Gardening mentors

Sunday, 22 September 2013

My grandmother Jean in her garden in the Southern Tablelands of NSW, circa 1950s

I think most gardeners can identify mentors in their past who have a profound effect on their interest in gardening. For many of us, it was our parents or grandparents who shared their love of this hobby with us when we were children and introduced us to the joy of growing things. Both my grandmothers loved growing flowers, and some of my earliest memories are of the garden beds surrounding their homes. I particularly remember the drifts of lavender that grew in my paternal grandmother's country garden and the sweet smell of Freesia and jonquils in late winter and early spring. From her, I learned how perseverance can pay off and that a rewarding garden can be created in the harshest and most uncompromising of climates - a garden that exsts to this present day.

My sister and I admire spring blossoms in our family garden in the Blue Mountains of NSW, circa 1963

My parents were both keen gardeners and taught me the intrinsic value of making compost to improve the soil - which in their case was barren sand in what had been a bush block when they bought their property, but which after 50 years was a wonderful loam. Creating mystery in a garden by screening off different areas from view, thus inviting discovery, was an important feature of their garden, which was a wonderful place for children to play hide and seek. The importance of growing plants that were suited to the climate and grew easily was another lesson I learned as a child, as fussy plants were not tolerated. The charm of allowing plants to go a little bit wild rather than being fiercely regimented was another aspect that I absorbed and still believe in today! The freemasonry that exists between gardeners was a phenomenon I observed very early on, as cuttings from my parents' garden were given away generously to visitors, and gratefully received from other gardeners as a source of new plants, as there were no nurseries in our area in those days. Another thing I was taught was that doing a little bit of gardening every day helps keep everything under control - and is good for the soul.

When I started the first garden of my own as an adult, my mentors were gardening writers, mainly English ones. I absorbed all I could from books by Gertrude Jekyll, Margery Fish, Vita Sackville-West, Penelope Hobhouse and Rosemary Verey. I drooled over sumptuous photos of English-y gardens and wanted to create my own version. This didn't actually happen, and many of the plants they grew were totally unsuited for my suburban Sydney garden - but I did learn important things from these books nevertheless. These included the necessity of understanding the needs of each individual plant and siting them in the garden correctly according to these; how to combine the colours of flowers and foliage for the best effects; the importance of learning about plant nomenclature and plant families; and that gardening can be an art as well as a hobby or craft.

Hydrangea Libelle in the former garden of Pamela Fowell, one of my gardening mentors

When I joined a local gardening club, the older members kindly took me under their wings and taught me a lot about practical gardening - pruning, fertilising, propagating and so on. They were very generous with plants from their own gardens to a young fledgling just starting out. Later on, when I moved to my present garden and became part of the garden club in our village, a group of very talented women helped me enormously and taught me much of the plant knowledge that I have today. They had gardened in my local area for decades and each had wonderful gardens filled with treasures that are rarely seen in nurseries. Several of them prepared amazing displays of flowers and leaves for the club's meetings, each meticulously accompanied by the names of the plants on slips of paper - a wonderful way for the novice to learn plant names. At the end of the meetings, we would be allowed to purchase these cuttings for a nominal sum to take home to strike. They also contributed to the club's trading table, and many of the plants in my garden come from their cuttings.

Sadly, their original gardens are no more, but the vast legacy of their experience has been passed onto the next generation of gardeners in our area, and we are fortunate that our gardens contain many of the plants they loved. In this day and age of fewer and fewer nurseries, it is more important than ever to share our plants and knowledge with other gardeners. Mentoring enriches both the giver and the receiver, and I have learned something from every garden I have ever visited and every gardener I have known.