Sunday, October 28, 2007

No right answer

Kris: What are you doing, Lu?
Lu: Putting peas in Daddy's slippers.
Kris: Why sweetie?
Lu: To protect them from the bees.


Kris: What are you doing, Lu?
Lu: Putting peas in your Birkenstocks, Mummy.
Kris: Why, Booboo?
Lu: Sug. Sog.


There's no pea soup tonight now.


My definition of permaculture - following the spirit more than the letter of the law - is a letting go, a faith that if the land is treated right, then good things will happen. My front garden - mainly flowers at the moment - reminds this approach works.I have planted none of the flowers in the photo below. They've come on the wind, some from the tidy garden of the old lady down the road, some from the block of flats over the fence, others out of the side garden of the neighbours on the top-side. It possible the colour scheme is not subtle, the contrasts in foliage not sufficiently striking, but there's a great deal of joy to be had, coming home to this:

There's also joy to be had in looking more closely at the Granny's bonnets that have come to stay with us, and the forget-me-nots as well. Common, sure, but who doesn't want stars sprinkled where lawn used to be?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Deep in the heart of the jungle

I love my garden. Too often, my focus is on the future rather than in the present: what will I plant (roses or magnolias in the side bed; native shrubs or sunflowers against the back fence? - such awful dilemmas!); what needs to be done and when, and how will I find the time? I have a tendency to think about my garden in terms of getting things done, especially when my life becomes a series of getting things done, as it currently is. But of course, my joy comes not from ticking off an item on the "to plant in October" list but from being physically and mentally in the moment I am in.

When I focus down, I am struck by the small things - the mix of flowers, the growing vegetables, the changing needs of the space. I fall in love with the minutiae of my land.

When I look up I sometimes catch my breath at the abundance of my garden - all that green and promise, all the good things to eat and the sanctuary it offers to me and the critters who share the space.

I'm also struck that Al's reservations about the number of plants I squeeze into the space are not unfounded. This summer, there's a good chance we're going to lose the girls in there. They'll emerge two weeks later, brown and wild, bellies stuffed with raspberries, peaches and beans.


Today in yoga we did an extended series of oms, lasting a good five minutes. Such an amazing set of vibrations as the group slipped into harmony. And in my imagination, vibrant and real, beans and passionfruit vines climbed teepee supports and exploded in whirls of greens, growing into a huge and flowering tree. Very 70s, very trippy. That's what you get when a gardener pushes herself perhaps just a little too hard in yoga, I guess. I'm off to stick something into the ground, to make this happen.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Worth waiting for

Ever since we decided to have kids, Al and I have looked forward to certain moments: gardening with the girls; Saturday morning soccer; and waking up to morning cuddles in our bed. For Al in particular, this last represents all that is most delightful about parenting.

This morning, I woke to see for the first time a small figure walking across the room, to feel a little body climb up and snuggle down with her head on my pillow, a hand stroking my face, and to hear that dear voice chatting on. Then Nell woke, and I pulled her into the bed, and watched and listened as my two daughters touched and tickled and spoke to each other, Lu taking the role of spokeswoman and reporting Nell's weather preferences: "Nellie likes rain, Mama, and she loves thunder and she LOVES the ice, she loves to crunch and munch it". This morning was one of the best of my life.

As for Al, well he missed the whole thing because he had been sent to the couch after getting home late from bowling (bowling ironically, of course) with a few beers in him, which means a high probability of snoring, which I cannot abide. He did however, win two of his games and match the top score for the South Launceston bowling league, so it may well have been worth the sacrifice of his family dream.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Farm fresh

I really like words, always have. My grammar can be a little idiosyncratic and numbers are just kind of a confusing blur to me but words, well they're an endless source of fascination and delight. Big ones (phosphorescence, obnubilated), little ones (zo, la), old ones (wimple), new ones (though not so much), the romantic (desire, fable), the prosaic (bum - say it aloud, bum) and words that sound like I've got it wrong (scumble, grabble, ruddle) - they're a joy in my life.

I grew up in a household of words: four kids talking, shouting, teasing; a father who is ruthless in Scrabble; a mother whose constant refrain was - is - "just wait till I've finished the chapter"; a grandmother who offered me up the joys of Georgette Heyer when I was ten ("La sir, that you would be so bold!"). So I admit, I can be a little precious, sometimes pedantic, and oh so slightly judgmental when it comes to which word is used where and for what purpose. Woe to those who are thoughtless in their use of a thesaurus (does that sound like something from Gilbert and Sullivan?), who replace one word for another with no regard for nuance or rhythm.

