Plant / Life: A Melbourne Riverside Garden

‘A good design project is always a collaboration with the client, the environment and the designer. It has to be a marriage of these three things,’ says Myles Broad, landscape designer and principal of Eckersley Garden Architecture. We’re speaking about a garden he and his team designed in the Melbourne suburb of Toorak. It tumbles down a steep hill, behind a large home and ends at the edge of the Yarra River.

The client, Sarah Laidlaw, wanted magic and excitement. Her inspiration was Guilfoyle’s Volcano garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. ‘I didn’t want a clipped and perfect garden. I do love those kinds of gardens but I just didn’t think this space warranted that look. It needed something completely different.’ Sarah was not particularly prescriptive with the brief – ‘The designers knew what I didn’t like, so they went from there’, she tells me.

‘It’s a free and easy garden’, Myles says. ‘The bones of it were there. We preserved some of the planting that was already in place, because if it could grow there, then good luck to it!’ Myles is referring to the steepness of the slope – the site was ‘basically just rock, with a tiny bit of topsoil here and there.’ To overcome the lack of planting space, the team used a product called Terra-Lock – a system of soil filled bags that can be planted into, forming a green retaining wall. Plants were planted into the bags, and also in pockets of soil created behind the bags.

It’s an eclectic mix. ‘We wanted to create something with a bit of levity; a garden with form and sculpture within the planting. The plants also had to be as tough as nails, that was essential.’ The team took Sarah plant shopping at Living Sculptures nursery, where they sourced many of the larger plants like bottle trees, cacti, yuccas, and cedars. The larger plants, paired with the existing ones like echium and olive trees, and infilled with smaller grasses and groundcovers means that the garden, even though it’s only been planted for five months, already feels full and abundant.

Much of the structure of the garden, such as the pathways, deck, and gazebo were in place when Myles and the E-GA team were engaged. They worked with the existing bones of the garden, adding finesse and flair to encourage people through the space and down to the river. A fire-pit set into paving and groundcover underneath a glorious Moreton Bay fig provides an enticing destination within the lower part of the garden.

I ask Sarah what she likes most about the garden. ‘The tranquillity’, she tells me. ‘It’s so quiet down there. There’s a real sense of peace. We’re very lucky. The garden is better than I imagined.’

This story is part of our regular monthly content collaboration with the Design Files