My old man was an accomplished backyard vege grower. That was back in the days when superphosphate was considered a modern wonder of the world. Back when kids gidgied plentiful cobbler in the Swan River, and the banks were dotted all through the summer evenings with the gloria lamps of family groups prawning – and catching more than they could eat. When chucking a dropnet or two off any number of river jetties would guarantee half a kero tin of wide blue mannas in a couple of hours.
It was difficult at first to associate the use of fertilisers by home gardeners like my old man with the poisoning of the Swan. All we knew about his veges were that they were bloody delicious – his tomatoes beyond compare – and the products of his spare time sweat. And some earthy wisdom that he tried on occasion to impart – profoundly unsuccessfully. My brother and I were uninterested, wilfully so in my case. I lived in reaction to my father for most of his life, and it was only after he was gone that I got to understand the stupidity of my stubbornness and what it had cost me. It’s an understanding that grows with the years, rooted in the soil of missed opportunity and regret.
As the cobbler, crabs and prawns dwindled summer by summer, and along with them the kids stalking the shallows and the jetty dropnetters and the bobbing gloria lamps, reports began to filter through that the river was in trouble. Algal bloom, they were calling it. Sounded like something made up – a creepy crawlie from outer space in a sci-fi novel. It fed on nutrients from fertilisers that seeped down through the soil into the water table, eventually making it into the Swan.
It was someone else’s fault, someone else’s problem – industry, commercial farming. Those who cared called vaguely for action. Those bastards, polluting our river. Fine them! Ban ’em!
Suggestions that home gardeners were just as culpable were unsettling, and somehow unconvincing. How could a bit of home gardening pollute the river, miles away? The seepage into the water table explanation seemed unreal, the link too tenuous with good old blokes like my father, scattering a bit of super along his tomato rows in the backyard. Whatever he used to produce those beauties he plucked from his vines – gorgeous juicy big red marvels that would cover your toast in a single slice and that tasted so damned good you could eat ’em like apples – well, it just couldn’t be bad.
But it was. It IS. The picture is now clear. Live in denial if you like, but the old-fashioned style of gardening, where chemical fertilisers were dispensed as liberally as steroids in a bodybuilders’ gym, and toxic concoctions were plastered all over everything at the first suspicion of a nibbled leaf, is over. Or should be.
There is no longer any doubt of the relationship between domestic use of chemical fertilisers (and to a lesser extent, animal manures) and algal bloom in the Swan River. Now, though, there is a new variable in the responsible home gardening equation: water – or lack of it.
The term “waterwise” is well entrenched on the buzzword block, yet a walk around yer average Perth suburb will demonstrate that the concept is yet to really catch on. There are still gardenias all over the place, camelias, petunias and pansies, and any number of poofy exotics with an insatiable summer thirst and a hopeless dependency on nutrients.
Worst of all, The Front Lawn is still ubiquitious. Even in winter the retics are on, fighting the good fight of the West to keep that fucker green. Dose it up with Cresco, lavish it with water, spray on that bindi killer, drench those beetles in killer sprays, shell out for vertical mowing if you have to. Anything for a green lawn. The greener the better. Glowing in the dark if possible. Green Pride. It’s as close as Australia comes to a homegrown religion.
Lawns are bad, mmm-kay? They’re a waste of water and time. But mostly, they’re a waste of opportunity!
There are going to be readers out there who will, at this moment, be dismissing me as a crank. And right they may be, but not if their assessment is based on my lawn aversion. Hold your judgment and read on…I wasn’t always this way.
The revelation came, as revelations do, without the faintest warning. Twas a Saturday avo in winter about 5 years ago at a gardening seminar sponsored by the Town of Vincent, unimaginatively titled Great Gardens. I went along reluctantly, dragged by my partner, scowling just a little perhaps.
I had discovered about a decade earlier that I had inherited my father’s interest in gardening after all (o how the cosmic cookie crumbles), but I lacked any real commitment. I knew food gardens were my thing, rather than flowers and ornamentals. But the bloody lawn used up so much room on the small suburban block I inhabited, it was a battle fitting in a vege patch. So I didn’t bother, apart from growing basil – how could you go through a summer without an abundance of that queen of herbs?
I dutifully watered a growing array of pot plants and hanging baskets, unenthralled. Weeding around the vincas (erk) and daisy bushes at the couch-infested base of the side fence sucked. And sheeyit, did I find maintenance of the lawn a pain in the butt! I resented the hours it took to keep the verge, front and back lawns looking half-decent.
