Renting and Gardening: Should You Commit?

Words by
Sally Wilson
Images by
Daniel Shipp
| November 20, 2015

I need to say thank-you to the guy who gave my 6ft crepe myrtle and me a lift home in his ute one night back in 2012. Another thank-you goes to landlord Victor, who rallied hard for my rooftop garden in México City against all kinds of vehement opposition.

Thank-you to the moving men in my life who’ve handled potted magnolias and gardenias like VIPs even on interstate rides; thank-you to friends who’ve helped me haul agaves and cement planter boxes up flights of stairs in apartment buildings without lifts; thank-you to the special plants (you know who you are) who have, from time to time, endured my overnight absences and holidays; and a big thanks to my boyfriend, Ernesto, who always drives much slower than his character allows when we’ve got plants on board. Thank-you.

If you’re in two minds about how seriously to take gardening while you’re renting, I’m here to convince you to commit, 100 percent. You can be considered about mortgages, cars, long-term relationships, one-night stands, cats and children. But when it comes to plants, I recommend jumping right in. Learn how to look after plants, start collecting, and then surround yourself with them.

I’ve moved from house to house a fair few times in recent years. There was the dusty little room above a psychiatrist’s office in Surry Hills. There was the apartment on Caroline Street, with the possums and cumquats. There was the tree house in México City, which looked out through jacarandas onto a racecourse-sized park. Without really intending to I’ve lived in five cities and fifteen or so different houses, apartments, guest rooms and hotels during the past three years. My moving routine is pretty simple: arrive, connect to wifi, push the suitcase into a corner, pull out a bundle of books, set up my toothbrush and tube of toothpaste in a glass, and then start gardening.

It doesn’t have to be outside. You can make your garden indoors. In México City I kept a Boston fern hanging above the kitchen sink, and gazed at it lovingly while chopping onions, pouring mezcal and doing the dishes. I arranged mystery stem cuttings in glasses on the windowsill, next to a small tub of mint. In the lounge room, I draped philodendrons languidly over landlord Victor’s dressing screens, which he’d hand-painted with Adam and Eve-like nudes during his art period in the 60s. A red geranium I’d nursed back to life threatened to crash through the bay windows with its bald exuberance towards the light. I tried to convince an Agave tequilana to be happy indoors in its Adonis-shaped pot, but soon relented and moved it to the rooftop.

The rooftop was a no-go zone as far as the building manager was concerned – except as a private kingdom for her four cats. In defiance I decided to take the rooftop back, to green it, one potted plant at a time. Landlord Victor was on my side. Victor wasn’t that botanically minded, but he was embroiled in a long-term feud with the building manager, so my agenda coincided neatly with his brand of politics.

While I started to populate the rooftop with plants, the building manager’s cats started to vomit up hairballs on them. I brought in the cactuses. I brought in bougainvilleas in three colours: pink, white and magenta. I filled planter boxes with salvias and sunflowers; mirror ball pots with Duranta erecta; a shady corner was dubbed ‘The Fernery’. I carried a plastic watering can up and down Victor’s rickety stairs daily, to dose on vitamin D and look after the plants.

And this is why I garden wherever and whenever I can, despite the temporality of any of my living situations. Fixed address or not, I garden. Plants power me up; they make me feel at home and grounded. I watch them grow and respond to changes in the conditions around them. I grow, and likewise respond to the changes around me.

In 2012 I bought a 6ft crepe myrtle from Fitzroy Nursery to plant in the backyard of my Carlton North rental. I don’t drive so my plan was to carry the tree two kilometres through the backstreets. For the first 500 metres I was joyous, in awe of the height and healthiness of this tree. Then I stopped. For the next few blocks I moved in a series of five metre bursts, before a passing landscaper with a tray-back swooped in and delivered the myrtle and me home to Canning Street.

So, thank-you to the guy who gave a 6ft crepe myrtle and me a ride, at a time in my life when the enthusiasm for backyard gardening loomed large over other things, such as my ability to cart kilograms of potting mix and Lagerstroemia indica over a middle distance.

More recently in Querétaro I started a potted orchard at the guesthouse where I was living with my boyfriend. Together we got an 8ft orange tree home, admittedly with the help of some nurserymen and a truck, and planted it in a gigantic pot. We brought in sapling avocados and guavas. The smell of the blossoms was soon strong enough on warm, desert mornings that the hummingbirds and butterflies came to visit. I potted a mobile field of dahlias, lavender and rosemary. There was a cactus nook. Just before leaving Mexico I uprooted a sickly bougainvillea and replaced it with an 8ft frangipani, locally known as the plumeria.

I wanted to leave a living thing, something Ernesto might want to talk to – and perhaps remember to water every so often. He does. He’s made of the good stuff.

Some people remember the first record they bought for themselves. Mine was Bob Marley & The Wailers’ Greatest Hits, but even more vividly I recall the first plant I bought, a golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) when I was about fourteen. It’s still alive and six times its original size. Another thank-you goes out to my parents, who are the constant, open arms recipients of so many treasures from my growing plant collection.

There are both complicated and easy ways to make a garden work when you’re renting. Start small, grow from clippings; make use of second hand pots and wholesale-sized olive oil cans. If you’ve got access to an outdoors garden, tend what’s already there. If you’ve got a patch of dirt to work with, grow some seasonable vegetables and herbs. If you have an indoor space, green up sun-lit corners with philodendrons, Monstera deliciosa, Devil’s ivy, mistletoe cactus, hoyas, Kentia palms or armies of snake plants.

Should you clean your teeth when you’re renting? Yes! Should you iron your shirts, cook dinner and call your mum or grandma every so often? Yes! Should you commit to gardening when you’re renting? Well, I hope that answer is obvious.

P.S. The images illustrating this story are of Georgina Reid’s rented courtyard garden in Sydney’s inner west. Many of the plants in the garden have moved with her over the last 10 years and most will move again. Holy moly, she’s going to need some help from muscly, plant loving folk when her next moving day arrives…


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