Happy Father's Day

Sunday, 06 September 2015

My father in his vegetable garden, 1957

Both my parents were very keen gardeners; both taught me different things about gardening. My artistic mother loves colour and I have learned much from her about using colour in the garden. Since today was Father's Day, I found myself thinking about what I learned from my father about gardening.

1. That gardening is a wonderful hobby - my father had keen gardening parents but had never gardened himself until he and Mum bought their house in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in 1950. At that time, my father was a medical student, but he always took Saturdays off from his studies, and spent that time gardening. He found relaxation and exercise in the garden and particularly enjoyed cutting up sandstone rocks to make myriad paths around the garden. Every weekend, for as long as I can remember when I was growing up, Mum and Dad spent hours working in the garden. At that time, I thought they were quite mad. I now understand how wonderfully therapeutic gardening can be as an antidote to stresses in the rest of our lives.

One of the many stone paths in the garden of my parents, Blue Mountains, NSW

2. That hard landscaping is important - before any planting really commenced, Dad spent many weekends building his paths, which formed the structure of the garden, dividing it into sections and providing access around the garden. These paths lasted at least 50 years, and were loved by little children to run along. The contrast of plants growing over and softening the hardness of the stone paths was one I have admired always. He also built trellises to screen one section of the garden from another. Later these were planted with climbing plants. Screening off one area of the garden from another is a great trick in making a garden seem larger and in allowing different garden 'rooms' to be created, and I have used this ploy myself.

3. That organic matter is vital for the soil - I don't recall my father ever buying a packet of chemical fertiliser. His mantra was that organic matter added to the soil was the most important way to improve soil fertility and plant health. The original soil in their garden was straight sand; after 50 years of the application of organic matter, it had become a beautiful loam. Compost heaps were dotted round the garden and all kitchen and garden refuse went into these. On trips to our grandmother's farm in the country, we kids were commandeered to collect cow manure from the paddocks - not always a pleasant task, especially when gardening gloves were in short supply! It would be shovelled into sacks and put on the roof racks for the long journey home. I can still recall that distinctive aroma! The manure would be dug into the garden or made into a particularly pungent 'manure tea' which would be applied to the plants as a tonic. These ideas have been vindicated over the years, with modern thinking underlining the importance of maintaining a thriving population of microorganisms in the soil to ensure healthy plants, by adding lots of organic matter .

I enjoy growing food crops, as my father used to, albeit on a smaller scale

4. That growing food is satisfying - my father's parents originally had a commercial citrus orchard in the Hills District of Sydney and also grew vegetables for the markets. After moving to the Southern Tablelands of NSW they continued to grow fruit and vegetables and were at one time almost self-sufficient in these. My father continued the tradition by planting a number of fruit trees in our garden and cultivating vegetables for many years. The joy of eating freshly picked fruit and vegetables was something we took for granted as kids; I am now at last growing some of my own crops in my garden and understanding how rewarding it can be, and wish I had paid more attention to his methods when I was younger.

In the garden of my parents, amongst the flowers, 1978

5. That growing vegetables and flowers from seed is cheap and fun - my father loved a bargain and never bought a punnet of seedlings in his life. As well as vegetables, he loved all the old-fashioned, romantic annual flowers that his mother had grown in her country garden - larkspurs, pansies, petunias, snapdragons, wallflowers, foxgloves, Nemesia, stock and hollyhocks - which he grew from seed every year. I can still picture him checking the progress of his seed punnets (which were actually shallow wooden boxes, possibly old drawers) every afternoon when he came home from work. These were carefully grown on and planted out in the garden when big enough. We always had a gorgeous display of annual flowers in our garden. I too have always been intrigued by growing plants from seed: the excitement of seeing a tiny seed germinate then grow into a plant never palls.

Some of the gardening books from my father

6. That reading gardening books is as enjoyable as gardening itself - my father, a keen bibliophile with a massive home library, gave me a gardening book for my birthday every year for about 20 years, once I began to take an interest in gardening. I have amassed a fair collection of gardening books over time, which have enriched my knowledge of plants and gardening immensely.

Sieve belonging to my father

7. That good-quality gardening tools will last - I still have my father's old wooden gardening sieve, which he used to sift compost for his seedlings. As I filter the compost from my own heap with the sieve, my hands grasp its sides probably exactly where his hands used sometimes to hold it, and my hands are starting to resemble those hands: spotted with age, ingrained dirt in the whorls of fingerprints. Whilst I will never see those hands again, the gardening lessons I garnered from my father are put into practice almost every single day of my life.