Helen's Roma garden a colourful outlet for her love of art

Sally Gall
By Sally Gall
December 18 2021 - 5:00am
Peter Wells is as much responsible for the Roslyn Drive garden as his wife Helen. Photo: Supplied

Roma's Helen Wells says she lies in bed at night, waiting for daylight so she can start creating in her garden again.

The two hectare garden blooming from the side of a rocky outcrop on the eastern side of the Maranoa capital is not just Helen's colour palette but an outlet for husband Peter's imagination, and a fabulous playground for their grandchildren.

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Complete with a wool press, a miner's barrow, the ubiquitous 'donkey' water heater, a railway siding and many other heritage items rescued from oblivion, the pair have created not just a garden but an adventure that visitors can go on.

It might not look like it now but it's been a case of much trial and error, during which time plenty of plants met an untimely end.

When Helen and Peter arrived in 1991, they brought their knowledge of gardening in Warwick and Toowoomba for 12 years with them.

"I soon learnt just what the extremes of the climate here can do to gardens and gardeners in the west," Helen said.

"The growing conditions were the biggest challenge and it was a great learning experience.

In Toowoomba it rained all the time and the soil was lovely. In Roma, the cracks in the ground were so big, I was waiting for the oil to gush out

- Helen Wells, keen gardener

Their land was a bare block on a sloping hillside and when they arrived, a few scattered cactus plants were the main feature.

Helen acknowledges that her mistake, one made by many since the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay, was to try and recreate what she was familiar with.

Beautiful plants were bought, others were transplanted, and all of them died in the extremes of summer heat and freezing winters, and thanks to the alkaline soil of the plot.

After establishing a lovely palm garden complete with a bridge over a pond, which is still a feature at the front of the house, Helen turned her attention to recreating the rose garden from her previous home.

"I barrowed soil to finally have a beautiful display of roses but after illness forced the issue of only being able to maintain a very small portion of the garden, the roses succumbed to the rigours of drought and neglect," she said.

Stemming water run-off

Because of the rocky nature of the ground, most of the garden had to be built up.

After a while, Helen and Peter wisely decided to swap the wheelbarrow for a bobcat and now say they don't know how they did without it.

Along with that, they were contending with sloping ground, which means that water run-off was often damaging in big storms.

In big rains, water from the back of the block will rush through the gardens, taking gravel, soil and many other things in its wake.

Although many recent years have been dry, the problem reared its head in 2020's beautiful rain and so Peter, a retired plasterer now with a bit more time to address it, has embarked on creating diversions for the water to flow along.

Rather than making them scars on the landscape, they've been incorporated into the garden's design, especially the dry creek bed with a tank dripping water into a pond at its head, surrounded by cannas and grasses.

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Water itself is not a scarce commodity for this garden - they have access to a large dam they can pump out of, and all the run-off from the home's large roof plus a nearby shed is captured and stored.

A couple of times the dam has been pumped dry but thankfully the Wells have been able to resort to bore water to supplement the supply.

Although very salty, it has been a saviour on occasions.

The garden also benefits from their location close to the Roma Saleyards, which offers a plentiful source of manure.

Five acres to play

Peter is as much a contributor as Helen to the magnificent ramble that the garden offers.

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"He often says, thank God we've only got five acres - imagine what we'd do with 10," Helen laughs.

Working in tandem, Peter collects the bigger items, many of them with historic interest, and Helen adds her artistic touch.

"He does all the hard scaping and I do all the decorating," she explained.

Their love of saving history is evident from the moment one walks or drives through the driveway framed by Roma's distinctive bottle trees.

On the left is a salvaged German wagon along with a wool press, a miner's barrow and an early 'donkey' water heater, all standing under cover on concrete for protection, surrounded by a planting of saltbush.

A working water drinking fountain has also been installed here for the thirsty work of trekking through the installations.

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Further along is an old sheep feeder, a sheep mulesing cradle and of course, the mandatory 'crinkle sheep' decoration adding to the story of the region's early wool industry history.

A bird feeder made of plough discs sits comfortably with a barbed wire nest and concrete eggs nearby.

Heritage finds a home

The garden also contains the Weraki railway siding, a very cute Outhouse, a building called the Pot Hole, and the Cream Shed, all of which have their stories documented on plaques on the walls.

A horse float dubbed Radish was salvaged from a local paddock, which Peter turned into a greenhouse complete with shelving, sink and tap for easy access.

Most holidays to the coast are made in the Wells' ute because they look forward to picking up bits and pieces along the way, to add to the art of garden when they get back home.

Helen wisely says that people should buy things they love, which then give them a base to create from.

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Her vision started with three arches that she sourced, provoking an expansion down the paddock in 2005, building the arches into a 'secret garden' and a succulent garden, and even a tennis umpire seat and net.

The Secret Garden is entered through arches of snail creeper and Mexican rose, opening up to oleanders, durantas and potato bushes, with a ground cover of dichondra and sedums plus pots of colour, seating, bird houses and cages, gates and other quirky items dotted throughout.

One of the gates is made from timber sourced from the nearest sawmill.

The private back section of the garden, Hyacintah's Haven has been Helen's recent focus and where she's planted lovely pale pink vincas along the edge of the path to complement a separate dwelling painted a soft green and white.

Light bulb moments

This then leads on to the wonderful sound of a water fountain leading to a gazebo.

Gardens are a continual progression of 'light bulb' moments, Helen says, pointing to the Geisha Girls that were a feature along the back of the house for many years.

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"About two-and-a-half years ago, I whisked these out and planted the bougainvilleas that have found their happy place," she said. "They've flowered and flowered, giving an amazing display, especially each autumn."

A few cattle have occasionally wandered into the garden over the years without doing too much damage but Helen describes possums as the bane of her existence, often eating the soft young plants she's just tended.

"I try and relocate them but with not much success," she said.

Helen and Peter do grow fruit trees - lemon, mandarin, orange and lemonade trees - but a vege garden is not a feature.

"Veggies are no fun, they're not pretty," Helen said. "I can always buy my lettuce at a supermarket."

She says that maintenance-wise, most of her attention is on making sure weeds don't get established.

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"It took a fair few years to establish but it's easier now," she said.

One of the greatest pleasures Helen and Peter get now is seeing how their grandchildren love playing in and exploring in the garden.

She's keenly passing on her love of gardening to the next generations, with at least one grandchild by her side helping.

It seems as though her creative outlet has plenty more avenues to explore, thanks to her children, three who live locally and three who live away.

"My kids are always asking me, what should I plant here," she said.

"I love that they ask me, and want my advice."

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Sally Gall

Sally Gall

Senior journalist - Queensland Country Life/North Queensland Register

Based at Blackall, CW Qld, where I've raised a family, run Merino sheep and beef cattle, and helped develop a region - its history, tourism, education and communications.

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