The Dirt: Alan & Jill Collins

‘We’ve been married for 64 years’ states Alan Collins. ‘No Alan, its 62. It was our anniversary the other week’ says his wife Jill. Either way, Alan and Jill Collins have been in partnership for a very long time. And the secret to their successful union, you ask? Plants, perhaps…?

For the last forty years the pair have been collecting plants. It all started with a Cymbidium orchid, given to them by a friend. Their obsession grew and soon they were hunting down native orchids, palms, hoyas, bromeliads, and any weirdly wonderful tropical plant not found in any old nursery. They tend to their collection at their jungle-like home garden in the northern suburbs of Sydney.

A visit to Alan and Jill’s place is a delightfully overwhelming experience. From the street it looks like any other vaguely overgrown suburban plot, but on closer observation it reveals itself as a treasure trove of botanical wonders. I was beside myself – not knowing where to look next – and there weren’t even any flowers! I’m not sure I could have coped with flowers.

Hoyas are what Alan and Jill have collected the most of. They used to have around 140 species, but now have closer to 100. They don’t know of any one else who has as many, except for a nursery in Mareeba, in far north Queensland.

The Hoyas are everywhere – Engulfing a huge conifer, twining around the verandah posts, and dripping off the carport in the front yard. Then there’s the backyard, which is a whole other level of plant wonder. Think rows and rows of hanging baskets suspended between trees, heaps of palms, four greenhouses (I think – I lost count…) overflowing with Hoyas, ferns, Rhipsalis, native orchids, pitcher plants and more more more.

It’s a mindblowing garden – a densely layered space with every square centimetre utilised for growing some kind of rare and beautiful tropical wonder.

Both Alan and Jill grew up with a love of plants. Alan grew vegetables for his family from a young age, and Jill grew up in Fiji – one of the reasons she is drawn to palms and tropical plants, she suggests. In her late teens Jill came to Sydney to study; ‘When I came to school in Australia I used to go around the garden with my grandmother. She had a lot of roses and I learnt all their names’, she says.

Raising three children didn’t allow them much spare time for collecting plants, but once the kids flew the coop, Alan wound down his vegetable gardening exploits in the back yard and built their first greenhouse.

Alan and Jill then joined the Palm Society, Orchid Society and then the (now defunct) Epiphyllum and Hoya Society. Through these communities their love of collecting blossomed, and they met many like-minded folk. Like their Orchid Society friend with more plants in his garden than them! ‘He has so many plants in his yard you can’t move’, says Jill. ‘His car got pushed out of the carport by plants, then he had to move it from the driveway because the plants took over there too. It’s now parked on the street’.

Nowadays Alan and Jill are members of the Sydney Tropical Garden Society only – it’s enough society for them. Their time in the garden has slowed down a little too. ‘Alan used to have breakfast and head down the back. He would come in for lunch and disappear again’, says Jill. They spend around half a day in the garden now, with Jill in charge of the weeding and Alan the potting and fertilizing. They both assure me their garden is relatively low maintenance; ‘Nothing gets spoilt here’, says Alan. ‘Things just get looked after the best we can.’

It’s clear that plants are a strong bond between the pair. They’ve hunted down Hoya’s from far north Queensland, native orchids from Wauchope, and each year they make a pilgrimage to the Queensland Garden Expo at Nambour – mecca for tropical plant enthusiasts.

Plants are our main interest. If we go to a new place, we head straight to the nursery or botanic gardens, and if we hear of a good nursery, we go there. We like to nursery hop!’ says Jill.

After our exploration of Alan and Jill’s garden we settle down on the back verandah for afternoon tea. The plants have invaded this space too – There’s a clump of the biggest Anthuriums I’ve ever seen (over a meter tall!), hanging baskets overflowing with something wonderful and exotic and whose name I’ve forgotten, and a tray of recent purchases from the Queensland Garden Expo to be taken to the Tropical Garden Society meeting the following day. But what really blows me away is the photo album. No grand kids, family pets, or holiday snaps, just Hoyas. The images are beautifully shot by Jill, and have their botanical names printed neatly next to them. It is spectacular and illustrative of their shared passion and dedication to their plant collecting pursuits. I love it.

‘You’ll have to come back in October, when the flowering starts’ says Alan as we finally tear ourselves away from the album, the garden, and Jill’s delicious slice. ‘Just try and stop us’, I say.