Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 5, 2017

Reading the Garden, the settlement of Australia (2008), by Katie Holmes, Susan K. Martin & Kylie Mirhomamadi

reading-the-gardenReading the Garden was first published in 2008, but somehow I missed it and only discovered it when Emma Ashmere, author of The Floating Garden revealed in Meet an Aussie Author that she had been a researcher for the book.  I tracked it down at my local library that day and reserved it.  I have been fascinated by the history of gardening in Australia ever since I read Holly Kerr-Forsyth’s Remembered Gardens.

Alas, Reading the Garden turned out to be a disappointment, nothing to do with Emma’s research but rather everything to do with the use that’s been made of it.


This is my garden in Autumn, looking out from our French windows. L to R: the edge of a small garden shed, and behind that (where you can’t see it) there’s one of our three water tanks.  There are citrus trees, lemon & lime, obscuring the BBQ; a grape vine on the pergola and citrus tubs and wall art in our outdoor eating area (which we call The Lower Belvedere in homage to our first European trip); vegie patch No 1 (no 2 is out of the line of sight on the LHS); an olive tree; and a sorrel patch.  There is some lawn, and some paving, and a deck with herbs and a bay tree, plus what’s left of the pumpkin harvest.  On the deck you can also see the edge of another table, which is a nice spot for a cup of tea on winter afternoons.  You can also see our neighbour’s pear tree overhanging the washing line which is discreetly behind that brick wall. Nothing special, really, though we love it, but this one simple photo tells you a lot about 21st century gardening in the suburbs of Melbourne.

In concept, I now realise, it is much like the earliest gardens planted by settlers in the colonial era of Australia.  It is fenced, to declare that it’s “mine”, reinforcing the dispossession of the Bunerong People whose land it originally was.  Nearly all of the plants are not indigenous to Australia, and a kitchen garden augmenting food supply is what nearly all gardens had in colonial Australia.  My front garden, although it has a banksia and a bottlebrush to keep the honey-eaters happy, has even more overt symbols of the imported garden: there are roses, camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas and violets thriving under the shade of a massive lilli-pilli tree.

This photo also tells you that I don’t live in the inner suburbs because there’s so much land, nor the outer suburbs…

Living in suburbia had traditionally meant living in a house with a garden.  The new outer suburban developments are located on the fringes of urban development, where the land is cheap but the blocks are comparatively small.  Some have names like Parkwood Estate or Springback Waters or Greenview Grove but there are few gardens to be seen.  The front ‘yard’ comes ready landscaped, and there is not room for anything but the smallest backyard.  The houses have no eaves so they can be placed close together.  Most require airconditioners to counter the intensity of the western sun which comes unfiltered by trees or absorbed by greenery, and in place of outside play areas, there is ample indoor space, secure from anything threatening which may be found outside.  The fortress mentality reflected in what have been called ‘McMansions’ suggests a desire for homogeneity, conformity and security.

With houses so close together, ‘privacy’ can only be maintained by keeping windows shut and tinted, or blinds and curtains drawn.  Without a garden, there is no space for children to play outside and they must be taken, usually driven, to other locations for their outdoor recreation. (p.225)

Well, yes, the tone is disapproving.  ‘McMansions’ are an easy target: nobody likes them except (presumably) the people who buy them.  But the rather scornful tone extends to other chapters too.  From the chapter about suburban gardens of the 1950s, where I learned that Australian suburban gardening culture, governed as it was by a set of cultural assumptions, must have seemed impenetrable to new migrants, I gather that my garden is too ‘Anglo’ and that there is somehow something different, more praiseworthy and more ideologically sound about immigrant families having a vegie patch to grow Asian greens or rocket than if I do the same thing.  Aren’t we both creating gardens that carry memories? Aren’t we both doing ‘home’ and ‘belonging’? Aren’t we both growing produce to suit our culinary interests?  (Thai basil, anyone?)  Surely ours is not the only community in Melbourne that shares its produce with the neighbours, putting our excess limes, lemons and grapefruit in boxes on the nature-strip with an invitation to ‘help yourself’?

