Catherine StewartHow do I say ‘goodbye’ to my garden?

We’re moving. It’s something I want to do but I’ve gardened here for nearly 18 years and I’d be lying if I said it was going to be easy to walk away from so much thought, love and toil. Over the past five years of reading GardenDrum many of you have seen my garden develop – its painstakingly-built gabion walls; its reused concrete retaining walls; its grey, weathered deck; its Link Edge garden edging: and many of its best plants, particularly my beloved pentas. How can I tear myself away?

Back garden with gabion walls


The reasons for the move are multi-faceted. Sydney’s overheated property market means that we hope we’ll get a good price and something to add to a retirement nest-egg. The five bedroom, three bathroom, tri-level home with swimming pool that was great for our young family is now way too big for the two of us and it feels selfish to hog it when another family could enjoy it as we once did.

Reused concrete walls


But more than that, it’s about ‘putting your life off balance‘. It was a phrase I first heard many years ago when a design colleague told me she had sold her large home with her equally large and fabulous garden in Sydney’s north. When I asked where she was headed she said:

“I don’t know! But we’ve decided that if we stay here we will just grow old doing the same old things we’ve always done and we don’t want to do that. We’ve realised that we have to do something radical to put our lives off balance, to force ourselves to change.”

So we’re heading out of the city, to a much smaller home in a much smaller coastal town. And, in the first instance, to a ‘garden’ that barely exists – a few badly butchered trees, and garden beds featuring a weedy mess of ivy, asparagus fern and fishbone fern, and escaped wisteria. So not exactly like what I’m leaving here.

Our new home – at least temporarily


How do I bring myself to say goodbye to this wonderful city garden and leave it behind? And how long is it likely to last with its new owners, this eclectic garden filled with unusual plant treasures that most people wouldn’t differentiate from plants they could buy cheaply at a box store? Can I bear to imagine its destruction?

The large Grevillea johnsonii as upped and died


The garden seems to be choosing to say goodbye to me.

It’s extraordinary that since we’ve made the decision to leave, it’s as if the garden has decided:

‘Well, pooh to you then!’

Not one but THREE major plants have upped and died within a couple of months, leaving large holes to fill or disguise in a way that makes them look like they’re not really holes at all but ‘This space left deliberately blank‘.

First it was the huge Grevillea johnsonii behind the pool which screens views of the road beyond. Nothing to be done here.

Then it was one of the very old camellias on the side boundary, providing privacy between us and the neighbour. Other than trimming off the clusters of dead twigs, again no way of fixing this. Maybe the contractor who washed my neighbour’s adjacent paving used something diabolical in his cleaning solvents.

Now-dead Escallonia ‘Red Knight’


And then it was the Escallonia ‘Red Knight’, positioned in a very obvious sightline from the back door out on to the deck suddenly turning up its toes. An as-big-as-you-can-find Lomandra ‘Katie Belles’ will have to fill its shoes.

Garden after planting Lomandra ‘Katie Belles’.


Keeping everything growing well in this super hot and dry summer is wearing me out and the garden’s charm is definitely fading.

My plants are mostly drought hardy, although on these shallow clayey-sand water-repellent soils, ‘drought hardy’ is impossible to achieve as even succulents like crassula can succumb after a while. It’s 38º C here again today (over 100ºF) and pretty much everything is wilting, including many of my low-water-use soft-wooded perennial and sub-shrub stalwarts, like dahlias, pentas, cordyline and various salvias and even some of the aloes are feeling it. Only the bigger shrubs are coping reasonably well and, even on those, the newer growth is also wilting.

My front garden, blessed with shallow, water-repellent clayey sand soil.


The Bureau of Meteorology statistics for January 2017 so far (1 to 24 Jan) succinctly tell the story – only 30.6mm of rain (mean January rainfall is 102.5mm) but a whopping 199.5mm of evaporation.

In other summer drought years I’ve let many of the plants wilt knowing that, as the weather cools down and the rains finally come, they’ll revive well enough, although they’ll look a bit manky for a few weeks. But with a house going on show for sale, manky is not an option so water, water, water it is. And I’m totally over it. And the garden’s tanks are already dry so it’s pay for water too. Fortunately the city’s main dam is still at 88.8% full so there’s no water restrictions to deal with right now.

The mid-summer timing of this garden preparation for sale is very difficult, but it’s also fortunate in other ways. It’s made me think more about how I want to spend my time, both in and out of the garden, and fussing over lots of treasured plants is not on the list.

Front entrance garden, just surviving 38 degrees C


This garden is not really mine

Even though I’ve ‘made’ this garden in many ways, I think that it is a living, breathing and constantly developing eco-system with a life that’s quite separate and independent of me. Yes, I’ve put together the building blocks, but it’s not really mine, rather like the way I mothered two daughters but I certainly don’t own them and can’t claim that much of their best bits are due to me.

Similarly in my garden, nature constantly rewards my negligence or thwarts my best efforts. Plants die unexpectedly despite care and attention. Others defy extermination and eventually win begrudging admiration, if not love. I guide, but I can never control.


Will this garden be loved by somebody else?


