By David Bromley
When I say I have 6 fairly large-scale gardens, it seems like I’m lying, as only 7 to 8 years ago I had trouble keeping a pot plant alive. From memory I didn’t even own a sprinkler, I had a hose and a spray nozzle but rarely used it. Now I can safely say, I am obsessed…. by something I really know very little about… gardening.
Admittedly I had a garden in Byron Bay, and perhaps many moons ago one in Noosa Heads. I have driven past my old place in Byron and it seems to be flourishing. I planted twenty bottle trees at a farm near Ballina, but in a place where the rain looks after the garden you don’t really need to know how to garden in the tropics. I remember telling people I grew paw paws and a few other plants which I now can’t remember the names of as if that gave me some kind of gardening credentials. In reality I didn’t deserve an ounce of credibility. But it seems my interest in gardening had very clumsily begun.
Very hot and dry in summer and frost and occasional snow in winter, moving to Daylesford taught me that to keep a plant alive required some skill! I brought some large bottle trees in on a big truck from Bryon, they were stopped and held in storage somewhere en route and on final arrival with broken limbs and all I dug them into the ground. I didn’t put water in the hole nor did I water them once they were in. Fortunately I had a life changing gardening moment some time later when someone helping me plant some plants watered them in … it seemed to make sense to me… but this was after the bottle trees.
“As in most things I do… I tend to go on gut instinct, gardening for me is most definitely that.”
After the shock of their journey and the climate change that made them throw off all their leaves in disgust, I was left guessing whether they would survive or not. What I did was walk around speaking to them, encouraging them to show me a sign that a bud would appear. I also didn’t know then that a simple blade or coin scratching the surface could show whether a plant / tree was still alive by revealing green under the surface layer of brown. Not knowing this I pleaded with them and cajoled them into springing to life. One very large bottle tree which I had very high expectations for – not just because of its journey but the position I placed it in the garden, took a good 9 months of this until one day a leaf finally appeared. I yelled and leapt around the garden in euphoria … that to me seems like a perfectly normal reaction to these plants that I hold so dearly and expect to outlive me.
At my age (61), I very much think I am gardening for the next generation. That may seem melodramatic – it’s not at all. The few friends I have left from my childhood who keep in closer contact with the people that I used to run wild with keep me up to date on those who have died recently and those who’ve been gone for some time now. We were reckless and thought very little of the future and our carelessness. I’d say it’s a toss up between the saying, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “what doesn’t kill you will shorten your life due to your own stupidity”… therefore we have to laugh at the fact that we now limp and get around in a manner that you wouldn’t exactly call sprightly.
I don’t however hold out any hopes for, nor would I want to know my life expectancy. One thing’s for sure though, gardening must be one of the most life enforcing ways to spend time. I used to surf up to three hours a day and always felt great during and after a surf session but with gardening, any time out in the garden rewards you with abundant new growth. The more time you spend with your garden the more it rewards you, constantly presenting you with new enchanting surprises. The day something in me clicked, well should I say I had one string to my bow, was when I realised that watering plants in seemed to embed them into their new home, and the follow up watering kept them alive and gave them a look of vitality.
This look of vitality is something I chase in my gardens – constantly. It gives my obsessive compulsive nature yet another arena to burn up nervous energy, checking on every plant I have ever planted (which is now in the thousands) and protecting, or at least trying to protect them so they become all they can be, joining with all the others I’ve planted in some sort of collective gathering of vibrations, that will ultimately be a garden I can truly feel proud of and stop in, and enjoy.
Seven years of committed gardening though and I still don’t have a garden that I can settle in and relax, as I know with each and every one of them I have set such ambitious visions that the only tool that will help me bring them to life will be a magic wand. It would be remiss of me to not thank the gardeners I have helping me now but as I am ultimately the conductor they have come to realise that there is no end in sight in the near future and that my ultimate aim is not clear to me so it’s not a vision I can impart on them. So the gardeners who have lasted are the ones that I think enjoy the journey, enjoy slowly but steadily nurturing the garden and become intuitive to its wellbeing and growth.
I bring to gardening one of my greatest skills which is that of the bower bird. I go to the market every week, I advertise in ‘wanted to buy’ on Gumtree, I scour eBay and Gumtree for unusual plants and I call my friend in Tintenbar NSW who rescues plants and we load up trucks and down they came to a climate that must confuse them immensely. I have glasshouses … my mate puts seed pods in dark drawers so they spill out the seeds, we plant them and anything else we find from branches broken from the wind to a scattering of succulents spread around by kangaroos that eat like galahs … scattering more than they eat. I patiently pickup all the broken bits and stick them into the ground.
I have tried to be a sponge for new information so as to surpass my one piece of knowledge – to water my gardens, and have delighted in new found knowledge like realising that Poplar trees can have their branches cut and either left in large bins or olive barrels of water until it’s time to plant in early spring … I use a large stake … tie it to the stake and try and keep them watered.
I make my livelihood from my art … an arena I knew nothing about, hadn’t studied, ejected from school a few days into being 15 and really hadn’t been going to school much before then. I was an apprentice signwriter for a while but like so many things I never stuck to anything. I narrowed down everything. My choices were all about avoiding work and commitment. I was interested in alternate states where I could feel that I was someone or something, whilst becoming more invisible by the day. Skip 7 years maybe 8 years ahead and my options were at an end. I lived in a little flat, pretty much friendless and addicted to alcohol and emotional illness. This is a story about gardening so I’ll skip to where many things begin – the point where you can’t go any lower, and in that mindset I started to piece together that commitment to a vision, a trade, an idea, a dream that brought purposefulness.
“I’m serious when I say I have planted close to my house some very big trees and I’d be excited if the plants lifted the house of the ground.”
More and more though as life goes by I love the adrenalin rush of new territory, I love being outside my comfort zone. The larger the mural, the more I don’t know how to do something, if the end game is that my project or passion is in many ways endless or there’s never a finish line or definitive outcome its challenge is a big part of the buzz, along with the innate love for the craft, be it art, gardening, sculpting, filmmaking etc. I plant plants that aren’t supposed to be for that climate and try, especially when I am told that that plant won’t survive, I plant more of them. I used to be uncomfortable with deciduous trees but now I love how things become so bare then in spring they come alive again. I have some Oak trees that don’t lose their leaves but rather they brown off and not until spring do the new leaves push out the old dead leaves. I can’t tolerate the tree looking like it has dead leaves on it so I cut the branches back, awaiting after my extreme treatment to see whether I’ve shocked the tree to death or whether it will come back to grow again. My excitement when I see the new leaves is addictive so I cut trees back very hard, very often.
I love buying at the markets and buying from people who haven’t looked after their plants so they just blossom when they come to live with me. I love taking care of plants that are thirsty and pot bound. I’m just learning on the way but I am determined to make my garden sing.
It still interests me that it’s only in the last decade that I have had gardening / plants in my life. I don’t surf anymore… I prefer to garden. I prefer that my work in the garden will grow, still exist … wind its way through everything.
I don’t know where gardening is taking me but I do know that I find it infinite in its possibilities …. I hope my gardens, the total of all my seeds and plants growing into a combination of trunks, leaves, flowers – continuously surprising bursts of colour … endlessly frustrating … endlessly fulfilling … always on the hunt for ways of adding to it and knowing that they will be here long after I am gone, ideally cared for by one of my children who will say … my father planted this.