Approaching the last few months of living at this rented house, it highlights how something like gardening is about things that go on. Planting and cultivation for a harvest weeks or months into the future offers an understanding of time that seems to contradicts the logic of short-term leases and moving house. While we’ve planted gardens, we’ve selected varieties that we hope we can harvest before we leave. Sophie and I have wanted to plant fruit trees, but have contented ourselves with potted dwarf varieties, getting established until we find a patch of land to call our own.
I an effort to set up the garden as self-managing system, I plant and seed profusely and allow plants to self-seed once they reach the end of their reproductive cycle. Looking at our little herb patch after nine months, it seems now to be approaching this kind of self-managing equilibrium. The self-seeded second generation of some plants have germinated and are growing strongly. The change in season, combined with an occasional flourish of the secateurs, is keeping the more aggressively spreading plants, like mint and epazote, in check.
When we arrived at this house in March, there was one vegetable bed, with corrugated iron sides, and another in a stage of disassembly. The sides had been removed and it sat as an eroding mound in the middle of the lawn. Pete moved the mound into place parallel with the existing bed and made a pile of dirt for the herb garden on the foundations of an old rainwater tank. Our landlords, friends of ours, had two stipulations – don’t do anything that can’t be undone, and leave the lawn.
While the edges of the yard contained evidence of past plantings – a few dried twigs where fruit trees used to be, much of the yard was high grass. We set to building a chook house, complete with two yards. The chooks made short work of the first yard, and we then moved the expanded flock into the second yard to clear that. The first yard, now cleared of grass and manured over several months, has become a Columbian-exchange-themed summer garden, with multicoloured maize, rad fig tomatoes, beans, Jerusalem artichokes, and Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck butternuts. Between the rows I’ve planted red clover as a green manure and nitrogen fixer, and the whole patch is sheltered from the summer sun by a pair of local Blackwoods, with a spreading patch of Warrigal Greens providing additional forage should the chooks get the chance to head back in before we leave.
The seven chickens don’t take long to clear an area, with the second yard now scratched down to dust. Happily however, there are other parts of the garden that are still high with grass and weeds, and we’ve set up a holiday yard for them so they can continue to forage greens during the days. In true permaculture style, I’ve tried to initiate closed loops for the chickens where possible. Grass and weeds harvested from around the yard (including some oats I grew) become feed for the chickens, or are dried for use as bedding in the nesting boxes. Used bedding is then composted, and used on the garden again for the growing of more food. Chook manure is collected too, and I’ve been making a compost tea, and then applying it, heavily diluted on the garden beds. If anyone has any hot tips for making an effective chook manure fertiliser, I’d love to hear from you.
For a while, I considered the driveway our very own “Centre for Weed Diversity”. Over the generous rains of the winter, the forgotten edges of the property (the driveway, under the trees, down the side of the house, the front-yard, grew deep beneath grasses, thistles, and prickly lettuce. Assisted by Pat Collins’ excellent book Useful Weeds at our Doorstep, I realised that these edges were a wealth of edible and medicinal wonders. Chickweed grew voraciously through the herb garden and chook yards, prickly lettuce and sow thistles, both edible, have a foothold, and luminous green dandelions grow along the narrow, sheltered eastern side of the house. Now with the warm weather, purslane has been pushing through in the dry, gravely soil of the garden bed I dug in the driveway – another succulent, wonder plant to be explored. I read somewhere about how in the Andes, the heartland of potato diversity, farmers leave weeds on the edges of their fields in order to encourage cross-pollination with their crops’ wild ancestors, imbuing new configurations of resilience and disease resistance onto the cultivated varieties. Weeds also reflect the principle of ecological succession. In degraded landscapes, pioneer plants – weeds – move in first, opening up the ground with their roots, adding organic matter to the soil through their decomposition, creating the conditions for other life to inhabit. (I remember seeing mallows growing in piles of gravel at a building site, and wondered how long it would be before it was forest).
Tucked behind the shed, and outside the doorway of the ex-outback dunny are a couple of plum trees, a peach and an orange tree. Drawing inspiration from desert genius Brad Lancaster’s book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, I sculpted the ground beneath the trees to gather rain into their root zones. The plum outside Sophie and my bedroom window is heavy with fruit, protected from the lorikeets with empty onion bags.
As the heat hits, we gather the seeds from wild and cultivated rocket, calendula, daikon and French Breakfast radishes, parsley, coriander, calendula and nasturtiums. As our time at this house finishes, hopefully we’ll leave the land a little healthier than when we can, the soil thick with the seed of meals to come.