Ooralba, design by Hugh Main
Other people's gardens

The most innovative gardens in NSW

What are the most innovative gardens designed in NSW since 1980? Architect and writer Howard Tanner had the opportunity to explore this interesting question for the State Library of NSW. Tanner’s answer, a survey exhibition called Grand Garden Designs, is a contemporary companion piece to the library’s extensive and fascinating Planting Dreams exhibition, which documents 200 years of garden-making in Australia.

In compiling his selection Tanner talked to garden makers, designers and garden lovers, then criss-crossed the state to see the gardens himself, before pruning the list to 22. Nicholas Watt, Jason Busch, Sue Stubbs and Murray Fredericks then photographed the gardens over the spring and summer of 2015. The State Library has acquired more than 600 images of the gardens to add to its collection of garden photography and to preserve this moment in NSW garden history.

The hermitage, design Daniel Baffsky, Photo, Sue Stubbs

The hermitage, design Daniel Baffsky, Photo, Sue Stubbs

Visiting a garden is a total sensory experience. You don’t just see it, you hear it, smell it, feel it and experience it changing in time, even if only moment-to-moment. So a still image, no matter how beautifully framed and lit, is only ever a snapshot, a suggestion of what you might experience in the real thing. To overcome the limitations of viewing gardens in a gallery, the exhibition offers multiple ways in – through images on the wall, large back-lit projections, more images on interactive computer screens, Tanner’s excellent catalogue, and a short film of interviews with some of the garden-makers.

Horse Island

Horse Island, design Christina Kennedy. Photo: Jason Busch

Most of the gardens featured are private, and most have the expansive space – and budget – to create a big vision, such as the recreated subtropical forest and botanical ark of Sea Peace, outside Byron Bay; the natives-only garden on Horse Island in Tuross Lakes; or Peter Fudge’s grand re-imagining of Hadrian’s Villa in hedges at Tobermorry in Moss Vale.

Tobermorry, design Peter Fudge, photo Jason Busch

Tobermorry, design Peter Fudge, photo Jason Busch

Some of the gardens invite you to look out at the view, such as Hugh Main’s garden at Ooralba in the Southern Highlands, where mounded, jelly-like lumps of clipped eleagnus echo the line of the mountains on the horizon. Others enclose you in their arms and ask you to stay awhile, like Michael Cooke’s Wirra Willa on the Central Coast where a boardwalk winds through only slightly gardened bushland, and a pavilion sits over the lake.

Wirra Willa, design by Michael Cooke

Wirra Willa, design by Michael Cooke, photo Murray Fredericks

Public gardens are a vitally important part of any snapshot of our garden life in the early 21st century as private gardens shrink along with the time to make and maintain them. Tanner has included the atmospheric Paddington Reservoir Gardens, designed by Anton James in 2009. Here two sunken courtyards complement a Gothic architectural space, one a lawn dotted with eucalypts, the other with a dark rectangular pool surrounded by banksia and tree ferns.

Paddington Reservoir

Paddington Reservoir, lead designer Anton James, photo Jason Busch

In his catalogue essay Tanner identifies influences on contemporary designers from the rich textural plantings of Piet Oudolf, the clipped forms of Nicole de Vesian, and the spatial relationships of Japanese design. He also notes a renewed appreciation of Australian natives and a desire to create spaces to show off sculpture. For me, though, the take-home message from these inspiring and innovative gardens is the way in which they fit their space, expressing that age-old idea of the garden, the genius loci, the spirit of place.

The image at the top of this post is Ooralba, designed by Hugh Main, photo by Murray Fredericks.  The exhibition runs until january 15, 2017 at The State Library of NSW. Entry is free.

It’s time to

Tidy bottlebrush
Trim finished callistemon flowers to promote a bushier plant and more flowers next year. If the bush has been neglected and is looking straggly, you can cut it to the ground and let it start all over again.

See art deco
Mahratta is one of few remaining gardens in the Sydney area designed by Paul Sorensen, a leading designer of the early 20th century. The garden surrounds a wonderful Art Deco house, now owned by the School of Practical Philosophy. It’s open this weekend, October 22-23, 10am-4pm, $5, $10 including a tour of the house. 25 Fox Valley Road, Wahroonga.

Feed the lawn
Apply a complete fertiliser, according to pack directions, and water in well.

