ACT News


Jackie French: When you covet someone else's garden

It was a perfect rectangle of green, in full sun, with deep soil, perfectly drained, just crying out to be filled with pumpkin vines, melons or maybe rows of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, jostaberries. Or potatoes, in that wonderfully deep soil.

There was only one problem. It didn't belong to me. Plus the owners hoped that nice green sward would become a swimming pool, in five or six years or so.

Which didn't stop me offering. Not to plant fruit trees there, of course – trees would just be starting to fruit well by swimming pool time. But strawberries set prolific fruit after one year and the melons would have been ready by summer's end. And the potatoes, ready for tossing in olive oil and baking in their skins, which is the best way to appreciate the perfect potato. (The perfect potato is home-grown, compost-fed and picked any time from walnut to boot sized.)

I was there for another three whole days – plenty of time to dig up all the grass for them. Their garden chairs would have fitted comfortably between the berry rows or pumpkin vines. Of course the vines might climb up the chair legs but with daily vigilance they could be discouraged.

The owners politely refused.

If I were a fairy godmother my gift would be "here's a nice prolific garden for you", but I'd have been thrown out of the union long ago for over-zealousness. It has always been hard to accept that perfectly nice, reasonable people don't necessarily want their bare garden space filled with apple trees, a few plums, definitely a pomegranate, six grevilleas, a rare banksia or two, a lemon, a patch of parsley, silver beet, a few thyme plants, rosemary and mint. The bare necessities, especially in a garden that is a trifle bare. Or elegantly understated, which no one has ever accused me of being.


Gardens are deeply personal. Everyone I know who has bought a new home with a glorious garden has taken at least half of it out and turned it into a different style of stunning garden.

They also depend on where you live and how you live, too. Our garden is in a deeply ridged valley, with a background of greens all around. It needs brightness – red and yellow dahlias, red, pink and orange sages – that would be too gaudy if we lived on a sun-drenched hill, unless they were toned down by hedges and other foliage.

We need views, so we don't feel too hemmed in by mountain, as well as a way to tell who is coming up the drive (or what – i.e. feral goats or neighbour's cattle). In a suburb I'd go for vistas, that give privacy as well as a feeling of space, with each path weaving around bushes as if they go on forever. Small gardens can often feel too open to the gaze of neighbours, or too closed in, either by courtyard walls or foliage that looks like you've borrowed it from Sleeping Beauty's castle. Add a moongate or six – circular windows cut either in walls or hedges. Yes, people on the outside can still see through a moongate, but only if they stop and turn Peeping Tom. Few do.

Perhaps that's the sign of a true gardener. True gardeners need to transform the land around them to their own personal ideal of Eden, whether it be neat rows of marigolds or a forest of roses, azaleas and rhododendrons, or tomatoes and rare grevilleas and banksia and telopeas. Mine is apples, apples, roses and at least another two hundred kinds of fruit, with a salvia, bursaria and grevillea-rich jungle in which there is always something in flower. The only way I could ever escape the urge to plant would be to move to true, untouched bush – not the "neglected orchard in the bush" which became our present garden, but the kind that has balanced itself across the centuries. That would be Eden too – and one I would entirely leave alone.

This week I'm:

  • counting the pumpkins that have set on the vines – I'm sure that at least one vine was supposed to be butternut pumpkin, but all the fruit on it are round and yellow and decidedly unbutternut looking. On the other hand, I am not overly fond of butternuts. They just happened to be the only seedlings for sale, so this year's crop will be an adventure and, also, hopefully, delicious
  • transplanting the gladioli that decided to come up in the vegetable garden – gladdies grow from corms and little cormlets that grow around the original one, but these seem to have sprung up from a vase full of wilted flowers used as mulch around the cabbages. They have multiplied profusely. Their next home will be less fertile, and never watered. But just as their parents survive down in the paddock, I'm sure their progeny will be fine too
  • planning winter veg seed to plant in a couple of weeks– broccoli, broccolini, broad beans because that is the only way to get tiny sweet tender beans that don't need 'double hulling' (rubbing off the plastic like coat on each seed)
  • picking apples, eating apples, stewing apples and hoping the pear crop falls off in the next wave heat and the wallabies and rosellas eat them all– why did I ever plant far too soft, far too sweet summer pears?
  • picking tomatoes, cucumbers and more cucumbers, but the tomatoes for some reason aren't prolific yet. Cold spells and hot wet days preventing fruit set?
  • wondering why transplanted melon vines take at least a month to establish – from now on in our short growing season I'll only plant watermelons and rockmelons direct where they are to grow