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Shady splendour: deep-dive into Melbourne Gardens’ Fern Gully 

Melbourne Gardens' Fern Gully is a summer sanctuary, providing the perfect microclimate for plants and visitors alike. Originally designed nearly 150 years ago, it's typically two or three degrees cooler than the surrounding landscape on hot days. It boasts a gorgeous array of ferns, palms and shrubs which provide respite from the heat, and secret Wellbeing Gardens tucked away in shady nooks and crannies.

A fascinating history

The story of Fern Gully begins in the 1850s with the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Ferdinand von Mueller, who initially intended for the space to be an aviary. In 1873, William Guilfoyle began to create the Fern Gully we know today at the height of pteridomania or 'fern fever', a period of immense popularity of ferns as a decorative motif which extended from the mid to late 1800s. At the time, Australians were in luck, with close to 400 native fern species under their noses – fossil evidence shows that the soft tree fern dates back to when Australia was part of the supercontinent Gondwana.

With a plethora of ferns at his disposal, and inspiration in the form of Victoria's cool, moist fern glades, William Guilfoyle shaped Fern Gully in and around the original creek that flowed through into the centre of the Gardens. He worked to enhance the alignment of the creek with rocks and spillways to produce water movement and sound, remove an existing bridge and the aviary, plant hundreds of ferns and excavate the area to create space for more soil to nourish the plants. The recently-restored terracotta spoon drains you can admire on a stroll through Fern Gully today were hand-laid in the 1800s to manage heavy rainfall and add a lovely subtle accent to the green lushness of Fern Gully. As the Gully took shape, exotic species were transplanted to Fern Gully from elsewhere in the Gardens and parts of Victoria, Queensland and New Zealand.

Fern-tastic species

Fern Gully is home to thousands of ferns. Notable tree ferns include the ancient Soft Tree Fern (Dicksonia antarctica) Rough Tree Fern (Cyathea australis), Silver Tree Fern (Cyathea dealbata) and Black Tree Ferns (Cyathea medullaris). Ground ferns include the Bird's Nest Fern (Asplenium australasicum), Strap Water Fern (Blechnum patersonii) and Fragrant Fern (Microsorum scandens). Alongside native Australian ferns, species such as Shining Spleenwort (Asplenium oblongifolium) and the Jewelled Chain Fern (Woodwardia unigemmata), endemic to New Zealand and South East Asia respectively, were selected for their suitability to the area, elegant foliage, and hardiness. 

Some much needed TLC 

Fern Gully has seen a lot in its lifetime, including two world wars, depression, drought, and a formidable colony of 30,000 grey-headed flying foxes, all of which took a toll. As recently as two decades ago, Fern Gully was looking worse for wear – its stream had dried up, bamboo planted as a post-war efficiency measure had spread out of control, the upper fern canopy had thinned, smaller ferns were dying and the paths were becoming difficult to navigate. With the help of generous donors, the Fern Gully restoration project was able to begin, bringing this space back to its original lush, verdant glory. 

In 2013, the Working Wetlands project brought reticulated water permanently to Fern Gully, with the running water adding the element of sound to your stroll through Fern Gully. More than 1,800 new specimens were planted, a bubbling waterway and a 215-metre-long steel boardwalk were added, five picturesque bridges were constructed, and a range of new seats were set up along the walkway to improve access and improve views. The Fern Gully Rest House was restored to its former glory, welcoming guests to the new Sensory Gardenwhich opened to the public last month, and three Wellbeing Gardens were added to enhance the restorative experience of time in Fern Gully. 

Wellbeing Gardens

Tucked in quiet nooks of Fern Gully are the three Wellbeing Gardens, designed and created as mediative spaces to encourage visitors to sit quietly and contemplate. These three tranquil zones created with local donors' help are the Bird's Nest, the Grotto and the Moss Garden, each including a reflective water feature and able to be accessed via a series of secondary paths looping back to the main boardwalk. There's no better way to take a break from busy urban life to enjoy the shady serenity of Fern Gully than in the Wellbeing Gardens.

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