River Garden Diaries: Neighbourly Relations

We have no fences here at our home on the river. At first I thought it was romantic and wonderful. “There are no fences,” I exclaimed to anyone who would listen. “It’s just the river, our little patch and the national park. No borders, no walls, no confinement. Freedom!” A year on, and the romance has died. It’s been chewed up and shat out by our neighbours, the hordes of hungry wallabies who have discovered my penchant for planting juicy, tasty, green things.

The wallabies were tentative at first. I think it was the dog. Or maybe it was a calculated move to get me a bit too comfortable. I planted succulents, they were fine. I started striking cuttings from neighbours up the river. A salvia, a rosemary, some sedum. All growing nicely, minus protection. I had a propagation bench full of rare and beautiful things like begonias, hoyas and other weird bits and pieces. Nothing happened. I got complacent. I decided the wallabies weren’t that bad after all.

We returned after a weekend in the country to a scene of botanical destruction.”

All the cuttings I had so carefully nurtured were sticks in the ground. Sage, gone. Sedum, gone. Rosemary, gone. Cuttings were pulled out of their pots, succulent leaves were nibbled, geranium plants were stripped bare.

The attacks continued. There were tears one morning when I came outside to see a Dendrobium speciosum (Sydney rock orchid) that had just sprouted a new shoot pushed off it’s perch on a piece of sandstone, new shoot chewed off and spat out next to it.

I cried when I saw this Dendrobium speciosum knocked off it's rock, with it's only new shoot chewed off.

All of a sudden, I was building a fence in my head. A big fence, enclosing the entire property. I called my dad, the farmer, and quizzed him. How long would it take, when can I make it? Can he come up and help? What materials would I need?

I surprised myself. Here I was, a woman with a head full of romantic notions of creating a garden that connects so beautifully with the native bushland that it would be hard to tell where it began and the bush ended; yet suddenly I was planning to build walls to keep the wilderness out. What? Why?

I’ll try to unpack, but it’s not a course of enquiry that has an answer or an end. I guess the reason for my strong response to the wallaby attacks was this: I’ve been dreaming of having my own garden for all the years of my adult existence. The patch of dirt sandwiched between the river and the national park has the weight of this desire laden onto it. It is the place of my dreams. To begin to cultivate my dream garden and soon after see the first shoots chewed to the ground is heartbreaking. Hence the tears. Hence the fence.

But then, a garden is not an island. Imposing oneself on the land does not a good garden, or gardener, make.”

Whilst traditionally gardens have been seen as places of refuge for humans, these days I reckon they need to be sanctuaries for non-humans too. Like the possums that live in our boat shed roof and shit on our deck every night. The kookaburras, soldier flies, tawny frogmouths and centipedes. And the wallabies too. They all live here, who am I to kick them out? I have a tall boundary fence in my head but my heart says ‘slow down, cowgirl’.

Because nothing in the garden is as it seems on the surface.

The act of gardening touches on an incredibly broad set of questions of value, beauty, productivity, perspective, life and death.

It is a human act that ultimately influences the existence of many other lives – from wallabies to mosquitos, endemic native plants to weeds. From the smallness of a backyard to the vastness of an entire ecosystem, gardening touches all. This is why it’s important to think. To ask questions, and consider more than one answer. To explore notions of both romance and pragmatism and somehow find a pathway between the two.

In the case of my river garden and our hungry neighbours, I guess I just need to ask myself this: what is the best outcome for all the users of the space, not just me? I would like a wild and abundant garden; full of endemic native plants, weird exotics and succulents. I want a garden that provides food for birds and bees and insects and my family. The birds would like the same, I think. Perhaps with the addition of dense, spiky shrubs to protect the little ones from the big, and some water to wash in and drink. The insects and bees would love lots of flowers, lots of leaf litter and water too, I reckon. The wallabies, I think, want it all. That’s fine too.

I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do next. I already have a huge collection of chicken wire plant guards around my new plants but they’re growing out of them fast. Maybe the next stage is fenced off islands of planting, to protect new plants from the hungry mouths of the wallabies until they’re more established and can (hopefully) fend for themselves? Or perhaps I’ll end up with part of the property fenced and the other part a wallaby grazing ground? A compromise of sorts.

I wish I could talk to the wallabies. I love them. It’s been so dry for so many months and they’re obviously hungry and thirsty, coming further and further out of the bush for food. Of course they’re eating my plants. If I were them, I would too. I guess we just need to come to some sort of arrangement. I’m romantic enough to think we’ll get there in the end.


Wallaby or possum?
A caged in cucumber.