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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Shirley June Stackhouse (1927–2020)

by Jennifer Stackhouse

When Shirley Stackhouse, was presented with her Order of Australia Medal by then New South Wales Governor, Dr Marie Bashir, she received the loudest applause of all the recipients on that day. Not because her honour was more deserving but because the gardening personality was a household name known to everyone in the audience.

She achieved that acclaim not just by communicating gardening knowledge, but through her warmth and genuine love and passion for growing plants. Over her lifetime she had personally spoken to many thousands of gardeners and answered as many letters.

Although the name Shirley Stackhouse has been synonymous with gardening since the late 1960s, Stackhouse was a writer and a storyteller long before she turned her hand to garden writing. As a teenager her poems were published in the local newspaper and later as a young mother living in Brisbane she wrote scripts and designed the sets for children’s shows on ABC TV.

Born Shirley June Dunbar Howes in Brisbane on June 20, 1927 she was the eldest of three children. Their mother, Norma, was a craftswoman and keen gardener but the gardening gene goes back much further. Her grandfather, George Heers, was a nurseryman and rose breeder as well as director of dairying for Queensland. Nursery catalogues he produced from the 1930s until the mid-1950s reveal he was also a gardening writer, his advice still relevant today.

As a girl, she spent lots of time with her grandparents and bevy of unmarried aunts at the family property, Pacific Nurseries, always referred to in the family as "the Farm". It was at Manly, now part of Greater Brisbane, but then a growing region that her grandfather selected for its rich, red volcanic soil. It continued to be a focus for family life with large gatherings every Sunday around a groaning afternoon tea table.

Her grandfather and life at the Farm were the subjects of many of Stackhouse’s anecdotes, which included stories about answering the phone as a child when customers rang for advice on growing roses. She happily answered those questions.

She was educated at Brisbane Girls Grammar School. Too young to be caught up in World War II, which finished as she left school, she began secretarial work at an aviation supply firm in Brisbane. However, her ambition was to be an artist. As her father didn’t believe in higher education for girls, she set to work to save enough money to pay her own way through art school and also to help pay her sister’s tuition fees at Brisbane Girls Grammar School.

She supplemented her income by selling paintings. These were mostly of flowers and houses in garden settings, an early indication of where her life interests lay.

When she left art school having made life-long friendships, she became an occupational therapist combining her art training with a family background in crafts such as basket weaving, leatherwork, macrame and pottery, skills learnt from her mother.

It was around this time she made a decision that changed the course of her life. She went to New Zealand on a working holiday as a nurse aide. The change of climate and scenery from Brisbane to life in New Zealand with its rain, snow and gardens of cold-climate plants made a lasting impression.

So too did a chance meeting on a mountaintop during a blizzard. It was in this unlikely setting she met her future husband, a young journalist called John Stackhouse.

After their time together in New Zealand, John went to Korea as a war correspondent. They were married in 1954 at the Farm in a garden wedding, surrounded by roses. After their marriage they lived in Melbourne, Singapore, where she taught art at a girls’ school and Papua New Guinea, before settling in Brisbane for John to take up a job with ABC TV news.

They built their dream home on a two-and-a-half acre bush block at Fig Tree Pocket, she started to make her first garden and produced four children.

Life in Brisbane in the late 1950s and early 1960s was good for Shirley and John. They had a modern, architect-designed house, she had her large extended family and, of course, she was gardening and working for the ABC. Then everything changed. John took a job with Channel 9 in Sydney and moved the family south.

She didn’t forgive him for that move for a very long time but it was the start of her gardening and media career and they built the house in Killara where they lived for more than 40 years.

Her garden writing career started on The Sydney Morning Herald a few years after they settled in Sydney. The incumbent gardening writer, Waratah, was suddenly unwell. The paper urgently needed a replacement gardening columnist. John heard the call out and volunteered his wife’s services. Somehow she managed to bash out a column on roses on their manual typewriter that same day. She never looked back.

That first column appeared on June 22, 1968 under the headline "Demand makes 1968 the year of the rose". In the story’s introduction the newspaper noted: "Her articles should be of special interest to women gardeners as well as men."

In 1970, when her youngest son Geoffrey started school, Stackhouse too went back to school, enrolling at Ryde School of Horticulture to do a Certificate of Horticulture. There she not only thrived, she also made wonderful friends and earned her entree into Sydney’s horticultural community. She was on her way.

As well as writing the Herald column each week, illustrated with her own pen and ink drawings of flowers, she also became the gardening contributor for Woman’s Day, Belle magazine and other publications spreading her influence Australia-wide.

In 1980 her columns were expanded into a book giving month-by-month garden advice. That book was the popular Shirley Stackhouse’s Gardening Year.

Although Stackhouse had by this stage written several specialist plant books and went on to edit and write other books, she was particularly proud that she not only wrote that book, but also illustrated it with her drawings and photographs.

Her most exciting moment writing for the Herald had nothing to do with gardens. It was the report sent "from our gardening correspondent in Chile" when she was on the ground at the time of General Augusto Pinochet's coup on September 11, 1973.

In the mid-1980s she took to the airwaves, initially standing in on 2UE’s gardening show Burke’s Backyard. When that morphed into a television program, Stackhouse took over the time slot, making the weekend talkback gardening show her own. It was renamed Over the Fence and given its own catchy theme song. She worked initially with radio icon the late Gary O’Callaghan MBE (aka Sammy Sparrow) before teaming up with 2UW "Good Guy" Phil Haldeman.

The show took off, loved for its combination of good advice and humour. Stackhouse had a marvellous 15 years on air (13 with Phil Haldeman) and became a household name.

As well as writing, broadcasting and developing her garden at Killara, which she filled with old-fashioned roses, camellias, bluebells, cats and dogs, she became a member of the inaugural committee of the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (now Foundation and Friends of the Botanic Gardens) under the chairmanship of Sir Rupert Myers.

During the 1980s she also began her career as a gardening tour leader at a time when gardening tourism began to boom. Her tours were initially within Australia through the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens. By the 1990s she was travelling the world with tours for 2UE.

Stackhouse’s success as a gardening writer and broadcaster lay in her friendliness, charm and accessibility combined with deep practical knowhow. She was delighted to be recognised and always happy to answer gardening questions, whether in the queue at the shop or at her occasional open garden events which saw thousands of visitors come to her garden.

She found it hard to say no to the many requests that saw her opening local flower shows and speaking at events, usually for the simple reward of a bouquet. She also judged The Sydney Morning Herald garden competition for many years.

Stackhouse’s life, full to overflowing while she was working, continued unabated even when she "retired". (The word retired wasn’t one that was allowed in her presence.)

As John and Shirley grew older, the Killara house and garden, on a precipitous hillside with more than 70 steps, became too much for the couple. It was a second heartbreaking farewell to a beloved garden when they downsized to a practical apartment in North Turramurra with a huge balcony that was quickly crammed with potted plants.

John died in 2019. Shirley died on March 4, 2020 after a short illness surrounded by flowers and her family. She is survived by her four children: Jennifer, Peter, Katie and Geoffrey; and five grandchildren.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jennifer Stackhouse, 'Stackhouse, Shirley June (1927–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 July 2024.

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