Some people go overseas and return home with their carry-on luggage jammed full of duty free alcohol, perfume and last minute gifts for grandparents and nephews. Others, like Matt Reed and Michael Morant, fill their suitcases with plants. The pair are modern day plant hunters, passionate about sniffing out new and interesting perennials to introduce into Australia through their business, Antique Perennials.
Until Australian quarantine laws changed a few years back (due to the threat of Xyllela, a very scary bacterium that affects a wide range of food crops and ornamental plants – it’s not in Australia yet, but is causing havoc in many parts of the world), Matt and Michael would head overseas every 18 months or so. ‘We’d visit plant collectors, plant explorers and rare plant nurseries, looking for new plants to bring home,’ Matt tells me. They’d clean all the soil off each plant, get it inspected and certified, pack into moist towelling and place in their hand luggage. ‘We can get around 150 plants in one carry-on bag,’ he tells me. ‘They’re too precious to go underneath in the hold.’ Once they reach Australia the plants would spend three to six months in quarantine before the pair could bring their valuable babies home to their nursery in Kinglake, north-east of Melbourne.
Matt and Michael started Antique Perennials around 18 years ago. ‘I’d been collecting rare and unusual plants for 20 years, and realised my one-acre garden in Kinglake easily had enough plants in it to propagate from and start a nursery.’ tells Matt. So they did, and while Matt tells me demand for their plants has always outstripped supply, the road hasn’t always been easy.
In 2009, both Matt and Michael’s homes and the nursery were destroyed by the Black Saturday bushfires. ‘All that was left was a few fence posts,’ Matt tells me. ‘All our years of plant collecting just vaporised.’ With the support of fellow plant lovers and customers, the pair rebuilt their plant collection. ‘We had plants sent back to us from all over Australia, from people who had heard what had happened,’ Matt says. ‘We’re definitely bigger and better now than we were before the fires.’
The pair now operate the nursery from a former potato farm, with rich soil and a good water supply. They grow around 1000 different plants on four acres, focusing on ‘garden-worthy’ perennial plants rather than ‘pot-worthy’ plants. ‘We try to grow plants that look great in the garden, year after year,’ Matt says. ‘They may not look as good in a pot at the nursery, but once they get in the garden they’re fantastic. That’s our point of difference.’
Matt and Michael focus on growing herbaceous perennials – plants that flower in spring and summer, and often either die back or are cut back in winter. In contract to to the relatively stable growth habit of a box hedge, for example, perennials provide textural contrast, a sense of movement and seasonality within a garden. They’re ephemeral, colourful, seasonal beauties that create achingly beautiful summer gardens full of movement and life, and quiet, austere winter spaces holding both promise and reprieve. They’re the medium of northern hemisphere designers and plant people such as Piet Oudolf, Beth Chatto, and Dan Pearson, and are gaining popularity in Australia, thanks to folk like Matt and Michael.
I love talking to people like Matt Reed, it reminds me of the incredibly diverse and beautiful plants available to grow in Australian gardens. The botanical world is vast – way, way, WAY bigger than we’re led to believe at large hardware store nurseries. There’s so much more to discover, grow and understand. Passionate growers like Matt Reed and Michael Morant from Antique Perennials remind us to think outside the box hedge!