Malcolm and Jenny Johnston were holidaying in Currumbin on Queensland’s Gold Coast when intense horticultural envy struck. “I had to have a rainforest,” says Malcolm. “We cut our holiday shorts.”
Forty years later the rainforest hath engulfed the house and spread along the creek at the bottom of the Kenthurst property. Elegant Alexandra palms, slow-growing walking stick palms and glossy cabbage tree palms line the watercourse. Figs and lillypillies, cordylines and doryanthes stretch for the sun.
Staghorns and orchids cling to the trees, birds nest ferns settle on rock ledges and mosses colonize the damp. It is hard to believe this was all lantana and privet when Malcolm first dreamed of his own rainforest.
Both Johnstons have a deep connection to this place. They were neighbors as kids, playing in the bush, and working in the citrus orchards. The garden is on land run as an orchard and open-range poultry farm for three decades by Jenny’s relatives, the Cadwells. Her Uncle Sid was an orchardist and native plant pioneer whose early grevillea hybrids ‘Sid Cadwell’, ‘Boongala Spinebill’ and ‘Jessie Cadwell’ are still popular garden plants.
Malcolm and Jenny named their own garden Boongala after Uncle Sid’s Annangrove nursery, and as you’d expect there are plenty of grevilleas in the sunny gardens above the rainforest gully. Curved beds form a kind of amphitheater of flower and foliage, ameliorating the drying winds and creating a microclimate in which a wide range of native plants flourish.
What was a dust-blown chookyard now attracts a whole other set of birds. In fact, the first thing you notice on entering the garden is the chorus of birdsong. Casuarinas lure black cockatoos to feast on the seed pods; grevilleas and banksias draw nectar-lovers such as honeyeaters, lorikeets and parrots; and the shelter the shrubs provide encourages finches, whipbirds and wrens to set up home.
A Californian twitcher recently visited and was Malcolm thrilled to tick 17 different birds off his list, including the double-barred finches which hop on and off a perch on the sunny edge of a thicket of grevillea.
The garden is a mighty achievement of vision, hard work and patience, and Malcolm has lost none of his enthusiasm for it. The garden is open Monday to Friday for a month in spring, and on open days he can be found answering questions from visitors keen to replicate the magic at home, and leading twice-daily tours of the rainforest, pointing out the bush foods he enjoys , the new plants he has put it in, the rarities and favourites.