Spring is in the air and in my step – I’ve missed the sun. One of the great pleasures of a garden is sitting in it when the work is done. Sometimes I sit in it when puffed out by heavy hoeing. I’m aided and abetted in this by an old covered seat that looks like a bus-stop; it must have been installed decades ago when this used to be a tennis court. No tennis now – there’s a huge almond tree hanging right over the top of it, not to mention all the fruit trees, the compost heaps, the wood heap, the chook yard and my shed. I can see the hills from my garden seat, and the poplars in the school yard nearby that turn a gorgeous yellow in autumn before shedding their leaves and standing bare in the weak winter sunshine.
I was sitting on my garden bench last spring showing off to my youngest son (he’s still at that uncertain age where he is interested in what Dad is doing, and not yet old enough to spend effort trying to appear “bored” and disinterested in anything parental!). I was trying to increase his powers of observation, and spark his interest in the wonders of nature to be found in a suburban garden. I’d made a bet with him that I could spot ten different species of birds in ten minutes. Musk and Rainbow Lorikeets went screeching overhead at high-speed, a Crow and a Magpie-Lark were kicking up a discordant racket in the poplars, Yellow-Winged (New Holland) Honey-eaters were mucking about in the lemon-tree, the usual House Sparrows and Starlings went by in flocks, Indian Turtle doves flapped like blazes to gain height, then went into long flat spiral glides to get where they wanted to go. A flock of domestic pigeons flew overhead – I reckon they get free feed up at the Magill Grain Store which keeps them aloft. There was a White-Backed Magpie heading cross-country for the school oval.
Willy-wagtails in ones and twos alight on posts or garden stakes, swinging from side to side, ever on the lookout for flying insects. When they spot something, they flit up, turn a cart-wheel in the air, one can hear their beaks snap over their prey and then back to the post to await the next meal. In the past years there’s been a large flock of about fourteen Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos wheeling overhead as they make their stately progress between the pine trees in the district, where they can strip away the hard woody petals of the pine cones to get at the nuts inside. Tiny Grey-Backed Silver-Eyes always appear when I’m watering; they love to dash into the spray from the sprinkler, then back to the nearest tree. I’ve yet to work out whether they are feeding on something I can’t see, or just having fun. Sometimes White-Crescent Honey-Eaters come to poke about in the leaves of the fruit trees, or black-birds come to flip my mulch up and poke about underneath for slaters or worms. Rarer visitors down from the hills include Gray Thrushes, Adelaide Rosellas (after my almonds!), Gold Finches and Eastern Spinebills.
So on this glorious day last spring, I had no real difficulty spotting enough birds within the time I’d allowed myself, until I got to number nine. Smugness and complacency ended suddenly; a small bird landed almost over my head in the foliage of the almond tree, and turned this way and that to give me a good look at it. My jaw was hanging down on my chest, with small squeaks and groans and gasps coming forth; I’d no idea what it was! Its back was a beautiful bronze-green, the chest of pale cream was barred with pale brown stripes, and a white ring circled the eye. When the show was over, we dashed up to the house and the bird books – our visitor was a migratory Horsfield Bronze-Cockoo. There were two cuckoos in the garden that afternoon, and one of them was me! But what a feast for the senses, and a story to tell to my grand-children when this son has grown-up.
Where does the love of a garden begin? With me – the great romantic- it’s vegetables. Others grow flowers – I grow cabbages. My gifts to my true-love include brown mignonettes or curly-leafed lettuces, spring-onions, tomatoes and fresh basil, carrots and beans that snap like a pistol-shot when you bend them, capsicums and broccoli and sugar-loaf cabbages, shiny egg-plants and red and white potatoes and onions, strawberries, fresh peaches, apricots and dark purple Satsuma plums for jam. Yellow lemons for the salads dressing, along with olive-oil, balsamic and white vinegar, sugar and herb salt. Curley-leaved and Italian parsley with the tomatoes and sliced red-onions, with thyme to season our Sunday roast. Butternut pumpkins, onions and potatoes that don’t get scoffed down with those roasts hang out with leeks in winter soups.
Somewhere not far below my surface lurks a peasant, joining me to my Irish ancestors, all of whom were farmers. Perhaps gardening for me is an antidote to the high-tech world where I spend my days. Perhaps its that my Dad before me was a gardener, and I can’t imagine how modern folk live in the houses around me, with pocket handkerchief lawns and all their world under their Tuscan villa roofs. (They’re having some difficulty adjusting to the reality of my rooster, who thinks dawn is on the half-hour from 3am onwards!) Lucky for me I took my childhood stories seriously, and believed that life was ordered as the Brothers Grimm ordained it; that all young men should go forth into the world to seek their fortune. I’d scratched enough together by my late twenties to set off on my own adventure, and in a Youth Hostel in the wilds of Canada, met up with a small German girl from a small German village, who believed in food and cooking it the way I believe in food and growing it. Gardens and kitchens are a two-step! Two peasants make a home…
But I digress! The broccoli is coming to an end, the asparagus is shooting up out of its deep bed of compost, the broad beans are being fried with onion in olive-oil to feed my groaning sons. Life begins anew, and there’s little time for sitting on my bench as I rush to get the seedlings into the ground, and start to think of mulch and irrigation instead of slugs and water-logged garden paths. Spring has sprung, and I’m alive to enjoy it. What more could a man want?
[Circa September 2004: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer]