Christopher OwenA garden with a hidden spirit

I know you all will have discussed the marvellous ‘Hidden’ festival but I thought I’d review one garden in particular, the Bondi nest of Spirit Level Design’s director, Hugh Main. This was my favourite garden of those I visited but I should say from the outset that Hugh is a friend and mentor and I worked with the Spirit Level team ten years ago.

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims

I have visited the garden before but it has been a few years and it was wonderful to see how it has matured. The thing that struck me most, it’s more than a garden to look at; photogenic though it is, it’s a garden to be in. It’s as if the garden inhabits you, and it seemed to wrap around me like a favourite jacket. I felt immediately at ease, even in Sunday’s rain!

Spirit Level Design

Spirit Level Design

But the journey starts way up the street with the smell of wood smoke from the fire pit. Perfect. This takes me home, although only now am I acutely aware of how much it struck my senses. We use scent everyday in gardens but I had never thought about using wood smoke as a scene setter. A barbecue is a common addition to many gardens and the smell of food cooking is a wonderful thing but they are inevitably gas burners. This was wood smoke and it seemed to reverberate in my DNA. Perhaps it was teaming up with the misty rain, coercing me to reverie, but for a moment I was no longer in the city.

The side entrance. Spirit Level Design

The side entrance. Spirit Level Design

We follow the scent of smoke around the side access to the apartment, through the gloomy light of tree cover as if in a Japanese stroll garden where ferns and other shade lovers have taken hold. The nodding fans of a Washingtonia palm, heavy with rain drops holds court in this space. I love the unfussy nature of the planting here, the ferns are growing as if not by design but on a forest floor with honest bare patches of earth covered in fallen leaf litter (not mulch), the dark earth accentuating the green of the ferns.

We pass through the gloom giving way to the light of a generous entertaining area that looks out to a small but spacious garden. The area is designed asymmetrically on a grid; think of a work by Mondrian where the blocks of yellow red and blue are replaced by functional parts of the garden, with planting softening the geometry.

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims

Spirit Level Design

Spirit Level Design

The large deck where we arrive is similar in dimension to the open face of the apartment, as if it were lowered like a drawbridge. This is an important detail as it doesn’t cut the building from garden but creates that all-important transition in and out. Repeating the given dimensions of the apartment seats the building comfortably in the landscape. The deck is made of red iron bark, an Australian hard wood which, when asked, Hugh proudly answers will last for forty years, and then humbly adds, that he didn’t know that until it was built, he just liked the colour! The deck is now five years old but still maintains its dark tones due to an annual application of decking oil.

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims

Sandstone block-work is the next component used for organizing space. The hand-shaped stone borders the deck, making an informal seat and extends into the garden defining other spaces, including a pond and sunken area where we find the smouldering fire pit.

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims

 

The block-work has been laid to a dry-stone effect, although it’s mortared in place. Varying sized blocks have been laid in an irregular pattern, which is important, because it reinforces the asymmetry of the layout and helps create the relaxed mood of the garden. If sawn-finished blocks had been laid in a formal running course it would give rise to an all-together different feel, counter to the spirit of the garden. Time has also played an important role here as the beautiful stones now wear lichens and moss and Hugh shows a visitor how a tree fern has germinated in one of the gaps.

The sunken area, which is no more than ten square metres, is crucial for a number of reasons – it extends the practical use of the garden, drawing you from the deck to a yet more informal space now surrounded by planting where tree ferns cradle you and decomposed granite is underfoot. The second reason – the fire pit is a focal point when viewed from the deck, but possibly the most important factor is the level change, which in this relatively small garden is crucial, as it creates a different mind set once you enter. You now look back at the apartment through planting, which is a new perspective and, I don’t know about you, but a change in level in a garden can have a magical quality for me, and this time it brought out my inner child, it was as if we were sitting in a cubby.

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims4

Spirit Level Design Photo Chris Sims

The planting includes the lyrical branches of Banksia integrifolia, Cootamundra wattle, Poa grasses unashamedly shaggy, the soft fronds of Cyathea tree ferns, and native violets and Molineria capitulata on the ground plane. There is a low Syzygium hedge for structure and Podocarpus hedging has been used to screen out a tall building next door. The garden shares three neighbours on its boundaries yet, refreshingly, plants have not been used to block them out, which is an all too common request from clients. I find this can create a dark, green prison, and there is too much pressure on the plant material to perform some Herculean task for the sake of privacy. But here the trees are loosely planted, softening the neighbours but maintaining light and views to other trees beyond.

This garden has that elusive quality, a sense of place, often coined but rarely achieved. The materials in the garden are of the place, maybe not literally, but close enough for it to feel at ease with itself and its surroundings. Each element I’m sure would have been considered and revised to attain this natural state – a matrix of stone, timber, water and green, fusing through wood smoke, rain, and light.

Spirit Level Design

View from inside Hugh's apartment

View from inside Hugh’s apartment

There are about ten of us standing around absorbing the space in the soft rain, all strangers to one another but within minutes we are talking and laughing and introducing each other as if at a party. Hugh is making sure everyone goes inside the apartment to get a different perspective on the space. All the while the garden itself was working in on us, softening us, and creating a moment for complete strangers to share. This does not happen when ten strangers stand at a bus stop, even when the same ten people catch the same bus everyday.

This is the power of nature, and this garden seems strongly allied with it.

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Christopher Owen

About Christopher Owen

Born and raised in Sydney and trained as a horticulturist at Swanes Nursery, I later went on to work as a landscaper and gardener for Spirit Level and Myles Baldwin and spent a special three years as head gardener at Bronte House before dropping out of design school and starting my own garden design practice working from a little office in Surry Hills. Catherine has allowed me on board the GardenDrum bus, which is exciting for me, and I promise I will do my best to keep the grouchiness to a minimum.

4 thoughts on “A garden with a hidden spirit

  1. Lovely lovely spaces and ideas here. Love the fire pit and the notion of smelling woodsmoke as a welcoming aroma. The rain adds such a glistening dimension to all surfaces, too.

  2. This was indeed a beautiful garden and the rain made it feel even more peaceful. It must be very hard as a designer to be so restrained in one’s own garden. I’m always tempted to include more things, rather than less, usually to the detriment of the whole.

  3. janet on said:

    I was disappointed to miss Hidden Gardens but feel I have been part of it through the evocative writing leading me through this fabulous garden. Christopher has the rare gift of beautifully describing the emotional response to a garden. He leads us on a journey, through Hugh’s wonderful design, which draws you in to a peaceful reverie. It is such a gift to create a functional garden which evokes such imagery and feelings.

  4. steven on said:

    Thanks Christopher for this insight into such a lovely garden. Your description and photos really made me feel that I was within it. It certainly looks like a lush green paradise. I love the plant selection, the decking and fireplace … it all seems to flow well. That was great that Hugh was encouraging people to get the perspective from inside the house because that just highlights the connection of inside and outside so well.

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