The Accidental Gardener

Words by
Neha Kale
Images by
Georgina Reid
| November 9, 2013

Wendy Whiteley has a soft spot for weeds. When the former artist and accidental gardener started clearing a pocket of wasteland alongside a North Sydney rail-yard, those rebellious shoots served as proof that beauty often springs from the most unsightly origins.

“I lived in this house in Lavender Bay for over forty years and the front yard was always this big, amorphous lump,” she laughs. “But I knew there was something going on underneath all those weeds. We managed to uproot most of them, along with the rubbish. We just developed the site by discovery. It was difficult to make a plan.”

This sense of discovery has proven to be a surprisingly acute yardstick. Whiteley may have started work on the site over twenty years ago, following the death of her husband Brett Whiteley in a squalid hotel room, but the garden  – a jungle of natives and exotics – has become a lesson in renewal as much as it is a monument to loss.

Whiteley, herself, is floored by this. “Spring is always gorgeous. Everything is flowering for the third or fourth time this year, even though we’ve had droughts in the past,” she says.

If you’ve wondered what abundance feels like, Whiteley’s garden has the answers. Moreton Bay figs lurch over glittering vistas of the harbour, branches dripping with dark-green rain. Lavender fronds hula hoop with heart-shaped leaves and orange blossoms choose palm trees as their base. It’s a jumble of unlikely collisions and unexpected connections, unsure of what shape it’ll take next.

But if you ask Whiteley about her favourite place in her garden, it’s an answer she’s always reluctant to reveal. “Since I started, it’s deepened, broadened and gone upwards. It’s much bigger than I thought it would be.”