Bower­bird Gar­den

A col­lec­tion of plants and trea­sures is cu­rated into a beau­ti­ful ar­range­ment

Gardening Australia - - CONTENTS -

It is of­ten said that a beau­ti­ful gar­den pos­sesses an other-worldly qual­ity. That is cer­tainly true for this par­tic­u­lar gar­den in Syd­ney’s Eastern Sub­urbs. Once you pass through the gate of the Fed­er­a­tion-green picket fence, you leave the or­di­nary world be­hind. You en­ter a gar­den steeped in rich lay­ers of days gone by and days yet to come.

Gar­dens are con­structed out of a mo­ti­va­tion to do one of two things – to cre­ate a clear­ing in the for­est, or to pro­duce an oa­sis in the desert. This ver­dant gar­den de­served to be a clear­ing. Jo­ce­lyn Brown – who was Syd­ney’s an­swer to Edna Walling – cre­ated the orig­i­nal gar­den, and el­e­ments of her de­sign re­main, in­clud­ing semi­cir­cu­lar steps lead­ing you into the depths of the gar­den.

The grounds once be­longed to the Yates fam­ily, who started the renowned Yates seed busi­ness. I get a sense that at some point un­der their ste­ward­ship they must have scat­tered seeds through­out the gar­den to see what for­est would take shape. The gar­den is also in­ter­sected by un­ex­pected el­e­ments, such as a free­stand­ing sand­stone wall along one side of the en­trance court. It marks the bound­ary be­tween the two blocks of land that make up the gar­den.

es­tab­lish­ing order

The house was built in 1901. Al­though Syd­ney was knock­ing out Fed­er­a­tion build­ings at that time, the Yates fam­ily was in­spired by houses they had seen while hol­i­day­ing in Scan­di­navia. Aus­tralians are no­to­ri­ous for bor­row­ing from in­ter­na­tional style trends and rein­ter­pret­ing them on our home soil. The re­sult can be clumsy and ill in­formed, but in this in­stance the house has been ex­pertly in­ter­preted.

The tim­ber cot­tage stands proud in the for­est, its sec­ond floor cloaked en­tirely in Ca­sua­r­ina shin­gles. Like most architecture of this time, the win­dows are un­der­sized and the in­te­rior is not bathed in light. The re­arrange­ment of the gar­den had to con­sider the small framed views and vi­gnettes out of the shut­tered win­dows – the gar­den had to be con­sid­ered from within.

When I ar­rived, the gar­den was brim­ming with more plants than you could wave a wand at. In ad­di­tion, the cur­rent owner is a bower­bird of sorts who com­pul­sively gath­ers ex­quis­ite pots, mon­u­ments and or­na­ments from all over the world. Like most col­lec­tors, she has an eye for the de­tail and magic of each in­di­vid­ual ob­ject. She also has more won­der­ful ideas than one gar­den can pos­si­bly bear.

My job was es­sen­tially to ven­ti­late the gar­den and pro­vide some order to this over­packed ta­ble of green­ery and dec­o­ra­tion. Such a splen­did col­lec­tion of plants and trea­sures de­serves a beau­ti­ful ar­range­ment. We needed to de­fine and carve out dis­tinct spa­ces.

thought­ful choices

The en­trance boasts an ex­cep­tional col­lec­tion of over­sized pots and a sus­pended bird­cage (with the door al­ways locked open). To give them promi­nence, the small, out-of-scale pots and bitsy bits were taken away. We lined them all up on the foot­path, and un­less a par­tic­u­lar item pos­sessed a very spe­cial char­ac­ter, it was cast out from this gar­den for­ever.

The gar­den de­manded de­fined plant­ing along the edges to de­lin­eate be­tween the or­di­nary and the ex­tra­or­di­nary. Fine ex­am­ples of

Rhapis palm were re­trieved from the wilds of the gar­den and marched out in lines along the bound­ary. Th­ese green sen­tinels of­fer a dense par­ti­tion that guards the gar­den against the out­side world.

We cloud-pruned the ex­ist­ing Ja­panese box plants and added more Rhaphi­olepis in­dica ‘Ori­en­tal Pearl’ clouds. The cloud for­ma­tions con­nect and blend the gar­den spa­ces. At ground level, we stitched the old paving into the new works, not be­ing pre­cious about the qual­ity of the ex­ist­ing paving other than iron­ing out the odd trip haz­ard.

