Sharing a backyard garden
In the past year of bushfires, floods and lockdown there’s been a resurgence in making homes the place where you can grow real tomatoes, pick your own salads or sniff the herbs outside your kitchen.
Even a studio unit can become a “home farm” if you’re prepared to put in the infrastructure. Green walls can give any home self-sufficiency in salad veg and greens as well as flowers and herbs. Grow lights mean that you don’t even need sunlight to garden. The heating that keeps you warm in winter will keep your basil and beans and cucumbers growing, too.
You need money for both. Enough grow lights for a decent crop will cost a thousand dollars or more. Green walls need good engineering or you may have floor or ceilings collapsing from their weight or damp rot. Nonetheless, canny growers can grow a surprising amount in recycled bathtubs, home-made hanging baskets or giant pots made from old tins cans, possibly painted in bright hues.
A veggie garden can start producing in six weeks, with young greens for salads, stir-fries, stews and soups.
Others are taking over neglected gardens. Most Australian gardens are pretty much ignored, planted out with shrubs and a lawn that becomes a chore to mow. Now, the young and energetic who can’t afford their own garden and the retired and experienced who have downsized but miss having their fingers in the soil are spearheading a movement to turn waste space into small urban farms. Sometimes this is a part of a group movement sharing expertise and tools. More often, however, it’s neighbours or friends joining to transform a “too big to bother with” space into a garden and a share of the produce. And often companionship, too.
How to begin? Ask around. Put up a notice on the front gate saying “Garden to share” or pop a note in the neighbouring letterboxes.
Just like online dating, keep it at arm’s length to begin with. Start with letters, emails or texts. Again, just like online dating, be very sure of what both sides expect. Put it in writing so there’s no confusion. I’d suggest a six-month trial to make sure both sides are happy with no recriminations if things end then. This means that the first crops may just be beds of fast-growing annuals, veggies and flowers rather than berries or fruit trees.
Things to include when sharing a garden
- Length of tenure. It can take three years for a good crop of asparagus and five years for fruit trees to crop. Even if you both intend a long-term commitment, job and family changes can mean that one side of the partnership needs to move. Be open about the possibility.
- What happens if we terminate? Hopefully there’ll be enough notice on both sides for the current crop to be harvested, but what if the garden owner is left with a backyard of garden beds that need weeding, mulching and picking or they’ll become a pest-breeding mess? Possibly a “termination bond” might be agreed to pay someone to put the garden into a “well-mulched sleep” state till another sharecropper can be found, or to compensate the gardeners for the crops they’ll lose if they can’t access the garden.
- Who pays for what? I’d suggest that the owner of the land pays for anything that will stay on the property like fruit trees or vines, permanent herbs like lavender, rosemary and thyme, taps, chook sheds and tanks. The gardeners pay for seeds, fertiliser and seedlings.
- Garden design. This is where things can go badly wrong. My ideal garden is a sprawl of flowers and veg with mulch between — anathema to those who like neat, straight, raised beds (pests like neat, raised, straight garden beds too). Talk about the kind of gardens you love and expect and be frank. Gardens need a lot of love and work, and it would be a tragedy to waste one when it’s not a love the owner shares.
- Sharing the crop. This is also worth clarifying right from the start. Can the garden owner go and pick, pluck and collect the eggs as they wish, or will they be given a box of produce on the back steps once or twice a week? Will it be 50/50 or 60/40?
- What tomatoes do you like best? If you can get this right, you are possibly on the path to paradise. Do you both love deep-ridged, old-fashioned cooking tomatoes that don’t slice neatly but burst with flavour? Are you a potato eater who will delight in a King Edward or pot of Purple Congos? Do you use parsley or coriander? Are peas your passion? This is one area where you don’t need to agree, just to compromise. Grow a few favourites for their delight alone. Be sure to have a willingness to try new vegetables, new varieties and new tastes. Have you ever tried oca? Jerusalem artichokes? Tiny chokos? How about having a go at your first half dozen jars of tomato kasundi?
A veggie garden can start producing in six weeks, with young greens for salads, stir-fries, stews and soups. In three months, you may have peas or potatoes, beans and corn. Within a year, a backyard — or even the front garden — can easily supply two households with veg, eggs and small fruit like strawberries, rhubarb, tamarillos, cape gooseberries and much more. Flowers like sweet peas, sunflowers or zinnias delight the eye and soul for those who can see them through the window, but also give a plentiful supply to pick to brighten another home.
And if it doesn’t work exactly as you planned? There’ll still have been joy and hands in the earth and more greenery given to the planet.