From the Ground Up

Our new property is a full acre. When I stop to think about that I think I must be nuts taking on a garden that size. Yet the majority of it is laid out in the easiest way to maintain: large trees that don’t require work and grass a mowing guy takes care of.

The rest is far from ideal: a difficult-to-access weed infested embankment. 20% of the property will require 95% of the time, energy and money to fix and maintain.

I’ve entertained plenty of ideas about what I’d like to do here: native gardens to attract birds, productive vege beds, pergolas covered in grape vines and more fruit trees. But the gap between what I have and what I dream of is pretty wide, and I need to consider what I can physically do now and as I get older.

I’ve been struggling to tame what we have. Having gone away for a while, I can see that the philosophy of dividing work into smaller, manageable tasks isn’t working. Too much of the work required has to be done everywhere at the same time, to keep the costs down and prevent weeds spreading.

I’m now taking a step back and looking at the garden from a different viewpoint and asking myself: what do I want to achieve here?

1) a garden with no structural issues
2) a garden we can easily maintain
3) an attractive and usable outdoor spaces
4) a productive garden

So I’m setting my sights on numbers 1 and 2 for now. Drainage, soil, weeding, mulching. That’s more than enough to keep us busy for quite a while.

Twist & Shout

I had this unrefined plan in the back of my mind that when I finished with work I would do a whole lot of gardening. And craft. But gardening most of all.

An hour into the first day, stepping from the paving onto the grass, I rolled my ankle. I heard and felt a snap. When it stopped hurting like hell I managed to get on a chair so I could elevate and ice it. And like a proper modern woman on social media, take a photo:

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The doc at the hospital said something about the x-ray showing no bone damage only ligament tears. I’m not entirely sure, because though I wasn’t in much pain they insisted I take enough pain killers to make me a little high (it doesn’t take much). He was more excited about the heel spurs I have from plantar faciitis, but suggested I ice and elevate it, and see a physio.

A couple of days later it looked like this:

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With a smaller bruise but just as dark bruise on the other side. The physio, my regular, was most impressed. The good news was I could get rid of the crutches and start hobbling around, because moving is better than being stationary. The bad is that I’ve done a good job of it and have probably completely severed a ligament or two and torn the rest.

Permanent damage. Just from walking on grass.

Still, it’s not quite as dramatic as the last gardening accident I had, where I stuck a gardening fork in my foot. That was back in the 90s. That’s one gardening accident every 20 years or so. Not so bad when you think of it that way.

Landscaping Stage 1

The last few weeks we’ve had landscapers here doing some major work. While the front garden will pretty much take care of itself, with a regular mow, the back had drainage issues, a rotting retaining wall, and an abundance of weeds.

I’ve never bought a house that didn’t have a neglected garden and/or need some landscaping. At my first house the cut made into the back yard for a verandah became a sloped herb garden and paving. At my second house I had 14 tree stumps removed and planted a small vege and herb garden, but couldn’t afford more. The last house flooded twice, so required a lot of expensive drainage, and the extension made such a mess that most of the garden was wrecked. It was almost completely redone. (Including the much-more-expensive-than-planned replacement retaining wall between us and the neighbour that I paid for entirely – but let’s not go there.)

We knew the new house needed work and budgeted for it. We braced ourselves, too, because landscaping always throws up unexpected and costly surprises. I’ve split it into three stages based on what was urgent and what could be done later.

Stage One was mostly about drainage and retaining walls.

Stage Two will be mostly about restoring the eroded embankment at the far back corner, plants and fences.

Stage Three will be mostly about paving and raised garden beds for the kitchen garden.

Stage One started a few weeks ago. Day one of the work the landscapers hit shale – clay that’s been compressed to the hardness of rock:

shale
(It’s the pale yellow under the orangey clay.)

All our plans of moving the retaining walls a little back into the slope to get more space had to be abandoned. We couldn’t have sleeper walls, either. The posts for the old wall barely penetrated the shale, and digging post holes deep enough to properly support a wall would require expensive equipment.

So we had to upgrade to a recycled brick wall in the middle, where space is tight. After seeing the time and care that goes into a simple brick wall, I am never going to regard them and brick laying in the same way again. So much skill and time. I love the colour and variation in the recycled bricks, too.

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We used big colac rocks in the kitchen garden. It’s much less formal than I’d intended, but I can work with that. The upper area will be planted with roses, herbs and flowering plants, taller at the back and ground covers spilling down the rocks. Well, that’s the plan. The big challenge is the soil, which is very poor. It’ll all be mulched, but for every plant I put in I’ll need to dig a big hole and fill it with new, good soil.

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The three citrus trees are the only survivors in this area, and the lime took a nasty scrape down its trunk from the excavator. I’m going to plant two more citrus trees on either side of the row. Maybe two limes, maybe a lime and orange – or mandarin.

