Wednesday, July 26, 2006

How It All Began

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Having set a precedent by posting one of my stories last week, I thought I would post another which gives a hint as to how I came to develop my love of gardening. This story was also written a couple of years ago, long before I began blogging, and it was from this story that I took the title for my blog.

A Growing Delight

I would like to be able to say that the garden of my childhood was akin to the delightful displays of flowers, shrubs and trees to be seen in glossy magazines in newsagents and bookshops. But it wasn’t like that at all. Although possibly its very unkemptness held more delights for a child than manicured lawns, flowers in profusion and stately, shady trees. Certainly, I remember it well, from the straggly geraniums to the overgrown hedges, from the tiniest of violets to the row of massive cherry plum trees in full blossom. It was a garden that I could play in, work in, eventually help transform, and ultimately build my own garden from many of those self-same plants, several of which I still have half a century later. (see Photo above.)

The house and garden, with a small orchard on either side, were set on a hilltop at the end of the Strezlecki Ranges in Gippsland, Victoria – a small State in the southeast of Australia. From the front veranda one could see for many miles across the Yannathan Flats and the Kooweerup Swamp to the blue Dandenong Ranges on the horizon. Of course, such a magnificent and uninterrupted view to the north had its downside in the form of hot northwesterly winds in the summertime. Soon after moving to the farm, Dad planted a windbreak of cypress trees down the north and west sides of the larger orchard. These grew quickly and provided wonderful wind protection as well as an impressive backdrop to the ornamental gardens he created years later. Down the south side of this orchard was a row of 10 huge cherry plum trees, already 60 years old. Both orchards contained a motley collection of apple, pear, apricot, plum, quince and fig trees. Some of the varieties are now heritage-listed such as Five Crown, Northern Spy, Rennet and Snow apples. Dad was neither gardener nor orchardist but he managed to prune the trees after a fashion and they produced good quantities of fruit for many years.

The house garden originally contained an assortment of trees and plants, long-neglected and growing wild. Close to the house were two huge Cypresses. They provided shade for the children’s sandpit and cubby house, and the White Leghorn chooks (hens) would try to roost in the branches each night. Their sleep was short-lived however as someone, usually me, would have to dislodge them with a long stick, or climb the tree and shake the branches wildly so that they would fly screeching to the ground and scuttle into the hen house for the night, safe from foxes. The cool ground underneath the trees kept the milk, butter and cheese cool in the summers when we had neither ice-chest nor refrigerator. Two wide stone jars were sunk into the ground under the trees and the perishable foods stayed cool all day. The nearest large plum tree provided similar shade for the meat and Coolgardie safes, where other foods were kept cool.

A row of Lucerne trees bordered the house yard. They were quite pretty with small grey-green leaves and white flowers followed by black seedpods, which split and fell to the ground with an audible snap during the hot weather. The ground was inches deep in seedpods fallen over the years. A very tall, spreading black wattle (Acacia) grew between the outside toilet and the hen house. So large was this tree that when covered in golden blossom in spring it could be seen from nearly a mile away. The trunk produced lots of lovely chewy sap. The cherry plum trees, covered in white blossom, could also be seen from a great distance. My sister commented recently that she has very vivid memories of seeing this long line of plum trees in blossom against a clear blue sky and the almost deafening drone of the millions of bees. She felt at the time that “heaven couldn’t be any better”. I had to agree with her. We loved those trees in blossom and enjoyed the early fruit, but the trees were so big that only the lowest of the plums could be picked and the rest eventually fell to the ground only to be squashed by people, cars and animals. By the end of summer we were very glad when they had all fallen and could be raked up and carted away. However, Mum managed to preserve enough for the following year and also made gallons of jam in the laundry copper, bottling it in brown beer bottles with the necks cut off. I’m not sure where the bottles originally came from; certainly not from Dad as he never touched alcohol, at least not until the children had grown up, and then it was only a light beer shandy at Christmas.

Two fern trees outside the back door had little round curled buds, which unfurled into beautiful long fronds. Grey thrushes sat in the trees in the morning and whistled. How I would love to hear a grey thrush now. There were two large rose bushes in the back garden, both with masses of small white flowers. One bush had really become an overgrown hedge, all intertwined with honeysuckle and wild passionfruit. Many years later one of our dogs died under this hedge from snakebite. I think Flossie was actually bitten elsewhere and crawled under the rose bush to die. In any case, Dad wasn’t taking any chances and he pulled the hedge and a lot of other things out of the garden and thus began its re-creation.

