Charles House: A new bush garden

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The huge leaves of <i>Wigandia caracasana</i> work tricks with depth of field and scale in the garden.

The huge leaves of Wigandia caracasana work tricks with depth of field and scale in the garden. Image: Bush Projects

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The front section of the garden hosts largely indigenous plantings, with the addition of <i>Doryanthes excelsa</i> (gymea lily), and extends to include the nature strip.

The front section of the garden hosts largely indigenous plantings, with the addition of Doryanthes excelsa (gymea lily), and extends to include the nature strip. Image: Bush Projects

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<i>Scleranthus biflorus</i> (cushion bush) grows around granite boulders and clumps of grasses capture the golden morning light.

Scleranthus biflorus (cushion bush) grows around granite boulders and clumps of grasses capture the golden morning light. Image: Bush Projects

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<i>Dichondra repens</i> (kidney weed) pokes through grasscrete paving while a green carpet of groundcovers is punctuated with tufts of strappy leaf plants, such as <i>Dianella tasmanica</i> (Tasman flax-lily).

Dichondra repens (kidney weed) pokes through grasscrete paving while a green carpet of groundcovers is punctuated with tufts of strappy leaf plants, such as Dianella tasmanica (Tasman flax-lily). Image: Bush Projects

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<i>Dichondra repens</i> (kidney weed) pokes through grasscrete paving while a green carpet of groundcovers is punctuated with tufts of strappy leaf plants, such as <i>Dianella tasmanica</i> (Tasman flax-lily).

Dichondra repens (kidney weed) pokes through grasscrete paving while a green carpet of groundcovers is punctuated with tufts of strappy leaf plants, such as Dianella tasmanica (Tasman flax-lily). Image: Bush Projects

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Two extremes: the needle-like foliage of <i>Allocasuarina littorallis</i> (black she-oak) on the left contrasts with large <i>Wigandia caracasana</i> (Caracus wigandi) foliage on the right.

Two extremes: the needle-like foliage of Allocasuarina littorallis (black she-oak) on the left contrasts with large Wigandia caracasana (Caracus wigandi) foliage on the right. Image: Bush Projects

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<i>Miscanthus x giganteus</i> (giant miscanthus) rapidly provides height and depth to the new garden while potted plants fill temporary gaps.

Miscanthus x giganteus (giant miscanthus) rapidly provides height and depth to the new garden while potted plants fill temporary gaps. Image: Bush Projects

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A sketch plan of Charles House garden.

A sketch plan of Charles House garden. Image: Bush Projects

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Featuring eclectic combinations of plant species, this garden in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs is an immersive space full of diversity and delight.

Too often in landscape architecture the animate nature of plants is forgotten. Plant “material” is treated like any other in service of a spatial and textural design intent. Using only a minimal selection, plants are used to landscape. The Charles House garden by Bush Projects was designed distinctly as a garden as opposed to a landscape. It employs plants in all their glory and is vividly alive. Rather than mass plantings, it is full of eclectic combinations of diverse species planted in mixed drifts, or collections of plants, some of which are repeated while others are one-off plantings. Plant selection is not limited by categories, such as indigenous, native, exotic – in this garden there is an attunement to the qualities of plants carefully sourced, selected, curated and subtly combined.

The garden is ground for a new and very large creature of a house in Melbourne’s Kew, designed by Austin Maynard Architects. The modern, verging on medieval, two-storey building sits proudly on the site, leaving a wide strip of garden along the length of the block. Its black “skin” is an accumulation of overlapping slate tiles. The skin folds back to reveal the windows. The tessellation continues to the ground adjacent to the building with grasscrete paving interfiled with Dichondra repens (kidney weed). Two rectilinear ponds run perpendicular to the house, the reflective surface continuing vertically as cuts, or tall windows, into the building. Although there is continuity of texture between the building and garden, the lightness and liveliness of the garden offers perfect contrast to the black and heavy body of the dwelling. And even though the garden is a setting for the building, once you are within the garden, the scale inverts and the garden becomes a world in itself. The building becomes a wall and the garden a volume.

The front section of the garden hosts largely indigenous plantings, with the addition of Doryanthes excelsa (gymea lily), and extends to include the nature strip. Image:  Bush Projects

This garden is a call to the senses. The plant palette is subtly transformed by mixed drifts from the front of the garden to the back. The front seems wild. The largely indigenous planting with the addition of the Doryanthes excelsa (gymea lily) extends to include the nature strip. The messy “noisiness” of the front is at odds with the manicured houses either side in the orderly Kew street. When I visited the garden the clumps of grasses, which were above head height, were rustling in the wind, their inflorescences lit with setting golden light. As you move deeper into the garden, native and exotic plants appear in surprising combinations. Lagerstroemia (crepe myrtle) is adjacent Miscanthus x giganteus and Wigandia caracasana, working tricks with depth of field and scale. At the back, herbs and vegetables are added to the mix. The multitude of shifting textures invite eyes to journey and yet the shifts are subtle and almost imperceptible as the planting also reads as a whole. It is clear the designers are plant lovers, who play with textures and combinations toward spatial and sensual ends. The multitude of plant species will become home to many non-human occupants, which are more likely to thrive in a biodiversity of species.

