Plant / Life: Erica Wagner and Craig Smith

“A garden is a very important part of my world view,” children’s book Illustrator Craig Smith tells me. “It’s a way of bringing all the issues to do with nature and the environment into my own sphere, down to my own small scale.”

Craig Smith and Erica Wagner. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Craig’s garden sphere is located in West Brunswick, Melbourne, and he shares it with his partner Erica Wagner, an artist and publisher. The pair both work predominantly from home and have lived in the property for 15 years. The garden clearly plays an important role in grounding them and supporting their creative processes.

Whilst the ink is drying on a drawing I’ll go outside and do some pruning,” Craig tells me.

When Craig and Erica first moved to the property there were a couple of mature trees, but everything else was planted by them. Craig is the chief gardener, and tells me the first thing he did was to plant sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica) as a background planting. “It’s so tough and resilient and it creates a great backdrop,” he says.

The feel of the backyard is lush and leafy, enclosed and calm. The looseness of the planting and the use of timber lends it an inviting and warm feeling. There are two small studios within the space – used as bedrooms over the years for the pair’s four children, and currently as Erica’s art rooms and Craig’s workshop. “We both retreat to the various places within the garden,” Erica tells me. “It’s really nice to be able to go to somewhere separate from the house and be surrounded by plants.”

As well as featuring an abundance of leafy ornamental plants, the backyard is also very productive, thanks to a series of raised vegetable beds built by Craig. The veggies are Erica’s domain; “I’ve always loved growing vegetables,” she says. “I just love being able to go out and pick leaves, herbs and tomatoes for our meals.”

Merbau timber steppers and gravel pathway flanked by (Salvia spp.). Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
The vibrant orange of clivia (Clivia miniata). Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
A badminton racket sculpture! Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
The gorgeous grey foliage of grey emu bush (Eremophila nivea ‘Beryl’s Blue’). Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
Raised timber vegetable beds made by Craig. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

The front yard is a predominantly native garden which, over the last eight years, has slowly spread out onto the street and over the boundary fence! “We’ve gotten rid of the front fence and the garden pushes out onto the footpath – this is important to me as I want people to be able to share in it,” Craig says. “Also, because we live adjacent to the park, the local council made the space along our boundary fence available to me to garden it.”

This is a beautiful and personal garden, but as always, there’s more to it that meets the eye. Behind the lush foliage, and underneath the carefully cultivated soil is a series of pipes connecting rainwater and greywater storage to irrigation systems, tanks and more. “I’m a zealot about water and water use,” Craig tells me.

I’ve linked the whole place with pipes going everywhere, we use everything except the septic water. Barely any water goes off the property, it all soaks in.”

A garden is so much more than the sum of its parts. As Craig suggests, a garden can be a reflection of a world view, a personal exploration of the connections between humans and nature, and so much more. For these reasons, cultivating a garden is one of the most important and nourishing endeavours I know of. “It feels really great when you feel like you can do something for the world, even in your own little patch,” says Erica.

This story was produced as part of our monthly collaboration with The Design Files. All images byAnnette O’Brien, © The Design Files.

The studio in the backyard is used by Erica for her art practice. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
Erica and Craig’s front garden is predominantly native plantings. Correa, hebe, senna (Senna artemesioides) and Rosemary grow underneath a small paperbark tree (Melaleuca spp.) Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
Mixed shrub plantings of senna, white diosma, plectranthus and euphorbia. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.