The Handover: Sue & Peter Miles

Peter Miles began confiscating gardening tools from his mother Sue when she was in her early 80s. It started with the mattock. “Mum was complaining of a sore back and when I asked her what she’d been doing she said she’d spent the day digging up privet roots.” The mattock was put on the black list, and more tools soon followed.

Now, 16 years later, Peter is the sole gardener of his parent’s one-acre property in Sydney’s northern suburbs. Sue is 96, able only to observe from her chair on the veranda. Whilst she can’t work in the garden as she used to, it clearly continues to bring her much joy, in addition to nurturing a strong connection between her and Peter.

Peter and Sue Miles

We arrive early on a December morning, taken aback by the long camellia flanked driveway and the lush green planting. An old cherry tree drips with bromeliads, rhipsalis and tillandsias, whilst hydrangeas nestle amongst vrieseas, begonias and other botanical wonders. We wander around the garden, transfixed. It looks like the lovechild of a camellia collector and a bromeliad fanatic. And it is.

Sue Miles, camellia lover, soon emerges from the house – beautiful, frail and gracious. Her eyes are warm, her gardeners hands telling stories of flowers picked, shrubs pruned, holes dug. Peter, the bromeliad fanatic, has warned her about our visit.

I’ve been making notes on why we did certain things but I left the notebook inside,” she says. “Anyway, Peter will get it.”

Sue and her husband Richard bought the property in the early 1950s. They built the house, cleared the land and got stuck into the garden. “We had all sorts of ideas – I wanted one of everything!” She says, laughing.

Sue gardened and gardened, planting lots of trees, azaleas, hydrangeas, and plenty of camellia cuttings given by friends in the NSW Camellia Society, although she reckons in her excitement about the camellias she got the colours all mixed up along the driveway. “They were reasonably successful, though,” she says.

Sue: Peter says camellias aren’t his favourite tree.

Peter: They’ve grown on me, mum.

Sue: I love flowers to pick, but Peter likes flowers just to be in the garden. And then Peter discovered bromeliads. Is that right?

Peter: That’s right, mum.

Sue: I wasn’t sure about bromeliads, I just loved the cherry tree. But anyway. He’s won me over now.

Peter, Sue, and Richard Miles

Peter tells me a little more about Sue and his childhood. “When mum came to pick me up from school I’d often find her in the gutter, picking oxalis flowers for dyeing. She was quite a free spirit,” he says. “She was really connected to nature. I think it was an escape for her.”

“Any time we’d be in the garden or the bush, Mum’s face would light up. Her love of nature made a very strong impression on me,” Peter tells me. He spent his childhood rambling around the Wahroonga garden, and building rock walls and bird watching at their Bilpin property. He studied fine arts at university and began working as a gardener soon after.

In the early 1990’s Peter began helping Sue out in the garden. It wasn’t a conscious thing, he tells me, but evolved as Sue became less able. “It may have started when I took the mattock away,” he says. Around this time Peter discovered bromeliads. “I used to love perennials and cold climate plants but they just don’t work in Sydney.

I discovered bromeliads in the last drought and have been crazy about them ever since.”

Peter’s plant passion soon began to infiltrate the conservative camellia garden in Wahroonga. Sue’s beloved cherry tree was decorated, slowly but surely, with a wild collection of epiphytic jungle plants, and strange little tropical species were planted amongst the hydrangeas, clivias and azaleas.

Fast forward 15 years and the greenhouse is filled with tillandsias, hoyas, and begonias, the roof of the potting shed is covered in boxes of bromeliads and the cherry tree is spectacular year round, not only when in flower. “People at the front gate would never realise what’s in here,” Richard says.

It’s like living in a park. Peter has planted a lot of stuff we wouldn’t have planted, but we love it. He’s much more daring than us. We were much more conservative.”

Peter: “I made some dreadful mistakes in the garden, I think I broke mum’s heart a couple of times.”

Sue: “I made a lot of mistakes too.”

Peter: “Mum took it very well, but I probably needed to be a bit more consultative.”

Sue: We work in harmony. We do, don’t we Peter?

Fostering a connection to nature through a love of gardening is a gift, a serious and important treasure often passed down from a parent or grandparent to a child. Sue has shared this gift with Peter, and Peter is now sharing it with his son Theo. Nurturing the gift means nurturing the garden, nurturing the garden means nurturing each other, nurturing each other means nurturing the ground we stand upon. And on and on and on. Passing it down.

“Yes, Peter, you’ve taken over with my blessing,” Sue says.