So it is perhaps not so very surprising that I was a little pissed off the other day when I bought some carrots from the little farmers' market down the road. It's a source of confusion and disappointment to me that Tassie, with its foodie image, has no exciting food markets. You can buy kites and Born to Ride t-shirts from an trestle table outdoors on a Sunday but it's impossible to locate a baby beetroot. So I was excited when the local deli set up a market in their car park. It's tiny but it has a cake lady for Lu and Nell (who like bright blue icing and sprinkles resembling shards of glass on their cupcakes), an older woman selling jams that make me stop still when I taste them, and a purveyor of Lost Seeds and intriguing herbs. It also has a seller of farm fresh veggies and wanting to buy local, I picked up some carrots. Farm fresh carrots. Fresh from the farm. But which farm? Turns out, one outside Toowoomba, which is oh, thousands and thousands of miles from where I live. And judging by the taste, they weren't so much carrots as woody orange things in a rudely amusing shape.

Caveat emptor and all that, but surely there's just a leetle false advertising going on here? I think farmers' markets are becoming less and less about promoting and personalising a connection between the producer and consumer and more of a general claim to worthiness, like 'all natural', which doesn't really stand up to close inspection. As the rise of Big Organic reminds us, any attempt to subvert the system just gets assimilated right back in. That's the genius and the horror of advanced capitalism, even when practiced in a small carpark in a regional centre at 10am on a Sunday morning.

I'll check the labels in future, and won't go back to that stall. But really, I can't judge the man too harshly - 'farm fresh' is a much stronger selling point than 'I couldn't shift them by 2pm yesterday and they'll be on the decline by Monday'.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The shock of the new

There are changes afoot in my neighbourhood, which have brought my concerns about lost gardens and space to the fore. When we first moved to to our area, it was touted in the real estate literature as "bohemian south" (bohemian = run down rental properties), now it is "on the fringes of the city" or "a short walk to the Paris end of Charles St" (Paris end of Charles St = two cafes and a bakery, with seating outside, how European!). One by one the houses along the streets leading to ours are getting paint jobs and the ubiquitous new french doors + back deck combo. The overlooked spaces are disappearing under big houses with teeny tiny yards, and generally, there's a lot of people drawing down their housing equity to tart things up a little. It is not an over-statement to say I hate it.

I do admit this response is partly because I am curmudgeonly and suspicious of change. Also, I'm frugal and am not comfortable with people drawing down equity, which isn't real money - just possible profit - to transform their perfectly functional houses into boring sameness, pushing up my interest rates in the process. In part, I like my space, any old space, but especially that which holds mystery and delight within it, and find I this is fast disappearing.

In part, my concern is aesthetic - I like the humble, the tumbledown, the rough around the edges (Lu said to me yesterday, sounding concerned, "I don't want to move in to a dump, Mummy", which isn't as crazy as it sounds - each dump for me holds great possibility; Lu on the other hand, likes impersonal motels and stainless steel - these kids, always rebelling).

But there are other more symbolic and less personal issues informing my grumbling about the McMansions across the way.

Richard Sennett - a deeply under-rated sociologist, but aren't we all? - talks about the city as a place for encouraging tolerance. As we move through the space, confronted in a real way by difference, we learn to live with and indeed look for diversity in our lives. In a time of great social change, with ongoing debates about who 'we' let in, and what 'they' should believe, every day in cities we come across the Other, the stranger, and on the street they become people, transformed from the bogeymen on our imaginations and political rhetoric.

But others have pointed to the rise in gated communities, high front fences and underground carparks, drive throughs, the reliance on cars, and even ipods as indicators of our growing reluctance to face difference in our communities. We barricade ourselves from threat, discomfort, distaste, and in so doing we add to, rather than protect, ourselves from the fragmentation of our social worlds. If we unplugged our ipods and took a bus, the world would seem a lot less scary place.

I'm thinking the same things about how we treat our surrounds. I don't like the big houses with their high fences and paved or pebbled yards because they refuse to acknowledge any world but the one they have created in their boundaries. Things are hard edged, clear cut, with no blurring between inside and out, then and now, wild and tame.

