Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Well hello there

First jonquil of the season.

It's a jungle out there

It's been dramatically cold here for the last week or so. Brave, late roses have been snap frozen, the rhubarb has been battered down by hard frosts and walking out the door we are faced with such expanses of white it's easy to believe it snowed in the night.

Most dramatically of all, we came home on Friday to hot water cascading down the walls. The pipe in the roof had burst under pressure from the frozen water, flooding the back section of the house: books destroyed, cds soaked, carpets and lino sodden, walls and ceilings marked. It was a domestic catastrophe. So the weekend, which was to be filled with fun and friends, was spent in a motel at night and in a freezing deunded house during the day as we grappled with the people who descend when these things happen.

The garden was a blessing. Al, with Nell on his back, dealt with assessors as they assessed and an army of tradies who quoted, ripped things up, blew things dry, put things in and told us we should probably re-wire and it will cost about $7000 (sob!). Lucy and I spent a good five hours out of the way, out the back. I enriched the asparagus bed, built up and green manured last season's corn beds, poured on generous amounts of liquid fertiliser, made my own weed tea and tied up various floppy things. A productive day.

Lucy was even busier. She helped with the sowing (according to her, all the seeds were corn kernals - a not so subtle hint about summer plantings?) but basically did her own thing. She scooped octopi out of the spinach beds (a great help - those critters wreak havoc among the seedlings), fed 'happy beetles', caught the bus all over the place, buzzed me with her helicopter, took me for a few rides on her patrol boat, made dozens of lattes in her cafe down by the proteas, swam a few laps with Otto up near the strawberries, designated me 'Pete' [Cundell] and helped me with the wheelbarrrow (which to an untutored eye looks like a bucket) and had other amazing adventures.

Sharing time and space with Lu reminded me of the importance of gardens in my own childhood. My earliest memories are set in a garden: I can see Dad laughing at my face as I ate a radish when I was not much older than Lu; I remember again and again sucking the water from the hose and then scooting around the corner to wee next to the tap - such a tickley, naughty feeling! It's a joy to see Lu build her inner life through gardens, just as I did, although the foci are different. I spent my days making fairies out of flowers and building nests for kittens; Lucy more often than not re-enacts dramtic moments from Skippy (usually casting herself as Jerry) and does a lot of work with heavy machinery.

When I'm writing these things down. I'm conscious of the threads we are weaving together, threads that give form to the histories of my family's gardens, and our life together. I'm also aware that these histories are largely untold. Thanks to my Grammy, who anecdotalises everything, I've grown up with stories about life in my mother's extended family. I know a lot about my father's family too, because he's a bit of a family history buff, and because the lives of our forebears were bound up in the geo-politics Dad finds so interesting. But I know almost nothing of the gardens that must surely have played such a big role in the domestic lives and wellbeing of Mum and Dad and their mothers and fathers, and so on down the line. Gardening is a big theme of social history, but I suspect it's largely lost in our own family histories. Yet understanding how our people gardened might give us a stronger sense of who they were and are, and perhaps, why we do the things we do. It's fascinating to know that my great grandfather saw the pyramids in WW1 but I'd like to know if his wife grew a choko vine over the chicken shed.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The asparagus bed

Winter is a time of dreaming and planning for the glorious and productive summer that surely lies ahead. I browse the seed catalogues and make long lists of the two dozen tomato varieties I will pack into my backyard, the lettuces and beans that will make my family's meals- and our lives - a richer and more interesting experience. I measure the success of my summer garden in part by how well it matches the gardens of my mind.

Three winters ago I thought about planting an asparagus bed but three seasons seemed too long to wait for any real harvest. Two years ago I thought about planting an asparagus bed but three seasons seemed too long to wait for any real harvest. A year ago I thought about planting an asparagus bed but three seasons seemed too long to wait for any real harvest. And now I think I will plant an asparagus bed because this winter I could have had asparagus if I'd had the patience; three years is a long time to wait but it goes quickly, and the sooner it begins the sooner that wait is over.

