Waterfall Cottage: An Enchanted Garden

Running away to a simpler life in the country is a dream harboured by many busy city folk. In 1982 Jeanne Villani felt the call, but instead of having to head far from the city to find her patch of paradise, she stumbled across eight acres of bushland in Bayview, on Sydney’s northern beaches, complete with its own waterfall!

The advertisement for the property in the Sydney Morning Herald “sounded too good to be true,” according to Jeanne. “It was a drizzly, misty October morning when I first opened the front gate to find a spot so wonderful that it far exceeded expectations,” she says. “At that time it had a pleasant little garden around a small fibro cottage and a single path over the bridge up to the boundary. The balance of the eight acres was bushland struggling under a cover of lantana.  It had the magical feeling of another world – I had to have it!”

Jeanne soon realized the fibro cottage had to go – it had been severely undermined in heavy rainfall in 1988 and having no foundations, had begun collapsing into the earth. With help from local architect Drew Dickson, Jeanne built a small sandstone cottage nestled into the bushland in 1989. The property, which Jeanne had bought as a weekender, had become her permanent home.

Once the house was built Jeanne got stuck into the garden: “I wanted to create a beautiful garden. There was no design, but it was very much a conscious decision to make it.”

Nestled into the east facing side of the hills at the back of Bayview, the garden feels exactly as Jeanne described it when she first saw it – completely secluded and secret.”

The development of the garden too, plays on this sense of enchantment and magic – narrow pathways wind through terraces of shade-tolerant perennial plantings and down to huge clumps of ancient giant bamboo (Bambusa balcooa). A series of bridges crisscross the rocky stream, which becomes a wild torrent of water in rain. Surprises abound: small sandstone sculptures are dotted through the space; a huge moss woman, created by Jeanne’s niece Belinda Villani, reclines gracefully on the side of the hill; and a cat cemetery flanks one of the paths through the bushland.

Sculpture by Belinda Villani
Jeanne Villani

Then, there’s the plants. Gardeners often, consciously nor not, choose plants for nostalgic reasons – a childhood scent, experience, or person – yet although Jeanne grew up in England with a nurseryman father there’s nothing English about her garden. I ask her about the guiding principles behind plant selection for the garden and she says, with a laugh: “If no-one else has it – I want it!”

Whilst plants in Jeanne’s garden have to be interesting and unique, they also have to withstand the attentions of the property’s non-human residents. Developing the garden has been mostly trial and error to find out what will not tempt the taste buds of the wallabies, possums, echidnas, lyre birds, bandicoots and brush turkeys, and what will grow in a mostly shady garden,” says Jeanne.

What the wallabies don’t knock down – the turkeys scratch up! It’s a constant battle but it’s lovely to have so much wildlife.”

The planting palette is generally tropical – there’s brugmansias, bromeliads and begonias rubbing shoulders with gingers, orchids and salvias. The tall canopy of mature rainforest trees such as coachwood, cabbage tree palms and sandpaper figs help ground the exotic plantings to the surrounding bushland.

Over the last 35 years or so Jeanne has guided Waterfall Cottage, with the help of many hands, to become one of Sydney’s most impressive private gardens. It was open regularly for the now defunct Open Gardens Australia scheme, and is now open occasionally by appointment. It’s clearly a labor of love for Jeanne, and something she’s intent on making available for all. “I’ve left the property as a charitable trust for the people of Australia,” she tells me. “They way things are going there won’t be spaces like this left. They seem to be building on every bit of green space. Gardens and nature are so important.”

Places like Waterfall Cottage – wild gardens created by passionate hands – are incredibly valuable patches of enchantment amid the concrete and noise of the city. We visited it at the end of a very dry Sydney winter. There was no water to be seen, but certainly no lack of magic.

The Waterfall Cottage cat cemetery