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What was the inspiration behind your chapter in the Gardens of History and Imagination?

My growing fondness for, and fascination with, harbourside gardens inspired my chapter, ‘Riverine Gardens of Sydney Waterways’. These properties did not simply look out at the water; they deliberately incorporated their harbour views into their landscapes, and were themselves designed to be seen from the water.

Pavilion at Riverview, photo by Stuart Read
Pavilion at Riverview, photo by Stuart Read

One example is Yaralla (better known as the Dame Eadith Walker Convalescent Hospital) at Concord on the Parramatta River. Catch a ferry to or from Parramatta and you’ll see its trees and Italianate mansion tower over a wide fringe of mangroves lining the bay – intriguing both for its extent and in contrast to the bland suburbia to the north, east and west. A private estate from convict days (the land was granted to emancipist Isaac Nichols in 1797), Yaralla was later taken up by a banker (Thomas Walker) and bequeathed to Eadith Walker, his only child. I once met a woman (a great gardener even in her eighties) who grew up on this estate as her father was a gardener. She rowed a boat to school across the bay, milked cows and rode horses in the midst of Sydney! It was once a self-sufficient country estate, before becoming a convalescent hospital. It remains, amazingly, in the middle of Sydney’s concrete and traffic-snarl – a quiet idyll of space, calm and green.

As car-mad commuters we forget how haphazard our roads were for decades and how critical water-transport was. So much of Sydney is a labyrinth defined by fingers of land, peninsulae protruding into snake-like rivers, creeks and bays. On some of these fingers remain fragments of gardens, parkland and institutions dating to 1788, such as the Sydney Botanic Garden and Parramatta Park.

Yaralla Mansion (now Dame Edith Walker Convalescent Hospital), Concord, NSW, Australia, 19 October 2007, photo by JROBBO
Yaralla Mansion (now Dame Edith Walker Convalescent Hospital), Concord, NSW, Australia, 19 October 2007, photo by JROBBO. Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Are you a keen gardener?

Although limited by space and circumstances, I have some 50 pots of plants (climbers and miniatures are my specialities) in a glazed-in former sunroom in an apartment. I have just given away my Davidson plum tree (3m tall and fruiting) to a colleague with more space. I was gardening outside my former office but we have moved and the site is going to become a public school again, so that outlet for gardening is no longer. I cannot resist seed pods and cones, so I always have babies on the rise, looking for bigger homes.

What does garden-making mean to you?

To me, garden-making means hope – nurturing growth, flourishing, returning to health and, in time, to beauty. The thrill of coaxing a seed to give rise to a plant, watching it unfurl its first cotyledons and then its true leaves, seeing it branch and bush out, is like watching a child mature into a young adult. It means giving, as, without soil or land on hand, my gardening means gifts to others or tending others’ gardens. It also means connection – learning about place and binding myself to a place, a soil, a climate, a district.

What is the most personally meaningful garden you have visited and why?

Brownlow Hill, at Orangeville south-west of Camden and Cobbitty, is an inspiring old colonial garden, reflecting two families (the Macleays and the Downes) who created it and have tended it since the 1830s. It bears striking evidence of the global networks of family, friends and contacts in horticultural, botanical and administrative circles that contributed to colonial garden-making among such circles. It has a rich collections of plants from India, the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Australian rainforest. Above all, it is beautiful, restful and mature – it hasn’t been ‘tricked up’ by some whizz from TV-land. It remains just lovingly and haphazardly tended, as one would tend a home.

Brownlow Hill, photo by Stuart Read
Brownlow Hill, photo by Stuart Read

What are your favourite plants?

My favourite plants vary all the time – as enthusiasms arise, as I find out about ‘new’ (to me) or different ones. Recently I’ve been exploring what ‘yams’ are and mean to Aboriginal people. This seems to be a wide category of edible root- or rhizome-bearing plants – orchids, grasses, yam-daisies - herbaceous and clumping plants with starch-bearing ‘roots’ that form a key part of traditional diets. They need cultivation to propagate and flourish, and I loved devouring Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (Magabala Books 2014) on the active cultivation of plants including ‘yams’.

What are you reading right now?

At present I am reading books on Capability Brown, the great destroyer and re-maker of the contrived, supposedly- ‘natural’ landscapes of many English country seats. I am reluctantly coming to the end of Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor by Jennifer McLagan (Ten Speed Press 2014), a wry book of recipes and food history that recounts how some plant-foods are awaking this part of our palettes. And I am enjoying The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney: The First 200 Years, edited by Jennie Churchill (Halstead Press 2015), a celebration of our oldest European garden and its evolution. So many more await!


Stuart Read is a New Zealand-born landscape architect and horticulturist who specialises in cultural heritage, focusing on landscape design, parks, gardens and plants. He has just written a self-guided walking tour of the plants of the Yaralla Estate, which he hopes will be published at www.slhd.nsw.gov.au/Yaralla/ by spring 2016. Stuart is the author of the chapter ‘Riverine Gardens of Sydney Waterways’ in Gardens of History and Imagination: Growing New South Wales.

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