When I was growing up, asparagus only existed in cans. My father's vegetable garden was productive but prosaic - all broad beans and silverbeet (both of which we children refused to eat). Growing asparagus seems rather exotic and very sophisticated, and like most vegetables, it is most remarkable when it is run from the garden to the pot. But asparagus has another, more symbolic meaningn my life: it's a commitment to place. Apparently, the crowns will produce for around fifteen years if treated with respect and a little care - when a gardener plants those crowns into the richly fertilised soil (lots of kitchen scraps, compost and manure and maybe some seaweed for my lot) they are in it for the long haul.

My neighbour, Norma, from across the road has an asparagus bed. It's one section in her highly disciplined yard where everything is in its place and even the poppies stand to attention down the drive. That bed has been there a while, and Norma has lived in her house even longer. I'm not sure, but I think she might have been born there. Her uncle built the house and ours as well, and he planted the flowering gum on our verge. Norma tells us our house was built -and our gum planted - in the mid-thirties. She says it has always been cold in the winter, the man before us didn't take care of the garden and had too many dogs, and before him the owners planted some ill-conceived natives (which we've had the expense of removing). Norma is worried about the boys who live in the house beside us - they park their muddy utes on the road and generally cheapen the tone of the neighbourhood (which is not that high falutin' to begin with, truth be told). Norma swaps information with the old lady two doors down from us who has lovely roses and feeds our cat on the sly, and she grumbles with the older woman on the side street about the annoyingly aggressive dog on the corner. Norma takes an interest in what's going on because this little stretch is her community; her asparagus bed is one little symbol of her part in this place, and the role of this place in her life.

So planting my asparagus bed is saying something. It's saying "I will stay". The act also commits me to take care of my land, because a garden only lasts as long as its owners care for it. And I think that in making a commitment to a house and garden, I'm making a commitment to my neighbourhood and the larger community in my own small way.

We live in an area that is being tarted up. You can track the progress house by house, street by street. It may be posher to describe the new paint jobs as gentrification but I think that's not quite the right word. Gentrification happened when the middle classes renovated their own aged properties in run down areas ("sweat equity" - such a sticky and hopeful kind of a phrase) and stayed at least a while before realising great gains on their capital investment. There were big debates on the social and economic inequities that can arise in these situations but I guess maybe people cared a little more about their particular place. In the streets surrounding my house it's a slightly different process: a lick of paint, a no nonsense kitchen and bathroom reno, occasionally another residence built on a parcel of land that was once the large and productive backyard, and then a quick asphalting of the space surrounding and ta da: a 'town house alternative' and a nice little rental earner.

I fully appreciate the need to make money, and property is a classic way of doing this. But it makes me kind of sad as well, in all sorts of different ways. For the moment, I'll stick to garden-related disappointments. Asphalt is eminently sensible and very symbolic. It makes a space tidy and it makes a comment about the time and effort that space is worth. We are all so busy, busy, busy. Our lives are lived outside of the home - there's little time for gardens and no time for the space and community around us. When I walk past a house with its new deep black covering, I feel that people are saying 'We don't really live here, we just stay now and then'. And heaven knows I'll never be one for block parties or chats over the back fence (example exchange:
Kris: I can't believe they sold next door. It's a young couple. What if they have a barking dog and all these builders who start work at 5 am?
Al: It could be really good. They could have little kids. Every new neighbour is a potential new friendship.
Kris: I was just thinking every new neighbour is a potential pain in the arse. That's where we're different, you and me.)

but I like the idea that we all care about and for the spaces we share, visually share if not legally, and want to protect the good and unique things about them. I feel 'low maintenance' says "I'm ugly and I don't care that you think so too".

These new garden-less homes also make me think of the status of renting in our society. Renting is insecure, with people inhabiting places only until the landlord decides it's time to make a killing on the place. Denying a garden denies the possibility that people want to stay put and invest in a place, it denies that people can be trusted to care for a place, it suggests that kids and pets are not welcome, or at least have no claim to a stimulating place of their own. I think in effect it rejects the notion that landlord and tenant could have a shared interest in caring not just for the structure but for the community in which it is located. In the end it reinforces the notion that renters are just passing through on their way to the more worthy tenure of home ownership, even as that endpoint slips out of the reach for so many people, or comes at a frighteningly high financial and emotional cost.

