First Person

Gardens of My Childhood

There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colours are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again. —Elizabeth Lawrence, Lob’s Wood

violetsFrom a very early age I was enchanted by plants. My first memories are of delicate sheep’s foot ferns and exquisite purple fringed lilies (thysanotus) that emerged from pasture land on the steep hillside of my grandfather’s property overlooking Warwick on Queensland’s Darling Downs. As a three-year-old I was often sent bare-footed from home a kilometre to the west to deliver messages to grandfather’s household. More often than not, I became so fascinated by the plants that I had to return home to be reminded of the message.

If I was lucky I arrived at grandfather’s backyard gate to the smell of hot scones and the fragrant violets that grew in the shade, absorbing any slow leaks from the tank. I delivered the message while eating morning tea with grandfather and his pet terrier on the side steps beside his small office, which overflowed with account books and old newspapers.

The garden at the “home place”, as it was known, was well established by the early 1940s. Its productive grapevines, which shaded the eastern veranda, were deep-rooted enough to require no watering. Grandfather tended these vines, making sure they were pruned correctly in mid-winter to ensure a good crop of fruit in summer.

In the front garden, the domain of the women of the household, gravel paths defined the layout of the rock-bordered beds where portulacas glistened in the spring sunlight, fading as summer’s heat intensified. Huge spiraea bushes filled each of the front corners of the house-yard. Lawn was never planted, but the garden was always a cool haven in summer.

Late afternoons sometimes echoed to shouts of laughter from the adjoining tennis court, which was surfaced with ant-bed brought by horse and cart from a deposit some distance to the west. Every part of the garden and tennis court had been constructed by my father and his four brothers in their pre-teen years. Grandfather’s strict Methodist beliefs led him to keep the boys busy, as he knew that idle hands were willing workers for the devil.

Vegetables grown by the five women of the household lined a narrow bed beside the back path, where it was convenient to throw the washing water from the laundry or kitchen.

To the north of the homestead, through dense hilly bushland on fertile flat land near a small creek, lived an old man appropriately named Jack Flower. Born in England, he had arrived in Australia as a younger man to do itinerant labour in the Willowvale district. When he was too old for regular labour, he built an earth-floored slab shack, just large enough for him to move comfortably around a small iron bed. At the eastern end was a well-crafted stone fireplace, essential for warmth in the bitterly cold winters. A small tank held enough water for his modest dwelling.

There was an agreement that Jack could live on grandfather’s land rent-free in return for some of the fruit and vegetables he grew. His knowledge of horticulture and stonework suggested that he had worked on an estate in England before he arrived in Australia. He was able to graft nectarines on to apricot trees to produce delicious fruit, much sought after by neighbours. His only tools in the garden were a hoe and a rake. When necessary he borrowed an axe or a scythe from grandfather.

Several times a day he walked the short distance to the nearby creek to fill two kerosene tins, slung on a yoke across his shoulders, to water his garden, always followed by his companions, a cat and a dog. By day’s end he sat pensively on a stump outside the door of his shack, contentedly smoking his pipe, with his devoted pets at his feet.

Once or twice a week my Aunt Bella rode through the bush from the homestead to deliver cooked meat and fresh eggs, returning laden with baskets of fruit and vege­tables. Jack stored his meat in a small safe hung from a rafter on the shady side of his shack.

If he had a surplus of potatoes, Jack walked about five kilometres across hilly country to deliver two sacks to our neighbours, again with a yoke slung across his shoulders. From this modest income he was eventually able to purchase a sulky and pony, which he drove each week to Warwick post office to collect his pension of one pound. He was very proud to be able sign for the pension, but that was the limit of his literacy.

As soon as I was old enough to ride on the pommel of my father’s saddle, I was taken to visit Jack. He greeted us warmly, offering us a few strawberries or a sweet piece of fruit in exchange for cakes or biscuits from my mother’s kitchen. These visits were social calls to check on his well-being or for my father to cut his hair, while I played with his cat and dog.

Jack rose at dawn and finished work at dusk, stopping only for lunch cooked in a camp oven outside his hut. He didn’t own a coat. In rainy weather he folded a wheat sack and placed it on his head to keep his back dry. On cold evenings he retreated into his hut and sat by the open fire. He lived to be a little over ninety. In April 1947 my father drove him to the Warwick hospital, where he died three days later. His cat wandered off into the bush, but his dog was a pathetic figure, howling for his missing master and refusing to eat for some time. After a life of hard work and little expectation of help from anyone, Jack’s sole assets were his sulky and pony, which he bequeathed to my Aunt Bella.

