A Rising Phoenix: Rae and Guy spent 15 years developing their garden in the NSW Mid-West

The spectre of the bushfires of summer 2019 looms large over the garden at Keewaydin, the home of Rae and Guy Sim at Running Stream in the NSW mid-west.

On one dreadful December evening, the Sims watched in horror as fire surrounded their home on 40 hectares of farmland destroying 20 hectares of pine plantation and much of the garden they had spent almost 15 years developing. “We were coming off the back of three years of drought, so there was no grass in the paddocks and it was hard to imagine we could be affected,” Guy recalls. “But burn it did and in the end, the RFS (Rural Fire Service) saved us. Three trucks turned up to help control the fire. But not before it got to within a metre of the house.” In the following weeks, the Sims assessed the damage, which included the loss of eight kilometres of fencing, the plantation, grass and beds and 107 trees in the garden they had devoted countless hours to establishing.

Rae in particular found it hard to start again. “I’ve suffered from anxiety since the fire,” she admits. “It wasn’t just the loss of the garden and the size of the task of beginning again, it was also the loss of all the memories with the fire. There were trees given to us on special anniversaries and occasions, trees planted in memoriam to lost family members and the task seemed insurmountable at times. Sometimes it still does. I’ve had some help and gradually I’ve learnt to ‘drop anchor’ when I feel I’m spiralling. Acknowledging your feelings is a good way to stop them becoming overwhelming.” Friends, family and total strangers rallied to restore Keewaydin’s garden. Blaze Aid helped with restoring fences, the Mudgee Garden Club gifted numerous trees and shrubs and some insurance money enabled the Sims to hire local permaculture business Crave Natural to start rebuilding.

A Rising Phoenix: Rae and Guy spent 15 years developing their garden in the NSW Mid-West

Almost four years down the track, the garden is once more a tribute to Rae and Guy, who have devoted endless hours to its resurrection. The farm is part of a family property where Guy’s parents ran an orchard until numerous devastating hailstorms in the 1970s put an end to their apple and pear trees. Guy moved away from home first to a career in the Air Force and then in correctional services, which is where he met Rae, who was working as an administration manager, in Cooma in 1985. Their jobs took them all over the state and eventually almost back home to Lithgow. “We started building the house at Keewaydin in 2005,” Rae says. “We actually began the garden the year before as we’d always intended to retire here.” Approaching the property from the highway, there’s an avenue of box elders interspersed with manicured pittosporum down the driveway. Guy has developed considerable rock-building skills and has turned the culverts that drain the driveway into works of art.

One archway protects a Buddhist statue, a reminder of travels the Sims have enjoyed to many Asian countries. Guy is also a dab hand at turning “found objects” into garden features and repurposing what other people might call junk into appealing places for the eye to rest. There’s a fairy garden built to disguise a radiata pine stump that was left after the fire and fashioned from old burnt tins and other scrap metal. Nearby, there’s a refurbished hut, relocated from a nearby paddock and now restored into a guest bedroom complete with views over the parklike expanse of the garden. Water from the springs that supply the house and garden is stored in tanks at this top end of the property and the orchard is also located nearby. As the garden slopes down to the house, there’s a stairway lined by crabapples, some of which were more fire damaged than others. Rae and Guy felt an urn at the top of the steps didn’t stand out enough so have created an espaliered pear as an effective backdrop.

A Rising Phoenix: Rae and Guy spent 15 years developing their garden in the NSW Mid-West

Further down the hill, there’s a row of silver birches along another of Guy’s rock walls. This leads to a series of ponds, one crowned with a tortured willow that was grabbed as a stick and planted in a depression in the ground, which turned out to be the remnants of an old well. Ever inventive Guy found some old bricks and created a well feature on the site. Closer to the house, the wisteria walk is another survivor of the fire. “I thought it would look better with different coloured plants on the middle posts so I planted a pink and a white one,” Rae says. “Turns out it was a mistake as they both flower later than the purple varieties and it looks like there’s a gap.” On the other side of the homestead, Guy has built a new garden bed, which has helped rekindle Rae’s interest in the entire garden. As a fan of bold colours, she’s filled the bed with the lilies, hollyhocks, cornflowers, aquilegias and her all-time favourites, dahlias, which will come into their own in early autumn.

This exuberant spot will be one of many highlights visitors to the garden will experience at the end of March, when Keewaydin is one of eight gardens opening to the public during an open garden weekend hosted by the Kandos CWA (Country Women’s Association). The gardens are divided evenly between town and country and there will be refreshments and art and craft displays and sales at some of the venues, while the Sims will provide a movie screening with picnic boxes in the evening. Rae and Guy’s passion for travel is evident throughout the garden and their home, which is decorated with many souvenirs, artworks, ceramics and fabrics collected during a lifetime of holidays, mainly in Asia and Europe.

A Rising Phoenix: Rae and Guy spent 15 years developing their garden in the NSW Mid-West

When Australian Country visited, they were busy making up for lost COVID travel time, had just returned from a trip to Italy and were looking forward to an upcoming visit to India and Kashmir. “We’re not resort people,” Rae says. “We enjoy finding places to eat and getting to know the locals and understand how they live. And when we’re home, it’s always great to have souvenirs to remind us of our adventures. I actually enjoy dusting, as it gives me time to look back on the places we’ve been lucky enough to visit and the people we’ve met along the way.”

Photography by Ken Brass

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