Gardening in the city

Sunday, 02 March 2014

In the garden of Peter Nixon in Sydney

This weekend, I had the chance to visit two inner-city Sydney gardens that were open to the public, and it was inspiring to see what can be achieved in compact spaces. In both gardens, warm-climate plants have been embraced as being ideal for our region, and have been used to solve the challenges of urban gardening.

Dramatic Vriesea hieroglyphica in the garden of Ian McMaugh in Sydney

I was fascinated to see that both gardens used a few big, bold feature plants to create dramatic impact and form, and as a way of dividing space. In Paradisus, the garden of Peter Nixon in Darlington, two giant bromeliads - Alcantarea imperialis Florida Clone, still with their tall flowering stems - greeted the visitor at the entrance. In the garden created by Ian McMaugh (known as Ian and Tom's garden) in Redfern, a large bird's nest fern, a well-established red-leaf Philodendron, Monstera, Vriesea hieroglyphica and other structural plants provided a sense of fullness and lushness - as well a feeling of being enclosed in an leafy oasis - and contrasted with underplantings of smaller-leaved groundcovers.

An orange tree with epiphytic plants provides a sheltering canopy of privacy in the garden of Ian McMaugh in Sydney

Screening out unwanted views and noise can be a requirement in inner-city gardening, and in Ian's garden, a hedge of Viburnum 'Emerald Lustre' in the front garden blocked out a tall building opposite and created privacy, and a mature orange tree in the back garden provided a canopy of seclusion. However, compact gardens can also benefit from borrowed views of nearby trees, and in Peter's garden this was achieved by blurring the boundary walls with plants so that tall street tree plantings seem part of the garden. One way this was done was by planting an unusual climber, Combretum coccineum 'Crimson Cloud', on steel cables along the top of the fence line, and placing pots with cascading flowers and foliage on the garden walls, including unusual Medinilla cultivars.

Blue ginger in the garden of Ian McMaugh in Sydney

Shade from building walls and privacy plantings is another challenge in inner-city gardens. These gardeners have used a multitude of shade-tolerant plants that flourish in our climate, all contributing exciting colour, form and texture to the gardens. Begonia are excellent plants for shade, and the flowers and foliage of some attractive cane forms decorated Ian's front garden, and colourful rhizomatous Begonia were grown in pots in Peter's garden. Other useful flowering plants for shady gardens I noted included New Guinea Impatiens, blue ginger (Dichorisandra thyrsifolia) and many Acanthaceae plants, such as Pachystachys lutea, Ruellia elegans and Odontonema, all in bloom now.

Shade-tolerant groundcovers in the garden of Ian McMaugh in Sydney

Foliage plants provided a wealth of colour in the gardens - brilliantly hued coleus, dark and lime-leaved forms of Colocasia, Ctenanthe, myriad succulent plants and an enormous variety of bromeliads. I enjoyed seeing a closely knit tapestry of low-growing Peperomia and Fittonia (another Acanthaceae plant!) in Ian's back garden - plants more often thought of as house plants, with enticing textures and patterns on their leaves.

Bromeliads growing with the African milk bush in the garden of Peter Nixon in Sydney

Both gardens made use of every bit of available space for plants, whilst still allowing room to sit and move around - including roofs and the entire nature strip in front of Ian's garden! Pots were also used extensively to add plants to paved areas, and were grouped together skilfully make stunning garden pictures. Walls were covered with exuberant climbers (including what appeared to be a giant honeysuckle!). In Ian's garden, the inner side of two large gates that open into the back lane have been covered in mesh and planted with bromeliads and other epiphytes (including Hoya and Epiphyllums) - creating two fabulous living walls, which also acted as a burglar deterrent, with menacing spiky-leaved bromeliads planted along the top of each gate! Another wall has a large metal draining board mounted on it, planted with a profusion of epiphytic Tillandsia, behind a shelf of potted succulents. In both gardens, bromeliads were attached to trees to create further planting opportunities. Peter had created a cocofibre-filled mesh tube for a host of bromeliads and attached this to a stunning foliage tree, the purple-leaved form of the African milk bush (Synadenium grantii, sometimes called Euphorbia grantii). The use of every inch of space for plants added to the feeling of being in a haven in the city in these gardens.

