Designer Profile: Peter Shaw

Landscape designer and creative director of Ocean Road Landscaping, Peter Shaw, is a man who believes in working (and walking) gently and observantly with the other-than-human world. His life and business are situated on the surf coast of Victoria and it is this immersive and wild landscape that informs his design sensibility.

Peter is one of the quiet achievers of the Australian landscape design world, though his work speaks clearly for itself. Peter and his team make gardens that belong. This sounds simple, but it’s not. It’s an art, requiring deep sensitivity, restraint and attention. We caught up with Peter recently to find out more about his design practice and his life with plants. Our conversation rambled from gardens and belonging to the virtues of Correa alba, via the late poet Mary Oliver.

Peter Shaw, landscape designer and creative director of Ocean Road Landscaping. Photo: Simone Shaw

Hi Peter, can you please tell us about your design firm, Ocean Road Landscaping?

Ocean Road Landscaping is an award-winning business specialising in the design, building and care of gardens based in Anglesea. My wife Simone, and I, founded the business in 1995. Over time, we’ve gathered a team of like-minded people around us. Our work, I feel, illustrates a considered approach to designing and constructing gardens that complement their local environment along the Great Ocean Road, Geelong and the Surf Coast of Victoria.

What initially drew you to landscape design? How has your practice evolved over the years?

I had always loved the natural environment and felt most at home when I was out in this space. I was drawn to gardening and horticulture from a young age.

Working on a few projects with landscape architects Jim Sinatra and Phin Murphy early on in my career opened my eyes to the length of time it takes for a garden to evolve. I realised it’s best to let everything happen naturally, in an organic way.

In a way, the shift in my practice has been a circle for me. Initially, our work found its momentum in natural landscapes. I felt a little bound by this and thought we needed to expand our vision, to keep up. Now, I have fully returned to balancing good design that is achievable, practical and joyful with creating gardens that sit well wherever they’re located.

Bells Beach garden by Ocean Road Landscaping. Photo: Harley Tribe
Bells Beach garden by Ocean Road Landscaping. Photo: Will Salter

Do you have a design philosophy?

A garden needs to belong and respond to the bigger picture- urban, wild or rural.  It doesn’t need to mimic nature, but it needs to belong. Every garden needs an anchor, one big thing that draws you in. And most gardens will benefit from a twist, a slight quirkiness that can be suddenly or subtly introduced. It might be the way the letterbox is worked or the sculptured trees or shrubs.

How big of an influence does sustainability (biodiversity, origin of materials, water use etcetera) play in your design process? Has this changed from when you first began in the industry?

For me, these values have been foundational right from the start. They have grown stronger, though.  The key things we try to do is remove weeds and replant with local plants and design low-water-use or no-water-use gardens.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to somebody who dreams of beginning a career in landscape design?

See the work as what you can offer to it, in your own unique and personal way. Think big, start small. Turn up to work every day and work with what you have, even if it’s not much, and don’t get to far ahead of yourself.  Get involved in the work and the people, go to conferences and events and see the world for what it offers you, not what it wants to take from you.

Bells Beach garden by Ocean Road Landscaping. Photo: Will Salter

Can you please tell us a little more about the Bells Beach project, pictured here?

This garden is a credit to its owners, natural gardeners who have poured much love and work into their landscape over two decades and continue to do so.

When they moved in, the garden was full of perennials and heritage roses mixed with natives and succulents. There was a certain appeal to the landscape, although it had become unsustainable in this location. With a passion for the environment, the owners knew they needed to take the garden in a different direction, connecting to the broader landcape; drawing it in rather than pushing it away.

Gradually, the planting in the garden moved to indigenous species and robust natives. The new plantings afford a more sustainable future, less turnover and a generous, full landscape thick with colour and texture. This garden is an excellent example of working with what you have and the conditions at hand. 

The owner’s perspective on watering is “if this plant doesn’t survive on its own, it shouldn’t be here”. This philosophy is the backbone behind the garden’s transformation.

Our firm has had involvement at different stages during their custodianship. More recently, our team helped simplify the garden layout and plant selection, helping make it more manageable as time moves on. This work and some help with garden care have allowed them to continue to enjoy and love the landscape that surrounds them.

What are three things all gardens should have?

  1. A personal touch, saying this garden belongs to its owners and this garden is a window into their lives.
  2. A sense of belonging to the landscape it is a part of, a balance and harmony with its surroundings.
  3. A sense of wonder and excitement – what is around that corner or where does that path go, or what is that bright thing I can see hidden in the trees down there.

What is one lesson you have learnt from the natural world?

It’s a challenge to keep it at one! You cannot do better than Mother Nature; she is teacher and inspirer, not something to overcome. I love coming across a natural landscape and getting the sense that it belongs despite my presence. It existed before I arrived, it’s all under control, without any human input. The birds darting and singing in the trees, the kangaroos bounding about, and the ant digging in the ground were all at work before I arrived and will continue once I leave. This teaches me to remain at peace with the fact that I am small in the scheme of things, that I have my place in the natural world, but that I shouldn’t assume to know too much. 

This idea is articulated in the poem, Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver.

Bells Beach garden by Ocean Road Landscaping. Photo: Harley Tribe

What other landscape architects/artists/creatives do you admire?

Jim Sinatra, for the way he thinks outside the square. Bernard Trainor for his bold yet simple style. Sam Cox for his grounded ideals. Kate Seddon for her commitment to the true work of design. Fiona Brockhoff for what she does with plants. And finally, the three talented architects and designers who work in our creative office – Alex Cherry, Carolyn Hall and Harley Tribe. Their capacity and approach makes them a gift to work with.

There are many, many more.  I love meeting creative people who do their work in ways that go unnoticed by the internet and social media.

When you’re looking for inspiration for a new project, where do you go?

I try to slow down and check in on what might be with me already that I haven’t noticed yet. The bigger landscape picture helps to gain perspective, in other words, where does this garden sit within the natural world, and then the neighbourhood, what is the local landscape like? I also love going to other gardens, open gardens and the Australian Garden in Cranbourne. 

Bells Beach garden by Ocean Road Landscaping. Photo: Harley Tribe
Bells Beach garden by Ocean Road Landscaping. Photo: Will Salter

Do you have a collection of tried and true garden plants?

We have a saying in our office, something like ‘let’s work with the usual suspects.’ This means our staple diet of reliable plants that do a good job in our area. It includes correas, lomandras, sea box, westringias, and about 10 other species.  

I like grasses, and in my own garden I have many. I also have too many westringias – they perform so well under the gums, and respond well to shaping. How you work with plants is just as important as what plants are used.

If I had to pick one staple, it would be Correa alba, it’s tough, versatile and grows wild on my doorstep.

Peter Shaw is the owner and creative director of Ocean Road Landscaping. His first book, Soulscape: Connecting Gardens to Place, will be released in September 2021. INSTAGRAM / WEBSITE

Bells Beach garden by Ocean Road Landscaping. Photo: Will Salter
Bells Beach garden by Ocean Road Landscaping. Photo: Will Salter
Bells Beach garden by Ocean Road Landscaping. Photo: Harley Tribe