Plant/Life: A Lush Heritage Garden in Sydney

Sydney based landscape designer Michael Bates reckons some gardens just need a nip and tuck – a tightening up and a smoothing out – rather than a complete overhaul. This heritage beauty in Sydney’s northern suburbs is one such example. “The most important thing with beautiful old gardens like this is to be considerate of and sensitive to the overall fabric of the space,” he tells me.

Michael was approached by the garden owners a couple of years ago to help them create a sense of order within the space. They’re very keen gardeners and have been living at the property for many years. The garden had been designed around 20 years ago and needed re-invigoration, simplification and a few structural tweaks to make it more functional.

First up was the front entry. A series of gravel courts in the front garden and a lack of a clearly defined entry pathway meant that visitors often ended up knocking on the bedroom door, rather than the front door! Michael and his team designed a wide sandstone pathway, winding around an existing weeping cherry tree, and leading visitors directly and clearly to the front door.

The owners of the property love gardening and are enthusiastic plant collectors. Designer Michael Bates worked with them to help make the garden feel more cohesive. Image by Jason Busch.
Kangaroo paws (Anigozanthus spp.) provide a pop of colour against the warm tones of the sandstone paving. Image by Jason Busch.
Simplification of some of the existing planting was also on the cards. “The owners of this garden are collectors,” Michael tells me. “They absolutely love growing plants. Quite often we come across collectors as clients and I see our job as designers of these gardens to assist our clients in turning a collection into a cohesive arrangement.”

Michael and his team achieved this by transplanting some shrubs from the front area into other parts of the garden, and simplifying the layers of planting in the space. They also built a series of low sandstone lawn terraces, in an attempt to create a sense of repetition and cohesion in the space. Working around the existing mature trees was a challenge – “We stitched the terraces into the garden very carefully, being very mindful of the roots of the magnificent old Magnolia soulangeana,” Michael says. “Some of the stone walls had to be re-arranged around roots we found, so as to not damage the integrity of the tree.”

Working with committed gardeners is a dream for most landscape designers. Having engaged clients means that a garden will be tended, loved, and most importantly, understood.

Gardeners understand that gardens take time, that sometimes plants just die no matter what you do, and that sometimes you’ve got to practice tough love. “A bit of chainsaw gardening was required,” says Michael. “We needed to work out what key elements needed to remain, and what things should go, in order to regenerate the garden and create new layers of planting, and let more light into the lower stories.”

A loved garden like this one is like a family heirloom. It’s a treasure handed down from one generation to the next and the next. Guided by the sensitive hand of designer Michael Bates, this gem will continue quietly blooming for many years to come. “I’d like to think that when we were finished it was hard to discern where we’d been and where we hadn’t,” Michael says.

This story is part of our monthly gardens collaboration with The Design Files. All images by Jason Busch supplied by Bates Landscape.

Landscape designer Michael Bates.
A series of gravel courts framed by box hedges (Buxus microphylla) form the front garden of this leafy heritage property on Sydney’s North Shore.
A curved sandstone pathway leads from the street entry to the front door.
Layers of mauve, purple and white planting provides textural and floral interest. Image by Jason Busch.
The owners two West Highland Terriers keeping watch over the front yard. Image by Jason Busch.
Designer Michael Bates mixed in some contemporary elements into the heritage garden, like this dragon tree (Dracaena draco) underplanted with blue chalksticks (Senecio spp.) Image by Jason Busch.
We planted a row of pears (Pyrus calleryana) between the pool fence and the house as a way of providing shade and creating a sense of intimacy and enclosure. It was never used before, but now it is.” Michael says. Image by Jason Busch.
A gravel pathway meanders through the rear garden, framed by a simple metal arbour dripping with a pink climbing rose. Image by Jason Busch.
The low lawn terraces were painstakingly laid in order not to damage the roots of the old magnolia tree framing the front garden. Image by Jason Busch.
Verandah living! Image by Jason Busch.