Sydney-based landscape architecture practice Secret Gardens share their defining approach to client relationships, sustainable design and adapting to Australia’s diverse climate conditions.
Operating out of Botany, Sydney, Secret Gardens’ approach to designing gardens is threefold; not only do they place focus on ‘the who’, but they also place focus on ‘the where’ and ‘the why’ to fashion deeply personal and highly resolved gardens. Crucially, they view each project that crosses their path as unique, with a new client, new brief, new site, new climate and a new set of challenges. As a result, each garden tells a story that deeply reflects its context.
We spoke with Secret Gardens’ founding director Matthew Cantwell, who revealed the firm’s blueprint for gardens focused on people, place and the planet. Engaging a large team of landscape architects and designers, structural landscape specialists, carpenters, stonemasons and horticulturists, Matt explores the importance of relationships and how they continue to design residential gardens for the future.
Produced in partnership with Secret Gardens
Where did the Secret Gardens story begin?
Matthew Cantwell: By working with some of Sydney’s leading landscape designers, I gained my qualifications and started Secret Gardens in 1994. I’d always had a strong love and appreciation for architecture and nature, and I realised there was a gap in the market for residential landscape design. Not many designers at the time were housing the services of landscape design and landscape construction under one roof. My business partner Rochelle came onto the scene in 2004, and since then we have built a team of more than 50 employees specialising in consulting, designing, installing and caring for gardens. In that time we have also developed our own range of outdoor homeware, Hibernate Outdoors.
What are the defining features of a Secret Gardens project?
Matthew Cantwell: With a new site, new client and new brief, every project is a unique opportunity. We assess every project on its own individual merit, asking ourselves, “What can we do differently here? We challenge ourselves to deliver something unique and personal for the client.
Every garden is about the client; it’s their garden, story, and place. They engage us to deliver a solution that addresses their brief, be it aesthetics or function. We do our part to ensure everything is balanced and nothing unnecessary.
What does sustainability look like in your projects?
Matthew Cantwell: We encourage our clients to invest in high-quality, long-lasting designs instead of short-term solutions. It’s important to educate our clients on what a sensible design looks like in the context of their site, surroundings and well-being to deliver a result that works for them and the environment.
Rather than simply replacing what is already there, we assess the attributes of an existing site and try to utilise them as much as possible. For example, gardens take a long time to establish and mature, so we constantly ask ourselves, “How can we work with or around this rather than through it?” In this sense, we are recognising, respecting, retaining and rebuilding local ecosystems, keeping the next generation in mind.
We are always re-populating the urban landscape with trees and larger plants to help combat the rapid disappearance of vegetation and rising temperatures, keeping the health of the planet and community in mind.
We select plants that are low maintenance and work with the site conditions to deliver long-term solutions.
How does the Australian landscape and its vastly different terrain impact the way you design and construct your gardens?
Matthew Cantwell: We have several regional and interstate projects on the go, which have revealed just how different the vegetation types and climatic conditions can be in Australia. These factors have a significant impact on material palettes and planting compositions.
It’s overlooked how diverse the conditions are in cities too. In Sydney, where most of our projects are, it’s rare to find two sites on one street that are similar; they can be a completely different shape, size and level of steepness. Soil conditions, light levels and prevailing winds can also fluctuate drastically. So, as landscape architects and designers, we need to be highly adaptable and open-minded.
While we apply the same principles and dedication to every one of our projects, we also recognise and celebrate that no two projects will be the same. This only drives our passion and enthusiasm as we constantly learn and are challenged.
“While we apply the same principles and level of dedication to every one of our projects, we also recognise and celebrate that no two projects are going to be the same.”
– Matthew Cantwell
You work with a talented and dedicated team of landscape architects and designers, structural landscape specialists, carpenters, stonemasons and horticulturists. What’s the most rewarding part about working with such a diverse and collaborative team?
Matthew Cantwell: The relationships we build. We have a team of more than 50 employees, many of whom have been with us for many, many years. We share the same values and drive to deliver outstanding gardens for our clients. These strong internal relationships promote strong external relationships – with clients, collaborators, architects, builders, and sub-contractors. So, the most rewarding part is our genuine care for each other. It takes work; life is busy; it throws up challenges, and it’s essential to know the people around you have your back.
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