Talk with Costa
ABC Gardening Australian host and educator Costa Georgiadis is a passionate advocate for gardens and their ability to create connections within communities. He’s talking ‘Gardening for our Future’ at the State Library of NSW, November 12, 2-3pm, $20. Bookings: www.sl.nsw.gov.au/whats-on



In season

October 18

In now: Early-season peaches are being picked in Queensland. Not all the early-ripening, low-chill varieties have great flavour. Let fragrance be your guide.

Hard to find: We are entering the annual lemon and lime drought, when our favourite tart juicing fruit are in short supply. Gardeners may still have lemons lingering on the tree, but soon most of those available in shops will have flown here from the USA. Limes will be back in late summer.

Best buy: Green or purple kohlrabi are a crunchy addition to a salad.

In the vegie patch: Plant tomatoes in a sunny spot with rich, compost-enriched soil. Stake or provide other support. Feed often and water regularly.

What else:

  • Last of the blood oranges. Make a final granita, or freeze the juice for Campari and blood orange cocktails on summer evenings.
  • Broad beans are at their best, and cheapest.
  • There are some bargain pumpkins round too, so make the most of roast pumpkin now before it gets too hot to turn the oven on.
  • It’s the worst time of year for tomatoes so punnets of cherry tomatoes are the best option.


Other people's gardens

Retford Park

Spring is so quick in Sydney, it barely lasts longer than the bunch of jasmine, crispy but still fragrant, on my desk. To get your fill of spring you need to plan, and to travel. So don’t forget Glenmore House Spring Fair this weekend, and make plans to head south at the end of the month for the domestic-scaled country charms of the Bundanoon Garden Ramble, and the wonderfully grand Retford House. This is the story I wrote about Retford for the Sydney Morning Herald.

In April this year James Fairfax made a gift of his property Retford Park to the National Trust. It’s been his Southern Highlands home since 1964 and under the terms of the gift will continue to be his private home until his death, but for three days this month the garden is open to the public. It’s a great opportunity to see an important, beautiful and surprising garden.

Samuel Hordern, founder of the emporium Anthony Hordern & Sons, originally developed the property in 1887 and commissioned his architect Albert Bond to build a Victorian Italianate style house. The coral-pink, white-trimmed, two-storey building, with its turreted portico, is now framed by mature trees and settled comfortably into an expansive garden.

Retford Park

When James Fairfax bought the property after the death of Sam Hordern III, he inherited a fine garden with a well-planted park (a grand old bunya pine near the house and two Algerian oaks in the park which in the summer form a cave of green are special treasures) and added his own style, so that Retford Park reveals layers of garden design, while maintaining a wonderful coherence.

English garden designer John Codrington, whose services were a gift to James Fairfax from his mother, designed the fountain path, which leads into the garden from the house. Grey-leafed plants are clipped into dense mounds along a red gravel path, with just a splash of white agapanthus exploding around the fountain in the summer.


More recently, Melbourne-based architect David Wilkinson, who has been involved in the garden’s on-going design over several decades, suggested a different sort of water feature. The Millenium Canal is a rectangle of reflective water with a surface area of 2000 square metres, commemorating the year 2000. It runs parallel to the driveway, edged on its far side with a row of maples whose glowing red leaves are mirrored in its surface in autumn.


Wilkinson was also responsible for the Green Room, designed to display one of James Fairfax’s many artworks, a bronze sculpture by Inge King called Euphoric Angels. The success of this restrained and meditative space is in its grand scale, with an enormous grassed expanse between Thuja hedges focussing attention on the work as it takes flight from a clipped teucrium plinth.


On the other side of the hedge the former tennis court is now the Laurel Lawn, with a perennial border of mostly red-flowering plants, and beyond it the surprise of the Pool Pavilion, designed by architect Guilford Bell in 1968. The low-slung modernist building features glass walls that slide away to open the space completely to a swimming pool on one side and an ornamental pond on the other. Donald Friend’s sculpture Man Jumping Over Goat gambols here among the waterlilies.

Retford Park

There’s much more to discover: the Knot Garden, designed to highlight two 17th century marble benches; the Emu Walk, where a mob of emus explores an avenue of pollarded lindens; and a Peony Walk, orchard and kitchen garden. Linger to take in Retford Park’s layers of history and the pleasures of its art and gardens.

Retford Park


Retford Park is open October 21-23, 10am-4pm, $10, 1325 Old South Road, Bowral.

It’s time to

See Galston gardens
There are eight large gardens open in Galston this weekend (October 14,15,16). Entry is $5 per garden, or a $20 ticket allows access to all gardens all weekend. For garden details and addresses go to www.gasltonggarden.club.com.au

See more gardens
While you’re in the Southern Highlands for Retford park, head down the road to Bundanoon, where eight gardens are open for the annual Ramble. www.bundanoongardenramble.org.au.

