Fiona Brockhoff’s Seaside Rebellion

“You’re one of my design heroes,” I splutter awkwardly on Fiona Brockhoff’s front step. “I remember the first time I saw images of your Mornington Peninsula garden – I was completely blown away.” Fiona takes my confession of adoration very gracefully, and I feel like a dork. I’ve spent the morning with one of my garden idols, her lying on the couch with a bandaged knee, and me playing it cool. Until we get to the goodbyes anyway.

Landscape designer Fiona Brockhoff in her Melbourne garden

Fiona is an incredibly talented landscape designer. Her work is not shiny and attention seeking; but considered, grounded and surprising. She’s best known for her own garden, situated on a windswept sand-dune at Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula. It’s been profiled all over the world and is widely considered an iconic contemporary Australian garden.

The seeds for the garden, and Fiona’s design philosophy, may have been sown in Fiona’s last year of studying a Bachelor of Applied Science (Amenity Horticulture) at Burnley College in 1987. She’d undertaken a dissertation on the restoration of an Edna Walling garden and through it learned of Walling’s developing interest in native plants towards the end of her life.

I’d always been fascinated by Australian plants and native landscapes through my time spent bushwalking and cross country skiing – after studying Edna Walling my interest in using native plants in a garden setting grew,” she says.

“I then started looking at why Australian native gardens hadn’t been successful in the past.” Fiona reckons people just plonked native plants in and walked away, thinking (wrongly) that they didn’t need any maintenance. “20 years later and there are all these disasters happening! Native plants need to be managed like any other other,” she says.

Fiona then began experimenting with the capabilities of native plants, first in her Albury garden in the late 1980s, and then in her coastal garden at Sorrento. She clipped, pruned, and shaped her own path towards a style of garden making that best suited her ideas and aesthetic. “I threw all caution to the wind,” she says.

I knew the sort of garden I wanted to have and be able to give other people, so I just started experimenting to see what would happen.”

This sense of experimentation and unconstrained thinking is something Fiona’s been familiar with from an early age. She tells me of a childhood spent in the garden – pulling plants apart, weaving flax and making mud pies. Attending a progressive school and having a very free thinking mother meant that for Fiona there were no absolutes. “Things can be any way you want them to be,” Fiona says.

Take this ethos, combine it with a brilliant eye for design and a deep sensitivity to place and materiality, and you get something pretty special. Like Fiona and her partner David Swann’s Sorrento garden, and their newer garden – a smaller, leafier one in the Melbourne suburb of Toorak. The design was built by David, a former civil engineer and talented craftsman who for the last 20 years has worked alongside Fiona, exclusively constructing her design projects.

“I call this garden the Seaside Rebellion,” Fiona tells me. “Its got all the things I can’t grow on the coast – plants with big leaves that would get ripped apart, plants with seasonal colour, and more. It’s not particularly flowery, but the variations in leaves gives it a lot of expression.”

Again, it’s a horticultural laboratory for Fiona; “I like mixing things up, changing things around, and finding out how plants grow in different circumstances,” she says. “People expect a lot out of their gardens in the city, which means that sometimes its hard to keep city gardens feeling cohesive.”

Plants make spaces feel more cohesive, so as a designer you really need to be confident about the plants you specify for different situations. You need to actually see it grow well in the same situation.”

Fiona’s city garden is quite a bit smaller than her country one, but (as expected) it packs a punch. It consists of three spaces – a gravel entry courtyard – complete with a 1950s concrete bird statue and garden bench made of sticks, a leafy side passageway and a rear courtyard. A raised concrete tank/swimming pool sits to one side of the garden, and a graphic timber screen on the garage provides a bold backdrop to the simple space. The house façade and windows drip with Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), making the rear lounge room (and its olive green carpet) feel very much like living on the forest floor!

It’s the combination of creativity, experimentation and honesty that draws me to Fiona’s work. The spaces she creates sit strongly grounded within their surrounds, not relying on ego to make themselves seen or heard. The materials she uses are predominately local and raw, and are used in a no-fuss yet elegant way. And then there’s the plants – again, they’re simple yet interesting. As a designer it’s very easy to continue to use the same plants over and over again in different projects, but this approach certainly doesn’t roll with Fiona; “I tell Nicky, who works with me, to shoot me at close range if I ever fall back on using liriope or mondo grass!” Fiona says. “It’s important to always keep things fresh, to always be developing new plant combinations.”

I suspect Fiona Brockhoff will be developing new ideas, new ways of seeing and doing and pruning and shaping, for many years ahead. It’s clear she loves the diversity and creativity of designing gardens – “Every brief is different, every garden is different, and I want to give people gardens they love and connect to” – and it’s also clear she’s particularly good at.

All good reasons for me to get all dorky and fan-girl like on her doorstep. Right?

This story was produced with support from The Australian Garden History Society (AGHS), of which Fiona Brockhoff is a member. AGHS is committed to promoting awareness and conservation of significant cultural landscapes through engagement, research, advocacy and activities. Please check out their website for more information on who they are, what they do, and why they’re a great bunch of people.

Also, if you want to get access to the best gardens, Australias most interesting garden thinkers, and support an organisation focused on protecting and celebrating Australia’s cultural landscapes, perhaps you should consider joining AGHS?