Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 21

Heat over the Veggie patch

January 2007: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

clip_image002“The door to the furnace of Africa is open” – so goes the old Italian saying when the temperatures climb into the mid-thirties. In the past few weeks, as temperatures soared to the low forties over my Australian veggie patch, the only thing moving in the garden by late morning is the gardener himself, and by then he’s slowing down too. Even the chooks have gone to ground in the shade under the lemon tree, scraping out shallow bowls in the moist earth which I have watered especially for them, and where they ‘hole up’ to keep cool during the middle of the day. Egg production has been dropping lately, and in the face of protest from my soft-hearted spouse, I’m muttering darkly about chicken soup and new hens.


No matter what the weather brings, garden I must. It’s early January, and I’m still trying to sort out the remnant chaos from the past year as I plant out chillies, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, luffa gourds, snake beans and Italian lettuces that should have been in the ground back in spring. This year I have abandoned bush beans, and have concentrated on climbing varieties, which produce heavier crops for longer and don’t force me to kneel down to pick them. Kneeling down is easy – it’s getting back up that is becoming increasingly creaky. So Lazy Wife and Purple-King beans climb my bamboo frames down the row from Giant-of-Stuttgart and Epicure beans. When the errant growing tips of these beans wander off-target and across my path, it’s my job to loop them around the nearest bamboo post and suggest that upwards might be more productive than sideways. The beauty of the big seeds from beans, corn, zucchini and cucumbers is that one can plant them in soil completely protected from the harsh mid-summer sun by a thick layer of pea-straw, and they’ll poke their way through when they are good and ready.

clip_image006So through my Christmas and New Year holidays I’ve been getting filthy, sweaty and tired, and loving it. Moving fence lines, mulching, shredding, sawing and stacking wood heaps is hot hard physical work, but at least my brain is resting, and new ideas spring forth of their own accord from my subconscious, which has been working on problems fed to it over the past year. Every half-hour it seems, I head up to the house for another glass of water, a handful of sultanas and almonds to fuel this lumbering old body, and to make a few quick sketches in my notebooks that record ideas for sensors and instruments that have popped into my head ready-formed. It’s the gardener in me telling the engineer about simpler and more accessible ways to monitor soil moisture and soil salinity, wetting fronts and deep drainage.

clip_image008Sometimes even I can be embarrassed by the shear quantity of fuel that I burn to get through this hard physical work. The cook’s fed-up too with my predations on the almond bin, and the sight of me standing cow-eyed at the back door hoping that lunch has magically appeared on the kitchen table. If the disapproving looks get too uncomfortable, I take to browsing in the garden on beans, plums and oranges to supplement my diet. Weeks pass, and order slowly emerges from chaos, despite all the many detours I have to track through in order to clear the way to the main job in hand.

clip_image010There’s something about chaos that presses uncomfortably on one’s life, and a threshold above which no decent gardener can sleep comfortably at night. Little problems niggle but remain unresolved, such as those blasted Indian Turtle-Doves that raid the chook-food in the automatic feeders. I’m starting to suspect them as a source of disease in the flock, and try various methods to keep them away. Unbidden, my mind wanders back to boyhood creations of sling-shots, box traps and air rifles.

clip_image012At last even the lawn is mown, and it’s time for Wally the scarecrow. For an inveterate recycler like me, throwing stuff out is both an admission of defeat and a failure of the imagination. So Wally takes shape from old Blundestone gardening boots below acid-burnt overalls stuffed with straw around a wooden skeleton hammered together. All this supports an aluminium billy-can head, over which I fit a grotesque latex mask that I bought for a Halloween party during my time in Canada. Back then, wearing this and those lap-laps from my time on Bougainville Island, and carrying a club I’d fashioned in the workshop, I must have looked like a real ‘Wantok’ from Papua-New-Guinea, because I don’t recall the evening being a social success. I fit Wally out with old cap and gardening gloves then stand him up against the barrow to introduce him to the cook. My sons are in fits – they much prefer the model of Wally from the construction phase, when he was lying under the wheel of the barrow as though it were me that had been run over. No point freaking her out though – she’s already teary because one of the chooks seems to be on death row. I’m going to have to outlive her, or she’ll be a train-wreck after my passing…
clip_image014Finally a very scary-looking Wally is completed and lashed to some wind-powered bamboos growing in the chicken yard. For good measure, I hang old CDs on threads so that the movement and flashes of reflected light add some chaos to the lives of those pigeons. Even the cook is happy, because tomorrow is Sunday, and I am sticking to my New Year’s resolution to give the poor girl a day off once in every seven. Breakfast of fresh squeezed orange juice, coffee, herb omelette and fresh fruit is prepared with love by the gardener. Later in the day there will be a roast or chops barbequed from that lamb I received as in-kind payment for some agistment I’d agreed upon with a farmer-mate up in the bush. Sage and onions get mixed into the mashed potatoes, and bowls of garden salad, roast pumpkin and sweet potatoes make up the side dishes. Perhaps there will even be a glass of beer to wash it all down with. While it’s not altogether a day off for the gardener, there is happiness in the air as the cook finally has a chance to put her feet up. I too have some time to write up my ideas, and to be inside the house, out of the heat and with guilt-free access to that barrel of almonds.


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