This triumphant designer garden in the Adelaide Hills is the culmination of one landscaper’s steadfast vision in the face of adversity.
Jamie McIlwain couldn’t be happier. As the professional garden designer puts the finishing touches on his spectacular home garden at Aldgate, colourful eruptions of blooms are singing in symphony, as if celebrating the arrival of spring.
“It’s been extremely frustrating at times and I wasn’t sure who was going to win the battle: the garden or me,” says Jamie.
“It dragged on for more than 17 years with many unfinished projects and the garden looked like a rubbish tip for a long time. It’s only now that the method behind the madness can be seen.”
What gives Jamie the most joy is seeing his wife Sally and daughter Molly enjoying the garden with its extensive stone terraces, colourful perennials, and whimsical sculptures.
Molly is in her element exploring the garden’s various rooms, collecting eggs from the recycled jarrah chicken coop, harvesting fresh produce from the veggie patch, or enjoying wood-oven pizzas on a Sunday afternoon.
As Jamie surveys the final masterpiece ready for an Open Gardens weekend in November, he is reminded of countless weekends and holidays spent laying stone with calloused hands.
As the owner of Hills Classic Gardens, Jamie has built hundreds of gardens in Melbourne and Adelaide, while his own project has been simmering away in the background all the while.
Yet, as the balloons from Molly’s recent 18th birthday party still hover above the dining room table, Jamie explains that 18 years ago, his family’s dream Hills lifestyle looked highly unlikely to become reality.
When doctors delivered Molly into the world, a birthing complication saw her sent to the Flinders Private Hospital nursery and then transferred to the Flinders Medical Centre Neonatal Unit.
“She had a prolapsed cord which starved her of oxygen. It was just awful to see your newborn in a humidicrib with wires and cables all over her, and then into a great big machine to see if there was any damage to her brain,” says Jamie.
“I felt helpless; we were at the mercy of the doctors and good fortune. Our obstetrician and paediatrician were amazing, but you just had to stand back and hope for the best. It was the most awful experience.”
To make matters worse, while still in hospital as a visitor, Jamie suffered a spinal disc herniation that brought on excruciating pain and put the landscaper out of work for six months.
“While Molly was in intensive care in the neonatal unit, I became a patient. I came home in an ambulance and was on strong pain meds for months,” Jamie says.
“During that time, I began to reflect on things and it was the landscaping and gardening that drove me to get fit and healthy and rehabilitate my back.”
The stressful time continued up until Molly’s first birthday, when doctors could assure the first-time parents that she would have no lasting health problems.
“Luckily, we couldn’t have ordered a more perfect child. She’s friendly to everyone, kind, thoughtful, diligent and hard-working. She loves sport and has broken running records at her school. She’s a delight and we’re very fortunate to have her.”
Jamie’s incredible garden is his gift to his family and a testament to his personal drive. It is also a showpiece for his company, Hills Classic Gardens, with each section a showroom of different forms of gabion walls, terracing, stone, hedging and plantings – no two areas are the same.
“This is a beast of a garden. I’ve landscaped nursing homes so big that my guys had to be on walkie talkies, but this garden has been so heavily landscaped that it’s the biggest project I’ve done. Every stone I’ve picked by hand from the quarries and carted here,” he says.
“I designed the garden around the things that I like, but it was also about putting together a range of different elements that I could show to my clients. I can bring them here where they can walk around and see, touch, and understand it.
“My daughter loves photography and she’s often out there taking photos in the garden; it’s a lovely space to live in.”
It was back in 2005 that Jamie began the earthworks to completely re-shape the topography of the site and create useable terraced spaces. He brought in many hundreds of tonnes of soil, “really good stuff” from an old potato farm in Mount Barker.
The front garden features Basket Range stone with gabion walls, stone benches and railway sleepers while large drifts of buxus spheres and hedges are the backbone plantings for the free-flowing perennial garden. Gumball liquidambars form additional spheres that float above the garden while two standard crab apples create a symmetrical feature at the end of the garden path.
“The formal elements such as the walls and hedges provide order and cohesion for the free ranging plants. The structural entities allow all the other grasses and perennials in the garden to really sing,” says Jamie.
The tiered back garden is where the astounding scale of the project becomes clear. Tonnes of Wistow bluestone have been hand-lain into flowing curves, walls and steps. Bespoke sculptures are positioned throughout, while fragrant plantings are positioned at the entry and exit points of the various garden rooms.
“It’s mostly a perennial garden. You really feel the seasons in the Hills and it’s nice to see the plants wax and wane during the year. The garden is pretty in spring, but the flowering perennials really come into their own after Christmas and well into autumn; that’s the peak time for the garden,” Jamie says.
“I enjoy cooking, so at the back door I’ve planted herbs and not far beyond that is a productive zone. I’ve constructed different elements in the productive garden such as composting bays, a chook house and fruit trees espaliered in different ways. There’s nothing better than picking your own produce.”
Then there’s the wood-fired oven. Ask Jamie to build you one just like this and he will simply reply with, “Sorry, I’ve only got one of these in me”. The hand-built oven is embedded with a piece of stone reclaimed from a church: a Holy Hearth.
“I’ve built quite a few ovens and I’ve discovered a good ratio between thermal mass and insulation. This one is so well insulated that I can get it to 600 degrees and I have plants growing on top of the oven,” he says.
Jamie was inspired by Singapore’s Supertree Grove in commissioning two steel arbours that flank the garden path. Blacksmith-forged climbing roses with steel blooms are tangled into the arbour alongside the real thing: a climbing Pierre de Ronsard.
In liaison with council and at great personal expense, Jamie had dozens of radiata pine trees removed from the council verge that runs along the full length of his property. He then set about rehabilitating the soil that had been ruined by the pines.
“They’re horrible things. They’ve got an aggressive root run, drop needles everywhere and they’re quite combustive in a fire, so we were rapt to get them out,” he says.
“The soil was in bad condition; I’ve been treating it with pea straw, compost and fertilisers. I’ve since planted a cottage prairie garden which the neighbours enjoy driving past when it’s all in bloom.”
The result of Jamie’s labour is a true designer garden where each element fits carefully into the next, but it’s his deep love for the project that sets it apart. Although no gardener’s work is ever finished, Jamie hopes that opening his property to the public might provide a sense of conclusion to what has been both the most challenging and rewarding chapter of his life.
“I thought that maybe once we have people walking through the garden, I might sit back, breathe a sigh of relief and feel a sense of completion,” Jamie says.
“I still see jobs that need doing, but any gardener you ask would be in the same boat; it never really ends.”
This article first appeared in the October 2022 issue of SALIFE magazine.
Words: Ben Kelly
Image: Gabion Basket Range stone walls flank the entry to Wellswood Cottage, Peter Hoare