Celebrating The Suburbs

Words by
Amber Creswell Bell
| December 18, 2013

I was a child born in the lush, green garden belt of Sydney. It was an idyllic childhood, filled with happy memories of fairy gardens, budgie breeding, riding my bike around the streets with happy abandon, and stealing the neighbour’s foxgloves for mum at dawn.

To this day the smell of a moist, up-turned rock evokes the strongest of nostalgias. So, what did I do as soon as I had a uni degree under my belt and a significant HECS debt to attend to? I got the hell out of there as fast as I could! That’s what.

My early twenties were spent bouncing around share houses in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, having the time of my life – and ensuring I was as up close and personal with urbanity as much as humanly possible. When I turned 24 I was relocated to Melbourne for work. I got all grown up-like, worked hard and bought myself my first apartment: the quintessential 2-bedroom art deco in St Kilda. It was great, it really was – but I always felt that something was just … missing. It didn’t feel quite like home.

I realised after a couple of years that what was missing was in fact ‘ground’. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had essentially invested in a bunch of bricks, windows, plumbing and other miscellaneous building materials in ‘the sky’. My floor was someone else’s ceiling. I had no ground! I had no SOIL!

So, when I met my husband we decided to move back to Sydney and bought our first home together. It was a period home in the inner-west – where the coffee is great, the houses are pretty and the yards are small.

People in the inner west don’t need yards, because they are too busy being ‘ten minutes from everything’. But at last I had a yard, albeit it a courtyard – and, I thought, plenty big enough. I had grand plans to fill it with free growing herbs, gardenias, rampant jasmine and other pick-able fragrant delights. But then the small courtyard was quickly shared – first with dog, then with first born and again with second born. My patch of earth was at the mercy of my growing family, and my garden dreams were systematically pee’d on, prematurely picked by my kids or stolen by opportunistic yuppie passers by who fancied my front fence agaves as centerpieces.

It was clear: we needed more space – so we scoured the inner-west for the ‘step up’. It seemed that everyone else had the same notion. I revised my wish-list nightly, praying to the powers that be to show me THE HOUSE.  Was it really that hard to find a house within 3km of the CBD with a big front and back yard, a driveway, on a quiet street with a green outlook and room for chooks? Umm, yes, it was. Because what I was actually trying to do was shoehorn the suburbs into the ‘urbs’.

So, we did it. We took a deep breath and bought a midcentury house in the suburbs, on a quiet a cul de sac, with district view of green everything. I have a front yard and a back yard (and a side yard for that matter). I can park in my own driveway without having to schlep around the corner in the rain with the groceries and 2 kids in tow. And there are no late night revelers peeing outside my bedroom window on their way home from the pub.

Of course, we copped the obligatory flack “we’ll never see you!”, “we’ll have to sleep over!”, “will you start wearing pearls?!” Well, at 30 minutes outside of the metropolis I think we’ll be ok. What I do have is garden beds. Oodles of them.

For my birthday I took delivery of 3-tonnes of soil and manure. Thrilled! My happy place is shovelling the afore-mentioned soil into the wheelbarrow and depositing it around my new ‘ground’. My thoughts are clear, my work problems resolved and my limbs sore in a really nice way. Trees that I have always ruled out for spatial reasons are now all residing happily in my back yard – Manchurian pears, cherry blossoms and magnolias are all sheltering new beds of gardenias, hydrangeas, daphnes, roses, and flowering mays.

Every bed I clear unearths the loving efforts of gardeners-past. Hidden goldmines of mystery bulbs are unearthed amongst the mature camellias and azaleas that were planted decades before I was even a thought. I am now woken by the early rising birdlife, and not the A380 en-route from Singapore. My kids delight in parrots landing on their fingers and old, slow blue-tongue lizards sunning themselves on the rock wall.

Contrary to popular belief – people ‘here’ are quite normal, and mostly folk like ourselves – looking for space and green in the midst of our super manic, over-stretched, urban lives.

As one of my gorgeous clients lovingly said: “oh, the suburbs, where the gardens are green and the people are dead!” … this adage no doubt rings true. But as an urban transplant who has found their way back to the garden, the homecoming has been a seriously celebratory one.


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