Thursday, August 20, 2015

Artist Clare James

Clare James' garden is so connected to her work as an artist, she even spent an entire month sleeping in it while working on a solo exhibition. Her delicate and ethereal artworks are inspired by the beauty she sees daily in her surroundings, whether it be a trail of slugs, a fallen seed pod, or a cluster of feathers and flowers. Clare and her husband, Mark, wanted to create a garden where their two daughters could get lost, where they could hunt for eggs and pick fresh fruit and vegetables, and where Clare could always find a posy of flowers. For this family, the garden is a natural extension of their home and they will often spend entire days outdoors, working, playing and eating. Sounds pretty idyllic, huh?

Clare with one of her beloved chickens.
A wonderful medley of plants captures the sun. Photography: Clare James
Clare's work is inspired by the garden around her. Photography: Clare James
Tell us about yourself
I am a mother, wife, sister, daughter, artist, crafter, gardener and animal lover. I learn the violin, I love to cook, I like working out how to build things, I bore people talking about my pets, I read gardening and ecology books in bed, read Mary Oliver poetry, I can’t knit and I can draw.
My garden is my favorite place in the world to be and I take photos everyday of little wonders happening in it.
I grew up with parents who value nature deeply. My dad is a botanist and an environmental scientist   with big ideas and big projects, his arboretum being one very big project that is amazing to watch grow. He grows much of his own food on his remote and very beautiful property in far-east Gippsland. My mum is a lady who spins wool and knits daily, whose beloved pets are always around her and who potters around her garden for the love of it. 
I am an artist who works from my little home studio, in Healesville. I paint with watercolour mostly, focusing often on details I discover in my garden. I am fascinated in invertebrates, spiders, chewed up leaves, cocoons, flower buds, seed heads, fallen feathers and over-ripe fruit. I can always find inspiration for my artwork in my garden. 
Last year I had a solo exhibition that focused on my relationship with my garden. I slept in my backyard for the month of March, for 31 nights, in an attempt to learn more and connect deeper with a place that I always love. I watched spiders spin their intricate webs and slugs eat the leftover dog food, I listened to the micro bats and watched the moon change shape and position each night. This experience led me to paint, draw, sculpt and write about these new discoveries.

What is the story of your garden?
My husband, Mark, and I bought our one third of an acre, with our little old house on it, eight years ago. The backyard was completely empty except for a couple of plum trees, a garden shed and some jasmine growing on some trellis. We saw the gardening potential immediately: North facing with lovely deep, rich soil. We were a lot more excited about the block than the house.
The backyard is quite ‘useful’ in that it has the fruit trees, vegie patch and pets. It does also have ornamental plants throughout it but is set out in the best way to get the most produce possible. The front garden is thoroughly ornamental. I love the front garden for many reasons. It faces north and west, so gets blasted with heat in summer, but this also means that we get the late afternoon sun shining through the plants. I have a lot of grasses, both low-clumping varieties like carex and tall varieties of miscanthus. I have echinops, sedum, salvias, succulents, agastaches and many other plants that I love to have in my garden. We have a largish area designated to native plants at the very front of the garden. This was once a large pittosporum and photinia hedge, which is now full of grevilleas, eucalyptus species, grasses, sedges and poas, banksia and other lovely things. It is a place we like to leave for wildlife, so I discourage the girls from picking flowers from here too often. It too collects the late sun in a very beautiful way.

Clare wanted to create a garden for her children to disappear into. Photography: Clare James 
Harvest from the very productive garden. Photography: Clare James
What changes have you made to it?
I was heavily pregnant with our first child when we moved in. Immediately, we began planting bare-rooted fruit trees and marking off the back third of the garden for the chooks. We spent the next few years planting and moving, removing and shifting, to gradually shape the empty space into rough areas, such as a vegie patch, orchard, chook run and ornamentals. These areas merge into one another, as bearded iris’s naturalise under the fruit trees and miscanthus, salvia, abutilon and red hot pokers survive and prosper in the chook run and grape vines shade our house. We don’t have many straight lines, but rather plant, and build walls and fences in curves. The vegie patch is the main area in the garden where a grid-like pattern exists, because we find it much easier to work in, harvest from and turn over rectangular beds for maximum food production.

