Dr Anne ValeMaking Australian gardens with a sense of place

The images through this story demonstrate the diversity of three of our contemporary Australian garden designers whilst the story pays tribute to those who laid the foundation for their particular design style.

2007 image of 'Karkalla' a contemporary approach to nature like design by Fiona Brockhoff (Anne Vale)

2007 image of ‘Karkalla’ a contemporary approach to nature like design by Fiona Brockhoff (Anne Vale)

In recent interviews, many of our most successful designers have told me that through social media tools such as Instagram they have instant access to contemporary design from all over the world. This combined with the shear diversity of the Australian landscape from the Top End to Tasmania; from Perth to sub tropical Queensland makes the concept of ‘Australian Style’ nonsense to many.

A lake side garden at Main Ridge that enclosed and encompassed the house, designed by Fiona Brockhoff. (Virginia Cummins)

A lake side garden at Main Ridge that enclosed and encompassed the house, designed by Fiona Brockhoff. (Virginia Cummins)

The aspiration to establish an ‘Australian style’ has largely evolved into the more realistic and meaningful philosophical and ecologically sustainable goal of creating a ‘Sense of Local Place’. This means that today we have a great diversity of garden design styles which reflect the designer’s style whilst taking into account their clients brief, the location and climate. In Victoria we have a number of designers who are particularly keen to apply strong, interesting design ideas to nature like settings. They don’t want to copy or emulate but what each have discovered along the way is that their philosophies are in part founded on the endeavours of their predecessors. Sam Cox, Fiona Brockhoff and Philip Johnson have all been inspired by the Australian landscape in much the same way as Ellis Stones, Gordon Ford and sisters Betty Maloney and Jean Walker were in the 20th century.

Ellis Stones loved to create dry creek beds like this lovely example at Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne (Anne Vale)

Ellis Stones loved to create dry creek beds like this lovely example at Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne (Anne Vale)

Ellis Stones (1895-1975) utilised rocks and water in his garden designs to replicate the way they formed naturally in the landscape. He complemented these elements with a mix of Australian and exotic plantings. Stones career began when he crossed paths with Edna Walling sometime during 1934-35 when they were both working for the Donaldsons in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg. Walling was designing the garden and Stones was doing some carpentry work in the house. When Stones overheard Walling bemoaning the fact that she couldn’t find anyone with the skill to build a stone wall, he offered his services. Rather dubious at first, Walling allowed him to try his hand. She was so impressed with the result that she persuaded Stones to exchange carpentry for stonework and a beneficial working relationship ensued.

Informal stone steps by Sam Cox who credits his training with Gordon Ford for his successful practice in the naturalistic landscape school (Anne Vale)

Informal stone steps by Sam Cox who credits his training with Gordon Ford for his successful practice in the naturalistic landscape school (Anne Vale)

Stones, nick-named ‘Rocky’, progressed from working for Edna Walling to developing a garden design business of his own. His two guiding principles were ‘nature is the greatest teacher’ and ‘gardens are for people.’ He created places to sit and relax—places to eat outside on a sunny morning—shady nooks to escape summer heat. Screening was utilised for privacy and windbreaks, and to create a feeling of enclosure. His courtyards were simple, uncluttered and tranquil places. Seats were incorporated into the courtyard structure utilising materials appropriate to the building and the landscape. (Ellis Stones, Australian Garden Design (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1971, 42-58). This is in the 1970s yet his description could easily apply to contemporary courtyard design.

Informal swimming pool by Sam Cox (Anne Vale)

Informal swimming pool by Sam Cox (Anne Vale)

Stones believed that water in the garden was a very desirable element; he took particular care to site his pools within the natural contour of the land. Another favourite technique was the use of pebbles and boulders to create a dry creek bed in a sometimes wet area. His preferred building materials included locally sourced rocks, timber, gravel and brush fencing. Although not directly influenced by Stones, award winning designer Philip Johnson applies the same principals in the 21st century.

