A&G talks to cactus-loving young Aussie plantsman, Phillip Withers, recent Best in Show winner at Melbourne International Flower Show 2017.
Where did you spend your childhood?
The eastern part of Melbourne. My parents moved down to the beach, so I also spent a lot of time in Torquay, on the coast.
What do the emerging generation of garden designers in Australia have in common?
There is a group of young designers that are coming through that are very good. There are people learning their art and finding their way, probably taking a bit more time to show their faces on the bigger stage. I would say the one thing most of the new breed of young designers in this country have in common is a progressive outlook when it comes to design concept. They’re not afraid to try new things and be bold, which is a great thing for the industry as a whole.
How has screen printing informed your garden creativity?
Pattern repetition and colour. I was more into fashion at the start and studied screen printing at RMIT. We’d do a lot of pattern repeats through screen printing design and this was evident, especially in some of our earlier work. I’d use this to cross genres into garden design. I used to do a lot of work with a company called Outdeco, with a lot of pattern repeats in the landscape.
Why did you move into making gardens?
Plants. Travelling in Central and South America and Europe, the natural landscapes made a big impact. Coming back, working in the garden with friends, I found myself really getting into plants. I was doing garden maintenance, but found this love of plants and it made me think I’ve got to go and study these or do something to get into the design side of this. It was a whole different world, and I thought I’ve got to do more of it.
Is there another favourite outdoor pursuit?
Most things outdoors. Going exploring, going surfing – I love surfing – playing golf. Everything outdoors. The only thing about design that agitates me is being inside for too long. I’m lucky I go and see gardens day-in, day-out really.
How many clients are you working with at the moment?
At least 20 clients at any one time. Right now, we are looking at our sixth person to join the practice. Three or four of us design, with two who usually do the planting. Predominantly in Victoria, but we also have three or four projects at the moment in Sydney.
How do you build your key relationships?
We make sure we have a good base of people across different areas and a good team of contractors to work with, especially with hardscaping. People who build well and will build what you want them to, with good finishing detail. We’re very heavily into plants, so people come to us for that a lot. It’s important to create those relationships.
Is cutting nature words from the Oxford Junior dictionary the right thing to do?
It is the way of the world. Is it right? No. Is it the way it’s going to be? Yes, probably. I wish it wasn’t. I’d prefer children to play in the dirt after school, to go outside and play with plants, not go to a screen. I don’t want that to be lost.
What are your favourite blogs?
Three artists in three words.
Joost Bakker; sustainability, substance, reason
Grown & Gathered; food as art
Burle Marx; mirroring, space, patterns
Your favourite garden of the world.
I love the natural landscape of Wilsons Promontory in Victoria. I love Burle Marx’s work in Brazil.
Cactus Country in Strathmerton, in northern Victoria, is one of my favourites. It’s a family-run garden, with generations of people who live and breathe cacti and the passion for what they do can be seen in the quality they produce.
Your favourite native Australian plant.
There is no real one love of a native plant. It’s when you put them together that they’re so interesting.
Banksias have both amazing leaves and flowers. From trees such as the Banksia serrata, right down to cut-leaf Banksia praemorsa, and the tiny ground cover banksias. You could make a whole garden out of banksias.
I also like Adenanthos ‘Coral Carpet’ at the moment. It is ground cover and it’s just so good. It changes and has this almost watermelon colour, when it’s really firing.
The edible plant you couldn’t do without.
We have a vertical garden out the back, filled with the basics; rosemary, thyme, oregano. Picking and eating is a good thing to live by. We do a lot of cooking with those.
Interview published April 2017.