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Project: Australian wetland garden

Project: Australian wetland garden

The stepping stones and boardwalk mean that people can enjoy the large billabong up close. Planting includes purple Lythrum salicia with sedges and native grasses. Photo: Claire Takacs/©Phillip Johnson

This extraordinary ecological garden was a flat dry paddock before it was linked with the surrounding landscape, says Stephanie Mahon

Landscape designer Phillip Johnson is best known in the UK as the winner of Best in Show at the 2013 RHS Chelsea Flower Show, for his Trailfinders Garden. He returned to the show this year with an installation of thousands of crocheted poppies in front of the Royal Hospital, but back home in Australia his name is synonymous with more natural landscapes, along with a strong philosophy of sustainable design.

Phillip’s firm has been focusing on the use of indigenous and native plants, water management and the recreation of habitats for more than 16 years, and has built a reputation for natural pools and green walls – in fact, he has been collaborating with botanist and living wall specialist Patrick Blanc for the past three years to break new ground in large-scale commercial green walls. Their latest project was at an apartment complex in Sydney, which at five metres wide and 33 metres high is the largest vertical garden in the southern hemisphere.

A major part of his practice is residential, and one recent large-scale commission saw him turn a barren field into a new wetlands garden near Clarkefield, in the state of Victoria. The owner heard Phillip speaking at an event, and afterwards began looking at her property – a 2,000-hectare estate – with new eyes. Her husband’s family had lived there since the 1800s, and she wanted to inspire the next generation by moving towards making it sustainable, self sufficient and environmentally friendly. As part of this goal, she invited Phillip to transform a piece of land near the house.

A bluestone construction from the early 19th century, this historic property had a traditional garden of exotics, a large lawn and a circular drive lined with mature elms and oaks. The area Phillip was asked to redesign was essentially a flat paddock. Years before, this landscape had been cleared, rocks removed, the site levelled and a monoculture of plants created.

The waterfall offers some drama, as do the Xanthorrhoea johnsonii ‘Supergrass’ planted above. The whole area is lit up at night. Photo: Claire Takacs/©Phillip Johnson

Looking at the landscape

When Phillip visited the site, he realised how important it was to really understand the space. “Initially, I spent a lot of time looking at the forms and contours of the existing landscape, as well as drawing inspiration from the surrounding environment,” he explains. “This is one of the most critical design principles. You really need to spend time with certain properties to be able to conceptualise what would work in relation to the scale of the site.”

The owner had mentioned on the phone to Phillip that she had “a few rocks lying around the backyard”, but when he visited, he couldn’t believe how many there were. “‘A few rocks’ was a huge understatement!” he says. “And it was such beautiful rock. It had been stockpiled many years ago. But the owners viewed it as a hindrance; they couldn’t see the beauty and potential in these piles of stone.”

The transition area between the old and new areas of the garden. Photo: Claire Takacs/©Phillip Johnson

Phillip wanted to design the space so that it reconnected with its surroundings – the Macedon Ranges – so “the placement of the stone was based on existing outcrops, for example,” he says. He also designed in a lot of contouring and mounding to direct water and provide protection from prevailing winds.

Ease of maintenance was another consideration. “The lawns are mown with a ride-on mower, so the sweeping lawn area had to have an easy gradient. It was imperative that we factor in ongoing maintenance, because this is a rural working property, and available time and resources are at a minimum.”

As well as the stone, there were a few other existing elements that Phillip and his team had to deal with or work around. “It’s amazing to imagine that there was once a tennis court surrounded by a cypress hedge where the spring is now located,” he says. “I took inspiration for it from a remarkable bluestone rainwater tank, which was built on top of a ridge to provide water pressure to the homestead in the 1870s.” He replicated this circular form to create the spring, which he then surrounded with a circular avenue of Zelkova trees. In time, this will become an “amphitheatre of vegetation”.

Phillip carefully placed boulders from the site around the new scheme, including along the dry creaked. Photo: Claire Takacs/©Phillip Johnson

Another eye-catching element of the new scheme is a 20m-long curved boardwalk, inspired by the shape of a reclining human form. It twists over the water, mimicking the serpentine creek that winds through the whole space.

This is a major part of the water management system Phillip designed. “Water flows off the roof of the homestead and off the driveway into the creekbed, then down into the billabongs,” he explains. “These water catchments also assist in providing water for residents in the event of a bushfire – unfortunately, fire is part of the reality of the property and its surrounds. This water will assist in reducing the intensity of a fire if one comes, because it has to travel in a northerly direction and pass over the wetlands.”


The existing garden now flows into the new garden, and the transition between the two is defined via a dry creekbed, planted with a mix of exotics and natives. “The existing garden contained several plants that we could select for this transition,” Phillip says, “such as Echium candicans, Euphorbia, Cistus, Iris, Salvia and Sedum species. We complemented these with plantings of purple-flowered Patersonia occidentalis as well as Dianella species and kangaroo paws.

Lomandra and other grasses were planted to soften the rocks that were used throughout the design. We planted lashings of Billy buttons (Craspedia) and Lythrum salicaria to achieve the effect of a mass of soft yellow and purple colour. Further along the creek and garden beds, we incorporated key feature plants for striking impact, such as grass trees (Xanthorrhoea), huge bottle trees (Brachychiton) and Gymea lilies.”

Phillip brought this poppies display to RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016. Photo: John Campbell

Challenging times

Phillip admits that the size and scope of this garden was a real challenge. “It was a massive project,” he says. “The planning and build took 15 months – the build alone took five. Detailed planning is critical for these projects, and they often require engineering solutions. The dam was built from our CAD plans, which were uploaded to the excavator – this enabled the machinery to create the specified levels and gradients we needed.”

He also felt it was important that the small details were executed at the same high standard as these large-scale changes, “so that when you zoom in from a couple of hectares down to a square metre, the quality is still there. That was a real challenge, because of the scale,” he says.

The build was completed in 2014, and has been developing well ever since. Phillip continues to monitor progress, and is proud and pleased with the result. “This is a very young garden,” he says, “but it works well with the heritage of the property, and it blends in with the surrounding garden.”

This garden is also featured in Phillip’s book, Connected (Murdoch Books, £25).


About Phillip Johnson

Phillip Johnson is the director of Phillip Johnson Landscapes and is recognised as an Australian sustainable landscape pioneer in the residential and commercial sectors. He is committed to greening cities and addressing water management through innovative and flexible sustainable landscape design.


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