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