This horticultural interplay of class and race reiterates the point that the apparently uncomplicated space of the garden belies the complexities planted within.  It is a place where settling is enacted, and ideas of home and belonging, in both intimate and national dimensions, are made and re-made.  Themes of belonging and difference emerge in the ways different groups in Australian society use garden space, and in the manner in which these uses are discussed and analysed.  Most obviously, while the gardens made by non-Anglo migrants are almost invariably read as displaying ethnicity and cultural difference, gardens worked by Anglo-Australians are rarely scrutinised for signs of the ‘whiteness’ of their makers. They are much more likely to be viewed and judged in terms of an allegedly universal garden aesthetic rather than as a racial, or even ‘ethnic’ expression.  Any ‘Englishness’ in the garden is similarly interpreted as conforming to a garden style, rather than appealing to its ‘particularly valorised position in the field of Whiteness.’ (p.216)

I defy these authors to take a stroll around the streets where I live to pick out the ‘ethnic’ gardens and the ‘valorised’ White ones.  Our street has a beaut miscellany of residents from here there and everywhere, and our gardens are splendidly idiosyncratic.  Some are more landscaped than others, some are tidier than others, some are a lively muddle of native and exotics, and some folks who’ve got better things to do shamelessly neglect their gardens altogether!

At the beginning of the book it is acknowledged that settler gardens

carried meanings of loss and grief, hope and affirmation.  In the act of their planting, colonists sought to provide not only food for their survival, but sensory and emotional sustenance as they began to create a home in this unknown land.

But from this empathetic beginning, the authors pile on the criticism.  Having appropriated the continent,  gardeners are never let off the hook at all.  Colonists were not just gardeners, they were pastoralists, appropriating land by rendering it ‘productive’.  Settlers saw the land as wild and uncivilised, almost indistinguishable from the Indigenous inhabitants.  Clearing the land was also a form of protection against these threatening strangers.  What’s more, art historian Caroline Jordan is quoted as saying that the response from women like Louisa Meredith who objected to clearing of the land

was both classed and gendered, a ‘protest against the direct actions of their masculine counterparts.’  Jordan suggests that while white women were excluded from the masculine frontier pursuits such as killing and clearing, they sought to position themselves as ‘aestheticizers and civilisers, the natural champions of the picturesque and through it, of environmental and species conservation.’

The presence of melons in a colonial garden alerts us to the fact that [it] was an imperialist garden, harbouring plants from around the world, an expression of global exchange. 

Oh, ok… that makes my garden imperialist as well…

The discussion about parks and gardens such as Botanic Gardens becomes an opportunity to link their purpose to morality:

On the one hand, there was a desire to make a space for the general public to find health and recreation, but on the other there was the desire to control the forms and limits of that recreation. (p.130)

So policing the rules comes in for criticism too:

… Formal policing has been a constant and controversial issue in Australian public gardens.  In the settlement’s very early stages soldiers were used to police the Sydney Gardens and Domain.  Melbourne public gardens towards the end of the nineteenth century, though open to all, had strictures against lying on the grass or on seats, drunkenness, and unrestrained dogs and children.  Garden historian Georgina Whitehead points out that these limits had the effect of enforcing demure middle-class behaviour in the gardens.  (p.131)

Speaking for myself, while I don’t mind people lying on the grass or the seats, I can do without drunkenness or dogs and children ruining the garden beds, which in Botanic Gardens contain significant plant specimens and have educational value too.  This makes me a middle-class wannabe enforcer, I suppose!

Moving on to the patriotic gardens of the war years, school gardens are in the frame:

The patriotic dimension of school gardening had clearly intensified in response to World War I.  Both children and adults were encouraged in their response to this conflict to display the success of the white settlement of Australia by contributing selflessly to the defence of the nation and empire. During World War I, members of the Young Gardeners League grew produce in their home gardens to sell in support of the Department’s war effort, thus bringing ‘even the private garden into the public education system.’ (p. 117)

When Londoners did the exact same thing for the war effort, were they displaying the ‘success of white settlement’?  Or were both societies simply trying to offset the difficulties of rationing?

