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Wisteria walk
Wisteria walk, photo by Gretchen Poiner

By Gretchen Poiner

Seemingly quite straightforward questions about gardens and garden-making give rise to complicated answers. Perhaps this is because garden-making is, in itself, a complex undertaking. Even the question ‘why does any one person seek to create a garden?’ is likely to elicit a number of responses. But SUP has asked those of us who contributed to Gardens of History and Imagination to write a few words about how we, as individuals, feel about gardens. Unsurprisingly mine circle about ‘Rosehill’, a garden that I, and my family, have made. I think that the property was named in optimism by the wife of an early selector; four rose bushes constituted the sum total of the garden she tended in her isolation. Gnarled and distorted they continue to bloom, reminding me of the significance they must have had for her.

It was several years after we started farming in the south of New South Wales that we had the time, the energy and the determination to garden. I would stress ‘determination’ since that is what it has taken.

In country of low and uncertain rainfall, with a thin (albeit rich) topsoil made up of decomposing basalt, where every hole has called on the energetic use of a crow bar, sheer bloody-mindedness has been a prime motivator in making a garden. I should add that the soil profile changes only as it moves to a mean, unproductive conglomerate. But now I derive incalculable pleasure and satisfaction from the results of those times of toil that were often enough strewn with disappointment. It is also true that, over the years, the garden has grown and now provides something of its own micro-environment.

It has, however, been a hedonistic exercise where pleasures are set in high relief against dispiriting stretches of drought, endless tormenting wind and searing summers when the grass crackles and leaves hang exhausted in a landscape leached of colour. And all the while the place gives the impression of a wildlife reserve; no doubt charming to the casual visitor, it comes at a price for a struggling gardener, heavily populated as it is by kangaroos, wombats and hares (rabbits too of course) all of which reveal quite innovative and destructive habits in a garden. Small compensation – myriad birds, from wrens to wedge-tailed eagles, bring magic.

Undoubtedly this garden and the making of it are charged with special meaning for me, but this is not to the exclusion of other gardens. Decades ago I was captivated by the garden at ‘Pejar Park’ at Crookwell. I visited it first early in the formative years of my gardening awareness and my eyes were opened to how imagination and, yes, determination again, were critical elements in creating a beautiful garden in a recalcitrant landscape.

Later, ‘Birchbeck’ (another private garden) in Wilde’s Meadow seduced me as I saw it develop from nothing to an enchanting achievement in which the beauty of its planting palette drew together modest treasures and more robust forms, shaping the architecture and excitement of the garden.

These are but two from an extensive list of gardens that have had impact on me personally, and for different reasons. I could, for example, also speak of Betty Malone’s bush garden, of the public parks in regional New South Wales or what was the small but showpiece herb garden at Somerset Cottage at Dural – the list seems endless but probably eye-glazing.

The photos accompanying these words are of the garden at ‘Rosehill’ and they have been taken in good seasons. Why, after all, would I want a reminder of a rudely intractable landscape, of hard seasons, the dog days of summer and of many failures. Of course there is great beauty at other times of the year but I revel in imagery that tells of pleasures that are possible.

Old loo roses=
Old loo roses, photo by Gretchen Poiner

Lunch table=
Lunch table, photo by Gretchen Poiner

Vibernum Opulus=
Vibernum opulus, photo by Gretchen Poiner

Studio rose=
Studio rose, photo by Gretchen Poiner

Cottage garden=
Cottage garden, photo by Gretchen Poiner


Dr Gretchen Poiner is an honorary associate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Sydney. She is the co-editor of Gardens of History and Imagination: Growing New South Wales and the author of the chapter ‘A Sense of Place’.

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