Nestled into the hillside, hidden from the noisy bustle and high-rises of nearby Milsons Point, sits an oasis. A slice of paradise tucked away below the grand, imposing houses of Lavender Bay. Initially born out of grief and serving as a necessary distraction following the death of her husband, Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden has over the years become one of Sydney’s most beautiful public sanctuaries.
Renowned for his vibrant depictions of Sydney harbour – painted in royal blue or opaque, luminous oranges and yellows – Brett Whiteley was an artist inspired by his environment. In 1970, after years spent living abroad in New York and Fiji, he and his wife Wendy settled in the leafy North Sydney suburb of Lavender Bay. The location proved to be a source of constant and enduring inspiration for the artist, and the couple spent many happy years there. After divorcing in 1989, the pair remained close until Brett overdosed on heroin three years later. Distraught and in desperate need of a diversion, Wendy turned her attention to the unsightly area of overgrown weeds and landfill occupying a plot of land owned by Sydney Railways opposite her house. The result was a magical garden that would become her life’s work.
More than two-and-a-half decades have now passed since Wendy first embarked on her mission to transform the valley of refuse below her house in Lavender Bay. Following the sudden death of the man she’d spent more than 30 years of her life with, Wendy’s world was thrown into disarray. But slashing away at the tangle of prickly blackberries, privet and lantana, removing rusted old appliances and junk, Wendy found a renewed sense of purpose – a project to focus on.
“She needed something to take her mind off things,” Ian Curdie, coordinator of the volunteer gardeners, explains. “She was encouraged by her daughter, Arkie, who was excited by what she was doing. So when Arkie passed away tragically not long afterwards, Wendy redoubled her efforts and continued to garden. To be able to take something that was rubbish and turn it into something beautiful is pretty wonderful. It’s a gift to anybody who comes and looks at it.”
Wendy never once worried about the fact that she never asked permission to clear the land. “She thought something needed to be done, so she did it,” Curdie says. “Nobody ever told her not to, so she just went ahead. And lucky she did!” Once Wendy had tidied the area, she set to work landscaping and planting. Drawing on her background in art, Wendy shaped the garden as if it were one of her late husband’s paintings, making decisions based on colour and beauty. “She has done it without a set plan in mind,” says Curdie, who has been volunteering at the garden for seven years. “Whiteley tries something, and if it doesn’t work she’s not afraid to transplant or try something else. That’s the key – it’s an organic thing, ever changing and fitting her own desires and creative ideas.”
The magnificent old Moreton Bay fig tree remained in pride of place in the middle of the garden while other plants were added around it. Bangalow palms that Arkie had gifted her mother quickly took to their new environment. Wendy planted birds of paradise, grevilleas, banksia, Japanese maples and a jacaranda, and soon evergreens and deciduous trees, ferns, natives and exotics were all happily cohabiting. “It’s a semi-tropical wonderland,” Curdie says. “Wendy doesn’t like straight lines, so that’s why the paths follow the landform and lead off in different directions, lending themselves to exploration.” Visitors can find a number of artefacts, sculptures and found objects dotted throughout the garden – from a bronze head by artist Joel Elenberg to an antique children’s tricycle. “There’s a sculpture that Brett did on their honeymoon, made from timber, so it’s slowly decaying,” Curdie adds. “She also unearthed a lot of things while clearing – levers and things that used to be part of the railway, as well as iron objects like sewing machines and watering cans.”
As the years passed, other guerilla gardeners offered their assistance. A Sicilian chef, Corrado Camuglia began helping early on, after seeing Wendy fall down a steep slope while clearing one day. Not long after, Ruben Gardiol, a house painter from Uruguay joined them, and now, over two decades later, the three still spend hours working on the site each month. News spread and a team was established, with volunteers gathering once a month to help maintain the garden under Wendy’s guidance.
“Thankfully, she gets a bit of financial help from the North Sydney Council, for things like mulch,” Curdie says. “But apart from that she’s paid for it all. So if you do the sums it would go into many millions. But Wendy loves it very much. She’s been working on it for so long, and knows where the ashes of various people are buried. So it’s a very personal space for her.”
For a number of years, because the land belonged to Sydney Railways, the future of the garden was uncertain. Desperate to convince the government of the garden’s value, in 2015 Wendy invited then New South Wales Premier, Mike Baird to visit. Over a cup of tea and a walk in the garden, Baird realised that “it was an asset for Sydney, NSW and even Australia, and felt that it needed to be offered some protection,” Curdie explains. The State Government granted North Sydney Council a long-term lease for 30 years, and the option to extend for a further 30.
These days, the garden is really one of Sydney’s “worst kept secrets”, says Curdie, thanks to word-of-mouth, widespread publicity and a TripAdvisor award; however there are still many quiet corners throughout the garden in which to sit and spend an hour or two. Open 24 hours, seven days a week, the garden is always accessible to the public, free of charge and can be enjoyed throughout the year. “There’s something beautiful in every season,” Curdie says. “In the rain, or in winter when the sun is low and shining through the foliage, it’s quite a remarkable view.” While the garden isn’t signposted, it’s a 5-10 minute walk from North Sydney or Milsons Point railways stations, or 10-15 minute walk from Milsons Point or McMahons Point ferry wharves. You know you’re there once you spot the enormous Moreton Bay fig tree directly outside Wendy’s white, four-storey house, which serves as a key marker for the garden.