Sedum, scleranthus, allium drumsticks, carex, miscanthus and dianthus thrive in the front garden.
Clare wanted a garden with an abundance of flowers for picking. Photography: Clare James
How do you like to spend time in your garden
We eat a lot from our garden. Each year we harvest great amounts of apples, nashis, pears, figs and plums, six varieties of citrus, fejoas, pomegranates, grapes, constant supplies of herbs and many, many vegetables. We get up to 50 eggs a week (or none at all in winter!) and, at certain times of the year, eat entire meals exclusively from the garden. My girls learned from an early age to wander around and pick whatever happened to be ripe that day, be it great handfuls of beans and plums in summer, mandarins that can only be reached from the top of the monkey bars in winter or carrots ripped from the ground.  
My husband, Mark, and I work well in the garden together. He is amazing at getting a job done. He will push barrow loads of mulch, compost or bricks from the front yard to the backyard for hours on end. There is no way that I could do this garden alone.  He is so much stronger than me, but also much, much better at finishing a job. I get incredibly side-tracked as I work, pruning something then moving something else then having to redesign a new area.
Together, we have created a wood-fired pizza oven, which in turn led us to level a large area so that we could sit and eat near the oven, which in turn led him to learn how to lay bricks etc. We really just make it up as we go.
We spend entire days from breakfast until after dinner out in the garden. Our daughters, Lylah (7) and Olive (5), are busy all day digging for mud, making cubbies, playing with our pets, or helping us while we work in the garden. It never really feels like a chore for us to be out there. 
Often, we light the fire bowl or the pizza oven in the early afternoon to cook our dinner. We bring a basket of bread, preserves, cheeses and pots of tea and coffee out throughout the day and generally stay outside all day. 

Afternoon in the garden with the chickens. Photography: Clare James 
Clare's girls enjoy a muddy outdoor romp. Photography: Clare James
How does your garden inspire you?
I get so much inspiration from our garden by walking around it every single day to look at changes occurring in the flower beds, tree buds, spider webs etc. I look at the changes both big and small that take place as each season changes and take hundreds of pictures of the garden (and pick myself flowers) almost every day. I base a lot of my artwork on my findings in the garden but for me it is more than finding inspiration. I get a sense of calm, connectedness and reassurance being in the garden. It is like a little sanctuary in what can be a hectic world and brings me back down to where I feel most content. I grow food because it seems like such a natural thing to do, maybe because my dad has always grown food in his garden. It feels good feeding your family from the backyard, from compost made from clippings and chook house straw that turn into brilliantly coloured, squeaky fresh and delicious vegetables and fruit. I cannot imagine not growing food.

A pretty posy from the garden. Photography: Clare James
A plywood gingko leaf Clare created. Photography: Clare James
Clare's work also appears on a striking range of cushions.
What are your must-haves for a garden?
These are a variety of plants that produce flowers throughout the entire year. I want my girls and I to always be able to pick a posy, no matter what season it is. I think having spaces of mass planting and more open spaces create interesting areas to explore. Using plants that I love and collecting plants (from seed or cutting) from other people's gardens not only saves great amounts of money but also gives me a connection to other places and people. I, too, love sharing plants and seeds from my garden with friends.

