Hill Of Content
Turning a big idea into a human-scale landform shaped garden designer approach Michael Bates’ to his own patch on the slopes outside Sydney.
A garden designer’s own lush mountain sanctuary.
The Blue Mountains, just west of Sydney, have a decent elevation by Australian standards, as well as excellent volcanic soils, a cooler climate than the coast and the ability to cultivate subtemperate exotics. Here, the ideal of an Arcadian paradise can be carved out in an Australian setting without being too contrived. Gardening in the mountains is not just a therapeutic pastime, it’s a way of life. To some of us, it’s almost a religion.
I bought this Mt Irvine property, Tallawong, in 2001 as a young landscaper and set out on a 30-year garden-making program. The timber cottage and garden date back to 1915 when two brothers – original settlers from the 1890s – split their holdings after a dispute and one built this house. The toil of these first settlers and the history of making this place are still palpable. Tallawong has been the recipient of a century of what I like to call ‘afternoon-tea gardening’. People would have get-togethers, swapping plant knowledge and cuttings. They’d go home and pop things in the ground, and if they flourished, so be it.
They had no detailed knowledge of how big trees would grow. So, my first stage of garden-making involved removal. A lot of overmature specimens were either viciously pruned or removed, thoughmanystillremain.Anongoingtree-managementprogram is important to keep the sun filtering through.
This garden has also been a great recipient of many salvaged plants from other projects. The feeling of saving a special specimen and giving it a new life in my garden – in this time of unfettered consumerism and wastage – is very satisfying.
My boldest gesture, the landform, was inspired by a study tour to the UK, during which I saw the works of great garden designers such as Vita Sackville-West and Capability Brown. But the
most influential work was that of Charles Jencks, within his Garden of Cosmic Speculation near Dumfries, Scotland.
I was motivated to create my own landform near the dam. Originally, I wanted a double helix, but that idea was too grand for the space. I played with a spiral, but couldn’t calm it down so that it wouldn’t block the view of the water from the house. Instead, the landform morphed into its crescent shape.
As you circle the base of the landform, or walk along it, your view and perspective constantly change with your elevation. It’s a contemplative experience, a way of harnessing the restorative qualities of the mountains on a human scale.
I now view my process as sculpting the land in four dimensions. I don’t just carve out and shape the land; I plant growing things that create new spaces and opportunities all the time.
I always say I gain equal pleasure from working in the garden and relaxing and sharing the place with family, friends and people I find interesting. Watching people of all ages interact and respond to the garden is very satisfying.
As my children have grown, the tree house, trampoline and sandpits have been delicately removed, sometimes to the chagrin of one or other of them. They want these things to remain for their own future children. An enchanting mountain childhood is something they want the next generation to experience as well.
The opportunity to create a garden where I am the client cannot be overstated. Here, I can fill my garden with things I like. It’s been an immeasurable pleasure, and the idea that I am only halfway through this project is life-affirming. As I lounge in the hammock and allow ideas to float in and out, the tantalising prospect of what to do next is a constant delight.”
ABOVE Wisteria ‘Macrobotrys’, which produces breathtaking flowers of 40–50cm long, grows over a pergola at the side of Michael’s house. A swing hangs from a Doryphora sassafras tree, a remnant from an indigenous rainforest. OPPOSITE Michael in his wife Sophia’s floral domain – “As a clockwise from top left wedding gift, I gave her a prime patch of ground to make a flower garden.” A Japanese maple shelters the timber seat and dry-stone wall in the entry courtyard. Artist Willem van Stom created the pear sculpture from horseshoes; it hangs, fittingly, from a pear tree, across a stretch of lawn with a weeping maple.
THIS PAGE Inspired by British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, Michael from top created this surreal egg in stone left over from a job. A comfortably aged garden shed at Tallawong. Michael relaxes with Gypsy, his Jack Russell terrier. OPPOSITE TOP Interactive sculptures of birds in flight, also the work of Willem van Stom, are creatively rearranged on a regular basis. By the house, a pizza oven, fire pit and casual seating make for laidback entertaining. OPPOSITE BOTTOM Michael built a jetty over the dam, which offers a fine view from the house. The walnut tree beside it bears a crop around Easter.
This is an edited extract from The New Australian Garden: Landscapes For Living by Michael Bates, published by Murdoch Books, $59.99. Michael’s company is Bates Landscape, Artarmon, NSW; (02) 9818 6666 or bateslandscape.com.au.