Tough customers

Sunday, 24 October 2010

One of the many little paths in the garden of my parents in the Blue Mountains

In the 1960s and early 1970s, I grew up in a garden that was like a tropical jungle. Bright trumpet-flowered climbers grew rampantly on trellises and up trees and thick clumps of cannas, gingers, bird-of-paradise, Chinese lantern shrubs and hydrangeas bordered narrow stone paths, providing ideal hiding places for little children. Jacarandas, lilly pillies and an Illawarra flame tree provided a protective canopy over the garden, and nasturtiums carpeted the ground. Flower colour was vibrant and brilliant; leaves were big and bold, often fleshy or glossy too. Most of the plants were from warm climates such as South Africa, Mexico, Southern USA and South America and grew lustily, many struck from cuttings that had been handed on from my mother's friends as 'good doers that can't be killed with an axe'. The battle was not in trying to get things to grow, but trying to hold them back. Though they loved gardening, my parents led busy lives so they used many easy-care plants to fill in areas in their large garden.

This was not in South-East Asia, but in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, where most gardens at the time were of the tasteful azalea, cut-leaf maple and carpet-of-bluebells school of gardening. This latter style, I later learned, was the goal of all serious gardeners, and one that I too initially adopted when I acquired my first garden in 1981 in Sydney. A few years later, English-style cottage gardening came into vogue and I recall endless lectures which I gave to my parents about the beautiful, romantic English garden I was going to create. Patiently they listened as I told them exactly what was wrong with their style of garden.

Massed Clivia from the garden of my parents in the Blue Mountains

Sadly, it all ended fairly badly for me, as few of the delicate English-style perennials and shrubs really liked the Sydney climate. Meanwhile, plants from my parents' garden were still begrudgingly accepted to fill other empty spots in our new garden, and we drove away after each visit to there with a carload of specimens. These were all planted in out-of-the-way areas of the garden, where they performed exceptionally well. My gardening friends and I, however, regarded them as rather common and so ordinary and we hurried past these lepers when doing a tour of my garden, preferring instead to peer at some tiny, half-dead rare European perennial obtained at great expense via mail order.

A robust groundcover, Crassula multicava, from the garden of my parents in the Blue Mountains

The tide of gardening fashion eventually turned, and even in England, people started ripping out their traditional plants and putting in tropical-style plants - including the things that had been growing so happily in the garden of my childhood, as well as many more exotic ones I had never heard of. I still had many of the plants originally taken from my parents' garden as cuttings and divisions, and I suddenly began to see their garden in a whole new light - filled with easy-going plants which are perfectly suited to our almost subtropical climate.

Purple form of Plectranthus ecklonii, a favourite shrub from the garden of my parents in the Blue Monutains

Over time, I have acquired a number of rare and unusual semi-tropical plants, but as my life has become busier and my gardening time more limited, I look with gratitude at those clumps of tough customers from my parents' garden, which quietly grow away and require little attention from me during the year. My parents' property was sold more than eight years ago, but apparently, the garden has remained intact, with the plants there surviving with little ongoing care. Some of these stalwart plants that I have in my garden include Clivia, Agapanthus, many forms of bromeliads, Iris japonica, the groundcover known as London pride (Crassula multicava), the basic yellow form of daylily (Hemerocallis lilio-asphodelus ), the dainty daisies of Erigeron karvinskianus, many species of Plectranthus, Justicia carnea and Abutilon. I would never be without them. I have passed bits of them on to my friends who have been starting gardens over the past 30 years. I find it somehow comforting to think of a chain of plants reaching right back in time to the 1950s when my parents first began their garden on a bare block comprised of rock and impoverished sandy soil, and were given plants by the people they befriended in their local community. To me, this is one of the highlights of gardening!