We’ve all had the experience of falling into the scratchy embrace of a decorative plant while making a not-so-graceful exit from a pub. Maybe you were pushed in jest? Maybe you tripped? Regardless, it’s usually the plant, not us, that ends up broken and battered.
As we skip off into the night, probably giving little thought to the poor plant, it’s David Tetstall’s job come Monday morning to make sure it’s still alive. Head gardener at Merivale Group, Tetstall manages a team of four gardeners that installs, waters, tends to, repairs and whispers kind encouragement to the greenery that fills the majority of Merivale’s stable of 50 restaurants, bars and event spaces. It’s a job that sounds quite romantic, and in a way it is, but it’s also an unusual role and one that’s only expanding as the demand for unique, intriguing and above all complementary greenery in bars and restaurants grows.
We’re sitting in the salty breeze on the terrace of the Coogee Pavilion Rooftop, looking out to the ocean. It’s a sunny Monday, and Tetstall has spent the morning replanting, watering and pruning the hundreds of plants that are installed here. He’ll head to the garden at Ms G’s later on this afternoon. “The idea behind the Coogee Pavilion was based around the abandoned home of ‘Wylie’, an eccentric botanist of Justin Hemmes’ imagination,” says Tetstall. And indeed, tables are hidden under huge fringed palms and dangly creepers hang from the roof. On the terrace outside there are silver-leafed olive trees, lime and lemon trees in giant pots – complementing the restaurant’s Mediterranean concept. All of them are under-planted with herbs such as rosemary and thyme, and some with a hairy looking specimen called Cousin It. “It’s a bit crazy and mixed-up,” says Tetstall, but that’s the beauty of it. There are no tasteful office-like plants here, everything has character, and the whole place rustles in the wind.
Brother and sister Justin and Bettina Hemmes have a keen interest in plants and have encouraged Tetstall and his team to fill their venues with them. “They’ve grown up around lovely gardens,” he says. “That’s one of their priorities in the venues, everything’s got to look spick and span, and there’s a lot of thought put into them.” Actually, Tetstall’s favourite plant in the entire Merivale Group isn’t inside a pub or bar, but the one sitting inside Justin’s office. “It’s a giant fig alocasia, it’s just huge, it’s amazing,” he says.
Palings bar in the Ivy complex is another venue where a clear concept of an American forest has been created with plants. Unlike the breezy and sunny atmosphere of the Coogee Pavilion, Tetstall’s chosen plants (which he handpicks himself from a nursery in Dural) have to survive in near-darkness. “You couldn’t put a lot of these plants (from the Pavilion) in there, but instead we use large-leaf plants with dark-green colours,” he says.
One of the best parts of Tetstall’s job is climbing up to the roof of Ivy to the Merivale Group’s expansive plant nursery. Not open to the public, “it’s like a secret garden,” he says. Hundreds of damaged plants are brought here to recover or to grow a little larger in the sun until they’re ready to be housed. “When we redid Palings at Ivy we ordered in 500 plants, and then we had to get more,” says Tetstall. It’s here they sit while a site is being created, plants being one of the final touches to a new venue.
When pressed on trends in plants, as there are in lighting, seating and other aspects of the hospitality design process, Tetstall isn’t one to bend to them. “I’m just influenced by what I see here, my taste changes with what I work with,” he says, looking over the olive trees and the leaves of a fiddle leaf fig. “Sometimes I’ve found I’m not that fond of a plant, but then if I maintain it, I learn to like it, I’ll find something I like about it.” Then, it’s time to go – there’s lots of watering to be done.