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PacificEdge | August 21, 2017

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Eastern suburbs garden reveals botanical surprises

Eastern suburbs garden reveals botanical surprises
Russ Grayson

THE GARLIC has started to poke its little green head above the soil and the pomegranate has turned bright yellow as it prepares to shed its leaves for the cold season. It is only hours before the first day of winter here in the Permaculture Interpretive Garden.

I wandered down here this morning, accompanying Fiona on her walk to work at the community centre adjacent to the garden. As I’ve done this these past few years I have watched the garden evolve from a patch of low-grade lawn on dry, nutrient-free sandy soil, mostly sand, to the beginnings of a diverse garden now used for the organic gardening, permaculture introductory and forest gardening courses Fiona offers the community in her council sustainability educator role.

For a wind-blasted, sandy soil site that bakes in the hot summer sun, things have come along thanks also to the work of landscape architect Steve Batley, horticulture educator Emma Daniell (Steve and Emma have the permaculture design certificate) and horticulture educator, Jon Kingston who also advised and educated at James Street Reserve Community Garden in Redfern and now does that at the Wayside Chapel rooftop garden in Potts Point.

Wandering without purpose

I wander through the garden. I see Steve has netted the fruiting mandarin tree to deter the bipedal mammalian garden pests that take any fruit they notice even when green and unripe. The asparagus has taken over one of the raised planters in the kitchen garden and covers it in its bushy, fernlike foliage.

The bamboo planted as part of the windbreak, a Bambusa oldhamaii, which also produced edible shoots and is known as giant timber bamboo or Oldham’s bamboo, has grown tall as has the sugar cane clumps that also protect the garden from the persistent and cold, blustery westerlies of winter. They’re working well this day as a strong wind is coming in from the west, their tops bending with each gust.

Bordering the path in front of them is a line of wiry and tough, clumping vetiver grass, planted in part as a dog barrier, for the community commons adjacent to the garden and community centre is favoured by dog walkers and their furry quadrupeds.

Nearby, garden volunteers participating in the Friday Permabee have taken some of the bamboo and erected a teepee-like structure and established seedlings of sugar snap and climbing peas below. These were planted as seeds and will grow as winter comes in and eventually cover the trellis.

I see that the pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) is showing its pale yellow blooms. It’s as if summers’ sun has bleached and faded the pea-like flowers because they are a lighter colour than the more vivid yellow of the species elsewhere in the garden. Pigeon pea was planted so that the microscopic organisms that live in those tiny round nodules, colonies perhaps, that you find around the roots — were you to be bold enough dig up the plant to take a look and attract the wrath of the gardeners — could do what they do well, which is turn gaseous nitrogen in the atmosphere into nitrates and associated goodies that the nearby plants thrive on. It’s like a free meal, plants feeding plants, that these pigeon pea legumes provide courtesy of those microscopic creatures. And the pea pods that will appear later — they are edible for those with the culinary know-how to turn them into food. Interplanting with legumes that have this ability to convert the nitrogen in the air into plant food is also one of the ways organic gardeners make use of science in the garden.

Wandering on, I come to the aquaponic installation, a combined plant/edible fish garden and find edible greenery spilling from the vertical growing arrays. The system was installed to demonstrate possibilities that local people could implement in their small home or community gardens. So were the other vertical arrays nearby, made of different materials and showing different types of planters, that demonstrate DIY possibilities as well as off-the-shelf models for the time-poor or construction-skills-lacking gardener.

An odour of lemon

I leave via the native plant garden that has recently been cleared of acacia (Acacia longifolia) that had invaded from the adjacent bushland and was shading out lower-growing natives.

The lemon scented myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) is close to two meters high now. It’s a native bushfood, the leaves giving off a strong lemon odour when crushed, making the plant useful in cooking. Eventually it will grow into a large tree that will cast its shade over the garden below. Close by, the low-growing midyim berry offers its soft fruit as a garden snack and the finger lime, still only a metre in height, will one day offer its small, citrus flavored fruit to those with the eyes to recognise the edible bounty of Australia’s bushland.

The native plant garden was built to demonstrate a low-maintenance and biologically diverse option for people who do not want to grow food. It serves the local insect, bird and frog population well.

The wind is still blowing as I exit the walkway and enter the street.

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