Nonna Corso’s Garden

I didn’t know that the word babysitter existed until I was seven. I was in grade two and had just started reading The Baby-Sitters Club. This fictional series was about a group of teenage girls who supervised younger children when their parents were busy for stone cold cash. This concept got me thinking; who was watching me when my parents were busy? The answer came quickly: My Nonna.

Nonna chilling on her balcony with her collection of hanging plants. If you look closely on the bottom left you can see the casserole dish turned planter she refuses to throw out. Image by Sam Wong, styling by Nat Turnbull

When you have an Italian background there is no such thing as a babysitter. My Nonna assumed this role the minute I was born. I spent most of my childhood at my Nonna’s Moonee Ponds house while my parents were at work. A typical day at my Nonna’s house involved our ritual morning walk to get coffee, followed by her forcing me to watch Days of Our Lives, me forcing her to watch The Muppets Take Manhattan, then me stinking out her kitchen with Maggi 2 Minute noodles for lunch, followed by her aerating the kitchen by zapping a lemon in the microwave. By the afternoon Nonna was generally tired and would send us (myself, my younger sister and cousins) outside ‘for some fresh air’, which is grandmother code for ‘leave me alone for five minutes’.

This was my favourite part of the day.

My Nonna’s garden has no real rhythm or structure. If my Nonna sees a flower she likes or thinks the price of eggplants are too unreasonable in the supermarket, she will dig a hole and plant them in her backyard.

The tapestry of her garden is similar to the makings of a patchwork quilt – in one section she propagates orchids as if she is vying for the Blue Ribbon at the royal show. In another section she is salvaging eggshells from her frittatas for her homemade compost. Anything goes in Nonna’s garden.

My Nonna’s garden wasn’t always this way. She and my late grandfather moved into their Moonee Ponds home on Boxing Day in 1969 with my father and his brother and sister. When they bought the house ‘the garden was rubbish, it had nothing, it was empty,’ my Nonna recalls. In Italy both my grandparents had lived on farms where they didn’t have much and relied on the produce they grew in order to get by. Immediately they filled their empty land with basically any tree that spawned a fruit or vegetable. After a few years my grandparents’ front and back gardens were sprawling with olive, fig, feijoa, plum, prickly pear, peach and lemon trees to name a few. They threw in some proteas and geraniums for good measure and a nod to the new country they called home. They also grew grapes, which technically do not grow on trees, so they wrapped the grapevines around the corrugated carport giving their garden an Ancient Rome meets the Outback quality.

The front garden featuring her feijoa and protea trees. Whoever said chevron was dead was wrong, look at her home's facade! Image by Sam Wong, styling by Nat Turnbull
The backyard is a suburban jungle oasis, until you look up and see the massive satellite that sends her Italian cable. Instantly you are brought straight back to reality. Image by Sam Wong, styling by Nat Turnbull

The pride of my Nonna’s garden for a long time was the olive tree that my grandfather planted in the middle of the front garden when they first moved in. Years after his death in 1981, my Nonna would annually harvest all of the olives and begin the laborious task of salting, preserving and pickling the fruit in his memory. Thirty years since the tree was originally planted it got sick. At first my Nonna tried to ignore it, but what was once a lush tree dripping with fruit became a barren eyesore and she was forced to have it removed.

While getting ‘some fresh air’ in my Nonna’s garden as a child, I ate fruit off trees, performed the latest pop song dance choreography on her concrete balcony to adoring invisible fans, and learnt that the juice of blood plums had many uses from fake lipstick to a prop when pretending I was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Eventually as us grandchildren all graduated from primary school, my Nonna’s babysitting shifts began to diminish. For the first time in her life, she had this thing called ‘spare time’.

‘I started gardening more when you all went to high school,’ she says. ‘I like to do things and can’t just sit here all day doing nothing and reading. My eyes will burn!’ Nonna had always grown an assortment of flowers for as long as I can remember, but her interests soon shifted to growing vegetables and herbs. Her resources are limited, but this 76-year-old is resourceful. Nonna got the old unused shed knocked down, found some Styrofoam boxes, recycled anything that could be considered a planter from bakelite casserole dishes to her original 1960’s enamel bath and started to unconsciously design her own little veggie patch from scratch.

She now grows everything from chillis, tomatoes, zucchini flowers, cucumbers, silverbeet, capsicums, eggplant, oregano, basil, and mint (even though she doesn’t like it).

The best things to come out of her garden and into her kitchen are dried chilli flakes, pickled eggplants, and homemade zucchini flower fritters that she will call me immediately after frying them to say: ‘Lisa, I have zucchini flower fritters. They are hot,’ which is also grandmother code for ‘When are you going to visit me?’

The blue enamel bath was an original feature from the bathroom she and my grandfather designed when they moved in. The entire bathroom was blue, the tiles, the bath, the toilet, even the soap bar. About two years ago Nonna got her bathroom redesigned by an Italian tradie, and by redesigned she basically switched everything that was blue to pearlescent tiles. Going to the toilet at her house now is similar to doing your business inside an oyster shell. The tradie offered to offload the bath to his friend. Nonna was having none of that and told him she had bigger plans for it. ‘I now grow cucumbers and tomatoes in it. Well try to, this year only cucumber leaves and two tomatoes have grown.’ Outraged she says, ‘The tomato plant cost $4.50 and it gave me only two tomatoes. Your dad spent more than $4.50 in petrol to drive me to buy that plant!’

Her greatest garden victory to date is her line of potted orchids that sit on the front verandah beneath her bedroom window. ‘Zia Sarina gave me one plant from the Royal Melbourne Show the first year she got married (1985), from that one I grew the rest.’ Nonna propagated the original plant and now has nine pots of lavishly grown and healthy orchids, not to mention the many pots she has given away as gifts over the years. You are pretty much in with Nonna if she has gifted you a pot; orchids are her favourite flower. ‘I have given them to your mother, friends, the lady across the street and they always kill them! The rest are all mine.’ I try and explain to her that not everyone has her gift of gardening. Nonna says she doesn’t have a gift, she just has her hands.

Photos by Sam Wong

Styling by Nat Turnbull

Nonna's orchids in various pots, her favourite pot is the metallic rose one she bought in the 1960's. 'It had fake flowers in it, but I put real ones in it instead,' she says. Image by Sam Wong, styling by Nat Turnbull
The back concrete balcony also know as my childhood stage. Image by Sam Wong, styling by Nat Turnbull
From bath to garden bed, renovating Nonna style means nothing gets thrown out. Image by Sam Wong, styling by Nat Turnbull
Chillis and tomatoes, two of Nonna's favourite things to grow. Disclaimer: She pretty much forced me to take everything in those baskets home. Image by Sam Wong, styling by Nat Turnbull