Dear me, even the Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden scheme which aims to improve nutrition by teaching children to grow the food they then cook and eat, doesn’t seem to garner the authors’ approval:

Collingwood College, where Stephanie Alexander set up her high-profile kitchen garden and cooking program, which has now spread to other schools, uses its website to promote the school’s extensive gardening activities.  This connection between new technology and the traditions of productive gardening challenges the assertion in the Oxford Companion to Australian Gardening that with ‘the advent of the Information Age, the idea of using gardening as a tool for moral and economic advancement has become passé.’  Here the Information Age itself is enlisted to advance the cause of children’s gardening in schools, if not for moral and economic advantage, then to address the issues generated by economic disadvantage and/or problems of modernity, such as alienation from the natural source of food. (p.124)

From what I can see on the Collingwood College website, this authorial commentary is pompous nonsense, looking for negatives to suit an ideological viewpoint.

First and foremost, we want to enchant and engage the children. Children are unimpressed by lists or pyramids that separate the ‘good for you’ from the ‘not good for you’ foods’.

But get them digging and planting and picking, or get them mixing or rolling or chopping, or get them around a table with their own freshly baked pizza topped with their own tomato sauce, liberally scattered with herbs from the garden, and the result is enthusiasm, real learning and great flavours.”

Stephanie Alexander

What made me crossest of all was this snipe at Remembered Gardens… of course the garden activities of men and women were gendered in the past, but really… this stuff about contemporary stereotyping is absurd:

Men’s and women’s activities in the garden and their expectations of this space are also influenced by several factors: child-rearing, paid work, their own class backgrounds.  Many women find gardening a creative and rewarding pursuit, unlike housework.  Once the demands of young children have lessened, the time available for gardening often increases, and with it the pleasure obtained.  Gardening can be enabling for women, but the connection between women and gardens is still prone to pervasive stereotypes.  We can see this in the publishing industry, where books such as The Englishwoman’s Garden, The Virago Book of Women Gardeners and Remembered Gardens: Eight Women and Their Vision of an Australian Landscape all suggest, through both text and image, some innate link between women, femininity and gardens.  Images of men continue to consign them to the most practical of gardening tasks, and there has been little attempt to establish a special publishing market for their consumption.  Reading about gardens is clearly considered a more feminine pastime as well. (p. 190)

Having seen Jane Edmonson up to her elbows in compost, and likewise seen male presenters on the same Gardening Australia Show wax lyrical about scented flowers, I find it depressing that publishing efforts to be inclusive of women’s contributions to gardening are being diminished in this way.

It’s a shame.  This is a book with so much promise, but its ideological blinkers destroy all pleasure in reading it.

Authors: Katie Holmes, Susan K. Martin & Kylie Mirhomamadi
Title: Reading the Garden, the settlement of Australia
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, 2008
ISBN: 9780522851151
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Great review! Both my father (it was his garden rather than mum’s) and his parents had ordered back yards like yours. Unlike the authors, apparently, I consider them ethnic (English), not ‘Australian’. But then what would I know, I have a balcony with a bougainvillea, a kangaroo paw and a lemon tree.

    Liked by 1 person

    • *chuckle*
      I love bougainvillea. I have tried three times to grow it and it just won’t cooperate. Maybe our soil is too sandy?
      PS You realise now that you have an imperialist balcony?


      • Obviously I grow it in a pot, but it is ubiquitous in Perth, and our soil consists entirely of sand. Maybe it’s a climate thing – ten more years of worldwide denialist government and bougainvillea will grow everywhere.


        • And we’ll be struggling to grow the nation’s food…


        • It is a climate thing. Bougainvillea in my experience likes tropical and Mediterranean climates Lisa, I think, not temperate climates. I think Melbourne and Canberra winters are too cold.

          This book sounds disappointing. One of my favourite histories is Katie Holmes’ Spaces in her day. A great read.


          • That’s interesting… is it a bit like Places Women Make in concept?


            • No, it’s based on her PhD thesis on Australian women’s diaries of around the 1920s. I think that’s the era. It was a fascinating read.


              • Ah, I wonder what we will use for research about the digital age when everything’s on phones, Facebook and email…

                Liked by 1 person

                • Yes, something libraries are acutely aware of.


                • Maybe scrapbooking will fill some gaps, but they tend to be about domestic issues (children, weddings, travel etc) but it’s the diaries of working men and women, and commentary on everyday life that’s been so valuable for research about previous eras.

