Plant/Life: Jonathan West & Family

In what could be the most exciting plant news since the discovery of the Wollemi pine, this story marks the first of a new collaboration between The Planthunter and The Design Files, Australia’s most popular design blog. We’ve pulled together a unique edit of creative outdoor spaces to be shared on both websites each month. It’s a bit exciting! Our first garden is a real beauty – A tiny courtyard garden in Erskinville, in Sydney’s inner west owned by one very good looking family.

This garden belongs to Jonathan West, his wife Shauna Greyerbiehl and their four year old daughter Zora. Jonathan and Shauna bought the property in 2006 and lived in it for few years, ‘tinkering with it’ in Jonathan’s words before undertaking serious renovations in 2010.

They removed a bad 1970’s extension complete with mission brown tiles and choko vine and built a vast, high ceilinged living area and kitchen which opens up to both a lightwell/courtyard garden in the middle of the house and a larger courtyard at the rear. The house renovations were finished in 2013, and the pair started on the garden after that. It’s only a year old!

Integrating the landscape with the interior of the house was an important consideration in the planning. “The garden is a valuable part of the space”, Jonathon says. “We wanted to be able to see greenery from all vistas, and we wanted the living and kitchen spaces to open up to the garden. Upstairs we put the windows all in a line so from the front of the house you can see the tree at the rear.”

A Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Trompenburg’) is underplanted by a clump of native flax lily (Dianella caerulea) framing the view towards the house and internal courtyard. PS. Nearly all the fixtures in the kitchen/living room were hand crafted by Jonathan. Production – Lucy Feagins/The Design Files and Georgina Reid/The Planthunter.
The Japanese maple looks striking against the rough-rendered masonry wall. It’s underplanted with native flax lily (Dianella caerulea) and tussock grass (Poa labillardieri), another very tough native plant with fine, blue/green foliage. The dichondra forms a lush green carpet – It’s a great groundcover in warmer climates for semi shaded areas. Production – Lucy Feagins/The Design Files and Georgina Reid/The Planthunter.

With a house that opens up this much to the outdoors the garden takes on a hugely important visual role – if the garden looks a bit shoddy, the entire space is compromised.  Thankfully, Jonathan and Shauna seem to have nailed the pared back and understated, yet slightly wild aesthetic. This evolved as an organic response to the site (and a shoestring budget!) rather than as part of a plan.

“Basically, everything we have done in the garden has been a response to the site. We tried grass initially but it didn’t grow there’s not enough sun so we went with Dichondra (Kidney Weed, botanical name Dichondra repens). It has just evolved through trial and error. That’s what gardening is, right?”

When you build a house on a shoestring budget you are forced to use what you have. For example, the back gates are old kauri pine floor boards that I salvaged from an abandoned house (I also found a case of wine under the floor as I was pulling it up! The corks were all rotten and the wine was ruined, but it was pretty exciting at the time!). The boards had been eaten out by worms so I laminated them to some plywood and filled the holes with black epoxy. I just had them, we needed some gates, and they looked nice. It was very much about using what we had.

The internal courtyard opens directly onto the very beautiful brass kitchen bench top. It features a wild collection of greenery including tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica), bamboo, jade plant (Crassula ovata), asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Meyersii’), begonias and plenty of other potted goodness! Production – Lucy Feagins/The Design Files and Georgina Reid/The Planthunter.
Mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera) hanging about on a rock. In small spaces, design is very much about ensuring objects have both practical and aesthetic functions. The placement and scale of the rocks in this garden are a great example of this. Whilst looking very sculptural when viewed from the house, they are actually seats! Production – Lucy Feagins/The Design Files and Georgina Reid/The Planthunter.
Timber stump used as a stool. Jonathan salvaged a couple of them from a neighbouring tree that was being cut down. A crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia ‘Natchez’ ) forms the focal point of the garden. Bluestone steppers wind through the garden to the rear gate, protecting the groundcover (Dichondra repens) from getting trampled! Production – Lucy Feagins/The Design Files and Georgina Reid/The Planthunter.

Despite its size, the garden is a great playground for four year old Zora. “Being such a small space we were really keen to create something a bit wild and imaginative for her”, Jonathan says. “The concept of garden rooms is very difficult when you have a 20m2 backyard but there are definitely different zones in the garden for her to play in. Seeing a four year old respond to different feelings of privacy and openness in different areas of a garden is exciting. In that sense it’s doing exactly what we want it to do.”

The design and development of the garden is very much a partnership between Jonathan and Shauna.

We often have very different opinions about aspects of it, however I think that helps its ultimate direction. Being challenged on your opinion and needing to find a compromise forces you to think laterally. There’s no place for ego in the garden!

The way Jonathan talks about the garden is very modest and unassuming but I don’t buy it! There is a lot of beauty in this tiny little garden, and that is no accident. Jonathan is a very talented man – As a craftsman who designs and makes custom timber furniture, his eye for detail and composition is obvious throughout the house and garden.

When asked what the biggest challenge in the creation of the garden was Jonathan says, “Shovelling 12 tonnes of dirt by hand. And patience! Patience is a challenge. But then that’s what gardening is all about. It sounds like a cliche but a garden is never finished. That’s what keeps me interested I guess.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Design Files, the best design blog in Australia. True story.

Jonathan and Shauna. Production – Lucy Feagins/The Design Files and Georgina Reid/The Planthunter.
Four year old Zora playing in the garden. The gravel surface is decomposed granite, which is compacted to prevent weeds from popping up! Using gravel rather than paving or decking is a good way of creating soft, organic shapes in a garden. The grass in the foreground is a sedge grass (Carex spp.) and the blue one just behind the rock is a blue fescue (Festuca glauca). Production – Lucy Feagins/The Design Files and Georgina Reid/The Planthunter.