Portrait

A walk through Stonefields with Paul Bangay. By Romy Ash.

Landscape designer Paul Bangay

My legs brush against herbaceous perennials. By the door there’s rosemary, sage, fennel, everything you might need in a kitchen garden. Inside, there are gumboots lined up, and coats hanging in a row. Everything is neat and tidy in this spot where muddy, wet clothes would be discarded before entering the house proper. I’ve arrived at the back door of Paul Bangay’s house and garden, Stonefields, in rural Victoria.

Bangay says, “You were supposed to come in the grand entrance.” He takes my hands warmly and smiles, saying, “It’s always better to come in the back door in the country. Now, would you like a cup of tea?” He’s got just the right amount of stubble and very blue eyes. 

We drink tea looking out over a deep valley. The edge of the garden is abrupt, falling away at the end of a long lap pool. “I’m very nostalgic about wisteria,” he says, “which is this.” He gestures to the vine that’s climbing the stone steps at our feet. New spring growth reaches its furry tendrils towards us.

“I grew up next to this lovely big estate – in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. It had obviously been a big Edwardian farm. It had been enveloped by the suburbs and it had this wonderful old orchard, and it was all neglected. There were pencil pines, and all this wisteria was growing through them, and all the fruit trees had the wisteria growing through them, too. It was so romantic – and I would go down there every time it flowered and think I was in paradise.”

Bangay is a landscape designer and I ask him about clients. He’s been working in the industry for more than 30 years. He generalises, still musing over wisteria. “Women love wisteria. Men hate wisteria. Women love it because they think it’s romantic and it’s perfect and it’s beautiful, and men hate it because they think it’s going to take over. Men have this fear of something taking over and women love the fact that it’s romantic and a bit wild.”

As we speak, Bangay has just finished creating a Versailles-inspired garden at the entrance to the National Gallery of Australia. A major show is opening of objects from the palace – statues and paintings and furniture. He describes the garden’s inspiration: “It’s all about power and control. The big thing about Versailles is that he wanted to show the scale of it – the amount of control.” He, in this story, is Louis XIV. “To show he was the most dominant force in Europe. So it was more about the scale, it was so vast. He was able to move water miles to actually make his fountains work. He had the highest and most elaborate fountains. It was all about showing off, really.”

In garden design he says the trend is away from the controlled, European gardens and towards something less formal. “The big movement at the moment is prairie-style flowering plants – very romantic, very soft, relying on this movement of flowers and textures of foliage and not relying on hedges or structure, or any of those sort of things. That’s been building up for quite a while. Herbaceous plants have been coming in. Flowers have been coming in. It’s very soft and wild, unrestrained planting schemes, which is wonderful.”

I look out over his very structured, hedged garden with its incredibly grand surrounds and say it looks very controlled. He laughs. “This is structured – but see all the perennials, all the flowers are in there. We’ve got to have the hedges because we’ve got a lot of wind, but within those there’s very soft planting schemes, and when we walk over to the wood, you’ll see there’s none of the hedges, very soft.”

A superb fairy-wren hops around our feet and his dog Ruby, a cocker spaniel, lazily inches over towards me on the couch, soft ears pooling, wet nose against my leg. “I’ll take you on a tour,” he says, and we walk down the steps, over a lawn that’s as short and dense as carpet, and towards the wood. Ruby leaps up and once out of the gate chases a magpie up the hill. “Ruby,” he calls. “Ruby.” The magpies squawk and warble and the dog ignores him.

The wood is in deep shade, everything green and flowering. Bangay planted the garden 11 years ago. When he bought the land it was a cow paddock. As we walk through the wood I ask the names of flowers and trees. “What’s that puffy white one?” I ask.

“Viburnum,” he says and the naming punctuates the walk. The wood opens into a grassed courtyard. It’s a room of sorts, surrounded by flowering trees. “Dogwood,” he says. “These are pots of tulips,” he crunches a dead head in his hand. “They’ve just finished.” Another of the “rooms” is a walled rose garden. The flowers are the colour of a Persian rug: deep reds and plums. We walk through doorways of wisteria. “We want it a little wild, but you’ve got to keep chopping it all the time, otherwise it would just take over.”

We look out over the entrance to the house. There’s a water feature flowing to the front door and here everything is clipped and square.

“Gardening is a bit of domination always, isn’t it, really? Can’t just plant something and let it grow…” He pauses before saying, “…all by itself”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 3, 2016 as "Bangay plots". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.