This week we interviewed a passionate succulent grower, Emily Friedel who turned her garden into a mini nursery. Working together with her husband, Rohan, she created The Sculpted Garden with a vision to help other people connect with nature and express their creativity through gardening. Here's her story.
What is the story behind The Sculpted Garden?
When my husband (Rohan) and I met eight years ago, we both had an interest in plants but were at opposite ends of the skills spectrum: he was a professional gardener, and I was a serial houseplant killer. We started growing vegetables and herbs together (because we’re also both food lovers) and have been gardening together ever since.
For a long time, we’ve wanted to spend more of our time connected to the natural world – and the easiest way to do that is to earn a living from it. We moved to NSW a few years ago to work as beekeepers, and that was an amazing job. Unfortunately, a lot of things went wrong while we were up there and the premature birth of our son led to the decision to stay in Vic where we’re closer to family.
Last year we started The Sculpted Garden, just as a side project, to see if we could build a business based on plants. We began with succulents because they’re so much fun and such an accessible way for people to get introduced to gardening (and they’re easy to post), but now we want to see if we can branch out – excuse the pun! – to propagate and sell other types of plants and work on more handmade planters and garden art.
For those of us who haven't been to your garden, could you describe what's in it?
Our garden is very much a work in progress! When we bought our house a few years ago, it was what an estate agent would call a ‘renovator’s dream’ (aka a dump), and what there was of the garden was pretty awful.
So we’ve done a bit of landscaping, and we’re gradually filling out the gardens we’ve made. There are a lot of natives and salvias in there because we wanted something low-maintenance, and since we’ve propagated a lot of them from seeds or cuttings it’s been very slow going, but so satisfying to watch a garden grow from scratch! We’ve also got a good-sized veggie patch that provides a lot of our food.
Of course, we have heaps of potted succulents around the place – everything from little Haworthias to big hanging baskets of Rhipsalis. We get severe frosts here, so it’s safest to be able to move anything that doesn’t like being frozen. I have started one small succulent garden with some silver cotyledons, different coloured aeoniums, and agaves. It’s small enough so I can throw bubble wrap over it to protect the frost-tender plants if needs be.
My favourite place in the garden is the little greenhouse Rohan built out of recycled wood and windows. It’s full of Hoyas, Devil’s Ivy, and ferns at the moment, as well as lots of tray of leaf babies. It’s where I do a lot of my propagating work, and I find it such a peaceful, relaxing spot.
Your mission is to help people connect with nature and express their creativity through gardening. Could you tell us more about this?
There is now a massive body of research showing how connecting with nature positively affects our health and wellbeing, and the same goes for creative activities. Gardening blends the two, and it’s something anyone can do – it’s only limited by your imagination. If you don’t have an outdoor space, you can create an indoor garden. If you don’t have much room, you can create a miniature garden.
We hope that by helping people to get into gardening, or by supporting their passion for it, we can help them be happier. And, in turn, we hope that their love of gardening overflows into a general appreciation and respect for the natural world.
Your partner is the creator of metal sculptures that are currently available in your shop. Could you tell us a little bit about his work?
Rohan works as a metal fabricator, and while we were living in NSW, he did some work with an artist blacksmith. So now he’s putting his metalwork skills to good use making beautiful things for gardens. He builds metal planters and sculptures, then rusts them using a special technique that develops different colours and patterns depending on a range of things from temperature to humidity, so each piece is completely individual.
I love the little square planters he makes and use lots of them – they complement succulents perfectly, either for colourful arrangements or to show off a single plant. He also makes Echeveria-inspired rosettes, which I think are really striking; they can be hung on a wall or laid flat so that a pot plant can sit in the middle. He’s always happy to make custom pieces too (if he had more spare time I’d be asking him to make so much stuff!)
What are the challenges of growing succulents/cacti in Victoria?
We get both extremes in seasons where we are in North East Victoria – wet winters with lots of frosts and crazy hot, dry summers. A bit of shade-cloth takes care of the summer part for most of the succulents that don’t like being belted by really hot sun, and we have the greenhouse for anything that doesn’t like getting too wet or cold in winter. I have had to move our entire collection on more than one occasion due to the weather or re-pot dozens of plants that got too soggy after prolonged rain!
You've done a fair bit of propagation. What is the easiest succulent to propagate?
I’ve found most of the succulents I’ve grown pretty easy to propagate. I think the trick is to find the best method for each type of plant, whether it’s beheading or leaf cuttings or stem cuttings (sometimes water is better than soil for these) or waiting until it produces offsets.
If I had to pick one, I’d say string of pearls. I just chop off a bit of stem with an aerial root, put the root in the soil, and water as normal – never have any problems with them.
Could you name a couple of succulents that are hardy and thrive on neglect, what would they be?
Sedeverias like ‘Starburst’ and ‘Pat’s Pink’, many of the groundcover type Sedums, Agaves, Sempervivums, some of the tougher Echeverias (like imbricata and elegans), and many species of cactus will all take a lot of punishment, including varying degrees of frost – sometimes they even look better for it. The only thing none of them like is overwatering.
Your plants are all healthy. Do you fertilize your succulents? If so, what product do you use?
We do! We use Seasol, diluted to about ¼ strength, every few weeks during the growing season – it’s great for stimulating root growth and supporting plants’ immune systems. We also use worm castings and worm ‘juice’ (the liquid from our worm farm, not juiced worms!).
Do you have any future projects or scheduled markets?
We plan to have a stall at the Alexandra & District Open Gardens again this year at the end of October.
Thank you Emily for your time and inspiring stories. I wish you and Rohan all the best. Follow them on Instagram @thesculptedgarden for more details and don't forget to check out their ebay and facebook account. She always throws in a little surprise because she genuinely wants to encourage people to get their hands in the dirt.