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.


nutmeg said...

I'm like you in the neighbour department! I want my current neighbours to stay forever! It's not that they are perfect (who is?) but they are definitely quiet with an absence of snappy dogs and parties - gosh I'm sounding old!

And not to harp on about the Kingsolver book - but you and her MUST be channeling each other - she devotes a chapter to her asparagus garden and also describes pouring over her seed catalogues! And plants screeds of different tomato types with a massive harvest to boot! (I better stop I'm sounding like her marketing agent).

All the renovation stuff bores the heck out of me - the work done on my own home bores the heck out of me. I have had some sort of reversal in this area of my life. I really don't want the "perfect" home. The constant ordering and making tidy just takes too much energy. Humans seem to really like to dominate nature and ultimately it's to our own detriment. I'd rather spend the energy I have in the garden or reading or some other edifying pursuit - good for the mind and soul.

Go the asparagus bed I say :-)

Tamsin said...

Kris, you write so beautifully leaving a comment is somewhat daunting! I love the idea of marking out your commitment to place with asparagus. Maybe you'll mark out a commitment to your neighbour's place as well - I seem to remember Jackie French writing about it's invasive tendencies. A very personal subterranean protest at the blandness of 'urban renewal'perhaps?

Nutmeg, I have to agree with you! We had builders here today finishing off a little reno that was started what seems like years ago now, back in the days when I used to buy Vogue Living and aspired to a caesarstone benchtop (I thought). But this morning I found myself wishing that they would go away and never, ever come back, and leave us to our lovely quiet and very modest life, complete with falling down kitchen and sub standard benchspace. Because frankly, I don't care about it anymore! I read a wonderful article a year or so ago about an architect couple in Sydney who set out to renovate their old house for the minimum possible cost. With their handmade marine ply kitchen with leather straps for cupboard handles, and giant plastic sails for picture windows it was the most charming and psychologically satisfying interior - rather than inducing a feverish desire to *have it* (sadly, and embarassingly, my normal reaction to home mags) it left me with a quiet curiousity about what we could achieve, with our own hands and imagination, if only we put our minds to it.

Jenny said...

We have renovations and extensions going on all around us and I can't understand why people want to be continually allowing strangers into their homes to make them over into something from a magazine. So many homes feel uninhabited even when the family are there and I think it's because the people who live there have let someone else tell them how their home should be rather than live in it and letting their home and their lives dictate how things should be. I guess I mean it should be an organic process over time and not necessarily needing structural changes. And don't get me started on people filling in beautiful and potentially productive backyards with sterile little home units. YUCK.