Other people's gardens

Clever small space garden

Houses are expanding and garden space is shrinking, but the to-do list for that precious outdoor space is the same as it ever was: somewhere for the kids to play, the barbecue to sit, friends to eat, food to grow and clothes to dry. Two modern must-haves – water feature and fire pit – round out the list, which has the rider that the neighbours should overlook none of it.

The list was just part of the challenge that faced designer Adam Macdonald, of Impressions Landscapes, when he was briefed to design a garden in a small space around a large house in the inner west. Macdonald has cleverly managed everything in his brief, including views into the garden from both ground-level and upper floor windows, in a simple and coherent design.

The solutions start at the street, with the house’s boxy double-storey front is lent scale and afforded privacy with a pleached lillypilly hedge. Pleaching is an ancient technique of training trees to form a narrow dense hedge that is trimmed so that it appears to be on stilts. (How ancient? Julius Caesar reported that one of the Gallic tribes he was trying to subdue had used the technique to build defences against cavalry.) In Europe it is usually applied to deciduous trees, but MacDonald wanted an evergreen effect. He has found Acmena smithii a very amenable subject. He selects plants with single leaders, then trims and trains to create a narrow plane of foliage atop elegantly lean bare grey trunks.

Garden by Adam Macdonald, Impressions Landscapes

The hedge wraps three sides of the property, and is continued in the back. Though only small this back space has two terraces of lawn and pockets of interesting planting that give a sense of lush garden, not courtyard. A large wooden deck tucks into the house. A moat-like pond divides the deck from the two lawn terraces. Large granite slabs form stepping stones across the pond and into the lower terrace, which is just big enough for the kids to show off their handstands. On the upper level, a curved sandstone wall offers convivial seating around a built-in firepit.

Garden by Adam Macdonald, Impressions Landscapes

Softening the corners are the huge beanbag-like mounds of Echium fatuosum, commonly called pride of Madeira. This plant is often thought to resent Sydney’s humidity, though Macdonald has found it to be a trooper. He’s used it repeatedly over the past five years, including in his own garden in southern Sydney. The huge cones of purple flowers appear in spring. When not in flower the shrub is a soft-leafed grey-green lump, with foliage right to the ground. MacDonald prefers not to cut tit back, both because of the ugly phase while it reshoots and its tendency to swiftly get even bigger than it was before. If necessary he’d rather start again with a new plant, than try to secure a size with secateurs.

Garden by Adam Macdonald, Impressions Landscapes

There are plenty of details to admire in this garden – that lovely sandstone walling, the corten steel edge to garden beds repeated in a channel that runs into the pond, the foliage contrasts in the planting beds, but the really impressive achievement is how much life in the garden is packed into this small space. Last night MacDonald was recognised for this by his peers, winning a Best Garden award (in the category for residential gardens, $50,000-$150,000) in the Australian Institute of Landscape Designers and Managers awards.[Friday oct 23].

Thanks to Adam for his great pictures of the garden.

***Exciting news!
I’m leading a garden tour of Holland and Belgium next spring with Viking cruises. We’ll enjoy the ease and comfort of a river cruise, (love that unpack once thing!) with plenty of great garden moments at the height of tulip season. It will be just a small group and we’ll have a ball. Read the full itinerary on the brochure here.
Spring blooms with Robin Powell


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