As for so many es­tab­lished gar­dens, it is a ma­jor job to cre­ate tex­tu­ral green-on-green com­po­si­tions in the dry shade of ma­ture trees. We planted copses of sago palm, jux­ta­pos­ing the cy­cads’ strik­ing fo­liage with drifts of leop­ard plant, Ctenan­the se­tosa ‘Grey Star’ and Blech­num gib­bum ‘Sil­ver Lady’. Clumps of dwarf car­damom, cast-iron plant and Clivia con­trib­ute vis­ually, with more elon­gated leaves.

A row of fid­dle-leaf figs (Fi­cus lyrata) neatly sep­a­rates one gar­den room from an­other. We soft­ened each gar­den space with mondo grass, na­tive vi­o­let and but­ton fern.

fig tree al­tar

“The re­arrange­ment of the gar­den had to con­sider the small framed views and vi­gnettes out of the shut­tered win­dows”

One sec­tion of the gar­den is dom­i­nated by a huge Port Jack­son fig (Fi­cus ru­big­i­nosa). A per­fect cir­cle was cleared around this may­pole, al­beit off­set from the trunk. The no­tion was to splay a cir­cle on edge, an idea I had seen in an­other en­chanted gar­den in Glouces­ter­shire’s Througham Court. We used sec­ond­hand sleep­ers in­stead of slate, and bound the cir­cle with a steel ring to hold the al­tar to­gether.

The cir­cle shape reap­pears in the court­yard that rip­ples out from the fire pit. Sawn sand­stone was bro­ken into large pieces and laid as crazy paving. A curved per­gola starts at the house and arches around the court­yard, with sand­stone step­ping stones un­der­foot. The eye is led to an over­sized urn. The de­sign ex­er­cise was to con­nect th­ese di­verse el­e­ments and the

spa­ces be­tween them. We col­lab­o­rated with our car­pen­ters to cre­ate a curved tim­ber bench for the court­yard. It is made from laser-cut ply­wood, sewn to­gether with a stain­less-steel rod. It fans out like an open ac­cor­dion, em­brac­ing the fire pit and cre­at­ing an in­ti­mate seat­ing ar­range­ment.

One Mon­day I vis­ited the gar­den, and I saw colour­ful fab­ric hang­ing from the per­gola, draped across the shrubs and tied to the trees. Plas­tic teacups and saucers were strewn all about, clear ev­i­dence of a Mad Hat­ter’s tea party that the owner had con­ducted on the week­end with her grand­chil­dren.

so­cial cor­ner

A stu­dio is nes­tled in the eastern cor­ner of the gar­den. It was orig­i­nally fit­ted out for yoga, but is now over­run by chil­dren’s toys. The stu­dio opens out onto a work­ing court­yard used for pot­ting, pizza mak­ing and the stor­age of art projects.

On the op­po­site side of the stu­dio is a cov­ered deck, which al­lows peo­ple to stay in the gar­den in all types of weather. A mir­ror has been added to the wall at the back of the deck. It is a de­vice that I rarely em­ploy, but it works

bril­liantly here. The look­ing glass makes it seem as though the green of the gar­den goes on for­ever. I has­ten to add that it was the owner’s idea.

trea­sured gar­den re­vival

When you change the lounge, you of­ten feel the need to get new drapes. Yet by keep­ing im­por­tant relics in the re­designed gar­den, we’ve pre­served the old-world essence of the gar­den and en­sured the new work doesn’t laugh at the old. A charm­ing stock­pile of spe­cial mid­dle-sized pots that just didn’t de­serve to be ban­ished has been ar­ranged in a lit­tle col­lec­tion at the back of the gar­den. While this orig­i­nally served as a com­pro­mise be­tween de­sign and de­sire, this spot has now emerged as one of my favourite places in the gar­den.

I some­times feel like we’ve shaken up the en­tire con­tents of the ta­ble by wrench­ing the table­cloth off in a sin­gle move. The owner muses that since we showed the gar­den some love, vis­i­tors want to be im­mersed in the gar­den and not sim­ply view it from the con­fines of the house. This is all the proof we need to know that, in its lov­ing restora­tion, the gar­den hasn’t lost its whim­si­cal won­der.

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