Clare James is the Thriftiest Gardener

This past Sunday we loaded the back of my stationwagon with tubs, Ikea bags, plastic bins and a couple of shovels and drove less than 1km to where ‘X’ marked the spot. On an earlier walk I had discovered valuable treasure beside the cemetery, slightly hidden from view. A mound of rotting woodchips! Free (I assumed) to the thriftiest gardener in town.

In just a couple of trips we had removed every last bit of this beautifully sweet, fungal laced, microbe laden treasure. I began to put it on the garden – one scoop at a time – to avoid the emerging seeds and dormant perennials so close to reappearing after winter.

A few days earlier I worked over the same garden bed, hand weeding and tucking well-rotted chook and guinea pig poo around these spoilt plants. I imagine the newest layer being like a quilt, tucking around all of the plants and keeping them safe from the current frosts and scorching heat to come.

I am a thrifty gardener. Partly through a lack of money, partly through the thrill of free things, partly in defiance of the wasteful world that we live in and partly because you can’t always buy what you want.”

Clare James and Dobby the Quaker parrot

I gather twigs for my pot belly stove at the skate park while the girls scoot around. My husband loads his little hatchback with ‘free’ firewood from recently cut down road-side trees. We rake leaves from the park in autumn to make leaf mould for the following year. I shake interesting seeds into my pocket from other people’s gardens. I love taking cuttings, swapping seeds and trading rhizomes.

There is something magic in gathering together the many components of a garden, especially when you don’t have to haemorrhage money to do so.”

Maybe thrift is in my blood? I spent my childhood watching my mum feed handfuls of oily fleece into her spinning wheel to the soundtrack of ‘clickity click, clickity click’ and later watching her knit the wool she’d spun into a beautiful jumper. I’d find my dad hand-making mudbricks, mixing together clay from our bush block with straw and water, forming one brick at a time, to build my childhood home.

My husband Mark and I have an equal love of free or found things. On a road trip around Australia we made an ongoing list of everything we found along the way. This list included rope, tent pegs, a wrapped muesli bar, soap in a soap dish, shampoo, a fishing reel, occy straps and even a $100 note! We were thrilled to find what others had left behind. We even ate half a brownie left on someone’s plate in a café in Broome! (That one was a dare that Mark went through with!)

Clare's daughters Lylah and Olive

Recently our children were drawing cycles. Tadpole to frog, caterpillar to butterfly, acorn to oak tree. I suggested that they make a drawing of the cycles in our garden that related to growing food. They came up with so many connections – like the weeds being fed to our guinea pigs, whose manure and bedding is then used to grow veggies that, in turn, feed us.

Our food scraps are divided between a chook bucket, guinea pig bucket and worm bucket in the kitchen. The chooks eat our scraps and weeds producing eggs and manure and also help remove pests. The worms devour our waste and make nutrient rich plant food. Excess fruit and vegetables get bottled, preserved or gifted to others. All of these cycles happen for free. Not really through thriftiness, but through what makes sense to us as gardeners.

Even on one third of an acre it’s amazing how much food can be produced and how many connections can be created to do so.”

As we have grown our garden, from a rectangle of solid grass just 10 years ago into a busy place of fruiting trees, vegetable gardens, pet enclosures and a healthy and ever growing number of ornamentals, I’ve lost count of all the free and readily available materials we’ve brought in to build healthy soil. We’ve picked up horse and cow poo from friends paddocks, reused cardboard and newspaper for covering unwanted weeds, gathered our neighbour’s lawn clippings and collected many loads of fallen leaves. Our soil is rich and healthy as a result. All these valuable additives and conditioners have cost us no money, just a little time.

Through Instagram I’ve met many likeminded gardeners. Through this, I’ve organised a seed swap morning tea and had people in their 20s through to their 80s come along with packets of home-grown seeds from their gardens. We passed the seeds around taking a spoonful, or a pinch, and labelling as we went. That afternoon everyone left with a new seed library that not only would grow new plants, but plants that told a story.

When I take cuttings, seeds or plant divisions from other people I feel like it creates an invisible connection between us and our gardens. It gives plants another meaning besides how they look.”

To walk through my garden and have plants from my family, best friends and neighbours gardens – from strangers I’ve chatted with and plants from people I’ve never even met but received in the post from Instagram friends – I feel a sense of community. I happily share plants from my garden to many visitors, knowing that the plant swap web is ever expanding.

I will always be a thrifty gardener. Maybe because I know that my chosen career as an artist is one that allows me to be creative but doesn’t make much income. Or is it something that I can’t help doing? I don’t know. Either way, I will always be the lady who fills a bag or two with rotting seaweed when visiting the beach, or stops on the side of the road to pick apples – not because I am a total tight arse but because it makes sense. There is so much out there waiting to be turned into rich, sweet, healthy soil, and if you have that you can grow anything. Anything!

We visited Clare James’s garden earlier this year and wrote about it here.