Outdoor Living: Tropical Tabu


Tabu, one of the finest tropical gardens in the country, is tucked into a hillside at Freshwater, Cairns. Thirty years ago when owner Mark Vowles sat in the nearby Flecker Botanic gardens he thought to himself, “One day I’m going to live in a garden like this.DSC0488

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To achieve his dream Mark began horticultural studies, followed by landscaping and design. Amongst early projects was his own, much-admired sub-tropical garden at Deception Bay, Brisbane where he lived with his equally creative partner, interior designer Fairlie Kerr.



Just like the words in singer-songwriter Graeme Connors’ track ‘A Little Further North Each Year’, Mark and Fairlie left South East Queensland in 2010 for the heady tropics to fulfil those long-held dreams. Creating a tropical garden may sound easy, as everything grows rapidly, but that can also be the folly of a novice. Experienced gardeners know which plants to grow together, and what rampant ones to avoid but Mark’s design genius extends even further.Tabu’s garden only covers a small fraction of the 1400m2 block but it’s packed with a treasure trove of plants to create a luscious, exotic landscape to wander through and be enchanted by, yet never feel crowded.



Approaching the garden along the road, you come across a front lawn with gentle mounds and curved beds brimming with tropical plants through which you glimpse a bungalow. It’s painted charcoal blue and trimmed crisply in white – reflecting Fairlie’s flair for design – and it’s the perfect foil for rich tropical foliage. Beyond, on the hillside, a wonderful inherited legacy of deliciously fragrant ylang ylangs, and mature lychee and mango trees form a dramatic backdrop to the setting.



The home appears immersed in the garden, especially at the rear where B&B guests can hide away in their own private pad – and unwind in an open-air shower room. Pathways meander up, down, and around, creating a sense that the garden is much larger than it really is. Some of the paths are gravel; others are made from stepping stones interspersed with ground covers.


A particularly clever ploy Mark has used is the careful placement of artisan pieces, or water vessels, where they can be well appreciated. Some stand on pedestals amidst foliage, others in their own space, maybe at a junction along the path. They’re not all costly pieces though; some are cleverly constructed stands made from besser blocks and painted charcoal; others are pipes supporting upturned metal plough discs filled with walking iris.


Tabu is an orchestration, both in harmony and contrast, of form, colour and texture. “Grouping visually similar or same genus plants is often more striking than just a single specimen,” Mark says.The rust and burgundy leaves of Heliconia indica ‘Rubra’ reinforce orange flowers of costus, and hot-hued foliage of cordylines such as the multi-coloured old favourite,‘Hawaiian Rose’.And in contrasting colours, violet leaved strobilanthes complement lime green ferns. Bold and beautiful red beehive gingers emerge, en masse, from the ground amid emerald green spires, and nearby, mimicking the colour palette quietly are pastel pink and mint green aglaonemas rising from a frothy sea of ferns.


“Mass planted bromeliads could be likened to a terrestrial coral reef with architectural form and colour; and strappy leaved plants such as crinum work well en masse,” Mark adds. Many of the palms, including some that are rare from Malaysia and New Guinea, not only have fabulously shaped fronds, but their intriguingly patterned trunks add strong vertical elements. Licuala grandis is a favourite, but clumping bamboo is another must-have in tropical gardens especially if you have the space. Mark’s combination of a golden shaft of Sacred Bali culms, adjacent to a glossy clump of black begonia, is very appealing.


Luscious, large leaves of alocasias, the paddle-like leaves of heliconias, and the varied shapes of philodendrons create textural layers and along the paths smaller plants such as selaginella and aluminium plants colonise the edges. Summer brings torrential downfalls, which, if not too severe, nourish the garden and make the foliage lustrous, but nutrient leaching can be a problem, which is why Mark adds plenty of complete fertiliser, particularly Nitrophoska Special, and mulches regularly with coconut husks.


A seasonal creek running through the garden becomes active in the wet season but heavy storms can wash soils so to counteract that Mark has worked with the topography, designing paths and garden beds to act as natural swales, which slow the rush. There are quite a few water features at Tabu, including the largest – an aboveground swimming pool set into the hillside. Obscured by Cyperus, it’s a well-disguised destination where family and friends gather; and it’s also where Mark escapes after working in his own, or clients’, gardens. Other water elements that attract attention include vessels filled with the exotic South American marginal aquatic, Urospatha sagittifolia.


Why ‘Tabu’? “Possibly because tropical gardens are a touch mystical.The weird flower forms, foliage shapes and steamy tropical atmosphere with spicy perfumes are evocative – there’s almost a sense of ‘voodoo,’ ” Mark explains. These days as he and Fairlie wander beneath the superbly fragrant 25m tall Cananga odorata tree, or muse upon the exquisite one metre long pendulous bracts of Heliconia chartacea ‘Sexy Pink’, they can be proud of the sanctuary they’ve created.

Words and photography by Kim Woods Rabbidge.

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