Catherine StewartReview: why I don’t like Mayfield Water Garden

Mayfield, a huge, private, cool-climate garden near Oberon in the NSW Central Tablelands has been described as a “marvellous” garden and its public Water Garden as a “masterpiece” and “magical“. I first saw greater Mayfield in autumn 2010 and wasn’t that keen but thought it might just need some maturation time. However, after revisiting only the Water Garden last weekend with three family members, I’m still not a fan.

Mayfield Water Garden lower waterfall

Mayfield Water Garden lower waterfall

Don’t be mistaken though, there’s no doubt this garden lives up to many of its over-the-top adjectives. Words like ‘stunning’, ‘grand’, ‘spectacular’ and ‘vast’ pepper people’s descriptions and that part is indeed accurate. The permanently-open six acre Water Garden is a only a tiny portion of the whole Mayfield private estate garden which opens for only ten or so weekends each year, the first batch in autumn and then again in spring.

And who can resist the idea that one of Australia’s super-wealthy men, Garrick Hawkins, would want to spend some of the millions he has amassed through investment banking and international deal-making, on building his own garden? It’s not something that our Down-Under squilionares tend to favour – large phallic harbourside casinos being a preferred edifice. Although there is that Mayfield Obelisk…

Mayfield Obelisk

Mayfield Obelisk

So what’s not to like?

Massive stone walls and wide paths dominate the Mayfield Water Garden

2016 – massive stone walls and wide paths dominate the Mayfield Water Garden

Mayfield water garden during construction in 2010 showing the scale of the garden hardscape

2010 – Mayfield water garden during construction showing the scale of the garden hardscape

Mayfield water garden during construction in 2010 - views across lake to the obelisk

2010 Mayfield water garden during construction – views across lake to the obelisk

2016 - views across the Mayfield Water Gardens to the obelisk

2016 – a similar view across the Mayfield Water Gardens to the obelisk

The massive scale and overpowering structural elements
As I walked around Mayfield’s Water Garden, the relentlessly massive scale at first impressed me, then overwhelmed me and then, eventually, bored me. Much of the garden is at the ‘massive’ end, with big thick stone retaining walls separating the visitor from each garden bed, and also very wide paths. I found that this prevented me from feeling immersed in the garden experience, or reaching any level of intimacy with what I was seeing. As my husband remarked, it’s as if each plant is an exhibit, carefully removed from visitor contact.

Mayfield Water Garden bluestone walls and wide path

Mayfield Water Garden bluestone walls and wide path

Although you do need decent-sized retaining walls on a steep slope, when combined with the wide paths (no doubt useful for maintenance vehicles and when busloads of tourists descend en masse) the garden lacks a hierarchy of mass and void that helps sustain interest. We found that we moved quickly along these paths, not feeling called-on to linger, unlike paths that are a smaller, two-person scale.

Mayfield Water Garden lower section

Mayfield Water Garden lower section

There is one lower section of the garden with narrower Japanese zig-zag paths and bridges across several ponds bordered with only thin steel edging but the rest, especially when there are only four visitors in the whole garden as there was last Saturday afternoon, was just too big and impersonal. I like to walk along some paths that don’t feel like they’ve been designed for golf carts, and to discover parts of a garden without being so managed and directed.

Well-built bluestone walls line the grand entry path

Well-built bluestone walls line the grand entry path

Attention to detail
Yes there is attention to detail in the care and construction of Mayfield but it’s curiously absent in some necessary areas. The bluestone walls are an interesting compromise between formal and vernacular, the pavement is an easy-to-walk-on stabilised fine gravel and the cute little slate plant signs on their curly pigtail stands are clever and ornamental.

Cute slate plant signs on curly pigtail stands

Cute slate plant signs on curly pigtail stands

However there are several features, mostly associated with the extensive irrigation system that are not well managed. I know that it’s hard to make large-scale irrigation discreet, but I think that Mayfield’s system is way too visible and detracts from both plantings and views. Apart from the sprinkler heads, ugly water controller boxes were very obvious in the many bare beds.

Bare garden beds and irrigation controllers Mayfield Water Garden 2016

Bare garden beds and irrigation controllers Mayfield Water Garden 2016

Bare beds and irrigation

More bare beds and irrigation

Planting
It is mid summer, and the Water Garden has many empty, mulched beds. I’m assuming that many of these have spring or autumn bulbs and perennials that are now dormant but where is the seasonal succession planting to replace them? There’s obviously no lack of water that might hamper summer plantings and no lack of suitable plants to choose, whether you want the pizzaz of flowers or the quietness of foliage. After paying the standard $10 entry, I’m a bit cheesed-off that it looks like all the effort goes into other seasons.

