Christopher Owen: Tread Lightly

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Working beside Landscape Designer and TOC Contributor, Christopher Owen at last years Australian Garden Show Sydney, I had the pleasure of witnessing his show garden ‘Tread Lightly’ transform from an empty allotted space within a paddock at Centennial Park to a finessed and considered garden with layers of complexity that exuded an elegant calm. We never actually had the time to discuss  the garden in-depth during the build and show, so am I delighted to finally chat to Chris and uncover the meaning behind his stunning silver medal winning garden ‘Tread Lightly’.

What was the inspiration behind Tread Lightly?

The initial concept came from a stand of trees at our family property, scribbly gums that I grew up with. They died and I thought it would be good to repurpose them in the garden. The approach needed to be simple to execute but effective en masse, I remembered an image I’d seen of Stone Creek Camp by the architects Andersson-Wise, an incredible house. I took this idea of a span of steel encased firewood and broke it down into modules. I didn’t use the scribbly’s, in the end we ran out of time, so I left dad to split the wood in his own time!CO_Tread Lightly_8

These events are an opportunity to express what garden making means to us, to exercise and explore your personal philosophy. ‘Tread Lightly’ was an extension of ideas laid down in my previous garden ‘Nest’. It was important to me that there was zero waste at the end of the show. We almost succeeded, the only element that went in the skip was couple of tons of decomposed granite, it wasn’t mixed with cement so I wasn’t too worried – dust-to-dust in my mind. Everything else was either returned to the suppliers for resale or sold straight from the garden. We didn’t use a single fixing or tube of glue and I’m very proud of that.

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What elements did you include in the garden and what significance do they play?

As the concept began to develop around the idea of a ‘clearing in the woods’ the elements of fire and water fell into place. The firewood boxes, the pond and garden edging were all manufactured from steel off site and they made the bones of the garden, it was a good day when all the steel arrived and was laid out, it looked like a steel sketch on the ground. The fire pit was bought second-hand at auction and came in handy everyday in the cold and wet. The smell of wood smoke is arresting and makes you realise that fire is etched deep in the human psyche if not stamped in our DNA. When it came to the treatment of water in the garden for me it was crucial that the pond be still to reflect the sky and planting. Garden designers often talk about creating retreats from busy lives, and this was my version of that. It is a garden that I would conceivably make for myself if I had a hundred square metres to play with.

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The planting is an inspiring combination. What did you want to achieve with this selection? 

As you know getting plant material together for a show garden is no mean feat. You’re competing with everybody else for limited supplies. I took a few trips to Morrie Maait’s nursery Alpine Treemovals for the feature trees. I loved the Araucarias, as I knew they’d work beautifully with the Kauri pines that line the park. Morrie also supplied us with other key trees such as the Crepe Myrtles and Maples. It was important to me that the planting was ‘multi-cultural’ so-to-speak as this is how I design on a daily basis, I enjoy blending native and exotic plants. Most of the under story was comprised of native grasses and I thought they worked well with the Gardenias, as did the exotic trees combined with the native hedging plants. The main aim was to find balance in form and texture throughout the planting scheme as a whole, working predominantly with green.

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From concept to completion, did the result do justice to what you had in your mind?

Yes I was very pleased with the result. I only had one sponsor in IGT Gardening who also built the garden so we had generous support but limited funds to work with. Apart from the weather and a couple of technical issues I wouldn’t have changed a thing. The guys at IGT worked to create a beautiful result in horrendous conditions.

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How did the garden make you feel when you were in it?

I really loved being in the garden but would have liked more time with it. The whole experience of show gardening is so intense, it’s all about the deadline, there’s no time to savor the moment, and then suddenly it’s time to pull it all down. The last night was great though, Morrie stoked the fire and cooked a feast for all the designers and we sat in the garden together and debriefed, that is a memory I will cherish.

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Has this concept spurred more designs like it within your portfolio?

Yes I have had specific requests for this kind of garden. I’ve been able to draw on elements of ‘Tread Lightly’and adapt them to particular projects large and small.