A Love Letter to My Neighbour’s Ugly Garden

My indirect neighbour, who I’ve never formally met, has an arguably ugly garden. It’s so unsightly it arouses questions from most visitors on their first invite to my house, most often along the lines of: ‘Who lives there?’ Its ugliness comes from years – probably decades – of neglect. Its owner doesn’t water, prune, or maintain any plant. Her only action in the garden is to open her cobweb covered, seldom ajar kitchen curtains to have a conspiratorial glance at my partner or I when we have no choice but to prune back the branches of her fig tree on our side of the fence.

Her neglect in fact spans two small patches of garden – hers, and the one she also owns nextdoor. She is a veritable hermit, but does enjoy an afternoon ritual of reading paperbacks on her leaf littered deck, basking in the sun, underneath washing hung up on wire coat hangers and among broken pieces of furniture. Chip packets make their way into her front yard from the street and are left there, never disposed of. I watch the crinkly plastic collect rain and wish I could reach in and grab them. Beside the various bits of plastic sit three large buckets full of years’ worth of rainwater. I imagine they are receptacles for mosquito larvae and curse them every summer. Through cracks in her old wooden fence I can see her when I look outside my kitchen window. In my less kind moments I wonder why she doesn’t think to pick up a broom or hose to beautify her small patch. It is a no man’s land – not the well designed and carefully landscaped courtyard of a low maintenance inner city garden and not the wilderness experience of larger patches outside the big smoke.

And yet, when I take time to ponder, I realise I like living in such close proximity to her unmaintained gardens. A lack of upkeep has given rise to some predictable beauty. Each spring, as if one cue on the 1st of September, huge bunches of jasmine emerge out of her yards, across the branches of trees she’s never pruned and make their way across the dunny lane that connects our places. The gentle floral fragrance wafts into my open windows throughout the day. It’s really quite something. Butterfly bush and Spanish moss sprout healthily from patches of soil and make their way to wherever they so please.

The extensive grass that pokes out of the sides of her mud brick thatched roof adds so much character to my street that I would grieve its restoration should she ever wish to make her property waterproof again.”

I’m sure most people would prefer to live beside a garden that had been thoughtfully constructed and is regularly tamed, but out of its lack of the conventional beauty we associate with landscaped gardens emerges a sort of unruliness that defines much of what it means to live in my particular street and neighbourhood. In a time and place where gentrification happens with clinical efficiency, where terrace houses and their small front and back yards are purchased as investments rather than homes and quickly schmicked, my dear hermit of a neighbour resists this trend. Her gardens, I suspect, help to set the tone of my street, being the first thing you see as you enter. Here, there is a respect for the wonkiness of our nineteenth century cottages. We like our gardens and our dogs a little wild and free. We are proud of our canopy of trees but aren’t too savvy with our garden shears. We let the weeds grow out of the cracks in the render of our facades and cover our front porches in worm farms and cuttings in tupperware.

It’s a well trodden philosophical approach to claim that if we can find beauty in ugliness, of the literal and metaphorical varieties, we end up happier, more content, and even perhaps more generally mystified by life’s offerings. Auguste Rodin famously and wisely proposed that ‘to the artist there is never anything ugly in nature’. His statement seems to imply that there is never a lack of inspiration from the natural world, in whatever state it is seen in. Is it thus reductive to assess a garden only in terms of its decorative value? Is a garden ugly because it isn’t landscaped? In turn, is a garden lacking beauty if it is too maintained, not allowed to be naturally expressive? Some may argue a garden is in fact ugly if it has been constructed using plants that aren’t native to the area; they may find its lack of shelter and feed available to bird life unattractive. In this way, plants are judged on their functionality rather than their assemblage. Is a utilitarian yet thriving vegetable garden not a thing of beauty, even when rustic flourishes like wooden stakes with calligraphy labels are absent, or the vegetables are still underground, unseen? Given the subjectiveness of taste, it’s an unhelpful judgement call, to deem any living thing ugly, not least because anything alive is subject to fierce mutability. Plants, like people, can change season by season, day by day. In our most sagacious moments, we may find it impossible to use the ugly descriptor when we consider any patch of plant life.

My mind always conjures Roald Dahl’s much-loved quote from his children’s book, The Twits, when I consider any subject relating to outward appearances: ‘A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.’ Similarly, a garden cultivated with good intentions or a general attitude of letting it grow as it pleases, produces a sense of magnetism and charm. It need not matter if it lacks perfect symmetry; like the face of a kind person, it radiates a quality beyond pure aesthetics. Perhaps this radiance is simply the power of nature at work;

something growing is arguably inherently beautiful, whatever its size, shape or form. In its pure existence, it is beyond the limited measure of ugliness or beauty.”

I remember many years ago, when I was a kid, my uncle saw a TV commercial advertising a Savage Garden album. ‘Savage Garden? We’ve got one of those,’ he joked. It was funny because it was in some ways true – their Northern Beaches home was messy and their deep garden a jumble of long grass, abandoned kids toys, and various shrubbery left to its own devices. And yet I know that the garden was a very different place for my cousins and I than it may have been for my uncle. We played games we invented for hours there. Its lack of formal direction, taming, strategic and conventional beautification meant we had a private outdoor zone which enabled our creativity for play. I suspect had there been neat hedges and swept pavers our games may have been that bit more stunted. My uncle probably felt shame for having such an untidy yard; through the eyes of his children and niece, however, its dark, hidden corners and bowing branches fostered a sense of enchantment.

For the ugly, even savage, gardens that play a role in my past memories and offer me an uncontrived sense of home in the present, I am deeply grateful. May they never change.

NOT Freya's neighbour's garden. Another wild garden spotted whilst driving through Sydney's inner west.