Another bare, mulched garden bed

Another bare, mulched garden bed

There’s also a strange lack of substance about the Mayfield garden planting, compared to other cool-climate gardens I know. There are lots of semi-mature deciduous trees, especially maples. birches and tulip trees, and ground cover things like hosta and bog plants close to the water. It took me a while to put my finger on it, but I feel there’s a structural imbalance caused by an absence of plant weight ‘down low’, in the 0.5-2m range. In cool climate gardens this is often provided by conifers and bigger evergreen shrubs, with their bulk and dense foliage. This absence of plant weight is part of what makes the stone landscaping feel overpowering and I think that will only increase as the trees reach full height.

Teak bench in an uncomfortably exposed location

Teak bench in an uncomfortably exposed location

Placement of benches and focal points
Traditional teak benches are dotted about the Water Garden in various open areas but they are strangely disconnected with their surrounding landscape and are too unprotected to offer an inviting place to stop and enjoy the view. After walking around the entire garden, I realised we had not sat on one of them.

Copper tree fountain at Mayfield

Copper tree fountain at Mayfield

And focal points like this copper water tree (I believe brought home from the Chelsea Flower Show) need a much better quality backdrop to show them to advantage.

In short
It struck me over and over again how much this garden would have benefitted from the input of a trained and experienced large-estate landscape designer. Money is undoubtedly available but I read that the design is a collaboration between Hawkins and a local nurseryman turned designer, Peter D’Arcy. There’s no reason why someone can’t or shouldn’t design his own personal garden, but a publicly-open garden charging an entrance fee needs to meet a high design standard.

I can’t help but compare it to the superb design and plantsmanship of Red Cow Farm in Exeter, NSW – another 6 acre purpose-built garden (that is, it’s not a home garden) also created by a collaboration between two men, and open daily from spring through autumn each year.

Longstock Park Photo courtesy Charlotte Weychan, The Galloping Gardener

Longstock Park Photo courtesy Charlotte Weychan, The Galloping Gardener

A sign inside Mayfield says that its Water Gardens were inspired by those at Longstock Park in Hampshire, UK, so I went to Charlotte Weychan’s fabulous site of British gardens, The Galloping Gardener to see some photos. However Longstock more closely resembles the water garden area at Red Cow Farm, with its beautifully managed framed views, planting style and subtle hardscape elements. If there is substantial stonework at Longstock Park, I couldn’t find any photos of it, and the paths appear to be much more informal, where you are often making your own way across open grass, rather than being swept along in a one directional current.

Am I being too picky? I thought that my landscape design training was perhaps making me too critical of Mayfield but, without sharing my thoughts with my three companions until we were close to leaving, it turned out that they had individually formed similar opinions to mine – that the Mayfield Water Garden is more theme park than garden. There’s still the possibility that it will turn into something wonderful one day but I think it will need a change of approach as well as time to achieve that.

To avoid that accusation that I cherry picked out the worst photos for this review, I include, for balance, a gallery of the best.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Creator, curator and editor of GardenDrum. Sydney, NSW.

20 thoughts on “Review: why I don’t like Mayfield Water Garden

  1. After reading your opening paragraph i thought i would look at the images first to form an opinion of my own before reading further.
    My thoughts were ‘it looks like the in-betweens at a new golf course on a housing estate in the middle of no where’
    I guess you thought the same.
    Shame.

    • Yes it’s a strange and remote place to put any garden tourism destination when there are so many Central Tablelands locations with better soil, better rainfall and easy road access, like Yetholme only 50km to the north.

  2. Oooh Catherine, a refreshingly honest review. How rare is it to have someone actually say what they really think!

    • I’m guessing they might not want to advertise their next opening here!

  3. Fiona Thompson on said:

    Catherine, I have followed Mayfield on social media for a while, my curiosity piqued by the sheer vastness of this private garden and a desire to see how it would be developed and managed (that, and a tacit jealousy of the obvious funds that are not similarly available to my own garden…). Their images have not inspired me to visit it in person, and I couldn’t understand why until you put it into words in your review. It is the grand scale apparently for its own sake, the sense of it being an exhibit rather than an inviting, interactive space, and the lack of multifariousness – it’s BIG, or nothing. Whilst I admire the concept, and the fact that philanthropy directed into gardens is a wonderful thing, its execution is wanting. Perhaps, to be fair, if I am ever in the neighbourhood, I will visit and see if the physical reality is simply not done justice by the images.

