Bush beauty: Fashion designer Jenny Kee’s mountain retreat
LANDSCAPE DESIGNER MICHAEL BATES VISITS AUSTRALIAN ARTIST JENNY KEE’S BLUE MOUNTAINS GARDEN, WHICH GROWS IN HARMONY WITH THE WILD NATURE THAT SURROUNDS IT.
THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF AUSTRALIANS: the salties, who are perched on the edge of our continent, and the ones who live inland, on the plains or in the mountains. This garden belongs to mountain woman Jenny Kee, a pioneering artist whose distinctive style is inspired by the Australian environment as well as global influences. She moved to the Blue Mountains more than 40 years ago, seeking a quiet life. This is Jenny’s second mountain garden in Blackheath, and she’s here to stay. It is a true forever garden on so many levels. The site is steeped in majesty and beauty. After travelling down the long gravel driveway lined with the ubiquitous Monterey pine, the outlook opens up. The elements that immediately strike you are the borrowed landscape of the Blue Mountains’ plateaus and the sense of the Grose River Valley below. The distinctive peaks of Mount Hay and Lockley Pylon are visible in the distance. When the afternoon light strikes this escarpment, it is a cause for pause and observation for even the most energetic of us. Many quiet moments of communing have been shared from the verandah while taking in the view. There’s a strong spiritual element to this garden. While the fashion for Buddhist statues and prayer flags is common in the gardens of young Australians, in Jenny’s garden it is part of an authentic way of life. Her property is used as a Buddhist retreat, and Jenny’s offerings of seed pods, pine cones and wilting waratah flowers show her reverence for nature. When crafting a garden on the edge of wilderness, it is vital to consider how to bring the cultural and natural elements together in a harmonious way. The landscape architect, Craig Burton, is the master of this. He expertly reads the landscape, knowing what moves to make to overlay, but not overwhelm, the history and cultural heritage of the site. This project required all of his skills. The first job was to collaborate with master architect Glenn Murcutt to site a new art studio, complete with a room for a visiting Tibetan monk. It’s a simple rectangular corten-steel building with a skillion roof that has metal wings, which moderate the view. The studio runs perpendicular to the late 19th-century cottage clad in second-hand corrugated iron. A timber boardwalk and fence with thin vertical slats is the connecting device between the old and the new building. This subtle gesture has the powerful effect of heightening your anticipation as you approach the buildings and glimpse the views beyond. Further up the hill sits the rusted iron garage that is Jenny’s workshop — a place to create textile and art projects. Behind the house is the quintessential Australian shed, painted rusty red to complement the garage. The buildings separate landscape spaces that have subtly different characters. Craig’s talent for blending the old and the new is supreme, and his ability to weave in the client’s personality is a testament to his considered design. So for the western slope, numerous specimens of Jenny’s favourite waratah plant — Telopea speciosissima ‘Shady Lady’ — were planted and nurtured, and they are now flourishing. This waratah is her emblem; it’s her floral muse that blazes across her artwork. >
Two significant heritage plants — Cordyline australis and English oak — were preserved because they date the cottage and are senior enough specimens to justify the exotic intrusion. A series of long retaining walls ensure that the buildings sat separated from the natural landscape. The sandstone walls had to match the rustic character of an existing long wall behind the studio that was built in record time by a Tibetan stonemason. Drift planting of Lomandra longifolia ‘Tanika’ fills the space between the studio and the regenerated bush, a contrasting texture that settles the building into the landscape with one simple stroke. The space between the studio and the driveway is dedicated to a common tussock grass meadow punctuated by blushing specimens of the waratah and naturally occurring Gahnia. At the southern end of the studio, there’s a simple square lawn that folds up in a grass ramp at the end. It forms an open space for the monks and a picnic place for Jenny, friends and family. The clearing in front of the cottage has a remnant rhododendron, a functioning vegetable patch and a field of common tussock-grass. Among the grasses is a sculpture. Craig designed a new garden room on the northern side of the cottage that opens out onto a stone terrace and seating steps as well as a fire pit. Buddhist groups use this area for meetings and meditation, and it maintains a sense of privacy. The gravel margin at the rear of the cottage and studio is punctuated with randomly laid stepping-stones with frayed edges. Square granite stones that were already on-site have been woven into the mix. The new path allows Buddhist monks to perambulate around the studio as they pray. Craig decided to abandon the original gravel path and sleeper steps, and create a brand new spine path that leads to the space between the cottage and the studio. It contains less daunting steps and is more of a gentle ramp — making it much more user friendly for elderly visitors. The site contains a hanging swamp — a rare and precious ecology on the side of the valley. Bands of clay beneath water-bearing sandstone lead to high levels of soil moisture, allowing a fern land to flourish. Naturally occurring rough tree fern, bracken fern and Gahnia have regenerated due to the unique hydrology here. Nearby, two burnt branches look like a pair of prehistoric creatures circling each other, about to pounce. It is quite extraordinary how some stationary objects can evoke a sense of movement. They create interest and enhance presence in the foreground of the uncontained wilderness beyond. This mountain retreat, complete with its natural garden and breathtaking views, is a restorative place to visit, and it requires little maintenance. The sense of space and being in the bush is all encompassing, and this place draws out a reflective and quiet response. Being in nature elicits a feeling of something bigger than any one human life. This is an edited extract from The Australian Garden: Landscapes for Living (Murdoch Books, $59.99) by Michael Bates. For more information, visit murdochbooks.com.au
Waratahs are seen in the foreground, eucalypts in the background and ferns in Bluthethemiddleatartistjennykee’sblue Mountains property — complete with a Glenn Murcutttt-designed studio.