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For the love of gardening

Here’s some great news for those who have been passionately gardening for decades: You’re now cool. Whereas not that long ago, gardening was seen as the genteel pastime of the English, the elderly and the eccentric, nowadays it’s mainstream, involves all ages and is, well, trendy. Through this whole transformation, Perth’s own Sue McDougall has been a familiar voice and face on 6PR and TV extolling the virtues of organic gardening and championing environmental causes.

Sue, what’s changed to get more people interested in gardening?

I think it’s a natural evolution. My generation never really learnt how to garden because our parents were the first ones who had more money available and didn’t need to grow their own food. We’re only now once again realising the benefits of growing our own produce and looking after the environment, and a big part of it, I think, is a yearning to be close to nature and be a part of something that people know will make a difference. It’s actually funny how it’s retro, it’s like the revolting cane lounges that people love again – now they want a garden. I was just lucky that I had that yearning from a young age and never needed to discover it.

Sue McDougall gardening

What do you see as your role in this gardening renaissance?

I think it’s so important to help people make changes that aren’t too technical. Too much of what’s out there makes people scared of trying or feel guilty if they overwater something and kill it – we should all just try, fail and then learn from that. A huge part of what I do is helping people see that everything is part of a system that all works together, so experiment with it, have fun and learn how it works and then you’ll succeed, but setting rigid rules and then jumping up and down if some aren’t followed correctly doesn’t help.

So, my role is really about communication. The fact is gardening right requires a lot of scientific information that’s tricky for people to wrap their head around, and it’s for people like me to make that information easily digestible. For example, someone might ask me a question about why their plants leaves are going yellow but instead of going into specifics about soil pH and all the rest they just need to know how to fix it – and when they succeed their confidence grows and they start wanting to learn the specifics so they can do it themselves. Once there’s a little bit of success you see people’s enthusiasm explode and they always tell me they now realise they’ve been missing out – and I say, yes you have!

Sue McDougall gardening

If you were Gardening Dictator of Perth what would you change?

We have a serious issue with not enough trees – WA is scared of trees, we don’t value their benefit enough. We cut them down wherever we can because we’re scared of leaves or branches falling but we really should have a beautiful cooling canopy wherever we have the space. I think we have a vague notion that having trees around is good for the environment but there’s also a financial benefit because trees reflect heat, which helps with cooling and heating. When there’s a new development the first thing to go is the trees; the engineers come in, bulldoze everything and then we replant them! Really, we should be designing spaces around the existing trees. We just don’t think of the environment as a system, we just see individual spaces. So what would I change? I’d probably put a dollar value on trees so people understand their worth and start to see them as vital benefits, not just pretty things we can choose to have or not.

Sue McDougall gardening

Do you still get nervous taking live calls on the radio despite doing it for 23 years?

Not really any more. I’ve done it for so long now that I’m pretty much okay with it, but in the early days I worried myself sick wondering what might come next or worrying I won’t have the answer. These days I’m much more confident but I do still get the odd butterfly which is good I think, it shows I’m still in love with it! If you don’t do something because you’re nervous, you’ll never do anything. I prefer to jump in, say yes and worry about it later – just like you should do in your garden!

Read more articles from our winter edition of Thrive here.