Leona Romaniuk’s Garden of a Lifetime

It’s rare these days to live in the same place all your life. See the world, fly the coop, change, move, grow, we’re told. And so we do. Yet, there’s great nourishment on offer when we choose to stay. When we choose to make a life in relation to a place, rather than living a placeless life. Visiting Leona Romaniuk’s home and garden in the Brisbane suburb of Chapel Hill reminds me of this. She’s lived in the same house for most of her years – as a young child, a mother with five children and now as a grandmother. Observing her face as she shows me around her garden illustrates clearly the joy she finds growing from this place, her place.

Leona’s parents bought the property in the early 1960s, and commissioned architect Vitaly Gzell to design the incredible modernist house (which has recently undergone renovations designed by James Russell Architect). In the 1970s, after Leona’s father died, her mother subdivided the property, and the garden shrunk from three acres to one. At that time, the garden became an important place for both Leona and her mother, who was an Ikebana master and grew many plants for her arrangements in the space. ‘I started to appreciate the garden more in the 1970s. The sheer beauty of the garden drew me in’ Leona says.

When Leona and her late husband Kon moved back to the property in the early 1980s, they inherited her parents garden. Big old strelitzias, cordylines, crepe myrtles and umbrella trees planted by her father sat alongside a Japanese rock garden commissioned by her mother. There’s a weightiness to inheriting a garden like this, and Leona and Kon lived with the garden as it was for a number of years.

Soon, though, they began making changes. The pair instigated a palm-flanked rainforest walk weaving through a shady lower area of the garden. ‘Kon was the main driver behind the rainforest. He was a real worker’, Leona says. But, ‘we’d see a plant and we’d plant it. We didn’t really consider things.’

After most of a lifetime spent in this garden, for the last five years, Leona has been looking and editing. ‘I’ve had 60 years to contemplate what to do!’ she says. ‘This is the first time I’ve tried to look at the whole thing and pull it together.’

She engaged landscape architect Sidonie Carpenter to help guide her through the process. The initial structure of the garden didn’t need much tweaking, but the planting was in need of attention. ‘Sidonie and I have worked together for the last five years. She would say ‘let’s do this or that’ and we did it.

We didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t want one. I wanted it to develop organically, because a garden just does. It’s been a really lovely process.’

With Sidonie’s help, the garden has been given space to breathe and a new lease on life. Leona is uncompromising in her vision. ‘I want to create a beautiful garden because it gives me such joy. If a plant doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We get rid of it. Life is short. Barry, my gardener, says to me “Oh for goodness sake, Leona, you’re like a Bondi tram”.

Leona has a deep connection to this garden, this home, this place. And now, after a lifetime, she’s truly made it her own. ‘I love this place so much. I feel like it’s very much my home now. In terms of feel, and spirit.’