Twilight draws in as we make our way past charming front gardens gracing these backstreets of Richmond. The gentrified, leafy ambience is a far cry from the Richmond of my childhood, bleak mean streets of grotty factories, ugly brick terraces, bitumen, bluestone, concrete and poverty, unrelieved by leaf or petal until you crossed over the railway bridge to Burnley Horticultural College and the river red gums of the Yarra.
Once inside the slatted front-fence a wonderland. Leaves of all shapes and sizes gently caress you as you push into the tiny front garden. In the twilight, tiny tea-lights and lanterns suggest a pathway and adorn the Buddhist and Hindu statuary hinting at Cheryl’s Sri Lankan heritage.
In a front garden the size of your average bathroom, plants appear to be crammed into every nook and cranny. Luxuriant foliage cascades down from walls, trellises and hanging baskets, up from cracks in the red-brick paving and pots. In summer now with the floral profusion of spring but a memory, the effect is one of leafy luxuriance, a Rousseauian jungle dreamscape where palm , fern, Japanese maple, camellia, philadelphus rub shoulders. The damp air is quite still, fretted with blackbird song and a familiar yet not quite identifiable perfume. One feels, enveloped, uplifted… at peace.
Leafy luxuriance unfolds as you continue up the narrow side of the house, past orchids, palms
past strange sculptures adorning the walls…
and into the slightly larger backyard.
Here vireyas, roses, more maples and camilias, magnolias, gingers, lemon and lime compete for light. A small wisteria shelters the tiniest of garden settings. A well-stocked herb garden hung on the north facing wall years before the vertical garden was ever a gleam in Patrick Blanc’s eye. In the back corner, well camouflaged by ivy and banksia rose, a crumbling outdoor dunny serves as garden shed. At my feet the only flowers out for Christmas, a display of begonias and impatiens is Cheryl’s nod to festive decorations.
In spite of the profusion of plants, there is no hint of the claustrophobic oppressiveness of a neglected, overgrown garden. Purpose, pattern and design are evident amongst the jungle; not the paired-back precision and uniformity of professional garden design. No there is something more personal, intriguing and intimate about this garden. And despite working largely with the mundane but reliable standards of the Melbourne plant palette, Cheryl has managed to capture something quite exotic in this tiny garden. One is left wondering, how it is possible to compress so much vegetative variety into so small a space.
Only slowly does it become apparent that almost every plant is in a pot or some kind of artful container. This is what makes such variety of vegetation possible. Only a couple of small protective trees and a treefern have their feet in the ground. All else is potted, allowing for compactness of form, and flexible placement in tune with seasonal variations of light and colour. This is where Cheryl plays with her plants. She says, ‘This is the only place that, no matter how much you put in, it always gives back more… Well this, and work used to be the same.’
For many years Cheryl managed the lunchtime floor of an up-market, fine dining establishment nearby. The work was ideally suited to her warm, flamboyant, vivacious personality. She was one of those rare maître d’s who skilfully combine entertainment and personal warmth with a high level of service. For as well as being in charge, she was usually the sole waiter, and took great pleasure and pride in the way she carried the role. She was greatly loved by the patrons because she made the serious work of gourmet eating fun. Every meal that Cheryl presided over became a party. But waitressing took its toll, and Cheryl developed severe RSI leading to an extended absence from work that developed into a depressive disorder
In order to help cope with enforced idleness and despair Cheryl turned her hand to gardening, a surprising turn of events to those who knew her, because she had never previously shown the slightest interest in gardens – too busy staying out late having a good time. Who knows whether she absorbed her passion for plants through childhood association with her father in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka, or maybe her eye for the vegetative form comes from training in Ikebana during her teenage years. Who can say? Certainly not Cheryl. All she can say is that it was gardening that slowly brought her back from the sad, grey, empty blur of depression. When it was too much effort to do anything at all, she could always find motivation to go out and potter in the garden for a little while. Bit by bit, colour, passion and joy slowly returned to her life.
As her cousin Pauline puts it, ‘she is never more content than when she is alone getting her hands and knees dirty, revelling amongst her potted plants’. Like this once dingy depressing suburb, plants have gifted our friend Cheryl with a new lease of life, and once again, this is where we come to party when we’re in town. The twinkle in her eye is back.