Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Book review: The Unusual Life of Edna Walling


Australians don't need to be told about the current voting happening nationwide on the topic of marriage equality. From early reports and opinion polls, it looks like a healthy majority (60% or more) of us will say "Yes" to the idea of making marriage equality the law, as I did.

Haven't we come a long way as a society, at least in this regard? It was only a generation or two ago that the topic of same-sex sex was virtually taboo. As for same-sex marriage, it would have been too radical a concept for most.

Why am I discussing gay people in my gardening blog? Why not? There are millions of wonderful gay gardeners but there's a special reason for raising the topic this time. I'm doing a book review.


I've just finished reading Sara Hardy's biography of the remarkable garden designer, Edna Walling, a person who the average modern reader would happily accept as a wonderful gay gardener, but who because of the taboos of her time kept her private life to herself.

From the moment you see the cover then flick through the photos inside, a modern reader would probably see a familiar gay female persona. 

This is one of the sub-plots coursing through all 266 pages of this book. Would this same woman who felt most comfortable wearing trousers, kept her hair cut short, who smoked a pipe in the evenings and didn't conform to many conservative female norms, be out and proud these days? 

I suspect so, but we'll never know. However, from hints provided in the way she lived, from letters and surviving remembrances of her contemporaries, Edna Walling was certainly an unusual woman who achieved much in her time mostly through sheer hard work and ability, but also through force of personality and a determination to make it, despite it being a man's world.

I am sure she left a lasting impression on all who met her.

If you haven't heard of Edna Walling, that says something about the fleeting nature of fame. In her working years from the 1920s through to the late 1960s, she became Australia's leading garden designer, a very well-known name. She wrote best-selling books and countless magazine articles that gained their authority from the huge number of gardens she designed for clients ranging from the very rich and famous to lesser mortals who simply needed a good garden design.

For many years, and up to the current day, the fact that a home or property on the real estate market had an Edna Walling garden made it both more expensive and easier to get buyers interested.

The National Trust and Heritage Victoria have listed several Edna Walling gardens for preservation, including what must be her most extraordinary achievement: a whole village of cottages and gardens at Bickleigh Vale, near Mooroolbark, in Victoria.

At Bickleigh Vale, not content with just building her own cottage and garden, Edna went into serious debt to buy enough land to create a series of properties with Walling-designed gardens, complete with a carefully designed and planted winding country lane linking them all together. Her clever decision to make the sale of these properties subject to a caveat where she had a degree of control over extensions to the cottages and alterations to the gardens proved to be a valuable factor in creating the village over time.

For gardeners, there is plenty of detail to enjoy. I loved the chapters on Edna's early training at Burnley Horticultural College in Melbourne. Her early days at what was to become Bickleigh Vale village were lonely, hard slog. She built her own house out of local materials. It wasn't all straight and true and the roof leaked and had borers, but it was hers.

There are so many little stories within these pages that I know gardeners, and gardeners who see themselves as nature-lovers, will enjoy.

The author, Sara Hardy, has a conversational style that often makes it seem that she is telling you her latest story over a cup of tea. Her affection for Edna shines through, and the sections where she delves into Edna's personal life are handled with genuine respect blended with fascinated nosiness that stops short of descending into gossip.

This is not a new book. First published 12 years ago, it came to my hands via my wife Pam, who bought it earlier this year, read it, then handed it over to me. Hopefully if you are interested in a very good read about a thoroughly fascinating, original and notable Australian woman, it won't be hard to find. 


The Unusual Life of Edna Walling, by Sara Hardy
Published by Allen & Unwin, a Sue Hines Book, 2005
ISBN1741142296