Phoebe Stephens’ Wild Brisbane Garden
It’s 5:30am on a rainy Brisbane morning. As is often the case, I can tell we’re at the right house before seeing the number. Phoebe Stephens’ garden doesn’t end at the front fence but spills out onto the street and colonises the nature strip. It’s lush and colourful and dripping wet.
Phoebe, one of Brisbane’s most renowned florists, bounds down the stairs of her old Queenslander house, umbrella in hand and green framed glasses matching her green thumb. She takes us on a tour of her magical garden. It’s a wonderland of colour, foliage and texture.
I love gardens that feel wild, like an adventure. I love not seeing everything at once, needing to see what’s around the corner, through the hedge, behind the tree. Phoebe’s garden – despite its small size – has this magic. “It’s meant to have somewhere for me to go. It’s meant to fool people”, she tells me. It’s a garden that needs to be interacted with.
The boundaries are invisible, clothed in the green of Eumundi quandong (Elaeocarpus eumundii), shield aralia (Polyscias scutellaria), palms and loquats (Eriobotrya japonica).
Both landscape architect Gordon Ford and my mother said you should lose the boundaries of a garden. I didn’t want to see any man-made things when I looked out”, says Phoebe.
The backyard is a tangle of green surrounding a pool, with a loquat tree dripping over it. The negative space of the pool counterbalances the lush greenery of the garden. A bee garden grows between the pathway and the pool fence. There’s cosmos, daisies, hypericum and more. It’s dripping with life and colour and bugs. Further down the pathway, a tall murraya hedge with a small gap cut into it invites exploration – leading to a wild forest of shield aralia (polyscias scutellaria). “I just keep cutting it and sticking it in the ground.” Wrapping around the other side of the pool is a forest of red ginger (Costus barbatus), bromeliads (Alcanterea spp.), ant catchers (Nepenthes spp.) and more.
Colour is important to Phoebe. She’s not into well behaved, passive pastels. Her garden is full of bright, bold and rich tones. “You can have pale things in a garden but you need the strength of real colours too. Colours like deep pink, purple, limes. The vulgar and the divine!” We talk about the two most divisive colours in the garden – yellow and orange. It turns out this rift occurs in floristry too – “I am always very nervous when someone doesn’t like yellow,” Phoebe says.
Gardening runs in Phoebe’s family. “I come from a long line of women gardeners. During the war, when petrol was rationed and she couldn’t rush around the countryside having parties my mum started gardening. She got passionate.” Phoebe tells me how she’d be dragged along on regular nursery visits every month with her mother and grandmother.
I was vile. I don’t know how they coped with me. I didn’t ever want to go to the nurseries. I’d have all these reasons for why we should go home.”
Phoebe first worked with plants professionally in London in the early 1970s. She wanted to be a chef and went to a restaurant for an interview. The business also owned a flower shop next door and after they realised she had good plant knowledge (thanks to her mother’s torturous nursery trips!) they asked her to work in the flower shop instead of the kitchen.
Returning to Australia in the early 1980s, Phoebe wanted to study landscape architecture. “I had been at the Inchbald school in London studying garden design and I wanted to do landscape architecture in Australia but I was pregnant and I had no money so I went back to doing flowers.” The floristry scene in Brisbane back then was dire, according to Phoebe. “They used double chrysanthemums, gladioli, carnations and the odd rose. It was hell.” She quickly found her own suppliers and began creating her own style of arrangements.
Like her floristry output, Phoebe’s garden is particular to her. It’s a wild, colourful and vibrant space borne of her creativity and passion for plants. It’s a place of experimentation – “I trial everything and then I forget to write down what I’ve done so its hard to repeat!”- and, most importantly, a place of reflection. “If you walk into the garden and everything looks good, you feel ok. Everything is ok.”
All those years ago, when Phoebe’s mother was dragging her along to visit plant nurseries she’d tell Phoebe that the gardening bug would infect her too, it was just a matter of time. “Mum would turn to me and say: ‘it’ll get you one day, it’ll get you.’” As it turns out, she was right. Phoebe’s thumb is as green as her glasses.