Fiona Brockhoff’s Sublime Garden Wonderland

Landscape designer Fiona Brockhoff’s Karkalla is one the great private gardens of Australia. Situated on two acres of undulating sand-dune on the southern end of the Mornington Peninsula it is, without a doubt, one of the most resolved and original gardens I’ve ever seen. I first saw images of it in a magazine in the early 2000s and I’ve been obsessed ever since. I made Mum clip the correas in her garden into balls, like Fiona. I potted up two casuarinas and clipped their shaggy mop-tops into spheres, like Fiona. I dreamt of making a garden that blurred the lines between cultivation and wilderness, like Fiona. It goes without saying that visiting Karkalla late last year, for the first time, was a dream come true.

Somehow I managed an invitation to stay for a few days, or more accurately, my accomplice, photographer Daniel Shipp, received the invitation and I happened to tag along. We’d spent the prior few weeks doing mad book launch events in Sydney and Melbourne and the promise of a few days at Karkalla was a golden-hued light at the end of the papery, bookish, tunnel.

I spent hours wandering the garden. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon. I can’t say I’ve ever spent time in a garden that feels as at home as Fiona’s. Vistas within the garden make sense, big views from the terrace to distant hills make sense, and the details – the plants, the curve of a path, the materials, all make perfect sense within the context of the wider environment and the design. Cultivated spaces bleed into the landscape when it feels right, and pockets are carved out when necessary. The house, the garden, the landscape, the humans (Fiona and her partner David Swann) seem to all be in alignment, in the best kind of way.

I sat down with Fiona to find out more about the making of Karkalla.

Can you please tell me about the garden? When did you buy the property, and when did you start working on the garden? I bought the land in 1993. We started building the house at the end of 1994, and it was finished towards the end of 1995. The garden was planted the next year, in 1996. It’s 22 years old.

I just thought, there’s got to be a better way to produce beautiful gardens than what I had experience of.

Fiona Brockhoff

What was it like when you got here? It’s tertiary sand dune, geologically speaking. It’s an old sea bed. That’s why we have limestone. The soil is really sandy. In some spots there was only around 100 mm of topsoil. There were quite a lot of weeds. There was a 50s shack, a driveway, and a tiny amount of clearing around the house. There was no fence. People had been using it as a cut through to the national park for a long time. I fenced it quite early. Not so much to keep people out, but to try and get rid of the rabbits, so I could start revegetating it and creating a garden.

So, you built the house, and then started work on the garden. You were a garden designer then, having studied horticulture at Burnley and running your own design business for around 8 years. I wonder, did you actually design the garden, or did it evolve organically? I ask, because as a designer I seem to be incapable of inflicting a design on my own home garden! I designed the structure of the garden when we designed the house – the walls, terracing, and the back courtyard. I had a vision for those areas. I’d studied Permaculture and knew about zoning. So, although my zone one wasn’t going to be next to the house, because of where the house was positioned, I designed it to be as near as possible, next to the chooks, which were already there. So, zone one and zone two – the areas nearest the house – I had ideas for, but I hadn’t really thought through the planting. I knew I wanted gravel terraces and that I would plant into them but I didn’t know what.

Were you into native plants at that point? Yes. I’d lived in Albury, in rural northern Victoria, and had a lot of experience planting indigenous flora. I’d done a lot of farm and alpine revegetation work, too. I think I was most interested in developing landscapes that were not resource hungry. Working with what you’ve got, planting to the given conditions, and using local materials where possible.

Was that approach inspired by your Permaculture learning? Yes, it was. And it was also inspired by living in the country. When you design gardens in the country you’ve got to be really conscious of resources. You can’t design something that isn’t, because people will look at you like you’re a fool, saying: ‘But that’s going to be an enormous amount of maintenance and we haven’t got that amount of water and we haven’t got that amount of money and we’re not going to buy sandstone from Western Australia.’

Designing gardens in the country sounds like this: ‘If there’s a quarry up the road, what’s the rock, can we use it? Can we use those timbers from that old bridge? You’ve got a massive amount of recycled bricks, let’s use them in the design’. The same approach applies to plants. What’s growing in the neighbouring paddocks, properties or around deserted farmhouses? What’s still thriving? You can learn so much from that.

