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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
[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]