Dichondra repens (kidney weed) pokes through grasscrete paving while a green carpet of groundcovers is punctuated with tufts of strappy leaf plants, such as Dianella tasmanica (Tasman flax-lily). Image:  Bush Projects

As you move along the length of the garden, which is ostensibly a wide strip of land along the side of the house, your feet register the continual shifting of levels. These transitions occur through a language of folding planes rather than steps, allowing accessibility. The ground reads as terrain, somehow connected to the larger geological layers. This tactic of continual transition informs all aspects of the garden; the ground plane, plant combinations, the transitions between materials and the negotiation of different kinds of occupation. There is a flattened area at the back, at the highest point on the block, which is planted with Zoysia tenuifolia, lawn for lounging and lolling. Large granite rocks are carefully placed throughout the garden and within the lawn to create informal play areas for the owner’s children.

Two extremes: the needle-like foliage of Allocasuarina littorallis (black she-oak) on the left contrasts with large Wigandia caracasana (Caracus wigandi) foliage on the right. Image:  Bush Projects

Bush Projects, a collaboration between Bonnie Grant and Sarah Hicks, is an emerging practice. The duo doesn’t just complete the drawings and hand them over to the contractor – they also source the plants, select the rocks and work with the contractor on site and rearrange things. “It’s like we are still drawing it as we go,” Sarah says. The design is not complete until the garden is handed over to the client. Such care and attention to detail is often considered inefficient and yet it is the very thing that makes the planted design feel like a garden. It is just one year old and already fully fledged. I wonder how it will mature? How will it be looked after? And how will the clients garden? There was a clue at the entrance, where a tomato plant had been tucked in next to a Leptospermum petersonii (lemon-scented tea tree). The diversity of the garden’s plant selection allows for such anomalies. It will be wonderful to see how this hands-on mode of practice translates to larger-scale public projects.

Plant list

Groundcovers
Scleranthus biflorus (cushion bush)
Correa alba prostrate ‘Star Shower’ (star showers)
Banksia blechnifolia (prostrate banksia)
Rosemary officinalis prostratus (creeping rosemary ‘Blue Lagoon’)
Ceratostigma plumbagoides (hardy plumbago)
Dichondra repens (kidney weed)
Viola hederacea (Australian native violet)

Small shrubs
Ceratostigma willmottianum (Chinese plumbago)
Plumbago auriculata ‘Monott’ (royal cape plumbago)
Santolina (cotton lavender)

Large shrubs
Doryanthes excelsa (gymea lily)
Xanthorrea super grass (super grass)
Allocasuarina verticillata ‘Noodles’
Eucalyptus ‘Moon Lagoon’ (moon lagoon)
Grevillea Honey Gem (honey gem)
Grevillea rosmarinifolia (rosemary grevillea)
Grevillea endlicheriana (spindly grevillea)
Lonicera nitida (honeysuckle)
Leptospermum petersonii (lemon scented tea tree)
Drepanostachyum falcatum (Himalayan weeping bamboo)
Gunnera manicata (giant rhubarb)
Wigandia caracasana (caracus wigandia)

Grasses/rushes
Carex testacea (orange sedge)
Zoysia tenuifolia (velvet grass)
Zoysia japonica (Empire zoysia turf)
Phormium tenax ‘Yellow Wave’ (yellow wave flax)
Baloskion tetraphyllum ‘Feather Tops’ (tassel cord rush)
Dianella tasmanica (Tasman flax-lily)
Miscanthus x giganteus (giant miscanthus)
Miscanthus transmorrisonensis (evergreen feather grass)
Rytidosperma geniculatum (wallaby grass)

Climbers
Parthenocissus henryana (silver vein creeper)
Trachelospermum jasminoides (Chinese star jasmine)
Stephanotis floribunda (Madagascar jasmine)
Muehlenbeckia complexa (maidenhair vine)

Aquatic plants
Nymphaea spp. (water lily mix)
Marsilea mutica (nardoon)
Baloskion tetraphyllum ‘Feather Top’

Wildflowers
Brachyscome spp.
Calocephalus lacteus (milky beauty heads)
Leptorhynchos tenuifolius (wiry buttons)
Wahlenbergia communis (tufted bluebell)
Wahlenbergia stricta (Australian bluebell)


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