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The flat lower area was going to remain as grass for a year until I had the raised vege beds put in, but the excavators turned it all to mud. I’m now going to cover it in mulch. Trying to reestablish grass at the beginning of summer in Melbourne is a waste of seed, water and time.

I’d only put five plants in since moving in and they all had to be removed. Three were pumpkins, so I’ve planted them outside the laundry door into some compost. I’ve never grown pumpkin before, and I’ve been impressed at how resilient they’ve been, continuing to grow in the pots and even flowering.

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There was a pond next to the deck that had to go, but we weren’t all that keen on it. We kept the rocks, though. The plants that had to be removed were divided and replanted around them. I want to keep this as a greener area but without creating a high water demand – you can get a rainforest look without plants that require lots of water if you choose carefully.

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The drainage issues were bad and for a while it looked like we might have to replace the whole storm water pipe system. Fortunately the cause was found and wasn’t as bad as it first appeared – one thing that didn’t cost us more than expected!

Stage Two will happen next autumn, but there are a couple of projects Paul is in charge of that may happen before then, like the new driveway. A few plants will have to be removed or transplanted. And friends have been taking these…

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… and using them as Christmas trees. They look fabulous, too!

The ‘Anyone for Tennis?’ Weeding Party

The amount of work needed to get control of the garden along the embankment of our new property has had me feeling overwhelmed. At the same time, friends have hinted that they’d like to use the tennis court before we dismantle it. So a few weeks back I put a ‘I don’t suppose anyone wants to rip out some ivy in exchange for food, cocktails and tennis?’ question, and got lots of positive replies.

So I set a date, bought food, spirits and bubbly, and tried to make a half-furnished, mid-renovation house look presentable.

I blown away by how many friends came along and how much work they did.

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Some of the guys even attacked a tree stump. Took them an hour and a half to get it out. Manly determination overcame stubborn roots, and the stump now lies defeated on the battleground.

This is what it looked like before. Well, these are the house ad pics from a few months ago, as I forgot to take ‘before’ pics. Imagine the ivy has grown several inches and onion weed and other pests have pushed through the bare patches of mulch.

before1

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Now it’s a manageable bed almost ready for new plants.

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I’ll have to wait until new shoots of ivy and weeds come through and poison them. Only when they’ve withered away will native, slope-stablising grasses and one or two shrubs or small trees go in.

A Relaxing Sunday Morning

On Saturday I was determined to do nothing much more than bake a birthday cake for Paul. I came close enough to it that I was satisfied I’d finally had the rest day I’d been craving. We even went for a walk – my first since I got plantar fasciitis in January – and my feet didn’t hurt afterwards. Win!

On Sunday I wanted us to get out of the house together but not rushing about on house-related tasks. We went to a Native Plant Nursery, which kinda is about housey stuff, but the idea was to get inspired and have morning tea in the cafe.

Just after we got there we heard a loud bang, and went outside to discover there’d been a car accident outside. So we spent the next hour helping out. Paul ripped one car’s door open so the female driver of one car could be reached, and I consoled the guy in the other car. His foot was twisted and stuck under the brake pedal, and he was a bit freaked out. It’s been a long time since I did my first aid course, but all I really needed to do was be there, reassuring him, telling him not to try and free his foot, and let him know where his family were and that they were okay. He had no memory of what had happened and was horrified by the thought someone might have been hurt because of him.

The police arrived, then the fire brigade, then a friend of the guy from his work, so I handed over the task to a more familiar face. An ex-nurse who had seen the accident was tending the young woman, and asked us to keep an eye on her children. At that point the ambulances started arriving, and eventually the nurse gave her witness statement and we were free to leave.

We really needed a cuppa by then! The weird thing was, we were on a kind of wobbly high for the next few hours. The after-effects of adrenalin, I suspect. I got some great advice and inspiration from the nursery. And then we went home via Bunnings and I bought a chain saw.

I haven’t been game enough to try using it yet.

The Excitement of New Home, Garden and Pool Ownership

This week has been a both exciting and stressful. I came home from a writers festival with a fresh, gooey cold, but only really got one day to rest and recover. Last week we had a few ducted heating and cooling quotes, and aside from them all being so different in price and approach that there must be something dodgy about one, if not two of them, one of the quoters said we shouldn’t use our current system because the ducts under the house had been squashed and it could be dangerous.

So, of course, the weather turned unseasonably cold. In fact, on Tuesday we had a freak storm that dumped hail the size of marbles first, then so much ordinary-sized hail that there were drifts of it on the roof, the pool filled to almost overflowing and the water became filthy with debris from our garden and the soil washed down from below the neighbour’s house.

