Don Burke and his makeover team turned a storm-damaged backyard into a wonderful French-flavoured country-style hobby farm, complete with rustic chook house, potager vegie patch and lots of lovely old bric-a-brac. The fabulous ‘aged’ look takes the owner’s love of country-style decorating from the living areas out into the garden, and all the way down to the back fence.
One day in late November last year, the owners of this cottage in Sydney’s northern suburbs sat on their garden bench and admired their year-long effort to create a cottage garden. By late afternoon, a freak hailstorm had wreaked havoc, destroying their labour of love. Devastated and at a loss to know where to start, the owners were over the moon when Don and the ‘Burke’s Backyard’ team offered to do a French country-style makeover which Don designed.
The interior of the house had a very strong country-style influence which lent itself to the design of the garden. The idea was to let the comfortable rustic feeling of the decor blend into the garden as one.
The couple have spent many fun days in NSW country areas sourcing old wares and antiques, some of which feature in the new garden. These have completed the look and feel of a ‘cottage in the countryside’, and the owners couldn’t be happier. The owner has always drawn great inspiration from magazines and books, collecting pictures which she then pasted into scrapbooks. “I now have about seven scrapbooks and I go over them every few months and always see something new in them. Each one provides endless ideas.”
When you look out of the french doors at the back of the house, you really do see a picture of the French countryside. Inside the house and outside are one. Nothing looks contrived, you just see effortless harmony. This is the perfect garden to relax in. It features superb areas for the kids to play: lawns, soft paths and the potting area. Children love to visit the chook yard and the old-fashioned French Faverolles chickens are very placid, lay great eggs and really look the part.
The children could also be given their own section of the potager garden to grow some fun varieties of vegies. And mum and dad have many relaxation areas: the potting area is perfect for a quiet glass of wine or dinner, or just for reading a book. All of this, and the whole backyard is both safe and low-maintenance. It’s hard to combine both beauty and function in a backyard. In this one, we feel that we have achieved both.
Paths & lawn
Nigel Ruck did a great job with the decomposed granite pathways. They sweep around in a circular shape from the deck, then down the middle of the garden to the centre of the chook shed, where they branch off to the vegie garden and the potting area. After the paths were lined with H4 treated pine edging, 50mm of road-base was laid first, followed by a 50mm layer of decomposed granite, which was mixed with cement at a ratio of 8:1. Decomposed granite comes in three colours: gold, pink and brown. Gold was used here to create a similar look to the pathways found in the great gardens of Europe. Two lawn areas, separated by the central path, were laid. The area was first graded to provide a gentle slope away from the house for drainage. Then the turf underlay was barrowed in and further graded for runoff. Lastly ‘Sir Walter’ soft buffalo turf was rolled out to create a lush, verdant effect.
The beds immediately in front of the chook run were planted out to give the look of a meadow in the French countryside. Pumpkins and nasturtiums ramble along the wire fence, with soft cottage plants such as gaura, dietes, agapanthus, highly perfumed David Austin roses, Hemerocallis ‘Stella Bella’, blue marguerite, Salvia ‘Navajo Bright Red’, angel daisy, seaside daisy and pineapple sage (and see page 46 for more details on the cottage plants used in this makeover). The bed on the right side of the garden was planted out with a row of Viburnum odoratissimum, a mandarin tree, and a selection of fragrant David Austin roses. A small garden bed about 400mm wide surrounds the circular part of the pathway, and this was planted with the silvery-grey hedging plant, bush germander (Teucrium fruticans). A cumquat was planted in a wine-barrel and placed within the circular section of the pathway. Wicker edging looks wonderful and stops the garden mulch from blowing onto the pathways.
The back right corner of the garden was previously unused, but now it’s a relaxed outdoor eating and reading area which doubles as ‘garden work area’, complete with workbench for potting up plants and cuttings.
After the area was levelled, Nigel Ruck laid the second-hand sandstone flagging on mortar and filled in between with a sand-cement grout, giving the area a solid base with an aged look. A plain besser-block wall was rendered with a mix of four parts brickies sand, one part cement. Rusted wrought iron lacework was then attached to the wall, along with two old lamps planted with Rhipsalis spp. The table and chairs provide a perfect spot to read and relax. Plants here include pelargoniums in red, pink and white, and various succulents. These were potted up in a fabulous variety of containers such as a battered ammunition box, a terracotta drain pipe, an old wooden crate and various lovely terracotta pots.
This area was actually the most difficult part of the garden to complete. That’s because it had previously contained a pile of firewood and a compost bin, and was sloping towards the back fence, creating a bog-like area. As this was the main access for the heavy machinery used during the makeover, major work was needed to get it level before the brickwork began. Paving sand was spread out evenly beneath the second-hand common bricks, which were laid in the classic basketweave pattern which often features in European potager gardens. Large, level beds were created for the vegetables and herbs to be planted. The idea is that once they become more established, the plants will spill over the brickwork for a very pleasing, rambling soft effect. The potager garden was then filled with an assortment of vegetables such as pumpkins, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, squash, chillies, spinach, eggplant, zucchini, watermelon and rockmelon. Herbs such as oregano, sage, chives, basil, opal basil, parsley and French tarragon were also planted. The whole area was then enclosed with a lovely picket fence and the same style of gate which encloses the chook shed.
Scott Cam excelled himself with the magnificent chook shed! It’s the centrepiece of this makeover and appears as if it has been there for a hundred years. To achieve this look, we used second-hand building materials such as recycled timber, but the really wonderful find are the second-hand roofing tiles from Marseilles, giving it superb French-style authenticity! And all the lovely old bric-a-brac added to the front of the shed adds so much to its appealing rustic farmyard character.
