Anne LatreilleWho gave me that plant?

Gardens are made of memories – and it is surprising how little work it can take to disinter them. I’ve been cleaning up some of the wilder parts of my own garden, ahead of opening it early next year for the 25th anniversary of Open Gardens Australia. Why did I ever say yes? There is so much to do I cannot believe it.

Today I decided to deal with the fishbone fern.

I got it goodness knows how many years ago from a friend – can’t remember who – to plant around the base of my old quince tree, where absolutely nothing would grow. It looks great next to the gnarled trunk but has done rather too well.

And it has swallowed up two favourite plants.

First, a gorgeous ground-covering shrub, Ceratostigma willmottianum, whose leaves colour up beautifully in autumn when it has deep blue flowers at the tip of each branch. There’s not much that is fresh and new in the garden at this time of year, so I value it greatly. Luckily it is tough. It’s still doing OK but I can almost hear it saying ‘thank you’ as I rip out the fishbone fern. Where did it come from? I’m not sure, but it has been fun trying to remember.

Second, a hydrangea that I got from a dear old friend, Tommy Garnett.

Tommy came to Australia from England in the early 1960s. When he stepped back from being a school principal, he started writing – books and newspaper articles about gardens and plants, the landscape, and birds. He was the engine room behind rescuing some of Victoria’s deteriorating country botanic gardens. And he set up at a property in the Wombat State Forest, near Blackwood. The soil was poor and the water supply uncertain but there he made a wonderful garden that he called the Garden of St Erth. E-R-T-H. He mulched and mulched and then mulched some more, at a time when we didn’t always do that, and encouraged all kinds of rare plants to grow. (The garden is still there, now owned and opened to the public by Clive Blazey of Diggers Seeds).

The hydrangea that Tommy gave me – Hydrangea arborescens – is really great. It has lime green flowers around Christmas time and it, too, is tough as old boots, much more so than your average hydrangea. I planted a cutting elsewhere a few years back, which is thriving, and forgot about the original once it was swallowed by the fishbone fern. But today as I sadly yanked out what I thought was its corpse I was thrilled to find a healthy sucker, its stem dotted with fresh new buds. I must chop it back and move it somewhere else to give it a fair chance, because the fishbone fern will be back in no time.

And here’s another memory. Part of one of Jessie’s bones! Jessie was a 40kg black pointer cross-breed dog who demolished my garden for almost a decade, flattening the plants and digging enormous trenches to bury the bones she loved to gnaw. Maybe one day I will stop finding them. But like rocks in difficult soil, they just keep on swimming to the surface. Actually, it’s good to be able to think about Jess – as well as Tommy. I reckon that gardens are about people and memories as much as they are about plants.

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Anne Latreille

About Anne Latreille

Writer, editor and journalist. Author of 'Garden Voices' (about Australian garden designers past and present, September 2013), 'Garden of a Lifetime' (Dame Elisabeth Murdoch at Cruden Farm), 'Kindred Spirits' and 'The Natural Garden'. Melbourne, Victoria.

4 thoughts on “Who gave me that plant?

  1. Hi Anne,
    I must confess Tommy Garnett is a bit of a hero of mine both as a gardener and writer. His words were so beautifully composed and his columns were always topical yet timeless. Although I never had the chance to meet him I feel like I knew him as I was given the opportunity to access some of his personal notes and collections as part of an essay I wrote in my student days. How lucky you are to have called him a friend.

    • Would you believe he got me started on garden writing….I owe him a lot. More than 25 years ago he asked me to look after The Age’s garden page for him while he went home to England for three months. I had been writing an environment column for The Age quite a few years but knew next to nothing about gardening. He said don’t worry, there are a few good contributors. So I began, and found I really enjoyed it (and the contributors). He got back, phoned up, said ‘How is it going?’ I said: ‘Great!’ ‘Then it’s all yours! … I often wonder how my working life would have panned out if it hadn’t been for Tommy. He was the gentlest, sharpest, funniest, most persistent and most rewarding person. I ran a vegetable garden competition in the late 80s (for which we had several hundred of entries) and he helped me judge it. We drove all round Victoria, boy was it fun. Very glad that he helped you also! Sounds like you have read some of his books. My favourite is ‘Stumbling on Melons’.

  2. I really loved your post about who gave me that plant, Anne. I too ruminate on where many of my garden specimens originated, and it is mostly from friends and family generosity ( or pinched by me when they weren’t about).
    Some are a mixed blessing, like the fishtail , which also threatens to ride roughshod over much of my patch. Others are a continuing delight and a lasting memory of people whom we have loved and who, in some cases, have left us.
    I am going to try that Hydrangea arborescens – I don’t seem to have much luck with growing hydrangeas in SE Qld. Our neighbours in Brisbane where I grew up, always had a swag blooming every summer and it was my job to pick vases full for our Christmas table.

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