Circa December 2004, from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer
Last winter we burnt our neighbour’s house! Four generations of one family had lived there together in relative harmony, then that harmony dissolved, and the house was sold to developers. Bulldozers and heavy earth-moving equipment moved in to raze the site at the least possible cost, and that meant destruction on a grand scale. On the lawn nearest our kitchen window had stood a magnificent old golden elm, whose branches covered our neighbour’s lawn and his hammock with deep shade even during the hottest days of summer. The grab bucket on the wrecker smashed off its branches and pushed over its naked stump, and shoved it into a huge pile of broken timber from the windows and doors, jarrah joists from the floor, oak slats from the tiled roof, and old fruit trees that had borne lemons and oranges and plums for decades. For my sons and I it was a race against the clock to retrieve as much of this timber as possible before it was hauled away in giant trucks to become useless landfill somewhere. Much of the broken timber we sawed into short lengths, and these gave off a cheerful blaze and much needed warmth through many a chilly winter’s evening.
A way of life is dying around me as the old houses of our district and their productive gardens give way to Tuscan villas jammed cheek-to-jowl. Carports sport the latest model cars, but people are only occasionally glimpsed unpacking their store-bought vegetables from the boot and dashing inside with them. Neighbourliness has diminished with the increased pace of life, and this saddens me in some nameless way. Worse was to come; harmony dissolved in the Italian home on my other side.
In the late eighties, with interest rates at 17.5%, we were looking for some way out of the rental trap into a home of our own. We’d looked at dozens of houses in a desperate attempt to find some vibration somewhere that could be the basis for a home and a place to raise our family. At five minutes to inspection closing time, I dashed into this house and dived out the back door; there was an overgrown garden and an old tennis court. Land! They’re not making that anymore! The house wasn’t much, but I liked its unpretentiousness. But what really sold me was the sight of a little old Italian lady in the property next door chopping up the pruned branches of an apricot tree using a small hand-axe. Neighbours!
This garden next door has been a source of wonder to me as long as I have lived here. Artichokes and fennel, asparagus and raddichio, Italian parsley, rocket and spinach grew beside tomato plants, zucchinis, beans and basil. Avocados grew on a huge tree outside the back door, and deep orange persimmons contrasted with the lighter orange of mandarins. In summer there was loquats and apricots, bunches of delicious eating grapes and peaches and plums of all sorts.
Deep purple figs grew near a magnificent chestnut tree that splattered its prickly-coated nuts over our fence, ready for roasting. Eggplants and capsicums, potatoes and onions, lettuce and olives could all be found in this garden. There were long cages of Australian parrots being bred for cash sale and smaller cages with giant European rabbits the size of small dogs that found their way into the pot. Dogs and cats were part of the family. Chooks provided brown eggs. Once there was a sheep with two lambs, which we grazed on the weeds in the old tennis court down the back of our place – site of my current veggie garden. Never have I tasted such tender meat! There was a wood oven in the shed, from whence came great crusty loaves of Italian bread and pizza they’re still trying to reproduce in Adelaide’s trendiest Italian cafes. In the rafters of this shed hung home-made Italian sausages, and in the cellar below the shed were barrels of home-made red wine whose taste I’m still seeking in pub-bought bottles. Jars of home-bottled olives and tomato sauce jostled bags of flour and pickled eggplant. Garlic grew beside the driveway, in front of prickly pears whose fruit was also eaten. Flowers – mostly chrysanthemums –were grown to brighten the grave of the old Italian grandfather, who died not long after we arrived.
Several years ago this home too dissolved (under the saddest of circumstances) and the garden fell into disuse. Finally, the house came onto the market, and a new generation of homebuyers trooped through the front door and stood at the back door staring out over this potentially wonderful garden and seeing instead a great liability. In others, I could practically see (from the vantage-point of my tomato patch) the predatory gleam in their eye as they calculated the investment potential and sought information from the real estate agent about the council’s attitude towards sub-division. Where were the families to be raised, and the backyard veggie growers? Were there no others who saw the land for what it could grow in the soil rather for what could be built and sold above it? Was I to be the last man standing in the neighbourhood? Finally, an imperfect yet tenable outcome – a Greek family brought the house and land, and the bulldozers are for the moment at bay while they decide upon the future of their investment.
In the meantime, I’ve salvaged glass for raising seedlings, old bricks for making paths, wire for extending the chicken coop, stakes for the tomatoes, wood for the fireplace and wooden beams for laying across garden beds as I balance across from one side to other. Pots and odd-shaped containers can be used for herbs and yet more seedlings.
I’ve inherited a magnificent Welsummer rooster and his half-dozen old wives. Firewood and kindling destined for the wood-oven have been added to my wood heap. But best of all – my prize possession - is an Italian hoe. Why haven’t these been discovered in Australia? It’s like a giant sharpened horseshoe on a short but sturdy handle. It never clogs, even in the heaviest and wettest clay. I swing it over my head and bury it with a satisfying thud into the row that I’m hoeing. Pushing forward raises great clods of earth to allow the rain air and sunshine in. I use it on an angle to open up deep trenches for my potatoes. I carry it about and chip weeds, or use it to dig the carrots or comfrey roots.
Perhaps a small part of that wonderful Italian garden will live on over on my side of the fence, where mention of the investment potential of my patch of dirt will earn my scorn. How do I calculate the market value of sunshine on my back and good food on my table? Why would I trade hours in a garden for hours in a gym? Where else can I take my grandchildren one day to show them where peas come from, and give them a chance to learn the rhythms of life as I have?