Beatrice Bligh and Australian Gardening Books
29 July 2011 -
As winter in southern Australia descends into the serious chill of sub zero temperatures it also rises before the eyes in a blaze of golden heath and bushland.
Yes, we’re moving into the transitional joys of August and our unofficial ‘wattle spring’.
Time then to focus on colour and form in the landscape, and specifically, on Australian gardening books.
Despite her genteel associations Beatrice Bligh was the type of gardener anyone can relate to. Daughter of a grazier from Bungendore in NSW Beatrice married into the Pejar Park property near Goulburn which became her passion. Since the tragic influenza epidemics of the nineteenth century, which almost entirely wiped out the indigenous bands of the Goulburn area, the local landscape had come under unchecked European-style cultivation, but when Beatrice first arrived as a newly wed, the garden at Pejar Park consisted only of a bluestone cottage, some pine trees, and a few flowering shrubs. The memory of Beatrice's own grandfather's wild garden at Manar near Braidwood loomed, and, inspired by the challenge of recreating romantic memories in the inscrutable clay-soiled landscape, she set to work.
Bligh was both assiduous and intrepid by nature and had a gift for resourcefulness when it came to sourcing plants. A mother of four, there are stories of her carrying quince seedlings home on the pommel of her saddle as she scoured the NSW southern highlands with a sharp eye for not only what she needed but also what she wished for. At Pejar Park she was dealing with poor soil types and also the usual extremes of the Australian season-cycle, yet after years of concentration, imagination, heavy spadework, and ruthless determination, her garden won first prize in the rather horses-and-hounds-ish Sydney Morning Herald gardening award in 1965, confirming Pejar Park as the ‘champion homestead garden of New South Wales’.
‘Although my gardening seems to have been an endless slow wooing of plants into giving of their best, the processes to achievement often gave more pleasure and satisfaction than the ultimate results.’ (Beatrice Bligh)
According to Martha Rutledge’s nicely written entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, by the time of the 1965 award the grounds of Pejar Park were a ‘garden of surprises, its main features were shady trees, smooth, weed-free lawns, raised beds filled with hardy perennials, a long, white wall with espaliered apples and pears, a wistaria-covered pergola, a separate vegetable garden and a willow-shaded pool used to water stock on the far side.’
This was of course before the current penchant for endemic planting and in characteristic style Beatrice purchased a suitable park-like set of wrought iron gates with her prize money. Her creation at Pejar Park went on in subsequent years to take out second, third and fourth prizes in the SMH award. This was noted by the judges as quite an achievement for a garden without a paid full time gardener.
‘I believe in green fingers, or thumbs perhaps, but mine do not seem to have ever changed from a grubby brown.’ (Beatrice Bligh)
In the wake of this recognition in New South Wales, and after much encouragement from friends such as the art patron and National Trust doyen Dame Helen Blaxland (who incidentally is reported as having difficulty pronouncing the letter 'r': when asked about seeking grassroots members for the National Trust beyond the Eastern Suburbs and North Shore of Sydney, she replied, 'the only use I can think of for gwasswoots is for twamplin' on'), Beatrice Bligh wrote ‘Down To Earth’, (Angus & Robertson 1968), now an Australian gardening classic.
The book is prefaced with a poem from another Dame, Mary Gilmore, about ‘Pejar Creek’:
‘Where the Pejar rises/Springs the Wollondilly,/Twinned upon the mountains/Babbling brook and ghyllie’.
‘Down To Earth’ describes the Pejar Park garden and the practical processes and natural inspirations which contributed to its flourishing. There is a chapter on Bligh’s conception of the ‘natural garden’ and also the ‘minimum-work garden’ – which these days we’d call ‘low-maintenance’ – and also a Pejar Park garden calendar.
Increasingly Beatrice Bligh grew interested in the history of gardening and travelled widely as an overseas fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society of London, through Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean. In the early 1970s she published ‘Cherish The Earth: The Story Of Gardening In Australia’ (Ure Smith 1973), an important and highly readable book which begins with the now famous quote from Mark Twain:
‘Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange, that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer…’
In ‘Cherish The Earth’ Bligh zeros in on the brief but fascinating lineage of gardening in Australia since white settlement. As such it is a book with a pioneering tone, its chapters titles in themselves give a fair indication of the book’s trajectory: ‘Gardens For Food and Survival’, ‘Gardening For Pioneers’, ‘Gardens For Decoration’, ‘Gardens For Show’ and ‘Parks and Gardens Now’.
‘Cherish The Earth’ includes colour plates of early Australian gardens and its front cover image is from John Glover’s magnificent painting of his own garden in Tasmania in 1840.
We currently have both of Beatrice Bligh’s books in stock. Our copy of her classic ‘Down To Earth’ is a rare first edition signed by Beatrice herself and is priced at $150. ‘Cherish The Earth’ is the hardback reprint in lovely condition at $30.
In more general terms our range of Australian gardening books is currently quite extensive, from the beautiful little ‘Walch’s Handbook Of Garden, Greenhouse and Fruit Culture in Tasmania’, published in 1892 with great typographic flair, to ‘Seaside Gardening in Australia’, Marcelle Monfries’ lovely and practical book on the challenges and delights of gardening among the wind, salt and spray of the coast. We also a range of first and reprint editions of Edna Walling, Jean Galbraith, Joan Law-Smith, amongst others.
Below is a small sample of our gardening titles, with prices for you to peruse. If you’re coming into the store the Gardening section is immediately on your right as you enter, next to Dance and Classical music.
Otherwise, if you have any queries or further enquiries, or if you would like us to post one of the titles out to you, feel free to email us: email@example.com
Gardens In Australia - Their Design And Care - Edna Walling (first ed. Oxford 1943) - $75
A Gardener’s Log – Edna Walling (first ed. Oxford 1948) - $75
Historic Gardens of Victoria – Peter Watts - $60
Garden In A Valley – Jean Galbraith - $25
Walch’s Handbook of Garden, Greenhouse and Fruit Culture in Tasmania (J.Walch & Sons 1892) - $150
A Gardener’s Potpourri – Collected Gardening Wisdom from The Age – ed by TR Garnett - $12
A Man On Edge – A Life of Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller by Edward Kynaston (first ed. Allen Lane 1981) - $50
The Gardens Of Edna Walling – Peter Watts (National Trust reprint 1982) - $25
Down To Earth – Beatrice Bligh (first ed. Angus & Robertson 1968 signed by the author) - $150
Cherish The Earth: The Story of Gardening in Australia – Beatrice Bligh (Ure Smith reprint 1975) - $30
Growing Together: A Gardening History of Geelong extending to Colac and Camperdown – George Jones (signed by author 1984) - $25
The Garden Within – Joan Law-Smith (National Trust 1991) - $25