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Famous Coast Gardeners Valerie and Gerry Zwart.

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"WE had a double wall in one of the bedrooms and that was where the Jews would sleep at night. For a long time we had Jewish people hiding from the Germans in our house. We knew that if we were caught it would mean death - both for them and for us."

Gerry Zwart could be discussing the plot of a Second World War spy thriller.

Instead, he's talking about his own childhood in Holland.

It's a world away from the retirement village unit where he and his wife Valerie now live in Nambour but he's very matter-of-fact when he discusses those dangerous years.

Just a short distance outside Amsterdam, where Ann Frank and her family were hiding from the Nazis in a secret room of their home, the Zwarts were playing their own very deadly cloak-and-dagger game with the invading German forces.

It wasn't the story I expected to hear when I sat down with the quietly-spoken 87-year-old and his wife.

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The couple were born three months apart in 1929 and have been inseparable since they met in Sydney in their early 20s, but they came from very different backgrounds.

While Gerry was born into a family of 12 children with a father who was an artist, Valerie was growing up in suburban Adelaide in the family's nursery business with just one brother.

I ask if the nursery was where she developed the love of horticulture for which both she and Gerry are renowned?

"Absolutely not," she is quick to reply.

As a youngster, she earned pocket money collecting snails off the nursery plants (half a penny for every dozen) and couldn't wait to get out and find an office job where she wouldn't have to get her hands dirty.

Gerry, meanwhile, was a world away in Holland, where the Nazi soldiers were much more than shadowy figures on cinema newsreels.

 

The youngest of the 12 children, he describes his childhood as "interesting".

"It was an artist's family like you see in the movies," he explains.

"Everything was higgledy-piggledy; everybody screaming and yelling but everyone got on well.

"For four or five years when we were occupied by the Germans, we had anything from two to five Jewish people hiding in our house, similar to the Ann Frank story.

"It started off with the first girl who was a friend of one of my sisters - that was in 1941, when the Germans were really beginning to clamp down on the Jews and making them wear the yellow stars and that sort of thing.

"There were signs up saying 'Jews forbidden' and then the Nazis started surrounding entire villages so nobody could get in or out and they would go from door to door looking for Jewish people.

"They'd pick them up and take them to Auschwitz or wherever."

Gerry was about 12 at the time and says he was well aware of the risks his parents were taking.

"We knew it was dangerous," he said.

"We didn't plan to do it.

"After a while that first girl brought another girl to hide and that girl had parents who were in trouble and they came to our place and we became known as a place where people knew they could dive in and dive out again.

"We had a double wall in one of the bedrooms and that was where the Jews would sleep at night.

"It was only small but there would be anything up to four or five people sleeping in there on mattresses on the floor."

Like Ann Frank's family, the Zwarts' neighbours and possibly most of the village of 2000-3000 people were aware of what was going on, he said.

"The neighbours knew what we were doing - we had to let them in on it - but that made it so much safer because you had these people around you keeping an eye out.

"If you came to our door and rang the doorbell, everyone would scamper but if you rang with a particular signal we had, we would open the door and let you in."

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Back in Australia, Valerie's family was doing very well in the nursery game but she was ready to get out.

"By the time I finished school I had decided I was not going to work in a nursery," she admits

"I didn't love horticulture - I was simply born into it.

"I had quite a reasonable education for those days and I thought 'why would I want to get my hands dirty when I could be in an office doing something nice?'."

She worked in the office of a radio station for about five years before contracting polio at the age of 21 and spent seven months in hospital and another four convalescing at home.

A lifetime later, Valerie becomes sombre as she recalls the man in the bed next to her screaming in pain for hours on end before passing away during the night.

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Not long after she was well enough to return to work, she decided to move to Sydney and live with her aunt and uncle.

It proved a smart move as a young Gerry Zwart soon packed up and left Holland, bound for the sunny weather of the country one of his brothers now called home.

Gerry was working in a pottery factory when they met - not on a date but at a family outing to a swimming carnival.

"His brother and family were best friends with my aunt and uncle where I was staying," Valerie explains.

"We went to a swimming competition for children and the first night I met him I fell asleep on his shoulder watching the races.

"We were both 23 years old and we were married three months later."

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On top of a cabinet in their unit's dining room sits a small metal trophy which Gerry's nephew won that night.

He presented it to them about 20 years ago as a reminder of the night they met.

Valerie gets it down to show me.

"It's a lovely thing to have," she smiles.

Of course, meeting and marrying within three months is a short version of a much longer story.

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While they were dating, Valerie was offered a bedroom and an annexe in a share house and with housing short in Sydney, Gerry made his move.

"I told Gerry and he said 'let's get married now instead of next year' and we were married two weeks later," she says.

"I thought it was worth a good try.

