Garden Visit: Tallawong, Mount Irvine

It’s late afternoon when we pull up at Tallawong, Michael Bates’s Mount Irvine property, in the Blue Mountains of NSW. After a meandering 15 kilometer drive on a narrow road flanked by tree ferns and lush cool temperate forest, Mount Wilson’s quieter basaltic sister makes herself known. Small and large clearings cut out of the dense bushland, a few houses hidden amongst thick foliage, and the hallmark colouring of deciduous trees signify the human landscape of Mount Irvine.

Less a town and more a gathering of properties along an unusually picturesque road, there’s a sense of magic at Mount Irvine. It feels completely removed from the city, hints of which can be seen looking east through the trees, and it’s quiet. So quiet. There’s just the birds, the rustle of wind in the trees, and a very occasional car. It’s this sense of retreat and calm that first drew Michael Bates to the area 15 years ago. “I love the mountains, and I love the mountains people,” he says.

The rich soils of Mount Irvine and Mount Wilson have long lured plant people like Michael up from the city to the hills. He’s been designing and building residential and commercial landscapes in Sydney for the last 30 years with his company Bates Landscapes, and tells me “it’s a whole new religion, gardening up here.”

Tallawong has a wonderful feel – the 100 year old cottage is charming and modest, sitting gently on the sloping terrain, and the garden around it is rambling and inviting. It’s the kind of place where an involuntary exhalation occurs upon getting out of the car. A “thank God I’m here” sigh.

Framed by a backdrop of thick bushland, the garden at Tallawong is clearly a labour of love and an important contributor to Michael and his family’s wellbeing. “Doing physical work in the garden – planting, pruning, building, making art –helps me relax,” he says.

It’s a place where the worries of the world wash away. It’s very important to me to have this kind of respite in my life.”

The garden is also Michael’s testing ground. Nothing illustrates this more than the landform he designed and built, curling around a small dam at the bottom of the garden.

Inspired by a visit to Charles Jenks’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland a few years ago, Michael set about making his own earth sculpture. “Nothing makes me happier than seeing how different people respond to it,” he says. The sculpture clearly illuminates the man behind the garden. No one would expect a landform at a 100-year-old mountain cottage, yet there’s nothing about Michael Bates that is to be expected. He’s a particularly interesting character, and his garden communicates this.

Michael tells me he’s got a 30-year plan for Tallawong, and that this year marks the garden’s halfway point. As expected, he’s got plenty more ideas, plans, and projects up his sleeve, and is clearly enjoying the freedom of creating his own garden after so many years of making them for others. “As someone who genuinely wants to create gardens for people that they love, and that reflect their personality, it’s wonderful to be creating something for myself, and being able to share it with people I find interesting,” he says.

Michael's landform sculpture!

The Bates family spend around one weekend a month at Tallawong, but if he could, Michael would be up there more often. So would his wife – he gave her a garden bed at the property as a wedding gift many years ago and she hasn’t looked back since. She’s a lawyer by day, but on the weekends at Mount Irvine she’s swapping bulbs and planting perennials. “She’s full throttle,” Michael says. “She’s all about flowers and is convinced there’s not enough of them in my gardens!”

Michael loves the work involved with the property and clearly enjoys being part of the community. “People move to the mountains for the place, but the strong, close-knit community really takes it to the next level,” he says. Because so many of the residents in the area are keen gardeners, there’s plenty of common ground. Many afternoons are spent wandering through gardens, drinking tea by the fire, and sharing bulbs, cuttings, and meals.

This sense of community and generosity is clearly an important part of garden making for Michael Bates – for him a garden is equally a place for toil as it is for sharing.

“If I didn’t find the work a pleasure, and didn’t find the sharing of it a pleasure, maintaining the garden at Tallawong wouldn’t be sustainable,” he says. “The effort of making it, crafting it, shaping it is absolutely equal to setting the table, lighting the pizza oven and inviting people over to break bread. These two activities are entirely interlinked for me.”

Like all good gardens, Michael Bates’s property at Mount Irvine is a place of connection, calm, and curiosity – a real place for people. It’s certainly worked its magic on me.

Keen on seeing more of Michael’s landform? Check out this video.