On the rocks

11 October, 2021

Day 11 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Boulder in long grass

Melbourne gardens are full of what’s known in the landscaping trade as honeycomb rock – especially gardens of a certain vintage. You might see a row of rocks carefully cemented into the edge of a garden border or – the classic approach – dotted about a rock garden populated by succulents and the odd cactus.

I always hated the look of them, myself. I don’t know why. Perhaps because they are so ubiquitous. Every front yard had them, or so it seemed, bordering the geraniums or lining up along the driveway, all over the city. We had a retaining wall (concreted, of course) at my childhood home and carefully constructed by my dad. Everyone had honeycomb rocks in the 1970s and 80s, especially, when the fashion for indigenous plants took off and every household had a copy of Ellis Stones’ (yes, really his name) book Australian Garden Design (Macmillan, 1971) on their mid-century Danish timber shelves. (I’m not being cynical – I have two of his books and treasure them.) Stones and other garden designers like Edna Walling and later Gordon Ford popularised the use of rock in the informal garden and Stones’ idea of stone outcrops was spread through magazines like House and Garden and into suburbia. Stones was a local here – he lived in Ivanhoe, there’s a great deal of his work around the area, he was a great advocate for the river and creeks, and he designed the Elliston estate, named after him, in Rosanna.

Anyway, I blame Ellis for all those honeycomb rocks. But it’s not his fault. The rocks in gardens around my family’s house were trucked in especially, and they looked out of place because they were. It wasn’t the siltstone and sandstone we found naturally in that area. I think maybe when I was little I thought someone had made them, like Violet Crumbles. They didn’t look natural, or like chips off a meteor.

But here, in and around Nangak Tamboree, they belong. The ultimate honeycomb rock border is the one I’m resting my notebook on today: massive boulders marking the border between Nangak Tamboree and the adjacent Banyule North Grasslands (and presumably preventing anyone but Mad Max from driving through here). Each one is about as big as a freezer.

It doesn’t even seem right to call them honeycomb rocks here. The banks of Darebin Creek are edged by a low escarpment of boulders, still here after flowing as lava nearly a million years ago. White farmers cleared them away and used them as dry-stone fences and for building – there are places along the creek where you can see both the original escarpment and a whole lot of smaller rocks presumably chucked over the edge decades ago.

Rock with lichen

They lie under my feet, poking through the thin topsoil. They influence what grows here, and how it grows. My map of local plant communities tells me this area here – this flattish plain above the creek – is classified as volcanic Plains Grassy Woodland, dotted with River Red Gums, and bordered by the escarpment scrubland dominated by Tree Violets (Melicytus dentatus), Manna gums and Silver Wattle.

Rock under ground

The rocks are still used in gardens in the streets around here, and on campus. They even house tiny gardens of their own sometimes – lichen, mosses, miniature stands of wild grass and the smallest weeds you ever saw.

Rock near Main Lake on campus, hosting new growth

Creatures love them. Lizards and turtle sunbake on them, snakes burrow in between them, insects of all shapes and sizes crawl and nest and feed on them – these whoppers must feel like an entire planet to an ant. And even I have come to appreciate them lately. Ellis Stones would be proud.

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