The unique ache of breaking up with a garden

The unique ache of breaking up with a garden

There’s no end to the process of making a garden. You put in backbreaking amounts of work and bank-breaking sums of money. You plan, nurture, cajole, tinker and then tinker some more. For many of us, the life of our garden becomes enmeshed with our own. What does it mean, then, when the time comes to leave it?

It’s a question that has been preoccupying Sharon Harris, a garden designer who has been refining her Thornbury property for 24 years and is currently ruminating about whether to sell and move to the country.

Sharon Harris in the garden she has been refining for 24 years.Credit:Eddie Jim

Having watched her Juniper Spartan hedges thicken, her Rosa moyesii ‘Geranium’ grow as tall as a small tree and every space get steadily fuller with perennials, edibles, espaliers, bee hives, a chicken coop, succulents, climbers, water fountains and wood-fired ovens galore, she says one of the things pulling her back from selling is the thought of what new owners would do with her garden.

Subdivision is her biggest fear, but really she worries about anything that overly changes the mood of a place she has blogged about, opened to the public and generally devoted great swathes of her time to.

While gardens are, by their very nature, ephemeral, we all know there is nothing like new owners to hurry things along. Think Melania Trump pulling out 10 crab apples from the White House’s rose garden, or closer to home, the frequent levelling of Melbourne backyards to make way for townhouses. Then there’s the everyday but not-insignificant tweaking that inevitably occurs as any owner moves on and people with different tastes move in.

The space has grown ever more layered.Credit:Eddie Jim

Even much-visited and widely loved gardens like the big, punchy Australian-plants filled one that Rick Eckersley fashioned over a decade in Flinders aren’t immune.

Two years after the garden designer sold his 10-acre Musk Cottage, he was lamenting that the new owners were starting to erode it. “(They are) pulling down the buildings, which will start changing the garden and how it was wrapping around the property. Everything was dovetailed into everything else,” he said while publicising a book on the property last year.

But Eckersley was pragmatic too. “You’ve got to suck it up and move on. It’s like the end of a relationship. It runs a certain length and when it’s done, it’s done.”

At the Australian Landscape Conference earlier this year, English garden writer Tim Richardson was also using break-up terms to describe how people might part ways with their garden. “Sometimes people divorce their gardens, they hate them,” was his take. “Gardens give us misery as well as pleasure.”

Richardson wanted to get us away from the idea that our gardens are always soft and gentle places where beauty and happiness reign. But while gardens can undoubtedly evoke dark feelings as well as sunny ones, acrimonious divorce-style bust-ups are rare. For most of us, caring for a patch of land is a relatively replenishing exercise, and selling it a wrench.

“It earths you,” is how Harris describes making a garden over decades. She says if, when she first bought her house then surrounded by lashings of bare grass, she had been told the garden wouldn’t outlive her time there, she would have still gone ahead and done it.

Harris does much of her cooking outside.Credit:Eddie Jim

But any destruction would leave her feeling “hurt” all the same. “I would think it was a lack of respect for the care and thought that has gone into designing the layout and structure,” she says.

“It would be removing 24 years of growth and nurture. You have to surrender to the fact that somebody will come in and make changes but you like to think that the essence would be kept the same. So much time and effort goes into a garden, it is like nurturing a child. One of the best pleasures you get out of a garden is the act of actually going out and doing, and being able to create something that’s living and breathing.”

It’s something for all of us to keep in mind. It doesn’t always pay for a gardener to think too far ahead – sometimes it’s better to dwell on what’s beneath your feet.

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