Without wanting to sound too judgemental, when we first saw this front garden, we could understand why our client had called us in. Sitting in front of the 1960s bungalow was a lawn, a driveway and not much else.
Castle Cove sits over the Harbour Bridge on the North Shore, 10 kilometres from Sydney’s CBD. Developed around the middle of last century, it’s very much a modern family suburb, with winding streets snaking out around the Middle Harbour area and lots of water views if you live on the right side of the street. It’s not exactly what you would call inner-city living, but it is still only a 15-minute drive into town.
As well as living in a mid-century house and suburb, our client is heavily drawn towards Palm Springs architecture and LA design, so right from the start this was our direction. This brief excited us, as I have always loved the strong structure of architectural planting, and we could see the possibilities for renewal right from the start.
In terms of structure, changing architectural details helped cement a more mid-century vibe. Narrow columns supporting the front of house were removed and more substantial pillars clad in sandstone were installed in their place. Ceramic tiles were replaced with crazy-pave sandstone, flowing around the front landing and tying it all together.
The same stone was used for the garden path connecting to the front door and the newly widened and resurfaced driveway. There was no reason for any lawn to remain, but the driveway was essential and for practical purposes needed widening once the parking overflow lawn was removed.
Given that the existing architecture wasn’t pure mid-century modern, I wanted to see a fuller garden rather than a minimalistic scheme. My inspiration came not predominantly from Palm Springs, but from time spent in Morocco and, in particular, the gardens in Marrakech. I love the combination of softer palms and grey foliage with edgier cacti and succulents.
We had fun developing the planting scheme for this project. We wanted to anchor the front of the house with a few key specimens that suggest someplace else straight away. The palette is a combination of striking, hard-edged foliage, mixed in with softer specimens, mounding and clumping forms, and a touch of Mediterranean influence. Advanced dwarf date palms combined with towering specimens of candelabra tree create a strong contrast with each other and form the main planting structure. Around the base of these are combinations of copper spoons, panda plant, twin flower agave, chalksticks and mounds of natal plum. Advanced olive trees add a softer accent and blend effortlessly with the stronger architectural forms.
The garden sits on the south side of the house, so the areas up close to the dwelling receive little direct sun in winter. This was not a huge issue, but planting needed to be adaptable and handle this winter shade, yet still give the look we wanted. A mass of ubiquitous snake plant sits well here and copes perfectly. Decomposed granite is effective in covering the soil around the planting, acting as a mulch and giving us the arid feel of a hot and dry space. A second group of candelabra trees against the white garage wall is thriving in this south-facing position. Repeated succulents continue the arid theme around the side of the garage, and a mass of Indian hawthorn defines the front boundary to the street.
As well as completely transforming the house, I love how the bold and vibrant planting makes an impact in the streetscape, yet it doesn’t feel out of place. The garden has transformed the house frontage and each time we are there for garden maintenance, we usually have a neighbour passing by commenting on its metamorphosis.
It has also been a joy to watch the garden mature. Apart from the palms, most of the planting was small when it went in, and I love that surprise when I see the plants responding and growing into their new home.
This is an edited extract from ‘The City Gardener’ by Richard Unsworth, with photography by Nicholas Watt, published by Thames & Hudson, available now ($49.99)