Plant/Life: Wendy Whiteley

Wendy Whiteley, as well as being an artist, ‘goddess muse’, and wife to the late Brett Whiteley, is the ultimate guerilla gardener. Long before the term entered Australian vernacular, Wendy was throwing all her energy into transforming a disused railway dump out the front of her Lavender Bay home into an incredibly beautiful public garden.

The land, owned by the NSW State Government, was ‘a green, amorphic lump’ when she first started clearing it, shortly after Brett’s death in 1992. Whilst it was always her vision to create a garden she had little idea of what lay ahead. ‘We just started from one end and worked day by day until we got to the other end. I had no idea what was underneath it all’, she says.

As the land was was cleared, and tonnes of invasive weeds and rubbish were removed, Wendy and her two gardeners Corrado and Ruben began landscaping the space. There were no grand plans says Wendy – the garden just evolved in response to the site. It’s a steep, south facing space bordered on the southern end by a railway line and iconic harbour views beyond, and on the other by a small park. It’s a tucked away and hidden space, hence it’s unofficial name – ‘Wendy’s Secret Garden’.

A network of pathways wind through the steep site to a clearing at the bottom of the space with a central clump of Bangalow palms (given to Wendy by her late daughter Arkie a few years before her death of adrenal cancer in 2001). The pathways are framed by beautiful timber bush rail balustrades, and are supported by a huge amount of rock and timber retaining walls – all built by hand by Wendy and her gardeners. Most landscapers would have bought in machines and concrete and all that big heavy stuff, but not Wendy Whiteley – she just did it herself.

‘The only way you could have built this space is exactly the way I’ve done it’, she says, ‘by being here and building it bit-by-bit, without big machinery. We built the terraces with begged, borrowed, and bought stuff. It’s about going with nature, not against it.’

Wendy has invested a huge amount in the garden – not just time and energy, but also money. ‘I had to sell one of Brett’s paintings to fund the garden’, she says. She employs two full time gardeners, and has bought all the materials and plants for the garden herself. I ask Wendy what Brett would have thought of the garden. ‘He would have loved it’, she says. ‘He would have done some great drawings, but he certainly wouldn’t have done any work!’ Brett would have preferred to make an artwork, sell it, and use the funds to pay for someone else to do the work, Wendy suggests.

Wendy is an intuitive gardener – driven by aesthetics and beauty – rather than any kind of horticultural expertise. ‘I didn’t know anything about horticulture when I started on the garden. I just knew what I liked, and I’ve since learnt what likes being here. It’s a symbiotic relationship between the plants and I, and my gardeners’, she says.

None of us know a single Latin name. I forget what plants are called half the time, I just know whether they look good or not, and whether they’re happy.

Wendy’s garden has certainly bought happiness to many people. It’s been the scene of hundreds of weddings and important life events, and is dearly loved by all who know it. It is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most beautiful public gardens in Australia. Yet, until only a week ago, it’s future was uncertain.

In a huge win for the public of Sydney, on the 9th of October, the NSW State Government granted the North Sydney Council a 30-year lease for the garden, with an option of a second 30-year period. Wendy, I’m sure, will be happy. ‘Its not my garden, its everyone’s,’ she says when we spoke about it’s future weeks before the announcement, ‘I just want it to remain for everyone else to enjoy, because that’s what it’s about.’

What a gift. What a woman.

Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden by Janet Hawley (RRP $79.99, Lantern Books) tells the story behind the garden, and the events in Wendy’s life that led to its creation. It’s out now, and available here.