The Great Indoors with Jason Chongue
“Every home needs some plants,” Jason Chongue, architect, interior designer and houseplant aficionado tells me. “Maybe not as many as The Worker’s House, but we all need plants.” The two of us are standing on the front verandah of Jason’s home on a quiet street in Abbotsford, not far from the convent and the Yarra River as it bends and loops through the inner north. A worker’s cottage the house may be, architecturally-speaking, but what I recognise before me is a greenhouse, fitted out with mod cons, where three people and a rescue dog also happen to live.
Jason bought the Worker’s House two and a half years ago. Back then the front and backyard were pristine concrete spaces. The only sign of plant life was an aspidistra in a concrete pot. “The first thing I did was have two 100mm diameter holes drilled into the porch to plant climbing roses,” Jason says with a destructive glint in his eye. The two, groundbreaking roses now sweep the boundaries of the property and are well on their way to meeting in a clandestine tangle of stems and petals high up on the porch awning.
Gone are the external cement surfaces, all but obliterated with overflowing pots and planters. Strawberries line the front fence with grasses, border hedging and aloe. Mixed plantings of blood orange, echinacea, basil and succulents go shoulder-to-shoulder with magnolias, lemons, and two skyrocketing, columnar cacti. There’s space for a compact outdoor setting, but not much else. All this before we even walk through the front door.
Indoors is where Jason’s home takes a Wes Anderson-like twist.
We move along the hallway, poking our heads into the bedrooms and eventually settle in the open plan living area and kitchen space. Black and white family photos adorn the walls, showing Jason’s father, Carlos, and grandparents, Qui Cam Chong and Tchong Moe Lay, on the family coffee plantation in the hills near Maubisse, East Timor more than 40 years ago. There are oversized vintage posters sourced on holiday in Hawaii and a twin-set of taxidermy ducks named Ben and Jerry. Fergus the stag keeps watch from his spot, mounted high up on the living room wall.
Though what really presides in this house is Jason’s vast collection of plants. The vitality of the front yard spills over within and I struggle to maintain eye contact with Jason as we chat because, well, the leafy green excitement is distracting. Jason has amassed an A-Z of houseplants, with a focus on the rare and unusual. Which is not to say his collection is missing any of the usual suspects. When I took headcount there were nine fiddle leaf figs of varying sizes, five or so regular monsteras and a triptych of maidenhair ferns.
But where this collection comes into its own is on the extreme edges of plant popularity, where connoisseurs and plant hunters roam.
We are talking Pilea peperomioides as far as the eye can see, clusters of white variegated Monstera borsighiana, a spotted leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’) and velvety fronds belonging to the Philodendron melanochrysum. There are many philodendrons dotted around Jason’s house. The Philodendron ventricosum, for instance, which normally calls the cloud forests of Ecuador home. A Philodendron melanochrysum with elongated leaves that resemble forlorn hearts, as Dali might have drawn them. Yes, cries and shrieks could be heard as I moved from room to room.
Jason’s is the kind of place where you step inside and feel immediately at home, but also motivated. He has a collector’s eye and unique sense for what makes an interior space reassuring and vibrant. A lot of it has to do with plants – they’re present in every room, and in some take up the bulk of the square meterage – but it also comes down to well-conceived design gestures. “When I first moved in I painted and stripped the house back to achieve the sense of a traditional worker’s house,” Jason explains. “My intention wasn’t to restore the house to its original form, but to provide a sense of the history in the house. In the living room and kitchen, I’ve introduced a non-traditional palette of soft grey stones, dreamy brass detailing and blonde timbers. And I’ve introduced a lot of plants to soften the spaces too.” Jason’s approach certainly makes for a compelling home.
Jason, Nathan, Brittany and Ingrid all live here. By day, Jason works with design studio Hecker Guthrie. By night he’s a plant collector. Nathan is a flight attendant. Brittany is an interior designer hailing from New York City. And then there’s Ingrid. Ingrid is a German wirehaired pointer-cross-wolfhound who gives rare plants the respect they deserve (and who was treated to a blow-wave just before our arrival).
We follow Ingrid out into the backyard as she manoeuvres through a labyrinth of even more plants. Here a back fence sets the stage for thirty dancing staghorns. Thriving string of pearls cascade from hanging baskets. Flowering nasturtiums dart up the side of a gardening shed, the roof of which is covered in more potted plants. There are cycads and a pair of lemon trees. These Jason inherited from his grandmother Tchong Moe’s garden in a recent plant swap.
My grandmother gave me cuttings of plants from a very young age.”
“We’ve continued the tradition over the years and even now I put aside time to garden with my grandmother,” Jason says. “Talking about plants and sharing plants forms an important part of our relationship.”
I ask Jason what motivates him to collect plants, particularly rare ones. The tradition of gardening was handed down to him from his grandparents through his own parents, Carlos and Mi Su Chongue. But it takes an individual to proceed deeply into the world of collectibles, as Jason has done. “I believe plants are a bond,” he begins, slowly. “They are a bond between people and you’re forever learning what’s best for them. I’ve been drawn to rare plants in the last few years because they can have some phenomenal colours, patterns and forms.”
And when you don’t have a lot of growing space you need to make each plant worth it!”
Jason’s first rare collectible was the white variegated monstera. Since then he’s been given Chinese money plants by growers and leopard plants by friend’s parents. He mentioned his search for a showy orchid (Medinilla magnifica) to a collector he met on eBay, who has since found him a cutting. He’s been scolded by a nursery owner in Los Angeles for his tendency to over-water plants. And he’s killed his fair share. “Over-caring for plants can make them shut down at times,” Jason says with the voice of experience. “Some I have rescued by working out what was wrong. But just because you kill a plant doesn’t mean you should give up!”
“The most important lesson I’ve learned from plants is patience. Good things come from patience. Indoors, plants can be temperamental and when it comes to the rare ones they are rare for a reason. Check for the right light and test out your watering regime. If your plants aren’t looking happy just think of where they grow wild and try to simulate those conditions as best as you can.”
Plants have opened the doors to a whole network of growers, collectors and gardeners for Jason. “I love the genuine generosity of most growers. The conversations are always interesting,” Jason reflects. “There is so much to learn from the older growers and they are so happy to pass on the knowledge. When you start talking to other gardeners it really opens up their lives. It’s always so nice visiting a garden built by someone I might have otherwise never met.”