Blog In Michael’s Garden

In Michael’s Garden

Landscaper Michael Bates gardens on a steep shady block in North Sydney. 

In spring’s warmer weather the paths and terraces invite the family outdoors and the fun doesn’t stop when the daylight fades. Night lighting and fire pits extend the use of the garden well into the evening.


Michael Bates at home in the sandstone and foliage. 

I'm Giving …. Haircuts

After holding off all winter, preserving as much foliage as possible, spring is a great time to show the garden who is boss. I’m always surveying the garden from the balcony above, working out which small plants need rearranging so their neighbours don’t overshadow them. Armed with secateurs I really get in there and tame the plants. All the herbaceous sub-tropical ground covers – such as Crinum, Liriope muscari and Philodendron ‘Xanadu’ – get thinned out. They can bounce back in a matter of weeks. My tropical gingers, including Costus and Alpinia zerumbet are staked and tied back to make them more vertical and less rangy. It’s rewarding work and makes me feel like I’ve restored a sense of order.


I'm experimenting …. With Foliage

Native textures are mixed with exotics, subtropicals with sub-temperates, succulents with ferns, you name it. I like to play with colour and composition - rainforest trees are surrounded by Cordylines, Alcantareas and Ctenanthes. It's all about torrents of texture. Focusing on foliage gives prominence to the permanent things - not the flowers that just come and go. I’m also continuing my experiment to create a Fatsia ball by cutting the centre out of the multi-planted clump. I haven’t seen this done before, but I get a kick out of horticultural husbandry. You can alter the leaf shape with constant pruning, encouraging new form and a unique-looking specimen. I’m always playing with different pruning techniques to see how I can change the look and habit. It’s about creating an accomplished arrangement with plants that are truly individual. Some experiments work and some don’t. It’s all part of the tantalising nature of living with a growing garden.


Torrents of texture.

I'm preparing….for summer

Spring is a showy time for most gardens, but for me it’s more about preparation. We’ve learnt through decades of maintenance that plants grow in spurts, and you have to make sure the nutrients are on call when the plant needs them. You need healthy plants that resist pests and diseases. A key component of this preparation is conditioning the soil with compost. Nurturing the garden in spring sees the garden transform into a summer-time paradise brimming with the Frangipanis, Brugmansias, and Hibiscus.


A statue is shaded by the Brugmansia tree, with its huge, fragrant trumpet-like flowers. 

I'm ramping up….garden aid

Part of the appeal of my place is its location – it’s on a pedestrian street that was gazetted to become a road that was never built. I’m part of a community group managed by North Sydney Council’s ‘Streets Alive’ program which has been upgrading the parkland for the benefit of the whole neighbourhood. We’re starting at the top of the street and working our way down. It’s difficult terrain with a very steep grade that needed clearing and retaining with stone, jute mesh and new plants. I find it really satisfying to see the way my garden blends with this open public space. The boundaries are blurred and I reap the benefits of borrowed scenery.


Pavers float above a bed of Hen & Chicken fern. 

It's time to….

Divide the Bromeliads. New plants grow quite easily from the offsets, and I attach some to the conifer tree trunks to disguise the wood store.

Plant out the herb pots with oregano, thyme, mint, sage and chives. I keep the herbs close to the BBQ, which gets a real work-out in the warmer months of the year.

Deadwood the eucalypt tree so we can garden safely underneath it. I use a professional arborist who makes sure the health of the tree isn’t compromised.

Tip prune Camellias. My wife loves flowers so the Camellia hedge needs regular tip-pruning to boost spring growth.

Cut the Ctenanthe ‘Grey Star’ down to the ground. It’s not as drastic as it sounds - fresh new flush is not far away.

Perfect contrast, Ctenanthe ‘Grey Star’. 

Train and restrain the climbers before they take over.

Clean the sandstone paving to remove the slime and grime of algae that builds up over winter

My Favourites

Megaskepasma erythrochlamys

I inherited this eye catching plant. It’s not in the perfect location so I cut it back hard in spring. This plant grows well under trees.


Lonicera hildebrandiana

I use this Burmese honeysuckle to hide the drainpipe. The fragrant cream flowers are a perfect late-spring distraction. I keep it in check in a large pot as it can be rampant.

Wisteria floribunda

This twining vine is trimmed and trained around the veranda to help realise my wife’s dream of a house dripping in Wisteria

Photo- Lynn Whitt/ 


Murraya paniculata

I use this as a screen at the front, kept not too dense. At the back I’m cloud pruning a murraya that was in full tree form when I arrived here.

Photo- Tea Meaklong/ 


Iris laevigata

Iris keeps the pond healthy by soaking up the nutrients, provides a hiding place for fish and has royal blue flowers complementing the foliage in spring.

Tristaniopsis laurina 'Luscious'

This is one of my favourite native trees: mottled bark, large shiny dark green leaves with coppery coloured new growth, and cream flowers in summer.


Images by Jason Busch

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Maureen Thackeray commented on 03 Sep 15

Just Beautiful

Anonymous commented on 03 Sep 15

Bautiful thankyou for sharing your garden

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