Garden Inspiration

Cultivating natural style

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Fiona Brockhoff’s Sorrento garden feel distinctively Australian. No doubt the liberal use of local plants and materials are a big part of it, not to mention the Hills Hoist, concrete koalas and washed-up-thong display but it is also to do with her attitude. Megan Backhouse explains…

When Brockhoff’s garden was open to the public earlier this year, the most striking thing was how it seemed to fit right in. Tucked just behind the wilds of Bass Strait, this 0.8-hectare spread – all limestone walls, gravel terraces and shell-grit paths – takes its cue from its sand-dune setting. It feels leisurely and lived in.

But, with Australia having all sorts of climates and topographies, not to mention gardeners having all sorts of personal predilections, there’s no one size fits all formula to making a garden that feels right.

It’s about an approach and the first thing is to do nothing. Having settled on a site for a garden there’s no point immediately starting to shift masses of soil or buying plants or ordering in compost. You are better to stand back and observe. Pay attention to the weather and light and to the land’s geology, topography and context. Think about what you want from your garden.

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Making a garden that responds to its place takes time and patience. Individual style plays a part but so does humility. Bells-and-whistles this is generally not…

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South-Australia-based garden designer Viesturs Cielens once revealed that he asks new clients to give him a whole year to observe a garden before making even one mark on paper. Making a garden that responds to its place takes time and patience. Individual style plays a part but so does humility. Bells-and-whistles this is generally not.

“Elegance without pomposity” is how the late great landscape designer Russell Page memorably put it. Even in urban areas where there are less borrowed views and gardens tend to be more inward-looking, some spaces feel more at home than others.

You only have to see the string of “urban” gardens exhibited at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show each year to see how the best show pieces are those where the designers have been at pains not to be showy. These designers conjure up something that feels dynamic and effortless. Whether they use Australian plants, exotics, productive species or weeds (or all of it) their trick is to make it not seem parachuted-in.

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This garden manages to belong to the landscape and be an artful construction at the same time…

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In many ways this approach takes its cue from the classic Mediterranean ethos of making modest, everyday gardens with what’s to hand. Lots of designers will tell you that the trouble begins when you give yourself infinite choice. Tight budgets can be your friend and climatic limitations force you to think about how you garden.

It’s about valuing available resources and selecting plants that can cope with the prevailing conditions, whether it be poor soil, lack of water or strong winds. It also relies on experimentation, following your own imagination and thinking about the cultural heritage (indigenous, industrial, past gardens) of the site.

Brockhoff’s Sorrento garden contains lots of the plants to be seen in its surrounding sand dunes  – moonahs (Melaleuca lanceolata), sea box (Alyxia buxifolia), cushion bush (Leucophyta brownii) and drooping she oaks (Allocasuarina verticillata) for example. But there is no mistaking her garden with the wider landscape. She clips, tweaks and edits. She paints her garden gates in eye-popping orange, red and yellow and displays her maritime bits and pieces in such a way that avoids being kitsch.

Brockhoff also uses plants – that will thrive in the situation at hand – from all over. There are New Zealand flaxes, Mediterranean euphorbias and Mexican agaves, for example. She emphasises contrasting forms and foliage, tightly pruning some plants to provide a sense of structure.

When it was open in January, people who hadn’t visited her garden for 10 years were exclaiming about how much it had changed and if you were to visit again now it would be different again. There is a constant process of adaptation to suit changing microclimates and personal predilections. This garden manages to belong to the landscape and be an artful construction at the same time.

And that is the nub of the matter – making gardens that reinforce a sense of place requires us to think about both the land and our own stories.

A version of this article first appeared in The Age. 

Photo credits: Simon Griffiths; supplied.


About our guest writer: 

Megan Backhouse has a Masters of Urban Horticulture and writes the weekly garden column for The Age. She has been a journalist for 30 years and is an avid home gardener.