Reader Comments

  • By Anne 2518 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 03 March 2014

    Thanks for that. I had wanted to get to Sydney to see those gardens but couldn"t. Your descriptions are perfect. Sounds like a fantastic use of plants. Yes, the choice and use of plants was quite inspired and inspiring! Deirdre

  • By Lyn 2565 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 03 March 2014

    Thanks for such a wonderful description of these 2 inner city gardens. Some great pics of the plants, especially the wall of Broms, love that. The gardens were on our list to visit, but instead we drove south to Buxton to visit the organic open garden (The Keep) down there. That was well worth a visit too, despite the heavy rain. The vertical walls of bromeliads were incredible. Glad you enjoyed the garden you visited at the weekend. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 03 March 2014

    I was not able to visit these gardens, but your detailed description of both, really whetted the appetite! It would have been wonderful to see both gardeners" use of plants in various areas, and also the positive advantage taken of the limited space available. Lots of good ideas, thank you, to Peter and Ian, for sharing their gardens, and to you, for your vivid presentation! Thanks, Margaret; it was certainly amazing to see what can be achieved in a compact space. Deirdre

  • By Karen 4228 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 03 March 2014

    I agree with Anne - your description and photos were beautifully done. This has given me food for thought. I have the space, but much is shaded. The use of a variety of shade loving foliage plants looks striking. Thank you Deidre! The variety of foliage was indeed incredible. All the plants used were ones that really flourish in Sydney"s climate. Deirdre

  • By Peta 2758 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 03 March 2014

    Well when I eventually, no let me say MAYBE have to leave our big country garden, I"ll know where to go and what to plant! Meanwhile the bellbirds are singing. What a range of gardens we have in Sydney! Deirdre

  • By Keith 2290 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 03 March 2014

    Thank you for your description of both these gardens. I did want to get to Sydney to see them but couldn"t make it so will have to wait until next time. Keep up the great work on this site. Thank you - Keith Thanks, Keith. I hope the gardens will be open again in the future. Deirdre

  • By John 6055 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 03 March 2014

    Great imagery in words, and a beaut dossier on the shade loving side of things. Well done CG. John Thanks, John! I hope to write more on the subject of shade in the future. Deirdre

  • By Catherine 2071 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 03 March 2014

    All those that missed Peter"s fabulous "Paradisus" courtyard can have another chance, as it"s open just one more time for "hidden, Festival of Outdoor Design, Sydney", along with 19 other spectacular gardens on 5-6 April. All proceeds go to Open Gardens and charity Moorambilla Voices. Hope this event will go well, Catherine. It is a great opportunity for people to see Sydney gardens. Deirdre

  • By Julie 4510 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 03 March 2014

    Beautiful, restful inner city haven and wonderfully described and illustrated. Thank you for the info and inspiration. Thanks, Julie! Deirdre

  • By masako 2073 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 03 March 2014

    Peter"s garden is the smallest garden I ever visited. I totally surrender to his clever design and choice of plants. The magic Peter has created! I felt like I was deep in a tropical rain forest with layers and variety of plants. It"s Zen to me to create such a great garden in such a small space. Ian and Tom"s garden is full of clever design ideas and clever choice of plants. A great fun as well. You have an excellent photographer"s eye, Deirdre. Another great blog. Thanks. Masako: thank you for your feedback and for always encouraging me. Deirdre

  • By Peter 2008 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Thursday, 06 March 2014

    Thanks for the pre-event editorial & expert visitor"s coverage Deirdre of both Ian McMaugh"s Budwise and my Paradisus gardens on Sunday .... They were an unmitigated success with nearly 200 people at Paradisus and nearly 300 filing thru Budwise ... it was flat out almost ALL day and Ian Percy"s Florez Stall sold out by 3pm. Such interest in small spaces gives me faith !! Paradisus Open again for "Hidden" as Catherine says, SUNDAY 6th April ONLY. Thanks, Peter and glad it was a success for both gardens. Ian had some great plants for sale. Deirdre

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