In 23 years of running his own landscape gardening business, Peter Stubbs has never once advertised, so it took some coaxing to get him to speak about his approach to gardening here in Adelaide.
“I don’t want people to think I have tickets on myself,” says Stubbs, who certainly doesn’t, and whose humble approach to describing his passion is both endearing and inspiring. “Garden designer sounds glamorous, but no, I do a good deal of maintenance too; topiary and hedge-shaping, weeding and shovelling manure.”
Today Stubbs’s designs can be seen across the city, from Unley to Aldinga, the outcome of his lifelong passion for gardening and working in nurseries. “I have always loved gardening and found it really enjoyable. My mum, Auntie Rosie, Auntie Mollie and Nanna were all great gardeners and they taught me heaps.”
In 1996, Stubbs set up his own business, Peter Stubbs City Gardens, where he worked with his growing team. “A typical day might begin with meeting my brilliant co-workers onsite and doing a couple of hours of hedge-trimming, repotting and weeding,” says Stubbs, “or dashing out to several nurseries to select stock for upcoming planting jobs then back to see how the lads are going and then off to do a site installation.
“I am not snobby when it comes to plants. They all have a role to play and can look good somewhere,” says Stubbs when asked if he has any ‘go to’ plants. Saying that, Stubbs sticks to what he knows works best. “I sometimes try new plants out but not often. I’d rather other people have fails and I’ll stick to what works.
“A new garden design starts with a meeting and a look at the site. I listen to what the client is feeding me and try to get some common ground.” From here, Stubbs develops a garden layout that will reflect the lifestyle of his client. “I encourage people to wait and do things properly,” says Stubbs. “If you choose carefully, things grow easily and so well here in Adelaide.”
Understanding a client and how they want to use their garden is vital to Stubbs. “It’s about having rapport with your clients and engaging with their ideas. I need to understand why they want landscaping. Is it for appearance? A usable garden or a playground for their kids?
“One client brief was that they wanted to be able to sit anywhere in their garden and hear birds and not feel like they lived in the city. Sometimes the more poetic the brief, the more room there is to work.”
Pencil sketches are Stubbs’s starting point, where he starts to create a mud map of the future garden. These are developed into sophisticated plans that calculate the exact geometry of the garden’s layout. “Geometry livens things up in the garden, it makes things appear seamless, smooth and connected. There is a lot more mathematics in there than you imagine.”
Stubbs looks closely at gardens and parks when traveling overseas and is very fond of Japanese, English or Italian gardens, but says you can’t just transplant what you’ve seen elsewhere to an Adelaide garden. “I don’t look at one particular style, but select from my own library of knowledge. I don’t have a cookie-cutter approach to gardening. You have a ‘plant palette’ you draw from, and when you see the space, you consider how to apply that palette. With gardening you need to be free thinking.”
Have television renovation reality shows and garden makeovers affected Stubbs’s line of work? “Reality TV is not so real,” says Stubbs. “The bad thing is TV speeds things up and makes it a race against time, and the budgeting isn’t realistic when considering plants and labour. But it has raised awareness and created new interest in garden design.”
In 1989, Stubbs bought a property in the South West corner of the Adelaide CBD and made it his home. This end of the city was by no means a gardener’s paradise on his arrival, but he soon started to see the neighbourhood dramatically transform. “Change was slow at first, very slow, but in time I started to notice improvement. Today it’s a brilliant place to live with fabulous neighbours who are either living or working in the area.
“You could call it chaotic,” says Stubbs of his garden. “I am lucky to have a reasonable sized garden to play with. It is walled and protected, but sunny, and I’ve packed it with everything, breaking all the design rules.” His garden was once a barren yard of asphalt, but thanks to Stubbs’s persistence, it’s a paradise of green that demonstrates his key design principle of perfecting a garden’s layout.
“Underneath the chaos, the layout of the garden is formal. The formality comes from the idea of Italianate gardens, but I got over that and let the plants just go crazy, so now it’s rather wild.”
To Stubbs the garden’s layout or backbone is akin to the floor plan of a house, and once he gets that right, the garden can begin to flourish.
Leo Greenfield is a freelance illustrator