Looking up the internet for advice, I emptied some of the water in the pool that night, then the next day tried to run the filter in order to start cleaning it. But the filter controller packed it in, and I wound up having to call the pool shop. The guy they sent out said it was unfixable – too old and no parts available – so we’d have to get it replaced. That, on top of the cleaning and chemicals, is going to be a substantial unanticipated cost.

The ensuite renovation began on the Monday, but thankfully that’s been mostly trouble-free, though it has demanded a lot of attention. We had two frantic, exhausting days of getting the old house ready for sale. And we’ve been running around getting some last moment items for the ensuite.

So I’ve been looking forward to the weekend, determined to not spend it doing anything except, perhaps, bake a birthday cake for Paul. The bathroom renovators are here again, but I was determined to pretend they weren’t. It was one of them who noticed that the grass by our driveway had risen into a water-logged dome – a water main has broken. I’m hoping this has nothing to do with the plumber’s work yesterday.

I really need to check if the neighbour is aware of the storm damage below their house, but a discussion on Facebook has made me realise I’m a lot crankier today than I was aware, and the last thing I want to do is get off on the wrong foot with a new neighbour.

Instead I’m doing lots of research on the internet for how to combat erosion and water run-off.

Making Dates With the Garden

The landscaper who did the heavy work in our yards came around a few weeks ago to take some photos and get a reference. I was a bit embarrassed at how untidy parts of the garden were, as I hadn’t had the time or motivation to start the usual post-summer clean up.

Autumn is the time of year I get enthused about gardening, spurred on by the return of Gardening Australia (which seems to happen later and later each year), mild weather and plants putting on new growth. Being sick and then away for a few weekends delayed this by a month or so this year, and then it rained quite a bit. One one of the rainy weekends I did some plant research instead.

Since I can never remember when I should be feeding and pruning, I concentrated on making a quick list of general plant types in our garden and their maintenance requirements.

The plant categories, from highest maintenance to lowest:
Citrus – They need regular pruning and feeding. I’ve been fighting and losing a battle with gall wasp on the lemon tree. The lime is doing okay, though not immune to galls.
Succulents – more work than I expected because I have to move all the pots around the side of the house in summer to allow more rain and less sun to get to them, then back to the rear in autumn. I’m also always potting up new plants from the old and replacing ones that have died off. I don’t mind this too much because they are satisfying to grow.
Spider plant – gets out of hand from time to time, so it needs flower spears cut off a few times a year and occasional plant removal to stop it spreading. Hard to remove from between pavers.
Herbs, woody – the rosemary, bay, lavender, oregano, catmint and geraniums all need pruning and feeding once or twice a year. I tend to forget to feed them, but they are pretty forgiving. Low maintenance and high satisfaction.
Herbs, soft – the parsley, peppermint, cat grass and chives die back or go to seed and while cutting back helps they often need repotting. I probably don’t feed them often enough.
Roses – a winter pruning and occasional deadheading required. I’m okay at remembering the winter feeding, but not at other times. I need to replace some that didn’t survive transplanting, and remove or move a few others.
Natives – they are so low maintenance that I forget to do any, when I really ought to tip prune and feed more often.
Trees – the camellia, maple, flame, and umbrella trees all don’t require maintenance part from the occasional prune. The tree at the front door is getting too mature for the spot it’s in, but I might get a few more years out of it. The flame tree might grow to 20 metres, so it’l have to be removed one day. The umbrella tree is in a pot – and I just learned that it’s NEVER a good idea to plant these in the ground! And it’s poisonous to cats. It tends to lose it’s leaves in summer, but they always grow back.
Bulbs – ignorable!

The list turned out to very useful, as it revealed which plants were not worth the maintenance they require, and which I should pay more attention to.

-I love lemon trees, but mine is a sorry specimen that has never produced fruit. I can do without it if the lime keeps doing okay, and I’ll have more time to lavish attention on that one.
- It’s probably worth the trouble to remove all the spider plant in the cat run, too, as it’s rather boring and not worth the effort keeping it under control.
- Since the umbrella plant is toxic to dogs and cats, I need to move it out of the run.
- I need to feed my garden more often, and that may come down to adding reminders to my calendar.

Once I have the existing garden under control, perhaps I will introduce some new plants. I like the idea of vertical gardens at the back of the garage and in the cat run, growing potatoes in a barrel, and maybe even a little aquatic garden.

Dirt Under the Fingernails

First it was much too hot, then I was too busy with deadlines, and before I knew it half a year had gone and I’d barely looked at the garden, let lone spent any time maintaining it. But all you can really do in summer here is water, water, water and hope not too many plants die. Winter, however, is a time for pruning and to attack weeds.