For more information, see
Visit Clare's new store at

Tansy provides a pop of yellow. Photography: Clare James
Afternoon sun streams through the garden. Photography: Clare James
Another of Clare's stunning paintings. Photography: Clare James

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Designer and photographer Matt O'Sullivan

Two years ago, Matt and Celine O'Sullivan armed themselves with shovels and joined the grow-your-own food revolution. While Matt has fond memories of helping his grandfather pick veggies as a child, he admits he'd never really exercised his green thumb. It was the imminent arrival of the couple's child, Zoé, two years ago, that ignited their interest in organic gardening and living more sustainably. And they have taken to it with gusto. Detailing the process in his blog, The Veggie Patch Diaries, Matt says the veggie patch now provides a constant flow of fruit and vegetables featuring everything from bananas and basil to turmeric and zucchini. Getting to this stage has taken plenty of planning and loads of hard work. The couple started by tracking the sun's movements across their back yard and cultivating their own seedlings from seeds or cuttings. No-dig beds were created from old sleepers and aluminium frames, while pots have proved the perfect home for herbs and seedlings. For Matt and Celine, who create their own artworks through their atelier, Chez Beauvardia, gardening is very much a family affair. And Zoé has also taken up the cause, spending much of her time helping tend the plants, not to mention picking and tasting the produce. Of course, for the creative couple, seeing their little girl tuck into something she has picked from the garden, makes the effort all worthwhile.

An eclectic mix of pots is home to seedlings and herbs. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
Ripe for the picking. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
An old wheelbarrow gets a floral makeover. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
What is the story of your garden?
I’m relatively new to gardening, having only found it a little over two years ago, at the same time we announced my wife’s pregnancy and the coming of our first child. I had early memories as a child myself, with my grandfather (an avid green thumb), digging up carrots and picking fresh juicy tomatoes from the vine. As a soon-to-be father, I thought if I could learn how to grow our own food, it would give Zoé a better appreciation and understanding of exactly where her food comes from. Plus it tastes so much better!
During this time we were renting a home in the sunny suburbs of Brisbane. It featured a large, sun-soaked backyard, along with the decayed remnants of an old raised garden bed, similar to that once laid at my grandfather's. The potential was there for something to be reborn and so the adventure began.
Fast forward a couple of years, Zoé is now almost 20 months old and we have left our original garden behind and work has begun at our recently purchased property on version 2.0 of our veggie patch. 

Veggie gardens need planning and preparation. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
A raised garden bed bursting with healthy crops. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
Pots are perfect for growing herbs and veggies. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
Silverbeet and marigolds. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
What changes have you made to it over the years?
Our first garden started out small and expanded as our confidence and knowledge of growing grew. By the end of the first four seasons in the garden we were harvesting the majority of our household vegetables in many beds across the property. With this expanded layout, more time was needed on upkeep and watering.
With the new garden, we’ve confined the space to a particular area of the backyard for less maintenance and easier access direct from the kitchen, which was important for us. We have also concentrated more on growing edibles, which first-off we eat a lot of and can quickly add up at the checkout (ie. various herbs and green salads), and secondly crops that have higher yields and are super fun for Zoé to get hands-on with in the garden (ie. cherry tomatoes, radishes and strawberries).

Corrugated-iron tanks make great no-dig garden beds. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
Fresh strawberries. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
A clever idea for supporting tomatoes. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
Zoe tends her patch. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
Any big challenges?
In the beginning I would say grasping the idea of seasonal growing was a big challenge. Understanding that just because a vegetable is readily available in the local supermarket at any given time of the year, doesn’t mean that, yes, it will be harvested this month in the patch. The garden is a great place to learn that, with every failure, there is a success, and that hard work and persistence really do pay off.
The other challenge would be the constant battle with the dreaded white cabbage moth. To remain organic, we have created dummy butterflies, which seem to have done the trick, thanks to The Little Veggie Patch Co’s helpful tip in their latest book, 1-Minute Gardener.

Dummy butterflies help deter white cabbage moths. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
Nothing beats home-grown tomatoes. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
A flower box bursting with cos lettuce. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
How do you like to spend time in your garden?
By far, my most favourite times in the garden are spent wandering with little Zoé. Although she is only very young, you can’t help but notice already her appreciation of a freshly picked, organically grown tomato.
We don’t have an irrigation system in place and everything is hand watered. I quite like this hands-on approach as it is a great time for us to slow down together, check in on each plant’s progress, discuss and reap the benefits of growing our own.
I also enjoy when friends and family drop by and we get the opportunity to share and talk about what we are doing over a home-cooked meal, straight from the garden.

