Born in New Zealand, Karen Haynes is a Brisbane-based garden designer and horticulturist whose work celebrates subtropical living. Running through all Karen’s work is her underlying passion for practical, durable, restful and sensual gardens. And she has carried this through to her own inner-city garden retreat. Situated opposite a tidal creek just a stroll from the Brisbane River, Karen lives in a classically elegant Queenslander on a 400-square-metre rectangular block. Karen’s front garden greets guests with the sound of a small, babbling fountain and fresh white flowers – it’s a formal setting where all hard angles and edges have been softened by evergreen foliage. But it’s the back garden with its informal, leafy tropical feel that is the heart of this family’s indoor-outdoor subtropical life – the back veranda links an entertaining space to the kitchen, so the house and garden seem to melt into each other. Close to hectic city life, it’s difficult to imagine two small, different and self-contained gardens could weave such tranquil magic.

A back garden oasis

Cooling, calming and bursting with life, at first glance the back garden gives little away. A central boardwalk of weathered, recycled timber leads the eye into the garden. Where does it end? Overarching palm fronds tease the mind, keeping it secret. Boundaries are shrouded in mystery, lined with heliconias whose leafy stems ensure no fence is seen. A dry, gravel-lined riverbed meanders out of sight, its curves dressed with smooth pebbles that highlight potted feature plants. Restful green foliage, ruffled by breezes, dominate. But a stunning blend of subtropical plants, many of them unusual, take centre stage. There’s always something in flower in this garden. Hot colours glow against the leafy backdrop, like embers in a bonfire. Miniature water features abound with inquisitive, mosquito-munching fish. Butterflies flit, cicadas sing and a lazy possum snoozes above the veranda. Throughout, art and artistry are subtly woven into the garden compelling you to investigate, contemplate and appreciate everything from paths, lights and furniture to glittering mirrors. Karen searches for garden ornaments that have original, uncommon designs, or pieces that have been handcrafted, to avoid her garden being labelled as a particular style or theme. “I always try to avoid obvious fashion statements,” Karen says. “Fashion is too changeable for long-term satisfaction.” When Karen relocated to Brisbane she relished the opportunity to observe and learn about a new palette of plants. But she believes a garden design must also stand the test of time, so she uses easy-care plants suited to the local conditions, with a preference for ones that please all the senses. She says it’s essential to appreciate which plants work well together and to understand their preferences for specific microclimates.

Evolution and planning

Now eight years old, this garden has matured, yet it retains an airy and uncluttered feeling. The original garden, which had the same owner for 45 years, featured a lawn, unkempt roses and a bush house. Out went the lawn and in came well-mulched, absorbent garden beds. Each bed is defined by weaving gravel paths and is edged with mondo grass. At key viewing points there are unplanted gaps between the mondo grass and the garden beds. These nooks are used for displaying potted flowering perennials, such as bromeliads and anthuriums, when they are at their best – the mondo edging helps conceal the pots. This economical way to get visual impact is a wonderful design idea for any garden. Bangalow palms create dappled shade, their fronds forming an open canopy allowing through pools of sunlight. Compact loulou (Pritchardia hillebrandii), bottle and spindle palms blend with night-scented angel’s trumpet, tree ferns and a variety of heliconias. Together they form a middle layer of contrasting, textured foliage.Everywhere plants are carefully spaced to avoid gaps and swamping the neighbours. No one plant dominates.

Attention to detail

Good thoughtful design is the hallmark of this garden. I particularly like the side paths made from road gravel, chosen for its economy and subtlety of colour. Gravel is spread over the soil, sprinkled with cement, raked level and dampened to form a rain-tolerant crust. Another clever idea is the plantings in the gaps between the timber treads on the walkway. Karen has planted low-growing ground covers such as Pratia irrigua to block opportunistic weeds and prevent soil erosion.

Standout plants

The plant that impressed me the most in this garden is a cultivar of torch ginger (Etlingera elatior) – it has wonderful pink flowers, and in the tropics, its leaves can grow from 2–6m high. This ginger flowers almost all year round and the complex flowers make very long-lasting cut flowers – just one is enough for a display. They can also be eaten in salads! Here are some other plants that caught my eye:

  • Foliage and flowers: Bromeliads such as Pitcairnia sp. and Portea petropolitana var. extensa, and  pineapple ginger (Tapeinochilus ananassae).
  • Perfumed flowers Amazon lilies (Eucharis sp.)
  • A fiery summery statement/: Blood lilies (Scadoxus multiflorus)
  • Reinforcing the tropical effect: The enormously luscious leaves of Xanthosoma and Alocasia.
  • Beautiful blue blooms: Long-flowering blue ginger (Dichorisandra thyrsiflora) attracts native, stingless, blue-banded bees into the garden – they are the only evidence of frantic life in this garden.
  • All the plants in Karen’s gorgeous subtropical garden are widely commercially available, especially in the northern rivers area of New South Wales, in coastal Queensland and in the Northern Territory.

How the garden works

Here are some of the features that make this garden a success.

  • Plants are carefully layered to give the garden complete privacy.
  • Hidden paths tempt exploration.
  • All lawn has been removed and there are no rampant plants, which creates an easy-care garden.
  • Plants give shelter, shade and stabilise humidity.
  • Every element in the garden has been designed to save water – there is no paving, all garden beds are mulched and paths are water-absorbent.
  • Artwork is modestly sized so it is found while exploring the garden.

Karen’s philosophy

Earlier in her career, while working in nurseries in New Zealand and Brisbane, Karen learnt how making impulse plant purchases can often stand in the way of successful gardening. Her secret to a great garden is self-discipline, avoiding overcrowding and learning about plants before buying.