INNER CITY OASIS

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by Luke Huyhe, Photos Secret Gardens of Sydney

Matt Cantwell of Secret Gardens explains why this inner-city terrace in Sydney’s Potts Point is still one of his favourite gardens.

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The owners wanted a quiet space for relaxation and contemplation, a place to entertain and an outdoor area for the children to enjoy. From a design perspective, narrow and elongated spaces like this can pose quite a challenge. How to strike that fine balance between creating a green sanctuary that fulfils all the hopes of the client, and still have a space that doesn’t feel overcrowded?

Secret Gardens of Sydney rose to the challenge by providing a simple yet effective design which divides the garden into defined spaces, uses a restrained palette of colours, reclaims materials from the old garden to give a sense of continuity and ties the design to the existing architecture. 

 “It was going to be just as effective to create that sense of mystery and intrigue, drawing people into the garden rather than creating a blank footprint where you can stand at the back door and straight away see everything that’s going on."

“It was going to be just as effective to create that sense of mystery and intrigue, drawing people into the garden rather than creating a blank footprint where you can stand at the back door and straight away see everything that’s going on."

In the heart of the garden is a three-tiered water feature which incorporates the salvaged sandstone and brick, artfully marrying these heritage materials to the new bluestone pavers and Alpine stone cladding. This cleverly conceived and beautiful water feature—embellished with koi and waterlilies—plays the role of dividing the terrace into two separate spaces. It has an expansive and cooling effect, encourages contemplation and self-reflection and attracts dragonflies, butterflies and bees, which promotes the children’s interaction with the natural world.

The plant palette is elegant and refined. Hedges of slender weaver’s bamboo (Bambusa textilus var. Gracilis), Podcarpus falcatus and Magnolia grandifolia ‘Little Gem’ provide structure and privacy, while varying tones and textures of green foliage provide a lush backdrop for the white blooms of oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and euphorbia wulfenii. Further seasonal interest is provided by the changing hues of the Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata)—which climbs over the recycled ironbark pergola—and the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) as its leaves turn throughout the year.


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Q&A

 ‭"‬It needs the plant material to really make the difference and elevate it from a good space to a great space.‭"‬

‭"‬It needs the plant material to really make the difference and elevate it from a good space to a great space.‭"‬

What were the key outcomes the clients were hoping for‭? ‬

The client had a weekender up in Avalon which was very green and gardenesque‭, ‬they missed that every time they had to come back‭ ‬to the city‭. ‬One of their main concerns was that the kids weren‮!&‬t using the garden at all and they wanted to provide them with a taste of the expansive garden that they had in Avalon‭. ‬They wanted the garden to provide plenty of greenery and a sense of mystery‭. ‬A large part of the brief was also to provide privacy from‭ ‬an eight story building neighbouring the property on one side‭. ‬

How did you achieve this‭? ‬

We went about creating two different areas or‭ ‬‘rooms’‭ ‬in the garden‭. ‬We built a casual seating area for lounging and reading‭, ‬and then we created a second zone which was separated by the water feature for the purpose of dining and cooking‭. ‬When you have a compact inner city space and young children involved‭,‬‭ ‬some clients feel that the solution is to keep it empty and bare‭, ‬to maximise the available space for the children‭, ‬and that‮!&‬s true to an extent‭. ‬But we felt that in this particular case it was going to be just as effective to create that sense of mystery and intrigue‭, ‬drawing people into the garden rather than creating a blank footprint where you can stand at the back door and‭ ‬straight away see everything that‮!&‬s going on‮!‬X why would I go any further‭ ?‬

What about the hard materials that went into this project‭? ‬

To create soil depth for planting we had to install planters so we salvaged as much of the material from the old garden as we could‭. ‬This included bricks and some of the large stone blocks which were recycled into the water feature‭, ‬and as features in the‭ ‬walls‭. ‬Then we introduced the smaller stone cladding and the bluestone paving‭. ‬We like that there was a bit of history to the garden‭, ‬and that mix of materials provided texture and a nice mix of old and new‭, ‬classic and contemporary‭. ‬

We wanted it to feel like a town garden‭, ‬the type of garden you see done so well in London where there is a casual edge to the planting rather than it all being too austere‭, ‬too structured‭, ‬with an overly simple layout and planting composition‭. ‬We tried to‭ ‬give it a feeling of being aged and that the planting was a bit haphazard‭. ‬

How did the plant selection contribute to the outcome you wanted for the garden‭?‬

The slender weaver bamboo was introduced to provide screening from the large building next door‭. ‬The Japanese maple was craned in and sits in a square planter‭. ‬That was also used to provide some built in screening and some shade‭. ‬The problem with inner city gardens is that there is often a lack of sunlight in winter‭, ‬and when the sun is high in summer they get a blast from 11am till 2pm and it makes the garden very hot and open‭. ‬We tried to provide a canopy for the kids to run around under‭. ‬That helps to cool things down as well as draw you into the garden space‭. ‬The oak leafed hydrangea tumbles down over the side of a planter bringing a feminine edge to the design‭. ‬The same can be said for the euphorbia adjacent to the backstairs of the house‮!‬Xsoftening the‭ ‬structural nature of the design‭. ‬

What role does the water feature play‭?‬

 Matt Cantwell  Multi-award winning Landscape Designer and Director of Secret Gardens of Sydney.

Matt Cantwell

Multi-award winning Landscape Designer and Director of Secret Gardens of Sydney.

The water feature is an important component‭, ‬not only separating the zones of the garden but also removing some of the inner city traffic buzz‭. ‬It has the effect of drawing your attention back into the garden‭, ‬which is especially relevant here where you‮!&‬re surrounded by a tall building with balconies‭. ‬It helps you focus on what you‮!&‬re doing and keeps your attention in that space rather than allowing it to wander outside the garden‭, ‬especially if you can hear‭ ‬other people talking in an adjacent courtyard or balcony‭.‬

You‮!&‬ve chosen a really neutral palette of colours‭.  ‬

The palette of the materials is meant to be very soothing‭. ‬The colours are intended to be complementary not contrasting‭. ‬It‮!&‬s meant to be cooling and provide a really evocative mood‭. ‬I have to say I‮!&‬ve done a lot of gardens of varying styles and scales but this is still the one that attracts me the most‭. ‬That bluestone flooring which some people think looks grey and cold‭, ‬I think it feels really warm in that space‭. ‬That garden has just got an air to it that makes you want to go and spend time in it‭. ‬It‮!&‬s a really beautiful balance between structural and horticultural‭. ‬So many people these days focus on the structure and don‮!&‬t get the balance right‭, ‬and as a consequence lose sight of what makes it really appealing to be sitting outside‭, ‬and what can make it really exciting and create a real difference‭, ‬and that‮!&‬s the plant material‭. ‬If there is a lack of balance between hard materials and plants then it‮!&‬s like you‮!&‬re kind of sitting in an extra room without a ceiling‭, ‬and I know that‮!&‬s a lot of what the industry promotes‮!‬Xa room with only four walls‮!‬Xbut in my opinion it needs the plant material to really make‭ ‬the difference and elevate it from a good space to a great space‭. ‬

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