Toggle navigation

In Wendy's Garden

When Wendy Whiteley began clearing the land beneath her house she found caves of lantana and thorny brambles growing over a century of accumulated garbage.

“I was just cleaning up a mess, literally, and I suppose, symbolically too,” she says in ‘Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden’ “desperately cleaning up a mess that I could clean up, when we’d all tried so hard but lost the fight to clean up Brett’s addiction.

I had this urgent mental and emotional need to get some order back into our lives.” The impulse took her, over 23 years, from one end of the disused railway land in front of the house to the other, creating a garden that has been treasured by those who have discovered it. It is now set to become more widely known and loved. Following the publication of the book, NSW Premier Mike Baird announced that the garden would become an official public garden, a uniquely personal one. Here Wendy tells us what goes on in the garden in autumn.


Photos extracted from Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden by Janet Hawley, Lantern, RRP$ 79.99, photography by Jason Busch


Wendy Whiteley's secret garden.


I’m shaping…more

When I first started the garden I wouldn’t let anyone touch anything with secateurs. But my great friend Gary Topping, who has owned and looked after gardens in Tuscany, is really into cutting things. He made the Mediterranean section in the hot dry part of the garden. It’s all rosemary and lavender and salvia and echium. I saw how well our French and Italian lavender, and the salvias, did under Gary’s pruning. Now I quite like heading out in the morning with my snippers and shaping and trimming. It’s very time-consuming. I might not make it back until it’s dark dark night. As everything has grown it’s become more important to let light in. I’m also very conscious of keeping the sight lines free through the garden. I want people to know where they are, to see that they are on the edge of the harbour. So there are glimpses of the harbour all through the garden except at the bottom level, which is like a secluded walled garden.


Wendy just loves daturas, Brugmansia


I’m loving… daturas

I know that the proper name for these is brugmansia, but I still think of them as daturas. Brugmansia is such an ugly name. We have white and apricot and pink and orange ones, all grown from cuttings from friends, some from Bronte House when our friends the Mullers lived there. Daturas are easy to propagate, you just snap off a strong stick and shove it in the ground. So I have dotted daturas all through the garden and though this isn’t sunny enough to be a flower garden, a datura always seems to be in fragrant flower somewhere. They are especially good after rain. I haven’t pruned them, but now I am thinking that I will start to try to control the growth a bit. I quite like the idea of cutting them back in the way that street trees are pollarded in Europe. But I would miss those year-round flowers.


Yet more of the Brugmansia in Wendy's garden.


It’s time to

Rake the leaves

It’s important to rake the fig leaves especially, as they smother and kill anything beneath them.

Order mulch

The money we make from hosting weddings in the garden goes to buying in mulch. Volunteers help by barrowing it down the slope. Then it goes on to the paths, and only when it is completely cooked do we put it on the garden.

Check and replace railings

We use bush timbers for the handrails in the garden, with the joints wrapped in lead. They don’t last forever, but then neither do the ones the councils use either, and ours look so much better!

Pick the figs

If we’re lucky we get to them before the possums (and the ladies who turn up with plastic bags!).

Attack sticky weed

I dive on this weed when I see it and have been known to lecture the neighbours if they let it go. It’s not enough to poison it, you have to dig the root out.


I’m … taking cuttings

In the autumn the pink heads of the Brazilian plume flower, Justicia carnea, have gone black and the plants look sticky. So I trim them off and turn the trimmings into cuttings. I’m not very horticulturally correct about it, I simply stick the cutting in the ground in a useful spot. I have found that it’s important to take a piece with three leaf nodes. I’ve had quite a lot of success. We’ve done the same with the iresine, which arrived here as a single pot from my gardener Corrado’s garden, and now provides patches of luminous plum-pink through the garden. I was looking for something that would be a low-growing plum-coloured contrast to all the green and grey foliage, and the iresine is perfect. I love the way the sun comes through the leaf.


Paths leading off along terraces.


I’m dreaming… of hydrangeas

I love white flowers. If I had my way I think I might only have white flowers in the house as they look so good with all the paintings. I especially like white mophead hydrangeas. There are glorious new double ones too. Since seeing masses of hydrangeas at Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore I have always wanted a whole slope of them. The ones I saw in Italy were pink, but I want white ones. Corrado did take 100 cuttings but we weren’t successful with those. We haven’t really had enough light, but earlier this year we lost three coral trees, and that might give me the opportunity for the hydrangea hillside.




See more

Wendy Whiteley and her friend Janet Hawley, who wrote the book, ‘Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden’ (published by Lantern) will be speaking about the garden at the Collectors’ Plant Fair on Sunday April 10. Buy tickets at To find Wendy’s garden, walk towards Lavender Bay from Milsons Point Wharf, or walk down to the steps from Lavender St, next to Clark Park.


The cover of Janet Hawley's book, Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden.


6 great plants from Wendy’s garden

Monstera deliciosa

This was growing in the rubbish and we used it to stabilise the terraces when we started so it has been important architecturally, and I do like the flower.


Monstera deliciosa. Photo - Robin Powell




I can’t grow many as there is not much sun, but I have a few near the cupid fountain from Margaret Olley’s garden and pick them for the house when I can.


Roses. Photo - Robin Powell


Birds nest ferns

These are great structural plants in the garden and the bright green new fronds are beautiful. I grow many of them in pots, which stops them getting bogged.


Birds nest fern. Photo - Robin Powell


Grafted grevillea

The flower colour on lots of red grevilleas is too wish-washy but I like this one and love the habit of the dome of foliage and flower atop its skinny spire.


Grevillea. Photo - Robin Powell



Corrado Camuglia, my gardener for 20 years, comes from Sicily and likes plants to be edible. So we have groves of lemon, orange, lime and grapefruit.


Citrus. Photo - Robin Powell


Magnolia grandiflora

The large creamy-white fragrant blooms of magnolia are so beautiful. We don’t have room for the big ones, so grow ‘Little Gem’.


Magnolia. Photo - Robin Powell