James BeattieCultivating an interest

“So, what did you enjoy most?” I asked my 12-year-old nephew as I drove him to the airport for his flight home. He’d been with us for 10 days on his own (which, I guess, is a long time for a little person), and hanging out with his horticultural uncle meant pretty much everything we did had at least something to do with plants. We camped at Wilson’s Promontory for a week of hiking, looking at plants, swimming, Frisbee and general relaxation. We had a trip to Ballarat to have a look about. We planted some things in the veggie patch at home and sowed seed, all of which he did with a thinly veiled boredom typical of a child on the cusp of adolescence. Throughout the trip I wanted to try and cultivate an interest in plants in him – to plant a seed, as it were – and here is a list of stuff that worked as well as stuff that didn’t.

Hiking up Oberon

Hiking up Oberon

Stylidium graminifolium flower spike Photo MICK STANIC

Stylidium graminifolium flower spike Photo Mick Stanic

Plants that move are awesome – The Prom
In the short walk from the car park at Whisky Bay down to the beach, there were several plants that caught my eye – a little hibbertia, flowering tea tree and a large stand of local fireweed lighting up the dune ecosystem. After pointing out several flowers and their ‘funny names’ to him (Sambucas gaudichaudiana prompting wry disbelief), I found a lone little trigger plant (Stylidium graminifolium) and crouched down with him for a closer look. As I told him about its unique pollination mechanism, I tickled one of the flowers with a small stick and when it triggered there was a flicker of genuine fascination. “That’s awesome,” he said, thoroughly impressed.


Milkmaids, Burhcardia sp

Steep hike, declining attention
At 558 meters above sea level, Mt Oberon isn’t going to win any contest for world’s tallest mountain, but as far as short walks go with show-stopping views, it’s up there. We spotted little milkmaids (Burhcardia sp.) and an unopened sun orchid (not impressed), but the blanket leaf bush (Bedfordia arborescens) and its hairy underside piqued his waning interest. “It’s called bedfordia because it’s soft, like a bed,” I offered. “Hmph…,” he responded. Of all the plants on the hike his favourite was a dead tree fern stump that someone had carved a face into, which he affectionately named Sassy the Sasquatch.

Sassy the Sasquatch

Sassy the Sasquatch

When we got to the top his tired face lit up at the view. Standing on the summit looking down to Tidal River below, I explained the geology of the area to him. Getting a kid to think in terms of geological epochs is a hard one, I’ll admit, but I think he got it. Wilson’s Prom used to form a land bridge to Tasmania when sea levels were lower – tick. The islands you can see far off coast are old hilltops and officially part of Tasmania – impressed tick. Mount Oberon, and all the mountains in the park, were formed deep underground as lava pushed it’s way towards the surface but cooled down before it could break through – lava-is-brilliant-tick. The peak we were on top of would have been deep underground millions of years ago, it’s been exposed after millennia of erosion from wind and rain – genuine-awe-tick.

Lambley Nursery

Lambley Nursery

Nurseries are ‘totes boring’
On our trip to Ballarat we stopped in at Lambley Nursery, which specialises in dry perennials and has one of the most impressive low-to-no irrigation displays this side of Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden. Agastache, phlomis, delphiniums and geraniums in full flight, and echinops hinting at even more impressive display to come, it was a sight to behold and certainly gets your credit card PIN finger in the mood for a workout. Despite my ‘oos’ and ‘ahs’ the nephew soon disappeared, only to be found on a bench near the car park half an hour later, ensconced on his phone surfing Facebook, “This is totes boring,” was all he said. For being such a philistine, both for the abuse of language and his lack of appreciation, I made sure all the spiky plants I’d bought rode in the back seat with him on our drive back to Melbourne.

Lambley Nursery

Lambley Nursery

Sowing seeds is fun
On his last afternoon we sowed some seeds for the vegetable garden. He loved all the different shapes and sizes of seed, from the cucurbits to the root crops, examining them all closely before planting them too deeply or not deeply enough – not that I minded. He clearly enjoyed getting his hands dirty. “Is this working in the garden?” he asked me with more than a hint of surprise, like he couldn’t imagine gardening of any kind being in the least bit enjoyable.

So, what did he enjoy most about his latest trip to Melbourne? I thought surely it would be camping in the wilderness, hiking up a mountain, seeing a trigger plant do its thing – I’d even settle for Sassy the Sasquatch. But no, after thinking about it for a moment and staring out the car window, his only response was, “The sausages.” “Pardon?” I asked, bewildered. “The sausages we had for dinner on my second night, they were pretty good,” he offered. I just laughed and told him that’s great. He would soon forget the sausages – he probably already has – but of all the seeds we sowed, the ones that will live with him forever were the ones you can’t touch or see, they’re the ones planted in his head. One day they might germinate, take root, and blossom into a full-blown gardener. Here’s hoping…

Until next time, happy gardening.

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James Beattie

About James Beattie

James is a horticulturist working in the Melbourne area. His work in the industry has included landscape planting design, hard landscaping, bushland management, garden consulting as well as extensive experience in the horticultural media. He worked for four years as one of the horticultural guns for hire behind the scenes at ABC TV's Gardening Australia program and has been a semi-regular guest on Melbourne's 3CR Gardening Show (855 AM). You can follow his whimsical garden musings at Horticologist

5 thoughts on “Cultivating an interest

  1. I salute you for your patience and forebearance, James, in trying to get an adolescent into gardening. It’s a bit like water on a stone; you just drip away and one day some impact will be made. I just spent a morning in the garden with my daughter who is 32. She has never shown the slightest interest there and I realise it might have to do with my usually giving her the “boring” jobs to do for me when I am there – such as picking up the leaves off the courtyard gravel and snipping back the creepers. When she complains about her discomfort of being on her knees for an hour or more ( on a padded knee rest, I might add!) or the futility of picking up leaves that will drop again tomorrow, I remind her that she is getting off lightly, that we, as kids, had to weed, weed and weed -including the rose gardens which hurt! Am I cultivating a garden lover? Maybe not, but maybe imparting a lesson that every job has its boring bits that are necessary in the whole scheme of things. And the leaves are good and useful mulch for elsewhere. Sigh!

    • I remember that as a kid then teenager, my regular job was to water the pot plants – tough as old boots babies in large concrete pots. A boring job I thought. But when I think about it now, I could tell you the location and even name of every plant I watered. So that dripping water must have got through eventually.

    • Julie, it’s all part of a rich tapestry. The funnest jobs often take the least amount of time, so like you I’m loath to give them over to someone else to have them done for me – nephew or no nephew! That being said, I also like raking leaves and I love weeding (even other gardens think that strange).

      Gardening is not all beer and skittles, and very seldom is it instantly gratifying. It’s a thousand little jobs that, coupled with time, (hopefully) result in a landscape that stimulates, relaxes and nourishes the gardener. At least that’s how I see it. But that’s a difficult concept to define let alone convey to others, least of all to a 12 year old!

  2. I didn’t think either of my daughters would succumb to the gardening bug as neither seemed the slightest bit interested when they were growing up. Then one became a home owner and what ho! There she is most afternoons when she gets home from work, tea cup in hand doing the ‘nurse’s rounds’ of her courtyard. Yes! I’m sure that seed was planted a long, long time ago.

    • The seeds can be quiescent for decades before they decide to germinate – perhaps home ownership is the smoke water that prompts some into action! Or perhaps it’s the heat of taking on a mortgage?

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