For me, they are the architectural equivalent of the bubble world that hides us from social interaction; the bricks and mortar protects the inhabitants from acknowledging we share our space with others: present others, past others, and others who are not people at all.

Where I live, when flash new houses are built, a piece of the past is erased. The footprint of an old house is destroyed by the earth movers, the previous gardens trampled, and the needs of current creatures - the birds and bugs and furry things - are utterly denied.

It smacks of a disdain for the history of the place, and a discomfort with the messiness of our environment. Little Jenny Wren mentioned in my last post an old rose that has been destroyed as new flats go up - is it hard-heartedness or a lack of imagination that allows people to deny that which has gone before? We all want to make our lots our own - a woman's home is her castle after all, and her garden her realm - but there's a decided lack of co-operation in how we go about this.

I know in our busy, busy lives there's not much time for gardening, but why does this translate into no interest in our space and those who share it? And the time argument's a bit of a furphy anyway. As I walked by a new lot of lego houses, scowling and muttering, I saw the shell of an in-ground pool awaiting installation. I've had the misfortune of house sitting places with pools, and the skimming, chemical-ing and creepy-crawling take up far more time than my garden does, and for no great return. I also raised my eyebrow at the idea of an in-ground pool in a town where swimming is only very for the strong (or well-insulated) and in a state in drought. The rest of the yard covers its shame in pebbles and paving - all of which will require a lot of up-keep and weed-killer to keep the green bits at bay -

- and there's no inch given for the birds and the bees. But somehow, it's just fine to install one of the most unnecessary and environmentally useless domestic features currently available to home owners. It's enough to drive a scruffy, organic suburban householder to tears.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Protecting the environment, one forgotten scrap at a time

I am always struck, when reading any social history of fruit and veggies, by the decline of biodiversity in our food world. All those thousands of apple varieties, culled to a few dozen, the tomatoes lost to history, the potatoes never to be dug and eaten with butter and chives again. Where do they go? I understand the structures that lead to their loss: the corporatisation of the production and selling of food, transportation, subsidies and governance, and our expectation that food bills should be as small as possible, regardless of the larger costs. But where do the plants go when they're not wanted anymore?

I guess the orchards are bulldozed and the old backyard gardens paved over. But surely some hardy specimens remain in the cracks in the fence or down the back paddock, left to endure by chance or laziness or a lack of money to sub-divide. It's the dream of every gardener, isn't it, to stumble across a lost variety, just as those who love art hopes to find an old John Glover shoved in behind the beer fridge in a tumble down garage, and those who thrift believe one day they will discover a Clarice Clift teapot going for $2 at the Salvos down the road. Once plant hunters traveled the globe for the new, now we peer over back fences in search of the old.

Or at least, I do. There're things in my neighbourhood I don't see elsewhere, the remnants of gardens destroyed. Apple trees are dotted about the place and on the verges freesias and sparaxis grow in great drifts.

Many grow at the bottom of slopes, I suspect pushed down from the higher places by the landslips and deluges that wiped out the houses to which they once belonged. Some of these freesias I've not seen in the catalogues. They're not the sweet scented albas, and bear no resemblance to the large and bold varieties offered at 40 cents a bulb. Some have particularly caught my attention: mauve and gold, brushed in sepia tones, they are the flowers of a grandmother's wedding bouquet. Hardy and humble and not at all common (in all meanings of the word).

These plants bear a strange relationship to their environment: they're introduced and now naturalised; they're a product of suburbanization and now in threat from it as the council seeks ways to stablise the land for new sub-divisions, and 'cleans out' the growth in the name of neatness and hygiene. So I've started to collect some bulbs, scrambling down the slopes with Jasper the dog following enthusiastically (there could be a ball down there!).

I'm planting them in the garden as a token of things past, as an acknowledgment of what my environment contains within it now, and as protection against the loss of diversity and difference that will no doubt follow in the future.

I don't think this is helping the Amazonian rainforests or the loss of Australia's river systems. I'm not stopping a pulp mill (but then no one else is either). It's just a few flowers next to the road and in the traces of backyards. I doubt they're a lost flower, even though I can't place them, but even the commonplace becomes rare, as our agricultural past reminds us. Maybe one of my scraps will become The Flower That Saved Our World. Or maybe they'll stand as a reminder to the few who remember that there was a time when there was space for surprise and overgrowth and delight.