The cat run needed the most work. There’s a strappy-leaved ‘spider plant’ there that had grown out in a big matted mess over the pavers. It was here when Paul bought the house, and I’m kind of regretting keeping it as it’s so invasive. I ripped out so many problem plants when I first moved in that to rip these out would have left the garden really bare.

Cleared space now taken up with fern, umbrella tree and herbs

The spider plant had got into the bay tree’s pot, too, and the only way I could remove it was to repot. The roots were all tangled in with the bay’s. You could almost hear the tree sigh as I removed them.

‘Ahhhh.’

The washing line needed replacing. I use a simple pulley system my Dad came up with that lets you drop the line to shoulder height while pegging things on.

Dad’s washing line system

I’ve removed the manky old shade cloth in the cat run, too. I have all the materials ready to replace it.

We attacked the compost, too, spreading the contents of the ‘old’ compost bin around so we could put the fresher compost from the ‘new’ bin into it to sit and rot down fully. That gave us more room in the ‘new’ bin, which works better when there’s space for mixing.

The groovy ‘new’ compost bin that you roll around to mix the contents

In the rest of the garden…

We have a huge citrus gall wasp problem here in Melbourne. There are traps you can buy but the analysis on gardening websites is that they catch everything but the actual wasp. The lemon suffers badly, and it has never produced more than a few lemons in the ten years or so since I bought it. I’m tempted to replace it. However, my lime seems more resistant to the wasp so I’ve decided to regard our lemon tree as a kind of sacrificial trap crop – hopefully it attracts the wasp away from the lime, and once it’s infested I cut out the galls.

Lemon and lime trees, well pruned.

I moved the succulents into what I hope is a position protected from frost.

‘Brrr!’

We’ve been mulching and mulching and mulching. After a few neighbours had some eucalypts trimmed the tree loppers offered us the mulch for free. We’ve been spreading it around the garden ten barrow-loads at a time to be careful not to wear our backs out. Of course, there’s not much point putting mulch on top of weeds, so they have to be cleared out first.

As this is the right time to buy bare-rooted roses I bought a couple to replace the freebies that didn’t survive transplanting.

Waiting for spring…

Of course, while at the garden nursery I grabbed some rose food and a few plants to fill a few bare spots – a geranium and some succulents. I’m going to take cuttings from when the weather warms up.

On the to-do list

The succulent nursery with new plants at the back

We also finally got around to culling and rearranging the contents of the gardening shed so that everything is easier to get to. Which led to me finding a box of old herb and vege seeds, and planting out the winter ones to see if anything comes up.

Boring photo of seed pots

As for the rest… when the weather warms up I’ll give them a try, which means buying more potting and seed raising mix, etc…

Ah, gardening. The tasks have a way of multiplying, don’t they?

A Blue-tongue Romance

A year or ago we discovered a squatter in our back yard:

We named it Bluey. Yes, it was highly original of us. It lives between the treads of steps built out of slabs of mudstone. From time to time we’ve seen it sunbathing on the rock.

A few weeks ago I noticed my neighbour and some other people hovering outside my house. One of them was holding a lizard that looked a lot like Bluey. I went out and learned that a woman driving dowon our road had spotted it on the road and stopped. An older guy had picked it up and put it in the garden across the road. Magpies were hovering around – they’ll peck out it’s eyes if they can.

It was browner than Bluey, who is very blue-grey. But I was both concerned it was Bluey and would try to cross the road to get home, or that the magpies would get it. So I picked it up and carried it down to the garden bed next to the step where Bluey lives.

A few weeks later, Slinky (our cat) was chirping at the studio window with a little more intensity than usual. I looked out and there they were:

I wonder if there’ll be babies.

Workbench Garden Seat

Little coincidences helped along our workbench to garden seat plan. At Bunnings I found two ‘tomato tub’ planters that fit exactly into the top of the side sections. We also had a piece of leftover retaining wall timber almost exactly the length we’d need for the seat. And my aloe vera plants needed repotting.

Paul only had to cut out the middle section of the top front strip of metal. After he removed the old top I gave the frame three coats of a sealer for rust-effect paints, so it wouldn’t get so rusty that it fell apart.

While it was drying Paul cut the piece of leftover retaining wall into two pieces to fit the ‘seat’ section of the middle. Then he turned the top into the back of the seat by drilling holes in it and slotting it into some bolts. I left the wood unfinished, and hope the seat will go as grey as the old top.

Finally, I replanted my aloe veras into the pots and added some creeper succulents that will, hopefully, grow over the edge of the pots and cascade down the front.

So here it is:

I’m rather chuffed with the result. We’ve managed to preserve the rustic nature of the bench while giving it a new life as a seat. And made minimal changes in the process. I wonder if my Pa would have liked it, or thought it a bit strange!