Sea-changer04 June 2019 Peter Nixon and Robin Powell
Four years ago garden designer Peter Nixon traded in his inner-city Sydney courtyard for a big blank corner block on the Central Coast and turned it into this!
Words and pictures: Peter Nixon and Robin Powell
It’s clear from the boundary plantings that Sea-changer is no ordinary suburban garden. All the fences are hidden behind plants: blue gingers glow in the shade of mature callistemons; fine-leafed lomandras contrast with bulky aloes in the sun, and alongside the laser cut gates a sense of arrival is marked by felty kalanchoe rubbing up against a ruff of the lime green tails of Asparagus meyerii.
From the gate, it’s clear what the garden is all about - a verdant tropical vitality, energised by textural contrasts in the planting. A path, with edges smudged by colourful ground covers, leads past the studio, winding around clumps of generously-sized beds to a shaded courtyard Peter calls the Shade Hut, and on to a dining deck edged with easy-care, sun-hardy bromeliads.
It’s four years since designer Peter Nixon moved in to what was a bare block and created his sixth home-work garden, the first with the added complications of coastal winds and salt. Here he’s been able to indulge his passion for plants from the world’s warm-temperate-coastal regions, piling them together with an eye for sharp textural contrasts that provide year-round interest and make the ephemeral pleasures of flowers a double bonus.
I’m enjoying shade and shadows
One of my favourite views of the garden is looking from the dining canopy down to the Shade Hut. For a couple of hours after lunch, the sun shines through the laser cut panel and makes shadow patterns on the textured concrete slabs of the floor. The screen, which divides the entry garden from the rest of the garden, has a cut-out leaf pattern of monstera and philodendron-like leaves which are a good match with the whole feel of the garden. The Shade Hut, essential in my climate, is roofed with a double layer of Naturereed from House of Bamboo, and though it’s retractable I never bother as in the winter the sun angle is low enough to come in underneath the roof. The paving is broken up with irregular lines of a relative of wandering jew called Callisia repens. Though this is quite a weed in Brisbane, I find it a well-behaved, mound-forming ground cover. The dachshunds like it too, - so much so that I can often see the shape of a dog imprinted on the cushiony plant, though it plumps up again quickly.
I’m eating out
The Mirror Deck is the best place to share lunch or dinner with friends. There's light shade over the top for lunch, provided by a single layer of Naturereed, and at night all you need is something to keep the mozzies away ( a small bonfire of citronella does the trick!). The deck is accessed through French doors from the kitchen dining room. It’s only quite a narrow space backed by the boundary fence, so I constructed a mirror to give it the illusion of depth. The trick to making a mirror work is to encourage planting to disguise all the edges so that it can create the impression of an entry point to somewhere else. I did that with two panels of vertical garden joined by a bridge over the top, and rely on rhipsalis to smudge the lines between the edge of the mirror and the start of the vertical gardens. The vertical gardens are self-supporting, rather than attached to the fence, as they carry quite a load. Peaceful Bruce Buddha sits at the mirror base, casting a spiritual eye over all.
I’m loving the hot flush
The palette of cool subtropical plants I grow reaches its first crescendo in November, much later than cool climate plants that get going in August or September. Once the nights start to warm and the days lengthen, I love seeing the way the growth just explodes and everything comes together. This is one of my favourite views looking out from the studio towards the house. The name of the game here is contrast - without it the garden devolves into homogenous green. I don’t worry about choosing colours that go together, especially flower colours. Choosing plants with textural contrast provides interest year-round. I find that if you stick to the plants that come from the same latitude, they’ll go together beautifully without the near impossible task of choosing harmonious flower colours. To make that contrast happen, if I use something upright and vase-shaped, like the bilbergia in the bottom left of this image, I make sure on both sides there's a gauzy foil to contrast with the stiff silhouette. Here those foils are Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ on the left, and a swathe of the very reliable copper red pigface, Mesembryanthemum.
I’m getting the secateurs out
This Ruellia rosae is one of my favourite plants. I call it my green plasticine because it is just so good at connecting different plants and providing a contrast to stiffer, more formal shapes. Here it throws a kind of shawl around the perfect rosette form of Alcanterea. When it starts to encroach on that neat rosette I get the secateurs out and cut it back by about 20cm. Over the next eight weeks or so it foams out again and starts covering the rosette and I cut it back again. It flowers on new growth so just keeps those flowers coming all through the warm months, in a cycle regulated by those four trimmings. Other favourites that follow this cut-and-flush routine include Ruellia elegans with red flowers and Barleria cristata ‘Lavender Lace’ with white flowers striped lilac. These aren’t the only plants that get trimmed through summer. It’s really important to keep some more formal shapes in the garden to contrast with looser growth habits, to give the eye somewhere to rest on its travels around the garden.
Give the mounds of silver spoons, Kalanchoe hildebrandtii, their second hair cut of the season, after the post-flower trim of early spring. By February they have put on so much new growth they need to be brought back into line.
The long whippy growth of Solandra longiflora, which is woven through the north-western mesh fence need to be trimmed in summer to maintain its appearance as a ‘green fence’.
I cut the edges of the garden beds outside the boundary fences to create a nice crisp edge, using a half-moon spade, which I prefer to a line trimmer.
In early summer the Heliconia ‘Hot Rio Nights’ and Abyssinian banana, Ensetes ventricosum - have started to push out new growth and I cut out the dry leaves from the previous season that have persisted.
An application of liquid live microbes in the form of biocast from worm farms increases the uptake of nutrients by plant roots. I don’t make my own worm wee, instead using the Liquid Biocast from Gardens in the Stream that Lee Fieldhouse makes on Mitchells Island, near Taree http://islandsinthestream.com.au It is the single most effective non-fertiliser I use to maintain vigour and decrease predation.