Prowling in Cat Alley

Sunday, 24 April 2016

McElhone Place, Surry Hills aka Cat Alley

Though I have lived in Sydney for more than 40 years, this city continues to surprise me. I am so grateful to blogger Janna Schreier for making me aware of a tiny garden utopia in the heart of Sydney, which I visited last week. McElhone Place in Surry Hills is a cul-de-sac very close to Moore Park, which has become known as 'Cat Alley' (because of a large population of pet cats), and is famous for its amazing streetscape. Closed to cars quite a few years ago, both sides of the lane have been transformed into lush gardens.

McElhone Place, Surry Hills is covered in verdant growth

The terrace houses, many built as workers' cottages from the 1830s onwards, have no backyards - and no frontyards either. On the footpath area in front of each home there is a miniature garden, all of it contained in pots - though this is not immediately apparent. Each house's garden is individual, reflecting the preferences of its owners(s). Some seem to prefer the structural form of bold foliage plants in a tapestry of leaf shapes and textures such as succulents, grasses, palms and cordylines, whereas others have a love of flowers - but the plantings somehow coalesce into a seamless whole that is much more than the sum of its parts, each of which is delightful in itself!

Colour is woven through the gardens in McElhone Place, Surry Hills

Whilst the overall impression is of cool, luxuriant greenery, there is plenty of colour revealed as one strolls along the street. Many of the front doors as well as some window frames and shutters are painted in a bright hue, with flowers, leaves and even fruit and vegetables in the adjacent plantings that echo or compliment the colour, such as a deep pink door with an adjacent Bougainvillea of the same hue (as seen in the photo above). Brilliant red zonal Pelargonium and Mandevilla flowers give splashes of colour along the lane. I loved seeing these hot-coloured blooms nearby a black door of one of the homes. Silver foliage plants of different textures appear here and there along the street, providing contrast to the surrounding greenery.

Maple tree growing in a pot in McElhone Place, Surry Hills

The containers range from tiny bowls containing freshly planted pansy seedlings, to enormous tubs holding advanced trees such as a maple, frangipanis, camellias, citrus trees and even an olive tree; and robust climbers, including Bouganvillea, jasmine, Clerodendrum x speciosum and Wisteria, giving the essential elements of height and a vertical dimension to the street garden. In some cases, climbers are trained around the front door, softening the masonry of the walls and providing a welcoming entrance.

Edible plants like this tomato thrive in the potted gardens, McElhone Place, Surry Hills

A number of the houses use old washtubs as containers for their plantings: they provide a good depth for the plantings! Larger pots close to the house walls are fronted by lower containers, to give a variation in height and create a sense of depth. Some owners use tiered plant stands to stage troughs or smaller pots at different heights for best impact. Many of the gardens incorporate edible plants into their containers, including numerous herbs and a thriving tomato plant, adding an extra dimension to the scene. Every plant seems to be flourishing and extremely well nurtured.

One of the many benches along McElhone Place, Surry Hills

At intervals along the street are benches of different styles and shapes, all suggesting that the gardens are not just for looking at or working in but for simply being in and enjoying. Cat Alley is a living example of just how important contact with nature is for urban dwellers, to meet psychological, emotional and even spiritual needs: it seems to be built in to our DNA. Gardens - whatever their size - also encourage physical activity, so essential for health and wellbeing; and community gardens such as this one enhance social connectivity (also beneficial for health and wellbeing) as neighbours are drawn into the street to tend to their pots, swap cuttings with one another and share gardening tips.

McElhone Place in the 1930s, photo by Sam Hood

The street has won a number of awards for its gardens from the Sydney City Council and South Sydney Council in the past, as indicated by plaques on a wall at the end of the street. Another plaque commemorates Olive Batty (1905-1996), who was one of the first residents of the lane to put up a window box and plant up some pots in order to 'break the monotony of asphalt and concrete' around her home. My companion and I were fortunate enough to meet long-time resident of the street Claudette Roy, who was also involved in the early efforts of the greening of the street. She has seen McElhone Place transformed from a leafless row of houses to the city oasis that it has become today.

Another view of McElhone Place

The cats of Cat Alley are apparently fewer in number now, but cat bowls and cat doors along the street indicate there are still some in residence, and we were guided along the street by a handsome and friendly ginger one. I left Cat Alley inspired and humbled; and amazed at what can be grown in a container and what can be achieved in just a few square metres of space. As more and more soulless high-rise apartments spring up everywhere, having contact with plants is more vital than ever. Councils and governments need to take this into account as they cheerfully develop more and more of our city: please always remember the importance of plants and gardens!