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A Wild and Productive Healesville Garden

A few months back I spent an afternoon at artist Clare James’ home in Healesville, north-east of Melbourne. I could have easily spent a week pottering in Clare’s wild garden with her, chatting about poetry and ducks, avoiding the not-so-friendly attention of Dobby the rescued Quaker parrot, and discussing what to do with over-producing zucchini plants. We connected, big-time. Daniel the photographer found the Clare and Georgina Mutual Appreciation Society eye-roll-worthy, but I reckon he was just jealous.

Clare, her husband Mark Boulet and their two children Lylah and Olive have lived on the side of a hill looking out over the small town of Healesville for the last decade. It’s a piece of land very much intertwined with the story of the family – Clare and Mark were married in the backyard, and Lylah and Olive were both born in the house. Clare’s sister, also an artist, lives close by and her Mum’s house is 300 metres away.

Gardening, like art, runs in the family. Clare’s dad is a botanist, and she spent much of her childhood in the vegetable garden with him. ‘Gardening is in my blood, but it’s also such a passion of mine to read about plants,’ Clare tells me. ‘I love them so much. I sit in bed and just read gardening books. Plant porn, my dad calls it.’

By day, when she’s not making art, Clare puts her evening plant porn hours into action; planting, cutting, pruning, transplanting, growing. Her backyard is full – there’s a huge vegetable garden, an orchard, a duck house, chook house, tree house, trampoline, art and more. It’s jam packed, and like most well-loved gardens it has evolved over the years in response to the family who inhabit it. ‘The way the garden is now is a response to the way we live here,’ Clare says. ‘Each year, we’ve done a project, so its growth has been gradual and responsive, rather than designed upfront.’

The garden work is a family affair. The kids are keen assistant vegetable gardeners, and Mark is the chief preserver. ‘I grow the food,’ says Clare, ‘and Mark preserves it. He’s good at finishing jobs whereas I’m better at multitasking, which gardening allows me to do. There’s no end, which is what I need, whereas Mark likes a job to be rounded up and finished, complete.’

The way Clare gardens really resonates with me. She and Mark have built a space not with lots of money, but with lots of creativity, lateral thinking and thrift. ‘The garden has been grown from cuttings, swapping and sharing. I sift through markets for small, interesting plants and then work out how to make them grow,’ Clare says. She points to a miscanthus grass and tells me how she spotted some dried flower heads in a shop in Healesville. ‘I went into the shop and said “I don’t want to buy anything, sorry, but what is that plant? I don’t have it.” The owner cut me a chunk from her plant out the back and I just love it. I can’t wait to divide it up and have more, more, more.’

Clare James’s family garden is full of stories and soul. It’s the kind of space that can only be created by someone like Clare – a passionate plant woman with sharp eye for beauty, and a desire to live honestly, in close dialogue with the earth beneath her feet and the lives it sustains. She’s a born nurturer and has created an incredibly generous and inviting place of growth for her huge family of humans, ducks, birds, dogs, chickens, slugs, and plants. It was such a treat to spend time in it with her, even if just for a few hours.

The day leans towards night, and we part reluctantly, with promises of seeds in the mail and poems on the wind. Women of plants, unite!