River Garden Diaries: Composting jellyfish and other meanderings

I’m growing vegetables. It’s been a long time coming, this new venture of mine. It started about six months ago, after a wallaby-attack-induced breakdown. I found a big roll of fencing wire for $10 at a junk shop and decided it was a sign that I needed to fence our entire property. All 1500 square meters. My parents, visiting at the time, convinced me otherwise. ‘Why don’t you just start by fencing off a vegetable garden?’ they gently suggested. A few hours later I had a small, yet secure, patch. Hope had returned to my heart, and my garden.

In the plant world, there’s a fuzzy line between the cultivators of aesthetics, and the growers of food. I am not great at either, but more familiar with the former – what we, in the business, call ornamental horticulture. The last time I had my own vegetable garden was sometime in the late 1980s. I was a keen gardener’s apprentice as a child, so mum gave me a patch at the end of her garden to grow my own things. I decided it was easier to grow weeds than veggies so set about transplanting the weeds from Mum’s garden into it. She wasn’t impressed, and the enterprise didn’t last long. I’m hoping my current foray into the realms of production horticulture is a little more enduring.

My vegetable patch is an island of potential among the desolation of the rest of the garden (though garden is, perhaps, too strong a word for the land under my care).”

With a wire mesh fence to keep the wallabies out and a net over the top to possum-proof it, it’s not the most beautiful thing I’ve designed, but golly, the joy it brings outweighs (nearly) all aesthetic concerns.

On top of my vegetable garden’s aesthetic issues, there’s a very big practical one: soil. The ancient sandstone-derived soil where we live is about as nutrient rich as cardboard. This is fine for locally endemic native plants but not so fine for nutrient hungry edible plants. I’ve added bag upon bag of cow poo, layer upon layer of lucerne mulch, and can’t make compost fast enough.

An aside: One of the most striking personal transformations since moving to the river has been my evolution from moderate compost appreciator to a decompositional fanatic. Everything is fodder for the compost heap. My latest plan is to test out jellyfish compost – dead ones wash up occasionally on low tide – I’m sure they’ll add something to the mix.

My obsession is now influencing family decision making. We’ve been promising chickens to my partner’s kids since we moved here. Recently I’ve been suggesting quails as an alternative because they’re smaller and shorter lived than chickens, therefore easier to bury in a compost heap when their day comes. My step-kids were suitably unimpressed by my reasoning. They think I’m dreadfully morbid. All I can see is beautiful, dark, life sustaining compost.

Thanks to the compost, cow shit and my (mostly) regular care, the veggie garden is full of half-happy plants. There’s lettuce, garlic, silverbeet, sorrel, leeks, kale, some kind of Italian broccoli and a big patch of parsley. The happiest plant of all is, of course, a weed. The chickweed patch is impressive and is harvested for use in dal and herbal infusions. The radishes don’t seem to know they’re radishes – they’ve got superb foliage on top but not much going on down below, whilst the broad beans are the vegetable du jure for local rodent colonies.

A second aside: I thought I had regained some kind of control over the local wildlife with my fence and bird netting combo enclosing the vegetable garden. Silly me. My measures have just shortened the list of potential furry visitors. Rats, mice or antechinus, I’m not sure which, are the latest guests.

My vegetable garden is not much. But holy hell it’s something to me. As August’s westerly winds whip themselves against the handful of crunchy-but-surviving natives planted next to our pathway, my vegetable garden grows. As the rain refuses to appear and the soil threatens to forget it’s touch, my vegetable garden grows. As I dilly-dally towards fence making, garden designing and big picture imagining, my vegetable garden grows. Slowly and ungainly, my vegetable garden grows.

I wanted a farm once, or acreage at least, but my 16 square meter vegetable patch feels like the right size for me right now (until I get my quail and jellyfish compost cooking!). There’s something about it’s scale and enclosure that appeals to me. Perhaps it’s because it’s the only spot in my garden where I feel as though I have a semblance of control? (It’s an illusion, I know, but strangely satisfying at the same time). It’s small enough to keep watered, and I know at least some of the wildlife are excluded. Whilst it’s soil is sad, the space is small enough that I can do something about it.

My small and rough little patch of earth is a place of action. It’s a daily reminder to me that with care, attention and action life grows. It won’t grow the way I want it to, or think it should, but grow it will nonetheless.

My vegetable garden is not just a garden. It’s a world, a universe. Everything – life force, mystery, disaster, promise, beauty, decay – is found within its fences. This depth, vastness, truth and opportunity is why my small, scrappy garden is my temple – a place I can cultivate both myself and the earth.

I’m off now, the tide is low and the jellyfish are waiting.