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Garden Design

A garden full of memories

Karen Hall

Karen Hall

February 12, 2013

These days anyone with a healthy bank balance can ‘buy’ a garden. Any numbers of designers are waiting to transform your bare block into a horticultural masterpiece, creating plans that carry every detail down to the last plant in the most hidden of corners.

All well and good, but where are the memories? Everyone who has created a garden rather than bought one can walk you through their garden, relaying stories of particular plants and the memories they carry with them. Most of us collect plants for our gardens in the same way we accumulate bits and pieces for our homes. By doing this, we are surrounded by past times, good and bad, and our story is being made.

The English Oak planted in 1993 for Peter's father

The English Oak planted in 1993 for Peter’s father

Our garden is dominated by an English oak planted in 1993 when Peter’s father suddenly passed away. We didn’t hesitate to choose an oak – Tommy was statuesque by nature and it suited him well. For years it seemed to languish without much growth, somewhat hidden by shrubs, but now it is tall and strong, its arms beginning to shade and protect a large expanse of garden and lawn.

Elsewhere, a single beautiful birch was planted for a dear friend’s mother, Babe. Planting a birch all by itself is a break from tradition for us, but being a ‘tough old Swede’ meant that again, the choice of a birch for Babe was inevitable.

Rosa 'New Dawn'

Rosa ‘New Dawn’

Of course, not all memories are sad ones. I think I have mentioned before that whenever I see the lovely ‘New Dawn’ rose rambling its way up the cubby house, its’ foliage almost hidden by the sheer volume of flowers, I think of Susan Irvine, who suggested it would be perfect there. She also once gave us a Malus trilobata – a crabapple we had often read about but never found. She shares our love of crabapples and we were incredibly touched when she arrived one day with it in her boot. It is now very tall, with an unusual columnar habit and its distinctive maple shaped leaf.

Many many years ago, before she moved to Tasmania, my mother sent me what felt at the time like hundreds of roses. I think in fact there were 8, but I was so overwhelmed by the gift I felt at the time as if there couldn’t possibly be any other roses I could need. Some of them were David Austins, others were Rogosa hybrids; all carefully chosen by her for their perfume and grace.

Rosa rugosa 'Hansa' given to me by my mother

Rosa rugosa ‘Hansa’ given to me by my mother

Planting Holly's 'Dummy Tree' 15 years agoThere are two very special shrubs in our garden. Both are known in our household as The Dummy Trees. Both Holly and Louis had dummies as tiny children – it only took a couple of sleepless nights for me to realise whoever invented dummies was a saint. When the time came that they were too grown up for dummies (I’m not about the reveal that age), a small ritual took place – a shrub was chosen, a hole duly dug, and both the dummy and shrub planted. For Holly’s it was no surprise, a holly tree; for Louis, a slightly more sophisticated choice of Rosa sweginzowii. Holly never needed her dummy again. Louis on the other hand, had seen it all before, and for weeks he had been preparing a stash of extras, hidden throughout his bedroom. It took a month or so to work through those before he was totally weaned.

Viola tricolor - aka 'Kevin'

Viola tricolor – aka ‘Kevins’

I always think of Holly too, every time I see the sweet little Viola tricolor – or ’Johnny Jump Ups’ as they are commonly known. Profuse self-seeders, they pop up wherever they see fit, their tiny little bright flowers cheerily braving the coldest winters. For some reason known only to her, Holly christened these little flowers ‘Kevins’ and henceforth Kevins they have always been to us.

Over the years, we have been given many plants by friends and customers. In amongst our small birch grove in the front garden is a weeping cypress given to us by a friend when Holly turned one. Not being a conifer lover, for many years I secretly harboured a desire to ‘accidentally’ back over it with the ride on mower. Being weeping, it had a very odd juvenile habit that did not endear it to me at all. Now, nearly 17 years later, it is beautiful, if still a little off-beat in a haunting, ethereal sort of way and I am very glad I resisted temptation.

Helictotrichon Photo Drew Avery

Helictotrichon sempervirens Photo Drew Avery

Our love of ornamental grasses is no secret, and one of our favourites is the Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens). Our first ever one was given to us by the wonderful gardener Judy Humphries and from that single specimen has come every one we have in the garden and each of the hundreds we have sold. Nature is as generous as gardeners.

Another great gardener, Suzie Ranicar, bestowed upon us many, many treasures from her garden, too many to list here. Hers was one of the very first gardens we ever worked in, and her generosity helped us establish our garden. I can remember being amused at how she would transplant even the tiniest seedling to other areas of her garden, and by some miracle – or so it seemed to my untrained eye – they all survived. Often we would be sent home at the end of a days work with a box of seedlings and divisions, the lovely red earth of Red Hills still clinging to their roots.

And so our garden grew, piece by piece. Certainly there were many things we simply bought and planted, but at every corner of our garden there are special memories that were made along the way. You can’t buy these memories; they come from years of true gardening. A ‘bought’ garden can be pleasing, certainly, but it takes years for a soul to establish within a garden, and then it when it becomes truly beautiful.

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10 years ago

What a lovely tale.
I too am beginning that story of my garden. And already with my 2 small children have lovely memories.
My new rosé tess of the dubervilles, which I purchased for my daughters (tess) 1st birthday this week has just popped 3 buds. Hopefully they will bloom for Sunday and there will be some colour in the picture of her in front of it on the day. Can’t wait!

Julie Thomson
10 years ago

How true, Karen Could not agree more. Loved reading about all your garden memories and touchstones. The evolution and journeys that gardens go through are what makes them such joy to walk around, and as you say, gives them soul. Such gardens’s stories are told best of all by a gardener with a long memory and association with every gift, triumph and disaster it holds. I like the analogy of a garden being like a family, full of characters you love for all their disparate habits and personalities, but more than the sum of the whole. It’s love that grows with them and hard to feel for an instant “buy in”.

10 years ago

When you read about a garden remotely and you haven’t set foot in it, it’s a lot harder to feel anything aside from admiration for the beauty of that garden. Once you stand “in” the garden and it melds with your thoughts, your ideals and your passion for plants, it is suddenly alive. This is a lovely post Karen. Jenny and I had the best time wandering around your gorgeous garden and it reinforced our own gardening efforts on a large scale. We recently planted a claret ash in my mothers memory and plan on continuting the tradition. What we put into a garden makes it. My father and his partner purchased the property that we live on now as someone elses garden. Ida had loved this garden with a passion and her passion made it beautiful. After 20 years of neglect, the garden was spent and only barely hanging on but slowly we are rediscovering precious plants that have managed to cling to life in the undergrowth of weeds and blackberries and that are enjoying a new lease on life. We can’t bring ourselves to cull a massive but sparce Rowan and will allow it to live its spindly life out because to someone, it was precious. I think it takes a gardener to understand the true passion in someone elses garden. Whether you love what they have done or not, you can recognise their personality in their gardens. Your garden is a magnificent testimony to both of you and your history in that garden will carry on in someone elses love and appreciation for all of your hard work. I doubt that someone like my father will end up living at Wychwood, you will find that special “someone” who adores the property and who will want to engage themselves from dawn to dusk in that magnificent space.

Catherine Stewart
10 years ago

How could anyone read this and not feel a little misty-eyed? And appreciate your sentiments about what really makes a good garden. It’s not just plants, or design – as Thomas Church said “Gardens are for people”.

Amanda Mackinnon
10 years ago

Lovely story Karen, and also supports my view that plants make terrific presents. Like most of us, I frequently give (and love to receive) plants as gifts. They’re the perfect gift that keeps on giving.