Meandering path through Goodinia in a Sam Cox designed garden (Anne Vale)

Meandering path through Goodinia in a Sam Cox designed garden (Anne Vale)

By the 1950s, Stones was well established in his own landscape business and providing a mentoring role for others including Gordon Ford (1918-1999).

Ford created large landscapes dominated by rocks, trees and water. His nature-like gardens were informed by the texture and structure of indigenous vegetation and the ecology and the geology of their local landscape. Ford started working for Ellis Stones in 1950 and very quickly he realised that he had ‘discovered his niche in life’. In his autobiography Gordon specifically detailed the lessons he learnt in the two years he worked for Stones at the start of his career;

‘Ellis Stones was my mentor and friend. I worked for him for two years in the early 1950s when he was doing some of his best work. He taught me the principles of the naturalistic school of landscaping. He taught me how to design and construct rock gardens using Melbourne basalt boulders and granite from Bendigo and surrounding districts. He taught me to simulate natural rock outcrops. He taught me about lava flow that formed the natural basalt outcrops and although the ‘planes’ of the rock are generally imperceptible, after some time I learned to place the rock in a horizontal manner to achieve a natural look.’ (Ford and Ford, 1999, 13).

Ford went on to establish his own landscape design business and gradually his work became widely known and highly desirable. Ford pioneered the bush garden concept in the 1960s, along with Glen Wilson and others. He subsequently produced around 2000 designs between 1950 and his death in 1999. (Ford,1999). He developed his own particular natural style in which the emphasis was on design rather than horticulture.

This lovely waterfall forms a spectacular and ever changing view from the living room of Sam's home. Designed by Sam Cox. (Anne Vale)

This lovely waterfall forms a spectacular and ever changing view from the living room of Sam’s home. Designed by Sam Cox. (Anne Vale)

Sam Cox, who trained with Ford, has continued with his philosophies to establish a very successful landscape design business creating beautiful nature like landscapes in both urban and rural localities.

Jean Walker and Betty Maloney were proponents of the bush garden so popular in the 1960s and 1970s. The sisters instigated a completely new approach to using Australian plants in domestic gardens by emulating the Australian bush, rather than simply replacing exotic plants with Australian plants within a conventional garden design.

Great craggy steps lead the garden visitor up the gully in Philip Johnson's cool climate garden at Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges. (Anne Vale)

Great craggy steps lead the garden visitor up the gully in Philip Johnson’s cool climate garden at Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges. (Anne Vale)

The sisters grew up in Colac, Western Victoria. But by the 1960s they had both moved (as newlyweds) to the Hawkesbury region on Sydney’s Northern Peninsula. The bushland of the Hawkesbury sandstone is rich in native flora, a significant contrast to the green and lush landscape of Western Victoria. They were astounded by the beauty and diversity of the indigenous vegetation and immediately joined the local group of the Society for Growing Australian Plants. Botanist Alec Blombery mentored the two newcomers, helping them to become familiar with the nomenclature and growing habits of the local plants.

Johnson's stunning waterfall has been designed with secure planting pockets to allow plants to establish. (Anne Vale)

Johnson’s stunning waterfall has been designed with secure planting pockets to allow plants to establish. (Anne Vale)

Betty became a talented botanical artist, and subsequently illustrated a number of books and book covers for various authors and regularly provided illustrations for the Society for Growing Australian Plants journal Australian Plants. She became the curator of the seed bank for the Society for Growing Australian Plants and organised many of the society’s floral exhibitions.

This sculptured garden at Flinders is offset from the house, the main views are from the first storey, designed by Fiona Brockhoff. (Virginia Cummins)

This sculptured garden at Flinders is offset from the house, the main views are from the first storey, designed by Fiona Brockhoff. (Virginia Cummins)

The Maloneys and the Walkers both established their own private gardens using indigenous plants and local organic material for construction. Their philosophy was founded on ‘Naturalness with Order’. The Maloneys built a new house on a vacant block of land. Maloney tied torn pieces of old sheet around all the trees she wished to retain and banned the builder from damaging them or the garden they encircled. In this way, the original native bush on the block formed the nucleus of the garden. (John Patrick, The Australian Garden: Designs and Plants for Today (Melbourne: Nelson Publishing, 1985, 20-23). Maloney and Walker opened this garden in aid of the local Steiner School, they expected forty or so visitors, instead, over 800 turned up, such was the growing interest in bush gardens and native plants at that time. (Betty Maloney and Jean Walker, Designing Australian Bush Gardens, Sydney: Horwitz Publications, 1966, 60-85).

