Plant / Life: Michael Bates

We arrive at Michael Bates’s 100-year-old sandstone home in North Sydney at 7am on a Friday morning. The front door is wide open, there’s a bunch of teenagers eating breakfast and packing school lunches and Michael is holding fort in the kitchen. He’s got the energy of someone who’s had three coffees and been up for hours.

Michael Bates in his North Sydney garden.

“My mission is to get people outside,” he says enthusiastically, as we stand on a sandstone outcrop looking east over his property.

I want people to get out of the house and into the garden. The therapeutic value of plants is immeasurable.”

Michael should know – he’s been working with them for over 30 years (perhaps they’re the secret behind his seemingly boundless energy?). Michael studied horticulture in the 1980s and in the early 1990s began his business, Bates Landscapes, which has grown to become one of Sydney’s leading landscaping companies.

Michael’s house is nestled into a rock outcrop on the side of a hill, facing a street that instead of cars and bitumen, has grass and trees. It’s a wonderfully quiet and secluded location. The old sandstone home is completely enveloped by greenery and natural stone, and the garden meanders up, down, and around the building. There’s a real sense of generosity in the way it opens up to the street in front and pedestrian walkway down the side.

For a small space, there’s a lot going on in this garden. There’s the generous entertaining terrace, a cosy fire pit area, a bunch of tiny sitting spots nestled into the rock outcrop, a retreat at the back of the house for Michael’s kids, a vibrant garden flanking the pedestrian pathway, and an elegant paved terrace and fish pond at the front of the house. It’s jam-packed but doesn’t feel it.

The floating stone steppers are a winner, as is love the round, shiny foliage of the leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum)
The front verandah faces east – a perfect spot for morning coffee!
A low bowl filled with ginger (Alpinia spp.) sits half way up the stairs leading from the front to the rear of the property.
A rusted Indian bowl overflowing with cardboard palm (Zamia furfuraceae) sits on a sandstone plinth, delineating the border between Michael’s garden and the public walkway
A cosy spot for a cool autumn evening gathering.
The outdoor dining terrace spills out from the kitchen. Lush planting softens the sandstone rock outcrop at the rear of the house.
A low sandstone wall marks the entry to Michael’s family home from the pedestrian walkway. Lush philodendron (Philodendro ‘Xanadu’) softens the paving and a low bowl with native ferns (Doodia aspera) provides sculptural interest.

Michael and his wife bought the property five years ago. He hasn’t changed the structure garden too much, he says, rather he’s augmented the existing planting and made the spaces more functional. “I made the dining terrace bigger,” he says. “We entertain a lot, and needed a space to seat at least 10 people.”

The outdoor dining area was re-paved with large format sandstone paving, connecting the area at the front of the house to the entertaining terrace with a series of floating stone steppers. The levels between the two spaces were slightly different, so Michael separated the spaces instead of joining them, and addressed the small level change with the steppers. Brilliant.

“The planting in the garden is a mashup,” says Michael. “It’s the Sydney school idea. There were existing camellias, so why take them out? We just clipped them and contained them, and then overlaid Brugmansia, hibiscus, and other subtropical plants.”

The rule for Michael’s Sydney School of planting design is this: There are no rules.

As long as the plants look good together and have the same horticultural needs you can do anything,” he says.

Context is also important. “The whole idea of having a blank canvas and imposing your style on it is missing the mark,” he says. “If it’s there, and it’s growing and flourishing, and it’s not out of context, live with it and work it.” Michael’s approach is very much illustrated within his garden. It’s a beautiful and grounded space, with elegant details, lovely materials, and lush planting, but most importantly, it feels good, really good.

All gardens in some way are a reflection of the values of the people who tend to them. And with Michael and his garden, the words that keep popping into my head are these: generosity, informality, and energy. A pretty great combination if you ask me.

It was important to Michael that his garden looks good from above. Simple, strong lines, and massed planting achieve this.
The teenagers’ retreat at the rear of the house.