These are things I am saddened by. And that is why I'm planting an asparagus bed.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Kate from Our Red House has tagged me for the 5 things meme. I'm sitting here killing time at 5.45 in the morning, wondering why when I've got the chance to sleep my body says 'No'. The internet comes into its own: quiet and in a warm room.

So here are my thoughts.

5 Things in My Fridge
I find this list rather uninspiring (see post below). It would sound much more exciting on Saturday after we shop.
1. Litres of milk, like every mother
2. Gherkins, one of the few vegetables Lu will eat (stretching the definition of vegetables here)
3. Leftovers for today's lunch
4. Butter - unsalted and spread thickly on pretty much anything
5. A few sad and unloved vegetables that have made it to the last day of the shopping cycle.

5 Things in My Handbag
Very little.
1. Keys to home and office. These are often not in my bag but misplaced by me or taken by Lu as she goes to drive her helicopter, get on the plane, lock herself in the cupboard or drive the car down to the chemist for some tablets.
2. Ventolin puffer - thanks inversion layer!
3. Wallet that is falling apart but I'm too tight to replace
4. Scratched sunglasses I will lose sometime over the weekend
5. Spent bus tickets

5 Things in My Wardrobe
Loads more than 5 things as I love clothes. So, four things that give me pleasure, for the memories they spark and for their bargain nature, and one other thing:
1. Pink and green cowboy shirt ($2 from the big City Mission store here in Lonnie, before it burned down)
2. Pastel embroidered cotton shirt ($5 from Valley markets, Brisbane)
3. Black crocheted cardigan ($10 Paddington markets, Sydney)
4. Paddington bear coat (5 pounds from a closing down retro store in Brighton, U.K.)
5. A tangle of shoes in the bottom of the cupboard (all full price and embarrassingly expensive)

5 Things in My Car
I don't drive but I get driven around a lot.
1. Discarded kids' shoes
2. Discarded kids' hats
3. Crumbs, many, many crumbs
4. Canvas bags for the grocery shopping
5. The "city run around" stroller - yellow and zippy and it actually fits in the car, unlike the great big Valco, which is the pram equivalent of a four wheel drive: poor handling, top heavy, and I keep running into people when I use it.

Pilates, work then weekend! Little plans for the garden, big plans for op shops, walks in the forest and making bread.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Kris: What would you say to the word "aquaponics"?
Al: I think I'd just give a long suffering sigh.
Kris: It's just, I want to start eating more food made locally.
Al: We don't have to go that local.

How many great visions have been quashed by those with small minds?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Thought for the day

He who has a garden and a library, wants for nothing. (Cicero)

I'd put a 'S/' at the beginning of the sentence, and 'family' in the middle, but otherwise, I say 'yes, yes, yes'.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Inelegant sufficiency

On the nights when we aren't too tired to talk, Al and I cover the same four or five topics of conversation: 'why our girls are just so great'; 'how tired are you?'; 'we've got to stop eating so many chips'; and 'we have to save more money' (this last topic, which admittedly grows out of the third, often evolves into our fifth all time favourite thing to talk about: how do people on the mainland do it? So the following thoughts should be read in the knowledge that I have some inkling about how lucky I really am). After humming and umming aahing, we come to conclusion that we must stop spending so much on groceries. But a lot of grocery items are non-negotiable in our household: vast quantities of milk, nappies (we've tried and failed at cloth); dog and cat food, Red Hen for the chooks. There's not a lot of money left for actual food. Currently, we are very much in the mode of buying the basics and cutting the costs, in time honoured tradition of young families. Organic is out, expensive is out, diversity is out. When it comes to the question of food, this makes me feel like I'm less of a mother than I could and should be.

Since I went back to work I do most of the family cooking on a Saturday. After we come home from the weekly shopping I set up the ingredients on the bench and food process like a Fury. No more leisurely chopping of the garlic, no more meditations on what meal best balances our diet and suits my mood tonight. I get out the Big Oskar and blend up onions, then carrots, then zucchini and then mix them up into various big meals that are varied only in the spices I use to flavour them and the amount of powdered stock I add: chilli, pasta, soup. They're bagged and frozen and they save on washing up, time, and general stress of trying to cook during the witching hour with two little people demanding to be held. Very efficient and not at all inspiring.

