WEEDS are not the enemy in Barbara Hallet’s garden. Describing herself as “messy but productive”, she has a relaxed attitude to garden surprises.
“Weeds are only what nature plants when you leave a space,” she says. “You can’t fight nature. You can only work with it.”
On Wednesday, Mitchell House Harvest Centre in Wonthaggi will host a talk by Barbara on seed saving, gardening and vegetarianism. She will give out seeds from her North Wonthaggi garden and answer gardening questions.
While she is far from being a dogmatic gardener – “you win some, you lose some,” she says – she does have a firm answer for anyone wanting to know what to do about problematic soils. Whether they are asking about clay or sand, her answer is the same: compost. It gives body to the sand and aerates the clay.
She keeps all her grass clippings and mulches all her cuttings. The man who mows her lawns brings her the clippings from other places. “That produces enough compost so I don’t have to buy any in.” Over 50 years of composting and tilling, the soil on her half-acre property in North Wonthaggi has grown so fertile and friable that she could dig it with a spoon.
I visit her garden on the first day of spring as the garden is emerging from its winter hibernation. We start in what she calls the “home garden”, nearest the house. Most of her plants are perennial or self-seeding, which means she discovers new seedlings every day – kale, radishes, silver beet, lettuce, peas, broad beans. She points to a patch of broad beans over a metre high. “I wasn’t going to grow any broad beans this year but they came up. I thought ‘you’ve tried so hard, I’ll fence you off’.”
Several rows of different peas are growing already. She starts them off in trays and transplants them once they’re big and tough enough to withstand the snails. She points to a row of snow peas that have been savagely chomped. “You don’t win every battle.”
She leaves the parsley to self-seed. Clumps of mild Russian garlic come up every year and are transplanted around the garden. “My father-in-law gave me a bulb of it 50 years ago and I’ve never been without it since.”
Rows of different garlics are interspersed with spring onions, shallots, several sorts of kale, silver beet and lettuce. Her favourite lettuce is the oakleaf, which grows all through winter, but she also grows cos and other varieties in a north-facing patch outside her sitting room.
A huge red mustard plant began life as a culinary plant but she now grows it because she likes the striking purple leaves. On a still, sunny morning, the garden is alive with bees. The plum trees are in full bloom, as are the borage and mizuna. “It’s crowding out the celery,” Barbara says, “but I leave it for the bees. You’ve got to look after the workers.”
It helps that she doesn’t use pesticides. “I’m a pacifist in the garden,” says this long-time vegetarian. She doesn’t stress over the wandering jew – “It stops other weeds growing” – the chickweed, the oxalis or the kikuyu. She used to put the kikuyu runners in a black plastic bag then put it into the rubbish until she had a light bulb moment. Now, once they’re dried off, she uses them as a mulch on her vegetable beds and a very good mulch indeed. Apart from conserving moisture, the kikuyu seems to deter snails and black birds, she says.
Asked how she finds the time for all this, she replies that it doesn’t take much time. Maybe an hour a week, pulling out a weed here or there. Less in winter when things grow more slowly and she recharges her batteries.
Her parents were indifferent gardeners but she caught the bug off her grandmother, who loved plants and spoil. She’s passed the same love onto her grandson, who loves gardening although he doesn’t yet share her love of eating vegetables.
Of course she can’t eat everything she grows, but there is pleasure in spreading it around. She takes a lot to the monthly food swap at the Harvest Centre. She also produces about 400 bottles of jams and pickles each year for the hospital fete.
She points out some land cress and asks me to try it. Sweet and peppery, it’s self-seeded in the path, so she digs some out for me to take home.
I leave loaded with seedlings, some giant leaves of the red mustard plant and a renewed sense of purpose for my neglected garden.
Barbara’s talk is at the Harvest Centre, just behind Mitchell House at 10.30am on Wednesday, September 6. Enter through the Big W car park. A friendly cuppa will follow. All welcome. Entrance $4 for members of Mitchell House and $6 for non-members.