I'm itching to share today's post with you, the third in a series of in-depth conversations with people who have grown their gardens from scratch. Too often gardening books and magazines skip over the "before" shots of a garden, when the garden was a bare building site or a dry patch of couch grass tucked behind a half-brick fence, and we never see the hard work that went into making the dreamy oasis that is now splashed across glossy spreads. As a gardener who is starting from scratch, without even the bones of a garden in place, those are the photos I want to see! I need to be inspired and believe it is actually possible to turn our barren rocky ground into the garden I dream of... So this series is about filling in the "befores" and learning from people who have created beautiful gardens with their bare hands.
So far The Tree Diaries has no doubt come across as a bit rural-centric, being perched as we are on this landlocked mountainside, but we are in the business of celebrating all gardens, everywhere. Today's garden is hidden away in the suburbs of Sydney, and its gardener is an inner-city transplant who has (re)discovered all that suburban gardens have to offer.
Amber Creswell Bell might best be described as the creative behind creatives - she calls herself a "creative hustler" and I feel there is no need to expand on that awesome job title (I just hope it's the one on her business cards). She is also a wonderful writer and has been published in many of my favourite online and print publications, including The Design Files, Country Style, The Planthunter, Alphabet Journal... just to name a few.
I discovered Amber somewhere along the lines due to a mutual passion for mid-century architecture and design and, of course, a deep love of all things botanical. Oh, and the burning desire to disguise some Colorbond. My admiration was cemented when I learned that she had, upon discovering the beloved plants at her recently sold home were to be ripped out during renovations, snuck back under cover of night to "reclaim" them. Kindred spirit!
I couldn't be more grateful to Amber for taking the time, amidst the haze of newborn days and book writing, to trawl through her wonderful photos and answer my stickybeaking questions about the creation of her Sydney suburban garden.
The Tree Diaries: What drew you to your property when you first saw it? What did your garden look like when you first arrived?
Amber Creswell Bell: 2 years ago we had just sold our house in the Inner West of Sydney, and we were looking to stay in that area, close to the city. My husband Andy randomly found this old mid-century house online located on Sydney’s upper North Shore (i.e. nowhere near where we were actually looking!) – and I decided to go and check it out with my mum “just to see”. Well, the house and garden both needed A LOT of love, but there was something about that day in early spring... I could smell jasmine, and there was a warm breeze and birdsong and I was sold. It got under my skin and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I realised how much I really wanted a garden! I drove back over again a few days later and sat in my car out the front and mentally started gardening.
I could tell by the very mature camellias that stood taller than the house, and azaleas bushes that towered over me that once upon a time there had been a beautiful and considered garden. It was clear however that the current owners were not much ones for gardening, and the garden was a mishmash of low maintenance plants and things that they probably bought on sale at Bunnings. Everything looked like it needed a good water – except for the morning glory and fishbone fern that was unfortunately thriving. The lawn was completely yellow.
The back yard looked like it had been cleared of most plants, except for the mature trees and all the garden beds were full of rubbishy half dead stuff. The upper lawn was surrounded by an expanse of beige coloured Colorbond fencing (which coordinated well with the dead lawn) and it was SUCH an eye sore. No attempt had been made to cover the fence or to soften it with planting.
TTD: What were your major priorities in designing your garden? Did you have any gardens in mind when thinking about how to make yours work with the architecture of the house?
ACB: My priorities were to make it feel lush and inviting. I wanted to cover the Colorbond fence in the back yard and make it ‘disappear’. I also wanted a garden that was ‘abundant’, full of flowers for picking and also changed with the seasons – so that there was always something to look at.
I wanted to work with the existing mature plants that I uncovered – camellias, sasanquas, port wine magnolia, azaleas, gardenias, daphne and hydrangeas. All those plants reminded me of my childhood, so I guess it was those gardens that I was referencing when I started my plant selections. As my husband refers to them – the “nanna-plants”.
I also couldn’t wait to rip out the old Hills Hoist clothesline – until I realised how amazing it was at drying clothes. Now I wouldn’t get rid of it if you paid me!
TTD: Did you feel intimidated by how much work you were facing? How did you get started?
ACB: Strangely no! I come from a green thumb kind of family, and having not had much more than a courtyard since I left home - the frustrated gardener in me was unleashed and I was excited by the potential. The garden has lots of sections and ‘rooms’ – so it was really a matter of attacking one at a time.
The day we got the keys I had 15 painters on site painting the house inside and out. While they were doing that I had a truckload of soil and manure delivered and I literally got to work immediately. I spent that first day clearing out all of the front beds and improving the soil. It was very satisfying! Friends who were moving overseas had gifted to me a very sentimental magnolia tree that they had dug out of their old garden so I decided to start with that. My neighbour Ron laughed when he saw that I planted that magnolia – as apparently the previous owners had gone to some effort to remove a mature magnolia tree from that very spot, as they didn’t like the bare branches in winter. Ron told me it used to have blooms “the size of 2 cupped hands” – I could have cried.
The main part of the front garden is essentially three large conjoined roundish beds surrounded by lawn and flanked by the driveway. At the front end was the magnolia, which I under-planted with David Austin roses (which I have a bit of a thing for). In the middle part, which is more shaded by an established grove of miniature camellias, I planted a mass of hydrangeas and Japanese windflowers. Then the end nearest the house I planted another magnolia. There was already gardenias and daphne in that bed, so I added to them. Everything else in the front around the lawn was pretty established so I just plugged some holes with a lilac (yet to flower!) and Hydrangea quercifolias (oak leaf variety).
