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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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