INCORPORATING found objects in the garden is one thing but getting them to look good is quite another. We all know the old olive-oil-tin-as-a-planter trick but it rarely comes off in suburban Melbourne as well as it does in rural Greece. The patina of peeling paint can evoke a vacant lot more than verdant oasis. It is all in the planting.
Millie Ross has an eye for hard rubbish and a knack for gardening. She can grow plants in empty ghee containers and abandoned car-engine parts. She tips soil into toys and toasters and teases out lusty green tendrils. She dotes and tends until healthy foliage bursts from bleached plastic and rusted tin. She regularly plants up one outrageously beautiful construction-industry staple that I am forbidden to specify for fear of drying up supplies.
What is most immediately apparent about Ross' Yarraville backyard is not the novel recycled ornament but the abundant planting. The great, heavy lengths of steel chain she has strung to her verandah, for example, only serve to highlight the light laciness of her grapevine. Mattress springs, baths and washing-machine components have their provenance subverted by mature fruit trees and an array of other edibles and ornamentals.
Ross has been growing rice in a child's paddling pool and making cushions out of Dichon-dra repens. There are plants in the chook run, on benches and hanging from the clothesline. There are plants everywhere but – and this is the clever thing – it's not chaos. In fact, it's the sort of place you want to kick off your shoes and linger.
Moreover, it's a rental property Ross has lived in for only two years. Renting, she insists, should never preclude the making of a garden. "I have been dragging my favourite pots and plants around the suburbs of Melbourne for a decade," Ross writes in her new book, The Thrifty Gardener. "As well as a few key feature pots that make a new garden feel instantly like home, I grow a heap of plants [canna lilies, salvias, plectranthus, succulents] that can be dug up and moved, divided or grown quickly from cuttings."
She also drives a ute – all the better to pick up tree branches, discarded chunks of concrete, assorted refuse from building sites, you name it – and gets around with her secateurs in a leather pouch tied around her waist.
It wasn't always like this. Her parents, she says, "were totally not gardeners". But her fisherman father did once throw his old nets on a tree at the bottom of the family garden where for years afterwards they formed hammocks for adults, climbing ropes for kids and other forms of all-round family entertainment.
Ross was 19 and living in a small town in Gippsland when she propagated her first plant, sowing corn seeds into polystyrene cups left over from a party. "I still remember the day they germinated," she says. "It was a life-changing moment."
Within a year she was studying horticulture at TAFE.
Since then, Ross, now a senior researcher on Garden-ing Australia who also writes the Thrifty Gardens column in the Gardening Australia magazine, has worked in nurseries, as a landscape designer and a radio broadcaster.
She spent every weekend for a year bulldozing and then rebuilding a friend's garden in West Footscray.
She drives me to this garden and shows how she planted up the driveway not by digging it up but by creating raised beds out of tyres and bricks that could be removed if the house was ever sold. Out the back, rather than discard a Balinese-style pagoda inherited from the previous owners, she moved it and converted it into a chook shed. She built a pond ringed with ragged pieces of concrete dug up on site and planted with delicate-looking water lilies and nardoo.
This garden features strongly in the book, which is all about encouraging people to do a lot with a little, to experiment, to push their luck. "If the premium month for sowing carrots has passed, don't wait until next year – it is always worth having a go," Ross writes. As the title suggests, thrift is the underlying theme and there are clear instructions on designing, building (everything from chook runs to wicking beds), propagating and planting. There are sections on the renter's garden, planting in the street and how to make potting mix and deal with pests – everything it takes to garden like Ross.
But gardening like Ross is a way of life. When she walks her dog she picks up fallen branches for fences that she ties up with bailing twine.
On a building site she learnt to tear roofing iron with her bare hands so as to use castoff bits. Riding her bicycle, she is always scouting for what's being thrown out.
The constant propagating and transplanting too is an experiment in achieving the look she wants, whether it be "nanna-chic", the tropics or edible-ornamental.
"Just because you live in a Mediterranean climate doesn't mean you have to get a Tuscan urn and plant an olive tree in it," she writes. "The garden is yours to play with and it can be anything."
The Thrifty Gardener, $35, ABC Books.