Over the Fence: On Marsupials and Garden Making

I had put off building the fence. There was gardening to be done. A few precious months earlier I had taken leave of working in other people’s gardens to make my own at an abandoned nursery set amongst coastal scrub, once gravelled and levelled, now littered with collapsing structures and partly reclaimed by weeds and wattles. Tidying it up was a long process, primarily because I don’t really tidy. In reality, I accumulated junk. I tend to make things harder than they need be –  turning the smallest task into a vision quest, chiefly through my avoidance of machinery and tendency to overthink. It is quite normal for me to dispose of an abandoned van by butchering its carcass with an old axe, all windows preserved for a future greenhouse. You see the problem?

Spring arrived and I was still pulling down, and “curating” junk but I had to get planting – I had a semi-functional poly tunnel pumping with seedlings planted in winter. My vision was vague. For 20 years I have worked in public gardens where the goals were clear: public displays to impress and inspire, perennial borders, plant collections, vegetable displays. Paths were raked, borders clipped and pruning calendars set. Bound up in this was my gardener’s sense of self-worth. I took this mindset with me to my own garden – initially I wanted to create my “masterwork”. It took me a while to realise that I was not looking for a garden to impress, a list of jobs to do, the right way and time to do things, the clever combinations.

My own aesthetic was clunky low fi – concerned about memory, making, experimenting and production. Rather than grand design, I started with a pioneer crop of sunflowers, pumpkins and corn. My biggest problem was I actually loved the weeds and the rust.

Into this muddle bounded the wallaby. He would wait until I had built up some hope, then crush it overnight. Months of preparation for vegetables were mown down. Luckily, I had given up trying to impress.

I have seen this before with gardeners. The energy and anger when the wildlife becomes adversary. Gardener honour is at stake.  I had had a romantic notion of the garden melding with its wild surroundings tolerating some losses; after all, the bush seemed to cope. The reality was continual mass destruction.

Unfortunately, I could see the wallaby’s point. Around me the chainsaws whirred as neighbours converted primeval bush into suburban dreams. There’s not much marsupial tucker in plunge pools, paved patios and purple Pennisetum.”

I never succumbed to scaring it. We would meet on friendly terms – “Evening Ralph, Evening Sam.” Here’s where the fence comes in. Maybe good fences do make good neighbours.

Bill Bampton

Making the fence changed everything. Historically, it is where gardening begins, the word itself tracing back to the proto Indo-European word gher “to grasp or enclose.” In a colonial society like Australia the fence also has other heavy and uncomfortable baggage. It speaks of possession/dispossession, dominion, a battle against the bush. My newly fenced garden, with its cottagey cacophony within, brings to mind images of settler gardens. In some ways there is an honesty about it. The 18th century British landed class, who profited from the enclosure of once Common lands, set a fashion for open landscape parks whose main goal seemed the obliteration of evidence of the very structures that supported them. They even invented the ha-ha – the fence that isn’t.

The fence has sharpened my horticultural doublethink.  Somehow, I am both the gardener whose first treasured garden book was Glen Wilson’s Landscaping with Australian Plants and who spent years hand weeding bushland, as well as the gardener who spent the last decade tinkering with colonial era exotics in heritage gardens. It’s likely that better gardeners could mend this disconnect. I seem to have gained strength from accepting the division. Finally, with a fence I can play with plants that would seem ridiculous melding into the scrub; Dahlia ‘Ernestina’ you now have a home!

The way I now behave in the garden is different too – less timid and apologetic. And my relationship with the local wildlife has evolved to neighbourly coexistence rather than latent hostility.”

Still, there is a small section of the old nursery stock garden that lies outside the fence, neither bush nor garden. It’s colonised by escapees: French lavender, Leonotis, mingled with weeds like bunny tails (Lagurus) and self-sown natives sheoaks, coastal daisy and Austrostipa.  The French Gardener Gilles Clément calls this the third landscape, the wasteland neither natural nor cultivated. Oddly enough, I have fenced myself out of this section and now require a ladder to get in. I intend to “garden” this sporadically. I will prune and selectively remove the truly noxious species, but I will not plant. Perhaps this is a project the wallaby and I can take on together?

A year has passed since I started working on the garden. It is slowly emerging in sketch form within the frame of the fence. Evening falls, I open the garden gate and our eyes meet, he freezes mid chomp, mouth full of tomato foliage. Then, with slight encouragement the wallaby bounds away, over the fence.