Phillip Withers combined his strengths and passions to build a garden design business he loves
“I’m a landscape designer and run my own business. We focus heavily on ensuring that our gardens are locally considered, sustainable, using local materials and indigenous vegetation, and helping build on local biodiversity.
We design gardens that have a function and are not just aesthetically pleasing. We focus on how people use their gardens, where the energy comes from, how the garden works and where water and compost come from.
Then we consider other functions. Can it produce a yield for the family to pick and eat? Is the garden simply made up of plants or does it include herbs, veggies and fruits you can use to prepare a meal? Finally, we connect to space. We create somewhere nice for you to visit outside.
Phillip Withers is driven by a shared love for plants and people.
Happiness in creativity
I was always passionate about art and design and didn’t know where I was going with it when I finished school. I liked drawing and art. I was also very driven in terms of entrepreneurial pursuits. I didn’t completely enjoy working for other people. As soon as I could get creative, I was happy.
I studied fashion and computerised design first. I started making clothes and screen printing. I thought that was what I wanted to do. I was young and naïve. I tried to make a fashion brand that didn’t make a lot of money, but I had a hell of a lot of fun. After some time overseas, I returned to work in gardens. There is such a therapeutic nature to it.
“I was pretty driven. I focused on designing for others and learnt how to do that well. In the long run, I wanted to do my own thing.”
I decided to study the Landscape Design and Sustainability course at Swinburne. It was a catalyst that pushed me toward thinking about what we are creating and why.
The lecturer at the time, Miriam Downes, was very sustainability-driven and very clever. She made something click in me. I thought, I need to start making my decisions like that, to think about the materials we use and where they come from. She lives and breathes what she talks about. There’s nothing better than someone who lives by practice.
I knew I needed to have a good understanding of soft landscapes (plants) and hard landscapes (surfaces like decking, paving and screens). I was naturally interested in plant research but needed to develop my hard landscape knowledge.
To get into the industry you need to get those fundamentals right: learn about plants, hardscapes, how to use design programs, how a garden works and what to put in it.
Working with nature – internationally
I was pretty driven. I focused on designing for others and learnt how to do that well. In the long run, I wanted to do my own thing. I finished the course in 2011 and became one of four finalists that built a garden at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. That’s where I made the decision to start my business.
Our goal as a team was to take first place one day – to achieve that level of excellence. Thanks to everyone’s hard work and dedication, we got there much quicker than we thought we would. After participating in the Show for a few years, we were ecstatic to win first place in 2017. That has to be my proudest achievement thus far.
“Our passion has turned into a valuable, community-driven lifestyle choice that inspires others to treat our planet with the respect it deserves.”
Since then, we have taken on dozens of beautiful projects, both for clients and garden shows. In 2020, we designed a contemporary local garden for Shanghai called ‘It’s Our Time’. Incorporating hundreds of plants indigenous to the Shanghai province, the design’s local, biodiverse beauty conveyed the message that, now more than ever, we must work with nature and not against it.
We were honoured to receive a Master Award for the design, granting our garden a permanent home in the city. It brings us great joy to know a little piece of ourselves is brightening up the lives of nature-lovers so many miles away.
In 2018, we created the Shrub Hub, a sensory plant environment for our team and community to collaborate, learn and gain inspiration. The space has hosted some incredible events with speakers such as Andrew Laidlaw, John Hall (Cactus Country), Andrew Smith (Warners), Charlie Lawler and Wona Bae (Looseleaf). We’re also currently offering free design consultations with one of our wonderful Shrub Hubbers.
Shared future for plants, people and planet
Today, I’m in the process of writing a book titled Act Natural in collaboration with Thames and Hudson. The book is simultaneously a celebration of our team’s approach to landscape and an exploration of how we can create sustainable landscapes for the future. But most importantly, it pays respect to a landscape that naturally complements our environment. By adopting a pre-European settlement ethos, it reconnects with important messages that have been lost over the years that could help us sustain our environment and our future.
More than anything, the Phillip Withers team are driven by a shared love for plants and people. We love that our passion has turned into a valuable, community-driven lifestyle choice that inspires others to treat our planet with the respect it deserves. If we can do all those things and do them well, that’s not work – that’s meaningful.”