    • It’s not only that Mayfield uses massive scale. Other successful gardens use massive scale too but they don’t expect that you will walk through and interact with the garden – they are obviously only for looking at, not being in. The problem arises when you try to combine the two.

  4. Peter Whitehead on said:

    Well done Catherine. I visited Mayfield at Rhododendron time a year ago and found the place annoying. So many people had said that I MUST go to Mayfield. It’s a plant theme park and will never become a great garden – there is no soul to it. Can’t see myself returning. You have echoed my sentiments exactly.

  5. I agree, well done Cath. Mayfield obviously needs more thinking and attention to detail, plus some areas designed with a smaller focus and – as you aptly put it – recognition of the different height scales that are required for successful planting vistas.

  6. Craig Thompson on said:

    I’m sorry Catherine but I do not agree (again) with your opinion. Mayfield Gardens are still in their infancy and much work remains to be done. This work is ongoing as is clearly visible to the visitor with heavy machinery dotted around the site. The sense of still under construction should not detract from the soundness of the completed form. The massiveness of the walls and the generous width of the pathways echo the sheer scale of the overall site and shouldn’t be taken out of context. Over time, these widths will diminish as the plantings mature and become more dominant. Your training should have provided you some sense of proportion. I’ve seen far too many pathways in gardens that perhaps seemed the right size on construction only to morph into a track as the surrounding vegetation encroaches.

    You do state that it is a cool climate garden and then you deride the bare patches of garden beds – you did go in the heat of Summer. I visited the garden for the first time last Spring when the whole garden is available for viewing. It occupied well over two hours of my time just looking. Being able to contrast the water garden with its hard landscaping with the free flowing lawns and house and follies and vistas made the visit pleasurable; and worth the six hour round trip. I felt the entry fee my donation to the continued success of the garden. I will be back in time for an update.

    I do however feel that the garden, as it currently stands, to be somewhat horticulturally challenged – with a limited number of species planted as yet, but I do hold a hope for longer term enhancement that will come with time. The thought of establishing a garden on a open paddock is extremely daunting. Part of the walls and pathways job , apart from holding back the hill, would be to break up the wind and to provide some thermal mass against the frigid weather. The trees will provide shelter over time as they mature which will no doubt afford the right micro-climate for all the infill plantings.

    These large privately funded gardens should indeed have the full backing of the horticultural fraternity. The backers of such largess should be applauded for their generosity in allowing the little people in to have a sticky beak. Mayfield might not be your style or to your liking, but your dissing comments makes you seem (to me at least) a heartless judge of taste. Comments such that you have presented would only serve to rile the owners and workers. They should be praised for even attempting something on this scale.

    If other readers haven’t visited this garden, don’t be put off by Catherine’s comments. Do make the effort to visit , but wait till the whole garden is open. Leave your attitude in the carpark and enjoy what most of us could never achieve.

    • Andrew on said:

      I do agree with most of the points you make Craig. It is indeed a wonderful concept and certainly should be commended and supported. I also think it’s missing several truck loads of plants and a few years growing. The scale is enormous and I would think it will be much improved in the future.

      • Craig, many of your comments reference the entire Mayfield garden estate, which was not open when I visited and so is neither included in, nor relevant to, my review. Mayfield Water Garden is not anyone’s home garden. It is a commercial, purpose-built and completely finished tourist attraction that charges an entry fee. There are no heavy machines waiting to complete it. As such, it should be able to be critiqued just like anything else in that category, whether it’s a museum, an aquarium or the Big Pineapple. Just because it contains plants should not make it a sacred cow that has to be commended and supported regardless of its quality, and I’m not going to go and tug my forelock because someone rich graciously allows me to pay to see it.
        I visited another garden not far from Mayfield Water Garden on the same day and, despite its much more meagre budget and similar climate conditions, there were no bare beds in the height of summer. In contrast, it had an abundance of superb foliage and flowering plants on display – as it also had when I saw it last spring. If Mayfield’s Water Garden, after its at least 5-6 years of development can’t present as well as that throughout the year, then it should only open for a limited season.

