Happy Mother's Day

Sunday, 08 May 2016

One of the many stone paths in the garden of my parents, Blue Mountains, NSW

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. Thick clumps of cannas, gingers and bird-of-paradise along with shrubby Chinese lanterns, shrubby begonias, hydrangeas and Justicia bordered narrow stone paths and provided ideal hiding places for little children. Jacaranda, lilly-pillies and an Illawarra flame tree protectively canopied the garden. Jewelled nasturtiums, which we used to eat, scrambled across the ground. Flower colour was vibrant and brilliant; leaves were big and bold, often fleshy or glossy too. Bromeliads were a particular favourite! Most of the plants were from warm climates such as South Africa, Mexico, Southern USA and South America, and they grew lustily, many being struck from cuttings that had been handed on as 'good doers that can't be killed with an axe' from my mother's gardening friends. 'It goes berserk' was often added, sotto voce. The battle was not in trying to get things to grow, but trying to hold them back.

Clivia miniata were a favourite plant for Mum

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. My mother, an artist, was having none of it. She loved rich colours and flamboyant forms, and bunches of flowers and leaves from the garden were arranged in huge vases indoors, seemingly for the whole of my childhood.

Begonia Irene Nuss, growing in the garden of my sister Holly in Sydney, originally struck from a cuttings from our childhood garden

But when I acquired my first garden in 1981 in Ryde, in north-western Sydney, English-style cottage gardening was in vogue and I began to read English gardening books, drooling over the lush, billowing borders in the photographs. I tried every herbaceous perennial and cold-climate shrub I could lay my hands on, in an expensive journey through the mail order catalogues and nurseries that had burgeoned at that time. I recall endless lectures which I gave to Mum about the beautiful, romantic pastel-coloured English cottage garden I was going to create, of towering delphiniums, proper geraniums, peonies, bleeding hearts, oriental poppies, clematis twining through old-fashioned roses accompanied by lavenders, bell-flowers and a mist of self-sown meadowy annuals. No matter that I lived in a 1950s Sydney fibro house with mission brown woodwork; in my imagination I was in a thatched cottage in Devon. Patiently, Mum listened as I told them exactly what was wrong with her style of garden, with all its garish flowers and crass foliage.

A brilliant red Abutilon grown by Mum

Sadly, it all ended fairly badly for me, as few of the delicate English-style perennials and shrubs really liked the Sydney climate where I was living. Many of them either refused to flower due to the mildness of winter, or rotted in the heat and humidity of summer, often dramatically reducing overnight to a heap of slime, or simply fading away, leaving nothing but a little graveyard of plastic plant labels. None of them ever multiplied into huge, luxuriant clumps or reached the stature of those depicted in my gardening books to produce that abundant, full look for which I had longed. At the time I couldn't really understand why this was so, but I decided that my next goal would be to move to a colder area of Sydney so that these plants might do better.

Justicia carnea cultivar from the garden of my mother

Meanwhile, cuttings from Mum's garden were still begrudgingly accepted to fill other empty spots in our new garden, and we drove away after each visit to my childhood garden with huge clumps of Clivia, Agapathus and yellow daylilies, and cuttings of many soft-leaved shrubs and groundcovers. 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 so ordinary and we hurried past them when doing a tour of my garden, preferring instead to peer at some tiny, rare, half-dead European perennial obtained at great expense via mail order.

But one day, the tide of gardening fashion once again turned. Even in England, people started ripping out their traditional plants and putting in tropical-style plants - just the things that had been growing so happily in the garden of my childhood, as well as many other exotic ones I had never heard of.

My Agapanthus border along the driveway

I still had many of the plants originally taken from Mum's garden as cuttings and divisions, which included just the ones being lauded for 'the new, hot look'. I suddenly began to see my Mum's garden in a whole new light - filled with easy-going plants perfectly suited to our warm Sydney climate. My attitude towards gardening completely changed from the challenge of an endless quest for rarities and a constant struggle to keep sickly plants alive, to a focus on dreaming up plant combinations and working out how to structure the garden into a pleasing space. I finally had a lush, full garden. I finally realized that making a successful garden does not depend on acquiring certain plants of a predetermined cachet in the minds of gardeners who live in conditions far different from ours. Our gardens can succeed by using those plants that enjoy our climate, as the building blocks. It is still, however, possible to enjoy the thrill of lusting for and chasing after unusual plants - it's just that now I daydream over mail-order catalogues from Queensland, rather than Victoria and Tasmania.

I've come to love and admire all the plants that Mum grew in her garden, and I still have many of the pieces I originally got from her all those years ago. Thanks, Mum: you were right all along! Happy Mother's Day!