                  Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the picture of your garden and this review. I had no idea my/our gardening efforts were so imperialist and so “white.” Here in the eastern U.S., when you walk in the woods you find apple trees, lilacs, dandelions, none of which are native here but now grow as if they were. Were the early settlers planting their memories or trying to make a new land comfortable as their home. What’s wrong with both?

    During World War II Victory Gardens were important here, promoted as a patriotic supplement to rationed food. The problem we were told was transport. By growing food close to home we freed up the trains for the troops.

    In recent years Michelle Obama has promoted gardening, especially for children, and eating the foods that you grow. Is this a white thing? Let’s not let regret over past injustices taint the positive things we do now.

    I’m amused and puzzled by the quote: “an imperialist garden, harbouring plants from around the world, an expression of global exchange.” Is the writer opposed to global exchange? Is such an exchange necessarily imperialist and therefore wicked? Europe! Send back your maize and potatoes and corn and chocolate.


    • “Let’s not let regret over past injustices taint the positive things we do now.” Well said, Nancy.
      How we are all going to miss the Obamas!


  3. Love this review Lisa and the nice pic of your garden – goodness knows how they’d categorise my garden (thrived on neglect for many years)! I planted as many indigenous plants as possible to minimise upkeep but also to attract native birds and butterflies. However, there are roses, geraniums, rhododendrons, rosemary and lavender all gifts – and recently succulents. (I never refuse a cutting:)) My veggie garden has intermittent success depending on the time and energy I have but I do have plans for the future, so does that count? My grandfather and dad had an allotment for years in the UK – nothing to do with wars but they took advantage of access to railway land and grew vegetables for family consumption and bred hens – for pleasure as well as the eggs. I love the trend to community gardens, there’s a great one at Chelsea Heights and the one in St Kilda and another at Balaclava absolutely fabulous for people in apartments or with tiny gardens or who just want to share knowledge. This book sounds a bit too academic and looking for examples to fit preset theories. Often the climate and soil have more to do with what grows and what doesn’t, it certainly is a huge factor. I love my bird of paradise and blue moon rose and often write about them and I’m just thrilled when something I thought died suddenly resurrects itself after a bit of rain!


    • Overnight, I have been thinking about why this book ‘pressed my buttons’ in the way that it has. I mean, I ‘get’ that gardening on any colonised land has a history that can’t be denied. But the idea that Anglos seem to be judged so harshly for the simple act of planting a garden with the things they are used to and comfortable with, because that’s unfamiliar to migrants who come here, is ludicrous.
      I have some lovely stories about my garden from the couple who originally built our house. They came to visit when we had a farewell tea for one of our neighbours. Every garden in this street was full of cuttings shared between them all, and they shared tools too. Over time the style of gardening has changed but you can still see traces of it in the gardens of the very old ladies who still live here.


  4. Your garden is gorgeous, Lisa!


    • Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, you’re away. I always get the time mixed up. Sent you a message at GR. Jonathan plans to begin The Leopard Saturday. I’ve pulled it off my shelf and will try to make a start this weekend too.


        • Should have been ‘awake’ not away, lol.


          • LOL time zones, we forget that we are on opposite sides of the globe, don’t we?!
            Good timing with The Leopard, I am almost finished the Saul Bellow!

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for this review. Even with my brown thumb the cherry tomato plant I planted in my tiny strip of garden this year is thriving and I am eating my own tomatoes. I am learning about plants and flowers and hope to grow more of my own produce this year. I grow herbs and there is nothing like running outside and picking them to add to a meal.


    • Your own cherry tomatoes in a crisp salad, or sliced in half for bruschetta – delicious!


  6. How disappointing! It could have been a really interesting book. I think your garden is lovely!


    • Thank you! Yes, I think the history of the postwar garden and its role in suburban life is yet to be written…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  8. Although I haven’t read the book, I support Lisa’s criticisms of the censorious tone of it. As a moderate, I’m not a fan of identity politics nor of seeing everything through ideological lenses. I enjoy the freedom to do whatever I like in my own backyard (as long as we don’t adversely affect our neighbours) and I don’t like being told that I can’t.


    • Well, the book doesn’t say that you can’t do what you like, but clearly the authors think that there are judgements to be made about the choices gardeners make, and their judgements seem to be based on the identity of the gardener.


