I was fortunate to grow up in an era when it wasn’t considered dangerous to get on your bike in the morning and take off with friends for the day, only to return home in the evening because we were hungry. My parents built their own home themselves in what was originally an apple orchard in Wantirna South, an outer eastern suburb of Melbourne. It was a time when we could wander the old orchards and pick apples until our baskets overflowed, gorge on wild blackberries and fish for yabbies in the many farm dams that were dotted around our suburb. Indeed we were free, and life was anything we wanted it to be.
My parents quickly established a home garden, and I remember driving up to Sassafras in the Dandenong Ranges many Sundays to buy just the right tree or flowering plant for Mum’s garden. I still remember that moment in time when I saw what seemed like fields of flowering hydrangeas growing under the shady trees in Olinda. I think back to that young girl growing up, and how gardens and natural landscapes evoked emotions within her.
My career in horticulture has sent me down many varying paths. After achieving my HSC, I quickly became a Nursery apprentice at Kenny Lane Nurseries in Monbulk. I was deemed old to be an apprentice! I was to be the first female apprentice employed at that nursery working for a bigger than life Dutchman .He was innovative, he thought big and nothing seemed to stop him from achieving his dreams. It was a fast paced business, with lots of heavy machinery and state of the art equipment that we were all keen to learn to operate. I was constantly being challenged to learn things and try things outside my comfort zone whilst at the same time being surrounded by the most beautiful plants and flowers. I’m very grateful for that early experience as it taught me to listen to my gut instinct. It also introduced me into a business world that wasn’t easy, a world that was a little dog eat dog. At times I was confronted by this but walking back through acres of gorgeous plants and flowers settled those feelings. I believe this experience gave me the confidence to do what came next.
In the late 80s, I married my husband Andrew, who at the time was working for British Petroleum. This saw us start on a journey I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams. Andrew was offered a four-year secondment based in Lae, the second largest city in Papua New Guinea. I was thrown into a world like nothing I’d ever experienced before. We had a one year old son and this was going to be the most logistically and mentally challenging time ahead. We were young and fearless, perhaps a tad stupid! We lived within a company compound consisting of 12 expatriate homes cut into an old coconut palm plantation. It was like living in a tropical resort however outside the gates it didn’t resemble this at all. We were guarded by mountain warier men known for their bow and arrow marksmanship. They were pygmies, spoke a little pigeon English but communicated to each other through what I thought sounded like bird noises. They kept us safe and I was forever intrigued by these men and thought what a contrast of worlds we were living in when I saw them being flown in and out from Lae in helicopters back to the villages in the highlands. The landscape around us seemed untouched. An environment full of wild jungles, majestic valleys and magical tropical waterways. All creatures grew enormous, the earth tremors were frequent, safety and security within the country was dismal, the heavens roared, and rain poured as I’d never heard or seen before. Each and every day, I discovered something new. My time in Lae was kept busy as I assisted BP in their community work, helping Lae University as they developed an international project in studying native PNG habitats specializing in butterflies. This project saw me developing a propagation house and training locals on how to propagate plant species suitable for butterflies to feed from as they were studied.
We continued to travel and lived in Fiji, Vietnam and Singapore over a 12-year period. I developed a home garden in each country, and with this need to build my garden, I traveled further out of the cities exploring and becoming more excited by what I saw and found. Back in the early 2000s, I saw cloud pruning for the first time in Vietnam. In Fiji, I grew frangipani trees from large cuttings directly into the soil (instant small tree success!). In Singapore, I was surrounded by talented horticultural professionals who mastered and created living gardens of art.
Arriving back home after being away for so long, I found I was at a crossroads. I wanted to continue to work but felt like such an imposter in the horticultural world. I had life experience, great passion and good knowledge of plants and various environments, but I didn’t have a diploma or a degree. So taking a deep breath, I enrolled at NMIT for Cert 1V Landscape Design & Construction and took a job in the garden center. Entering this course as a mature student helped me understand that I had a strong understanding of the plant world and different environments. Surrounding myself with like-minded people was brilliant and such fun. I also found EWHA at this point and joined quickly along with other women in my course. EWHA assisted so many of us women to collaborate, share knowledge and experiences and support each other as we found our place in this industry.
Since then, I have developed a successful Kitchen Garden programme over three campuses for one of the Jewish private schools in Melbourne. Working alongside children and sharing their wonder and curiosity has slowed me down. I’ve learnt so much from these children as they discover, explore and find beauty and excitement in such simple things.
Alongside this role of Kitchen Garden specialist, I established my business ‘Illawong Landscape Design’. The business slowly grew as I studied. Most of the gardens today we work on I have designed, built alongside landscapers and builders, and now we maintain. Business through Covid was strong and it became a family affair; all five of us play a role in the business, with now my youngest son qualifying as a Landscaper. Matt loves working outdoors and has passion for building the hardscapes and a love also for plants. I suppose the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree!
I’ve mentioned the influences that drew me to horticulture because now, 40 years on and with hindsight I’m so thankful for this opportunity. I love plants and how they intwine to create our landscape tapestries, l enjoy working outdoors, feeling the cool breeze on my face or the sun’s warmth on my back. I love the stillness and peace I find in the natural landscape. It makes me happy to plant a tree with love, nurture that tree and watch it grow. These are my legacy at each and every garden I work in.
Words and photos by Sue Vernes