The world’s most beautiful gardens can be divided into two types: the finished and the unfinished.
I was lucky enough to see many examples of both, finished and unfinished, at the Hidden Design Festival in Sydney this weekend. I admit that some designers (and garden owners, for that matter) might not like me describing their gardens in this way, particularly after all the hard work that invariably goes into preparing for an open garden, but bear with me, I’m not being unkind.
Catherine Stewart, Steven Wells, Kim Woods Rabbidge and I set off early on Saturday morning, military-style plan in hand, to conquer as many of the 17 gardens as we could, in the space of 13 hours. Anyone who has driven around Sydney on a Saturday morning will know that this is no mean feat. But we were all very up for the challenge.
The very first garden we saw was a stunning, picture perfect example of a beautiful, ‘finished’ garden in Mosman. Created by Jane Stark, it was the height of sophistication. The colours were quite extraordinary, ethereal, soft in the morning light. There were beautifully complementary textures, and soothing repetition that tied front and back gardens together. The owners could simply sit back and relax in these serene surroundings after a busy week at work.
We left Mosman to drive up to the Northern Beaches, where upon we stumbled across another beautiful, finished garden. Created by Courtney Taylor (who turned out to be extremely smiley and friendly, despite the rather scary photo of him in the book), from the first step through the Balinese entrance doors, it was a jaw dropping vision of subtropical lushness. Bananas and palms, Agave and Strelitzia, Philodendron and Carpobrotus, every square inch was packed in with rich textures and myriad shapes and forms. Again, a finished garden, just perfect for relaxing by the pool.
A third, very different type of finished garden was the lovely Adam Robinson’s roof top garden in Redfern. It was impossible to fault a single thing. Looking over the city from the fourth floor, you entered this immaculate terrace garden, divided into three rooms and filled with low maintenance, drought and heat tolerant (if not loving) plants displaying a whole range of different textures and forms; there was something new and captivating everywhere you looked. Pops of yellow gave a cheery glow, enough to create interest and contrast, but not so much that they overly dominated. The immense skill with which it had been designed was immediately obvious.
Three wonderful gardens by three very clever designers. All works of art, showcasing the ultimate in complementary colours, textures and forms; perfection in the balance between contrast and harmony; soothing places to be. But what about those ‘unfinished’ gardens? And why were they opened not finished?
Whereas you could just imagine the owners of the previous gardens relaxing in a lounger for the foreseeable future, the unfinished gardens had a very different air. You half expected to round the corner and come face to face with a sweaty, slightly grubby, hatted, gloved owner carrying a handful of weeds in one hand and a scrappy, but much loved, divided clump of something unidentifiable in the other.
Take the Pymble garden, for example. A combined effort of designer, Andrew Davies and owner, Meg. Both mad keen gardeners who love a living, breathing, evolving garden. If the colours of adjoining plants don’t quite complement each other perfectly? Too bad. That the plants are healthy and have a connection to the land and the house is what matters. An irregular slope to the lawn? What perfect fun for children (or Steven Wells, I might add!) to kick off their shoes, tuck their arms in and roll all the way down to the bottom. Working with the innate features of the land is what manners.
Over the other side of the bridge, we explored the Vaucluse offering, designed by the ever modest Christopher Owens. Not only has Christopher been working on the garden for 18 months, but its owners have been hugely engaged in every single decision. It is clearly a labour of love for all involved, with changes and additions happening on an almost weekly basis, taking the garden from the stunning to the sublime. Nothing is static in this garden, each plant has to earn its place or it is out and yet the real beauty is the combination of decades old, established trees with fresh, bright underplanting. The new and the old, together in perfect harmony in this every changing, fluid, so alive it almost bites, garden.
And finally, Margery Postlethwaite. Not actually a garden within the Hidden program, but a freebie thrown in for those with a ticket. And how fortunate we were to have this bonus. A clear plantswoman’s garden, Margery has created what feels like a fifty year old garden in the space of seven short years. She has found suitable plants to nestle under the 99% rain shadow brush box tree (a tree that is still beating me in my own garden), she has got colour, she has got texture, she has more plants than I have seen in any suburban Sydney block and yet she still has those odd gaps left for the next nursery purchases or cuttings from friends.
These unfinished gardens are constantly changing. They grow with their owners, they have good days and they have bad hair days, but they are nothing if not loved.
For me, I have accepted now, that much as I feel a garden designer should have an immaculate, finished garden, it’s just not a formula that works for my home. I love to trial new plants, and new combinations, I love to test boundaries and discover surprisingly wonderful plant neighbours; I love to play in my garden and plan new ideas and see changes all the time. It is the anticipation, the spontaneity, the perpetual change that excites me.
I think we designers have the best job in the world. We get to work alongside the engaged gardeners in their unfinished gardens. But we also get to create beautiful pieces of finished artwork; really testing our thought processes and our vision as we search for the perfect, harmonious combinations that will stand the test of time. Almost like two jobs, requiring two different skill sets, each type of garden suiting a different type of client.
And whilst there is nothing I love more than enthusing a client to pick up a trowel for him or herself, aren’t we lucky that many non-gardeners also appreciate the beauty of finished gardens? And what better way to get non-gardeners on the road to conversion, than through the use of plants as artwork? I continue with my ever optimistic mission to inspire every person on this planet to benefit from the wonders of gardening; I do hope some of these garden photos make you want to pick up that trowel right away and work on your very own, unfinished garden……
I am reviewing and sharing many more photos of each of these gardens (and more, from Hidden) here. Do, please, join me….finished or unfinished gardens, I’d love to know your thoughts.