I’ve brought all of that experience and knowledge with me to this garden. I learnt about gravel gardening from John Brooks in England, then there was Permaculture, then there was working in the country. I just thought, there’s got to be a better way to produce beautiful gardens than what I had experience of.

You created the garden with your partner David Swann, who constructs most of your design projects. How do you and David work together? We work together very well. It’s absolutely his garden, too. Whilst I designed it, he did, and still does most of the hard labour – he’s built everything in it. He does a lot of the maintenance. I often get most of the credit, but I never think of it just my garden, it’s ours.

What does resourceful look like at Karkalla? We collect our own water and we recycle our grey water into the orchard. We’re connected to town gas and power but we’re solar sufficient now and we sell back to the grid.

It’s really tough gardening here, because of the wind and the crappy, hydrophobic soil. That’s part of the reason we’ve got a composting toilet. When you’ve got nutrient poor soil and you want to grow an orchard and vegetables, chooks and composting toilets and things like that really work in your favour.

20 years ago, you would have been way ahead of the curve, but even now you still are! Over this time have you seen much change in the way people are gardening? Do you think people are becoming more resourceful and environmentally aware? I think so. And often, I see gardens that are a bit like ours. People say ‘oh, I reckon they’ve copied you’, and I say ‘well, isn’t that a good thing?’ I’m always thrilled to think that people are doing things in a more resourceful manner. If they are copying me, I find that great rather than offensive because you can keep inventing the wheel, can’t you? I mean, if you see your own planting design somewhere, well, you can just change it. And it’s always different anyway.

Fiona Brockhoff and David Swann in their Mornington Peninsula garden.

I’m making a garden in a beautiful wild area and found it very hard to start – I think because I was wanting it to feel very sensitive and connected, not an imposition on the landscape. Can you remember how you started thinking about this garden? We really wanted to connect the house landscape to the broader view. It’s about emulating colours, textures, and shapes so you feel like the view is part of your landscape yet it’s borrowed. As you move away from the house, the pruning becomes looser and more irregular. So, we might prune around the house twice a year and then in the middle ground one a year, and further out maybe just a bit of tip pruning now and again. The boundary is really disguised and blurred I guess.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from this garden? I think it’s been the manipulation of the local, coastal indigenous plants, how you can use them, what you can do with them. That’s been the most interesting part of it. I really love the way that I think I’ve created a real sense of place, like to me it just really feels like it belongs now.

The landscape surrounding Karkalla has inspired the design of the garden.

You strike me as quite an intuitive designer. Are you? With this garden, I guess I’ve gone back to what I intrinsically feel is right. Familiar anyway. I’ve put together plants from my childhood, which are the things which make me feel comfortable and connected and calm, mixed with the things that are local and that thrive.

I think I look at making gardens like making a painting. Once I’ve got the painting in my mind, I try and walk through it. So, I actually put the painting down on paper in plan form and then I walk around and visualize it from each spot. I think about mass and void, texture, pulling light out, bringing the eye in and using broad foliaged textures closer and finer textures further away, to increase the depth of an area.

You mentioned you’re going to turn David’s grapevines into a bee garden! Can you please share some of your ideas around environment, care and responsibility? I think that when you have the opportunity, it’s really great to be able to explain to people what can be done in the garden. It’s not just about local material and local plants, it’s about recycling in terms of your food scraps, it’s about growing your own food, it’s about teaching children where food comes from. And then, it’s trying to take this as far as you can in terms of collecting water, making solar electricity, planting for bees, habitat for birds, for local fauna.

I think that when you have the opportunity, it’s really great to be able to explain to people what can be done in the garden. It’s not just about local material and local plants, it’s about recycling in terms of your food scraps, it’s about growing your own food, it’s about teaching children where food comes from. And then, it’s trying to take this as far as you can in terms of collecting water, making solar electricity, planting for bees, habitat for birds, for local fauna. We all have a responsibility to do what we can.

Even though those things are all very functional approaches, they can be beautiful. Gardens should always be functional and beautiful.