Responding to the Site
Bali is a popular theme when it comes to designing a garden in Australia. So are the Parisian formal gardens with their clipped within an inch of their life hedges. But when transplanted to gardens Down Under, something appears astray. “Transplanting a culture from abroad can be problematic. Somehow it feels at odds with our architecture and landscape,” says interior designer Caecilia Potter, director of Atticus & Milo. “A Japanese-style garden can be mesmerising even in Australia. But it needs to be placed in the correct context,” she adds.
With numerous awards for her own garden, including an award from Australian House & Garden magazine for the Best Australian Medium Sized Garden in 2014, Potter not only understands how rooms can come alive, but also the garden surrounding a home.
Her own house, a late Victorian-pile in Hawthorn, Melbourne, believed to be designed by the eminent architect John Beswick, is framed by a relaxed and relatively informal garden. However, when Potter and her partner purchased the property, the drought had taken its toll. The few established trees, such as the willow, peppercorn and the alder trees together with the magnolia trees, were in a state of distress, as was the cypress hedge bordering two sides of the front garden (the latter couldn’t be saved).
Potter started thinking about a new garden that would not only respond to Beswick’s architecture, but also offer a rich variety of plants the Victorian’s were known to collect and propagate. “As a child, even one of eight, I remember my mother always made time to pick flowers from our garden and create arrangements for the home,” says Potter, who included everything from scented gardenias to irises and jonquils.
While the front garden beds were widened to include a snowball tree, clusters of Judas trees, organic vegetables and roses, the rear garden orientated to the north and west contains a 20-metre-long lap pool bordered by raw steel reeds instead of a traditional glass balustrade. Black cherries, peaches, and lemon and apple trees form part of the layering.
“I approach this garden like another room in the house,” says Potter, who even re-used some of the original bluestone blocks found on the property as a seat in an intimate nook in the front garden. Like her interiors, Potter sees garden design in three layers: one at ground level, one at mid level and the canopy forming protection from the elements. “It’s not dissimilar to selecting floor coverings, the loose furniture and choosing the appropriate light fittings for ceilings,” says Potter.
While Potter hasn’t tried to mimic the Victorian splendour of yesteryear, she has selected plants that compliment her home, widening garden beds where needed and creating vistas from specific windows from inside. “It’s not just how gardens look along a pathway, but how they’re seen from various parts of a house,” she adds.
Landscape architect Jane Irwin also sees the importance of responding to the architecture, a specific site and its response to its wider environment. Irwin’s approach to the rural landscape can be seen at ‘Four Horizons’, on the edge of the Watagans National Park, west of Newcastle and a two-and-a-half hour drive from Sydney. Described by Irwin as a ‘forest garden’, the original house designed by architect Lindsay Johnson was recently reworked by architects Jonathan Temple and James Stockwell. Sitting on an escarpment, the original garden surrounding the steel and timber house was little more than one vast clearing of dirt. “I felt it was important to ‘knit’ the house back into a forest setting, as well as connecting to the new dam and swimming pool,” says Irwin, who worked closely with her clients, one an artist. “It was one of those projects where I felt like I was doing my own garden. We continually made decisions together,” she adds.
Recycled sandstone was used for one courtyard, with all the individual pieces set out like a jigsaw puzzle, but on a considerably grander scale (some of the sandstone is 2.7 metres wide by up to 1.5 metres in height). Native grasses and wildflowers were moved from one part of the forest floor to another. Irwin also worked diligently to regenerate areas of the property, including collecting and planting seed that would maintain the rich biodiversity in the area.
A walled kitchen garden, also delineated by sandstone, borders the art studio. But rather than being too prescriptive about the plantings in the walled garden, Irwin preferred to let this evolve. Currently there are citrus trees and a climbing rose bush on one of the walls of the shed. Irwin also planted a number of larger trees on the property, including groups of flame trees, a flowering myrtle and a pink magnolia.
For Irwin, as with Potter, creating a garden requires more than just planting a few trees in a row. “I like the idea of having a garden where it doesn’t look like I’ve been there and had a hand in it. It’s not about creating a designer statement. I’m much more interested in responding to the site and its unique qualities,” adds Irwin.
Jane Irwin Landscape Architects can be contacted on 02 9212 6957
Text by Stephen Crafti