Last year I led a tour for Ross Garden Tours to South Australia and Victoria. We were off to see the great rose gardens of the south, and taking the Indian Pacific to get there. One of our group had to cancel at the last minute – her house was under threat from bushfires raging through the Blue Mountains. Our train detoured around the mountains and travelled instead through still-smoking burnt-out country in the southern highlands. We drank an anxious toast to our missing companion.
Margaret was lucky – her house wasn’t one of the almost 200 that burned down around her. Margaret and I have since travelled together to Orange and to Singapore and I am full of admiration for her determination to rebuild her garden from the ashes. Her story reminds me of how many memories we carry in our gardens. It’s also testament to the healing power of gardening. This is the story I wrote for I the Sydney Morning Herald:
Margaret Boyle lives in Winmalee, where last October almost 200 houses burned to the ground. “I know I was very fortunate,” she says, and you can hear the ’but ..’ coming. Boyle kept the house but lost her garden, a loss not just of the beauty she created over 25 years, but of the accretion of memories that are embedded in any garden. “The plants you put in the ground with your husband, and he’s passed away…” , she says, barely able to explain what the garden symbolised.
The acre-and-a-quarter garden was at its peak on the day the fires exploded, having been primped and pampered for Boyle’s annual charity open day. In the days following the flurry of opening, she was enjoying the colour from azaleas, hellebores, crabapples and roses. The box hedges were trimmed, the mulch topped up under the hedge of 170 sasanquas. When the fire arrived it blasted everything in the front garden – the roses, the box hedges, the mature trees; and at the side that neat mulch caught fire and burned the camellias. Heartbreakingly they still looked green on top, yet most died over the following weeks in a slow-motion tragedy. (Here is one of Margaret’s shots of what happened.)
Gardeners have to be hardy. Disaster is always lurking, shape-shifting from the small scale – a wild wind shreds the bananas, rust decimates the frangipani – to the awe-inspiring – drought, heatwave, unseasonal frosts, flood and fires. The litany of disaster inspired garden writer Mary Horsfall to write, ‘Australian Garden Rescue: Restoring a damaged garden’ (CSIO publishing, rrp $39.95). She covers the everyday disasters of pests and diseases as well as disasters caused by our increasingly frequent wild weather. Horsfall notes that fire impacts include much more than burnt plants. The ash changes soil pH, fire-germinated weed seeds and opportunistic blow-ins erupt in the bare soil, and the oil reside from burnt foliage turns the soil hydrophobic. Boyle experienced all these problems after the Winmalee fires and battled them with an extravagant use of seaweed tonic and old-fashioned muscle.
The amount of work was daunting, and so were the decisions about change. “It’s hard to know whether to keep it the same, or not,” she says. Ultimately she decided on a bit of both, resurrecting what she could, abandoning what she couldn’t afford to replace, and taking any horticultural charity – buckets of nandinas, a bootload of bottlebrush – that was offered.
Boyle held her charity open day again this year. Of course, it’s a very different garden without the trees, the hedges, the years-long development of layers of planting, but she felt it was a neighbourly thing to do. “It was a healing thing, a lovely relaxed afternoon,” she says. “People couldn’t get over what I’d done. After seeing so much black you just want things to be colourful.”