Sharon Pie’s Garden Compound
‘I tell you what I’m going to do,” says Sharon Pie. “Next time you’re having a day in the garden give me a call and I’ll post you down a box of cuttings. They’ll be there the next day.” She’s serious. I’ve only known her for an hour but her generosity, no-nonsense way of being and dry sense of humour have me enthralled.
We’re sitting in Sharon’s garden within the one-hectare Pie family ‘compound’ in Fig Tree Pocket in Brisbane’s leafy south west. The property consists of five titles and four homes. Living here are Sharon and husband architect Geoffrey Pie, daughters Sidonie, Clelia, Kate and families. There’s one block of land left in the middle and I’m considering elbowing my way in.
Sharon and Geoffrey bought the property around 20 years ago, with the intention of having space to keep their youngest daughter’s horses and a blank canvas to build a house designed by Geoffrey. After moving into the existing small timber cottage they realised that it was “an amazing house. Knocking it down would be irresponsible.” Sharon and Geoffrey moved the old cottage to the street facing block and subdivided the land at the back after their daughter Macushla had left home with her horses, with the intent to sell the blocks as they needed when they got older.
Soon, however, their children started sniffing around. “The kids came, Kate first, and said ‘we’ve looked around and can’t find anything we want. Do you think Geoffrey could design us a house on one of the blocks?’ Sidonie and her husband came along a few years later, and then Clelia and her family said ‘very good idea, let’s do it’.” All of a sudden there was a family commune happening where the horse paddocks once were.
“It’s worked very well”, Sharon tells me. “They’ve all felt good going away and finding their own feet, and have felt strong enough to come home and live amongst family.
Nobody said, ‘you’ve got to come and live here’, they’ve just come. It’s been a blessing for all of us.”
The Pie compound is around a hectare in size and is long and narrow. As we enter from the street we meet one of the many dogs that inhabit it. “That’s Maggie,” says Sharon, pointing to a tiny teacup dachshund yapping at our toes. “She’s a shit of a dog”. I’m still not sure what house, or who, she belongs to. After meeting the dog, we meet the plants. The driveway is flanked by the lush foliage of palms and Poinciana (Delonix regia) on one side and evergreen magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora cvs.) on the other. “The avenue of magnolias happened on my 60th birthday. Each of the grandchildren gave me one. Sidonie keeps saying to me, ‘Get them out, they look awful.’ And I said, ‘Darling, they actually matter.’”
We sit in the garden of Sharon and Geoffrey’s house, with Sharon and her eldest daughter Kate, and talk about family, plants and communal living. I suggest Sharon is the matriarch of the Pie compound. “I hope I’m not. Kate, am I the matriarch?” Kate answers: “You redefine the word matriarch, Mum.”
“Mummy was the matriarch.” Sharon tells me. “She died here in this house with us. We got her off the planet, didn’t we Kate? Then Clelia got married eight weeks later. We had a funeral and a wedding within two months.”
Kate tells me about growing up under her mother and grandmother’s influence. “We were always in the garden. It was just how we lived. We had absolute and utter freedom as children. Our boundaries were non-existent. We often laugh about it now because I feel like the world we live in is so defined by boundaries.”
You know what they call me now?” asks Sharon. “Loose. My kids say, ‘Mum, you were a loose mother.’”
If she was a loose mother, Sharon’s also a loose gardener. “I haven’t done anything in this garden for 20 years,” she tells me, waving towards an abundant green tangle of texture and colour. She waters very infrequently, because “unless you’re watering food you really can’t be watering gardens” and has recently had someone in to help her “pull out a lot of old stuff that was past its use by date.” She doesn’t prune either. “Sidonie got into my magnolias and pruned them really, really hard. They looked awful for a year. I was really pissed off. She’s a real pruner and I’m not.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) being a loose gardener, her garden is wonderful. Philodendrons make their way up jacaranda trees, bromeliads hang on fences, kale grows tall and strong in a raised vegetable garden, and the narrow beds on either side of the driveway are overflowing with aloes, kalanchoes and other tough, sculptural plants.
“I am happy for the garden just to find its own way. I’m delighted when things are happy and if they’re not I just move them and hope for the best,” Sharon tells me. “I’ve learned a lot from Beth Chatto and her gravel garden. If you’ve got a weed problem just get some more gravel and chuck it on top and do some more heavy planting. Get the plants to get their mojo going. Make them do the work.”
I ask Sharon to share some advice for young gardeners. “You have to want to garden and you have to be patient”, she says. “Don’t give up because you’ve had a failure, you’ve got to hang in there and go, ‘Oh, bugger’ and try again.”
Sharon’s generous, no-nonsense way of being, way of gardening, way of living and caring resonates strongly with me. I called her recently on a Friday afternoon to confirm some information for this story. She was cooking a big batch of minestrone soup. She likes to have an empty fridge before stocking up at the farmers markets on Saturday mornings, so she cooks all her vegetables into a big soup and gives it to the farmers at the market the next day. “What a thoughtful, generous thing to do”, I suggest. “They’re farmers, they don’t have time to cook, they’re busy growing food”, she responds matter-of-factly.
If Sharon’s minestrone is as warm, vibrant and soulful as her and her garden compound, those farmers are in for a real treat.