"I was getting over one of the relationships where I thought I was in love and was pretty disgusted with men, so I didn't really want to know.

"Then I met Gerry and it didn't take him long to convince me."

After a couple of months, Valerie announced she wanted to go back to her roots.

They got a job working on a sheep station a couple of hours from Adelaide, where Valerie was in charge of the household and Gerry looked after the gardens and milked the cows.

It was a learning experience for both of them as their combined experience with farm life was Valerie's occasional visit to her uncle's place.

After a short stint as a baker in a nearby town, the young couple moved back to Adelaide, where Gerry worked in the family nursery and Valerie found office work in the city.

Their daughter Anna was born and they moved to Port Pirie when she was three months old, opening a guest house for single men.

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A few years later came a pivotal moment in their lives when Valerie's mother asked Gerry to join her in her new nursery business - she and Valerie's father had separated by that stage - and Valerie's brother asked her to work in his nursery.

Gerry ultimately followed a number of career paths, including debt collector, life insurance salesman and finally in public relations after studying for his qualifications at night.

Valerie, meanwhile, discovered she did love horticulture after all.

"I couldn't believe that I remembered the names of a lot of the plants and their details from all those years before in the family nursery," she said.

"I'd learnt it all without realising I had."

She stayed in business with her brother for 30 years and made a career out of garden designing.

Gerry put his public relations degree to work with the Home For Incurables and then the Blind Society, helping Valerie's brother in the nursery on weekends.

In the early 1980s, Gerry was invited to be manager of the Nurseryman's Cooperative of South Australia and launched a bi-monthly gardening magazine for members to give away to customers.

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Valerie soon became involved, providing help with the botanical names of plants and advice on what was available that time of year.

"Valerie had the technical knowledge and I had the writing knowledge, so we put them together," Gerry says.

That lasted from 1982-1992, but in 1989 they left Adelaide to live on the Sunshine Coast after visiting and falling in love with the area during a trip to Expo '88 in Brisbane.

They stopped writing for the South Australian publication the early 1990s and immediately accepted an offer from the Queensland Nurseryman's Cooperative, putting together its magazine.

Valerie soon became involved, providing help with the botanical names of plants and advice on what was available that time of year.

"Valerie had the technical knowledge and I had the writing knowledge, so we put them together," Gerry says.

That lasted from 1982-1992, but in 1989 they left Adelaide to live on the Sunshine Coast after visiting and falling in love with the area during a trip to Expo '88 in Brisbane.

They stopped writing for the South Australian publication the early 1990s and immediately accepted an offer from the Queensland Nurseryman's Cooperative, putting together its magazine.

That lasted two or three years when, at the age of 67, they decided it was probably time to slow down.

But it wasn't for long and it was the Sunshine Coast Daily that got them back into the horticulture writing business with a gardening column that ran for about 20 years.

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"One day we read an article in the Daily written by someone from down south who had written about how to prune your fruit trees at this time of the year," Valerie explains.

"It gave all sorts of advice about pruning your apples at this time and pruning your pears at this time and so on ... which was all wrong.

"I read it and said to Gerry, 'this is ridiculous'.

"So I rang the editor, Peter Owen, and said 'I am sorry but you're obviously not a gardener and so you wouldn't know that advice doesn't suit the conditions in this part of the state'."

"'Would you like to write a column?', he said.

"That was about 1995/1996 - and we've been writing it ever since."

That was until recently, when they decided 87 was a good age to retire - again.

They spent most of their years on the Sunshine Coast living in Mapleton, where they both earnt Order of Australia Medals for services to the community and the horticulture industry.

The Mapleton hall, kindergarten, bowls club and library are just some of the organisations which have benefited from their fundraising efforts.

They put their love of community work down to a period with the Apex service club in Port Pirie more than 40 years ago.

"You learn so much about giving to other people," Valerie explains.

"That was the best lesson we ever learned - to give to other people."

She finds it impossible to say whether gardening or community work would rate as her first love.

"It would be hard to choose ... I really don't know," she says.

"Gardening has been the best thing that ever happened to us.

"It's given us a joint interest that we both enjoy.

"There are not an enormous number of married couples in the world who have that.

"Not only knowing one another for so long but being able to share their interest together.

"But I loved fundraising and helping the community.

"Community is so vital to all of us."

They'll be married 63 years next month and are enjoying life in their unit where the gardens, of course, are spectacular.

It's clear they are as devoted to each other as the day they were married.

"She's everything to me," Gerry says.

"I really don't know how I would get on without her.

"I told her a long time ago that I have to be the first one to go."

Valerie has other ideas.

"I have to say all I ever pray for these days is that we go together.

"I'm not suggesting anything ulterior to that, I just pray that we go together ... I think we would be really lost without each other."