Wendy Whiteley, as well as being an artist, ‘goddess muse’, and wife to the late Brett Whiteley, is the ultimate guerilla gardener. Long before the term entered Australian vernacular, Wendy was throwing all her energy into transforming a disused railway dump out the front of her Lavender Bay home into an incredibly beautiful public garden.
The land, owned by the NSW State Government, was ‘a green, amorphic lump’ when she first started clearing it, shortly after Brett’s death in 1992. While it was always her vision to create a garden, she had little idea of what lay ahead. ‘We just started from one end and worked day by day until we got to the other end. I had no idea what was underneath it all,’ she says.
As the land was was cleared, and tonnes of invasive weeds and rubbish were removed, Wendy and her two gardeners Corrado and Ruben began landscaping the space. Wendy says there were no grand plans, the garden just evolved in response to the site. It’s a steep, south facing block, bordered on the southern end by a railway line and iconic harbour views beyond, and on the other by a small park. It’s a tucked away and hidden space, hence it’s unofficial name: ‘Wendy’s Secret Garden’.
A network of pathways wind through the steep site to a clearing at the bottom of the space, with a central clump of Bangalow palms. These were given to Wendy by her late daughter Arkie a few years before her death of adrenal cancer in 2001. The pathways are framed by beautiful timber bush rail balustrades, and are supported by a huge number of rock and timber retaining walls, which were all built by hand by Wendy and her gardeners. Most landscapers would have bought in machines and concrete and all that big heavy stuff, but not Wendy Whiteley, she just did it herself.
‘The only way you could have built this space is exactly the way I’ve done it. We built it bit-by-bit without big machinery,’ she says. ‘We built the terraces with begged, borrowed and bought stuff.’
Wendy has invested a huge amount of time, energy and money into this garden. ‘I had to sell one of Brett’s paintings to fund the garden,’ she says. She employs two full-time gardeners, and has bought all the materials and plants for the garden herself.
I asked Wendy what Brett would have thought of the garden. ‘He would have loved it,’ she says. ‘But he certainly wouldn’t have done any work!’ Wendy says Brett would have preferred to make an artwork, sell it, and use the funds to pay for someone else to do gardening.
Wendy is an intuitive gardener who is driven by aesthetics and beauty, rather than any kind of horticultural expertise. ‘I didn’t know anything about horticulture when I started the garden. I just knew what I liked,’ she admits. ‘I’ve since learnt what likes being here. It’s a symbiotic relationship between the plants, myself and my gardeners,’ she says.
Wendy’s garden has certainly bought happiness to many people. It’s been the scene of hundreds of weddings and important life events, and is dearly loved by all who know it. It is one of the most beautiful public gardens in Australia, however up until a few weeks ago it’s future was uncertain.
In a huge win for Sydney residents and visitors, on 9th October 2015, the NSW State Government granted the North Sydney Council a 30-year lease for the garden (with an option of a second 30-year period). A result that I am sure would make Wendy happy. ‘Its not my garden, it belongs to everyone,’ she says, when we spoke about the garden’s future, weeks before the announcement. ‘I just want it to remain for everyone else to enjoy, because that’s what it’s about.’
What a gift. What a woman.
Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden, written by Janet Hawley and published by Penguin is available now for $79.99 here.