Hand-forged hinges, found at a demolition yard, make a superb feature on the door and window. An ancient padlock rests on the door but the ‘piece de resistance’ is the rusted tin chook standing proudly on top of the shed roof!
On the right side of the shed, a second-hand window gives light and ventilation for the chooks inside the shed. Baskets were set up below the window for the chickens to nest and lay their eggs.
The old wire surrounding the run was pulled around and nailed to the posts with fencing nails.
A small pathway of sandstone flagging between the gate and the shed door keeps feet clean, particularly on wet mornings when collecting the eggs for breakfast. On each side of the shed is an awning where firewood for the home is stored.
One lemon scented myrtle (Backhousea citriodora) tree was planted each side of the shed as well as a lemon tree inside the run. A large cast-iron water pump, also found on a farm, was given a rusted look with Porter’s Instant Rust then placed within the chook run. The old wire gate completes the look, not only enclosing the run for the chickens but also providing a safety net for wandering toddlers.
The owner’s orginal cottage garden was just getting established when that freak hailstorm hit. Pretty perennials were in full flower, camellias were shooting new growth at a rapid rate and climbers were just taking off. So it was easy enough to know what kind of flowers she wanted: lots of cottage garden flowers in a happy profusion of different colours. As you can see from the climate maps beside each plant listed here, these flowers are suited to a great many areas of Australia, and they are all proven good performers.
It’s also worth noting that the colours you see here are only some of the wide range available. Many of these perennials have been the subject of many years of development, and the colour range available is like a painter’s palette. And that’s the approach we recommend you take with creating your own cottage garden design. Think of your selection of plants as if you were creating a painting, teaming drifts of complementary colours in ways that please you artistically. Like any garden, a cottage style garden will look better with regular maintenance. Give plants water, food and mulch, and if you do the rounds with a pair of secateurs in your hands and remove the fading flowers of plants such as the daisies, they’ll reward you with another flush of blooms. Our selection is an easy-care one, but even these hardy heroes respond well to some TLC.
Gaura: Gaura ‘Passionate Pink’ produces its pretty flowers for many weeks during spring and summer. Liking a sunny spot and well-drained soil, it is quite drought-tolerant but will flower better if given summer water. Other colours include white and different shades of pink.
Daylily: Hemerocalllis spp. Daylilies are hardy perennials with a pretty cottage look. Available in yellow, red and apricot shades, they like a sunny or part-shaded position and fertile, well-drained soil. Though each flower only lasts one day they produce many in late spring and summer.
Salvia: Salvia greggii ‘Navajo Bright Red’ provides a splash of bright colour. For best results give it a sunny spot and well-drained soil. Flowers appear in summer and autumn and look good next to shades of blue or, for a fresh look, white flowers.
Marguerite daisy: Argyranthemum ‘Hybrid Cultivars’ Marguerites are popular for their long flowering periods. Flowers may be single or double and come in a variety of shades. They like a sunny position and well-drained soil, and are easily propagated by cuttings.
Wild iris: Dietes iridoides are very hardy plants that require little maintenance. They will grow in sun or part shade, poor soil and dry conditions. The pretty white and pale blue flowers rise above strap-like foliage and make an arresting feature in garden beds. Propagate by division or seed.
Nasturtium: Tropaeolum majus is a fast-growing annual which can be allowed to climb a low fence or scramble along the ground. It grows easily from seed sown in moist, well-drained soil in sun or part-shade.
Rose: Rosa ‘Mary Magdalene’. This beautiful David Austin rose has light apricot pink double to full flowers with a strong fragrance. It forms a medium-sized bush and freely repeat-flowers from spring until autumn. Roses like a sunny position, regular feeds and a mulch of lucerne hay.
Shasta daisy: Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Durban’. This pretty double daisy starts producing its flowers during late spring. Flowers may be single or double. Give them a sunny situation and well-drained soil. Propagate from basal cuttings or by division.
Blue marguerite: Felicia amelloides produces blue and yellow flowers in spring and early summer. This daisy performs best in a sunny spot and well-drained soil. Reaching 60cm high, they make ideal border or rockery plants. Propagate from stem cuttings in summer.
Red Hot Poker: Kniphofia ‘Hybrid Cultivars’ produce their attractive flower spikes in shades of lemon, yellow, apricot, cream, red or two-toned. They like a sunny, open situation and moist, well-drained soil. Feed in spring and again in early summer with a complete plant food.
The old bits of bric-a-brac are essential for the whole design to work. The ‘Burke’s Backyard’ team scoured farms and old wares yards for many precious items. The rusting old lady’s bicycle in front of the shed was a real find. The superb old fence posts for the chook yard provide a perfect gradation from the more formal garden areas to the barn area. Any modern fittings such as nail heads, galvanised gate hinges, the garden light and even the shed door, were made to look old with Porter’s Instant Rust. This product was pivotal in achieving a harmonious result.
The ‘old’ table and chairs in the pottering area were bought from an outdoor furniture shop for $169. Tara Dennis and Rita Hill then went to work, turning them into an heirloom. They painted it white, followed by Bristol ‘Ferntip’ and then Dulux ‘Norfolk Green’, letting each layer dry before applying the next, and sanding back each time. Then they dabbed on Porter’s Liquid Iron here and there, then a final coat of Porter’s Instant Rust. When all this had dried, it was painted with clear lacquer to preserve the look.
For a French country-style makeover with a chook shed as its centrepiece, we needed suitably French-style chooks, and the Faverolles breed is ideal. These really are a great choice for this makeover, not only because of their French accent, but also because they are a great beginner’s chook, and very good with kids, too. Few chooks in Australia could lay claim to a more stylish residence, and for that they can thank Don and the ‘Burke’s Backyard’ team!
Credits: garden design by Don Burke, illustration by Pamela Horsnell, photos by Brent Wilson