The storms of April, 2015, were not good to Cooks Hill residents Kathryn Mears and her partner Peter Hislop. The two have owned their terrace on Laman Street for 18 years, so when the harsh weather claimed their trees and damaged their beloved courtyard, they took the opportunity to rebuild it better than ever.
“The west-side wall fell down into our neighbours’ courtyard, and we lost our trees which broke our hearts,” Mears says.
“The eastside wall was very unstable. My main aim was to save the east wall.”
After the storm she was devastated. She had only the skinks and one little bottlebrush left alive.
It wasn’t just the storm that had negatively impacted the trees in her courtyard and on her street. The removal of the iconic fig trees in 2012 had also affected the birdlife and her morale. She says after the figs had gone, Laman Street felt harsh and bare.
Fast forward to now, and much has changed. She’s created so much within the modest 3.4-metre x 9-metre courtyard, which she calls “the most-used room in the house.” In the last 18 months she’s worked with several creative visionaries, and together they’ve created an edible and vertical garden with thriving native plants, all living in structures made from organic and recycled materials.
Because Kathryn and Peter split their time between Canberra and Newcastle, it was important that what they built was easy to maintain. (When they are away they rent their home on Airbnb. Many guests enjoy the courtyard.)
Her courtyard has a table and chairs that fit six people and an outdoor shower for rinsing off after the beach. The shower also waters the plants around it.
Mears says when somebody showers outside it smells amazing to them because they’re showering in herbs.
She kept all the original pavers to remind her of the old courtyard before the storms.
“(Now) even our neighbours love the tree and the birds, we even have an owl that visits the tree at night. The biggest maintenance is sweeping the courtyard,” she says.
She can’t speak highly enough about her hired help. Builder Ed Kopandy used a special type of steel rodding to successfully revive her east wall. Mark Tisdell of local landscaping design company Mud helped plan the new courtyard’s creation. Lachlan Storrie of Tree Frog Permaculture sourced and planted everything. Anthony Ferguson from Green on Green Designs and his team physically built the garden and irrigation system.
“I was inspired by Mark’s Darby Street Communal Garden. I used to go there to collect the herbs to cook with. I rang him and asked him ‘where do I start with my courtyard’. I told him I wanted it to be bird and insect friendly,” Mears says.
Tisdell likes the fact that every plant in her garden is edible and is proud that the project was constructed by using almost entirely recycled building materials. He said the recycled timber green wall is a great feature.
Mears had a treasured ancient Middle Eastern rug in her home, but it was dying. She recycled it and converted it into outdoor cushions.
“A lot of people think you need a large space to have an edible garden, this is a great example of how smart design can create a great space and lots of gardens without taking up too much valuable space,” Mark says.
(As a result of his work on the Mears’ courtyard, Tisdell is a current finalist in AILDM National Landscape Design Awards.)
Because of the direction the walls are facing, the plants get the harsh afternoon sun, so they definitely need the irrigation system. Storrie planted a small rainforest tree called a Brachychiton beside the outdoor shower. He said the more it grows the less water the garden will need, as it will be taking the brunt of the summer sun.
“The Brachychiton is deciduous, which provides the extra defense against that harsh sun in summer, a self-moderating vegetative protection,” Lachlan says.
Storrie told Kathryn she and Peter needed a climber to grow over the north wall and suggested a Norfolk Island Passion Fruit. He also grew a Wombat Berry which has beautiful flowers which birds and bees love. Lachlan planted 40 edible plants for her including herbs and leafy greens like ginger, leafy cardamom, lemongrass, French sorrel, mushroom [lant, Warrigal greens, lemon thyme, aloe vera and more. A lime tree also grows in a wine barrel.
Kathryn and Peter don’t spray the garden and have worm farms for all their compost scraps.
“Anthony, Mark and Lachy were all planning, and I was really lucky. We were all keen to take these never-gone-to-before ideas; everyone was on board to give it a go,” Kathryn says. “It’s this amazing space, there’s so much activity around you. My skinks bred and had babies, little pieces of timber pop out [of the structure] and the skinks sunbake on that, and that makes me know that the garden is well.”