Once a patch of derelict RailCorp land, strewn with abandoned fridges and matresses, Wendy’s Secret Garden in Lavender Bay, Sydney, surprises everyone who enters it. My measure for a world class garden is that my Dad likes it, and this garden falls into that very select category.
Wendy Whiteley had had a turbulent life, married to a prominent artist, Brett Whiteley, both battled heroin addictions, later losing their only child to cancer and Brett eventually dying of a heroin overdose, a few years after leaving Wendy for another addict he met during rehab.
Wendy is a highly skilled artist herself, who took a backseat to her husband. When Brett died in 1992, she took her grief and directed into making a beautiful garden on a piece of land adjacent to the house that they had lived in together, overlooking Sydney harbour.
A reviewer on Tripadvisor describes the garden today as a ‘tranquil, lush, enchanted haven’, and I think a better summary is hard to find. Inspirational on so many levels, here are some of the factors that stand out for me.
1. The Steepness of the Site
Whilst the garden has a flat terrace close to the (now disused) railway line, much of the land is extremely steeply sloped. Wendy created little terraces with pathways and garden beds all the way down the slope, using local stone to build dry stone retaining walls. She demonstates that you should never be beaten by a steep slope!
2. Dry Soil and Lush Planting
The soil was sandy, of poor quality, in a very hot location and mostly on steep banks. Despite reasonable rainfall, soil like this does not retain moisture. And yet this garden is one of the most lush gardens in Sydney.
It is clear that the canopy of trees does much to protect the soil. Whilst tree roots take a lot of water out, with clever planting and the retention of leaf litter, the net affect of trees can be higher moisture, higher nutrient content soil. It is certainly the case in my own garden.
3. Mixture of Plant Types
Wendy planted natives, exotics, herbs, vegetables, Mediterranean plants, plants from the tropics and subtropics, rainforest species, arid succulents, and even English style roses.
Rarely do you see a garden with such variety and almost never one with such variety that hangs together so well as a single garden. Each plant is perfectly suited to its light and moisture conditions and in this way, looks perfectly in place. Dense, abundant planting and repeated features throughout ensure this garden feels completely cohesive.
4. Sense of Community
Wendy always welcomed the public into her garden and being close to the office blocks of North Sydney, it is a favourite lunchtime spot. There are nooks and crannies throughout the garden with benches, seats, tables and even parasols, making for extremely comfortable visits. It creates a quite remarkable sense of community – a shared secret of a shared space. Private and intimate and yet public and open.
As you stand in the garden you feel as though you are a million miles from a city. Only occasionally, as you turn a corner and get a glimpse of the Harbour Bridge, do you remember where you are.
You are completely consumed by green all around you, in every direction and overhead, and all you can hear is the vast and varied birdlife singing. It takes your breath away.
6. Love and Character
For me, these two ingredients are what make a great garden outstanding. Without real, strong passion on behalf of the owner, a garden lacks a certain something, and character is what makes it unique, interesting and fun. There is no question that Wendy put endless love, as well as skill, into the garden and you can still sense it today.
Character is provided by quirky, handmade features in the garden. Little wooden signs with messages carved into them, the sightly wonky handrails formed from tree trunks and the wheelbarrow filled with bromeliads. These, combined with amazing plants and planting combinations make you ooh and ahh at every turn. It is really quite unique.
After 18 years under Wendy’s management, at her own personal expense, and community rallying to retain the gardens, North Sydney Council now lease the land from RailCorp and employ gardeners to maintain it. Wendy was awarded an OAM in 2009 for her service to the community, both through her garden and as a supporter of the visual arts and still visits the garden regularly, despite having moved from the adjacent house. The ashes of both her husband and daughter are buried at secret locations in the garden.
What a very special place. And how lucky I am that I can walk there from home, whenever I am looking for inspiration.