See art
Eden Unearthed is an exhibition of 30 installations by invited artists who have engaged with the various nooks and crannies of Eden Gardens to create site-specific works. Until March 1, 2017, free entry, 307 Lane Cove Road, Macquarie Park.

Buy art
Artisans in the Gardens opens this weekend at Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, until October 23. All works celebrate the natural world in some way, and are for sale. Also for sale just next door are bits of the actual natural world – plants from the Growing Friends.

Buy more art
Also while whiling away the weekend in the Southern Highlands, see florist/sculptor Tracey Deep’s beautiful and intricately formed explorations of shape and shadow, at Sturt Gallery until November 13.

In season

October 11

In now: Purple asparagus is a small proportion of the Australian harvest so only briefly available. Use raw to maintain that great colour.

At its best: As the weather warms bananas are back to their gleaming golden best after a grey-skinned winter.

Best buy: The pale green and white, oval-shaped chicory that is sold as Belgian endive has a mild bitter flavour that’s at its best in spring. Use in salads, or slice and sauté as a side.

In the vegie patch: Pick organically grown flowers from the garden to add to salads. Try thyme, rosemary, viola and pot marigold.

What else:

  • Lots of seedless watermelon from the Northern Territory. The original seedy version has been popular in Egypt for at least 5000 years, if evidence of seeds and leaves in ancient tombs is anything to go by.
  • Local growers are harvesting the spring flush of bok choy.
  • Add sliced zucchini flowers to a salad of soft leaves and goats cheese.
  • Given that pears were all picked in autumn, how good they are now depends on how well they’ve been stored. Sure signs of a problem – brown spots of rot developing before the fruit ripens. Beat the rot by eating them greener and firmer than you did earlier in the season.
Glenmore House
Other people's gardens

Garden Fair at Glenmore House

Mickey Robertson opens Glenmore House garden for her Spring Garden Fair next weekend, October 15 and 16. I’m a big fan of the garden, which is elegant and domestic at the same time, and which communicates a wonderful sense of well being. Honestly, you feel that all is right with your world while you walk around the gardens or lounge in a chair in the shade of one of the repurposed outbuildings.

I’m also a fan of Mickey’s strategy for making the garden pay its way. Rather than just charging to come have a look, Mickey has made Glenmore the location for a range of interesting events. We came to dinner, for instance, for Kinfolk’s first Australian event, and sat here one gorgeous summer evening:

Glenmore House

There are also workshops – I did one with India Flint and learned how to make a bag out of a scarf and use native plants as dyes (more on that some other time). And each season, vegetable garden guru Linda Ross holds a Kitchen Garden day, sharing her experience on growing your own, matched with lunch from Mickey’s very impressive kitchen garden.

Glenmore House

Pear arch in the kitchen garden

Mickey has always opened the garden in spring and the open day has now morphed into a full-on Fair. So next weekend there will be plants and stylish garden things to buy, Martin Boetz is making lunch, and there’ll be cake and tea and various entertainments. Mickey’s just-released book, The House and Garden at Glenmore (here’s a review of the book by gardener, writer, artist, Silas Clifford-Smith, who blogs as The Reflective Gardener) will be for sale in the Barn, where Mickey also sells the linen dress that is her uniform, and other hard-to-resist bits and pieces. It will be a beautiful day out in the country, whatever the weather.


I wrote about the garden for the Sydney Morning Herald,  but today as a flashback I thought I’d include a bit from a story I wrote a few years ago for Your Garden magazine, Australia’s longest-running garden magazine, launched in 1947, and killed off just this year by Pacific Publishing.


Mickey Roberston traces her dream of a country house life filled with flower gardens, orchards and a vegetable patch to childhood bedtime stories. “Blame it on Beatrix Potter and those nursery rhymes,” she says, “…Mary Mary Quite Contrary.” In 1989 when Mickey and husband Larry found Glenmore House, in the rural hills south-west of Sydney, there were no pretty maids all in a row. On the contrary, the house was derelict, the garden overrun, yet Mickey’s childhood dream began to take shape.

The house, a rough-hewn sandstone cottage, Georgian in style and dating from the 1830s, had been alternately rented and vacant for some 35 years, so “when we would come from the city on a Saturday morning and put the key in the lock we would hear the scuttling behind the door,” remembers Mickey. The couple worked weekends for 18 months before they could spend a vermin-free night in the cottage and wake to the view over hills and a winding creek towards the Razorback Ranges.

