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Green Escape

Michael Bates reckons that while a plumber might live with leaky taps, and a painter with chipped walls, a gardener never lives in weeds.

To prove it he introduces his own garden in this extract from his new book, The New Australian Garden.

Words & images: Jason Busch


Landscaper, Michael Bates' garden features in his new book, The New Australian Garden.


Located on Sydney’s Lower North Shore, our house is just over a century old. We moved into this house because it was an ideal place to lodge a blended family of six. Importantly, every single room has vignettes of the garden’s cascading terraces. I’m part of a community group that upgrades the nearby parkland for the benefit of the whole neighbourhood. It’s given me a licence to seamlessly blend my garden with the larger landscape, creating a rich green haven in the heart of the city.


A refuge from the world

My morning meditation is to put on my boots on the upper verandah and breathe in the garden at first light. I study the arrangement from above, observing the garden’s rhythms. In the quiet calm of the morning, I hatch delicious plans to rearrange the composition.

The front of the house faces east, and comprises a covered verandah with steps down to a sandstone terrace that is used as a spillover space when we entertain. We placed a coffee table and chairs on the covered verandah to create an intimate breakfast spot; it’s also a great place for a morning cuppa and to read the papers on the weekend.



Revamping the pond

Movement is injected into the garden by a circular pond with an overflowing urn. It’s always been there – I just upgraded it and added a curved sandstone coping to enhance the timeless character. Plants keep the pond fit and healthy, soaking up the nutrients and providing a hiding place for fish when the birds are bathing. The tree to the north of the pond is Magnolia ‘Vulcan’ – one of my wife’s favourites. The Camellia sasanqua ‘Pure Silk’ hedge was for her as well. I do not share her obsession with and devotion to flowers. For me, torrents of foliage texture offer reliable and constant visual value. This garden is an exercise in selecting plants that have contrasting texture and forms with colour-change gradations. Ctenanthe setosa ‘Grey Star’ blends sweetly with Plectranthus ‘Nico’. Walking iris mingles with sweet violet and the fine textures of lilyturf.



Striking plants

A weeping lilly pilly hedge forms the backdrop to the side garden. A tree at one end is an existing mature river she-oak – it is the bane of this garden’s existence, with needles that make the soil hydrophobic and create virtually impossible growing conditions.


At the other end I have planted Tristaniopsis laurina ‘Luscious’, one of my all-time favourite native trees – probably the tree of the decade. It has large, shiny, dark green leaves with copper-coloured new growth. Its mottled patchwork of bark stands out against the foliage. The angel’s trumpet is the real show stopper. It flowers almost year round after a rain shower. As if the flowers weren’t spectacular enough, the heady perfume lingers in the evening air.

Fusion of foliage

Beneath the trees there’s a middle storey of hardy elephant ear and Cordyline fruticosa ‘Early Morning Diamond’, almost all arriving as orphans from other projects. The eye-catching Brazilian red cloak is shaped regularly so it doesn’t block the view of the foliage behind. It gets a good cut back in spring, stimulating a flush of new growth followed by flowers. The combination of these plants provides a verdant, tropical feel to my garden all year.


Dining in the open air

The outdoor dining terrace gets its snug room-like feel thanks to a raised sandstone planter and stair at one end, and a perfectly placed remnant angel’s trumpet at the other. A wall of bangalow palm specimens along the boundary enhances the sense of enclosure.



A fire bowl encourages us to get out into the garden during the cooler months from autumn to spring. Extensive outdoor lighting collaborates with the fire bowl to keep people outdoors longer – one of my missions in life.

The dining terrace is connected to the front garden by floating stepping stones that travel through a sea of hen and chicken fern. The planting solves a problem with levels and creates an interesting garden feature at the same time. The steps and the two terraces they connect are sandstone, the indigenous material of the site. It’s durable, and it’s inherently Sydney. At night, LED strip lighting casts an ethereal glow down upon the terrestrial ferns.


The New Australian Garden is published by Murdoch, rrp $50.



About this article

Author: Jason Busch