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  • Mieke Van Werdt


One of the good things in old age is looking back to my enjoyment through life. It brings me right back to my childhood when Opa, my grandfather took me for walks in the forests surrounding our town. In one he showed me the bird nests and taught me their names as well as those of the trees. As we walked passed many old oaks we came to the old mile stone, dating to the beginning of the town somewhere in the early 1200s. History of our town was impressed on us and we came to know how life had changed. The old mile stone was an example. It was long since its use that we measured distance in miles. We were taught that distance was measured in kilometres, the metric system, introduced way back long before my schooling. It was more important to brother and I that this stop with history lesson was for Opa to give us a lolly. He always carried them in his pocket. Before long my brother had his own mates and the walks were just for Opa and me. We exited the forest and were faced with a stretch of open land. Once the district’s vegetable farms, this vacant land marked by the government to build houses for the growing population. There I picked the wild flowers as Opa patiently waited for me on the road as I slogged through the wet grass and gathered daisies and soft lilac Whitsunday flowers. If luck was with me I might find some big, fat ranunculus. That completed my bunch which later held pride of place on our living room table.

The Beech forest, perhaps even older than the oak forest, had an astounding ethereal light. It was created by the sun shining through the canopy of leaves. It was like being in another world. I loved it and fed the squirrels who streaked up the tree with a treasured peanut, but once the nuts were scattered around, they knew there was plenty and came down to sit near our feet, a peanut in their little hands while happily nibbling.

There was a third forest of tall old dark pine trees. We only walked through it to go to the dunes and the beaches because it was sombre and a bit scary and I was always glad to be out of it.

We meandered for hours through the stretched out dunes that protect our low-lying country from the sea. Botanic roses were widely spread. Their roots thrived in the dune sand and stopped the sand from running. So did the stands of pine trees that coped with the salty winds. Flocks of seagulls usually sailed the thermals, screeching as they flapped their wings to catch the next thermal. It was fun to watch their efforts turn to delight as they caught that next thermal and the distraction of their antics made us soon reach the beach. My walk squeaked the sand as I gathered shells as I looked constantly for that ‘special’ one that remained unknown but kept me searching.

My home was a second storey unit in a suburban street. Its attraction was the large square deck behind the kitchen. It had a coal shed for our winter heating, but there was plenty of room left for the family to enjoy. Opa helped me grow geraniums in boxes. They stood along the railings and were interspersed with empty butter barrels we had collected from the grocers. They were of bare wood and held pink or blue Hydrangeas and looked good between the green painted boxes with multi coloured pansies. One box, high on the wall separated us from our neighbour. It held red ivy geraniums that spilled down. This was our roof top garden where many a summer Sunday morning was spent in family leisure with coffee and cake. Mum had made a large sunshade for the odd day when it was too hot to sit in the sun.

Wednesday afternoon was spent in the school gardens where I had my own flower and vegetable plot. The harvest was taken home in our watering cans and I chewed radishes and rhubarb stalks all the way home. Come spring when the frost was out of the autumn-ploughed ground, we children lined up behind the teacher and tramped the paths to divide our plots where before long the potatoes grew and cress seeds showed through the ground, shaped in our initials.

Holland, now The Netherlands, is still the same stretch of country. Its main industries are agriculture and horticulture with export of potatoes, vegetables, dairy and meat. It is especially known for the enormous quantities of flowers which, on a daily basis are moved through the largest wholesale auction in the world. With Schiphol Airport right next door all those flowers are straight on the way to their destinations.

Due to our long, cold and dark winters gardening in spring and summer is part of the people’s entertainment. A large fertiliser company stimulated this enterprise through a yearly competition for Primary School children and provided each with rooted cuttings of easily grown flowering plants and a jar of their fertiliser. The plants were grown at home and brought back to school at the beginning of the next school year in the first week of September, when plants of astounding size were on show and prizes were given.

Of course one cannot forget the extensive variety of indoor plants that kept the greenery and flowers going on our window sills during those long winter months. The bareness of the trees outside made us long for spring when catkins were cut for our vases and purple and yellow crocus showed their heads in the melting snow. Daffodils and hyacinths flowered in pots in front of our windows and no one would dare come home with the weekend shopping without a big bunch of flowers. Flower stalls everywhere always did and do a roaring trade.

I collected plants and dried them between newspapers in a thick book. Once dried, I glued them on paper and described their botanic and common name with details of its plant family and species, where it was found, including the date. It became my extensive herbarium and when I finished High School I chose to go on to a Horticultural College.

That was after the war in 1945. My dream to ever study biology at the Leiden University was out of the question, but Boskoop Horticultural College sounded interesting and I started its course with a year’s practical work in an extensive indoor plant and orchid nursery, not far from where I lived. I thoroughly enjoyed my apprenticeship year when the last three months were spent in Boskoop where the assistant director of the college assigned me to one of the many ornamental tree nurseries for the next two years practical work. The several hundreds of ornamental tree nurseries still are the general livelihood of the town.

