"Tough customers"

Tough and undemanding plants from my parents' garden are favourites in my own.
Sunday, 03 October 2021     

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.

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.

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.

Over time, I have acquired a number of rare and unusual semi-tropical plants, including unusual species of some of these plants as well as plants in the same families of as some of them (particularly the Acanthaceae family) that have done equally as well as the ones my parents grew and have enriched my garden. However, when my life became busier and my gardening time more limited, I looked with gratitude at those clumps of tough customers from my parents' garden, which quietly kept growing away and required little attention from me during the year. My parents' property was sold more than 19 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, Odontonema 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!

 Reader Comments

1/13  Sue - 2073 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 October 2010

Thank you Deidre for your reminiscences of your mothers garden. The mention of London Pride took me straight back to my childhood. A plant I remember well in my mothers garden was Mock Orange Blossom with its beautiful perfume and masses of ordinary gerberas. Sue.

Thanks, Sue. I think we all do think very fondly of those plants in our childhood gardens. Deirdre

2/13  Jill - 3941 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 25 October 2010

Thank you once again Deidre - I look forward to your weekly inspiration. Childhood memories took me back to the Victorian Wimmera district, where fruit trees flourished under my fathers care and we had a steady supply of vegetables and flowers. The almond blossom always signalled spring.

They sound lovely memories, Jill. Deirdre

3/13  Christine - 2320 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 October 2010

Hydrangea and red flowering japonica in Melbourne are favourite memories of my Grandmother - much better to see them everyday in my own garden than to have a photo of Gran on the hall table. Thanks Deidre Christine

Thanks, Christine. I agree that it is wonderful to have a sort of living link to our cherished relatives and friends through our plants. I have many such plants in my garden that remind me of people from my past. Deirdre

4/13  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 October 2010

can relate to your comments - most of my plants came from my mothers garden, and those of her friends. I remember wanting November lilies and white Michaelmas daisies, both of which were unavailable in nurseries, but both were given to me by a neighbour behind our Bondi North house. Happy memories.

Thanks, Margaret. Deirdre

5/13  Carole - 2230 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 October 2010

Love your comments Deidre.20 years of Sydney gardening and I have the plants you mentioned except that particular plectranus.My nasturtiums come up in the same place every year since my late mother planted them in 1996.I have the pleasure of seeing them,eating them and being reminded of her.

My mother used to make sandwiches with nasturtium leaves on them! Deirdre

6/13  Ann - 2120 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 17 January 2011

Thank you for the comments about your childhood garden, Deidre. Isnt it amazing how certain plants bring back strong childhood memories? This made me realise the strong connection that children have to plants and gardening, and inspires me to encourage my 3 girls in their garden efforts! Ann.

Thanks, Ann. I do think it is good to involve the kids in gardening. They sometimes lose interest as teenagers but you never know when the interest will reemerge: my eldest has just completed a degree in environmental science! Deirdre

7/13  Mez - 2577 (Zone:8-9 - Cool Temperate to Alpine) Monday, 04 October 2021

Made me feel very nostalgic. Still have Mums Sydney Cliveas. Find myself turning more & more to her favourites including Impatiens - she called Balsam. Wishing I could grow her Hibiscus in the Sthn Highlands! She used to hand one to the Harbour Bridge toll collectors with her payment - to brighten their day. Maryanne Thanks so much, Maryanne. Love the story about the hibiscus! Deirdre

8/13  Hanni - 2134 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 October 2021

Dear Deirdre, love your writing style (we hurried past these lepers) and had a bit of a chuckle reading your blog this morning! I envy you and others who grew up on their parents properties here and can benefit from their garden treasures. Luckily my kind neighbours donated some plants, like bromeliads which established themselves nicely, with lovely flower spikes. I find Salvias are doing best in my garden, and I have a lot from cuttings pinched here and there. Lovely to have plants from neighbours and some cuttings. Deirdre

9/13  Bren - 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 October 2021

I would include Oleander in your list of garden stalwarts. Now considered too common and perhaps rather old-fashioned, this plant is very tough and is also attractive, with a range of flower colors. Yes it is poisonous, but how many people have died from eating or touching it? Yes I forgot that and Mum did grow them. I don't have one in my current garden but they are such good, tough shrubs - and long-flowering! Deirdre

10/13  Jennifer - 3104 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 04 October 2021

My self sown crassula multicava is growing up through the raphiolepsis indica hedge. Both totally neglected but thriving! Sounds a good combination! Deirdre

11/13  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 05 October 2021

My goal was to have a beautiful English cottage garden, but this was dispelled fairly quickly, and I realised plants grown by my parents, were the ones on which to rely. Nothing really exotic, but clivias, Michaelmas daisies, November lilies, mock orange, bird's nest ferns, maidenhair fern, among others, all found their way to my garden, and are still growing. Well, your garden is gorgeous, Margaret! Deirdre

12/13  Maureen - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 06 October 2021

Lovely trip down memory lane regarding the good old reliable plants many of us have shared over the years. Thanks so much, Maureen. Deirdre

13/13  Janna - UK Wednesday, 06 October 2021

Your description of the garden you grew up in sounds so magical, Deirdre! No wonder you grew up liking plants. Just lovely to think you now have the offspring from your parents' place and, indeed, all the gardens before that! Thanks so much, Janna. Deirdre

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