This routine has been the cause of some soul searching. The way we eat is in part political and we are frustrated and disappointed by our failure to live by the ethical standards we hold in the abstract. But that's another story for another time. At this stage in our lives I have a more immediate concern.

Once, when Al was shopping in an inner city Coles, we heard a mother coo to her child, 'Baby want baba ghanoush?'. The way he tells the story, that baby will someday morph into a precious little princess who won't sleep on the pea not because it is uncomfortable but because it is frozen and Savings brand and not produced by some salt of the earth fifth generation farmer who is rugged in a picturesque (and not pre-cancerous) way. But the other day, as Lu dropped a tantrum in the deli, screaming 'I want a latte', I realised I was that mother. And it's not (only) because I am some painful, image oriented, conspicuous consumption driven yuppy. There is a personal and emotional significance in what we are eating, and more specifically, what we are feeding Lu (at seven months, Nell remains loyal to my breasts). When I make a meal I am making a statement about family, love, the kind of memories I want to offer my child, and the kind of person I want her to be. My aim is healthy and beautiful food, diverse and challenging tastes, and a shared and sensual joy over what sustains us. I am achieving somewhat less than this. And in my failures - and I do see them as failures - I feel I am cheating my kids of a wonderful dimension of life.

A friend of mine tells me I am simply caught up in the consumption myths and snobbery attached to food. It's all very well to educate your child's palate but it's hardly an essential component of a good citizen or healthy body. The pastoral images of organic foods don't quite match the realities of what Michael Pollan terms Big Organic. In truth, I like it when my girl eats persian feta or ligurian olives because I think those tastes reflect something about me: my attention to detail as a mother, my income level, my own cosmopolitan worldview - all bases upon which people in my social networks are judged.

But now I am thinking back to my own childhood. Both Al and I come from families where mushrooms and asparagus were dredged out of tins. I grew up in a place and time when Chinese recipe books suggested the substitution of sherry for soy sauce. My meals were governed by food rules: jam on Sundays only; a cream and plain only from the Assorted Creams box; two scoops of ice cream for dessert, drawing across all three of the Neopolitan colours; ten cents worth of mixed lollies on Saturdays; a third of a cup of watered down pineapple juice from the great big Golden Circle tins. Never once did I think I was not loved, and it never occurred to me that my horizons were too narrow in their failure to incorporate anything but the most pedestrian of foods at meal times and in between times.

Indeed, my memories of childhood are scattered with moments of food bliss. I remember a working bee on a cold and drizzly weekend day, the men from the parish setting up an iron plate across bricks, over a fire, and slapping together hamburger patties (they would surely have been plain brand), white bread, Kraft singles and a splodge of tomato sauce: the cheese melted into the meat and all that processed protein was squished together into something so satisfactory and sensual I remember it, and not the first time I ate a properly aged cheddar or a good cut of steak, blue. I remember the chocolate sponges I would make in a heart shaped tin - sophisticated! Dad's fried rice with gherkins, served out at the table with each child counting how many of those tiny tinned prawns were on the others' plate. My first smoked eel, caught by one of the local farmers. The bacon slaughtered and smoked by my Dad. Picking at the left overs of Mum's standby flash dinner party fare: tomato and crab soup (with cream and tabasco sauce), lasagne with lots of white sauce, and some kind of dessert made of cream, instant coffee and milk arrowroot biscuits. Every birthday cake from age seven, all made from the Woman's Weekly Birthday cookbook (except that one year Mum turned a four litre tub of vanilla ice cream out on a plate and stuck some candles and jelly babies on it - the shame!). This is my own, idiosyncratic list, and it might make others shudder - indeed, it's not stuff I'd ever touch now, except for the eel - but by golly I loved food. Each morning I would walk out to the breakfast table and ask what was for dinner. My mother, who hated cooking, never once threw the porridge at me for this - a mark of her loving and forbearing nature.

