Photography by Simon Griffiths
Preeminent landscape designer Paul Bangay OAM reflects on evolving attitudes to outdoor living and the momentous decision to leave Stonefields, his treasured home and two-decade project widely regarded as one of the world’s finest private gardens.
When word spread late last year of the sale of Stonefields, the 20-hectare estate near Daylesford synonymous with one of Australia’s most sought-after landscape designers, the public reaction fell somewhere between astonishment and anguish.
The notion that Paul Bangay could move on from the infinitely photographable property he transformed from bare paddocks in 2004 to the nation’s most famous formal garden, which he himself dubbed his magnum opus, seemed unfathomable. But fresh from finishing his tenth book—a break from his trusted gardening handbook style in favour of more personal recollections—Bangay seems wholly at ease with stepping into a new chapter.
“There are not many domestic gardens in Australia that are open to the public and people have kind of lived through the creation of Stonefields via my books and Instagram, seeing how it changed on a weekly basis, so I suppose the thought of the garden being separated from me is a big deal,” he says. “But it’s at the point where I can’t tinker around without demolishing areas and starting again, so there’s a little bit of frustration involved for me there, and the main reason for selling is so that I can slow down a bit.” Due to turn 60 later this year, he reasons that time is ticking on his chance to create something new and a home that does not call for two full-time gardeners is the logical move. “A garden like this takes 10 years to build, so my next will be the one we enjoy for the rest of our lives, and it’s got to be more manageable,” he adds.
In the process of writing A Life in Garden Design about 40 years of professional and personal endeavour, Bangay says: “This one was more stressful than my other books because you worry about how people are going to feel being mentioned, or not mentioned at all, but it has also naturally ended up being a history of landscape design in Australia. When I started out, a lot of people would build a house and then put the garden in afterwards themselves, whereas now the garden is an integral part of the home design process.” He adds that the lockdown era pushed backyard aesthetics and the therapeutic merits of gardening right up the agenda; “Being stuck in the house for a long time made everyone realise just how vital a garden is to life, which is what led to plant shortages as well as material and labour shortages.” And while he is thrilled to hear from amateur gardeners who have replicated designs from his books (he believes there is “no such thing as copying in this industry” and considers providing inspiration a key part of his job), he is wary of instant gratification culture infiltrating people’s attitudes to landscape. “The trend towards impatience seems to be getting worse, people want big established trees but don’t want to wait for them to grow for example, all because they saw some picture on social media,” he laments.
Among the things he will miss most about Stonefields is walking among the slow-growing oaks and sugar maples he installed as saplings. “I take great delight in being able to walk and sit under a tree that I planted as a baby tree 20 years ago, which my husband and I often do when we walk our cocker spaniel… I probably won’t see trees [of mine] that big again,” he says. One of the unique aspects of a design discipline that relies on living things is the product never being in stasis. “I’m still returning to gardens we did 30 years ago because there’s a relationship there that goes on forever,” he points out. Lauded for his expansive and timeless gardens, Bangay hopes to focus on fewer and larger countryside projects in the coming years and to follow the example of professional heroes such as Russell Page, who worked well into his dotage.
As for Stonefields, he could not be happier to see the estate going to fellow high-profile gardener Jamie Durie via his Opulus Hotels consortium, with the reported $11m sale due to settle in November. The group has already announced plans to invest $70m in developing 50 luxurious eco-friendly villas and a destination restaurant on the site, which is just over an hour’s drive from Melbourne, within the next two years. The fact Durie pursued horticulture as a career on the advice of Bangay a quarter-century ago makes the passing of the baton seem like a poignant inevitability.
Bangay says: “We couldn’t have asked for a better solution. As my friend Annie Smithers [highlighted] to me early on, the only way someone’s going to preserve this garden is through a commercial venture; it has been my life and calling card, if you will, but it is a significant investment.” He adds: “Knowing the public will still be able to access it has helped me with the decision to relinquish my custodianship, and when Jamie asked if I would be happy to help if there are design decisions to be made, I said ‘of course, definitely’.” The commitment of the new owners to environmentally sensitive development is another bonus for Bangay, who is increasingly adapting his design vision to account for harsher and drier conditions, including rethinking the lush green lawns of his formal, axis-based signature gardens.
Having made his name with clean architectural lines and precision-cut topiary, Bangay says his outlook is softening with time. “The world has moved on from formality, I can’t do any more boxwood balls,” he jokes. “I’m kind of excited for the next garden to explore a softer, more casual, slightly wilder style,” he says, “but still with a little bit of classicism in there.” Until the next grand project reveals itself, the lifelong anglophile has a quarter-acre to tend at his 450-year-old cottage in the Cotswolds. Since acquiring the pretty-as-a-postcard property in 2019, Bangay has been excitedly decamping there with his British-born
husband for two to three months of the year to craft a romantic pocket of flowers and ferns like those pictured in the English gardening tomes he devoured as a youngster. He fondly recalls trips to the local library with his greenthumbed mother to find books by poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West and credits his parents for his innate appreciation of plants.
When he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2018, Bangay was gratified for the role of landscape designers to be elevated closer to that of his architect collaborators. Indeed, designing for scale, balance, texture and colour using materials that grow and change requires a particular brand of farsightedness.
Aside from aesthetic enjoyment, he envisions his next home garden as an edible one; “It must be a size we can easily look after and a lot more productive—when I dream of old age it is looking after a great veggie garden.” Wherever that may be, he says sharing it with those who have loved attending his tours of Stonefields or eagerly await his social media updates will continue to motivate him. “We really do love sharing the garden and though I don’t yet know how public the next one will be, we will share the journey for sure,” he adds.