Toggle navigation

Secret Garden

Secret Gardens is one of Sydney’s most successful garden businesses – designing, constructing and maintaining beautiful gardens across the city.

In this extract from a new book featuring 19 of the company’s finest gardens, founder Matt Cantwell explains how a garden can balance privacy with views out - and into - the garden.


The angophora garden perched above Chinaman's Beach, Sydney.


Our clients had only been living in the recently renovated home a short time when we were contacted to breathe some new life into the existing landscape, introduce some minor structural elements and enhance the horticultural elements of the garden.

The garden is located on a corner block, on a sloping site perched above Chinaman’s Beach on Sydney’s lower north shore. Visiting for the first time, I immediately noticed the five Angophora costata trees that hovered above the house. This is an iconic tree in the Sydney region and I always associate them with an undulating landscape and filtered views to water; here was no exception. They provided a dramatic impact and we were excited about creating a garden beneath them.

There was very little from the original planting scheme that we wanted to retain. The existing tees and the sloping block set the tone an informal approach. Our clients also preferred plants that were lush or with interesting and contrasting foliage, so these were a prominent element in the new garden.


Giant cycads and alcantarea.



One of the benefits of being positioned on a corner block is one less neighbour. The downside though is exposure to passing traffic and lack of privacy. In this case, striking a balance between privacy and ample winter sun was a key consideration. The house was positioned below street level at the front and large areas of glazing into the living areas were a privacy issue. We were also keen to ensure the garden presented well not just to our clients looking out, but also for the neighbours looking in, so the selection and placement of screening shrubs and trees was important to guarantee we did not end up with a rigid wall of hedging.

Tristaniopsis laurina ‘Luscious’, Banksia integrifolia, Syzygium luchmannii and Cupaniopsis anacardioides provide the taller screening through areas of the front garden and along the side of the nature stirp. These trees enhanced the feeling the angophoras provided, that the house was floating in the canopy, and we were peering over and through the treetops to the greater landscape beyond. Zamia, euphorbia, bird of paradise, agave, westringia, lomandra and hardenbergia were planted en masse for the greatest effect.

In the entrance garden the tone and foliage types were fresher, in keeping with clients’ brief, and so lady palm, alcantarea, giant palm lily, philodendrons, bromeliads and zebra plant were just some of the plants used to provide a cooling effect to the entrance. A water bowl with a rust finish to match the front door was positioned in the garden adjacent to the path; it bubbled away, concentrating your focus within the garden.





The view through the angophora trunks from the rear terrace on top floor was the most dramatic on the property. It was a clear reminder of the scale and majesty of these trees and a commanding view over the rear garden. At the base of the trees, a clump of xanthorrhoea or grass trees provide a strong visual impact when viewed from above, particularly when the morning sun passes through them. This was an important consideration - selecting plants for the lower level, ensuring they had a visual impact from above as well as from the lower level within the garden.

The need for privacy continued in the rear garden and so tuckeroos and lilly pilly were planted along the boundary. Giant elephant ears, frangipani, philodendron ‘Xanadu’, blechnum ‘Silver Lady’ and alcanteras added boldness, easily appreciated from upper levels of the house. Furniture and decorative planters were added to terraces and poolside.


The view over Middle Head to North Head Point beyond.


This was a challenging site. I can’t remember another where we had to consider so many different angles of view from inside and out. From the outset, our clients were on board with our direction, particularly our desire to design a garden than not only incorporated their preferences, but was respectful of the streetscape and to the trees that dominate the site. Gardens are the glue that bind our houses to the street surrounds. This garden highlights the need to stand across the street, take a long hard look back, and consider how a garden can be appreciated looking in, as much as looking out.

Extract from ‘Secret Gardens’ by Matthew Cantwell, published by New Holland.


About this article

Author: Matthew Cantwell