There were fuchsias with swollen red buds just waiting for a child to pop them prematurely, a chrysanthemum with masses of tiny yellow/brown flowers like buttons, and long-legged geraniums with big red flowers. Even as a small child I was allowed to dig in the garden beds and plant whatever I liked. There was one garden bed that I dug and raked so often that the soil resembled talcum powder. It was totally useless for growing plants but the hens loved it for dust baths. Beneath one rose bush grew such pretty tiny violets. It seemed a pity to leave them there unseen so I pulled them out of the ground and planted them somewhere else. Some grew and some didn’t, but my passion for propagating plants was born at the age of seven. Grandma added to this by telling me to “Plant anything. You never know, it might grow”. She would take cut flowers from a vase, bend the stems back about an inch from the end, and stick them in the ground. Sometimes the most unlikely things grew

We didn’t have a lawn, just rough grass at the back, which was tough to mow with a push mower, and the front yard was 90% oxalis. At least the clover-like leaves and little pink flowers were pretty. One plant that I hated was the big, overgrown echium, with long grey felty leaves and big spikes of bright blue flowers. It seemed to be always dry and dusty around this plant, emphasising the general neglect of the garden, and I vowed I would never grow them. Guess what I’ve now planted in my garden? Beautiful, striking, drought-tolerant echiums.

At the bottom end of the smaller orchard was a row of huge sugar gums whose smooth white bark sometimes took on the colours of the setting sun, which we appreciated as a lovely diversion for a few minutes whilst milking the cows in the evening. The washing was hung on long lines in this orchard and sometimes the cows would have to walk under the washing on their way to the cowshed, occasionally carrying away a piece of clothing on their horns.

The lucerne and cypress trees, and all the fruit trees not only provided fruit and shade, but their branches became whatever a child’s fantasy could make of them, and many hours were spent daydreaming in some favourite perches, hidden from the world.

After Flossie died from snakebite under the hedge, Dad cleared it and many other overgrown shrubs and trees, erected new fences, dug garden beds and planted new shrubs and trees. But he didn’t stop at the garden edge; he continued out into the main orchard, where he mowed the grass, removed a few old trees and replaced with them with elms, ashes, camellias and rhododendrons. With the backdrop of the dark green cypress windbreak and the cherry plum trees the whole area soon developed into a spectacular showplace, which we nicknamed “The Park”, and was much admired by visitors and greatly enjoyed by the whole family. Even I didn’t mind spending a whole day mowing and trimming all the new lawns. The new plants in the garden like photinia, viburnum, jacaranda, mint bush, Chinese lanterns, weigelas, fuchsias, hebes, roses and creepers were underplanted with a variety of annuals. These were bought from the nursery, either by the dozen and wrapped in newspaper, or you could buy ten dozen in a wooden tray, called a ‘flat’. By this time, my brother had his own business, carting cattle, and he used to sweep the straw and manure off the decks of his trucks about three times a week into a big heap. These sweepings became the most wonderful compost after a few months, and when spread on the garden several inches deep, produced pansies with stems nearly a foot long. It took me a while to work out why all the native plants died – the soil was too rich for them - but I didn’t like them much anyway, then. Most of the plants had to rely on the rain for water, although I watered the annuals with a bucket and jam tin with holes in the bottom. I must have mislaid many tins because I always seemed to be hammering nails through yet another one. They weren’t the only things I mislaid in the garden. After badgering Dad to lend me a saw to cut back a large fuchsia, he finally gave in and handed over a lovely little saw, saying “Now you will be sure to put it back, won’t you?” I assured him that I would, naturally. Three weeks later I found the saw out on the tankstand where I had left it. Mum and I scrubbed the rust off with steelwool, liberally coated and polished it with fat, and replaced it in the garage. I don’t THINK Dad was any the wiser.

Rarely a shopping trip went by without me bringing home yet more plants, mostly annuals, for the garden. A well-thumbed copy of Yates Garden Guide became my bible as I dreamed of all the flowers that I wanted to grow. The first lady I boarded with during my year in Melbourne gave me two tiny pieces of ivy geranium to take home. I looked at them and thought “They will never grow.” Not only did they grow but we had to keep cutting them back with hedge clippers and carting them away by the barrow load. Those two little cuttings began my love affair with pelargoniums, and ivy geraniums in particular. Today, when pruning my own plants, I vow that I will not plant any more cuttings, but by the end of the day I usually have a polystyrene box with a hundred or so cuttings.

Plants of all description began to multiply in the garden at home, especially anything that could be propagated by cuttings or division. One polyanthus would become six the next year and fifty the year after. I simply couldn’t bear to throw anything away that might grow.

My love of gardening began way back as a child when I was given the freedom to try growing things for myself. I am thrilled that my small grandchildren take such delight in establishing their gardens, encouraged very much by their mother who is a keen gardener and a qualified florist.

