Before & After: an Incredible Cottage Garden Makeover

June 02, 2017
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See this incredible garden makeover
Photo credit: Gardens of the Sun, original photo on Houzz

When a couple bought this lovely Victorian cottage to restore in the North Carlton suburb of Melbourne, Australia, they envisioned a landscape design that not only reflected the original character of the house, but also complemented the contemporary addition they planned for the rear of the property.

The owners work from home and love to spend time in the garden. They especially like to grow vegetables, as this has always been part of their family life. To continue the tradition, they put a large vegetable garden at the top of their wish list for a low-maintenance yard. They also wanted the front yard to feature flowers that they could pick year-round for display indoors. Through word of mouth, they found Alistair Ripper of Gardens of the Sun.

Garden at a Glance

Location: North Carlton, Victoria, Australia
Size: 1,076 square feet (100 square meters) of turf, 753 square feet (70 square meters) of paving and 1,615 square feet (150 square meters) of gardens
Designer: Alistair Ripper of Gardens of the Sun

The garden design of this Victorian responds to the house’s original character in a formal way, with symmetry and materials that echo the home’s past, including bluestone paving and edging as well as wooden rose arbors. The new front fence of cast-iron pickets sits on a bluestone block base, also reflecting the era of the cottage.

The boundaries have been planted with upright ornamental pears (Pyrus calleryana ‘Capital’) to provide privacy. The owners “initially wanted evergreen screens, but we were able to negotiate them toward deciduous trees,” Ripper says. “In some circumstances, evergreen hedges are the right choice. However, on most sites, they tend to take up too much light and to make the garden appear smaller.

“I favor deciduous trees for their qualities of autumn color, spring flowers and the sculptural beauty of their winter branches — something often overlooked,” he adds.

In the early stages of the project, Ripper spent several hours listening to the couples’ needs. The design went through a number of drafts so that the owners could provide feedback. Ripper then proposed several solutions to the design challenges, eventually defining one that was practical for the site and met the Frews’ expectations. “I like that this garden is the result of a cooperation with maximum input from the client,” Ripper says. “After all, they live in it every day.”

Additionally, the owners were willing to try new things, such as placing a pair of custom-made rose arbors in the front and using bluestone blocks to build a retaining wall in the back.

The plantings in the twin square beds create a cottage garden feel and, Ripper says, were inspired by the landscape designs of Dutch designer Piet Oudolf.

Photo credit: Gardens of the Sun, original photo on Houzz

BEFORE: The property was run-down and covered with ramshackle outbuildings, including a backyard stable that was demolished. The driveway and carport that dominated the front yard were removed, and the owners decided to create rear access for a brick two-car garage, seen here. This freed up the front garden for landscaping, with only pedestrian access.

The heavy clay soils of North Carlton posed a significant issue for long-term plant performance and drainage on the site. “As always when working on a site directly after the builder has completed, there is rubbish throughout the landscape areas and compaction to deal with,” Ripper says. “We used a [2.2-ton] excavator to re-level the site and cultivate the garden areas. The excavator also dug drainage trenches.

“As the site has dense clay substrate, drainage was an important consideration,” the landscape designer says. “We addressed this issue by raising the garden beds, ameliorating the soils with gypsum and adding bulk with a premium blend of topsoil.”

Photo credit: Gardens of the Sun, original photo on Houzz

AFTER: Looking toward the backyard, one can see the rejuvenation 1½ years since the garden was established. After pruning, soil improvement and fertilizing, the existing walnut tree (Juglans regia) is thriving again, Ripper says. Passionfruit vines climb over the garage’s brick walls; the warmth retained by the brick helps the vines grow and the fruit ripen.

For the retaining walls, Ripper used the large bluestone foundation blocks from the old stable. Each of the stones weighed more than 300 pounds, and was shaped by hand and moved into place by machinery.

Ripper and his team designed and built the pyramidal rose arbors as eye-catching features.

For their family and friends, the homeowners enjoy making jams and preserves, such as rhubarb chutney and Richard’s pickled young walnuts for sandwiches. These delicacies require fresh herbs, so the vegetable garden is stocked with a variety, including thyme, rosemary, lemon grass, oregano and basil, all growing in full sun. Taking up about a third of the rear garden area, the vegetable garden was positioned to receive natural sunlight all day.

The owners, however, needed more herbs than the garden could accommodate. “Due to limited space, we used steppingstone pavers for the paths and planted herbs in the gaps between the pavers,” Ripper says. “We maximized the space and added the benefit of fragrant walkways. Plus, when flowering, the creeping thymes form colorful carpets, which are wonderfully ornamental.”

The vegetables were planted by the owners and include tomatoes, salad greens, carrots, beets, eggplants, zucchini, squashes, beans and peas for the summer. In winter, they grow broccoli, cauliflowers and salad greens. The rear garden also features an orchard with oranges, mandarins, lemons, limes, figs, nectarines, quinces and apricots.

The mix of plantings for the garden is based on what might have graced Victorian gardens in the 1800s. The owners “showed me a historical photograph of the house that indicated the property was planted with roses and flowering herbs. It also showed a central path in the front garden,” Ripper says. Influenced by this image, he designed a cottage-style garden full of color, texture and tangled plantings.

The main color scheme for the cottage garden is pink, blue and white, though purple and pink dominate in the square beds.

Ripper says he always tries to select plants for his clients’ gardens based on the following characteristics: that they are sustainable over a long period, drought-tolerant and low-maintenance. Other important considerations are the microclimates he finds on the site, soil type, drainage, influence of built structures (the house and outbuildings), shadows, temperatures, rain, and exposure to sun and wind.

Finally, Ripper says the garden needs only two maintenance visits a year — involving pruning, lawn care and fertilizing — to keep it in good condition.

"An Edible Cottage Garden With a Pleasing Symmetry" by Bettina Deda originally appeared on, a platform that connects you with landscape design inspiration and ideas for farming your front yard. Photo credit: Gardens of the Sun, original photo on Houzz

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