Jo Ferguson and I met on the back seat of a bus in Melbourne. We were heading out of the city for a day of garden visits as part of the Australian Landscape Conference in early 2018, and must have been late to the bus, because we ended up squashed together up the back. Or, maybe we ended up there on purpose, playing out childhood visions of back-seat rebellion? Either way, there was something about Jo that drew me in. It could have been her warm demeanour and easy manner, or it could have been her hands. Jo Ferguson has gardener’s hands.
A few months back, Daniel and I visited Jo at a garden she and her husband Simon made at Merricks Beach, on the Mornington Peninsula. We head down the sinuous dirt driveway on a late afternoon. Native grasses and manna gums dot the landscape, guiding us towards a rendered strawbale studio/shed. Clumps of felt plant (Kalanchoe beharensis) create a striking silhouette against the dusty pink walls of the shed whilst a carpet of blue chalk sticks (Senecio serpens) creeps underneath.
A winding gravel pathway leads us through the garden towards the house. Soon, the dominance of native grasses like kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) and tussock (Poa labillardierei) softens, and clumps of tough exotics begin to make appearances. Echium, statice, yarrow. It’s a gorgeous mix of native, exotic, succulent, grass – composed by eyes with a strong aesthetic sensibility and hands unafraid of hard work.
Jo and Simon bought the property around 15 years ago. It was a blank canvas and the pair had soon built the strawbale shed, then the house. The garden began in a somewhat atypical way – it grew from the boundary towards the house, rather than from the house outwards. ‘We started revegetating around the outside and gradually worked in’, Jo tells me. The pair, both horticulturalists, collected the seed for the re-vegetation themselves from local endemic plants. Whilst the garden started as mostly grasses and gums, it’s evolved as has Jo’s career as a horticulturalist and garden designer. ‘Gradually, we’ve put more exotics in. We’ve planted whatever can survive. We don’t irrigate at all.’
Jo studied horticulture at the University of Melbourne’s Burnley campus. She’s been working with plants for many years – coordinating environmental programs at Hume City Council, working in garden maintenance, and most recently, starting her own business based on the Mornington Peninsula with fellow designer Nadette Cuming under the name Cuming Ferguson Garden Design. But just because she’s a designer does not mean Jo designed her garden. She didn’t, it just flowed. ‘When I design a garden I’m more restrained. In my home garden I just want to try stuff, all different stuff. It’s fun.’
‘To me, the act of gardening is totally immersive and hypnotising. It takes me deeply into the realms of the subconscious and represents beauty, love and freedom,’ Jo says ‘I am interested in creating gardens that connect people to the feelings in their bodies of past memories, to help them feel safe and uplifted in the joy and beauty of nature.’
‘I want to make gardens that bring people closer to who they are, whatever that may be, rather than doing decoration with plants, or creating a certain ‘look’.’ Perhaps it’s this sentiment that drew Jo and I together that day on the crowded bus. Speaking with her reminds me of what is important, and that gardens, even though they’re not often seen as such, hold real power in terms of connecting us to ourselves, each other, and the world around us. There are few other places that offer such a gift.
Jo and I meander around the garden, discussing the ways design can help create layers of meaning – linking people and place – and what that looks like. In Jo’s garden it looks slightly wild and very beautiful. It looks connected – sitting elegantly within the landscape, not apart – and it feels generous and alive. It’s a place to return to. ‘Gardening,’ Jo tells me, ‘is coming home’.
Jo Ferguson is part of a fundraising organisation called Manifesting Mangos, whose aim to help the villagers of Nimboli, a small town in central India, purchase food and shade trees for their town. On July 14th, they’ll be screening Damon Gameau’s film 2040 at the Sorrento Cinema and all money raised will go directly towards purchasing food trees for the people of Nimboli. Find out more information here.