Imagine a Balinese garden. We conjure an image of tropical paradise, lush and verdant, palms swaying, frangipani hosting a riotous bougainvillea, hibiscus and gingers, cordylines and pandanus, all combined to create an exciting backdrop to a pond of lotus and waterlilies and a couple of intriguingly mossy sculptures.
It’s beautiful, it’s alluring, but the fact is it doesn’t have much to do with the original gardens of Bali at all. Instead, it’s an invention. A creation by former Australian architecture student Michael White, now known as Made Wijaya, eminent designer of tropical gardens and the creator some of our favorite images of luxury.
True Balinese gardens are spare creations: packed earth floors, a central tree and some plants for ritual purposes. As Wijaya, who describes himself as a “redhead from Bondi”, points out: “People who live in the tropics are less enamored of leafy fecundity – they’re aware of all the insects and the fungus that go with it, and they’ve spent thousands of years hacking the ficus out of the gutters.”
But when he designed the gardens of the Bali Hyatt in Sanur in 1980, he gave Westerners the tropical paradise of their fantasies – lush, fragrant, dramatic and multi-layered. The style took off, evolving as he pushed more of the English arts and crafts style into his gardens.
Bali , he says, is the place where developers have experimented with new definitions of luxury, and the resulting gardens, pools and pavilions have provided some of the most alluring images of modern tourism. What we bring home from a visit to one of these palaces is the desire to create our own subtropical paradise.
In Bali, it’s a high-maintenance option (there are 50 gardeners on staff at the Bali Hyatt continuously attacking rampant growth with machetes), but in Sydney the pace is a little slower. Our outdoor spaces are perfectly suited to the small courtyard style Wijaya is now focusing on, and we love the outside-inside lifestyle of the tropics.
“If your room is wall-less pavilion,” Wijaya says, “the garden becomes your interior decoration. And that’s the true tropical lifestyle. As Dame Edna once said, it’s the plants in the house and the furniture in the garden.”
First step in creating your Bali-style courtyard or small garden is “to hide the uglies,” he says. “Hide the view of the air-conditioner compressor, hide the neighbors. Make the wall a nice backdrop, add a statue and make a little vignette out of it. The courtyard wall is the backdrop of the picture you‘re creating. At right, you can backlight a statue and get wonderful shadows, vines streaming off the wall…”
And them you need a single big idea: “A tree in the middle, a largish water feature, a big pot, or an outdoor seating area, he says. The plants come last, dressing the bare bones of your set.
Wijaya doesn’t go for anything rare or hard to grow – whatever works well in your area is the best choice.
The impact comes not from individual plants but from how well you’ve harmonized your whole picture. Get it right and every day is a holiday in paradise.
Made Wijaya’s new book, Tropical Garden Design, is published by Thames & Hudson, $79.95.
Experiment with the techniques used by Made Wijaya:
- Grow a white thunbergia over a pergola so that flowers hang down like a stage curtain to frame your view.
- Train a bougainvillea up an old frangipani, keeping it well controlled so that it doesn’t engulf the sculptural lines of the frangipani.
- Use Matisse-like cut-out shapes of ground covers to make swiris of color.
- Use alocasias and colocasias wherever you need a big lush leaf.
- Match the density of your pond plants to the density of the planting beyond the pool.
- Try a “coral garden” effect of agaves and cord lines bursting out of a dense groundcover.
- Avoid a “too green” look by adding variegated plants in cream and yellow, which adds light to the garden.
- If you are going to add lish to your new tropical water fature let the water clear and gives the plants a few weeks to establish themselves first.
- A few lumps of charcoal will help kemp water in small containers fresh.
- To propagate irises, lift and divide the clumps of lubers. Discard the middle luber even if it is the biggest as it won’t flower again.
- To combat pesky snails in your luscious tropical garden leave out saucers of beer. It’s poisonous to snalls but they still find it delicious. Gritty sawdust sprinkled around the base of plants will also deter snails.