12 Mar 2012

All grown up

Most parents would encourage the making of mud pies, but few would say yes to their kid completely digging up and replanting their garden.

And it’s likely that those would consent to the same kid redesigning that same garden four times would number just two: Mr and Mrs Merlo of Brighton. But the months of dirt and disorder proved worthwhile, because the splendor their son Jack built landed him feet first in a brilliant career at age 14.

At 20 Jack Merlo won gold at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show, and at 24 chased it with more gold for Float- a curvy 1960s-inspired terrace3 over a pool-at the 2005 Chelsea Flower Show in London.

Now, at 31, Merlo works with clients who are fearless about posing puzzles. Designing a fortress-like swimming pool in an Armadale ex-bakery has been his strangest feat so far. Restoring the 19th-centruy garden of an East Hawthorn mansion took some delicacy but has warmed him up for a 32-apartment effort, Seasons, which starts construction this month next to a heritage-listed church in Malvern.

It makes his newest project- the Warleigh, 9000 square metres near North Brighton Station-feel like an easy homecoming.

Superannuation fund Cbus Property is challenging $100 million into the SJB-designed Warleigh, which will have 108 dwellings, led by seven townhouses priced up to $2.2 million. There will also be 39 houses $970,000 to $1.7 million) and 62 apartments, nestled in gardens that will cover 40 per cent of the site. Chinese elms will form a canopy over the driveway, with another 60 trees in private and communal gardens. Fortunately Merlo knows what his part of town likes; he planted quite a lot of it himself as a teenager.

“I used to ride my bike over to Gills Nursery in East Brighton and work on Saturdays; I got all my plant knowledge up between the ages of 12 and 18,” says Merlo, whose efforts in his parents; yard led to his first paid project, aged 14. “I didn’t even have a licence. I got my Ls at 16 and got my granny to come out with me and I’d pick her up and drop her off all over Melbourne; she loved it,” he says. “By the time I was 18 I was employing half my mates in landscape jobs when I was supposed to be studying for the VCE. I didn’t last long at university. We were studying leaves under the microscope…” Huge sigh. “Then, three weeks into my course at Burnley College I was sponsored to do a design at the 1999 Melbourne (International Flower and) Garden Show, and it went from there.

“It was hard to get taken seriously at times. But I must admit, people really gave me a go.”

His current to-do list- a Southbank high rise, Look Property’s Seasons and the Warleigh-are strikingly different sites, but all pose the same question: how do you give inner-city “multi-res” developments a decent patch of manageable nature?

“Landscape is becoming more a selling point for this type of development, and some of the outdoor spaces are almost as large as the apartments,” he says.

“But unlike working with private clients, you don’t meet the person who will eventually liver here. You assume that people aren’t necessarily gardeners, so I look at plant choices that are sustainable in the long term. Melbourne has four seasons and it is nice to see that in the garden, with deciduous trees that colour up in autumn, so at the Warleigh we’re having ornamental pears, maples, Chinese elms, lilly-pillies for green hedges, and evergreen figs.”

With all his new projects being equipped with rainwater recycling, Merlo is confident his creations will endure, and lushly. But even his old, pre-drought designs are still growing strong. “Mum’s garden still looks good.” He smiles. 

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