Contemporary artwork creates a splash of colour amongst the ferns on a bush path in Philip Johnson's garden at Olinda. (Anne Vale)

Contemporary artwork creates a splash of colour amongst the ferns on a bush path in Philip Johnson’s garden at Olinda. (Anne Vale)

The Walkers took a different approach. They had purchased an established house and garden but Jean promptly set about demolishing the garden. Wire fence, concrete fill, ornamental plants, even the lawn were all advertised free of charge to be taken away. When the space was just rubble and bare earth, she was ready to begin. The rocks were pushed to the outer edges to form a basin and sandstone boulders were exposed. Jean planted the crevices with native ferns and bracken. Banksias and tree ferns formed the basis for the planting in the surrounds. One can just imagine how much Gordon Ford and Ellis Stones would have enjoyed both the process and the result.

Ellis Stones and Gordon Ford, Betty Maloney and Jean Walker, had a heightened sense of being Australian and living in the Australian landscape. They had a passion for creating gardens with a ‘sense of local place’ rather than that of an ‘imported ideal’.

Sam Cox, Fiona Brockhoff and Philip Johnson are continuing these philosophies while applying their own unique contemporary style.

Philip Johnson designed waterfall and pool at Lubra Bend in the Yarra Valley off set with' hand selected boulders to showcase nature’s sculptural brilliance' (Johnson). (Anne Vale)

Philip Johnson designed waterfall and pool at Lubra Bend in the Yarra Valley off set with’ hand selected boulders to showcase nature’s sculptural brilliance’ (Johnson).
(Anne Vale)

[This article is derived from Anne’s award winning book Exceptional Australian Garden Makers. Anne is currently working on a sequel (Due late 2016) Influential Australian Garden People which will focus on the current generation including the designers showcased in this article. More at Heriscapes]

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Dr Anne Vale

About Dr Anne Vale

Dr Anne Vale is an author, historian, lecturer and garden photographer. Anne is the author of award winning Exceptional Australian Garden Makers (2014). The sequel, Influential Australian Garden People, which follows the influences of the next generation, is due to be published late 2016. Anne records and assesses gardens with history through her consulting practice Heriscapes. She has written garden guides and histories on significant Australian heritage gardens including Dalvui, Mawarra, Wombat Park and Burnley. She has contributed articles to the online directory on Australian Women Leaders, the Australian Garden History Society journal, Historic Gardens Review journal and the Royal Historical Society Remembering Melbourne (due late 2016).

6 thoughts on “Making Australian gardens with a sense of place

  1. It’s great to follow the inter-generational links Anne – inspiring and inspired 100% Australian landscape designers. It’ll be interesting to see what the next generation brings.

  2. Jeff Howes on said:

    An inspiring read — thanks.
    As suburban land sizes shrink more and more and the increase in high rise apartments, gardening as we know it is on the declined. A real pity as a garden is much more than just a collection of plants.

    • Anne Vale on said:

      Thanks Jeff glad you enjoyed it.

    • Kath Gadd on said:

      A Great article, thanks Anne, I follow all 3 of the mentioned garden designers closely and through them have learnt of their predecessors in the generation before, perhaps the wrong way round however very inspiring none-the-less.
      I love the concept of the Australian garden moving beyond ‘Style’ and instead evolving to capture a ‘Sense of Local Place’, which is so much more open-minded and inclusive.

      thanks for your words,

      • Anne Vale on said:

        thanks Kath, I am enjoying writing about of the current generation too, all three of the designers will be in my next book. Influential Australian People: their stories

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