Sydney's secret gardens

JO MCCARROLL
Last updated 05:00 09/03/2014

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Kitchen Gardens, Chiswick Aussie foodie darling Matt Moran has long espoused the benefits of eating locally grown produce in season, to the extent that at the heart of his casual neighbourhood restaurant Chiswick, in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra, sits a 150sq m kitchen garden (the main dining pavilion opens directly onto it).

The restaurant's staff include a gardener who maintains the vege plots and works with the chefs to plan the planting for each season, and some of what is served to you has been harvested just a few feet away from where you eat. When I visited, the gardens were stuffed with productive-looking broad beans, rainbow chard and radishes, all surrounded by brightly coloured trailing nasturtiums.

Although, speaking as a keen gardener, I was a little suspicious that Moran's team could grow enough produce for 200-plus diners a night. But it's a charming spot and well worth stopping by for a meal if you're a keen vege grower yourself.

Find it at: 65 Ocean St, Woollahra

Paddington Reservoir Gardens If you're feeling a little exhausted from shopping, wining, dining and generally being fabulous on Sydney's chi-chi Oxford St, then it's the merest stroll to the charmingly bijou Paddington Reservoir Gardens. They have been built on top of, and indeed inside of, a repurposed holding reservoir, one of several which supplied water to Sydneysiders in the late 19th century.

The original reservoir was designed in 1857 and built with every engineering excess available to the Victorian architects, using cast-iron beams, brick segmental arches and hardwood columns. (In England cast-iron would have been used for the columns, but in a colonial twist, ironbark was the favoured material here.)

But once the reservoir was decommissioned in 1899, it fell on slightly ignoble times, with the emptied eastern chamber used for storage by the water board and the western chamber leased to a commercial garage. In fact the site was just about to be bulldozed and made into a car park when, in 1985, a campaign by the Paddington Reservoir Restoration Society led to a conservation order being put in place.

The City of Sydney began restoring the site as a community park and it's been open to the public since 2009. You can wander across the grassed roof terrace and descend into the sunken gardens/old water chamber via a spiral staircase (although there's a lift too, if you want wheelchair or pram access). Once you've admired the lovely arches and surrounding brickwork, pull up a deckchair beside the Lake of Contemplation at the centre (the local library even sometimes puts out book bins so visitors have something to read). The eastern chamber is usually shut off but be sure to peek through the metalwork doors at its highly decorated walls - the work of anonymous graffiti artists from the 1980s and 1990s has been preserved as part of the rich history of this state heritage- listed site.

Find it at: 251-255 Oxford St.

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Chinese Garden of Friendship If you need another break from the hustle and bustle of central Sydney, slip away to the Chinese Garden of Friendship; a walled enclosure featuring waterfalls, lakes, pagodas and mountain pathways that makes a shady and secluded spot in the heart of Darling Harbour. The garden was built by the Australian Chinese community (Sydney's original Chinatown is just a stone's throw over the wall) to share their heritage and celebrate Australia's Bicentenary in 1988.

It's said to be one of the most authentically comprehensive Chinese gardens outside Asia, with the landscape design governed by the Taoist principles of yin and yang and the five opposing elements of earth, water, fire, metal and wood. Feel free to just kick back and enjoy the peace and tranquillity, but if you want to know more of the symbols and stories the water, the plants and the buildings refer to, the garden has comprehensive signage to explain the layers of meaning.

For instance, the black pines covering the "mountain" are one of the so-called "three friends of winter", three plants which do not die away when the weather gets cold (the others are the plum and bamboo). The trilogy is frequently referred to in Chinese art and the plants are said to signify steadfastness, perseverance and resilience.

Look out, too, for the two large limestone rocks beside the mountain pathway, apparently positioned to guard against the passage of evil spirits. The rocks were chosen for their animal likeness and are said to resemble a horse and a lion.

You can finish up at the traditional Chinese teahouse which serves dumplings, cakes and a variety of Chinese teas with a view of the koi in the pond. Just be aware that there are steps and narrow, rocky pathways (in the upper part of the garden especially), making it difficult, not to say unsuitable, for prams and wheelchair access.

Find it at: Pier St, Darling Harbour (near the Sydney Entertainment Centre)

The writer travelled with the assistance of Tourism Australia.

- Sunday Star Times

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