In his quest for tranquillity, gardening has become one of author Bryce Courtenay’s lifelong passions. We visit his latest work.
As Australia's bestselling author, Bryce Courtenay could choose to live anywhere in the world. But that would mean leaving his garden, a sacrifice he is not prepared to make.
"I just have to grow things," he says. "I can't see how anyone can live without growing things."
So Bryce lives and weaves his magic, of both the literary and horticultural kind, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, watching his garden signal the passing seasons. In early spring the one-hectare property is strewn with daffodils and bluebells, and the fruit trees throw their blossoms. Come summer, the clean, fresh country air is scented with lavender and rose.
A huge blue wisteria winds around the front verandah. Bryce and his partner, Christine Gee, a former book publisher, often eat in the adjacent courtyard, where Bryce has planted about 1000 tulips. Further in, sandstone seats are hidden under the boughs of two giant weeping cherry trees, both of which were covered in clusters of blossom when Bryce and Christine moved here in 2008.
When we visit, the ranunculus and hyacinths are poking up their heads. The daphne is blooming and beds of old-fashioned roses will soon be in glorious flower.
"The scent is incredible," says Bryce. "By the time you've walked around the whole garden you're dizzy with it."
It's a long way from the gardens he knew as a child in South Africa. Born at the end of the Great Depression, the illegitimate child of a mother with bipolar disorder, Bryce was raised in an orphanage. "It was an orphan farm. We grew vegetables to eat and to sell to raise money. So right from the beginning I was taught how to grow things.
"It was hard at the orphanage. I was bullied. I was lonely. But growing things gave me peace."
Bryce's mother would occasionally take him out on a visit, as would his grandfather. "He had a rose garden," says Bryce. "I saw those roses and for the first time I saw beauty, tranquillity and loveliness that can't be corrupted. From then on, I longed to create that for myself."
Bryce's previous garden was a four-hectare property on the NSW Central Coast. "It won't be fully grown for 40 years," he says. "I'll never see it but it won't matter. Other people will enjoy it."
While it hurt to leave a garden in which he'd invested a lot of time and energy, Bryce isn't sorry to be living closer to town. The previous property, he explains, meant "living down a dirt road that can be cut off by a swollen creek for weeks".
He is clearly at home in the Southern Highlands, a beguiling mix of pristine bush, farms and vineyards, historic towns, rose-covered cottages and Georgian-style country mansions. It's also famous for its tulips and toe-numbing frosts.
"I didn't know anything at all about a cold-climate garden," says Bryce. "But if you know the basics, you can learn how to make your garden anywhere." His new garden abounds with beautiful trees and shrubs, all chosen to withstand the harsh local winters.
"I can't claim it as my own - it's been enormously preloved and beautifully made," says Bryce. "But I'm adding new plants and bulbs." It's a venture shared with Christine, who enjoys their garden in a different way.
"Bryce grows the garden and I harvest it," says Christine, although Bryce can't help assisting with that, too. "I see the joy on his face when he comes inside with freshly picked flowers, or a dish of salad leaves for our dinner."
The business of writing and deadlines invariably interrupts the gardening. In November 2009 Bryce released his 19th book in 21 years, a compelling saga called The Story of Danny Dunn. Christine says that each year she dreams of the day when Bryce's latest manuscript is delivered and he can get out into the garden and relax, accompanied by their four cats and Tim, a rescued cattle dog.
There is a strong connection, Christine says, between Bryce the gardener and Bryce the writer. "Gardening for Bryce is food for the soul and delivers a kind of magic that I believe he invests back into his writing," she says. "I hope in the years ahead, he'll be able to spend more time in the garden. I suspect I won't be able to resist the urge to put my hands in the soil a bit more often, too."
At 76, Bryce has boundless energy, the sort needed to write big books and to plant a barrowful of daffodils. But he's also passionate about getting others into the garden. For him, apartment living or busy schedules are not arguments against having a garden. To prove it, he has created three vegetable plots on this property, to show there's a garden for every situation. One, planted in plastic tubs, is an ideal balcony garden. The second, in raised beds, would be perfect for a tiny inner-city backyard and the third is a larger version that could easily feed a suburban family of five.
"If you grow one of those gardens, you'll have vegetables for at least nine months of the year," says Bryce. Vegies, he says, have their own beauty. To him, fat tomatoes, golden-skinned onions and enormous cabbages are as much objects of desire as the perfect rose.
Moving from flora to fauna, a recent side project in the garden has been the creation of a frog pond. "Frogs are a barometer of our planet's health," says Bryce. Appointed 'Frog Ambassador' by the Taronga Conservation Society in 2008, he has been involved in campaigns to save the corroboree frog and other endangered native species.
Bryce believes the essence of life is all about growing plants.
"If you're unhappy, if you're stressed," he says, "just grow something, and it will save you."