There are, of course, other very good reasons for keeping things just the way they are. You don't get this in 'townhouse alternative' living:

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Lu has built a pile - 'a sandcastle bed' - out of the materials lying in my study, waiting to be transformed into beautiful and useful things. She is falling into it, saying "I am softing into my bed", over and over again.

Sometimes she gets it just right. Working my way through piles - literally - of work, with limited sleep due to Nell's sleep struggles, I want so much to soft into my bed.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Straight line sewing

Al bought me a sewing machine for Christmas last year (at my request, not in a fit of 1950s patriarchal present buying bastardry), and I had visions of learning to run up idiosyncratic and stylish things for myself and the girls while on mat. leave. It didn't happen and my confidence and motivation slowly drained away. It doesn't help that I don't really care about sewing, I just want to buy beautiful fabrics on the internet and collect retro pillowcases from op shops. I packed away my sewing machine so it didn't stand as a silent reminder of yet another thing I'd failed to do.

But my friend Tamsin gave me a pep talk the other day. She sews but only in straight lines, and she makes lovely, lovely things. So I dragged everything out, found an old skirt pattern for a little girl in my Grammy's stuff (indeed, I think she made it for me when I was tiny) and then figured it's all just common sense and spatial concepts, like a jigsaw. And I did it - I made a skirt. Behold, its glory.

It's very, very wonky, with not much straight line sewing at all. But since Lu never stands still it doesn't matter - it passes as a skirt from the distance.

Pehaps the best thing about the whole process is learning a new skill (except I haven't really learned much, and I'm not at a level to be described as 'skill'). I'm really good at some things and I just keep getting better at them; it's rare to master something new. It's a bit confronting too, because I don't like being a novice, I like to be if not perfect then pretty damn good. In sewing I am neither.

However, I picked up a few things, and I'm listing them here for future reference:

* Ironing paper patterns and materials is probably not just being overly-pernickity
* It's important to know where all pins are at all times
* Straight seams come from straight cutting
* Blunt nail scissors don't facilitate straight cutting

Armed with this knowledge, I'm about to embark on a bag for the deli shopping. I expect to open a store on Etsy by the weekend, and very soon shall be making huge amounts of money selling my wares.

Monday, October 1, 2007

An enthusiastic post on cabbages

Surely the first in the blogosphere?

I can't remember eating much cabbage as a kid but its threat and fug hang over my memories nonetheless, no doubt borrowed from unspecified books about children in slums, boarding schools and other grim scenarios. But still, I planted cabbages - sugarloaf, savoy and red - last autumn, and I'm not sorry I did. I've produced some round and vigorous fellows and we're eating them with great appreciation.

There are so many veggies that I must have in my garden because they taste so much better, more subtle and yet more obvious, more remarkable, than those bought in the shops. Cabbage is turning out to be one of these - who knew? We're eating the sugarloaf after briefly introducing it to the heat on the hob and then mixing it with caramalised red onions, free range bacon, apples, the last of the walnuts, and a splash of apple cider vinegar. On a big white plate, it looks like something from a magazine. I am inordinately proud of feeding my family cabbage. Lucy won't eat it of course - it's not butter or a sausage - but she doesn't seem scared of it. And Nell is enthusiastic because it is a food and at 10 months, she's discovered the wonderful world of solids where everything is YUMMY.

I'm also pleased with my efforts in growing it. I used plastic drink bottles to hide the seedlings from slugs - a real problem in our garden (and in our house, they crawl across the carpet at night. Why? And, eww) - and I think this had the added bonus of acting like a little greenhouse. I planted barley, peas and radishes around the edges of the bed and dill amongst the cabbages. This combination seems to have stymied the often destructive sparrows - you can barely see the cabbages from the air - and totally bushed the slugs who could not possibly find their way through the jungle, let alone scent out the good stuff through all the dill. Lots of compost in the soil to begin, and a couple of trenches of manure between the rows of seedlings but I offered nothing after that - no watering and no liquid manure. Mainly I'm pleased because I'm always a little shocked when something hearts up. All that swelling and hardening (!!) seems so mysterious, and I never trust it will work. (I've re-written this a couple of times now, and it always ends up sounding rude, so I think I'll leave it there for the day.)