While looking for a photo of something else, I came across an old photo of how our garden looked a long time ago, and that set me off on a pleasant little search through drawers and boxes of photos to chart how our garden has changed down through the years. And as I did so I kept on humming that lyric from the Paul Kelly song "I've Done all the Dumb Things".
Let's start with the present, a photo of the garden taken a week or two ago, in November 2008.
And here it was in "the beginning" in the middle of 1991, when we had just bought the house from a lovely Greek couple, Jim and Angela. The white-painted olive and citrus trees are a very Greek thing. Some say the white paint keeps the trunks cool during hot, dry summers (but Sydney has hot, fairly wet summers). Others say the white limewash repels ants (but Jim had used white acrylic paint). Oh well, I'm sure the look reminded him of home, and that's a good reason to do it, anyway. The compost bin was my first purchase. I still have it as a back-up bin, but it soon proved to be a poor performer. The shed, painted olive-green, housed a motorbike back then. Now it's part of Pam's art studio. No greater love hath a man for a woman than to give her his shed! And note where the shed door used to be, and is now. Makes quite a change to the look for such a little change.
By 1992-3 I had begun a steady encroachment into the lawn, hacking away grass and replacing it with all sorts of successes and failures as I learned a bit about gardening along the way. Look closely and on the left side you can see a set of screwdrivers poked into the lawn, marking out the next encroachment.
1993 and the land grab gains pace, steppers are laid straight onto the soil to provide wobbly access to the experimental range of herbs, flowers and salad greens I was learning to grow. A truly crummy little fence of logettes utterly fails to keep the rampant lawn away from the garden beds.
A few weeks later and the plantings get going. Tomato stakes mark my first moderately disastrous attempt at tomato growing. I learnt through that experience that Sydney summers are full of a whole ecosystem of plant and fruit munching insect pests which love tomatoes more than any other plant.
Not sure of the exact vintage of this shot, but let's say it's 1994-5. I've begun to whittle back the lawn from both sides. It's not a great look, but I just wanted more space to grow things, and chipping away at the lawn had an historical inevitability about it! The next few years settled down into a steady state, with plantings changing constantly as I had a go at growing this, tried growing that, and generally got a feel for how to grow things and keep them happy. The problem was, everything grew too well, and we ended up with a bit of a jungle.
These photos are dated January 1999, and by then I was in trouble. We'd trained a passionfruit vine over the pergola attached to the house, and it was dense and productive, but it was a light-blocker and made the back of the house very dark.
While I've tried to keep all the blog photos taken from the same viewpoint, I thought I'd switch the view for a moment to show the passionfruit bossing us around. The paving here is, like the white-painted tree trunks, a very Greek thing that you find in countless backyards in my district.
By 2000, shrubs such as the Grevillea on the far right had made a mockery of the plant labels which said they'd reach 1.5-2m, and had reached 3m all round. We'd got to the point where we wanted to start all over again...
And then Pam came in with this photo (above) in her hand and said "I want this. Paving up the centre leading to the shed, little side paths off that to improve access." And so that's what we did. (The photo is from an article in the 'Good Weekend' magazine, the Saturday colour mag of the Sydney Morning Herald, written by gardening writer Cheryl Maddocks. I'm not sure who took the photo, but as Cheryl is also a very good photographer, I presume it's hers.)
Please forgive yet another dodgy Photoshop cut-and-splice job on two photos, to create the panorama above, but here's the garden soon after Pam's inspired suggestion, after we got the paving boys in to change everything for the better. A lot of plants went out into the mini skip along with the turf, as we decided to just keep the trees and a few favourite plants, and start again from scratch. All I can say is this: if your garden feels like a sea of troubles and you don't know where to start the process of 'reform', be ruthless and start from scratch. My overwhelming sense at this time was a mixture of excitement and relief. Best thing we've ever done out here.
This close-up shows the handy little footpaths that still make it easy to get to all sorts of crops and plantings. On the left, our beloved curry tree in its former pot, which it cracked a few years later as its roots flexed their muscles. (And looking at the shed, I've just realised that I've got the photos slightly out of order, if you check the previous shot. At around the same time we did the paving, we built the new Tardis shed for me, repainted both sheds, and moved the door on the original shed to its new position, lining up with the paving.)