      • I know it’s not a garden but what do you think about the Europeanisation of Victoria’s Western District with pines, willows and poplars? Makes me really angry. I’d declare all 3 weeds if I had the power.


        • Yes, I’ve seen these plantations… they look awful. So boring, compared to native plants. But I guess if they are replacing degraded land with plantations for harvest I’d rather they did that than cut down old-growth forests.


      • As with most things we do I think there are judgements that can be made about the choices gardeners make, though I’m not inclined to be judgemental, because it’s so easy to judge from the outside without knowing the inside. If I were to make judgements though it would be on environmental grounds, eg to do with water, plants designated as weeds in your area, etc.

        Interesting how one’s judgements even are based on current political issues!


        • Well, yes, that’s how I feel. I agree about making judgements based on sustainability: we have some water-thirsty plants so I believe that we have an obligation to collect our own water for them – and we do, with three water tanks. But I thought about this ethnicity angle as I walked Amber last night – it’s not something I focus on but I know the ethnicity of many of our neighbours because I’ve been walking dogs here for thirty years now and we get chatting. I looked hard at the gardens of neighbours I know who are Turkish, Greek, Italian, Filipina, Chinese, New Zealand and French, and I cannot see any pattern to the way they garden compared to the way I do, or my other neighbours do. There are some differences in architectural features: a few Corinthian columns here and there and some statuary, but the gardens i.e. the plants and the layouts are just the same or as different as anybody else’s.
          The other thing I’ve been thinking about is the way the authors genderise gardening. (I think I made that word up!) I thought of the single women I know who do all the work in their gardens, some who’ve been doing it for decades. I think they’d laugh, maybe mirthlessly, at the idea that they only do the soft stuff!

          Liked by 1 person

          • PS I’ve been considering the McMansion garden too. My father’s aged care home is in a ‘new’ suburb carved out of an old industrial area about 20 minutes from my place, and there are McMansions all around it. I’ve been visiting nearly every day since July, so I’ve had a chance to see houses getting built on the other side of the road, and in the last month or so, the owners doing their front gardens. They aren’t already landscaped by the developer at all. I’ve seen bare, muddy patches transformed in all different ways from low-maintenance potted gardens and paving to the complete lawn and flowers, and again, I can see just by looking at people and complimenting one or two on their efforts, that the suburb has Chinese residents from wherever (Malaysia? Taiwan? Singapore etc) and many from the Indian sub-continent (India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan). Their gardens don’t look ‘ethnic’ either, whatever that may mean.
            And remembering the gardens in the suburb I taught at, 40km from the CBD, where we had about 30 different ethnic groups and some indigenous kids as well as kids of Anglo and Irish origin, there was variety there too, but nothing at all to indicate ‘ethnicity’. it was poverty that was noticeable there. The kids who lived in emergency housing had plain gardens that sometimes needed mowing (I guess DHS doesn’t provide a mower to families fleeing domestic violence) while the middle class families had the usual range of well-loved, well-tended gardens to the more rudimentary kind.
            So I’m still unconvinced by the thesis!


          • Re tanks… And it’s because of judgements that some people put signs up on their fences re their tanks to justify their gardens.


            • Yes, I’ve seen those. I admit to throwing a disapproving glance at a man I saw hosing his driveway not so long ago!


  9. Lovely garden there Lisa.


  10. Also, another mistake of the book implied by Lisa’s review is that the primary purpose of botanic gardens is recreation, as in public parks. This is a common misunderstanding. A botanic garden is not just another local public park. Its primary purpose is to conserve and display collections of plants, in a similar way to art galleries conserving and displaying collections of art works and museums doing the same for historical artefacts. Public recreation is only a secondary purpose and is always subordinate to the primary purpose.


  11. Lovely garden, Lisa! And great review. It almost sounds like this book was written as an academic thesis and then simply published for public consumption.


    • Thanks Kim, and yes, I think you’re right about the thesis. I hope it was subjected to a rigorous critique by the university.


      • Yes, these sorts of ideological views are academically fashionable in arts faculties at present. To me, they are a theoretical solution looking for a practical problem.


  12. […] Reading the Garden, the settlement of Australia, by Katie Holmes, Susan K. Martin & Kylie Mirho… […]


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