Tending the lawns, which stayed shabby despite my efforts, was getting in the way of my enjoyment of gardening, although I hadn’t yet articulated that to myself. I often raved emptily that I would rather get rid of the bloody lawn and grow vegetables in its place. But the lawn was fitted out with reticulation, and that gave it a sort of permanence I didn’t think to question. Besides, everyone had a lawn. It was part of the natural order of fings…
Anyway, when it came down to it, looking back I realise I didn’t really enjoy much about gardening. Something drew me to the soil, but there was a vital connection missing. Until…
So here I was wasting a Saturday listening to a bunch of greenies. You could pick ’em immediately. Long haired bloke, too much enthusiasm. A zealot, in fact. Sigh. Chris Ferreira was his name. I must have been pretty determined to remain closed to any possibility that this seminar might have been worth attending. See, my hair (ever-evacuating, tho it be!) is long, too, and I’m a bit of a greenie when it comes down to it…complicated, aren’t I?
As the seminar progressed, I perked up. These guys were making sense.
WA soils – “Bassendean grey” – were officially the worst in the world they claimed, citing some UN survey. And our summers were far more brutal than those in the Eastern States cities. Gardening that works over there doesn’t necessarily work here. Full-sun plants in Melbourne required part-shade in Perth. And most of the exotics Perthites had doggedly and unquestioningly grown since Euros landed here were Euro in origin. Unsuited to our depleted sandy soils and extremes of summer temperature, they only survived if constantly plied with nutrients, debugged with insecticides, and saturated with water. Why do we persist with this losing battle when there are indigenous plants perfectly adapted to our environment that need virtually no fertilising, no insecticide and no water?
Why indeed? Why not save time, effort, money and the River!
Perhaps because natives didn’t look as good as the exotics? You only had to cast your mind back to those ugly overgrown 70s “native gardens” to start nodding your head to this argument. But these pics the Great Gardens crew were showing us displayed a new style of native garden. Spunky little shrubs, flowering in a multitude of colours – and shaped by pruning. Native and neat could go together!
“But yer can’t prune natives!” objected one of the audience. That was one of many popular garden myths that bit the dust that afternoon.
Best of all, these garden Guevaras were anti-lawn! Suddenly, I felt validated. The stuff these guys were coming out with was pushing buttons. Cogs were whirring. And what they were saying was making SO MUCH SENSE it was like a homecoming, though I’d never heard anything like it.
That afternoon turned my vision of suburban gardening and what it should be about on its head. My partner felt the same – converted! There is no other word for it.
I’m not going to bash on and bore you with detail. Suffice it to say that I have never looked at a suburban garden in the same way since. Water-hungry nutrient-dependent Euro plants fill me with disdain, the useless displaced weaklings. What place do cool climate exotics have in the berating heat of a Perth summer? In an environment so dry we need to build desalination plants to future-proof the city’s water supplies? Where our once-vibrant Swan River clogs green with algal bloom fed by fertiliser run-off, and black bream turn belly up in their thousands?
And those bloody lawns! Why spend hours standing there with a hose at day’s end squandering water on an unused expanse of front lawn, then repeat the exercise in the back? Just to keep the bastard green! WHY?
THOSE BLUDGING LAWNS, THOSE WATER AND FERTILISER SPONGES, ARE SQUATTING USELESSLY WHERE YOUR OWN BEEYOOTIFUL ORGANIC VEGES AND HERBS – AND EVEN FRUIT TREES – COULD THRIVE.
See, this is what that seminar did for me: opened possibilities, threw back a veil, revealed an exciting new vision, transformed my thinking. I could see by the end of the seminar that a home gardening revolution – no less – was underway, and I knew I wanted to be part of it.
In the next post I will outline the steps we took in turning a dull, water-wasting, weed-infested, energy-sapping, useless shit of a back lawn into an organic herb and vege excitement machine. And a boring, conventional front lawn and wild-oats-ridden wasteland of a verge into a thriving, low-maintenance haven of native plants that honey-eaters flit in and out of in hyperactive glee.
So excited you can’t wait for my next post? Then get thee along to your nearest Great Gardens seminar and learn from the experts how you, too, can join the revolution! You’ll need to book, though. These guys have come a long way since that life-changing little gathering of 20 or so I attended at Town of Vincent on that Saturday avo back in 2003. Oh, and be prepared to forget everything you think you know about gardening in Perth.
In parting, a final note on my old man. He didn’t know his superphosphate was damaging the river, and if he had he would have stopped using it – he spent a Huckleberry Finn childhood on the once-mighty and now tragically despoiled Murray River in Victoria, and rivers ran through his blood. He would never have knowingly degraded the Swan.
If you’re still nurturing a yard full of effete exotics, clinging to the ideal of a bowling green lawn front and back, lovingly nourished on Cresco and soaked with water from spring to autumn, leave the dark side and join the revolution. If you’ve read this far, you no longer have the excuse of ignorance to fall back upon. Stop fighting against – and damaging – the natural environment and work with it! The rewards are huge.