The joys of gardening


(Photo: SWPAG (aka Laurel Wilson, suitably attired for gardening – the T-Shirt quote says ‘Economic Rationalism Isn’t’)

This week, determined to write something without uttering the C word, I decided on a blow-by-blow description of our efforts to establish a garden. Great minds do think alike, apparently, as The Conversation published a timely piece on Monday. “It’s a great time to try – a vegetable patch.”  The Conversation’s thrust is that we (the people) have more reason now than at any other time in recent history, to grow our own food. If you take heed of the dire warnings from the International Monetary Fund, by the time the global recession really kicks in, it will be harvest time!

My thumbs have definitely greened over years of associating with She Who Plants and Grows (SWPAG). In the early days, keen to be seen as doing my bit, I weeded down the narrow but sunny side of the house. Alas, the two weedy-looking plants I ripped from the ground were tamarillos, planted by SWPAG.  There was a degree of cold shoulder for a while. Mollified, I tried a parody – “I’m sorry I killed your tamarillos, every night I’ve been hugging my pillow”.

You had to be there.

We always planned to build small vegie gardens in the relatively small back yard of our new abode on the Southern Downs. We went down to the Big Green Shed and spent the equivalent of a months’ worth of fruit and vegie supplies on above-ground garden beds, compost, manure, cane mulch and assorted seedlings.

Then we set about building the first of the timber, no-dig garden beds. After a considerable amount of finessing and swearing, we concluded that the metre-square pre-cut garden beds were not at all precise.

By trial and error we put the first one together, using a battery-powered screwdriver and a hand-held Phillips head screwdriver to finish the job.

The swearing started with repeated attempts to get the box level.

“Next time let’s get the ground level first,” I suggested.

There’s a recipe to follow when making a no-dig garden bed. First you build a layer of small twigs and branches for drainage, then a layer of cardboard. Next a layer of cane mulch, then a bag of manure, another layer of cane mulch, a layer of our very own compost, husbanded (and I use the word correctly), from our own vegetable and fruit scraps, lawn clippings and anything compostable that wasn’t a weed. Then more layers – cane mulch, manure, compost and then more cane mulch. Finally, SWPAG said: “That’s enough.”

We stopped for a cup of tea and a biscuit, which turned into an hour-long bout of stooging about the house complaining about various aches and pains and watching last week’s Gardening Australia.

Later, we watered the new garden and let it sit. Magpies appeared from nowhere and started foraging around the edges where we’d stirred up all kinds of magpie food.

That was Friday. Night fell and we watched the latest edition of Gardening Australia. This truly national show has something for everyone, no matter where you live, even this peculiar temperate/arid zone where 100mm of rain in a day leads  news bulletins.

On Saturday we decided to spice up the day with a trip to the dump. The fellow at the boom gate (1.5 metres away), said “Not another load of garden waste!”. (It’s the new excursion in these ‘iso’ times. Ed)

We got up early on Monday morning and set our minds to building the other two garden beds. Now that we knew what we were doing (Ed; LOL), in no time at all we had three above-ground garden beds. The magpies were ecstatic and the dog christened all of them.

Our fledgling herb garden, established a few months ago, was contained elsewhere in a dozen pots of various sizes. Curiously (I thought), SWPAG tasked me to move the 12 pots, strategically positioning them inside the second above-ground garden bed.

“So we didn’t really need the second bed?”  I ventured, without a trace of criticism or sarcasm.

“Yes we did – it looks tidy that way”.

The thing about gardening, it has to be regarded as a hobby, because financially (the wooden boxes alone cost $147), it makes no sense at all. But it’s great for your mental and physical health, gives a sense of accomplishment and creates convivial times spent outdoors. Best of all, you have something to show for your labours.

I mentioned Gardening Australia – despite the obvious expertise of the presenters, it baffles me how few of them wear gloves or dust masks when handling compost, gypsum, dynamic lifter and a host of other elements added to the soil.

The harmful bacteria and fungi in potting mix have been known to cause lung ailments such as Legionnaires’  disease or Histoplasmosis (the latter a fungus that lives in parts of the US, Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia).

The risk is accentuated if you store bags of potting mix in a moist and warm environment where fungi can multiply. This article in The Conversation qualifies the warning by adding that the risk of contracting lung disease from using potting mix is slim. Nevertheless, I wear a dust mask when using potting mix, cane mulch or any soil additive that gives off dust. SWPAG takes it one step further and wears a respirator.

Sometimes, breathing noisily, she complains in a muffled voice (like Dark Helmet in the 1987 Mel Brooks spoof, Spaceballs):

I can’t breathe in this thing.”

Wearing gloves is a sensible protective measure. If you are a guitarist (or a person who likes to cultivate long nails) it will protect them from damage. If you have any tiny cuts or abrasions, gloves will guard against picking up infection, or worse, tetanus. There is a vaccination one should have to guard against the latter, a serious bacterial infection that causes muscle spasms.

Even Good Housekeeping magazine got in on the gardening hazards topic, warning gardeners against everything from Lyme disease (we don’t have this in Australia, or so it is said), heat stroke and poisonous plants to a stern warning about harmful chemicals used in lawn and garden care products.

Robyn Francis of Permaculture College Australia, on the other hand, says people should get their hands dirty and soak up the serotonin in the soil. She cites research that “dirt-deficiency in childhood is implicated in contributing to quite a spectrum of illnesses including allergies, asthma and mental disorders.”

No need to be more paranoid than we already are, folks. Be like Bob –  wear a hat, mask and gloves and stay 1.5 metres away from potentially hazardous substances.

Which reminds me of the time a friend was staying with us in Maleny and helped SWPAG plant an edible fruit tree down the back of our half-acre block. Just as they neared the bottom of the hole they’d prepared, a large hairy spider jumped out, rearing up and showing fearsome fangs. To this day they ae not sure if it was a deadly Funnel Web or the less harmful but no less scary Trapdoor Spider.

Risks aside, you could do worse, in this strange time we Australians have abbreviated to ‘Iso’, than to establish a small vegetable and/or herb garden. If, like so many city folk these days, your back yard is small, fear not. Josh from Gardening Australia has (almost) the last word.

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