The Bell Biblical Garden

“I just plant and hope. That’s about it! There’s not a lot of science behind it,” Megg Cullen says as she speaks about her gardening philosophy. Megg is an artist, gardener and active church member who lives beside the Catholic Church in Bell, a tiny town at the foot of the Bunya Mountains in Queensland.

Since 2008 Megg and her fellow parishioners have built a spectacular garden featuring plants from the bible on a vacant block beside the church. Encircled by multi-coloured bougainvillea hedges, the garden is now a sanctuary for local parishioners, tourists and an array of birdlife.

Megg says there was no grand plan when beginning the garden.

“First we decided to plant some trees. They managed to live with no water and they never got looked after, so the fact they survived is a miracle. Then we thought we might put in some of the plants from the bible. We didn’t think it’d be a tourist thing, we just did it for the centenary of the church and it grew out of that.”

Over time, the garden has benefitted from additions of plants, artworks and the depiction of the final events in the life of Christ, known as the Stations of the Cross. Visitors are taken on a journey exploring the life of Christ through the plants found in the bible, as well as those that grow well in the area.

The Bell Catholic Church

The topic of rain is a regular conversation starter in Bell, and a guiding principle for Megg when choosing plants. “Mostly I’m trying to work out what’s going to survive,” she says. “We don’t have a Mediterranean climate here in Bell, and what I’m trying to grow, the biblical plants, are all Mediterranean. I had an oriental plane tree, which grows in the Holy Land. It got a bit of frost, plus the borers, and didn’t last.”

Megg shows me her row of pomegranate trees, which are also adjusting to the conditions. “The pomegranates seem to be short lived. They grow and are fine for five years then all of a sudden, they die for no reason. They come up from the seeds so I just keep popping the odd one in where they’ve died. I want to keep a row of them if I can because they’re a biblical plant.”

The clay soil also poses a problem for Megg in the garden. “I have to dig fairly well down in the ground as it’s a bit unforgiving here. The first couple of inches are soft, then you hit something hard. I bring the crow bar over and chip away at it until I can get a decent hole, and hopefully give them a start.”

Despite Megg’s list of plants that haven’t worked in the garden, the list of those that have is long. Abundant olive trees drip with fruit, hardy geraniums in all colours flourish in various spots, euphorbia firesticks dwarf the other aloes and succulents, and paths are lined with thriving lavender and iceberg roses. A glorious white bougainvillea drapes gracefully over a shade structure built by parishioners.

That bougainvillea was never meant to be there,” Megg says. “I had grapevines over that, but the bougainvillea said, oh there’s a nice place to expand, so it took off. It’s beautiful, like a bridal veil. It looks magic when it’s freshly out.”

“The bay tree, the almond tree, the fig and mulberry have all gone well. The apple tree and date palm and of course the oleanders, there’s no problem with them.”

Megg Cullen in the Bell Biblical Garden

Materials used in the garden have been donated, sourced locally or purchased with funding from local councils and grants. The garden is a result of the efforts of the Bell Catholic Church parishioners and local community members, but it’s clearly flourished under Megg’s watchful eye.

I’m always over here planting the odd plant or two to fill up a gap,” she says. “One of our major efforts was installing a watering system which has helped a lot. But you’ve still got to water, and weed and prune.”

As well as being an accomplished green thumb, Megg is a well-known artist and regularly exhibits work in the local exhibitions and shows. Her days are a balancing act between tending the garden, painting and making mosaics on her back patio. Many of her mosaic and sculptural works are dotted throughout the biblical garden, and the inside walls of the church are covered in glorious murals depicting the history of salvation, meticulously created by Megg over a period of years.

One of the most striking mosaics in the garden is a shrine to Saint Mary McKillop, flanked by a rose and bottlebrush bearing the saint’s name. Another mosaic titled The Good Shepherd memorial is a tribute to the shepherds who roamed the region looking after their flocks, complete with corrugated iron sheep.

I ask her about the overlap between art and gardening. “I grow the plants so I can look at the scene. I garden to create something beautiful, that’s my motivation.”

There’s a lot of beauty in the biblical garden, as well as in Megg’s own garden situated on the other side of the church. Megg’s home, an old dance hall relocated from nearby Dalby, is surrounded by an impressive collection of many of the plants used in the biblical garden.

“It’s all hardy stuff that’ll survive. It’s no use breaking your heart over things that don’t want to grow,” Megg says. To this end, she’s adorned the outside walls of her house with roses because “I decided it was easier to paint roses than grow them!” she laughs.

Between the biblical garden, the artworks, the murals in the church and her own amazing garden, Megg has achieved enormous artistic and gardening feats in the little town of Bell. All she wants though, she tells me, is for the garden to inspire the people who visit it. “I hope that people who come here get some sort of message from the garden. Perhaps it’ll bring someone back to the Lord who may have drifted away. I’d like to think that walking around the garden might bring someone inspiration and hope.”

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