietnamese camellia (C. amplexicaulis) and the Chinese star jasmine, which is finally starting to cling to the wall.

A word of warning: the garden is secret men's business, so don't take any pictures. Open tomorrow 10am-4.30pm. Enter via Ridgway Place (off Little Collins Street). $7.

The story Green oasis full of secrets first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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