The back yard was more or less a clean slate to me. Apart from the large row of camellias and azaleas that ran along the timber fence I share with Ron, there was nothing I felt attached to so I just cleared it all and started from scratch. As I emptied the beds I realised that there was a lovely tiered garden hidden beneath all of the fishbone ferns etc – which made for lots of interesting ‘nooks’. Before we had even moved in I had been collecting plants on nursery recce visits – including several blossom trees, a Manchurian pear, a large echium, and a weeping cherry. I also had reclaimed some small plants from our old house – such as spirea, mock orange, lacecap viburnums, heavenly scented Sarcococca confusa and weigelas. Because I already had these plants I probably didn’t take a very measured approach. I just started organically planting until I filled all the beds. Here was where I wanted that feeling of ‘wild abundance’, so I planted loads of salvias, foxgloves, buddleias in mauves and whites, more roses, violets, lambs ears, scabiosa, bulbs, sedums and seasonal annuals. There are now constant flowers! It’s eclectic. I also uncovered so many random bulbs in the gardens as I turned over the beds. They are still popping up all the time surprising me – things like Jacobian lilies, nerines, old-fashioned gladiolis, belladonnas, amaryllis and eucomis.
I dealt with the ugly beige colorbond fence by painting it the same colour as we painted the house (Dulux ‘Oolong’ – a dark bluey greyish black). This made an instant difference. I had wanted to plant a row of something along the fence – but realised that a large terracotta pipe ran the length of it just under the surface – so instead I installed raised garden beds and filled them with creepers. Within 6 months the fence was covered – so that was a great win! Also, a patch of pink shell gingers that has been growing on the other side of one of the back fence decided to ‘crawl’ under the fence and start populating our side – obviously loving the water! It looked really great against the dark painted fence – so that was a nice happy accident.
The once dead lawn greened up fairly quickly with some watering which the kids loved. I dug up a new garden bed surrounding the lawn and planted it with lots of silvery grey foliage, salvias and roses, which instantly softened the harshness that I had felt before. There was an old bare rusty trellis on one side of the lawn which I planted with clematis, mutabilis rose, and pink and white mandevillas – and that seemed to grow literally overnight!
One of the nicest finds in the garden was a HUGE Stephanotis vine that was growing up onto the deck. When we first moved in – it looked half dead and insignificant so I nearly pulled it out. But after all the watering it really lushed up and exploded into fragrant white flowers. It is heavenly.
Last year our garden appeared in a magazine, and the daughter of the original owners of the house happened to see it, and wrote to me. She expressed her joy at seeing the plants that were so loved by her mum and dad – specifically the stephanotis, which had been planted by her dad for her mum some 30 or 40 years earlier. She also told me how all the camellias were a favourite of her mum’s and that she was so happy to see them still thriving. That letter meant the world to me!
TTD: How do you feel about your garden today? Are you at the enjoy-and-maintain-stage of the garden, or are there lots of things still on your to-do list?
ACB: There is something magic in the soil here –everything seems to grow unnaturally fast. Things I thought would take years to establish now look so mature they could have been here forever. I am enjoying that feeling that the garden is ‘settled in’ and lush, and doing what it is meant to.... but I’m always changing my mind and replanting things. I get bored otherwise. I doubt I’ll ever feel ‘finished’! I have discovered I have quite a knack for striking roses, so I am often moving things around to make room for them. Sometimes, when I get to the end of a season, I get the urge to start again.
TTD: Is this your “forever garden” or do you see yourself creating a new garden again in the future?
ACB: Well, it is “for now”. While we have 3 small children, this garden is ideal for them - they are always outside, running around, creating fairy houses or playing hide and seek or watering the garden for me. It’s exactly the kind of childhood I wanted them to have. But I’d have no problem moving and starting over (I’d probably have to take a lot of plants with me!).
Currently we are planning to extend the house, but I cannot even bear to think about what impact that will have on my garden. Not quite ready for that!
TTD: Who inspires you in gardening? Are there any gardens or gardeners in particular that you admire, or any books that you return to again and again for inspiration?
ACB: Oh, all of the mystery gardeners on Pinterest who taunt me with their perfect garden photos! Sadly I think that I really aspire to Northern hemisphere gardens and plants – which are not necessarily ideal here in sub-tropical Sydney. I love gardens like Sissinghurst Castle in the UK, and those by Piet Oudolf. A bit wild and woolly. I also really like the garden style of Sydney Landscape Designer Christopher Owen. Designers Myles Baldwin and Jane Stark also have a great knack for inspiring plantings.
Thank you so much to Amber for taking the time to let us peak over the fence into her beautiful garden. I couldn't be more inspired to keep on keeping-on, ignoring my irrepressible (and possibly irrational) love of Northern Hemisphere plants, in the hopes of ending up with a garden as lush as hers. Oh, and it is worth reminding ourselves that Amber has achieved all of this in 2 YEARS!
For lovers of all things mid-century, I suggest that you also look at this article on The Design Files to see the stunning, period-sensitive interior that Amber and Andy created. You can also read more about Amber's gardening journey here, on The Planthunter.
All photos c/o Amber Creswell Bell.