Plant/Life: A Camberwell Family Garden

Over-cooked. It’s a word landscape designer Ian Barker tells me he ends up using often. It’s not a description I often associate with the design of gardens but I love it – it says a lot. There’s little worse than over-cooked design (or cake, for that matter). This garden, surrounding a gorgeous old home in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell, is, according to Ian, baked to perfection.

Ian and his team at Ian Barker Gardens were engaged by the owners of the property in 2015 to design and build a garden for their large family in 2015. Responding to new additions to the rear of the gorgeous old home by architects Herbert and Howes, the garden’s lines are simple and elegant. “We really toned down the garden” Ian says. “It’s restrained, yet it has a huge impact.” Part of the success of the garden, according to Ian, is its relationship with the architecture. “Without the backdrop of the pavilion, the garden wouldn’t look anywhere near as good as it does today”, he says.

A pink flowering crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica). Image by Claire Takacs

At the front of the property the garden is relatively formal, echoing the balance and symmetry of the home’s façade with clipped box hedges and two pyramid box topiaries framing the front door. “Once you get away from the front entrance, the garden gets quite wild”, Ian says. There’s the children’s play area, a woodland garden, a formal lawn framed by grass gardens and more. The clients have four children and according to Ian, “The garden was designed for kids to run through. They run through the woodland, through the door linking the old and new elements of the property, and out onto the lawn at the back.”

The loose planting was very much encouraged by Ian’s clients. Whilst the simple lines of the space, and the connection between the architecture, old and new, were important to Ian and his team, his client wanted wild. “Our client said,‘the wilder the better”.

Wild in this garden means loose, atmospheric planting combinations of grasses like Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, Poa ‘Eskdale’ and Miscanthus ‘Klein Fontaine’. It also means seasonality – something that these lush and full images don’t quite capture. In winter, Ian’s team cut the perennial and grassy plantings in the garden are chopped hard to the ground. “All you see is dirt. Our clients wholeheartedly accept this. I can’t stress enough how wonderful the clients are. They’re extraordinarily trusting.”

A canopy of mature trees, and a great balance between hard landscaping and lush planting lends a sense of depth and timelessness to this garden. It doesn’t look it, but it’s actually only two years old! It is a garden that, like the house it surrounds, is destined to get better with age. “We’re not fussed about trends, we’re not driven by that,” Ian says. The garden design has to suit the house. It has to be a good marriage. Once we get that right, we try hard to soften it. We’ll put green in wherever we can. So, our gardens just get better and better over the years.” And this garden, according to Ian, is pretty darn special. “I think this is one of our best.”


This story was photographed by Claire Takacs and produced as part of our monthly collaboration with The Design Files.

The sculptural steel gateway defines the transition between the front, more formal garden, and the wilder rear garden. Image by Claire Takacs
The grasses are punctuated by the purple tones of Verbena bonariensis (weedy in some parts of Australia) and Agastache ‘Sweet Lili’. Image by Claire Takacs
“The garden was designed for kids to run through,” Ian Barker says. Image by Claire Takacs
The planting in the front garden is soft and traditional, speaking to the heritage and design of the home. Image by Claire Takacs
The family who own this garden have four kids – it was important that the design encouraged them to spend time outside in the garden. Image by Claire Takacs
An outdoor pavilion designed by Herbert and Howes connects seamlessly with the lush garden designed by Ian Barker Gardens. Image by Claire Takacs
The vegetable patch. Image by Claire Takacs
Stacked bluestone benches provide shady seating in the woodland garden. Image by Claire Takacs
Full, flowery and romantic planting in the front garden borders includes Helenium ‘Mahogany’, Aster x frikartii Monc, Rudbeckia cvs. and Iris germanica ‘Saturn’. Image by Claire Takacs
The sculptural steel gateway defines the transition between the front, more formal garden, and the wilder rear garden. Image by Claire Takacs