This website uses cookies to improve your experience navigating our site. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

OK, I understand

Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden

Gardens

Today Georgina Reid of The Planthunter introduces an iconic Sydney garden which should need no introduction.  This incredible space is the creation of Wendy Whiteley, artist and wife to the late Brett Whiteley.

Once a disused railway dump out the front of her Lavender Bay home, this plot of land, owned by the NSW State Government, has been transformed by Wendy and her two gardeners over the past 20+ years.

Up until recently, the garden’s long term future was uncertain, but just this month, 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 huge win for Sydney residents, visitors and garden lovers alike!

26th October, 2015

Vista
-

View of Sydney Harbour Bridge from the garden – whoa! Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files

Garden detail. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files

Fig Tree
-

The iconic tree, which features in many of Brett Whiteley’s Lavender Bay paintings. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files

Wendy Whiteley
-

Pictured in her garden at Lavender Bay. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files

Brazilian Walking Iris
-

Neomarica spp. flower. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files

'Head'
-

Sculpture by the late Joel Elenberg, a friend of Brett and Wendy Whiteley. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files

Coral Trees
-

A series of three trees look spectacular, flowering on bare branches. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files

Oasis
-

The garden is a hidden oasis flanked by high-rise office blocks. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files

Sculpture
-

By artist Ian Marr, featuring lyrics from the song ‘Sweet Thing’ by Van Morrison. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files

Altar
-

A small altar nestled amongst clivias (Clivia miniata), with a striking clump of Gymea lilies (Doryanthes excelsa) in the background. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files

Staircases
-

A series of timber framed staircases and mulched pathways wind through the garden. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files

Georgina Reid
Monday 26th October 2015

‘None of us know a single Latin name. I forget what plants are called half the time, I just know whether they look good or not, and whether they’re happy.’ – Wendy Whiteley

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.

View Comments

Similar Stories

Gardens

A Lush Heritage Garden in Sydney

A re-invigorated heritage garden in Sydney.
Georgina Reid

Gardens

Lambley Nursery

Artist Criss Canning and her husband David Glenn own Lambley Nursery, an amazing plant nursery in central Victoria, renowned for their incr...
Georgina Reid

Gardens

Grand Bickleigh Vale

One of Edna Walling's greatest feats was designing Bickleigh Vale; a unique 10-hectare housing development she created in the 1920s. Today t...
Georgina Reid

This Week

A Day In The Life

A Day In The Life Of Chrissy Lafian, Founder And Creative Director Of Suku

With teams in both Melbourne and Bali, Chrissy lets us in on how she runs the lifestyle brand she's built from scratch!

Homes

A Heartwarming Home Of A Stylist (And Family!)

Justine and Bob Murphy's warm and welcoming family home is like a slice of the country... in Northcote!

Studio Visit

Experimental Designer Jessie French Is Shaping A Seaweed-Centric Future

The Melbourne artist shares her process of creating seaweed-based bioplastics, the beautiful resin-like homewares she makes from it + what t...

Architecture

A Surprise Garden Brings This 'Pop-Up' Home To Life

Figr creates a unique language between architectural and landscaped spaces to truly maximise this small footprint home for a family of three...

News

A New Online Service That Designs Your Own Gallery Wall!

A new digital tool from Framefox allows you to build your own salon-style wall online, and have the final design delivered to your doorstep
Sponsored

Stays

Northern NSW’s Newest Holiday House, Made From Recycled Materials

Book your stay at Rockhaven at Booyong – a new holiday house made from recycled materials located 40 minutes from Byron Bay.

On The Market

A Corner Store Turned Architectural Home Hits The Market In Brunswick

An 1883 shopfront turned architectural home with a pool and sauna is for sale in Brunswick!

News

The Magic And Art Of Beekeeping With Honey Fingers

Mud Australia is hosting an exhibition and in conversation event with legendary urban beekeepers Honey Fingers, moderated by artist Stanisla...
Sally Tabart

Interiors

A Crash Course In Renovating Your Own Home From Top To Bottom, With BuildHer Collective

Rebeka Morgan and Kribashini Hannon of BuildHer Collective bring us a new book containing all the info you need to embark on building or ren...
Rebeka Morgan and Kribashini Hannon

Stays

These New Luxury Coastal Cabins On Phillip Island Really Raise The Bar!

A tour of Fives Acres, a brand new boutique accommodation offering on Victoria's rugged South Coast.
Lucy Feagins
  10 hours ago

Interiors

How To Nail The Bathroom Basics, According To Reece

A crash course in very excellent bathroom design, courtesy of bathrooms + kitchens merchandising leader at Reece Bathrooms, Daniella Santill...

Design Eye

Suzanne Gorman on Modernising a Mid-Century Home

Taking into account considerations of form, function and scale, interior designer Suzanne Gorman shares her design approach for mid century

Food

Julia's Autumnal Weeknight Rocket and Hazelnut Pesto Linguine

Julia Busuttil Nishimura's linguine with a herby rocket and hazelnut pesto is a riff on the classic weeknight family meal by adding earthy,
Julia Busuttil Nishimura

News

An Extensive Art And Design Festival Taking Over Brisbane!

Brisbane Art Design (BAD) is a public art program bringing the Sunshine State’s exemplary creative scene to the fore throughout the month
Sponsored

Modernist Australia

A Modernist Mansion Fit For A 'Contemporary Goddess'!

Designed by architect Iwan Iwanoff in 1959, this incredible home in Mount Lawley, Western Australia is on the market.
Patricia Callan
  2 hours ago

Similar Stories

Gardens

A Lush Heritage Garden in Sydney

A re-invigorated heritage garden in Sydney.
Georgina Reid

Gardens

Lambley Nursery

The idyllic garden and nursery of artist Criss Canning and David Glenn in Ascot.
Georgina Reid

Gardens

Grand Bickleigh Vale

One of Edna Walling's greatest feats was designing Bickleigh Vale; a unique 10-hectare housing development she created in the 1920s. Today t...
Georgina Reid

The Design Files acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files – we would love to hear from you.

Please email us here.