I used to think that making the move into your first non-share-house home was the ultimate sign of adulthood. I’ve realised, though, that a great garden is surely a more accurate sign of being properly ‘grown up’. After all, anyone can lease a nice house, but cultivating a happy and healthy garden is a much greater commitment, and often says a great deal about a person.
I’ve known Owen Harris for around 15 years, though I hadn’t seen him for a long time until recently. He’s a doctor, which is properly impressive. But it wasn’t until I recently visited his Fitzroy apartment, with its lovingly maintained balcony garden, that something dawned on me. ‘This is so grown up!’ I gushed, somewhat embarassingly. After all, Owen is in his early thirties, with a professional career, a lovely home and a much loved pet (Benjamin, a rescue dog). But it was the garden that conveyed something about Owen I hadn’t seen before.
Owen moved here in late 2013. He was attracted to the apartment, in part, because of its generous balcony, which wraps around the apartment on both the North and East sides, forming a lush backdrop visible from every room.
In the winter of 2014, around six months after moving in, Owen started work on the garden, with the assistance of local landscape designer Matt Dux of I Heart My Garden. ‘Matt was recommended by a friend of a friend, he had his own Fitzroy rooftop garden for seven years, so he knew what would work’ Owen says. ‘We had similar aesthetic and ideas about the textural element of the garden’.
Owen had a pretty good idea of the garden layout and how he wanted the space to function, but Matt’s experience with rooftop gardens in particular proved invaluable. ‘There were a lot of things I hadn’t considered – being a rooftop garden and not having soil, the substrate was a big thing’ Owen recalls. Matt put a lot of effort into prepping the pots and the soil, adding a special mesh in the bottom of each pot for drainage, and adding water retention additives to the soil.
Matt also helped Owen select the perfect plants which would do well in this windy, elevated spot. Key selections included the distinctive Cussonia spicata ‘Cabbage tree’ (the large tree with trunk in the corner of the balcony), and the Vitis coignetiae grapevine growing on wires above the lounge area. The only constraint in plant choice was the span of the lift doors!
The majority of the planting here took just over a week. A watering system went in first, then the pots (mostly lightweight), then all the soil was brought up in bags – taken up in the lift one by one. The largest plants all went in at once, though for many months afterwards Matt would pop past at random times with extra things he decided to add!
Amongst the lush foliage here, Owen has selected outdoor furniture from local manufacturer TAIT, creating a versatile space that is used daily. In the warmer months, the balcony really is an extension of the apartment, and carefully considered outdoor lighting means it is used both day and night. ‘The garden wraps around the whole place, so it forms a backdrop to the living space’ says Owen. ‘Because of the parapet I don’t get a lot of view, and I actually quite like that – it feels private and secluded.’
A great garden speaks volumes about its caretaker. There’s a level of nurturing and responsibility required, that’s a given. But a carefully planned and well maintained garden says more than just ‘I can keep plants alive’. There’s often something calm, assured and fundamentally at ease about people who value and take pride in a garden or outdoor space. To me, Owen’s beautiful garden says ‘I’m settled, I’m staying put for a while’.
Outdoor lounge area – furniture by TAIT. Grapevine (Vitis coignetiae) growing on wires above seating area. Ficus elastica ‘variegata’ (tree in far right corner), Creeping rosemary (Rosemarinus prostrata) in bottom left corner. Photo –Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
A rubber plant (Ficus elastica) nestled amongst Creeping rosemary (Rosemarinus prostrata). Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
A tall potted ‘Cabbage tree’ (Cussonia spicata) lends a sense of scale to the North East corner of the balcony. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
North East corner of the balcony. To the left, Ficus longifolia ‘Ali’, and in the far corner, Cussonia spicata (tall tree with trunk). Outdoor dining setting by TAIT. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
North side of balcony. Gymea Lily (Doryanthes excelsa) is planted along the North wall, with large strappy leaves. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
The rooftop garden of Owen Harris. Furniture by TAIT. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
Living room looking out to North part of balcony. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
Dining table detail. Ficus longifolia ‘Ali’ behind table. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.
Smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Grace’) with distinctive purple leaves. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.