Plant / Life: Sam Clayton & Mal Wood

My favourite gardens are always labours of love, expressions of the creativity and philosophy of the gardener and their aesthetic sensibility. To me, a strong connection between the place, the plants, and the gardener makes for an engaging and exciting garden. Sam Clayton and her partner Mal Wood have created one such space.

Mal Wood, Sam Clayton and Mike the dog in the front garden of their Northcote home. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files x The Planthunter
Sam and Mal’s outdoor dining room, with a very happy grape vine growing on the pergola above.

Sam bought her Northcote cottage around 10 years ago. When she first inspected it, the weeds in the front yard were waist height and the front door was hanging off one hinge! The property’s big garden and good bones won her over though, and little by little she began putting her distinctive stamp on it.

It was very overwhelming at first because the space was really big, plants were expensive, and I didn’t know the first thing about gardening,’ she says.

When Mal moved in around five years ago they started working solidly on the garden together. ‘Mal is a really hands on guy’ Sam says. ‘His friends would come around and help demolish things, and we’d pay them with a slab of beer.’

Once the pair had removed a bunch of dilapidated outbuildings from the rear yard, they began planting and planning. Many of the plants in the backyard were grown from cuttings gifted from friends or planted as tubestock (small plants grown in tubes, rather than large pots). Tubestock are a great way of planting on a budget, as they cost much less than larger plants and often, especially with native plants, the plants establish themselves much faster. A win win! The front garden was designed with help from Lyle Filippe from Roraima Nursery. It’s overflowing with an interesting mix of succulents, grasses, Australian native plants like kangaroo paw, and some larger sculptural plants.

There are no rules in this garden, natives mix with succulents, grasses, and Mediterranean plants, and colour is king!
Sam bought the concrete swans flanking her front verandah before they were cool. Red geranium is an obvious choice for such a vessel!
A mix of grasses and succulents in the front yard. The tree aloe (Aloe barberae) provides a strong focal point.
Sam loves succulents. ‘They’re the plant that just keeps giving,’ she says.
A gorilla sculpture by Lisa Roet nestled amongst sculptural foliage.
Mal spent a stint as a street artist a few years ago – sticking these sculptural heads to telegraph poles across Melbourne in the middle of the night!
A sculpture by Sam’s late mother nestles amongst kangaroo paws (Anigozanthus spp.) and a daisy plant (Osteospermum spp.).
A sculpture of Mike the dog, by Mal.

What I love about this garden is its vibrancy and personality. Sam clearly has an eye for unusual beauty. She’s not afraid to mix and match colours and textures, and has a great eye for pulling it all together in a cohesive manner.

And then there’s the sculptures scattered amongst the garden – from a huge gorilla by Lisa Roet, to a bronze sculpture of Mick the dog by Mal, and a beautiful sculpture by Sam’s late mother. These works weave the story of Sam and Mal and their lives together into the garden. It’s a wonderful, personal space.

According to Sam, the evolution of the garden has been all about ‘grunt and love’. There have been successes, failures, and many lessons. Now, after five years of working and learning, it seems the garden is where Sam’s heart is.

In the past, when I had a bit of money to spend I would visit the vintage and bric-a-brac shops, but now I say get me to a nursery!’ she says. ‘It’s all about plants.’

The garden has also delivered unexpected social benefits. ‘There’s a primary school at the end of my street and people walk past my house in the morning on their way to school’, says Sam. ‘I’m often out the front watering, and people regularly stop and chat. One woman, a grandmother of one of the school kids, comes every Friday and brings me cuttings. I give her cuttings and we talk about all things garden. It’s gorgeous, and the most unlikely thing. I never thought something like this would happen!’

Good things happen when love is involved, and this garden is clearly overflowing with it.

Sam and Mal’s backyard studio is watermelon pink. ‘I even wanted to paint seeds on it!’ says Sam.