Plant / Life: Bronte House

One day, around five years ago, Anna van der Gardner’s husband, Wes, saw a picture of Sydney’s historic Bronte House on the front cover of the local newspaper. The property, owned by Waverley Council, was up for lease. ‘Maybe we should apply?’ he suggested. Anna thought he was joking. The pair had just finished a long renovation on a heritage cottage up the hill. Much of the planting in their small garden had been inspired by visits to Bronte House.

But Bronte House worked its magic and soon Anna, Wes, and their daughters Ada and Lillie had moved in, following a comprehensive expression of interest process. They’ve lived at Bronte House for three years now, and join a long line of caretakers of the incredible house and garden.

The property, originally a 42-acre estate, was bought by William Mortimer Lewis in 1836. He began to build a house but ran out of money and was forced to sell. Robert and Georgiana Lowe purchased it as their ‘country residence’, finishing the construction of the house in 1845. It’s described in the NSW State Heritage Register as a ‘magnificent, Mid-Victorian mansion’ as well as ‘an amusing mongrel “Gothic-Italianate” design’.

The garden was initially developed by Georgiana, a keen green thumb and artist. ‘I am in the garden all day and quite delight in cultivating our place,’ she wrote to her mother-in-law in 1847. Her brother sent her seeds from England and she also planted native seeds from Leichardt’s expeditions. ‘A gentleman who accompanied him gave me a few seeds of each new flower and tree discovered.’

The Lowes only lived at Bronte House for four years. Following this the property changed hands a number times before being sold to Waverley Council in 1948. Restaurant critic and arts festival director Leo Schofield took stewardship of the property from 1994 until 2002. It was during this time that the garden was restored and re-invigorated by Schofield and landscape designer Myles Baldwin. Towards the end of his time at the property, Schofield wrote a book about the garden at Bronte House (The Garden at Bronte, 2002). It’s an invaluable reference for Anna. ‘It’s my guide’, she says.

The sun is not yet up when Daniel and I arrive. The sleepy garden is laden with dew. We open the gate and the sweeping gravel driveway leads us past an abundant garden bed overflowing with salvias, dahlias, pelargoniums and more. On the other side is a lawn with a huge arucaria planted in its centre. Arbours drip with vines, and foliage overhangs narrow pathways. We watch the sun come up over the eastern lawn, framed by old plantings of cactus, agaves and a clump of giant bamboo (Bambusa balcooa) thought to have been planted by Georgiana Lowe. Pathways wind below the lawn and through the cactus garden, leading around to a huge Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla) before re-emerging from the shady wilderness to the lawn. It’s glorious.

Anna and I sit on the verandah in the morning sun. I ask her if she feels the weight of responsibility as the steward of a garden like Bronte House. She does, but she loves it. ‘It does feel like we’ve got a big role to play, but it doesn’t feel bad, it feels important. It really needs someone who is passionate about it. I’m so passionate about gardens and I’m so passionate about heritage.’

Anna has always loved plants and gardens. She’d garden with her mother as a child, and worked as a florist after leaving school (nowadays she’s an interior designer). Bronte House has been a steep learning curve. ‘It has been three years of intense learning. I guess you can either take it on or not, but I am constantly looking in books and on Google, trying to get more knowledge about things.’

It’s hard not to become a crazy plant obsessive when you live here.’

She tells me about her mad propagating experiments, evidenced by the newly built, nearly full, greenhouse and trays full of succulent cuttings scattered artfully around the verandas. Tables near the back door are filled with small plants she’s propagated from the garden. ‘I am constantly amazed by how things grow. I love getting my hands dirty. I just love it. I lose track of time in the garden and need to set an alarm to remember to pick the kids up from school!’

Whilst Anna is the unofficial head propagator, she works closely with the team at Pepo Botanic Design, who are engaged by the Council to help maintain the garden. Between them, they’re gently guiding the evolution of this historic garden. That’s the thing with gardens – they’re never fixed in one moment of history. They’re a reflection of the past and the present, and an offering to the future.

Anna visited Wendy Whiteley’s garden at Lavender Bay not long after she and her family moved into Bronte House. The energy of the garden struck her – it was not perfect, but every single part of it felt like it had been touched, and cared for. This feeling is what Anna strives for at Bronte House. ‘It’s not about perfection’, she tells me. ‘I just want people to come here and know that it’s loved.’

The next open weekend at Bronte House is on October 26th to 27th, 10-2pm.