Down the garden path
He’s become one of Australia’s most celebrated landscape gardeners, and one of Burnley’s most famous graduates. So what drives Paul Bangay?
BY MURIEL REDDY
Paul Bangay steps back in time as he visits the fabled gardens at Burnley. For several exquisite minutes, he is that young, precociously talented student who spent hours working in the gardens, eating under the giant oak tree, and studying horticulture in the art deco buildings. The unfolding of old memories makes him smile.
In the 30 years since those days of promise at Burnley, Bangay (BAppSc(Hort) 1985) has grown into one of the most celebrated landscape gardeners of his era, the designer of choice for a who’s who of Australia and beyond. He carries his fame lightly but unpacking the memories has made him reflective, even a little wistful.
In so many ways, his has been a most fortunate life. He probably got the gardening bug from his mother, Annette. She was forever reworking the family garden in suburban Vermont while her eldest son was exploring the even bigger possibilities in a plot next door. It may have been run down but to Bangay’s creative eyes, it was magical.
“I think I always dreamed big and it was probably because of that plot,” he recalls. “The garden was huge and it had a big orchard, big paddocks and a big lake. Everything was big and I think that’s where I got my sense of scale from.”
He devoured books on gardening, inspired by the works of Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Edward Lutyens, which he borrowed from the local library.
“They ignited a huge passion in me,” he remembers. “I’m sure if I grew up with native Australian plant books, it might have been a different story. But I grew up with these books and looked at those images and just dreamt of them all the time.”
In time, he would go on to write his own books – The Enchanted Garden and Paul Bangay’s Guide to Plants, to name just a couple – and to design bold and beautiful gardens. But in the beginning there was just the dream and the determination to do justice to his gift.
He enrolled at Burnley at the insistence of his father, Robert, an academic who put a premium on education. And he loved it. These were the golden days of John Patrick and James Hitchmough, two Englishmen who would themselves become stars of the horticultural world, and were then teaching at Burnley.
They put the students to work in the garden.
“It was probably slave labour, but that’s why the gardens looked so good back then,” says Bangay. “You gained so much experience. They were really big on plant identification and plant knowledge. You had to learn 20 plant names a week so you came out with a great depth of plant knowledge.”
His passion gave him momentum. He began working for the society florist Kevin O’Neill, both at his shop in Toorak Road and in the gardens at his Mount Macedon property. On a trip to England, Bangay met David Hicks, arguably the greatest garden designer of the 20th century who, like O’Neill, would become a friend and mentor. “I looked at this garden and it was so masculine and strong and stylish. And that blew me away,” he says.
Bangay’s career began in a small nursery that he opened in Hawksburn village. Call it naivety or nonchalance, but he had neither a business plan nor a care. “You just thought of things and made them happen. Now it’s so hard to make things happen but back then it just seemed a lot easier. I think that’s youth, don’t you?”
People would pop into the nursery and ask him to design their gardens. “And I would work out how that would be built and put it in. Now there’s about 50 of them going at one time. I always dream about going back to that original place where you just have to worry about that one garden. And I dream about that because I just think that would be beautiful.”
Bangay’s style has evolved subtly yet significantly over the years. Where his gardens were once very formal, very green and very clipped, they are now softer. “I think that’s probably just old age,” he quips. In truth, his styles are adapted to the different climates and scales he works within.
In the early days, he was obsessed with formality and the green colour palette. Time and experience have broadened his horizons. “I like it softer now, more organic. I’m still the same in terms of symmetry and balance but generally it’s a lot softer. My plant repertoire is a lot broader and includes a lot more flowers and a lot more colours.”
He’s excited by the richness of his colour palette, the sumptuousness of the oranges, the reds, the yellows and burgundy. “Everyone used to be so safe about colour but now it’s hot, hot, hot!”
While his designs suit the Australian climate and spirit, he prefers to characterise them as international. He works only with plants that are hardy. “When I first started off, everyone wanted an English-style garden with English flowers. Through necessity that has toughened up and that’s down to our changing climate. In Melbourne we always had lots of water up until the ’80s and every one used to just water the hell out of gardens.
“Then we had a few droughts and that scared the hell out of people.It has got hotter and drier. A lot of plants are not coping. When I started off, we planted a lot of silver birch and rhododendrons but we can’t plant them any more.”
Climate has not been his only frustration. He rails against what he sees as the proliferation of council regulations. But he’s keenly aware of how fortunate he has been professionally. “I’m blessed that I get really good clients with big budgets. I’m really blessed because that gives you a lot of freedom. I would find it very hard to have my wings clipped by an inadequate budget so in that respect, I’m very lucky.”
But he’s also a worrier. He worries about running a business, about his employees and about the myriad projects he has on the go at any one time. He’s a fitful sleeper who harnesses his own nervous energy. Time and experience have lifted his sense of who he is.
“When I first started off, I was really influenced by European gardens …As you become confident and settle into your own self and your own style, you don’t rely on them any more. You don’t look at gardens over there and go, we need to copy that detail or do that. Now it comes naturally to you because you have become comfortable with yourself.
“The confidence of working for a long time naturally makes your style evolve. And it has softened, definitely softened.”
Time has left its mark on Burnley, too. To his eye, the gardens aren’t quite as pristine as he remembers them. “But they’re still beautiful. They’re magnificent.”
BURNLEY: A POTTED HISTORY
And while the 13-hectare campus in Richmond – about seven kilometres from the heart of Melbourne – may have its roots in the 19th century, it’s also proving to be a trailblazer of the 21st. It is now recognised internationally for its growing profile in green infrastructure research and development.
“In terms of world standing in higher and further education, you need research to define who you are,” says John Rayner, a senior lecturer in urban horticulture. “Much like in medicine and architecture, horticulture needs a vibrant research culture to underpin it.
“A good university is built around disciplines and the strength of those disciplines is set against a good research background.”
This research culture is one of the significant developments of the past few decades. And while it may have an eye on the future, Burnley is keenly aware of its rich history. It has a roll of alumni that includes the great Edna Walling, Olive Mellor, Phillip Johnson (BAppSc(Hort) 1997), Andrew Laidlaw (DipAppSci(Hort) 1981) and Fiona Brockhoff (BAppSc(Hort) 1987, Ormond College).
Its course offering has expanded over the years and student numbers have swelled, thanks in part to the burgeoning profiles of its alumni and the rise of gardeners to celebrity status in recent times. It now offers undergraduate, graduate and short-course study options.
Burnley’s history stretches back to 1861 when the Horticulture Society of Victoria established experimental gardens to introduce new plants to the colonies and to promote both botanical and horticultural science. The society was given the land on the proviso that at least a section of it would be open to the public.
In an Australian first, the Royal Horticultural School was opened in 1891. One of its renowned principals was Charles Bogue Luffman, an English landscape designer who in 1897 decided to admit female students to the school, making it one of the first Australian institutions to do so.
He also gave the gardens a dramatic makeover, adding ponds, sunken paths that wound through shrubberies and open areas planted with wildflowers. Many of the deciduous trees and shrubs found there today date back to his time. The site was added to the Heritage Register of Victoria in 2003.
In 1997, the campus became part of the University of Melbourne’s Institute of Land and Food Resources. In 2014 it was incorporated into the School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences in the Faculty of Science.