The Dirt: Holly Austin

Words by
Georgina Reid
Images by
Daniel Shipp
| June 24, 2014

Holly Austin is an actor, musician, writer, beat-boxer, and self-confessed hack gardener. Hers is a story I am so excited to share, because it illustrates very clearly what The Planthunter is all about: Creativity and authenticity. It is not a tale of an expensive designer garden, nor one of horticultural expertise, it’s a story of a relationship between a woman and a tiny patch of earth under a flight-path in inner western Sydney. This is Holly’s story…

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Whilst Holly grew up surrounded by a large garden in the country, she had never gardened as an adult until last November, when she moved from a terrace in Surry Hills to a house in Stanmore. When her and her partner first saw the property the garden was overflowing with a huge range of edible plants. Figs, kaffir limes, lemon, avocado, and peach trees, as well as a range of herbs and vegetables filled the tiny back garden. They fell in love with the property and signed the lease. When they moved in, the new owner had hacked everything back to the ground and covered the whole garden in dyed red woodchips!

Holly immediately called her horticulturalist mother, and together they set out to re-green the garden. Upon removing the wood chips, many of the plants re-sprouted, emerging fresh from the scene of botanical destruction. After nearly a year, the garden is nearly back to its original lushness, thanks to Holly’s persistence and experimentation, and her mum’s horticultural guidance.

Re-connecting with the act of gardening has taken Holly back to her childhood, and in the process, given her a new perspective on her relationship with her mother. She grew up on a rambling property in Mount Irvine, in the Blue Mountains, spending all of her daylight hours outdoors, building cubby houses and driving billycarts. Her mother was always in the garden. Holly says:

The sound of the mattock was the sound of my childhood. I could tell where mum was by that sound. She was always building rock walls or planting another tree. Since having this garden and planting all this stuff that is now starting to grow, I have realised how creative gardening is, and how exciting it is when things grow. Now I get why mum was out there from dawn to dusk! I have a deepened love and respect for my mum now. I understand her passion and enthusiasm for gardening on a different level.

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Holly is a busy woman. She is currently in rehearsals for a play she conceived and stars in called Ruby’s Wish (27th June – 3rd July at Belvoir St Theatre), and Ultimate Fanj, a hipster comedy series she co-created with Adriano Cappalletta has just launched on ABC2 Fresh Blood. She has beat-boxed with Mama Kin, supported Martha Wainwright and is regularly recognised as Kitty from those television ads.

Like many artists, the garden has quickly become integral to Holly’s creative process. Much of the development of Ruby’s Wish and Ultimate Fanj has occurred in the garden, and new projects and ideas regularly emerge from the space it provides Holly to daydream.

The garden is a place I love to sit, dream and create. I come up with ideas out here. Having a garden again, albeit a postage stamp sized one, has made me realise how important it is to have living, growing, things around me. It has actually totally changed my headspace in comparison to living in a tiny little terrace in Surry Hills. I just really, really, love it.

Gardening is something that creeps up on you. It is rarely a conscious decision; it starts off with a bit of pottering, a few experiments, a surprise, a number of horrendous failures, and just enough wins to keep you keen.

Holly professes to be a ‘total hack’ of a gardener. Many people I talk to, especially younger people, feel the same way. I certainly do. This, I think, is par for the course. The more time you spend with plants, the more you realise how few absolutes there are, and how little you know of the subject. What makes someone a gardener is their acceptance and adaptability to the vagaries of the plant world, the weather, the bugs and the soil, not their skill or knowledge.

Perhaps this is why so many creative people, like Holly, find a natural connection to the act of gardening. Writing a play, a poem or a piece of music is a process of exploration both within oneself and the wider world. It is an exercise in accepting the unknown, and forces one to sit (comfortably or uncomfortably) with change. The same goes for the creation of a garden.

Art and gardens that touch, challenge, and evoke a reaction from the viewer always emerge from the heart of the creator. Holly’s art, like her garden is warm, exuberant, and joyful. Only she could create the stories she does, and only she could create this happy little patch of green from a wasteland of red woodchips directly under the flight path in Stanmore.

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PS. Beat-boxing is a pretty hard thing to capture with a still image, so we made an animated gif, which is only slightly more effective (but a lot more fun!). If you want to see the real deal, check out this video of Holly beat-boxing her heart out with Mama Kin.

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