How does your garden inspire you?
Whether it be observing the local bees on their daily mission to gather pollen and pollinate, or witnessing the death and new life of a plant through seasonal change, I’m inspired everyday by our garden. Just the simple act of an early morning stroll through the patch with freshly brewed coffee in hand is the perfect way to kickstart any given day.
Come the weekend, the garden allows me the time to slow down from the busy working week with the family. It’s a place where I can toil away and think freely with a clear mind on new creative ideas and get lost in my thoughts. 

Matt potters in his garden. 
Enjoying the fruits of their labour. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
One of Matt and Celine's artworks for Chez Beauvardia. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
What are your must-haves for a garden?
I would say the success of our edible garden comes down to our green-waste composting. Without our compost bin and worm farm in action, we wouldn’t have nearly enough nutrients to give back to the soil and sustain our plants. Not only are we creating fertiliser, free of charge, we’re doing our small part to better the environment around us.
Another must-have would be some sort of safe haven to protect and nurture your baby seedlings. We originally had a large walk-in green house for this, however recently downsized to our mini home-built cold frame. We made it from recycled materials based loosely on a sketch found in an old gardening journal op-shop find. 
And last, but not least, herbs, herbs and more herbs: We can never get enough of them!

For more information, see,, or

Dried herbs ready for a tasty dish. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
Pots of basil. Photography: Matt O'Sullivan
The garden is an ideal place to generate new creative ideas. Photography & artwork: Matt O'Sullivan

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Seattle artist Bridget Beth Collins

While most people trudge off to the office each day, Bridget ventures into the garden. This is where she spends her days, foraging for flowers, seed pods, berries, stems and leaves that she can reincarnate as artworks. Bridget's delicate and awe-inspiring artworks are composed from deconstructed blooms sourced from her garden, rambles through her neighbourhood and her mother's sprawling "secret garden". But, for Bridget, the garden is more than just her work and she describes her little patch in Seattle as "her everything". She and her husband stumbled upon the magical courtyard hideaway, complete with lilacs and dogwoods, in the middle of the busy city. Bridget has since discovered slate stones and stone garden beds beneath the weeds. She has created a "fleur de lawn", replacing the grass with low-growing wildflowers, and planted window boxes, ensuring pretty blooms are on hand for her breathtaking work throughout the year.

Bridget and son Oliver forage for treasures. Photography: Jamie Spiro
One of Bridget's floral artworks for her business Flora Forager.
What is the story of your garden? 
My husband had always wanted to live in the city, so a couple of years ago we set out looking for a house.  My one requirement was that I could still have a secluded garden. In an area where many houses use the strip of land in front of their house for their garden because houses are so jampacked together, it seemed nearly impossible to fulfill this dream. (As an aside I also said I had to have a rounded door like a hobbit hole, but that was a joke.) We searched and searched, but we could not find the right house. One morning, feeling bedraggled, my husband showed me a picture of a cute little house with red rounded door. We got in the car and rushed to see it. The very first thing I did was wander around to the back yard. There, I found a small overgrown courtyard with a perfect grove of lilacs and dogwoods. I sat down and, though the busy city was all around, I could hear bird song and felt at peace. Before I stepped foot into the house, I knew this secret garden was my very own. 

The pretty facade and front garden of Bridget's home. Photography: Bridget Collins
What changes have you made to it?
The first thing I did was pull back all of the overgrown ivy and periwinkle vines. I couldn't believe it! There were sandstone raised beds and slate stones underneath. The bones were exactly what I wanted. I had a shed made with the old round door from the house, and I put in a winding path. I planted my favorite roses from our last house, a few perennials, and a tiny herb patch. 