I guess it doesn't really matter to Lucy if the bolognese sauce hasn't simmered for five hours. Really, she'd be perfectly content eating plain spaghetti, gherkins and chocolate ice cream. I have to remember that what she really likes, more than any particular food, is spending time with her mum in the kitchen, tasting each component of the recipe, begging butter as a 'special treat' and sneaking her finger in the salt. If that's as far as her horizons stretch, well that's just fine. I guess.

Sunday, June 3, 2007


My goodness work is hard work! After the bedtime routine and general tidying up it's all I can do to flop on the couch until Al chases me to bed at around 9pm. Weekends are a little different, what with the slight sleep in and time for bumbling and faffing, and today I felt positively bursting with energy. I didn't waste it either; Lu and I rushed out to the garden and set to work. Lu made flower hats for the birds, thinning the cabbage leaves for her millinary endeavours, and I finished my big job from last weekend: the new compost heap.

Compost has been a mystery to me. Every organic gardening book claims it is as easy as can be but so far in my gardening career every heap has been an abject failure, sitting brooding in the corner of the yard, defying my attempts to coax a transformation into something sweet smelling and worthy. Of course, past failures might be due in part to my disinterest in detailed instructions, particularly when they involve even the most rudimentary maths. My eyes always swept over those carbon: nitrogen ratios. Bu it turns out, there's something to them after all.

Last Sunday, after girding my loins for a good four months, I started the heap. I had gathered piles of autumn leaves and the sweepings from the chicken coop, plus a big load of horse manure. I've been engaging in brinkmanship with the weeds, letting them get big and bushy to up the nitrogen in the heap, without letting them set seed. I collected the grass clippings from the front yard and various scraps from around the place and then mixed them altogether in something approximating the right ratio. It looked lovely:

Still following instructions, today I pulled the whole mess out and tossed it back in. I've never actually taken this step before, on account of it sounding just so hard. And it is. Composting is a tiring business. The pile had settled down on itself and needed some serious pitch forking to loosen it up and send it out of the bay. But it was a pleasant place to be on a chilly Sunday morning. All those ratios work, and the pile was steaming and really quite cosy, if you're the kind of person who doesn't mind standing around in manure and muck (I find few things as satisfying). Now, it's all back in, and ready to rot down into something that will lure that cute Josh Byrne into the backyard for some down and dirty fun....

Heady with righteousness and the buzz of physical labour, I then planted some bushes to attract some birds to the yard. Sparrows flock to our place in huge numbers but recently I've noticed some shy little fellows bobbing about, and I have plans to make a home for some pretty little finches that hang around up the hill. I'm not a bird person, really, but there's something very satisfying knowing my home is a haven for those beyond my family; let's hope these kind feelings sustain me when the birds use the bushes as launching pads for their raids on the fruit trees this summer.

Until recently I had some pretty bad back problems that arose from two children in quick succession, and the general heavy lifting and juggling that is part of motherhood. The physio told me that with care and the right exercise things would evetually come good, but there's always a fear that the pain will become chronic. I'm very lucky and very thankful that it has not. Today, with the pitchfork and spade, I felt vigorous.

My own vim is echoed by that of the garden at the moment. I've always thought winter was a cold and flat time - our culture is filled with those images (which is so silly, given that so much of Australia doesn't even get frost). But my plantings are starting to look stocky and strong, pushing ahead despite - and sometimes because of - the dropping temperatures. The broad beans are up:

The cabbages are positively glowing:

These lupins, planted for green manure, are my favourite plant at the moment. Lucy broadcast them (and sneakily dumped them in some idiosyncratic spots) and they are thrusting forth all over the place.

The new plants push the seed up as they rise from the ground, so each is wearing a small helmet. They have the look of a company of soldiers, standing straight to attention, though their parade ground formations might get them some time scrubbing the latrines. A good thing they're with me, then - their lot is one of praise and admiration from their biggest and besotted fan.

Eating from the garden: some more walnuts, dropped down in the winds (next door's yard is covered with them; is it breaking and entering to hop the fence and liberate the nuts from their uncaring owners?); spinach andparsley snuck into some vegetable bread in an attempt to trick some veggies in Lucy's body; and rhubarb for breakfast.