Brisbane Gardens


My neighbour has a Bali garden: outdoor rooms, statues, tropical vegetation.

Across the road, there’s a bare front yard: grass, a couple of shrubs. The old bloke living there digs weeds out of his lawn with a dinner fork, and he hates trees.

Lots of people hate trees. Dirty, dangerous things, trees.

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Up the street, there’s a place that’s been landscaped in the popular Tuscan style: clipped shrubs, citrus in pots, a lavender hedge of sorts. Lavender doesn’t flourish in a sub-tropical climate.

A new, box-shaped house in the next street has geometrical-leafed plants to suit its style: pointed mother-in-law’s tongues and spiky yukka. Is there any imported plant more ubiquitous than the yukka? It’s not only because it suits the geometrical look; it’s also because yukka thrives without any attention in dry conditions and severe heat. It’s the only plant that survives in the blazing sunlight reflected off brickwork outside my eastward-facing front door.


Myself, I have a mainly native garden, designed to attract birds and butterflies, with birdbaths and local plants: callistemon, wattle, banksia, native groundcovers. I live in a 1970s house, and this was the style of the time.


Gardens vary as fashions change. Gladioli were plants of the 1950s, when the post-war suburban delight in all things prosperous and showy brought about a flourishing on speciality plant and flower breeding.

I’ve never liked gladioli, with their lack of scent and lurid colouring. At a Barry Humphries show in the late 1960s, Edna Everage threw plastic gladioli into the audience and told us to hold them erect and make them quiver. They were for her a symbol of “refined” suburbia.

Before that period, during the Great Depression and the War and earlier, what I think of as “cuttings” gardens flourished in the spreading urban areas.  Up and down any street, the same varieties of geranium, coleus, bougainvillea, bromeliad and frangipani demonstrated that people were sharing their plants, not buying them in nurseries the way we do today. Garden design was an economical, amateur matter. Roma Street Parklands uses many of the plant types used in those old-fashioned Brisbane gardens.


These days, busy modern home-owners like low-maintenance, landscape-designed gardens. Lawn is of a carefully-chosen, manageable variety, and nothing gets overgrown, which is a pity.

I walk the streets of Brisbane every week of the year, and what delights me most is to see a garden with a gnarled old frangipani tree dropping fragrant blooms over a battered picket fence, or purple bougainvillea scrambling high into a backyard tree. You can keep your tidy yukkas and clipped hedges. And especially, you can keep your mother-in-law’s tongues. I’m a mother-in-law, and I don’t like the implication.

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