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Aussie inspiration

Designer Paul Bangay has carved a dramatic and “deeply personal” garden in parched rural Victoria.

Asked recently to divulge the highlight of his 25-year landscape-design career, Paul Bangay laughed and said he was mentioned not once but twice on Australian television series Kath & Kim.

Bangay is one of Australia’s leading landscape designers. His work, commissioned internationally and at home, is known for its symmetry, tight angles, strong sight lines, grand scale and box hedges. Initially inspired by 18th-century French gardens, he has relaxed into a more informal European style.

Landscape designer Paul Bangay pictured with his dog in his country garden at his Stonefields property in Denver, Victoria. Photo/Manuela Cifra

Some years ago he bought a Catholic school that he renovated and converted into his own residence, developing the 1.6ha grounds into a richly detailed terraced garden that he featured in his book The Enchanted Garden.

Another of his books, The Balanced Garden, is probably one of the best-selling garden design books in the Southern Hemisphere. It is evocative of a contemporary formal style that will always be fashionable in certain parts of any town.

And now he has a new book, his seventh, The Garden at Stonefields, an inspirational account of the design and development of his latest house and rolling-country garden on 40ha in rural Denver, 80km northwest of Melbourne, stunningly captured in photos by Simon Griffiths.

“The garden and this book are all about my failures, my complexities, who I believe I should be and who I am not,” Bangay says. “Stonefields is a deeply personal garden.”

Drawing on the diaries he kept as the garden evolved, he writes in the book about ongoing issues with water, bush fires and the overhanging threat of mining in rural Australia.

By coincidence, the garden is located on or near a property that was once occupied by his great-great-grandmother. It is dramatic in form and embellished with deep flower borders, orchards and productive gardens, enclosed within Bangay’s characteristic hedgerows and plastered block work.

Front view of Stonefields, the house and garden.

The mixed hedge that surrounds the garden consists of half a dozen species that flower at different times. It curves around the edges and looks razor-sharp. It is an adventurous undertaking and I might have shied away from attempting to mix planting in a hedge like this for fear it would look wildly uneven. But on Stonefields’ large scale, it works beautifully, creating a marbled tapestry.

The hedge’s origins were pragmatic. Bangay was unable to get enough of any one hedge plant to do the whole expanse, so he was forced to try a different approach – and it works.

It is meticulously maintained and the cohesiveness of the form melds the different plant types together.

Because it’s his own garden, Stonefields has given Bangay licence to broaden his plant palette. He has experimented with drifty perennial borders blended with grasses that are popular in Europe and the US.

The results of his experiments give the book its edge. His musings reveal ingenious solutions to the various challenges he faced. For example, plastic drainpipes slipped over young trees kept the rabbits off the hedgerow as it became established. I like a designer who is prepared to let things look rough initially to achieve something better in the long run.

Bangay also gives good design advice, such as planting the front row of a perennial border back from the lawn or paving edge, even though it is hard to leave an unplanted strip of dirt in the foreground. The gap will be filled soon enough.

An aerial view of Stonefields.

He enjoys having a productive garden, and although he’s not much of a chef, he figures there is little need to be without fresh produce. The strong structure of his vegetable patch – providing easy wheelbarrow access to areas that produce frequent crops – makes it a beautiful feature of Stonefields.

Water is not abundant on the property, so Bangay is a big advocate of mulch. While establishing the garden, he spent every spare weekend mulching with layer upon layer to help reduce weeding and increase moisture retention, and also to protect the quality of the soil, which is improved by these upper layers.

I asked him about the process of creating his own gardens compared with the many he has made around the world, including several in New Zealand. It’s a task he has relished. The Denver site was chosen carefully. He was searching not just for vistas but for land with its own water source, essential for a garden on anything but the smallest scale.

The rose garden with wisteria-draped statue.

Stonefields’ strong form doesn’t blend into the landscape. The garden rooms include courtyards of topiary that repeat in grid-like patterns that greet visitors as they arrive at the house, which he also designed.

Although some Stonefields plantings wouldn’t work in the New Zealand climate, the plant palettes are more familiar than those found in Northern Hemisphere gardens. Those that look familiar, such as salvia, helenium, sedum and catmint, grow well here. In fact, his emphasis on water conservation could allow the design to be transplanted to some of our east coast areas where dry conditions are prevalent.

Bangay’s use of ligustrum (privet) wouldn’t sit well with Aucklanders, but local varieties can be substituted. In New Zealand, his designs have mostly been implemented in the South Island’s Queenstown Lakes region, and when here he works with local growers to ensure success.

The dedication and contemplation he has applied to the creation of Stonefields is what makes his new book so endearing. It is also a valuable resource for people intent on developing their own garden, regardless of its size.

The Garden at Stonefields, by Paul Bangay (Penguin Australia, $120).

Send your questions to: goodtogrow@xwd.co.nz