Wendy Whiteley’s garden, bringing solace and joy

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Early on New Year’s Day 2016 Sydney was a very quiet place after a big night of fireworks and parties.

We took advantage of the quiet to visit a wonderful public garden with an extraordinary story.

Brett Whiteley, a famous Australian painter and his wife Wendy, also an artist, settled in Lavender Bay, a secluded inlet on Sydney’s north side.

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Brett Whiteley called this place ”optical ecstasy” and many of his paintings reflected these scenes.

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Brett Whiteley died in 1992 aged 52, and tragically the couple’s only daughter, died of a rare cancer in 2001.

After Brett’s death Wendy, in her grief, began clearing an overgrown dump of derelict public land below their house.

Over 20 years she poured her money, creative skills, energy and emotion into transforming  the wasteland by the harbour into a public garden.

The Moreton Bay Fig is the feature point of the garden, and its magnificent trunk and branches seem to reach protectively over the garden.

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It is a challenging steep site, but over time, steps and paths have been built, first by Wendy and some faithful gardeners, and now by many volunteers as well.

Sydney has a wonderful climate for many different plants, and gradually the plants have almost engulfed the paths in some areas.IMG_7925 (1024x857)Wendy, has no background in horticulture. However, she has the artist’s eye for colour, shape and texture and design.

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IMG_7881 (1024x771)As a child Wendy loved the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett called The Secret Garden. This garden began as her secret garden, a place where the physical needs of the garden gave her a distraction from grief, but also a place of solitude, and in time, replenishment.

As the garden developed it gradually became more than Wendy’s garden, it became a haven for many people who come to sit for a while in the cool dappled shade, read a book, or simply enjoy the lush green plants…. away from noisy city life.

the power of the garden….

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Wendy says ”Loss is something all people end up dealing with one way or another. Sometimes it can be too much, but I have learnt we must give ourselves time to get over the stages of grieving. The amazing thing about life is that deep sadness can, in its own time eventually lead you on the path to renewal and discovery….

IMG_7947 (1024x738)………This garden started as therapy, but it’s gone way beyond that, into a joyous celebration of life and nature, and a desire to share. I transformed an ugly wasteland into a beautiful garden, and along the way, the garden transformed me.”

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As this is public land, the future of the garden was precarious, but in October 2015 the NSW government gave the garden a 30 year lease with a 30 year renewal option.

Many thanks to Wendy for building a garden such as this in a time of grief, and now it is available for all to share, in a quiet and caring way.

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24 Replies to “Wendy Whiteley’s garden, bringing solace and joy”

  1. I have read about this garden and thought it will be a “must visit” when I am next in Sydney. Now it really is on my to do list!

    1. Yes, it is hard to believe it is so close to the city, and has not been taken over by developers!! I love the story because it says so much about the value of a garden/green spaces.

    1. Thanks Judy, it is such a story of hope and the power of gardens I think. Glad you are enjoying stories from Australia, I too am looking at blogs in wonder at snowy landscapes from the US and the UK. It is all quite an education.

    1. Thanks Carol, glad you enjoyed the story. Yes, Wendy has done a wonderful job on the garden, I read somewhere that she worked on the garden as if it was a painting, and that is how it looks.

  2. What an amazing coincidence you have written about this beautiful garden as I have just ordered the book “Secret Garden” by Janet Hawley (the story of Wendy Whiteley’s garden) from the library after reading about the garden in a gardening magazine on the weekend. Your photographs and story of Wendy’s dedication in the transformation and creation of this space is excellent and I have put it on my “must visit” list when next I am in Sydney.

    1. Thanks Pauline, yes I should mention the book, I’ll add that bit to the post. I haven’t read it, but I read a few articles about it over Xmas. One of the articles had a photo of Wendy clearing the block in the early days…in the rain moving rubbish off the sloping block…what a task. (I’m sure that photo will be in the book)
      Isn’t it great that the land is now for public use (it did belong to the NSW Railway) ….good for Wendy just going ahead with the garden. Enjoy the book!

  3. Very beautiful, but more importantly, “This garden started as therapy, but it’s gone way beyond that, into a joyous celebration of life and nature, and a desire to share.” Perfect reason for a garden to age gracefully and offer so much more to many.

    1. Yes, I agree Donna, I think sharing the garden has given Wendy a new dimension to her life, and therapeutic for so many others.

  4. What a fascinating post. I have actually been there when I visited Sydney four years ago but somehow never saw any plaque so never got to hear the story. I’m so glad I have now though, what a woman, such a magnificent achievement!xxx

    1. yes, I agree it is a magnificent achievement and such a story of hope and the power of gardens, and growing plants. I don’t think many people knew about the garden four years ago. Last year Wendy wrote a book about it, in part because, as she is getting older (74 years old) she was concerned that the garden was on government land, so the future of the garden was not secure. Now fortunately it is. It is an uplifting story altogether!

  5. Looks like a beautiful garden but the story behind it is quite inspirational. My daughter spent a college semester studying in Sydney and almost didn’t come home. She fell in love with Australia and I can see why.

    1. Thanks Ingrid, it is a lovely garden, and I agree, what an inspirational story for us all. Sydney is a great city for kids, lots of fun, sun and laughter, but I have to admit, I’m always glad to get back to lovely quiet Canberra. I’ve been enjoying your posts.

  6. We have Moreton Bay Fig trees all over Los Angeles, imported from Australia (of course) over 100 years ago…. they are amazing trees and still going strong.

    1. Oh that is interesting, Sydney has some amazing Moreton Bay Fig trees. We have only stopped overnight in LA, so I don’t know much about the city, but we did stay in San Fran years ago, and did a walk in Muir Woods, the Redwood trees are stunning. I have a postcard of John Muir on my desk from that time.

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