Journey to the garden within

Written by Kim Harris

My love of gardening has been a slow burn but somewhat preordained when I think about it.

As a child my mother was often found working or watering in the garden on our semi-rural property.
I remember times when Mum had put a lot of work into the garden – if she was happy with the results, Mum would enter the roses in the local garden competition. Perhaps mum was somewhat obsessive about growing roses, I assumed every house had 30 rose bushes!

Roses lined every garden bed – white, pink, red, yellow, lilac, candy stripped – roses climbing over arches that my father had built for her. I loved the archways: They felt like a portal to another world and were fun to climb as a child.

I have never really understood Mum’s love affair with roses, but I do fondly remember the amazing scent of certain rose varieties and the thick velvety feel of the massive petals.

I would playfully pull off the petals one by one, then tear apart the centre filament and hip – dissecting the delicate anatomy. It was fascinating. It was exciting pulling big scary thorns off the stems on the bush. The bushes varied in size, but I recall them to be big, taller than me and with thorns around one centimetre. I would pinch the thorn on a certain angle, hopefully get a clean thorn removal. If I did correctly, I could achieve a perfectly smooth extraction and not damage the stem. It was very satisfying. I don’t remember ever getting spiked by the big thorns. It was the little sneaky ones that caught you unaware.

I did notice the beauty of Mum’s roses when they were in bloom, but I find it hard to look past the off season when the stems all stand thorny, sad & baron, without even a leaf. Looking almost dead.
Gardening started with Mum’s roses then lay dormant until I bought my first home in Townsville.
I wasn’t really into gardening, but probably more so than most other 23-year-olds. I planted mainly tropical plants like ginger and various heliconias, low maintenance, which mostly looked after themselves, growing quickly in the tropical conditions. I got adventurous and planted a night jasmine at the entrance to the house which had a distinctive sweet and strong scent. I can still picture and smell it! The location in which I grew the Jasmine wasn’t great in hindsight, but I was 23 and having a go at playing house.

After selling the Townsville home, I moved to the other end of the country settling in Melbourne. A different state with unique climate to match. Gardening was nothing like in the tropics. It was time for a beginner’s mind – again.

Starting a family, and doing a renovation left not much time to plan a garden. The yard was really ordinary and needed lots of work.

I would see plants at the nursery I liked and planted wherever I could find a spot which was a recipe for plant murdering right there! Hydrangeas, palms, strawberries were sacrificed in the lesson of learning.

As the years rolled on with two little kids running around I planted dwarf citrus trees, passionfruit vines and an olive tree. Fruit trees are wonderful if you have young children. Picking fruit from the tree is rewarding. Like any fruit tree, citrus requires lots of tender loving care and water. Homegrown sometimes tastes bitter, but you grew it, so you eat and pretend to like it. Children often aren’t as courteous!

The front driveway needed redesigning and replacing, which made way for my first garden space that was bare bones. Excited and nervous I asked for advice at my local nursery. I love nursery folk. They are my people.

I learn so much from talking to people at the nursery. Workers are usually busting with knowledge and plant passion. They definitely want to share with anyone that will listen.

Sparks of love for gardening started here. Designing a garden from scratch was really rewarding to me. I decided to use mostly Australian natives which I didn’t know much about. I was learning fast. Having a vision to utilise distinct height variations, colours, textures and alternate flowering times makes for orchestra which you essentially plant and play. The Melbourne summer can be brutal on non-established plants with temperatures soaring to nearly 45 degrees. This kind of heat quickly kills plants that don’t receive enough water, shade, or attention. After killing a few plants, I installed irrigation which really was great in the summer.

I thought the kids would enjoy a DIY project to personalise the front garden so I purchased basic raw concrete round pavers from the hardware. I carefully broke up some tiles in old towel and used glass stone pebble packs to each make our own piece of history. You draw a rough pattern first with pencil then affixed stones or tiles using a heavy-duty glue followed by a UV stable waterproof outdoor sealer. It’s a fun little project that adds a talking point and character to your space.

Fast forward a tad and I unexpectedly landed a gig as a fulltime single mum where I was happy to be back in my home state of sunny Queensland and Hervey Bay.

Long story, I’ll save that for my book I think!

I found myself in a rental house with tropical established gardens but there was a patch of unkept garden bed around 4m x 4m under a Poinciana tree that I was allowed to use for gardening.

The location was good, and had a tap not too far away. Two issues – massive mango tree stump full of termites in middle of garden and the soil was dead. Bone dry with no nutrients, or signs of life except termites and thousands of ants!

This garden was more than a garden, it became something somewhat spiritual to me. I dug the stump out myself with sheer determination blood, sweat, sunburn and tears.

I got rid of the ants completely and hauled in bag after bag of potting mix, sugar cane mulch and fertilizer. I planted flowers that felt happy and bright like marigold, geranium and a crop of 2-metre-tall sunflower plants with heads like big dinner plates.

King parrots came to my patch, as well as a butcher bird I befriended named George. Kookaburras laughed on the fence and worms found their way to my soil. It was alive with nutrients and life.
The sunflower garden changed me. I learnt a lot about myself from those seeds and the stump. I learnt that I like being covered in sweat and dirt. I learnt that I am made of more than I gave myself credit for. I learnt that a few tears while digging is healthy, singing while gardening is good, talking to birds and animals is fun. I learnt that a garden is somewhat akin to a religious or meditative state. The garden reads your energy and offers whatever you need. If you first understand the garden’s needs and care for it, you are both healed when you work together.

I harvested the sunflower seeds after growth had finished and planted them at my current house, which I moved into last year.

I completely replanted the garden at my current place removing countless yucca and hedges – improving the soil first, working on breaking the clay base with gypsum.

Australian natives occupy the most real estate. A cactus garden makes me smile and attracts attention from curious children. There is a couple of fruit trees, a chilli bush that won’t stop fruiting, Kangaroo Paws aplenty and, passionfruit and choko vines, which are both driving me crazy. I have a fern garden that offers a relaxing view from inside, community herb patch with free herbs to DIY cut. Wattle tree, banksia and olive tree take centre stage.

A healthy population of green tree frogs visit nightly and an increased number of native birds snack on our native nectar. The garden is always changing, doing something interesting, flowering, growing and in need of something to be done. I suppose we have a symbiotic relationship.

I like to water the garden’s barefoot enhancing connection with the cool energy of the earth. It feels good on sore, tired feet.

I have lots of plant friends. It’s a big job making them all happy. Sometimes I fail and a plant dies. But I don’t believe I will ever get irrigation again.

Sometimes I don’t “feel” like I want to water, or I “think” I’m too busy, but I know when the plants need me and I go. I always get more than I give. I always stay longer than I intended. I always feel better off for the exchange. Fraser Coast sunsets included free most days.

We are done time travelling. We are in the here and now.

So the big question after gardening for 20 years.

Have I grown a Rose Bush? No.

I longed to do my life differently from my mum but as time rolls on, I realise we are ultimately very similar women sharing many common interests and traits.

The trick is not only loving the rose when it blooms but appreciating the thorns, understanding dormancy, and all that happens in between when the bush is very much alive, growing & preparing to bloom again.