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.