We arrive at Michael Bates’ 100-year-old sandstone home in North Sydney at 7am on a Friday morning. The front door is wide open, there are a bunch of teenagers eating breakfast and packing school lunches, and Michael is holding fort in the kitchen. He’s got the energy of someone who’s had three coffees and been up for hours.
‘My mission is to get people outside,’ he says enthusiastically, as we stand on a sandstone outcrop looking east over his property. ‘I want people to get out of the house and into the garden. The therapeutic value of plants is immeasurable.’ Michael should know – he’s been working with them for over 30 years, and perhaps they’re the secret behind his seemingly boundless energy. Michael studied horticulture in the 1980s, and in the early 1990s began his business, Bates Landscape, which has grown to become one of Sydney’s leading landscaping companies.
Michael’s house sits on a rock outcrop on the side of a hill, facing a street that instead of cars and bitumen, has grass and trees. It’s a wonderfully quiet and secluded location. The old sandstone home is completely enveloped by greenery and natural stone, and the garden meanders up, down, and around the building. There’s a real sense of generosity in the way it opens up to the street in front and pedestrian walkway down the side.
For a small space, there’s a lot going on in this garden. There’s the generous entertaining terrace, a cosy fire pit area, a retreat at the back of the house for Michael’s kids, a vibrant garden flanking the pedestrian pathway, and an elegant paved terrace and fish pond at the front of the house. It’s jam-packed, but doesn’t feel it.
Michael and his wife bought the property five years ago. He hasn’t changed the structure of the garden too much, he says, rather he’s augmented the existing planting and made the spaces more functional. ‘I made the dining terrace bigger,’ he says. ‘We entertain a lot, and needed a space to seat at least 10 people.’
The outdoor dining area was re-paved with large format sandstone paving, connecting the area at the front of the house to the entertaining terrace with a series of floating stone steppers. The levels between the two spaces were slightly different, so Michael separated the spaces instead of joining them, and addressed the small level change with the steppers.
‘The planting in the garden is a mashup,’ says Michael. ‘It’s the ‘Sydney School’ idea. There were existing camellias, so why take them out? We just clipped them and contained them, and then overlaid Brugmansia, hibiscus, and other subtropical plants.’
Michael’s pragmatic approach to garden design reflects a movement often referred to as the ‘Sydney School’ – where the connection between a house and its garden is seamless, and the planting style is relaxed and intuitive. The rule for Michael’s ‘Sydney School’ of planting design is this: There are no rules. ‘As long as the plants look good together, and have the same horticultural needs, you can do anything,’ he says.
Context is also important. ‘The whole idea of having a blank canvas and imposing your style on it is missing the mark,’ he says. ‘If it’s there, and it’s growing and flourishing, and it’s not out of context, live with it and work it.’ Michael’s approach is very much illustrated within his own garden. It’s a beautiful and grounded space, with elegant details, lovely materials, and lush planting, but most importantly, it just feels good.