“Garden as though you will live forever. ” - William Kent
This last Christmas, my mum made for my sister and I a scrapbook of our lives thus far. She also included family histories. Enclosed was a blurry, black and white photo of my maternal great grandmother, Florence, posing with my Nanna Myrtle and her three other children in their vegetable garden in Yalgoo. (yes, it’s pronounced Yal-goo) The photo itself must be almost 90 years old.
Yalgoo prides itself as being “the place where the outback starts” which is a rather polite way of saying it is in the middle of nowhere. Its about 500km north east of Perth in WA. My great grandparents settled there following a gold rush, and later my great grandfather patrolled the rabbit proof fence with his two camels, named Gypsy and Trot. I remember my Nanna telling me how much she hated camels, as apparently they are rather grumpy animals that like to spit.
But it is great-grandma’s garden that fascinates me most. During the depression life was hard just about everywhere. She supported her family with her veggie patch by growing food to feed them and sell for income. Yalgoo is hot, dry, dusty, arid and isolated. She couldn’t just turn on a tap and water the garden when it got a bit hot. She couldn’t duck up to Bunnings and get what she needed, when she needed it.
She would have had to be extremely resourceful. Make do, get by, and suffer when the weather, pests or good health failed to oblige her. I also am intrigued at the idea that I have a “heritage” garden in my family. It’s like a bond across time. Since learning about her, I think of Florence often when in my garden, as my own small children run about, wondering what she planted and what she would make of my efforts today.
Florence moved from Yalgoo after her husband abandoned her and his family, never to be heard from again. Apparently he was found murdered in a hostel in Fremantle, the motive being the theft of a few gold nuggets he was known to carry, but I don’t know if this is true. Florence moved to suburban Perth, and my eldest aunts remember her modest house and large vegetable patch. My Aunty Pam remembers “Granny didn’t have a lot. She was on a pension, 10 shillings a fortnight. So after she paid the rent and electricity, there wasn’t much left. We would eat food from the garden. Nasturtium leaf salads with beetroot, tomatoes, apple cucumbers, spinach, pumpkin and beans. I don’t remember eating any meat but I do remember going to the butcher with her.”
So in contrast, how lucky am I to be able to pursue my vegetable garden as a bit of an experimental hobby?!! Admittedly, any produce that comes from it I regard as a delightful bonus. The kids pick at it everyday and snack on bits and pieces, but I am able to feed them with supplemented fruit and veg from the market as need be. I love sharing excess with friends and family, but my livelihood and health certainly don’t depend on it.
In fact, if we had to live off my vegie patch, we would be practically starving.
So with that in mind, I am going to start recording my yields from what I plant and see what is viable from one season to the next. I want to aim for maximum plant diversity while also maximising my yields.
I wish I could have Florence around to share her garden wisdom.
Does your family have an heirloom garden?
* I originally posted this article in January 2012, but have updated it with the photos and some extra content.