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Peter Nixon’s tiny courtyard

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

March 16, 2013

Peter may be a bit annoyed when he sees these photos. I visited him today and started snapping away in his tiny courtyard garden without warning him I might publish the photos on GardenDrum. So I didn’t bother about tucking away hoses, or pushing watering cans aside, or trimming off a bit of dead leaf here or a spent flower there. This is his garden ‘ungroomed’, although you’ll probably say – why would you need to?

Peter Nixon's courtyard10

Peter Nixon is one of the most knowledgeable plantsmen I’ve ever met, and he’s amassed an extraordinary plant list of what he calls ‘best fit, durable plants’ for Sydney’s climate. These plants lap up our warm, humid summers, deal with those cold winter nights below 10 degrees, and reward us with year-round handsome foliage and stunning flowers. And, as you can see, there’s not much titivating to do either, even when one of your friends sneaks about with a camera.

Apart from the cool subtropics-warm temperate plant encyclopedia in his head, you can see that Peter is also a talented designer, and there’s a lot of lessons to learn from his tiny, inner-city courtyard.

1. Don’t be afraid of using big, bold foliage textures in a small space, as it’s a brilliant way to make a very small space seem bigger. The contrast between the huge Alcantarea (giant bromeliads) and smaller surrounding bromeliads, orchids and assorted rare treasures plays around with the way you see this garden, giving it surprising depth. Things loom forward and recede back all over the place.

2. Dark blue-green side fences make the garden seem larger, and set off the glossy, rich greens while also toning in with the silver-blue foliage highlights.

3. Splashes of colour, particularly reds, draw the eye around, like the maroon-backed leaves of Synadenium grantii ‘Rubra’ or those pillar-box flowers on Combretum coccineum ‘Crimson Cloud’

4. Repeated shapes, like the broad clumping aloes, bromeliads, crinums and orchids give structure.

5. If you want your plants to star, restrain your use of other ornamentation like sculpture and colourful pots.

6. Don’t neglect seasonal change. Peter uses a lot of foliage plants but every time I see this courtyard it looks different, as flowers come and go, or leaves colour-up in cooler weather.

7. Work the vertical axis with shrubs underpruned into small trees, climbers and hanging bromeliads and baskets.

8. Don’t be afraid to let plants go a bit wild. Sure, I did have to stoop low to get past the two giant Alcantarea but I’d gladly do that for this feeling of lush abundance.

All in all a gem of a teeny-weeny garden, so I’ll publish and be damned, Pedro!

Click on any photo to see a larger image slideshow. You can also click the photos in the slideshow (top right corner) to see a full-size version.

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Peter Nixon
11 years ago

Catarina you little sneak … ! I KNEW I shouldn’t have left you out there on your own WITH A CAMERA. Good thing I swept up that morning before all the wind of yesterday …. anyway, I don’t care, it’s good for people to see the colour of my “horticultural slip” as a designer. Well done and thanks for all the kind words Friend, anything for you :))

Libby Cameron
Libby Cameron
11 years ago

Lovely to see your garden looking so lush Peter! I recognize a number of plants that I have taken cuttings from and are now doing well in my garden. Clever designer, superior plant knowledge, and now great tips, thanks Catherine!
Somewhere amongst the green there must have been a birthday cake, or had you already finished it?

Steven Wells
Steven Wells
11 years ago

Great to see a small space garden filled with plants. It looks fantastic! It’s always a treat to get a glimpse of the gardens of passionate plant focussed designers! Thanks Peter …. and Catherine for your “sneaky” camera work!! 🙂