For many Australians, their love affair with Bali is a life-long commitment. So it’s not very surprising that so many yearn to recreate just some of that lushness in their own backyards. But to capture the essence of the traditional Balinese garden, you need to look at it from a Balinese perspective.
“Balinese look at gardens differently,” says Kerry Davies of Bali Gardens. “For the Balinese, the whole island is a garden. It is the gods who own the land, they are only the caretakers and it is the responsibility of the caretaker to tend that land and create beauty.”
Because of this entrenched, long-held view, it’s not surprising to find that the key element of a Balinese garden or courtyard is spirit, says Kerry. “I use the word ‘spirit’ in the widest sense,” she explains. “It is the combination of dedication, love, sensuality and beauty in a garden environment. It is wellbeing.”
As an expression of this sense of spirit, Balinese gardens often feature lit sandalwood incense or an offering of flowers, discreetly placed near a statue, as a gesture of thanks to the gods and goddesses.
Expression through art
“The next most important element is art. Artwork is a reflection of spirit and love and comes directly from the hands of the craftsmen and women of Bali itself,” she continues.
Hand-carved timber and stone statuary play a vital role. Typically, figures of popular Balinese gods or goddesses will be set in a wall niche, placed in a far corner of the garden or set amid lush greenery. When it comes to placement, discretion is the key. For a traditional look, Kerry recommends statues of Rama, Sinta, Ganesha and Saraswati — all characters from the Ramayana — as well as warrior statues and Buddhas, whether standing, sitting or reclining.
More decorative options include statues of temple men and women, Gamelan players and Balinese dancers.
Authenticity is important if you want to capture the essence of a real Balinese garden, and thanks to the large number of garden art importers around today, securing a genuine Balinese artifact should be no problem at all. If you want to create the impression that your garden has been there for generations, take the time to search out a weathered statue or figurine. But this doesn’t mean you have to forgo colour in the quest for character. Some of the older timber figurines are vibrantly painted; some even have a gold lustre.
While reproduction pieces can still infuse your garden with the flavour of Bali, if you do decide to opt for handcrafted pieces you’ll find that each one will have something special to offer. Says Kerry: “Although Balinese artisans may be carving the same characters over and over, each face is different and each artist puts a little bit of themselves into its creation. One statue may have a wry smile, a shy look, a look of regret or a peaceful expression.”
The welcome of water
Water is the third essential ingredient. A mist-maker or even a bowl of water with floating flowers and a couple of lit candles can engender that sense of peace and tranquillity we have come to associate with the Balinese style of garden.
While fountains are not common in Bali, the waterspout certainly is. Handcarved waterspouts, typically featuring animal designs, are popular around swimming pools and ponds and add the ambient sound of running water — just the thing to conjure up memories of balmy island nights.
A pond is another way to introduce running water into the environment. For the best effect the pond needs to be natural looking and merge with the foliage and rocks in the garden. Once again, discretion is the key to success.
Building on the theme
Extend the Balinese theme even further with ceremonial accessories such as a colourful fabric temple umbrella and stand or a long, billowing flag that sits high atop a long pole, just like those that hang in the streets of Bali during festival time. You can also add woven sashes and sarongs, as well as traditional Indonesian masks, to the walls in covered areas.
Continuing to take your cue from Balinese religious and cultural traditions, a pair of temple doors can make for a highly evocative ornamental feature … or a delightful way to mark the passage from one part of the garden to another.
To create a picture-perfect and practical outdoor living area, consider building a pavilion with either a vine-strewn timber beam roof or traditional Indonesian thatch. Thatch is an authentic material and a great insulator, so you’ll be cool and collected all summer.
In a covered area, rattan furniture conveys a lovely Asian flavour, while teak — whether a handcarved day bed or a dining setting — is an ideal choice for both covered and uncovered areas.
To light your way
“Use hanging bamboo lamps and lanterns to light the perimeter of
an outdoor pavilion or courtyard, or to light the way along a path,” suggests Kerry.
Lanterns tend to come in two basic types. A large traditional thatch lantern with a dori crown is ideal if you have a large outdoor space. They can be placed on a decorative, handcarved base and connected to the electricity supply for a spectacular night show. For smaller spaces and courtyards, there are miniature thatch and dingle lanterns that can also be ‘electrified’.
“Nightlights and traditional thatch lanterns add an authentic touch,” says Kerry. “Because it is made from stained teak timber and has a thatch roof, the traditional lantern may look too fragile for the Australian climate, but all it needs is a few coats of Estapol and it will last a long time.
“The ijuk black thatch is made from the ‘hairs’ on the trunk of a palm tree. These ‘hairs’ are pulled out one by one and worked together to form a deep thatch that never rots. The only trouble is that the magpies know that too, so it needs to be covered every August and September during the nesting season or a toy snake placed around the roof.
“Magpies aside, the lanterns stand up to Australian conditions very well. A 50W halogen low-voltage light is best under the large lanterns and a 15 or 20W under the miniature lanterns.”
Some Australians like to add handcarved stone lanterns, with or without a carved pillar, and while these can contribute a delightful Asian-flavoured ambience, they are decorative rather than traditional, says Kerry.
How green is your garden
We have all come to think of the quintessential Balinese garden as a haven of lush and lavish greenery occasionally punctuated by flashes of tropical floral colour. And while plants are important, they are there to enhance the art and water feature, whether it’s a natural pond with a rock cascade, a flower-strewn water bowl or a handcarved stone waterspout.
Plants, not manmade structures, define the architecture of the Balinese or sub-tropical garden. Structural plants with strong vertical and horizontal lines and bold, dramatic foliage — such as palms, bamboo, tree ferns, cycads and aloes — will create the most dramatic effect. Use plants with large leaves to create the framework. Look for plants with broad, shield-shaped leaves, eye-catching patterns and long stalks.
Use smaller plants with colourful foliage to fill in spaces and add interest. And to ensure a lush look, dense planting is the way to go.
To have the best chance of success, choose plants that are native to your area or at least suited to your local climate and soil conditions.
Plants can also have a practical purpose, helping to shade a fish-filled pond, create a privacy screen or divide different areas of the garden. For an authentic-looking screen, consider a stand of non-invasive, clumping bamboo or perhaps bamboo cladding or panels of thatch.
Ultimately, the key to success is to simply capture the essence of the Balinese garden and this can be easily done with a few carefully selected and placed statues, an ambient water feature and a planting scheme that is simultaneously serene and dramatic.