The jungle path
A cairns couple creates a tropical cornucopia
They say the climate here is nine months of heaven and three months of hell,” Mark Vowles laughs. “But we revel in it.” He and wife Fairlie Kerr live 10 minutes from Cairns, where their talents have found expression in their own tropical paradise.
Vowles is a landscape designer and career horticulturist with a love of plants, especially those from the tropics. Kerr is an interior designer with an instinct for colour. The couple, now in their fifties, moved from Brisbane in 2009 to purchase their 1400-square-metre property, fulfilling a five-year plan.
“We’d often come up to see rare plants,” says Vowles. “Cairns is a magnet for tropical-plant collectors; it has a perfect climate for growing things that you can’t get anywhere else in Australia. We both love the bizarre mix of steamy, jungle-like summers and sunny winters.”
Their block in the rainforested
foothills of the Whitfield range came with some good trees, including lychee, mango and the highly perfumed ylang-ylang ( Canangra odorata), renowned for its use in high-end perfumery. In designing their new garden, both adhered to their belief that gardening is an art and applied their respective skills to create a contemporary tropical setting that sets the bar high.
“It’s a foliage driven garden,” says Vowles of the palms, aroids and cordylines he loves. There are rare palms, unusual bamboos and sought-after bromeliads. Flashes of colour come from the flowers of heliconias, anthuriums and gingers, but much of the success is down to how the plants are arranged.
“Groups of visually similar plants are more striking than individual specimens,” he explains. “A mass planting of bromeliads can be likened to a coral reef, with its form and colour.” Good design also means inserting interesting focal points, such as art pieces, while water features create places to pause and contemplate, reflect light and generate pleasing sounds.
“I use the garden as a bit of a laboratory, especially to trial new plants that not many people know about,” says Vowles. He enthuses over Anthurium salgarense (“it has leaves the size of a Volkswagen”), and the equally colossal Johannesteijsmannia altifrons, known as Joey palm.
Kerr chose the particular inky colour of their house to create a complementary background for the colourful, tropical foliage (it’s Bristol Midsummer Night for the record). The raspberry-red garden seat, set at a vantage point on the hill, is another inspired choice.
Together they designed the bed-and-breakfast studio and its indoor-outdoor bathroom that immerses guests in the garden. From its deck it’s a short walk to the almond-shaped plunge pool and an elevated sitting area.
The couple shares an office on the property for their respective businesses and occasionally get to collaborate. “There’s such a crossover between interior design and garden design – we really bounce off each other,” says Vowles.
Pops: bamboo, big leaves, raspberry bench and heliconia, left