A Small, Wild and Well Loved Suburban Garden

To me, gardening is about connection, care and creative expression. A space that typifies these qualities doesn’t need to be designed, doesn’t need to be expensive, and doesn’t need to include particularly special plants. It just needs a committed gardener. A constant gardener. Carolyn Sandercoe is one such gardener, and her garden tells her story of deep care and appreciation of the natural world.

From a very young age, Carolyn’s life has been framed by nature. At two years old she was collecting flowers in the garden, bringing them inside to her mother, minus their stems. “There’d be water bowls all over the kitchen, full of flowers. Mum couldn’t stop me from picking them!”

I wanted to be a florist until grade two and then in grade three I decided I wanted to be a botanist. I had no idea what it was. Botany was flowers, as far as I was concerned.”

So, Carolyn went to university and became a botanist, working with the Queensland Government National Parks Service doing fire management research, undertaking vegetation mapping and studying ecosystem dynamics. Her favourite ecosystems, she tells me, are heathland. Of course – they’ve got the most flowers!

Before university, however, she visited Japan on a school exchange and discovered the Japanese art of flower arranging, Ikebana. The local greengrocer was a Sogetsu Ikebana teacher and used to visit once a week, giving her lessons on the art. This began a lifelong obsession for Carolyn and Ikebana soon became her creative outlet whilst studying and working as a botanist. “I needed something to keep me sane creatively. Ikebana is my love. It’s really sculpture with living plants. Japanese ikebana is always about the seasons. It’s always important to relate it to nature.”

Carolyn Sandercoe in her Brisbane garden

Carolyn and her husband have been living at their property in the Brisbane suburb of Kenmore since 1985. There was hardly any garden when they arrived, just lawn. Carolyn soon began planning and planting, but not before observing. “I needed to live here for a little while before I did anything drastic. I worked out that the top end of the garden was dry and that there’s a gradual slope going down to the end of the garden facing the street. This is where I wanted rainforest, because it’s the lowest point. It also gives me privacy to the street, allowing me to have a good three layers of vegetation.”

Her interest in biodiversity and knowledge of botany informs her gardening practice. “I re-interpret habitats and ecosystems in a garden situation. So I can have a wild garden in a relatively controlled manner.”

Ikebana is also a key influence in the space – there has to be plenty of flowers and foliage for Carolyn’s arrangements. “Ikebana has a big influence on what I think is beautiful. At the moment I’m quite interested in bromeliads. Particularly Portea species as they’re so good for flower arranging and they last very well in water.”

Carolyn’s garden is jam packed. The front garden is layered and lush, with a thick planting of rainforest trees, grevilleas and garden beds full of flowers for Carolyn’s ikebana arrangements. A pathway down the side of the house leads to a shade-house filled with an incredible array of weird and wonderful plants. There’s more around the back of the house. And more, and more. Like most keen gardeners, if Carolyn spots a plant she hasn’t seen before, it has to come home with her. “I can’t help myself if I see something new at a market, a nursery, or if a friend has one. I’ll find out what sort of conditions it needs, and plant it.”

I fit a lot in. I often say to people ‘my garden is small but it’s very full!’ There’s always room for a few more things, though.”

Biodiversity, creativity, beauty and obsession. This is Carolyn’s garden. Like all good gardens, it cannot be understood without her, the gardener. It is a part of her. “I had a long period of illness and if I didn’t have my garden to look out on I would have gone totally crazy. It was something I could relate to. If my mind wasn’t in a good space, I could look out onto the birds in the grevillea and realise that they didn’t have a care in the world. They’re just eating, then they’re going to fly away, then they’re going to eat something else. They’re not thinking about the future or the past. So, why worry? The garden really puts you in your place. It grounds you.”