After years spent travelling and living all over Australia, the O’Neils have firmly put down roots in Western Australia’s Great Southern region.
When the O’Neil family first found their “little piece of heaven”, others weren’t quite so convinced. “I remember the day we purchased the property,” recalls Jen O’Neil. “There was little point in showing it to family and friends because all they could see was an old cow paddock surrounded by large tea-trees. It was quite unappealing in many ways. They didn’t see the view of the rolling hills behind the scrub or the potential to turn the wetter part of the property into ornamental lakes. People didn’t see the beautiful Casuarina and ancient paperbark trees that were among the scrub and gave us an instant framework to work with.”
That was in 1992. Jen and husband Danny, both working in the education sector at the time, had moved from Perth, Western Australia, to country New South Wales, where they had relocated for Danny’s job as a school principal. The couple often travelled around Australia, with their four young children, Patrick, Andy, Chris and Elise, and pet cat in the car. But they yearned for their roots and decided it was time to move back to the country’s great west.
Danny was soon offered a principal position in the seaside town of Albany, and the family set about relocating there. Located in the Great Southern region of Western Australia, Albany is a port city about 418 kilometres south-east of Perth. It is the state’s oldest colonial settlement, predating the capital, and was founded in 1826 as a military outpost of New South Wales. Due to this, there are many heritage buildings dotted around the city, such as the town hall and courthouse, dating back to the 19th century.
After six months of searching, the O’Neils stumbled upon a 30-acre (12-hectare) property that countless others would’ve turned up their noses at, located between Albany and the town of Denmark. “The property was essentially a summer feeding paddock for cattle with swamp for the lower section as it was inundated with rainfall runoff from the adjoining properties,” Jen says. “We could see the work ahead of us, but we also had a vision and before we could think too much about it, those 30 acres of swampy cow paddock, with some nice trees on it, became ours.”
The first task was to build a home, “so we literally made about 20,000 mud bricks as a family”, Jen explains. What eventuated over the next few years was a 650-square-metre, two-storey home with high ceilings and tree trunks leading up to the roof visible from the inside. “It was a unique home and the kids loved growing up in it,” Jen adds. The O’Neils named the property Bullimah Gardens, an Aboriginal word that translates to “piece of heaven”, and resided there throughout the kids’ schooling, gradually working on the gardens, which included extensive drainage, earthworks and plantings.
However, as the children one by one entered university — at the time the University of Western Australia didn’t have an Albany campus, which it does today — their education naturally became priority for the academic parents, so they returned to Perth to support them through their studies. “We’d come home to Bullimah Gardens on weekends and whenever we possibly could,” Jen says.
It would be another 10 years, in 2011, before Jen and Danny once again lived at Bullimah full-time and that’s when the real transformation of the property began. Oldest son Patrick had returned from London, where he studied garden design, and had since established a landscape design business in Albany.
Together, the family began to work on the property in earnest as, according to Jen, “there’s only so much you can do on the weekends”. “In some places, we completely restructured the gardens’ shape, water flow and soil, all the while being mindful and respectful of the natural landscape,” she explains.
“We wanted to create something that was classic in design, something that would last beyond us but still have contemporary interest.”
While Patrick’s expertise and love of gardening was a driving force, Jen and Danny did already have somewhat of a green thumb as both majored in botanical science at uni while studying education, which is in fact how they met, on their very first day. “We had also travelled extensively throughout Europe and adored visiting the magnificent gardens,” Jen adds. “We aimed to blend our love of European gardens with Patrick’s passion for the new perennial movement and Australian species and landscape. It was a tall order and the risk was a mishmash of designs that didn’t work, but we’re delighted with what we’ve achieved.”
Today, the garden is host to dozens of local species of wildflowers, including native orchids. “We have planted hundreds of local trees and thousands of deciduous trees, shrubs, flowering plants and climbers to make the gardens a year-round feast of colour, texture and form,” Jen explains. “This is best exemplified in the herbaceous garden where species were chosen specifically to cope with local conditions and rainfall, with plants sourced from similar climate regions in South Africa, the Mediterranean and the seasonally dry prairies in the United States. The perennial garden is fundamentally ‘dry’, with plants receiving only two or three supplementary waterings every year.”
Five years ago, Jen and Danny also knocked down the beloved family home, “to the kids’ horror”, and built a large four-bedroom limestone house in its place. “The former home was tired and it was time to replace it,” Jen says. “We designed this home to be spacious enough for the kids and grandkids to visit and it’s now a family refuge.” Patrick has also built new gardens, one of which, dubbed the Sunken Garden, he created for his own wedding. It wasn’t long after that the family decided to share the space with other loved-up couples and, in 2019, Bullimah Gardens wedding business was born, which today hosts more than 40 nuptials per year. “Word quickly spread and we became inundated with couples wanting to marry here,” Jen says. “The venue is available all year, except the winter months, which we reserve for garden maintenance. We’ve even held ceremonies for couples from as far away as England.”
Jen feels that couples particularly love the fact that Bullimah is truly a family affair, with Patrick working in the gardens and son Andy and his partner, Siboney, both musicians living in Perth, frequently playing at weddings. Aside from the thriving business keeping the O’Neils busy, they still spend hours each day in the garden, not only maintaining but also creating. “It’s a constantly changing feast of projects,” Jen says. “It’s like painting a picture and there’s always more to do that could make it better.”
Photography by Kath and Co Photography & Manis Moments