It’s not surprising structural landscaper and horticulturalist Steve Bridge has an instinctive feel for the beauty of nature: his grandfather, Alan Youdale, pioneered Kunderang East Pastoral Station, a rugged 15000ha of grazing country and spectacular native bush and flora deep in virgin gorge country between Kempsey and Walcha.
My mother Betty grew up on the station and helped her father develop the property to become a renowned Hereford stud. On the place we had thousands of hectares of rainforest filled with ferns and orchids, I suppose that’s where my interest in plants comes from. After Mum married and I and my brothers were born our family were essentially ‘Pitt Street farmers’; we went to school in Sydney, where Dad worked with Qantas. But I always liked plants from a young age; I’d buy my mother plants.
There are three aspects to my business now: selling plants at wholesale prices, structural landscaping, and dealing in rare and unusual plants. We grow unusual palms, large Brazilian bromeliads, flowering heliconias, and yellow, red and hot pink frangipanis – and regular species – in our nursery at Bonny Hills. We sell exotics to Thailand and other places around the world. I supply builders, landscapers, collectors and the public. I offer a free service that works well and sets me apart from the competition: I suggest a client visits our nursery, where we’ve a huge range of plants and a ‘mini botanical gardens’ I’m creating. I get a feel for their likes and dislikes, visit their intended garden, then take a load of suitable plants along and place them – before planting – so clients can see what their garden will be like. A garden should be balanced for structure and colour, plant height and other considerations. We do the planting, or clients can save by doing it themselves.
We also do structural landscaping jobs like paving, concreting, building retaining walls and Bali huts. The best part of the job’s seeing the expression on a client’s face when we transform their garden into a piece of art. We supply plants for Adenbrook homes, local father and son builders, and it’s a delight because they build the best quality homes and understand you need a quality garden: there’s nothing worse than a garden with plants from 20 sources – Aunty Mary and so on – with no real thought to structure, colour and balance! A garden is a piece of art: I ask people if they were given a second-hand kitchen would they put it in their new home? The answer’s No. You spend a lot of money on your house: gardens should enhance a house.
The rest of my family lives in Sydney still. I followed my father into Qantas and was with the airline as a navigational database officer for 21 years, although I also had a nursery at home and dealt in rare and unusual plants. My wife Julie and I moved to Bonny Hills about ten years ago and have three children, Merlina, 13, Justin, 11, and Samara, 9. We live at the nursery; it’s open by appointment – because I can sometimes be in the middle of a landscape job or exhibiting at big plant shows. I’ve just been to the ABC’s Gardening Australia Expo over three days at Rosehill Gardens in Sydney and am on my way to the annual Australian Springtime Flora Festival, at Mt Penang Parklands near Gosford. It’s one of the biggest and most popular events in Australia, with more than 300 floral displays, landscaped garden settings and exhibits by commercial suppliers who help create a total picture of home, garden, outdoor living and lifestyle. Then there’s the Collectors Plant Show at Bilpin the weekend before Easter. You have to be invited to exhibit there. Julie is the most important person in the business; she runs the office, waters plants and carries out the general nursery tasks when I’m away. She also has to take the kids to weekend sport as I’m usually away at markets. Among my ambitions are finishing the botanical gardens I’m building, continuing to create excellent and distinctive landscapes, and specialising in tropical gardens. I think the Hastings is the pick of the world: my father was at Qantas for 26 years and I was with them for 21 years, so I’ve seen a lot of places. It doesn’t get any better than here.