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Sudden Onset Gardening

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

The view through the studio windows is white with sideways drifts of rain. In the clearings, creeks and streams that weren't there yesterday run in every direction. This morning as I walked to the studio I heard the awful sound of a huge branch tearing from the trunk of the giant old Scribbly Gum, the weight of the waterlogged leaves too much to bear. The sounds of the wind, the rain falling on the tin roof and overflowing from the gutters is buffered by the crackling fire beside me.

It’s now officially the wettest July in more than 90 years.

Whilst I am tucked inside, cosy and dry, Farmer Pete is wrapped in his waterproof gear trudging through the paddocks, head down bearing into the wind, on his way to his beloved ‘pumpkin patch’. What is it about the garden that makes him brave all seasons of weather?

“I have only done one sensible thing in my life - to cultivate the ground. He who tills a field, renders a better service to mankind than all the scribblers in Europe.” - Voltaire

Farmer Pete’s approach to his garden is essentially pragmatic - fork to fork - and brings us back to reality. In a world of uncertainty his garden nourishes us and shapes our days and the place we inhabit. Whilst I sit at my desk in my warm white studio, wearing ugg boots and favourite cardigan, writing about gardening as a metaphor for life, he is out there in the mud, dirt under his nails, rain lashing his face, checking that his qualis are dry and delighting in the vision of so many happy worms. We are both in our elements.

My friend Claudia (one of the Marigolds) joked with me when I turned 50 that I’d now have to beware of ‘sudden-on-set gardening’. When asked for a more detailed warning she arched one eyebrow and simply said, “You’ll see.” I confess, I had my doubts. All my life I’ve had the privilege of being surrounded by great gardeners and amazing cooks, but have mostly avoided being hands-on, preferring to commune with nature in the bush or by the ocean. Now, as I watch Peter, my curiosity about gardening has been piqued.

What is it about gardening that brings joy to so many?

Well, apparently, gardening does offer many health benefits, from reducing stress to improving hand strength and cardiovascular health. Having your hands in the soil, it turns out, also offers direct health benefits by strengthening your immune system and even making you happy. In fact, inhaling the soil-dwelling M. vaccae, can even increase your levels of serotonin and reduce anxiety.

Is Peter high on soil, is that why he’s in the veggie garden for hours each day?

I dug deeper into research about the health and wellbeing benefits of gardening and discovered that there is so much more to why gardening is both addictive and good for you, and there is mounting research to substantiate the claims. While science catches up on our lived experiences, and FOMO creeps in, I’ve also decided it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get my own hands in the dirt.

Life begins the day you start a garden. – Chinese proverb

Our garden in Tasmania, it’s bounty, my weeding chores, and it’s constant rhythms were a staple of my childhood. For most of my adult life we’ve had our own gardens too. Not in NYC and not in Chicago. In Singapore and Bali we grew food, and both our children grew up elbow deep in the soil on our farm in Jamberoo. Most of the gardening, however, was done by others including Peter, Ooh Reh and Rosina, my mother. My role was that of a runner, the sidekick, never the one in charge.

Those that knew her would agree that Rosina was a force of nature, and my long held theory was that her boundless joie de vivre was related to her passion for gardening. Moon phases, sprouting seeds, propagating, ‘pricking out’, planting, tending and harvesting was an endless cycle that would make my head spin.

The Moss Vale Community Gardens was her happy place, and it was there that she found her day-tribe (ukelele and blues being her night-tribes). The accolades received for her magic Green Thumb and seemingly infinite knowledge of all things needed to cultivate thriving plants, together with friendship and folly shared around the garden’s lunch table were a heady mix that made her blissfully happy in the latter years of her life.

Rosina grew food for 75 years. Sharing her garden wisdom, she told me, was her life’s work. Her wisdom was ancient, handed down through generations of ancestors.

The food revolution, as it is fast becoming known, is a contemporary response to industrial agriculture, and has been given a boost of impetus by the anticipation of food security issues during Covid-19. The garden section of Bunnings’ was blitzed, and seeds, seedlings, potting mix and Dynamic Lifter were sold out in a blink! Not so easy to come by is the knowledge of how to grow our own food.

A while ago whilst reading Sue Stuart-Smith’s wonderful testament to the timeless love of gardening, The Well-Gardened Mind - The Restorative Power of Nature, I was doused in regret that I hadn't spent more time with my mother in her beloved gardens. Aside from aching for the simple pleasure of working alongside her it seemed I had forgotten everything she’d taught me about seed raising and seed saving and everything in between. In those moments when I miss Rosina the most I call Jill, my mother’s best friend and fellow garden guru, because she knows that life without Rosina can be as challenging as was life with Rosina.

Gradually Jill and I began to spend time together and soon I too became a tentative paid up member of the MVCG. Each visit has been deeply enriching and time well spent. I have my fingers crossed that the rain will stop by Thursday morning, so I can return to finish pollinating the hazelnuts! An unexpected and delightful aspect of my visits to the MVCG is the passionate and eclectic group of people who show up each week, or just now and then. It’s now obvious that the words community and garden are of equal weight in this equation.

So far I can tell you that there is something vaguely intoxicating about the diverse range of tasks we perform each week. On my first week there we cleared the corn patch and prepared it for green manure. The group self-organised into leaders who gave instruction and direction, worker bees, fringe dwellers and even entertainment. In the end, whilst distributing handfuls of lupin and oat seeds across the green manure bed a giggle rippled up and out - “Here I am sowing seeds,” I declared. In that moment I was tingling, deeply and joyfully connected to gardeners and farmers everywhere, across all time. It was as if I had an archaic, genetic memory of this ancient activity - sowing seeds. It felt good.

I may not be hooked yet, as I have it on good authority that the addiction takes one round of all four seasons, but perhaps Claudia was on to something after all. Now I just need to convince Farmer Pete to let me have my own patch of dirt to play in.

"If you have a garden in your library, everything will be complete."

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Letter to Varro, 1st century AD

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x Kinchem

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