Life and Nature: Installment 2
Before I was to have a garden of my own, my first opportunity to become intimately acquainted with our friends in the plant kingdom was a very clinical, left-brained one.
I began studying for a Science degree at Sydney University in 1951, straight after I had completed high school. – no gap years in those days
One of the four compulsory subjects was Botany. This meant lots about plant anatomy and physiology, and dissecting the poor little specimens, so it was all very theoretical, and I dont have any memories of doing field work.
As things turned out, I was to repeat the subject when I returned to Uni. In 1953 to study pharmacy.
There I learnt about the medicinal properties of a variety of plants and how to create plant tinctures and extracts for cough mixtures and soothing creams, and even old-fashioned hand-made pills and capsules.
At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry was rapidly taking over the pharmaceutical profession and the prescribing practices of the G.P.s by introducing and gradually substituting chemical medication, and as a consequence, distancing us from the healing benefits of plant medicine and the opportunities to provide it.
It was not until 10 years later when I married and we had our own home that I had my first real opportunity to grow and nurture plants in a garden.
Cooma N.S.W. 1963
Our first little family home was in Cooma on the western side of Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales.
The house was built on a small patch of land set back against a shrubby hillside and the garden was little more than a stretch of lawn and a few flower beds, and, in spite of my lack of experience I did enjoy the novelty of putting in some seedlings and keeping plants watered and happy.
One of my first efforts to look after the garden was to attack an untidy looking area in one corner. That was before l was told that these obstinate weeds were in fact asparagus plants! I could see that I would have a lot to learn.
I soon retired from the gardening experiment, and I was happy to spend more time indoors teaching myself how to cook, especially some of the Mediterranean dishes that I loved eating during my years in Europe. It was also time for resting up – and throwing up! as I was now expecting our first baby.European ingredients were more available in Cooma than in most places in Australia at that time because of its proximity to the Snowy Mountains scheme and the number of migrant workers who had come to live there, bringing culinary skills and ingredients with them, and ways of growing them.
Towards the end of our first year in Cooma, beautiful baby Elizabeth was born in Canberra Hospital, and some while later we moved back to my home town of Wagga to live.
Family Life in Wagga Wagga. 1965 – 1975.
After a couple of attempts at living in rented houses, we found an ideal little family home to buy in a new suburb on the outskirts of town, and I was now ready and willing to learn how to create my first garden from scratch, and this proved to be much more satisfying than my first endeavors.At first, it was quite a challenge. The soil was baked hard and trodden down by grazing sheep over many years, but gradually, with hard work and patience over time, a bare backyard transformed into a pleasant and quite productive garden.
Life continued to be full of wondrous new experiences and lots of learning that comes with marriage and babies and fitting into the social role deemed to be appropriate for a married woman!.We were very soon expecting our second child Chrissy, another lovely little girl. She was born in April 1965 with the help of my friends the Blue nuns at the Calvary hospital in Wagga.
I was soon discovering that gardening was a wonderfully creative outlet, and this grew as time went on, helping to keep me sane and content when things went into overwhelm as I attempted to keep life in balance.
I received a lot of ideas and great support with the garden project from my Auntie Glad.She and uncle Fred lived 40 miles south of Wagga at Henty, back where I was born, and every time I visited there, I would return with lots of seedlings and new ideas.
Her most loved plant contribution was a young Manchurian Pear Tree, which grew into a beautiful shady tree dominating the back garden.
It is prized not for its fruit but more for its magnificent white blossoms in spring which light up the garden, and its rich russet foliage in autumn.
Glad’s age hadn’t prevented her from being a very modern gardener – a real pioneer for those days. She had learnt a lot about Japanese design in gardens, and also flower arrangements, which she did superbly, and she generously shared her knowledge with me.
She had even learned how to master the art of dousing in order to discover if plants seeds were male or female! – A very new age thing for a traditional Catholic person to be doing!
She was such an inspiration. I still remember her often wherever I am, especially at times when I need encouragement to give the time to the garden that it deserves.Back then, I was very keen to introduce a variety of herbs, both culinary and medicinal, into the vegetable garden.
Having spent time in Europe at the beginning of the sixties had radically changed my taste in food.The old staples – parsley, mint and mixed herbs – were no longer enough!
I was aware that my cooking lacked some of the wonderful flavours that come with French and Italian dishes, and over time, I could claim to have planted over 20 different species of herbs to call on and they were all doing well!
I was lucky to discover and be guided by a recently published little paperback called ‘Herbs for Health and Cookery ‘ by Claire Lowenfield and Phillipa Black, a battered and food-stained little treasure which I still have today,
Another ground-braking book that I was lucky to discover, and which has had a lasting influence on me when it comes to the creation of gardens is Edna Walling’s “Gardens in Australia – Their design and care” published in1944.
In what seemed no time at all, the family had grown along with the garden, and one more wonderful little girl joined the family.
Julie was born the day before my birthday in April 1967 – what a birthday gift! Then there was a pause of four years before my fourth daughter Megan arrived to complete the family in 1971 and what a great joy that was for us all!This meant, however that it was time to find a slightly bigger home, so we went house hunting again. I was rather sad to leave 11 Stanley Street and the neighbourhood of young families that had grown up around us, and especially my garden and the Manchurian Pear Tree. It had been a good home for bringing up a very young family over eight years,, and I remain very grateful for the stability and protection and happy environment it provided us with.
I needn’t have worried. We were very lucky to find a lovely property on five acres called The Cedars, just a little way out of town, and its former owner had been none other than the city’s director of parks and gardens.
There was little extra that we needed to do to the fine landscaped garden than to keep it trim and watered — other than to create another herb garden!
Unfortunately, life had become very busy and challenging in other ways, and my beloved herbs would have to wait their turn.
We were richly compensated, however, by discovering in springtime that the whole property was generously planted with lots of colourful Australian native shrubs, gifting me an enhanced awareness and appreciation of the great variety and beauty of Australian flora.
Up till then, most of the plants that I had come to know well, particularly flowering plants and shrubs, were mainly from the northern hemisphere.
Here, there was an abundance of grevilleas, banksias and bottlebrushes, eucalypts and wattles, and again, there was one that became a favourite.
They call it The Rose of the West or the Desert Rose from Western Australia.After little more than two short years at The Cedars, life took another turn or two, and it was now time to wind up life in the Riverina and embrace city life again. Our choice turned out to be a very happy one – the water-front suburb of Balmain in inner Sydney.