My Tallawong garden retreat
For those seeking a more permanent tree change, gardening in the mountains is not just a therapeutic pastime, it’s a way of life.

I bought the Mount Irvine property Tallawong in 2001, and, as a young landscaper with more ideas than my clients could bear, I set out on a 30-year garden-making program.

Riot of colour
As a wedding gift to my wife, Sophia, I gave her a prime patch of ground in the sunshine to make a flower garden. I have undertaken not to interfere with her floral creation. She toils away and relishes every bloom, swapping Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ bulbs with local gardeners. Replanting is a pastime she shares with our entire mountain community.

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Tending to Sophia's flower garden is a calming task

Sophia’s special flower garden is a wild arrangement of Mexican sage, pride of Madeira, oak-leaved hydrangea, bigleaf hydrangea, lacecap hydrangea, oyster plant, Lord Howe wedding lily, Lenten rose and Japanese windflower. She is always pushing to colonise surrounding garden areas with her flourishing aesthetic.

Tallawong has been a great recipient of many salvaged plants from other projects. The feeling of saving a special specimen and giving it a new life in my garden – in this time of unfettered consumerism and wastage – is very satisfying.

Shaping the land
At Tallawong, I was motivated to create my own landform near the dam. It took numerous plasticine models to come up with the form.

Originally I wanted to create a double helix, but the idea was too grand for the space. I played with a spiral, but couldn’t calm it down so that it wouldn’t block the view of the water body from the house. So the landform morphed into the crescent shape it is today, cradling a circle.

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This landform was inspired by the Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries, Scotland

The sculptural nature of this type of landscaping creates an ephemeral piece of garden art. As you circle the base of the landform, or walk along it, your view and perspective constantly changes with your elevation. It’s a contemplative experience, a way of harnessing the restorative qualities of the mountains on a human scale.

I now view my process as sculpting the land in four dimensions. I don’t just carve out and shape the land. I plant growing things that create new spaces and opportunities all the time.

Original artworks
So many art projects are bubbling away in my mind, and a few have made it into reality – various sculptures now punctuate the nooks and crannies of the garden.

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The motion of these stationary birds is captivating

An interactive sculpture featuring rusty birds in various modes of flight has breathed new life into the daffodil meadow. Rearranging the birds is a fun afternoon activity after a boozy lunch. I have often speculated about the idea of having the entire flock take off across the landform.

Over the years, there have been so many ephemeral garden art projects that have come and gone, where the enjoyment of creation heightened the love of the finished item.

My son, Martin, and I had a great father-and-son bonding session making a bird feeder from found objects. A clumsy egg sculpture – inspired by Andy Goldsworthy’s artworks – is a fixed feature of the northern lawn court. Most people like it, yet I ponder how I can modify it to satisfy my artistic eye. To me it’s a bloated facsimile of the original.

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A pear sculpture hangs delicately from a pear tree 

The final process is to dress the spaces with furniture, hang hammocks and pod chairs, scatter cushions, light fires in braziers and pizza ovens and set the table for a long lunch under the pergola. It’s a natural response to the place and achieves my lifelong goal of luring people outdoors and closer to nature.

My garden laboratory
The unique opportunity to create a garden where I am the client cannot be overstated. My ideology that I make gardens for my clients which are filled with things that reflect their personality serves me well, and this time I can fill my garden with things that I like.

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The heat of the firepit and pizza oven make this the perfect place to lounge around on a winter's day

It’s been an immeasurable pleasure, and the idea that I am only halfway through this garden-making project is a life-affirming concept.

As I lounge in the hammock and allow ideas to simply float in and out, the tantalising prospect of what to do next is a constant delight.

This is an edited extract from The New Australian Garden by Michael Bates (Murdoch Books, RRP $59.99), available in all good bookstores now.

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