Secret Gardens: A Book by Matthew Cantwell

Words by
Lucy Munro
| April 13, 2018

Leading Sydney landscape designer and founding director of Secret Gardens design studio, Matthew Cantwell, can now add author to his list of accomplishments. Secret Gardens is a beautifully presented homage to some of Matt’s favourite garden and landscape design projects over the years, detailing his fascination with harmonising the context of the landscape with the architectural forms and function of the site. Accompanied by stunning images by Nicholas Watt, Secret Gardens is a visual feast for any garden lover. In celebration of its release, we’re sharing an excerpt from Matt as he writes about creating joy and a sense of home within the garden.

'Beach Escape'. Image by Nick Watt
'Waters Edge'. Image by Nick Watt
'Waters Edge'. Image by Nick Watt

Foreword from Secret Gardens by Matthew Cantwell
As our cities and lifestyles become more hectic, our outdoor areas and green spaces have become an essential part of our lifestyle, a key contributor to our wellbeing. For the traditionalist, the garden is a place to connect with Mother Nature, to get their hands dirty and wrestle with the seasons. For children, it is a place to play and explore. For others, it is a place to entertain, to spend time with family and friends. And some just like to sit, not particularly interested in working too hard in their garden, but content to be outdoors, enjoying some dappled shade, a hint of wind and lawn under their bare feet. Gardens make us feel good.

Creating gardens that spark joy in this way is the most rewarding part of our work at Secret Gardens, the reason why we do what we do.”

Cities around the world are defined not only by their architecture but by their green spaces and the way people interact with them. When I travel, I like to spend time in parks and gardens of each city, just to people watch and observe how they engage with these outdoor spaces, exercising, playing sport, having a picnic or simply as a means of getting from A to B. The people I find most fascinating are the ones that are wandering through, simply strolling along, in no particular hurry. They’re taking it all in, looking up into the trees, stopping to watch a bird or appreciate the plants. Some of these people are familiar with their surroundings, but others seem as though they have stumbled across this space. They are inquisitive, alert, almost cautious. They appear respectful, calm, present. Gardens have this effect on people, earthling them in the present moment. As garden designers, we’re inspired by these observations and by a belief in the fundamental human need to spend time outdoors. Whether we live on acreage, a standard block, in an inner-city terrace or an apartment, we require our outdoor areas to deliver a feeling of peacefulness.

'Waters Edge'. Image by Nick Watt
'Beach Escape'. Image by Nick Watt
'Waters Edge'. Image by Nick Watt

Residential garden design has developed considerably over the last 25 years our team at Secret Gardens has been creating gardens. Using the services of an architect for your house design is far more commonplace these days and any good architect recognises the important role that a landscape designer or architect can bring to their project. Clients now insist on the garden being an integral part of the design process.

Houses and gardens are now designed as one, each complementing the other, blurring the lines between inside and out. Our visual connection and physical access to the garden has become a priority.”

The outdoor room is as great as, or in many cases a greater priority than, the formal dining or lounge. There is an increased focus on plants and these have become more important to our clients, providing precious privacy, shade or simply a verdant outlook. Our obsession with food – from fine dining to home cooking – is enhanced by the realization that some of what we eat can be grown in our garden, regardless of where we live, even if just a pot of herbs.

Since the global financial crisis, we have noted some significant changes in the attitudes of our clients and their requirements. Pre-GFC, their plans were often short-term, as they intended to move within three to five years to a bigger, better house in a more exclusive street. Today, in contrast, most clients seem to have a minimum ten-year plan and, in many cases, no plans to move until the time comes to downsize. This presents some interesting but enjoyable challenges, designing a garden that can be adapted over time to meet the changing needs of the occupants. An essential characteristic of a garden designer though is patience, as it can take many years for good gardens to become great gardens. While we often install quite advanced trees and shrubs across our projects, only in time can they truly grow into the designated spot and provide that perfect screen from neighbours or offer equivalent shade from a tree planted years earlier. Only once the ‘bones’ of the garden have been established and matched the scale and proportion of homes today can the design be considered complete.


Secret Gardens by Matthew Cantwell with photography by Nick Watt is available at selected bookshops across the country, retailing at $59.95. Visit the website, instagram or facebook of Secret Gardens to find out more!

'Waters Edge'. Image by Nick Watt
Image by Nick Watt