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Are you a keen gardener?

“Dig for victory” – and so, like many others in my family I did. Lawn was sacrificed to rows of runner beans, carrots and lettuces. Behind them all was the mess that ducks, and later hens, produced. We kept the roses for the hips and grew edible flowers like nasturtiums as well as mint, parsley and thyme. But it was all very unstable – no certainty that one would still be there to reap what one had sown as even civilians were directed hither and yon. What fascinated the child that I was, was how things grew. You took a boring-looking, blackish pip and put it in the ground. You watered it and waited and after a time the earth above it was broken by a greenish something and if you sheltered this from the birds and the squirrels it turned into a plant – and one lump grew into a bean plant and another into a carrot. I have never lost this sense of wonder even though I am amongst the world’s worst gardeners – give me a flourishing plant and it is likely to die in my hands. As I grew, I came to wonder where all these different seeds came from and how they were brought together, how long people had nurtured them and where they had found them.

Spring flowers outside the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, photo by Sybil Jack
Spring flowers outside the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, photo by Sybil Jack

What does garden-making mean to you?

To me a garden was, and fundamentally still is, a small plot in which one can encourage different things to live and thrive. It is the plants that make it important to me, not the place, because no-one can be sure they can spend their lives in a single environment. I did of course encounter great gardens – the first at Charlton House in London, where its use by the Women’s Voluntary Service for manufacturing camouflage gave me the run of the house and garden while my grandmother worked. I remember hoping the mulberry tree would give me some fruit – not knowing at the time that it may have been the first mulberry tree planted in Britain. To me, however, this was not a proper garden – it was too big and too dispersed. Visits to other great English gardens like Blenheim and Stow did not stir my imagination. What moved me more were the gardens where plants dominated – Sissinghurst and Great Dixter.

A friend’s garden near Chard looking towards the Quantock Hills, Somerset, photo by Sybil Jack
A friend’s garden near Chard looking towards the Quantock Hills, Somerset, photo by Sybil Jack

What was the most personally meaningful garden you visited and why?

When I came to Australia I was surprised to find how similar garden plants were to the ones I was familiar with in Britain – especially azaleas and camellias – E.G. Waterhouse’s garden at Eryldene attracted me enormously. I was also intrigued by the many native Australian plants that were so different: callistemons, banksias and acacias, all of them unique. Thereafter, gardens had to take second or third place to family, work and research. I studied forests, woods and trees – in Australia particularly the Callitris – but not gardens. Visits to Japan and China, however, stimulated reflections on how different ideas of gardens could be in unfamiliar cultures. Every time I encountered an unfamiliar plant, I wondered how, why and when plants spread across the world; what plants were there in the earliest documented gardens; what could archaeology add to our understanding of the origins of the garden and the many forms it took. This was what led me to study the spread of plants in NSW. It became apparent as I worked that it was only part of a global shift in the distribution of plants in the period, a form of colonisation that has all too often been overlooked but which may in the end be more important than many more prominent shifts. There are still many things I am hoping to pursue including sacred gardens and sacred plants with their role in spirituality, and their formal and informal symbolism in different cultures.

Gosford-Edogawa Commemorative Gardens near Gosford, NSW, photo by Sybil Jack
Gosford-Edogawa Commemorative Gardens near Gosford, NSW, photo by Sybil Jack

What are you reading right now?

You could have a list but for starters, I am reading Eco-Cultural Networks and the British Empire edited by James Beattie et al (Bloomsbury 2015) and Peasants and Lords in the Medieval English Economy: Essays in Honour of Bruce M. S. Campbell, edited by Maryanne Kowaleski et al (Brepols 2015). And the usual bedtime historical fiction.


Sybil Jack, an Oxford-educated economic historian, was dragged out to NSW by her first husband and later spent over 40 years teaching and researching at the University of Sydney on a wide range of topics including agriculture, forestry and industry, town and country life in Europe and Australasia. She is the co-editor of Gardens of History and Imagination: Growing New South Wales and the author of the chapter ‘Garden Elements: Seeds, Plants and Their Sources in Colonial New South Wales’.

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