It is time for this garden to belong to someone else

I am often reminded, when it’s time to let go of something, of these lines from the movie Chocolat.

But still the clever north wind was not satisfied. It spoke to Vianne of towns yet to be visited, friends in need yet to be discovered, battles yet to be fought…
[Vianne throws her mother’s ashes to the wind]
Storyteller: …By someone else, next time.

There will be lots of joys and despairs from this garden in years to come. Or maybe it will become a sea of paving, artificial grass and rows of red cordylines, like the garden surrounding a brand new house up the road.

But it will be by someone else…next time.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

17 thoughts on “How do I say ‘goodbye’ to my garden?

  1. Great sentiments and such a personal thing Catherine. It made me think back to Karen Hall’s piece on leaving Wychwood, when they found ‘creating’ had given way to ‘maintaining’. Sometimes it’s just time to go. As a perennial renter, I am often farewelling gardens both good and bad, but they all inevitably have special plants I’ve added that I never get to see to maturity. So I now view these gardens as spaces for horticultural experimentation and a bit like a sour dough, I always take snippets of favourite succulents and plants and integrate them into the next space, so there is a common living thread that continues through. Putting your life off balance can be invigorating and I’m sure your fingers are tingling with creativity for your next garden – enjoy!

  2. I think all of us gardeners have felt like “getting away from it all”. I know I have done this three times, -made a large garden or changed a garden, only to find life’s wheel spinning me somewhere else. To me it has been a blessing early on, but the I crave to see how that garden has grown, how it’s changed with time. And I never can. Last year we started again. Making a large garden from a cow paddock. Seeing something of the end point before you start, and hoping that the seasons are kind. I am feeling those emotions of joy as every new shoot emerges, and trepidation as the ground dries out. Best of luck with your sale, and new adventures. I look forward to following your journey further. Cheers Kym

  3. Catherine, I’m thrilled for you! Developing a new garden… of any size, in any climate – will be inspirational, rewarding, and outweigh the goodbyes.

    Just before I began writing for Garden Drum, I was in a holding pattern with the old garden, hemmed in by shade, the past and “existing things”. The new area, even covered in blackberries, was a new space to beautify and there is at least another decade of development to keep me busy. It will be the same for you, I’m sure!

    You have all that gardening experience to pour into somewhere new. Everything will be so much easier and more intuitive in the new space. My dream block is completely bare other than a few scattered trees, deep, rich, well-drained soil plus a plentiful water supply… maybe yours is the same..? Please tell! Whatever it is, you’ll have a *wonderful* journey! Enjoy, and can’t wait to hear more details!

  4. Hi Catherine,
    Yes farewelling a garden is complicated. However, I’m not sure I agree with the idea that once you’ve established a garden and locked into a ‘holding pattern’ doing maintenance, it’s time to move on. For me, a garden is never finished. It is just that once mature, the process of garden making becomes more subtle as you tune into the climatic rhythms of you little place on Earth. And then there’s always Nature’s part in the relationship we call gardening, forever wild, throwing out the unexpected, putting the garden off balance a little. I love that! I am one of those gardeners who prefers to play with this wildness rather than aim for total control. So for me leaving an established garden that I have a long history with is a loss – the rending of a bond of love and care that I grieve.
    Like you I hope to farewell my garden soon. Not because it’s too big and demanding, quite the opposite. This will be my second time. And yes, I found the previous loss painful, particularly when I returned to find the magnificent liquidamber at the front gone to make way for a car space. I mourned the tree and the loss of control I have just claimed is unimportant to me. Oh Dear! I can be very inconsistent.

    And yes, that loss was balanced by the creative challenge of a new garden in a new climate, with different soils and one tenth the size of the one I departed. Probably the biggest loss was having to give up on so many of the plants that thrive in Melbourne’s Mediterranean climate but struggle pathetically here in coastal Sydney. Despite these challenges, I have established a garden I have enjoyed immensely, and is admired by others. It will be hard to leave, particularly in the knowledge that it will most likely be bulldozed to make more efficient use of this ridiculously expensive land.

    However, my loss is assuaged by the knowledge that I have with my gardening habit contributed to the establishment of a rainforest on what was formerly the local tip. I have far greater hope for the longevity of this little ecosystem than I do for my garden up the hill. And this is on public land over which I’ve always felt I’ve had so little control. Funny that.

    Good luck with your new garden Catherine. From your picture the new garden could well be described, to borrow a real estate euphemism, as a renovator’s delight. My personal favourites when it comes to gardens. Long ago as a landscaper, I always preferred working within a framework of established trees, (even badly butchered ones), than on the empty canvass of a cow paddock or similar. But that is just me. I wish I had Kym’s powers of visualisation, to be able to see ‘something of the endpoint before you start’. But I am completely inner-eye blind. So having a rough outline to fill in, as you hav,e is my preference. I wonder what I will be given with my next move.

    I hope you new garden gives you many years of off-balanced pleasure. Yes, do enjoy!

  5. Last time we moved we took more plants than furniture and if we ever move again it will be the same again! I think there is great excitement in creating a new garden, even more knowing that you have created something marvellous before and can do so again. However hard it is to say goodbye, when it is time for the next phase in life there is no point fighting it – go where the north wind takes you! Really looking forward to future installments on the progress of your new garden.
    I think we can all relate to this story and feel your heartbreak and your joy!

