After designing their dream mid-century-look home, this North Balgowlah family’s modernist garden was the perfect finishing touch. 

Three ideas came into play when Melanie Hughes and Warwick Noble briefed James Headland of Pangkarra Garden Design on their outdoor plans. First, they wanted to frame the striking modernist architecture of their David Boyle-designed house in a mid-century Palm Springs-inspired cactus garden. Then, moved by the calming effects of Kyoto temple gardens, the couple wanted to add a meditative, minimalist Japanese-inspired courtyard. Out the back, a more traditional space was needed for their two daughters to have a lawn to play on and flowers to pick. These three distinct zones should offer plenty of interesting interaction between the indoor and outdoor spaces. The two rooftop gardens were a later decision: one on top of the garage and the other on top of the living area.

Warwick is thrilled with how successfully those ideas have come to life and how much they add to the enjoyment of the house. “The garden is a big surprise,” he says. “I didn’t think I was ever going to be into it as much as I am. It’s become such an important element to the design of the house, far more than I’d anticipated. It makes the house feel complete.”

The dialogue between indoors and outdoors is integral to the project’s success. “You don’t get many chances to work with such a strong piece of architecture and the garden really responds to that,” says landscape designer James. “I’ve always liked modernist style, and that Californian-garden style has a beautiful plant palette that can be translated well to Australia.”

That plant palette is drought and sun-hardy, suiting the summer scorching westerly facing front of the block. James was keen that movement into the garden should not be along a straight path, so the garden beds are irregular shapes, matching the angles of the architecture. The raised beds are walled in concrete, formed up with rough-hewn timber to give a textural finish. The beds are also tilted towards the street, rising from 200mm at the front to be 800mm high at the back, offering what Warwick calls a “presentation plate” of plants. Banksias join cacti and succulents, including golden-spined barrel cactus, a number of different aloes and brilliant Euphorbia ‘Firesticks’ in the beds, their sculptural forms offset by a rough aggregate to create a living art gallery.

The Japanese courtyard also successfully delivers the mood the family was after. “There’s something about rock in a garden that is very mediative,” says Warwick. “We love looking at this space from the kitchen area and, in the summer, the doors open right up into the garden, like a Japanese temple. It’s a practical and enjoyable space, and not too serious.” The size of the aggregate is reduced here to give the illusion of sand or fine gravel forming an ocean, from which rise a couple of large rocks and an island of lush, mounding Zoysia grass shadowed by a Japanese maple tree. Towards the rear of the courtyard, a wall of tall ‘Slender Weaver’ bamboo does a fine job of providing privacy.

Not part of the original brief, the roof gardens are now a favourite element of the garden. Carpets of succulents, including Sedum ‘Gold Mound’ and the South African ice plant, Delosperma cooperi provide plenty of colour and texture. “There’s a real wow factor,” says Warwick. “We weren’t planning to go to the expense and trouble of putting in roof gardens, but now, instead of looking over a plain roof, we look out over these gardens linking with the bushland beyond the house. It’s fantastic.”

Warwick is genuinely surprised by just how much pleasure and satisfaction the garden offers. Never a gardener in the past, he now finds his weekends happily filled with nurturing plants and seeking out new curiosities to add to the cactus collection. “We’re quite obsessive about watching the plants grow,” he says. “We treat them like children and give them nicknames. Every weekend we’re out there to see what’s happening.”

Find out more about James’ work at, and go to to see more of David’s work.

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