Gardening Australia – Sydney Subtropical Style

By Catherine Stewart

‘Brimming with lush subtropical plants and anchored by golden sandstone, there’s something quintessentially ‘Sydney’ about the garden of landscaper Michael Bates. Although much of it clings to a precipitous hillside just north of the harbour, it’s still a great family garden, with areas for quiet relaxation, entertaining and outdoor dining, clothes drying and even places for the dog to run. An easterly aspect below a tall sandstone cliff shelters the garden from the extremes of western sun, hot northerly winds and cold southerlies.

This means that Michael and his family can enjoy the best of Sydney’s cool subtropical climate, where winter temperatures rarely slide below 10°C at night. Summers are warm and humid, spring is driest and rainfall peaks in February/March.

However the steep topography has provided many challenges for Michael, such as access around the block and the creation of usable spaces. Drystone walls and stone paths weave around sandstone floaters, creating tiny terraces just big enough for an intimate setting for two, or a small, bubbling water feature. house on the hill Albert House is a century-old, two-storey home of honey-coloured sandstone.

House on the Hill

It sits on a long triangular block, about 30m in length and widening from 8m at the front to 20m at the back, with a public footpath and stairs along one side. Upstairs verandahs afford views over both the front and side gardens, so the garden layout needs to look good both at ground level and in plan view. It also means that there needs to be enough height and volume in the planting to balance the mass of the house, especially where a sitting area is positioned next to a two-storey wall.

This is an exuberant garden, with masses of bold foliage and vivid pops of colour. Palms add needed height along the boundary to balance the high house walls and give a sense of pleasant enclosure. Large clumps of Zamia furfuracea (cardboard plant), Alocasia macrorrhiza (elephant’s ears), Doryanthes excelsa (Gymea lily), aspidistra (cast iron plant), yuccas, cycads, aloes, tree ferns, bird’s nest fern and Philodendron ‘Xanadu’, develop a green mass that contrasts perfectly with the warm sandstone.

The abundance of these tall, large-leafed plants give it that tropical ‘in your face’ feel, where there’s a lot of plant mass at head height, giving a very different look to the more layered approach of cool temperate planting design. Where an even stronger foliage statement is needed, a starburst of the huge bromeliad Alcantarea rubra dominates its position.

Colour and Texture

A pretty apricot brugmansia sits with several mature camellias and murrayas – an example of Sydney design style throughout its older suburbs, where subtropical plants blend with heritage plantings of old-fashioned shrubs. There are a few bright splashes in typically restrained Sydney style, from pink Justicia carnea (Brazilian plume flower), gingers, vibrant red Costus barbatus (spiral ginger), Abutilon megapotamicum and red begonia, along with a few coloured-leaf plants such as stromanthe and cordyline.

The mood changes around the garden as Michael blends vernacular dry-stone walls, large-block coursed walls, flagging and rougher split sandstone with smooth, neatly cut stone pavers. A highlight of the garden is a simple stepping stone path of crisp pavers, which appears to float above a sea of delicate ferns.

With so many strong outlines and large textured foliage, the garden needs some hidden surprises and focal points, which are discovered as you wind your way along narrow paths, or down the stone steps. An ancient-looking pot holds interesting succulents, while statues are nestled in the garden, rather than taking up precious space. In several places in the garden, you gradually become aware of the sound of falling or bubbling water, but each of the water features is gentle and understated.

Simply on Fire

At night, Michael’s garden comes alive rather differently, with clever lighting creating new dimensions. Trees are uplit, metal bowls are illuminated so you can see their patina and textures, and plants are backlit to show their amazing silhouettes. Subtle lighting washes down the textured sandstone walls and picks out steps.

Complementing the earthiness of so much stone, the vivid green of lots of plants and the soft fluidity of water, Michael also introduces fire as an important element in the north-side garden. The simple, large metal bowl, with a handy stack of wood nearby, casts a warm glow that forms a regular feature of many family evenings and memorable parties