Balgowlah Jungle Makeover

Sue and Alistar Palmer are keen to improve the 'flow' of the garden at their Balgowlah house on Sydney's northern beaches.

Brendan's plan of attack:

  • Install steps to build a link between the house and garden, so that the existing terrace area flows onto an open lawn and into the garden beyond. With two young boys it's important the connection is a safe one.
  • Use concrete blocks as a base for the steps. To make them really secure anchor them into the existing sandstone with steel rods. Placing the blocks on top is a job for the pros – two bricklayers will cost about $1300 for two days.
  • Recycle sandstone pieces from the garden to make the steps. To give the steps extra strength bond them together. A wet mortar mix is good for the wider joints but for the nooks and crannies a dry mortar mix is much easier to work with – made up of three parts sand and one part cement. Sprinkle it between the joints, pack it in, wet it and wait for it to harden.


  • Put in retaining walls to reduce the steepness of the slope because when it rains the garden turns into a river.
  • Concrete blockwork is faster and cheaper to lay than regular brickwork but is not very attractive. So render those walls and attach weathered hardwood to the top of them for an earthy rustic feel.
  • With the boundaries set and walls and steps in place it's time for the planting. Use a shovel to dig whole wider and deeper than pot. The plant should sit a little lower than the surface so that the water will collect.
  • Use fine bark mulch to create the track through the 'jungle', lined with newspaper rather than plastic to stop the weeds coming through. It's cheap and provides a safe environment for children to play on.

Brendan's new-look garden features the following plants:
  • Birds nest ferns as a feature plant to fit the 'jungle' theme.
  • Pennisetum Alopecuroides, a grass-like non-flowering plant to work with the retaining wall to hold the soil in place.
  • Lomandra longifolia, a hardy and simple plant that also binds the soil.
  • Sygizium (hedging variety) also known as Lilly Pilly, a soft user-friendly shrub that gives cover to the retaining walls in the garden.
  • Rosemary as a space filler.
  • Soft leaf Buffalo grass, shade tolerant and rolls out easily.

Things to consider

  • Allow small retaining walls to have 'weep holes' – 15mm gaps on the bottom course of the block or brick work where the water. This prevents a build-up of moisture.
  • Pick up second-hand blocks if bagging (rendering the face of block) Doesn't have the price tag of general recycled materials.

Planning a play area for kids

  • Plan the area with running, jumping, climbing, sliding, hiding, chasing and above all safety, in mind. These days, there is a lot of equipment and materials available and you can pick up good layout and safety tips from professionally designed playgrounds owned by councils or kindergartens.
  • If you have space create specific areas for activity and areas for rest with trails leading to each. Paved trails are best because they can be used straight after rain and the kids can ride their bikes on them.
  • Stepping stones are economical but lay them flush to the ground to avoid tripping, and fill the area between and around them with 15mm of pine bark. If the trail winds around trees or dense shrubs, the kids will create their own adventures.


  • A couple of steps leading to a paved area or just a ring of boulders around a level arena creates a mini amphitheatre where kids of all ages can meet, talk or play act.
  • Set a slippery dip into a hill of soil and retain the slope with old car tyres to cushion the inevitable tumbles.

Get kids interested in gardening by building a small, raised bed with treated pine logs or sleepers and filling with potting mix. They can dig and plant to their heart's content and, because potting mix is not soil based, they'll stay a lot cleaner. Cover between uses to keep pets out.

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