  6. It’s always the journey Catherine… and you’ve added plenty to your current garden to give the new owners great pleasure. Who knows – they may even care for it as well!
    And as for your next journey – incredibly exciting!

  7. Best wishes Catherine. I do hope that the new owners keep your established garden rather than follow the prevailing trend of ‘gravel and spikes’ – so unsuitable in our very hot climate. And ugly!

  8. I had to leave my 2 acre garden of 15years to make way for Melbourne’s expanding borderline. It was positioned initially in a “green wedge” (never to be built out) but laws change. It was bulldozed two weeks after I left. Devastated !!!

  9. Hi Catherine…..we left our farm and lovingly created large country garden of many years, 18months ago. We are now renovating and replanting the overgrown uninteresting garden here…..I have finally ceased dreaming about my previous much loved garden and have “moved on” as they say, well almost!!! I can at least now glance at photos . Home is certainly where you make it…was interested to see the recycled concrete walls…used extensively by us previously and trying to source some again now. Best wishes and enjoy. ☺☺

  10. All the best with your move Catherine, and the adventures that lay ahead. By the way, we have managed to find someone who is taking our old concrete paths to reuse them to build a terraced garden. We sent him the link to your article with the photos of how you reused old concrete pieces and he was immediately inspired! Thank you!

  11. Congratulations and good luck with your decision to remove yourself from the gridlock of Sydney Catherine. Only time will tell how many gardeners will remain in that once pretty city. A city where trees are no longer a requirement. Where gardens are fast becoming a remnant of an ideal long lost to modern society. Bricks and tiles, roads and poles, wires and drains take up the space where once some green was the norm.

    Never mind. Life goes on without us; but within us (gardeners) life cannot continue without the feel and sight and soul of all that horticulture avails us. Rural life with its bucolic views where factories are prohibited and where the dominant colour is green, is such a calming and welcome addition to aging sanity.

    We moved 10 years ago. Should have done it earlier. Gardens created and left behind are but a step in life’s staircase. Without all that planting there would be no sorrow in leaving. Any and all future planting will be due reward for your decision to leave. Life is a gamble but gardeners will always win, because what you have done and what you are about to do will always inspire your hope to achieve true beauty.

  12. Hi Catherine,
    We are going through the same experience, having moved to the Southern Highlands for much the same reasons as you. We call it Rebooting our lives! The reply above says it better than me but Sydney is becoming a soul less place. We miss lots of things, not just our home and garden, but a gentler pace and new challenges are exciting. I’m sure all will go well. Good luck,

  13. I am going through the exact same process as Catherine. I’ve been here for over 20 years and changed the garden completely. There will heartache over some of the plants I have nurtured but time to move on. There will be tears but confidence in a bright future. I am moving from Melbourne to Adelaide. A much quieter pace. Good luck to everyone in the same boat.

  14. Hi Catherine.
    Long time no see! Hope you do enjoy the move, and your next design challenge (Nice serious slope at the front to get you thinking!)
    I’ve been a serial renter for the last 17 years, and one thing about moving is that you do get a form of tabula rasa (albeit with the previous bones and flesh in place), where you try new plans out and let’s face it, mostly we experiment in our own gardens at least part of the time! So grasp the new opportunity, take some risks as I know you will, and create.
    I find it really difficult to leave behind the bones etc of my previous design, but as I get older, I don’t have the strength to undertake demanding installations, and nor the money to employ someone else to do it.
    I have been in my current house for 3 1/2 yrs, and have done nothing to the garden except kill some of the plants I brought with me, and create a small garden under a White Cedar. Groan. I’ve been very busy with work, and somehow the garden has been somewhere way down the to-do list. The planned Japanese miniature stroll garden with frog pond is just a hole in the ground in which no self-respecting frog has made a home. The grass gets out of hand (note, it could not possibly be called even a lawn, let alone a sward), but The Time Has Come. I have looked differently at the spaces I have, and how much I use them; how much sun and shade everywhere gets; frost and sun exposure etc, and now I think I am keen to make a garden at last.
    A germ of a design idea is growing….we shall see. By the way, I get the feeling you are looking to relax on the maintenance side, with more easy-care spaces – me too!

  15. Catherine when we bought our current house four years ago the seller did the unusual thing of inviting us around before settlement. He generously showed us aroud the house and garden and pointed out all the things he had done, and some of the quirks.

    Maybe you could try this with the new buyer.? It would help them appreciate what they have bought, and maybe consult you with any issues. They might even invite you back to see how ithe garden evolves.

  16. We have just started on our 5th garden in just over a decade and have left gardens spread from the far north to the southern coast. One thing it does teach you is about what you value in a space. Your style is refined each time you start again, and all that experimentation makes decision making much quicker the next.
    It is like the konmarie method for your garden. If it doesn’t make your heart sing, the plant combination, garden style, use of space or high maintenance hedge does not need to be repeated. What is left is refined to pure joy. I know that your new garden will be just that.

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