  7. Zoé on said:

    Oh Catherine, living as I do in England where gardens are part of our psyche and comfort zone I can only commiserate and say ‘oh! how ghastly Mayfield is’! All imposed and circumscribed with little chance for organic expansion and change. Oh well. Who benefits from the entrance fees??

  8. Well I’ve read all the comments and your replies with great interest Catherine. As yet I haven’t been to Mayfield and for some reason have put a visit on the backburner. I will be going with a group in Spring – hopefully with an open mind, although people who keep telling me how marvellous it is only put me off. I absolutely love Red Cow Farm. Love the way you are absorbed in the garden, the plantings, the sculpture……everything. There are people though who will say it is overplanted. Not me. One final thing though, before I went to Highgrove, I was determined to hate it. I thought, made by a rich prince with a huge staff. How wrong was I! I think it’s a masterpiece. So……..I’ll get back to you re Mayfield.

    • This was my second visit to Mayfield. I had seen the Mayfield Water Garden when it was still under construction in 2010 – most hardscape finished, the water running and some advanced plantings already in. Rather than thinking that I wouldn’t like it, I went there last weekend in a hopeful mood – it’s a very long one-day return drive from north-east Sydney for something you don’t expect to like! I really did think that as it was now officially open and charging an entry fee, it would have grown enough that I would see its good ‘bones’ and also a bit of polish.

  9. This garden does not make it onto my ‘Australian gardens to visit’ list. I felt weighed down looking at those walls. There seem to be too many of them, and all of a piece. You don’t mention the shape of the lake. In your 2010 photo showing the view towards the obelisk, I was struck forcefully by the needlessly meandering shape. There is nothing pleasing to my eye about this wiggly edge, and the plantings in the 2016 view do nothing to improve it. Altogether, this looks a place to miss.

  10. Barbara on said:

    A bit of Louis XIV and Versailles at time of building mixed with Italian gardens built for the princes of Rome. Reminds me of the movie “A little chaos”. Perhaps in a couple of hundred years it will become an Icon in the paddocks.

  11. Perhaps it’s a gender thing – you’ve not mentioned that? It’s certainly a(n overly) masculine garden and could do with some softening, aging, thickening and dare I say it, feminising – I agree with lots of your thoughts Catherine… I’ve been a couple of times and while admiring the ambition, budget, scale, the fact that it is providing local employment and good training for a no. (some 26?) local people in an area not known for ‘economy’: good on all involved. That said, my major reaction and thought was, wouldn’t this be SO much more exciting if it were done with more/just native plants? It could be anywhere in the world, and very little says ‘Australia’, to me at least: I thought this a pity and a challenge for Mayfield as it does mature and evolve: and it will. Stuart.

  12. adam on said:

    it looks so desolate, so sterile in my opinion. Plants seemed to be well back from paths and it looks more like a council public park than an actual garden

  13. Sam on said:

    Great article Catherine,
    Our Horticulture Tafe class was encouraged not to miss Mayfield, especially in Autumn to see the variety of autumn colour not so readily avail in Sydney. Made a day of it, roped my (87 year old) Nan, from the bush, who remembers Swane’s roses being delivered to her mother by train, My stonemason husband , Mum, Step-dad and children…..It was a flat, underwhelming event. . It was like being told of the amazing Indian restaurant, 4 hours drive away, and the mildest curry you could imagine, no spice, too much sauce, not enough ”bulk” arrives on your plate. I was disappointed to see great swathes of hydrangeas planted out, with no protection from the sun, scorched, crisp dried and broken…what a waste of $$…It was a very ”Meh” event. We were all underwhelmed…Maybe in another 10 years time or so. However, not for us.

  14. Jennifer McMullen on said:

    It’s funny, while reading all of these for and against opinions of Mayfield, I couldn’t help but agree with both sides of the argument. I visited the garden twice in March, with different companions. There were things my logical mind appreciated, such as their efforts with the veg gardens, incorporating the ideas of permaculture, with chooks etc playing an important role as part of the system. However, when it came to a “feeling” i got from the garden, i felt it a little contrived, like it was trying too hard to be all things to everyone. I am wondering if this will resolve itself as time passes and it finds it’s way. Maybe the plants themselves may show the direction this garden should take and deliver a more natural, less contrived feel. Soul may come with age and the different gardeners’ vision and imagination. Fingers crossed. I will visit again, but not for a while.

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