Our taste for ruthlessness whetted, we then decided to get rid of a perfectly healthy cherry guava, the tree in the centre of this shot. It produced vast numbers of very sour, cherry-sized red fruits full of seeds that invaded every pot and plant near it. And it was on the eastern boundary and robbed the garden of a surprising amount of sunshine. Trees are a bit like the whales of gardens, and removing a tree feels like you've just fired off a harpoon at a beautiful, defenceless, gentle creature. But once the guilt passed, that part of our garden started to thrive again.
The removal of the cherry guava revealed one disaster over which we had little control. Our neighbour erected a large and ugly double garage, in the process demolishing a wobbly old timber fence whose time was up. The stark ugliness of the new metal fence and the awful brickwork posed quite a challenge, but we're working on it. The brick garage is almost covered now by a creeping fig (Ficus pumila) and the addition of a grevillea and a rosemary bush where the guava once stood has covered a fair bit of the fence. The other victim of the new garage was our old lemon tree, which was struggling along despite the rot in its trunk. Being robbed of so much morning sun seemed to be the last straw for it. However, a new lemon tree is rapidly rising in its place.
One aesthetic problem was that the compost bins etc at the back weren't a great look, so we planted a couple of murrayas to form a hedge-screen.
This is around 2005-6, and the garden has taken on the look which it retains today, give or take the endless changes in what we're growing here. In the left foreground is the rosemary bush, the most wonderfully fragrant rosemary plant I've ever met. Just brushing past it gently sent up the loveliest scent. The only problem was that Pam hated the way it blocked her view of the garden from her office window. So we moved the bush very slowly, taking several cuttings and planting them straight into their new spot. About a year later, when the cuttings had taken and were growing strongly, I reluctantly removed the original plant, and Pam got a better view.
Every now and then I like to completely clear a garden bed and start from scratch. After removing the rosemary bush in the bed in the left foreground, I also pulled out all the roses ('Just Joey' a gorgeously scented apricot-coloured rose that was also a display centre for every known rose pest and disease imaginable) and a row of lavender bushes. This bed would become the home to my winter poppy patch, and in summer a potager garden of flowers and salad greens.
A Santa gnome in the foreground says it must be Christmas 2007. His name is Ravi, named after a good friend of ours. Returning home from Ravi's birthday lunch, we spotted some gnomes in a garden centre in northern Sydney. We didn't have a Santa gnome, and naming him was easy that day. In the background, for the last few summers I've grown blue-flowered salvia, and it's the most wonderful plant. Very hardy, it starts flowering in early December and it's still in bloom in April.
1991 and a big swathe of lawn. An inexperienced gardener just wanting so much to get started, without a clue in the world as to where to begin. It's still just as much fun, learning all the time, still making mistakes galore, still thinking about what I'm going to do next. Happily, joyfully, addicted to gardening.
If there are any lessons worth passing on from our 17 years here in amateur-land, they are quite simple.
For one thing, being ruthless is a great way to stop your garden becoming a hospital ward for sick plants. Sometimes you need to clear the decks and start again.
Secondly, sometimes a tree or large shrub which robs nearby plants of light, space and moisture has to go. This backyard was overplanted with trees when we bought the property in 1991, and cutting back the number of trees was very important to maintaining the garden's overall sunniness, health and vigour. In this small space, it originally had 2 olive trees, 1 orange, 1 mandarin, 1 lemon, 1 fig, 1 tamarillo, 1 bay tree, 1 strawberry guava and 1 ornamental cherry, all around the perimeter fences. If they had remained there would have been shade on all sides and just a puddle of sunshine in the middle. Only the two olive trees survive, and we do get our arborist to prune them for us to control their size. And we have replaced the old lemon tree with a new one, and replaced the orange tree with the espaliered lime tree. And of course we now have a handsome curry tree contained in a pot, plus the potted cumquats.
Finally, growing plants the organic way, feeding the soil by using manure and mulches, has huge benefits for soil quality in the long run. Each year the soil gets softer, richer, more full of worms and other goodies, as the gentle feeding, composting and mulching routine slowly takes effect. When we started, the soil was fairly heavy clay, and now it's a much more pliable loam in which most plants seem to be happy to grow. It takes time for the benefits of organic soil-feeding to be felt, but it probably has been the most important thing we've done here to create a healthy garden.