Years later when I was introduced to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, the first verse—

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me

—brought Jack’s weary gait at the end of each day to my mind.

My widowed grandmother, Isabella Tweedie, came to stay with us each autumn, when she dug and planted a long border along the north-facing house-yard fence. She had recently been made homeless when her small cottage in Warwick had been commandeered for army purposes. (Warwick was an important centre for army activity, because it formed part of the north-eastern boundary of the so-called Brisbane Line, a last line of defence against the feared imminent Japanese invasion.) Fortunately she had three daughters with whom she could stay throughout the year.

I was her apprentice at four years of age, old enough to bring very small barrow loads of manure to the garden from the cattle yards. As we worked, accompanied by my cat Pim, we chatted, anticipating the beauty of the spring border. Seedlings of stocks, snapdragons and pansies were purchased from Windell’s Nursery in Warwick and brought home in wet newspaper to be planted late in the afternoon. Sweet peas from saved seeds were planted closest to the fence, never later than Anzac Day. The whole bed was then watered from one of the two household tanks with a four-gallon wire-handled kerosene tin which had holes hammered into its base. Winter rain and good soil preparation ensured the success of the planting. Although she always seemed cheerful to me, I was too young to understand her intense grief at losing her young son, who was killed on the Kokoda Trail.

My mother was able to take large bunches of flowers to her CWA meetings and to my grandmother, who by then was living in Warwick with my Aunt Kath. I have tried to replicate this planting in each of my gardens, but never quite achieved the standard of my grandmother’s border. The perfume of the sweet peas and stocks still lingers in my mind. The grass in the house-yard was sometimes cut with a scythe, but more commonly I sat accompanied by Pim, holding the reins of my pony Taffy while she grazed contentedly for the afternoon. Her ivory grass-stained teeth clipped the grass to perfection. The only other ornamental plants were pelargoniums along the front of the house. They flowered throughout spring and summer and never needed watering.

If these hours were sheer peace and pleasure for me, I was haunted by nightmares of Japanese air raids flying low over our farm, dropping bombs on the paddock where Taffy grazed. I often awoke screaming, much to Pim’s surprise, as he was always tucked safely under my blankets.

Isabella died aged ninety-three, having gardened until the last year of her life. A tree was planted in her memory in the Glennie Heights Primary School grounds.

Give fools their gold, and knaves their power;

Let fortune’s bubbles rise and fall;

Who sows a field, or trains a flower,

Or plants a tree, is more than all.

—John Greenleaf Whittier

Sin Yung was another local gardener of repute. He lived with his two sons in what had been a steel ship container. Its only opening was a door at the southern end. His arrangement of free land was similar to Jack Flower’s. Sin’s patch was flat and fertile and had the advantage of water from a windmill and tank nearby. His specialty was a wide array of onions and leafy greens. He gave his produce to his host family or sold to any other resident who called to make purchases.

Their home must have been woefully cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer, but that did not diminish his cheerfulness. He spoke little English, but his sons were usually on hand after school and on weekends to help and to translate. Recreation was never a part of their lives, nor was it for most of the farmers’ families in the district. Their common goal was to work hard to enable them to educate their children as well as possible. Sin lived to a great age and his sons lived and worked in the district, caring for their father until his death.

Nothing remains of any of these gardens today, but all three gardeners deserve recognition: my grandmother for her emotional strength and courage, Sin for his utter joy in his work, and Jack for leaving no footprint on the earth that he trod.

Noela Shepherd has written several books, including three on gardens.


  • exuberan

    I can still recall the smell of the Gardenia from my Grandfather’s Garden well over 60 years ago. Lovely article and a joy to read

  • ian.macdougall

    A beautiful piece of reminiscence and writing, Noela. I have copied it and filed it electronically to read again wherever I am and whenever I choose, as I am often in the bush, too far away from any transmission tower.

    There is an old Chinese proverb which I am sure you must know: ‘if you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; if you want to be happy for a week, get married; if you want to be happy for a lifetime, plant a garden.’

    (True in my case, except for the second bit. I have been happily married for about 40 years.)

    It is also interesting the way the very old can touch base with the very young via gardening. Virtually the first experience I can remember, as a toddler vintage about 1942, was being shown how to plant beans. This rite of passage took place in the garden of Mr Wardale, the old man who lived next door to us in suburban Sydney. You made a hole in the loose soil with your index finger, and dropped a single bean seed into the hole and covered it over then. You then added water, and watched over the next few days as the line of little miracles took off. That got me started, and I have been at it ever since.

    Memorable days, the greater part of a lifetime away. I learned also about clock time, because at 1.00 PM every day and not too far away, they tested the local air raid siren.

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