Walking under the gums and figs, tree ferns and cabbage palms of Barangaroo Reserve it’s easy to forget that until quite recently this area was a flat concrete slab scattered with shipping containers. The transformation from industrial site to what feels like a headland reserve carved from natural bush has been remarkably speedy.
Barangaroo Reserve.Credit:Robin Powell
And certainly not uniformly expected. Stuart Pittendrigh, the landscape architect, horticulturist and arborist responsible for the planting, recalls several experts predicting failure. So he’s quietly chuffed as we take a walk around the reserve, six years after we first looked at the planting together.
Plantings are never set and forget. Yet major parks and gardens are often opened with fanfare and then funded to a bare minimum of maintenance. It’s the mow-blow-go routine, boosted by the occasional chainsaw. Barangaroo Reserve is very different. “I have a unique brief,” says Pittendrigh “and it’s just marvellous.” He visits every month and is constantly tweaking, advising and overseeing a largely hands-off maintenance routine that scrupulously avoids any “parkifying” tendency.
Chainsaws are banned, plants are only pruned with secateurs, and whipper-snipping around the big blocks of sandstone in the lawn areas is also forbidden. Instead a cushion of grass to about 20 centimetres high and wide frames the rocks so they nestle into the land.
Barangaroo. Credit:Robin Powell.
Pittendrigh developed a number of revolutionary techniques so that Barangaroo Reserve would have instant impact. Trees were grown in shallow, broad containers to give the best possible root ball for life in what is essentially a giant container garden. Pittendrigh’s broad, shallow root plate has since become standard industry practice for nurseries growing mature trees for landscaping purposes.
The trees at Barangaroo Reserve are thriving: lush Port Jackson figs have doubled in size since they were planted; majestic Sydney blue gums are developing their adult form; forest redgums are showing off straight shiny trunks.
The mid-level layers of shrubs like wattle and callistemon have filled out and made the construction of the slope invisible.
The growing media developed specifically for the site by soil scientist Simon Leake has been so successful that many plants are self-seeding. The most enthusiastic are the coastal banksias.
“I didn’t expect it as I’ve never lived on the coast,” explains Pittendrigh, “but here we are on an estuary, and they love it!”
So far he has let the seedlings grow where they have appeared, but will soon begin editing out individuals to develop groves and textural contrasts within the planting.
Much of Barangaroo leaves me cold, but the headland reserve is masterful; a satisfyingly naturalistic setting achieved through close ecological attention and innovation. Like so many successful created outdoor spaces, its cleverness is mostly invisible, magically cohering into somewhere that simply feels good to be in.
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