Women in Horticulture: Merryle Johnson

What drew you to horticulture originally?

I can not remember a time when I did not love plants, nature, growing things and gardening. It is in my DNA. I grew up on a family farm, where 3 generations of the extended family lived and worked. So I grew up by the side of my gardening grandmother who grew the food and raised the chickens. By the side of my father who loved animals, birds and the Australian bush. And with my mother who was artistic, creative and an entrepreneur.
All our family holidays were into the bush in various parts of Australia, which fostered a deep love of the wonders of the natural world, and the spirit of traveling with respect. All influences were to stand me in good stead in my future careers. 

What pathway did you take to get there?

I began gardening my own patch with a passion by the time I was 8 years old and remember my prized birthday present for that year was an annual subscription to ‘Your Garden’ magazine, which I devoured every month. My tertiary education was in the arts, and I trained as a painter, and art photographer. I went on to have an exciting career as a practicing artist, with exhibitions both within Australia and overseas; and to lecture in several of the best Art Schools around Australia. However I never lost my love of gardening, nature and plants. So when my husband and I bought a farm in West Gippsland and started a family – it was my opportunity to work part-time in my artistic career, and return to my first love – growing plants and making a garden. We started Country Farm Perennials Nursery, collecting hardy and unusual perennials, propagating, and sending mail order plants to keen gardeners all over Australia. Our staff have always been wonderful, talented people, many of them women. We imported many new plants to Australia.
We also began Country Farm Perennials Travel – creating and leading garden tours for keen Australian gardeners to private gardens and into nature “off the beaten track”, all around the world. This gave us the opportunity to see the best of the best in the horticultural, gardening, cultural and natural world.
It was a great education, and a privilege to spend time with our gardening travelers, and the great gardeners we met all over the world.

What obstacles did you encounter along the way?

Apart from coping with seasonal droughts and bushfires, we had a wonderful time – until the arrival of the Covid pandemic. Covid forced the complete closure of our travel business due to safety concerns, and the closure of our nursery mail order of live plants, due to uncertainties with delivery chains. However during the pandemic closures we began building up our Seedscape Seeds business – mailing seeds for hardy and unusual perennial and cut flowers, edibles and rare plants from around the world, to gardeners all over Australia (the seeds did not mind a delay in the mail). Out of the adversity of the pandemic has come a whole new love affair with nature – the fascinating world of seeds. We are addicted.  

Who were your mentors?

I had the pleasure of sharing time with Beth Chatto on several occasions.  Her practical knowledge of plants as living creatures; down to earth ability to “think like the plant” and put the right plant in the right place; and her generous sharing of knowledge – was always an inspiration. Likewise, David Glenn and Chris Canning’s professionalism at Lambley Nursery; the Tonkin family’s passion for bulbs over the generations; the Nieuwesteeg family (now 5 generations of rose growers) together with Susan Irvine, all dedicated to preserving roses; Jane Edmundson’s unceasing enthusiasm for nurturing people in gardening; and Stephan Ryan’s sharing of knowledge around unusual plants – have all been an inspiration to me. I count myself very lucky to have such talented colleagues in my world.

What are you working on at the moment?

Building up a seed collection of some of the most beautiful and unusual plants from around the world. And building up a web site that allows others to share the wonder.

What does an average day consist of for you?

The work of the day varies with the seasons, but at the moment usually involves….. 

  • Watching the development of seeds on the plants in our 2 &1/2 acre garden and making sure I get them before they either fly the coop or our beloved wild King Parrots eat them. This happily necessitates walking in the garden on a very regular basis and getting up close and personal with the plants.
  • Processing seed, and packaging seeds that are ready to be put up on the web site for sale.
  • Despatching seed orders.
  • Answering correspondence from our regular seed sowers.
  • Dealing with the necessary Biosecurity permits for the despatch of seed to various places in Australia.
  • Writing about plants new to the collection on the website.
  • Preparing to take our seed collection to Plant Collector’s Fairs and preparing talks.
  • And finally, some R&R watering the veggie patch, gathering produce, and talking to the chooks and parrots

What is your favourite plant?

An impossible question, as it changes daily. Just now I am revelling in the sumptuous satin glory of both the perennial and annual poppies. But next week I will be drinking in the scent of the old-fashioned Sweet Peas; then marvelling at the hardiness of the Phlomis as the ground dries in the summer heat; before admiring the Echinacea and Heleniums as they come into vivid colour just when the rest of the garden is flagging at the end of summer; and wondering at the scent of autumn Cyclamen blooms with the first rains; followed by the winter pleasure of the Helleborus flowers and the first hint of spring with the “Snowies” (Galanthus bulbs) blooming under the weeping cherry. The gardening year is filled with new treasures every day.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Right here, in my garden, enjoying the turn of the seasons and nature. With an ever-growing collection of seed for beautiful, rare and unusual flowering plants.

What are your 3 most worthwhile tips that you can give to women who are starting out in the horticulture industry?

Get as much “hands on”, practical experience with plants as you can. Even if it is volunteer work at botanical gardens, community gardens etc, and learn from experienced gardeners. See as many different gardens and enterprises as you can. And read, read, read at the same time. Tune in to the latest research.

Follow your interest. A career in horticulture is a life-long love affair (or should be if you are going to be successful at it) – and there are so many different aspects to be interested in. From growing plants, to gardening work, to garden design, to marketing and media. But it must always be based on a love and knowledge of plants, gardens and nature, plus your passion for your area of expertise.

Share the knowledge, as you have learnt from every gardener / plantsperson you meet. Be a garden sponge and sop it all up. It is a rich world out there amongst fellow gardeners.

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