elen Marcou, Quincy McLean and Mahnya Smith at the courtyard garden. Photo: Joe ArmaoAll gardens have constraints, but the one at the Bakehouse rehearsal and recording studios on Hoddle Street has more than most. It is in an internal courtyard-cum-passageway that has limited direct sunlight but loads of musicians bustling through juggling drum kits, guitars and heavily laden trollies. Affixed to one wall are three airconditioning units that blow out cones of hot air all summer. Visiting dogs dig out the odd pot, and almost everything is donated or found on the street.
The gardening budget does, however, extend to employing Mahnya Smith, a visual artist who for two years has been propagating, re-potting, feeding, arranging and rearranging to come up with a leafy, cocooning space that now immerses the visitor in greenery. Plants are running over the ground, climbing the walls, and hanging from the ceiling.
What Smith started with was an uneven concrete-paved space in the middle of a two-level rented building and a vast quantity of plants and pots that Bakehouse owners Helen Marcou and Quincy McLean had been collecting for about 15 years.
The begonias and staghorn ferns came from Marcou’s aunt, the jades and a lilly pilly from her brother and sister-in-law, a chain of hearts from her cousin. McLean found the jacaranda tree when it was half-dead and thrown out on the side of the road. He has also found discarded lilly pillies, a magnolia, a fan palm, ginger lilies, loads of succulents – including several agaves – geraniums, bamboo and spider plants. The spathiphyllums were leftover props from a film shoot, the elkhorn fern was thrown out by a neighbour, and the ponytail plant was found discarded behind an apartment block.
McLean found all the vessels they are growing in, too. The rusty milk pails, 44-gallon drums, watering cans, concrete, terracotta and ceramic pots and wire baskets have all been picked out of skips or off footpaths and ferried here in McLean’s Honda hybrid.
The trick is to make it not seem like a hotchpotch of whatever is to hand, but a deliberate, unified collection. While there are still lots of small pots, Smith has made a point of incorporating much bigger ones as well. She has now ”totally rearranged it several times” and is very strict about grouping like with like. All the salvaged birdcages hang above the stairs, near a cluster of black ceramic pots. Elsewhere, there is a grouping of ragged concrete pots, somewhere else again the different-coloured glazed ones. A particularly shady spot has been reserved for terracotta.
While some of the like plants are collected together as well – the variegated ones, for example, or the begonias – she is not so strict about this, and is happy to weave jades and ferns, for example, throughout the space. And while Smith did buy a bougainvillea for a wall that catches the light, and a wisteria to train above a table and chairs that McLean picked out of a skip, she is otherwise content to grow only what he collects off the street.
”I turn up to work and there is something ridiculous – like that milk pail – to incorporate. It’s collaborative in that way, and a challenge.”
McLean doubles as the garden’s ”structural engineer”. Because the ground is so uneven, he secures unstable pot-stands to pillars. He fixes broken pots with cable ties, and – above one of the tables – has secured a rusted piece of steel mesh from which hanging baskets can be suspended. He also has an eye for discarded bluestone, pieces of which Smith has positioned to prevent musicians running their trollies into pots. She also protects the plants by sitting them on the hubcaps, wheels and bricks McLean finds.
What Smith does lash out on, though, is quality potting mix, liquid fertiliser and pea-straw mulch. Everything is watered by hand and she is always looking for ways to better maintain moisture.Smith, who has worked in fashion styling and performance art and whose childhood hero was Edna Walling, says she wants the courtyard to feel like a leafy, serene oasis.