Glenmore House

Blackberry and lantana had swallowed the garden and its outbuildings, though persimmons and peppercorns were visible through the mess. “I started planning and making little drawings on pieces of paper,” explains Mickey, whose career as an interior designer is apparent in the garden as well as the house. She rejected the curved organic shapes of a typical country garden, for something more room-like. “I like straight lines, compartments, a certain amount of orderliness.”

She also likes structures and one of the charms of the gardens is the use of the original outbuildings – a hayshed, barn, dairy and stables. These formerly rundown constructions have been restored and given fresh purpose. They also offer points with which to frame the axes of the garden.


Mickey’s early planting ideas were heavily influenced by English country gardens, but, ensconced at Glenmore House, she gradually developed a sense of history about the garden. “I was hugely influenced by what Leo Schofield did at Bronte House,” she explains. “That garden is just such a thrill! And about the same time I was working at Brownlow Hill, an early-19th century property close by and saw the agaves, aloes, yuccas, and the Chinese elms and bamboo forests there. That was when the wisteria and the roses I’d planted out the front came out and I became really interested in garden history.”

The front of the symmetrical stone cottage, grey dormer windows like eyebrows, a bullnose verandah shading the lower rooms, now has a garden that suits its no-nonsense lines: a forecourt of pale grey gravel, a round pond and two great clumps of silver-blue Agave Americana.

Now, says Mickey nothing is planted purely for its good looks. “There has to be some historical or romantic reason for planting it.” As an example she points out the olive and almond trees, both early sentimental plantings that link her to memories of times spent in the south of Spain with her late parents-in-law.


The almond and olives form part of an orchard planting that includes citrus, black and white figs, apples and crabapples. The adjacent garden of perennial borders gives Mickey opportunity to practice her talent for developing horticultural pictures. The two facing borders are wide enough and long enough for the development and repetition of tone and texture. The structure is supported by plantings of bronze flax, Phormium tenax, and through the seasons different plants take starring roles. In autumn apricot cannas, burgundy heads of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, bright red hips of the rugosa rose ‘Frau Dagmar Hastrup’ and bleached blonde, fairy-floss heads of ‘Miscanthus sinensis’ draw the eye.

The borders are let go all through winter, the dried heads of the flowers and grasses hanging on against the frost. And then, in mid-August, everything but the flax is cut down, the whole lot covered with compost and manure, so that it springs into lush new growth.

Glenmore House is about an hour south of Sydney on Moore’s Way at Glenmore, and is open 10-4.30pm next Saturday and Sunday, October 15 and 16. Entry $10. Mickey will take tours of her Kitchen Garden at 11am and 2pm.


It’s time to

Repot the orchids
Cymbidium orchids like to live close but not overcrowded. If pots have become packed, lift and divide them now and repot into fresh orchid mix.

Consider azaleas
Petal blight destroys azalea blooms, turning them sludgy first, then crispy. A systemic fungicide, such as Zaleton, sprayed from first colour in the buds until flowering is finished, is one solution. The other is to swap high-maintenance azaleas for something less troubled by pests and disease.

Rehydrate the pots
The ghastly westerly winds of the last week sucked the moisture out of everything. Potting mix is particularly susceptible to becoming hydrophobic once it dries out. Use a soil wetter, such as Eco-hydrate, to allow you to really soak the mix in preparation for a hot day on Monday.

Feed freesias
The evil westerlies dried up the last of the freesias. Trim back the dead flower spikes and feed the foliage to boost flower production for next year.



In season

October 4

In now: Blueberries hit a sweet peak through October when the best varieties are ripening in the north of NSW. Look for berries still showing the white bloom that indicates just-picked freshness.

At its best: If it’s footy final time it must be morel season. These honeycomb-domed fungus are one of the few springtime mushrooms, and last only until warm weather brings the flies.

Best buy: Papaya has a big flush in autumn and in spring, and the fruit arriving now from Mossman in tropical north Queensland is fragrant and sweet.

In the vegie patch: Ensure potted lemons get regular water while they are in flower.

What else:

  • With weather warming it’s possible now to find real French tarragon, rather than the coarse-flavoured but tough Russian tarragon that fools the unwary through winter.
  • Bean sprouts take about six days to grow from mung bean seeds that are spread in shallow vats. For freshest sprouts shop in Asian grocers which buy in daily.
  • Add broad beans to everything.
  • Ditto for asparagus, which is delicious raw, roasted, barbecued, steamed or stir fried.