lessons in the lure of outdoors


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Think of all the ways you might lure people out of your house and into your garden and Michael Bates will be doing it. Layering plants, framing views, installing fire pits, introducing water, plumping up Afghan cushions.

This Sydney garden maker has just written a book called The New Australian Garden and if he had to summarise what such a garden was he would say it was a “living, breathing, growing” place that connects people to nature. 

What it is not – just to knock this on the head at the outset – is any one style or plant type. Bates says anything goes in this garden so long as people are happy to dine, bathe and “hang out” in it. It has the same “gardens are for people” spirit espoused by the late, great Californian landscape architect Thomas Church.

In his new book, Bates describes 18 such gardens, all of which he has constructed, six of which he designed as well and two of which he owns. 

One of his gardens is in the Blue Mountains where, since 2001, “with more ideas that my clients could bear”, he has experimented, played, moved things around and generally indulged all his horticultural phases, the latest of which is Charles Jencks-inspired land forms.

But I visit him in his North Sydney home, a century-old sandstone house where he lives with his wife and teenage children. Although close to the city, this home is surrounded in such a fusion of foliage you could be in a sub-tropical rainforest.

The effect of wrap-around greenery is exaggerated by the fact that there is no street frontage. To get there you take the stairs. These traverse a public open space once gazetted to become a road that was never built and that is now tended by Bates and his neighbours.

There are steps – and climbable rocks and ledges – running all through his garden too. The resulting upstairs-downstairs layout creates sitting spots almost as high as the canopies of his palms and, at the other extreme, beside a below-ground-level gully of ferns. 

In both cases, Bates likes the garden to be experienced from every vantage point. Verandahs become useable garden spaces. “Even just sitting down or standing up changes your relationship with your surrounds.” 

Framing views does as well, which is why Bates has retained the tall bungalow palms that grow on his kitchen terrace. These palms make the ones you can see in the distance feel closer, a trick of  “forced perspective” he learnt from Japanese landscape architect Masayoshi Uchiyama, who was his mentor in the early years. 

From Uchiyama, Bates also learnt to “value asymmetry and triangulation”. You can see this in the way Bates has encouraged bromeliads to wrap themselves up trees trunks and bird’s nest, maidenhair and hen and chicken ferns to spread into the cracks of stone walls and ledges. With regular watering he has also got mosses and lichens roaming freely. 

On terraces at all levels, there are drifts, blocks and interplays of a wide range of foliage plants (Philodendron ‘Xanadu’, Ctenanthe setosa ‘Grey Star’ and Plectranthus argentatus ‘Silver Shield’, to name three). But while different foliage textures and shapes are the main event here, there are also the theatrical flowers of Brugmansia suaveolens, Magnolia ‘Vulcan’ and (while not in bloom now) the Lonicera hildebrandiana Bates has climbing over a drainpipe.

But things are always changing. “I am a big believer in phase removal and replacement – planting things that may outgrow their place with the idea you can transplant them and move things around,” Bates says. “Even the prospect of tinkering gives me pleasure.”

One of the messages of Bates’ book is that if you are going to create a new Australian garden – any garden – you have to be committed. “It’s like having children, it never ends,” he says. “And you make gardens for the same reason you make families or friends, it’s the stuff of life.”

The New Australian Garden: Landscapes for Living, Murdoch Books, $59.99.

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