Whilst I have some reservations about the ‘garden makeover’ programmes on TV, I think any program that encourages people to think about plants and create an interest in gardening, is not only good for them, but good for the planet as a whole.


Motherkitty said...

My sister, an avid Master Gardener, started gardening around age seven. She had "planted" a box of cookies in the back yard because she wanted a cookie tree. I never liked gardening while growing up because I didn't like to get my hands dirty. And, the dirt contained nasty things like bugs and WORMS. My interest in gardening didn't peak until we bought our own home in 1975. We have spent the past 30+ years working in our yard and I love it. My only wish, however, is that one day my yard will be as lovely as yours or my sister's.

PEA said...

I loved reading your memories of how your interest in gardening's wonderful that you can remember so much and in such detail!! I could picture you as a little girl doing all that stuff:-) My mom was not a gardener and I don't recall any flowers in our wasn't until I got married and we bought our house in 1978 that I took an interest in planting flowers. Now I enjoy it so much and thanks to my blogging friends I've learned so many new things about gardening, especially names of flowers I didn't even know existed! lol Have a wonderful day Alice:-)

Calidore said...

Thank you for sharing another snippit from your early years. My Grandma sounds a lot like yours. She would plant anything, anywhere and most of the time it grew. It used to drive me nuts when I came home from school to find Grandma had planted another plant in MY garden bed. Now I just wish she was here to see what I have created and to offer advice.
Thanks for sharing your story.

DellaB said...

My introduction to gardening was working with my mother in North Queensland shortly after the end of the war. She tried to grow just about everything; vegetables and flowers and tropical fruit, it wasn't easy with the climate and the wildlife, the possums and goannas and flying foxes. wow - thanks for the memory Alice.

Daisy Lupin said...

I do love your stories, you should collect them all together in a book of short stories and publish them. I just loved reading about your old garden. Love xx

HORIZON said...

You were so lucky to grow up in a family that enjoyed the outdoors and gardening in particular Alice. Liked the talc. soil and how your mum helped clean up the saw-lol. So so many plants, l know who to call when l have a question!
No one else in my whole family seems to garden- l am very much self taught and everyday am still learning. My ultimate place to be is in the garden- just the quiet and the feel of the soil, to see your plants grow- there is nothing like it! I am glad that l have shared these things with my children just as your dad did with you. Hope now that they will enjoy the garden in the years ahead.
I really enjoyed reading your memories. :)
ps- l still have not got around to writing you back- sorry- there just does not seem to be enough time in the day at the moment. Will do asap.
Take care xx

Anonymous said...

Wow. I remember going to visit my Great Grandmother in her house in Gippsland, Victoria. We would walk around her gardens and pick fruit and vegetables and look for snails and caterpillars. Whe would then take me inside for fresh rock cakes and cookies and we would drink tea whilst I sat on her lap and listened intently to her stories... just as I did whilst reading yours. Thank you Miss Alice. xox Nicole

Kerri said...

Alice, this is my third attemp at posting a comment...once this morning and twice tonight! Blogger doesn't like me today.
You know how much I love reading your stories with all the wonderful details and I love reading about your family and you as a little girl.
Please continue to write down more of your wonderful memoirs.
I continually count it as a huge blessing that my mom instilled a love of growing plants in my when I was a young girl, although the desire to garden didn't start until after I had a family of my own.

Sigrun said...

Hi Alice, like you I was gardening since my childhood. My grandpa has a nice garden, in my fathers garden we had not a lot of flowers, only legumes.


Kali said...

I love your stories, and am so interested in them...their content and the way you write.
I'm too tired at the moment to read it all properly, and I'm off to bed soon.
Just wanted to pop in and say a quick hello.

Daisy Lupin said...

Its just me again. Regarding your comments on my blog about my GGAunt's wedding photo. The date of the photograph is I believe 1899. Just checked it out last night.

Abandoned in Pasadena said... write very well and I enjoyed reading about how your gardening interest was started. I could follow along with your story and just imagine you as a child doing all the things you mentioned in your was almost like watching a film.

My grandfather was a gardener and he instilled my interest in gardening, but it wasn't until I was married and the children had left home that I really began to plant gives me peace and I feel like I'm setting the plants free when I plant them in the ground.

roybe said...

Hello Alice, it's lovely to read your early recollections of your life on the farm and your early love of gardening. You write very beautifully and it makes interesting reading. I love to take my grandaughter round the garden and I hope she grows up to have fond memories of our time together. I'm teaching her some of the different smells at the moment, she loves to pick the mint and have a smell. I'm trying to catch up with everyones blog at present. I've been out of blog action for a while. Partly to do with supporting our daughter Sarah through her illness and other projects and commitments. The major part of her treatment is over now, glad to say Sarah is doing well and things should be back to normal now.