What drew you to horticulture originally?
I have a country background, born in Mildura, and grew up with my parents who had a citrus and avocado farm. Mum had a beautiful garden so I guess it was in my blood. She gave me a little patch of cosmos and nasturtiums and all those things that kids like to grow. I remember picking all the freesias as they came into flower and she came out and exclaimed in horror “Oh my goodness you’ve picked them all!” But she was a very encouraging person. She taught me a lot about the flowers you love to pick and bring inside.
We came to Melbourne when I was still small and lived in Caulfield. It was a little Edwardian house where my mother had a little garden and people used to stop and say “What a beautiful garden that is”, because it matched the house. What I’ve learnt from that is a garden should be what you like it to be: you can give bits and pieces away to those who show an interest. It’s really important that we share our gardens with people who want to learn about having a garden, and that’s what I aim to do.
Did this early gardening experience set you on a career path to horticulture?
Not at this early stage. I went to Uni and became a Secondary Teacher, so it wasn’t part of my thinking then. I was teaching in Dimboola, in the Wimmera, and started learning about native plants in the Grampians region and Little Desert. It was a revelation! That was when I started thinking that this interest could lead somewhere, but I didn’t know where until the Principal suggested I do a horticultural course. So I went and did a course at Oakleigh Technical School which had a really fine practical course, and also did a course at Burnley Horticultural College.
Then I needed to get a job so I applied at 25 different nurseries around Melbourne – all of them said “No, we don’t take women”. It was in those days when they thought women couldn’t do work like that in a nursery. Then finally one lovely man, Ted Poynton from Poyntons Nursery (not the current Poyntons Nursery) said “Yes, come along and we’ll see how you go” so I went over there and it was wonderful. Then I went to the Victorian Schools Nursery where we grew all sorts of plants with thousands of kids coming to learn how to grow plants and why plants are important. Plants and education: showing people why gardening is so important is what started me off.
You met resistance when trying to get your first job. Have you encountered any other obstacles along the way?
No, I truly haven’t. I’m going back to the 1970s [when the nurseries rejected me]. In that case it was a matter of me setting my mind to it and determining that there must be someone out there who is prepared to look at what I can do, not what I can’t do. I think in those days as long as you went quietly about showing that you could do the physical work and were keen to learn, then it was fine. Then all of a sudden women did become accepted in the nursery trade. No, there haven’t been any other obstacles like that.
Who would you say were your mentors along the way?
When I was in the Victorian Schools Nursery we had training for teachers. They came into the nursery to learn about teaching Nature Studies – remember Nature Studies? No-one does that anymore, which is a real shame. Anyway I was a leader doing that and another leader was Kevin Heinze. He was a great mentor. And the boss of the nursery, Paul Crowe was terrific. Kevin had listened to one of my lectures and asked if I was interested in going on television. He had been running [his TV program “Sow What”] for a very long time and he wanted [a successor], a woman and someone who was younger. He set up the Kevin Heinze Garden Centre and got me involved in that. You’ve got to be a people person: that’s what he brought out in me.
That’s what prepared me for my work in television. I still enjoy it very much and have been doing it for going on 32 years and love it. Every time I go out to do some filming there’s something to learn and I love meeting the people behind the story.
What would you say is your favourite plant?
Oh, I can’t answer that one! It really depends on the season. Well, to give some idea, I’ll describe my front garden. It’s full of a whole lot of plants which don’t need a lot of water. From now to November they don’t get any extra water so it’s made up of really tough plants: Euphorbias, Salvias, Grevilleas, all sorts of Hellebores. It’s a garden where I can pick cuttings to take to garden talks which I have done for so many years. That’s the kind of garden that I love but I can’t really say that I have a favourite.
What are you working on at the moment?
Apart from Gardening Australia which I work on once a week, my other loves are history and geography. I’ll be giving a talk later in the year to introduce Matthew Flinders, who navigated around Australia in about 1802, about his journey and the plants that he discovered, because he had a botanist on board, so that will be what I’ll concentrate on, a little talk about plant exploration.
What are some tips you can pass on to others who are starting out in the industry?
I always tell young people starting out don’t ever be afraid of a “fence” or a “gate” – jump over that fence, open that gate. Sometimes people get confined to “boxes”, discouraged by barriers. Don’t be afraid of what’s on the other side. I was a very shy person but I pushed myself to overcome the shyness. I kept thinking, “No, I’m going to do this!”
Another tip is to put your head down and learn. There is so much opportunity in this world and if you take the opportunities to learn then that is the best thing you can do. In horticulture I found that everyone shared their knowledge. There was never anyone who was nasty or told me they weren’t going to share their knowledge.
What do you most love about the industry?
I love plants, love talking about any plants, love learning and meeting others who are passionate about what they are doing. We’re very fortunate, you and I and all the women working in horticulture, that we’re doing something we love. People out there don’t realise how good gardening is for us until they get involved and try to grow a cauliflower or a Grevillea or something. It’s great for the physical and mental benefits. Plants are really good at slowing you down and causing you to pause to look at them, and to go out into the native bush – lovely. We’re very lucky to be part of the horticultural world.