Garden ramble // Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden

For Christmas this year I bought my mum a copy of Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden by Janet Hawley. Mum had seen a talk by Wendy about her Secret Garden, and the book is simply stunning, so it seemed the best bet for somebody who doesn't like receiving "stuff"! 

Earlier this year, after we had both fallen in love with the images in the book and the story behind the garden's creation, we went to visit. It was a hot muggy day and the sun didn't bother coming out at all, but the visit was definitely worth schlepping the kids around on public transport for 2 hours!

The garden is tucked away beneath a lovely manicured (but entirely ordinary) council park in Lavender Bay, a short walk from the hustle and bustle of North Sydney. You would never know such a lush and anything-but-ordinary garden hides below - in fact, I have sat in Clark Park once waiting for a meeting and hadn't a clue what I was missing!

The garden is just below the entrance to Wendy and Brett's house - the one made famous by its views of Sydney Harbour captured in her husband Brett's paintings. Wendy started the garden by herself, guerrilla gardening before that was even a thing, and with no real idea of what she was going to achieve. She used the process of ripping out overgrown weeds from disused rail property to deal with the grief of losing first, Brett, and then their daughter Arkie. Labouring, hidden away from the world, very slowly creating beauty out of something deeply ugly - the grieving process mirrored in gardening, no?  

The garden isn't protected. North Sydney Council has managed to secure a temporary lease over the property from the NSW Government, but the fear is that one day this extremely lucrative piece of land will be sold off to developers and turned into high-density apartments... Which is a fate that is very hard to conjure when you spend some time in this pocket of green, but is all too possible when you think of Sydney's foreshores...

Anyway, I highly recommend that when you have some time in Sydney you visit the garden in person, but until then, a virtual ramble to bring some green (and purple!) into your Monday afternoon. I'll pepper you with some of Wendy's own words from the book, but first, this:

Starting a garden is a sign of hope, that it will grow and last.

Here's to being hopeful!

Wendy has used a lot of iresine (Iresine herbstii, also commonly known as bloodleaf) in the garden, and its purple pops so vividly against all the green. On that: 

"I have always gardened visually, putting together leaves and plants of different sizes and shapes, but I felt that there needed to be some colour in amongst all the green. The plum colour of the iresine looks beautiful with the light on it."

"This isn't a flower garden, as I don't have enough sun. It's more about using foliage, leaf shapes, textures and colours up against each other, like you're painting or sculpting. The pigments I use are plants, leaves, come flowers when I can get them, rocks, mulch, wood, bark. Light and shadow."

Tropical milk weed (Asclepius curassavica) which I identified using the apps I was testing the same weekend

"Steps and paths are the bones of the garden, along with rock faces of cliffs and the largest trees."

On the rock walls (made from sandstone used as landfill on this site): "I like plants to spill over the dry stone walls to soften them, but not to obscure them."

Ginger (Alphina zerumbet) in flower. On pinks: "I like some pinks, but they must have a strong balance of green. I hate the synthetic-looking inks in several modern breeds of plants, that look so genetically modified and fed on steroids, they shout out, "fake, bad mistake," like bad facelifts."

"These angel's trumpet flowers are commonly called daturas, although the variety I have, where the flowers hang downwards, is now officially named Brugmansia. I still call them daturas. The armchair experts will scold me, no doubt, but Brugmansia seem such an ugly name for such a heavenly flower."

"Most of the apricot-coloured daturas, and some of the white ones, I propagated from cuttings from historic Bronte House, when my friends the Mullers lived there. Daturas put on such a display of flowers all year round. They really are the dominant flowers of the Secret Garden."

The view of the garden from Clark Park... that's Wendy's house on the right (with the turret), and the Secret Garden drops down below the manicured lawn.

Who better to quote before you enter the garden than Van Morrison...?