An inspiration for my garden died suddenly this week: Made Wijaya, formerly Michael White, the Sydney tennis coach and architecture student who swam ashore from a boat stranded off the coast of Bali in 1973 and stayed to become a massively successful designer of tropical gardens and an expert on Balinese culture.
When I first travelled to Bali my garden was English-style – pretty, floral, a little bit frilly. But then I saw what Made Wijaya had done with the gardens of the Bali Hyatt in Sanur. In his first go at designing gardens he created a style he called ‘tropical Cotswolds’. I loved it. It wittily referenced Western garden design history while being louder, lusher and more flamboyant. The layers of green, the big leaves, the water, the broad splashes of colour managed to convey both the relaxation and the invigoration of a holiday. I went home, pulled out my prissy flowers and went in for big leaves and a holiday vibe.
Made Wijaya went on to design more than 700 gardens around the world, from Florida to the Taj hotels in India and David Bowie’s garden in Mustique. His vision has massively influenced not just my little piece of paradise, but our images of tropical luxury wherever we seek them out.
I haven’t spoken with him for years, but thinking about him this week I wondered if I could find the articles I wrote all those years ago. No luck, but on his website I found this – a story I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1999 when his book Tropical Garden Design first came out. (Florilegium has a second hand copy of this book available.) His friends will miss him but all of us can enjoy the gardens he created and the gardens he inspired.
When we imagine a Balinese garden we conjure an image that’s lush and verdant. Palms sway, frangipani host riotous bougainvillea while hibiscus, ginger, cordylines and pandanus backdrop a pond of louts and waterlilies and a couple of intriguingly mossy sculptures. It’s beautiful, it’s alluring, and it doesn’t have much to do with the original gardens of Bali. Instead it’s an invention, much influenced by former Australian architecture student Michael White, now known as Made Wijaya, eminent designer of tropical gardens and the creator of some of our favourite images of luxury.
True Balinese gardens are spare creations: packed earth floor, a central tree and some plants for ritual purposes. As Wijaya points out, people who live in the tropics are less enamoured of leafy fecundity. “They’re aware of all the insects and the fungus that go with that and they’ve spent thousands of years hacking the ficus off the gutters!” When he designed the gardens of the Bali Hyatt in Sanur in 1980 though, Made Wijaya gave tourists the tropical paradise of their fantasies – lush, fragrant, dramatic and multi-layered.
Bali, he says, is a high–maintenance location for gardening (there are 50 gardeners on staff at the Bali Hyatt, continuously attacking rampant growth with machetes, but in Sydney the pace is a little slower. Our outdoor spaces are perfectly suited to the small courtyard styles Wijaya has turned his attention to, and we love the outside-inside lifestyle of the tropics. He quotes Dame Edna’s quip about tropical life – “it’s the plants in the house and the furniture in the garden.”
First step in creating a Wijaya Bali-style courtyard or small garden is to ‘hide the uglies”, he says. “Hide the view of the air-conditioner compressor, hide the neighbours. Make the wall a nice backdrop, add a statue and make a little vignette out of it. At night, you can backlight a statue and get wonderful shadows, with vines streaming off the wall…”
And then you need a single big idea: “A tree in the middle, a largish water feature, a bit pot or an outdoor seating area,” he explains. The plants come last, dressing the bare bones of your set. Wijaya doesn’t go in for anything rare or hard to grow. Whatever works well in our area is the best choice. The impact comes not from individual plants but from how well you’ve harmonised your whole picture. Get it right and every day is a holiday in paradise.
It’s time to
See garden design
Grand Garden Designs is a companion exhibition to Planting Dreams at the NSW State Library. Curated by Howard Tanner it’s a photographic exploration of some of the most influential 21st century gardens in NSW. Entry is free.
Admire cherry blossom
The Golden Wheel Buddhist Retreat in Galston opens next weekend, Saturday 10 and Sunday 11 September for the Galston Spring Blossom Spectacular. Enjoy peach and cherry blossom, citrus, and camellias, as well as the temple itself. 405 Galston Road, 9.30–4.30. Tickets $5.
Cut back shrubby tibouchinas ready for a burst of spring growth.
Now that the weather is warming the whole garden can be fed with all-purpose fertiliser.