Any big challenges?
I had to hire someone to come and shape the trees for me. I had to cut some way back and that was heartbreaking.  It's taken a couple of years for some of the lilacs to bloom again.

The glorious back yard that Bridget has restored. Photography: Bridget Collins
A sweet herb patch gets an artistic makeover. Photography: Bridget Collins
Bridget replaced the lawn with wildflowers. Photography: Bridget Collins
Your favourite feature?
I have a little stone dragon.  It's as kitschy and silly as can be but I adore it.

How do you like to spend time in your garden?
During the summer it's another room to the house. I drink my coffee in it, have people over for dinner alfresco, and picnic and play in it. 

The stone dragon that won Bridget's heart. Photography: Bridget Collins
A window box brimming with blooms. Photography: Bridget Collins
The Leopard, created from flower petals for Flora Forager.
How does your garden inspire you? 
It is my everything. I have a business called Flora Forager where I use its flowers to create art.  It is my sanctuary when I need a moment to myself. And when everything in life feels cluttered, there's nothing like pulling weeds and organizing my plants to make me feel more aligned. 

What are your must-haves for a garden?

I must have roses, always and always. I love hostas. Thyme is my favorite herb. And I love everything to be really rambling and full. 

For more details on Bridget or Flora Forager, see

A climbing clematis in bloom. Photography: Bridget Collins
The Firebird, an artwork by Bridget for Flora Forager.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Designer/photographer Mariana Garcia-Katz

Mariana runs her photography and design studio M2Matiz from the backyard studio. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
An inviting place to take a break. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
Take an inner-city Melbourne back yard and a designer/photographer with a passion for gardening (and a love of hard rubbish), and you have one quirky, artistic and inspiring garden.
When Mariana Garcia-Katz and her husband bought their home 10 years ago, the back garden consisted of a grass patch with a concrete path straight down the middle.
"We've completely changed the overall look of it," Mariana says. "Apart from the larger established trees, our back yard has been given a huge overhaul ... a lot of hard work, and trial and error."
Mariana says they started working on the garden when Melbourne was in the middle of water restrictions, which is why "we thought it best not to have grassed areas".
Although she occasionally misses the lawn, Mariana finds great joy in tending her bountiful veggie patch, along with her chickens and seedlings.

Mariana has an eye for creating pretty vignettes. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
This enticing backyard was once a patch of lawn with a concrete path down the middle. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
Mariana's beloved pooch, Charley, is a huge fan of the garden. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
A sweet collection of pots. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
How do you like to spend time in your garden?
I love tending to the vegetables in our patches, preparing the soil, planting new seedlings, patiently waiting. Sitting in a deck chair under the feijoa tree is also time well spent. We also have chickens and I could watch them for hours but I think I mostly love looking onto our backyard from our kitchen and dining room. It brings me such a sense of calm.

How does your garden inspire you?
It inspires me to look, really look, at nature's beautiful details (it changes with every season), to be patient and appreciate what nature has to offer.

Happy chickens potter in the run. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
The bountiful veggie patch. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz. 
Pots of herbs with ceramic markers. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
Pretty details add interest and colour. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
The impressive hen house was once a cubby. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
What are your must-haves for a garden?
Having come from a house with a small courtyard, if/when the time came to buy another house, it had to have a bigger back yard. I wanted chickens, vegetable patches, a smoke bush and a gum tree. And I'm happy to say we now have them. CERES Environmental Park has inspired us for many years. I love their use of recycled/reclaimed objects dotted about the place, the 'organic free-flowing' nature of its grounds has inspired me to collect found objects and incorporate them in our garden: old ladders, rusted car rims, old metal gates and frames, for example. All of which, I think, add so much character and make a garden unique.

You can find Mariana's work at

Pots are dotted throughout the backyard. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
A rustic lantern finds a home among the mint. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
Mariana is drawn to the rusty, weathered beauty of found objects. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
Old 44-gallon drums make fabulous planters. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.
The perfect place for a long lunch. Photography: Mariana Garcia-Katz.