Garden Inspiration

Well Grounded

Mounded, manicured and mystical, this sculptural garden tucked below the escarpment surrounding Kangaroo Valley in the Southern Highlands, is a living response to its location.

kv life on mars 50
kv life on mars 21

Calmness, serenity and quiet are the qualities landscape designer Hugh Main considers essential to any truly exceptional garden.

Ooralba, a garden he designed at Barrengarry in NSW’s Southern Highlands is a shining example of his approach – one that combines worldly influences yet responds to the Australian landscape.

“The joy of designing this garden was in letting the surrounding landscape inform what we did within the boundaries of the garden,” says Main, founder of Spirit Level Designs a Sydney based practice firmly established in the realm of Australian landscape design.

“The challenge was to create a garden that felt as though it extended to the horizon…”

Drawing on influences of the rocky terrain and clipped shrubs of Provence and the secluded, reflective character of Japanese gardens, Main’s thoughtfully composed spaces at Ooralba sees the broader landscape become an extension of the garden.  Set high on a plateau overlooking Kangaroo Valley and fringed by sandstone escarpments, framed vistas of borrowed landscapes and an engaging maze of clipped, mounded hedging (of Elaeagnus pungens), a perfect example of cloud pruning set the scene.

“The challenge was to create a garden that felt as though it extended to the horizon,” muses Main. It’s advice he suggests everyone consider when planning their own garden space large or small.

kv flora 50

“You just know natives will thrive and they are so good for the wildlife…”

In plotting this particular garden design (as he does with most commissions), Main also wanted to incorporate Australian natives as much as possible – for both aesthetic and pragmatic reasons.

The garden combines a mix of exotics (some existing on the 5000sqm plot such as established silver birch and avenues of claret ash) with natives chosen to thrive in this light. A muted palette of soft greys, greens and silvers ‘just works’ in the Australian landscape.

The garden is framed by magnificent spotted gums but equally as important are the additions of native violets, coastal rosemary, a variety of banksia and a host of indigenous species drawn from the surrounding windbreak to connect the different garden beds and spaces to the broader landscape.

kv construct 72
kangaroo valley 053lowres
kangaroo valley 046lowres

“The quintessential Australian garden is not rectilinear, but asymmetrical; formal vistas have no place here…”

kv construct 63

Insisting on using fledgling tube stock in some locations rather than transplanting more mature plants was a battle with the client who wanted ‘instant results’, but Main often faces this discussion.

“Plant little now and in the long term you’ll have healthier, vibrant and thriving plants, especially when it comes to natives,” he adds.

Other design and planning advice Main happily shares: “bring a sense of place”.  He shies away from the classic bright white and deep green gardens or Tropicana spaces, rather prefers the sculptural, textural and tonal plantings that especially comes from working with indigenous varieties.

And while he draws on centuries old principles and global design influences, he’s clear on what he believes makes an Australian garden:

“The quintessential Australian garden is not rectilinear, but asymmetrical; formal vistas have no place here,” he muses.

kv 110
kv lake 30
kangaroo valley 003lowres

“The rhythm of the spaces is always a response to architecture and landscape, whether that’s a garden large or small….”


Main likes the soft, hazy light of summer and the ethereal mists of winter that bring mystery to his designs, as well as avoiding hard lines and an overuse of formality – all utilised deftly at the Kangaroo Valley garden.

And while there’s the vast landscape beyond to elegantly draw the eye to other vistas, there’s also wide individual flagstones laid in somewhat random patterns replacing conventional paths across lawns and lily ponds. Elsewhere, informal paths snake through lush planting toward further points of interest and plantings of natives and exotics soften the residence at Ooralba with their texture and tactile qualities.

For more inspiration visit Spirit Level Designs