Australian House & Garden
A low-maintenance and delightfully inviting courtyard.
Bookstore owner Anna Low is a lover of literature and an oracle for those seeking recommendations on the latest in fiction and fact. She could tell you about every new garden-related title on the market, but gardening per se is not her thing. Nor is it her partner Stephen’s. “We’re terrible gardeners,” Anna admits.
The couple and their twin sons Rory and Louis, 17, moved into their home in the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern five years ago. The home, a Georgian terrace, was freshly renovated with a light-filled contemporary extension at the rear. Its design had the potential for a strong inside-outside connection... but Anna and Stephen felt a disconnect. The outdoor space didn’t feel inviting and they didn’t relate to it – physically or stylistically – at all. “The garden was fussy. It had a lawn and a pond, which was a mosquito trap, and it was high maintenance,” says Anna, who runs the Potts Point Bookshop. “We wanted it to be beautiful to look at and more user-friendly, with plants we couldn’t kill.” The one element they loved was the existing bamboo, which was planted in dense thickets to screen out neighbouring apartment blocks.
As keen home cooks who love hosting leisurely meals, Anna and Stephen wanted to turn the space into a welcoming outdoor living area that was conducive to easy alfresco dining. They turned to Sydney landscape design company Garden Life for a solution.
“The desire for comfortable, unfussy spaces for entertaining was at the forefront of the design,” says Garden Life’s lead designer Rebecca Colechin. “They’re a busy family, so the focus was on making it as low-maintenance as possible.”
Rebecca’s first task was to divide the 12.5x6.8-metre garden into a series of functional spaces. Extending off the house, she installed a level paved area using oversized 50x100cm sandstone pavers, laid in a stack bond pattern. “We introduced this sandstone sitting area at the same level as the rear living room, rather than stepping down, so it has a better connection to the back of the house,” Rebecca says. This roomy lounging zone now houses an outdoor sofa where the whole family gravitates to sit, read and chat.
From the sitting area, there is a small step down into the garden. At this point, Rebecca installed deep, lush garden beds on both boundary walls and created a transitional ‘floor’ of limestone bricks, laid in a stretcher bond pattern, with dwarf mondo grass ( Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nana’) growing in between.
This leads to the dining zone which is sits in a bed of crunchy gravel framed by a beautiful low sandstone retaining wall/bench.
This wall is a masterstroke that helps to tame the bold trunks of the effusive bamboo and provides additional seating when needed.
“Using the three different floor materials helps draw the eye away from the house, and transitions you through the various zones of the garden,” says Rebecca. The simplicity of the layout and the earthy materials palette were designed to work in perfect harmony with the aesthetics of the home. “The renovated section at the rear of the house is pared back and slick in its finishes, so the garden had to speak to that,” says Rebecca. “We continued the clean lines in the layout of the garden, but we softened them with the natural materials such as sandstone, limestone, bricks and crushed granite. These materials ground the space, making sure it’s warm and inviting.”
Rebecca retained the existing clumping bamboo ( Bambusa textilis ‘Fusca’) for much-needed screening and to create a lovely green backdrop for the new garden, but she thinned it out and installed an automated irrigation system. “Bamboo is a thirsty plant and an automated irrigation system is a must for thirsty plants in hot Sydney summers. We opted for a smart irrigation system that complies with the ongoing water restrictions.”
When it came to selecting additional plants, Rebecca chose an “unfussy” mix of lush tropical and native plants perfect for the shady conditions, careful to “not introduce too many species or follow any strict rules”. Near the lounging area, she planted a trio of banksias ( Banksia integrifolia) underplanted with strappy walking iris ( Neomarica caerulea) and a thick bed of hardy Plectranthus ciliatus. Along the side boundary, at the base of the bamboo, she planted true cardamom ( Elettaria cardamomum), a lush tropical plant that releases a beautiful scent when the leaves are brushed.
Anna and Stephen couldn’t be happier with their non-gardeners’ garden. They love the tones and textures of the sandstone and gravel, and feel comforted by the lush, self-sufficient greenery all around them. “We use these spaces all the time,” says Anna. “We often sit and read in the sitting area, and the dining zone is perfect for when we’re cooking on the barbecue or have friends over for cheese and wine.”
Most of all, they love the gravitational pull of their outdoors space, and marvel at how they can manage to lose themselves there. “Even though we’re in the heart of the city, we can feel a million miles from anywhere, listening to the rustling sounds of the bamboo.”
“This little garden is a simple, pared-back space, but it exudes such warmth at the same time” Rebecca Colechin, lead designer, Garden Life