Richard Unsworth has oddly positioned himself in an office during our conversation. Odd because the quaintly spoken Englishman is usually deep amongst the lush greenery and human-sized pots of his wildly popular store called Garden Life.
This isn’t just a story about peddling shrubs though. Since moving to Sydney in search of a wild adventure, Unsworth has instead managed to shape and steer Australia’s landscape design scene for the past fifteen years.
D’Marge sat down with the one-time stereotypical backpacker to find out how gardening grew to become his life blood, how men should be integrating plants into their homes and his most expensive tree ever that “Yummy Mummies” have been fighting over.
“I escaped England for an adventure and I found it in Sydney.”
A life in gardening is one spent outdoors amongst the serenity of nature and dodgy T-shirt tans. For Richard Unsworth, this love for the green didn’t follow the conventional path at all.
“At the start it was more about earning pocket money than a love of gardening,” he says.
Unsworth grew up in Yorkshire, England, where his parents had a large suburban garden. As part of his condition for accruing pocket money, his parents would make him mow the lawn and clip stray edges.
His talents would be quickly realised and word had spread on the streets of his ability to mow a mean lawn. Soon enough he’d find himself in neighbours’ lawns toiling away for those few extra pounds.
The dream was to be short lived. By his first paying job at the local gardening centre after school, Unsworth was thriving in the retail side of things but grew increasingly frustrated that the English winters would decimate his entire season’s work.
“Winter came along. It was miserable and everything just died. I was trying to repot plants and the potting mix was frozen. That’s when I knew I didn’t want to do this as a career.”
Unsworth needed an exit strategy. His grand plan? Escape on an excellent adventure.
“I was studious at first, but as soon as I learnt to drive I would go to the pub.”
Young Richard left school without many qualifications. In his opinion school just wasn’t a pot he wanted to have his hands in.
“I was studious at first, but as soon as I learnt to drive I would go to the pub; I was more distracted by that sort of thing.”
By his twenties, Unsworth found himself thousands of kilometres away in sunny Sydney, with just a few quid to his name and no job. He sought adventure and became the stereotypical English backpacker to do so.
Gardening would however find him again in ways he never thought possible. Mulling over his uninspiring hospitality job, Unsworth quickly saw the appeal of Sydney’s weather and decided to give the hoe a second chance. He started off by doing the odd landscaping job in the Eastern suburbs, a job that would see the wheels of his career set in motion for the next decade.
“I did walk away from horticulture in England because it was such a hard climate to work in, but things grow here,” he explains.
Almost two decades on and Richard Unsworth now runs his own successful store which accompanies a robust reputation for curating brilliant outdoor spaces across some of Sydney’s most affluent and design-focused suburbs.
It’s a success which appears to be helped by Unsworth’s penchant for garden pieces which channel the unique, the natural, the contemporary and the ancient.
“It’s the yummy mummies and milfs who are driving a trend for fiddle leaf figs.”
His most prized and expensive plant today? The great Wollemi Pine.
“Wollemi Pines were discovered around the millennium,” Unsworth tells us.
“We bought some plants for clients at an auction which totalled $5,000 each. These are plants raised from cuttings of the wild. They are very special plants and some are very sought after.”
Another plant, he tells us, is also driving a different type of crazy.
“Fiddle Leaf Figs are popular plants for indoors. We have a waiting list on them and you can pay up to a thousand dollars for a big tree. We’re always trying to get them because as soon as we get them in, people want them. It’s the yummy mummies and milfs who are driving a trend for fiddle leaf figs,” he laughs.
‘Yummy Mummies’ and ‘Milfs’ aside, Unsworth has some seriously handy advice for men who are looking to get plants for their homes but have no idea where to start let alone how to keep them alive.
He says that succulents are the best choices for a man with little patience for plants.
“Jade, also called the money tree – it’s a good luck plant in terms of abundance and finances. If you want some food herbs and have a sunny spot, Rosemary is best for the barbecue.”
For the indoors, Unsworth recommends something called the Mother-In-Law’s Tongue. He’s not kidding. “It’s funny because often guys don’t want to be reminded of their mother-in-law, but it’s a pretty bomb proof indoor plant.”
For a masculine touch to the garden Unsworth recommends that everyone should grow their own food and pick it just like our prehistoric hunters used to. It has less to do with staying alive and more to do with connectivity. Unsworth says that having your own herb garden encourages a sense of curiosity and community amongst passing strangers.
Heading indoors, it’s important that punters choose the right plant for the right position. In the case of smaller areas, always think big.
“Always put something bigger than you think can work in the space. Scale’s important. Often people have a small space and they use a small plant. You’ve got to do the opposite in a small space. Whether that’s outside or inside. Just use one thing but do it well. That’ll create drama and impact.”
Given that gardening can be an artform in its own, it doesn’t come without a faux pas or two. There are certain areas that men should be cautious of embracing according to this garden maestro: Green walls, terrariums and cost expectations.
Beautiful gardens require good budgets. Throwing five or ten grand at a garden and expecting it to be aesthetically pleasing is a big no-no according to the Garden Life rule book. “People need to be realistic about budgets,” he says. And those cool terrariums?
“If you want to have a go, go there. I think it’s a fashion that’s just come around again. They’re very maintenence heavy and I’ve seen a lot of bad terrariums. It’s a fad like green walls. Green walls and terrariums, just don’t go there.”
On the obscure topic of men’s fashion that is deemed fit for gardening, Unsworth had a good chuckle. He convinced us that there really isn’t a secret formula to looking good whilst gardening except to avoid wearing green and to don a big floppy hat, preferably of the panama variety.
As the future of Richard Unsworth’s Garden Life project continues to grow greener than ever, the Sydneysider has some interesting new ideas to keep himself busy. The store relocated from Sydney’s Redfern to a larger retail space in St Peters last year and Unsworth says the adjoining kitchen and cafe will make a welcome addition to the new space.
“I escaped England for an adventure and I found it in Sydney.”
Photography produced exclusively for D’Marge by Peter Van Alphen – No reproduction without permission.
More in this series
1 Sep, 2014Matt Moran – Talks food, toys and life