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!

Reader Comments

  • By Pat 2536 Monday, 09 May 2016

    Just loved that! I have a begonia from my Mums garden. Passed down from my elder brother wife"s both now deceased. I"m closing in on 80 - immobilised for next 6 weeks,but so fortunate I can see my garden. Husband receives daily advice to check on how everyone is doing - ziggies are about to burst, winter cheer thrusting upwards, camellias, tibouchina still flaunting, magnolia reluctantly losing her greenery, and baskets of tuberous begonias still flowering! Devouring my garden books. Planning! You are an inspiration, Pat! Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 09 May 2016

    My experience of growing up is similar to yours, Deirdre, but my parents" eastern suburbs, Bondi North garden, consisted of lots of tropical-like plants, fruit trees, perennials and ferns. When I moved to my current address, I willingly took lots of cuttings and pieces of plants from nearby neighbours, to start my garden, as money was tight. I probably don"t have a particular style of garden, just plant what I like, but many of the plants first obtained, are still flourishing. I do think it is wonderful when cuttings can be passed on from one generation to another and between neighbours. I treasure those plants more than any bought from a nursery. Deirdre

  • By Helen 2159 Monday, 09 May 2016

    Thank you Deirdre! A wonderful read that brought back visions of my mother"s beautiful garden in Albury. She was passionate about gardening and my sister and I have inherited the "bug" with entirely different gardens but a common love! Lovely that both you and your sister both have a love of gardening from your mum"s garden. Deirdre

  • By John 3030 Monday, 09 May 2016

    A garden designer once said to me "Don"t fight nature". Your experience seems to bear this out.

  • By Ingrid 3370 Monday, 09 May 2016

    I have a similar desire to replicate those lush English gardens but I now live in the Victorian Central Highlands where we have very dry hot summers and very cold winters so feel caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to plant selection. Must say though that the resilience of the plant world never ceases to amaze me - as well as the vast variety of plants that can be grown in harsh climates. It is always a challenge but I am inspired by you and others. It is amazing what plants can endure. Those conditions are very tough but there are plants that will do well. Deirdre

  • By Erika 4061 Tuesday, 10 May 2016

    I love the look of your mother"s garden. Yes in my first gardenI tried to grow the bluebells of my English childhood under eucalypts in heavy clay in New Zealand. it was a huge learning experience. Now fifty years later I live in Brisbane and can rejoice in matching plant to soil and climate. Gardening is definitely such a learning curve and I find I am always learning something new about plants and what can grow where. Deirdre

  • By Janna 0 Wednesday, 11 May 2016

    No wonder you got into gardening, with that beautiful, creative garden of your parents". Even if you wanted the latest trend when you bought your first house, I am quite sure the delights of the Blue Mountains garden got you interested in the first place. It looks absolutely stunning. Thanks, Janna. When the property was sold 13 years ago, we thought it would be bulldozed, but the house and garden are still there; the garden is very wild and overgrown but unmistakably still how it was when I was a kid! Deirdre

  • By Valerie 2121 Wednesday, 11 May 2016

    Thank you Deirdre for this timely blog. I can so relate to "the heap of slime" as I have just such a one out there now, bought on a whim from a catalogue. On the other hand the Ags, the Cliveas and Sasanquas thrive on regardless, not to mention the Bromeliads coming into flower. What a lovely garden for you to have started out with in the Blue Mountains. Thank you, Valerie; I have come to love all the tough things that do well in Sydney! Deirdre

  • By Maureen 2118 Friday, 13 May 2016

    Your blog brought back memories at 9yrs in "49 arriving from terraced housing in Industrial Manchester to Coffs Harbour area-being besotted by household gardens/farms, azaleas,hydrangeas etc+nasturtiums everywhere. In 1965 I tried to create those days plus bluebells to remind me of UK days-with much regret azaleas have to go this year-pest control has beaten me!I Remember a garden tour buying nasturtium seeds somebody saying WHY they"re weeds-not to me.They lighten dark corners etc.Thanks. Thanks, Maureen; I enjoyed reading about your gardening memories. Deirdre

  • By Anne 2518 Thursday, 19 May 2016

    just reading this because of my problems. Loved it. glad your Mothers garden still there. we had a beautiful garden which sadly was hacked. Camellias she had grown from cuttings and magnolias she and I had planted. I brought some bits of justicia with me. The originals had come from her grandfathers garden in Brisbane to where she grew up in Double Bay and followed her after her marriage. Nasturtiums too have great memories for me. Hope you are enjoying your break.

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