24 January 2024

A thousand reasons the Mortimers love where they live

| John Thistleton
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Russell and Susan Mortimer

A celebration of bonsai, topiary and terrariums, Russell and Susan Mortimer’s garden has been propagated from discarded plants and framed in recycled materials to create a resort-like retreat. Photo: John Thistleton.

High on a hill in South Goulburn Susan Mortimer’s greenhouse stands on a sunny deck that opens out to a sweeping view over Eastgrove and the Rocky Hill War Memorial.

She calls it ‘House of 100’. At least 100 bonsai trees stand on the shelves, a fraction of the number of other bonsai growing in the ground and in pots on the slopes, ledges and along winding walkways through her and husband Russell’s amazing garden they call ‘Tiny Trees’.

Susan says she feels like she’s on holiday at a resort each time she steps into the garden over several levels, which also offers serene views across the Gundary Plains.

A focal point of their lives, the various gardens became more important after 2019, when Susan quit her job running Coles bakery to become a full-time career for Russell, who has almost died multiple times. Each time it’s an injection from his wife that brings him back.

The couple moved to Broughton Street 21 years ago, took out two big gum trees and turned a dirty hill popular as a BMX track for the local kids into a showpiece garden over several levels on a 950 sqm block.

Largely inspired by another exceptional gardener and former nurseryman Doug Rawlinson from whom they began buying plants years ago, the Mortimer’s garden is forever changing under Russell’s seven-days-a-week toil.

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“Russell dug it all out with a pick and a shovel which he left out at the tip one day, went back to get them and someone had already taken them,” Sue said.

“Every year, instead of cleaning up, you modulate to change things,” Russell said. “It’s all about the plants; you can’t put them where you want. You’ve got to put them where they want to be.”

Paths edged in mondo grass rise through the front garden and turn past ‘Pine Ridge’ a corner of conifers rescued from discarded gardens in schools. The path continues under a gelsemium creeper, leading to the ‘Crystal Garden’, which Russell has landscaped into tiers with stone steps and timber bridges over a dry, sandy creek bed.

A couple among bonsai

In the ‘100 House’ a wide variety of bonsai up to 30 years old is displayed on shelves. Every inch of the garden is occupied by different gardens surrounding shade houses, workshops or seedling shelters. Photo: John Thistleton.

Chunks of pink crystal form the garden’s ‘heartbeat’ under a bridge. The Mortimers plan an enchanted miniature village nearby for their grandchildren, who love to plunder the gerberas, impatiens, pansies, snapdragons, polyanthus, portulaca and granny bonnets surrounding the Crystal Garden.

Past a bonsai walk leads to a one-hole golf green which is showered in golf balls chipped from below when their sons visit.

“Russell has created the garden; he has great vision creating something out of nothing,” Susan said.

His ideas spring up like the 600 maples they propagate each year. A musician, he followed the lyrics of Scarborough Fair planting parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme and added mint and coriander along the sides of their home. They grow lemons, apples, peaches, mandarins, tomatoes and strawberries.

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“Russell was diagnosed in 2019 with neuroendocrine cancer,” Susan said. “He got out of (St George Hospital, Sydney) after he got rushed up there and was feeling better. We used to go for bushwalks during COVID and found stumps and all that sort of stuff and thought about what we could do with it. You need something to focus on.”

After five rounds of chemotherapy and six rounds of nuclear treatment, and having his hands and feet swelling with oedema, he found playing the guitar too tiring and fell back on his gardening to occupy his time.

“Doing this is a good replacement therapy,” he said. “You don’t want to be sitting and playing (the guitar) for eight hours. There are other things in life, especially when it is running short,” he said.

Susan Mortimer

Self-taught in bonsai, Susan Mortimer has read extensively and watched on the internet another self-taught bonsai artist Peter Chan and nurseryman from Nottingham, Corin Tomlinson. Photo: John Thistleton.

“We have not been able to go on a holiday; we had to make this our holiday destination,” Susan said. “Love where you live, that’s our motto. You come outside in this resort garden; to me, that’s what it’s like.”

Therein lies Russell’s goal. “When it comes to women, men fight wars, they build bridges, they name boats. The reason I do this is for her,” he says smiling at Susan. “And don’t I love him for it,” she says.

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