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Garden Design

‘Urban Sanctuary’ by Janine Mendel

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

October 22, 2012

Janine Mendel has long been in my designer favourites list, but can she write? Garden books are so often really just coffee-table books, filled with lovely pictures and some useful captions but you get to the prose and think “uh, oh, I just lost interest in this”. I was very relieved to find that this book Urban Sanctuary – designing small gardens’ by Janine Mendel [$59.95 Hardie Grant Books] has well-expressed ideas, thoughtful analyses of design challenges and a wealth of both theoretical and practical design advice. Even a hardened old-hand like me found plenty to stimulate, engage and yes, drool over. Rating: 4.5 stars ★★★★½   [If you enjoy appreciating and understanding fine design, send a link to this review to everyone who loves you, just in time for Christmas] 

Janine Mendel’s plant-filled oases, unusual angles and texture contrasts draw me in every time and her ever-expanding clientele around Perth, Western Australia obviously agrees. In her book we see a wide range of small gardens, from beach-side retreats to hip city pads, and small entry courtyards to a large traditional garden that’s been divided into smaller garden rooms.


There is a sort of signature Mendel style – I once described it as ‘angled energy’. Her ability to think literally outside the square means that straight-sided rectangular backyards feel anything but, well, straight-sided rectangular backyards. In her introduction, Mendel calls it ‘geometry’, by which she means getting the ground plane shapes and vertical form right, using combinations of lines and curves, before you start the titivating of plants, colour surfaces and artwork. Overall, she wants that “a house should look as if it has been ‘planted’ in the garden”. Ideally, this happens best when the house and garden are designed alongside each other which “can preclude completely the requirement for the ubiquitous attached covered alfresco area”, so the outdoor space doesn’t have to filled with “yet another dining room and a replicated kitchen”.

Amen to that.
Part 1 of the book then looks in detail at 14 of Mendel’s small garden designs, starting with her own exquisite garden, which you will lust after quite badly, I promise you. The house is designed around a series of courtyards so that every habitable room has garden views. It’s private but she hasn’t forgotten the streetscape, with a graceful poinciana framing her charcoal and timber gateway, leading to a timber boardwalk that floats through a lush and colourful garden to her house.

Through the following descriptions of her client’s gardens, there are many pearls of wisdom, both for designers but also for those contemplating hiring one. And they don’t just apply to small gardens. First up, Mendel is very clear about how every successful garden is a successful two-way collaboration between a client and a designer, and that requires thought, research and the effort to establish a good communication and decision-making process from both parties.

We also have discussions about overplanting for effect, how to work the vertical plane, creating privacy without boxing yourself in, the fabulous look of floating a hard-surface area above its surrounding garden, lifting safe neutrals with pops of colour and using low walls to give a garden space crisp definition, vertical bulk and casual seating without overwhelming the surrounding garden.

One thing that really struck me was how little furniture appears in these gardens. Oh, there’s plenty of seating, but it’s built in, not extra, so there are no garden settings cluttering up the beautiful ground-plane shapes or distracting from the textured layers of surfaces or plantings.

Quibbles? Some very minor ones. I would have liked to see garden plans accompanying the 14 garden descriptions. The photography is excellent and doesn’t just concentrate on details to the point where we have no idea at all what the whole garden looks like (an incredibly annoying emphasis in some garden books) but I feel that seeing the plans would have given me a better sense of scale and proportion.

And if you buy this exquisite book, you’ll also learn how to deal with ‘frizzle top’ on your sago palm (Cycas revoluta). Yes, it surprised me.

Part II explores Mendel’s design elements – geometry, water, colour and texture, details, style and accessories, lighting, and plant palettes. She theorises but she also explains how you use that theory in your garden. In ‘Geometry’, she says:

Often for a small courtyard I take a line from a point on one wall, running it not quite to the opposite corner but, rather, through the longest available line that falls just short of that opposite corner. This creates a generous triangle that at its widest point is large enough for sumptuous planting, making the garden feel full of greenery”


We now get to see 18 of Mendel’s landscape designs in plan, elevation and 3D projection (which do marry up with many of the gardens in Part 1 – I would have liked some page references here) and with it her true genius for making interesting, beautiful and highly liveable small gardens.


In the subsequent chapters, we again find Mendel’s thoughtful revelations about pool siting, construction details and style and accessories. To wit, this gem:

“If you want to capture a particular feeling in your landscape design, it is important to understand what elements to leave out. The least successful gardens are undiscerning collections of everything that is popular and fashionable”

Note, she says leave out, not include. That is so true but I hadn’t thought of it quite that way before. And Mendel’s sustainability chapter is an excellent read as is her pithy advice (which reminded me a little of Michael Pollan’s “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”).


In one of your gardens? Definitely.

[Urban Sanctuary is available from all good book stores, and online through Book Depository and Amazon]
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11 years ago

love the article re: Janine Mendel – just when you thought it was safe not to buy yet another book! I need information on courtyard ideas as I am constantly changing my mind as I try to collect ideas for my small space

Julie Thomson
11 years ago

Oh Catherine, I want, I want , I want ….
It occurred to me reading Mendel’s credo that courtyard garden taste is much like dressing really, the understatement bit, certainly. Looks like “Urban Sanctuary” is packed with fantastic ideas and style and I know some Christmas trees it will be under this year.