Plant / Life: David Whitworth

‘You could call this story Smoke and Mirrors’, landscape architect, painter and one-time Planthunter intern David Whitworth suggests. He reckons his garden is a bit rough, but I reckon it’s wonderful. It’s a clear reflection of David himself – a thoroughly interesting character with a beautiful aesthetic and a big passion for plants.

David Whitworth in his Chippendale garden, wearing a vintage kimono purchased on a recent trip to Japan.

David lives in a rambling old terrace house in the central Sydney suburb of Chippendale with three other flatmates. He’s lived there for nearly eight years and has slowly transformed the small rear courtyard space from a ‘run-down mosquito ridden mud puddle’, to a lush and leafy jungle.

‘We had a chook run in the backyard to begin with, and then tried growing vegetables but it was too shady,’ David tells me. The most recent incarnation of the garden began in 2012, after David started studying landscape architecture.

Slowly but surely David’s evicted the mosquitos, removed the clotheslines criss-crossing the side walkway and covered the slimy paving with timber decking tiles from Ikea. He built a raised timber deck towards the rear of the space using old timber palettes and scavenged recycled timber decking boards, and when the structure was in place, the plants began to fill it.

When you run out of space on the ground, the only way is up.

David’s plant acquisition strategy is simple: ‘I either request plants for my birthday, or I give them to myself as a reward – one year I finished some shitty exam and I was like “Right, I need a $300 Ficus lyrata right NOW!” I treat myself with plants.’

It helps, too, that David’s become known as the guy who’ll save your pot plants from imminent death, or adopt them if you move.

‘I’m like those ladies who end up with houses full of frog ornaments. Everyone knows she has a soft spot for frogs, so they keep giving them to her,’ David explains. ‘That’s what has happened with me. I don’t ever say no to plants because I’m a hoarder. I just say “sure, I’ll find space.” As a result, there’s not really much space for people, but that’s ok.’

I ask David what his flatmates think about his jungle garden. ‘I hope they like it,’ he says. ‘Although I don’t think they appreciate bush-bashing to get to the laundry!’

What David loves most about the garden is the act of working, not sitting, in it. ‘In a way, gardeners are always building to a point that never arrives. I often think I’ll fix something and then just sit back and enjoy it, have a cup of tea, that kind of thing, but it doesn’t happen.

I’ve realised I prefer the re-arranging, the tending, the watering. I think ‘To tend’ is my favourite verb.”

As the gardener tends to the garden, the garden nurtures the gardener. The garden teaches much if we choose to learn, because, as David suggests, a garden is a relationship not a picture.

This story was produced as part of our monthly collaboration with The Design Files. 

When David first moved into the property the garden was a shady, brick paved, mosquito infested mess. Nothing plants and creativity can’t fix!
A creepy monstera (Monstera deliciosa) makes its way up the boundary wall.
The side alleyway leading out to the courtyard used to be a mish-mash of washing lines and slimy brick paving. David and his green thumb have totally transformed it into a lush and inviting space.
David’s is a garden best explored slowly. It’s packed with an abundance of textural plants, interesting vessels and objects.
The side alleyway leading out to the courtyard used to be a mish-mash of washing lines and slimy brick paving. David and his green thumb have totally transformed it into a lush and inviting space.
The garden is full to the brim of textural, shade tolerant plants like birds nest ferns (Asplenium australasicum), peacock plant (Calathea spp.), bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae), lady palm (Rhapis excelsa), and jade plant (Crassula ovata).
‘I’m daydreaming of building a suspended birds nest style garden next,’ David tells me. ‘I’ve got to up, because I’ve run out of space on the ground.
‘Sometimes I’ll move a pot or a plant in the garden and my flatmates will say ‘Hey when did you get that plant?’ even though I’ve had it for years. I guess you always notice your kids more than other people do,’ says David.
The small inner city garden is overflowing with plants.