I found some simple, but pleasant lodgings before familiarising myself with the College’s Botanic Gardens. We future students had to learn the names and recognise the species of all the trees in the last three months of that practical year. Then we had to sit for an entrance exam and were presented with one hundred samples of the trees as well as write an essay on the horticultural work done in the past year. A fortnight’s break was well earned before the commencement of the next two years when half the day was spent in the assigned nursery, starting at day break till midday with a quick run home for a scrub up, a bit of lunch, then to start theory at the College from 1pm - 5.15pm. It made for a long day with a great deal of home work that took most of the night as related subjects of chemistry and physics, plus a choice of three languages in commerce were an essential. It even included accountancy and commercial law because most students were the future nursery owners who dealt in the worldwide commerce.

I achieved my diploma in 1948 and found a job in a nursery in Switzerland where flowering indoor plants and tropical greens were grown in heated glass houses and a number of large cool glasshouses for the growing of cut roses. Perennials were grown for landscape work and seasonal cut flowers and vegetables for the Berne weekly market. While working in Switzerland I caught up with Dick van Werdt whom I had got to know in Boskoop. He had found work with a landscaping firm in Basel. We visited each other several times and consolidated our friendship. Once back in Holland we got engaged and married in 1951 to get ready for immigration to Australia.

6-3-1952 -We set foot in Sydney and having paid our fare to Australia we were free migrants and allowed to look for whatever work we wanted. We found employ in Tomkins Enfield Nursery and looked forward to plant cultivation in this climate, the soil and the needs of the public. Our forgone plan was to eventually start our own nursery.

We saved our money and bought land where Dick rebuilt the double garage in 1955. It became our two bedroom flat and had a ‘scullery’ with a sunken bath and laundry in the garden. Dick found work nearby in Hudson’s Timber Yard and I stayed home potting plants in our bush-house and looked after our first born, a son, David.

Soon we carted the plants in our truck to Milperra’s small Sunday market where we got to know the locals who loved our, till then unknown, Cyclamen, coming home after the pleasure of our success with a wrinkling purse. It was the beginning of our business.

Hudson, aware of Dick’s qualifications, offered the five acres of land behind his house in Castle Hill with a two bedroom cottage as a share in our nursery. We sold our Spurway Street property in Ermington and moved to Castle Hill. As the building of our little house was completed, Dick had already erected a solid bush house frame of 100 x 100m and we loved to go tea-tree cutting for its cover. We were so happy to start our work and family life after the horrors of the war. Young David was sturdy enough on his little legs to enjoy the outing and help his daddy.

Second hand bricks were soon found for the building of a propagating house and frames under glass for the growing on of rooted cuttings.

We accepted orders from Coles and Woolworths for thousands of Rex Begonias, Cyclamen and Azaleas and realising our need, we found big glass houses for sale in Mona Vale where the growing of tomatoes had to make room for housing development. Between the four of us, with David, the enthusiastic daddy helper, and Carol the baby on my hip, we collected every sheet of glass, and bit by bit, frames and all, those glass houses were transported on our truck to Castle Hill, where Dick, the steady worker, put them up. He built as I spent my time in the bush house where David played and Carol was in the play pen and I potted plants. Come tea time I cooked while Dick put the kids in the bath. A round the table meal was followed with a story and it was off to bed for the kids. We lit the Tilley lamp to go back to pot away at the orders we were slowly completing. It was hard work, but oh, did we love our life together with the children and a secure future ahead.

Friday was Paddy’s Market day and with a laden truck we waited our turn at the very gates where we had two stalls and were directed in. People barely gave us time to unpack and many a time we sold out before the day was done. As a rule we brought just over £100 pounds home and spent it straight away on pots and seeds and soil for our nursery to build on that future dream that was taking shape under our very eyes.

It was 1962, our orders were ready, and our glasshouses were chock-a-block with plants. The next step was to let Coles and Woolworth know so that their orders would direct us to the deliveries. This would be well earned money in the Bank.

NOT SO – the first economic down turn since WWII was making head lines in all the newspapers and every business plan froze as the fear was a return to the disastrous depression of the thirties. The bank wanted our over draught of £250 back and Hudson was slugged in the same way with the overdraught of his timber business. Coles and Woolworths refused to take one plant from us because their order had not been sealed with a contract. An overlooked stupidity on our behalf, but still new to this country; perhaps Hudson should have warned us. We just followed the way that Tomkins Enfield nurseries had built up their business since WWII when the post war stimulus had been all to build-up the future. So far it had worked smoothly ------till everything stopped. We were finished.

It was the end of our dream, so close within our very reach, but it was not the end of my gardening trail.

Yes, we struggled, but in the end Dick became the Parks and Gardens Curator for Mosman Council. Once retired to the country, loving the country life, we became members of the Killabakh Garden Club and feel that we belong.

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