Living Art: Lina’s Garden
On a seemingly ordinary street in Sydney’s inner-western suburb of Ashfield, an unassuming ‘Plants 4 Sale’ sign frames a startling garden of vibrant health and wellbeing. So lovingly-tended is Lina Massi’s inner-city oasis that not a sick plant or dead leaf is within view – in fact, succulents burst forth from colourful containers of all shapes and sizes. Teapots, vases, tiny espresso cups; all of these op-shop finds and handmade pots from decades past are given new life as vibrant and ornamental plant receptacles, creating an energising effect on passers-by.
‘A lot of young people come in and they like the quirky things – the quirky pots, the quirky containers. One lady came in last week and bought a whole heap of mature plants, big plants and things. She said, ‘I love coming here, you always have something different.’’ It’s true – Lina is constantly working in the garden – adding something here, plucking out something there, continually reshaping the space. Lina has been pottering around gardens for twenty-five years, and has the swatch of soil on her collar and cacti print socks to match.
We’re in her kitchen, chatting over roasted almonds and herbal tea in leaf-patterned cups. A small cutting of mother in law’s tongue pokes out of a sage-green pot atop the fridge, and the requisite herbs grow in a small patch of sun over the sink. But that’s about all that can grow within the low light of the house – the rest of Lina’s treasures grow outside, in found or donated pottery that she painstakingly matches with sculptural succulents and cacti.
‘I plant them and I take them out. I look at them for a while and I take them out. I get a lot of handmade pottery that I pick up around the place, which tends to be very neutral, taupe-y tones. Some of them just tie in beautifully with plants; as soon as I see the item, I know what I’m going to put in there. And other times, it’s just trial and error. As soon as I get a pup, I cut it and put it somewhere else. And the minute you put it into the teapot, it comes to life.’
Less a shop than a community hub or meeting space, Lina’s garden is a haven for anyone looking to spend time outside in the garden, as much as it is for someone searching for an inspired gift. Oftentimes, Lina will encourage others’ input in her creations for specific gifts and requests, but she is just as likely to sit and have tea with a stranger, passing on her knowledge of growing and caring for plants.
Lina encounters many people who have never cared for a plant before – or who have tried in the past and failed. She’s often asked ‘what’s your secret?’ Yet, as far as Lina is concerned, there isn’t one, though she’ll gladly take something back and investigate if a plant isn’t doing well. ‘Bring it back to the hospital, we’ll have a look at it!’
She understands that there are a variety of factors that can get in the way of a thriving amateur gardener, from a lack of confidence or background knowledge, to time and space constraints. But to Lina, a pot-bound or sickly plant is all part of the learning process and nothing to be ashamed of. ‘I’ll say ‘but you know why that happens, there’s a reason’. It might need re-potting and this and that. Often, they’ll come back and say ‘yep, I re-potted it, I did what you told me, and it’s looking really good now!’ And that’s good because you’re helping people feel empowered. When you tell them, they don’t feel so bad, they don’t feel so dumb; they’ve learned something.’
It’s about allowing people to participate; to be a part of it and experience the garden, if they’re interested. Seeing how to take a cutting from a plant, how to treat it, how to plant it, how simple it can be.”
Lina’s garden began innocently enough, with an impending garage sale prompting her to experiment with pots and arrangements to add to the sale. ‘As I was pulling some plants up that I thought I’d get rid of, I started taking cuttings off the plants I was going to sell, and I put them in little pots. Well, people were buying the little pots in crates of twenty! And I said ‘Oh, but they don’t have roots or anything yet’ and people were saying ‘oh, but your garden is so nice, we’ve been admiring your garden for years!’ And that’s just where it went. People get excited about what you’re doing – they tell their friends, they show their friends photos, ‘oh, look at Lina’s garden!’ And it’s now been going for three years.’
Lina would be the first person to tell you that the garden is ‘basic’, even ‘banal’, as her rare plants are few, and the colourful pots could be considered gaudy and kitsch by some. All the same, she is clear that ‘it’s not just a cup with a plant stuck in.’
All of the plants have been propagated by her in her garden, and it’s in the growing, giving and sharing of her plants that her garden takes on new meaning: ‘living art.’
And this she extends to anyone caring for a plant for the first time: ‘Like art, just pick what you like. Pick what you’re drawn to, just go with what you like and let yourself be transported. You realise you spend so many years collecting things, and they don’t have much meaning to anyone but you. But the garden is different. You never arrive when you’re in your garden. You’re already there.’
Whether it is the offering of advice, connecting with nature, chatting over a cup of tea, or a humble plant housed in a handmade pot; Lina’s garden truly is a gift to all who visit.
Images by Tom Bamford