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Useful And Fantastic: Back Yards – A Precious Resource

...I have cooked eggs and toast on a tin tray in the yard, and water for washing-up will heat in buckets. Simple solar...

Val Yule reveals how to best use back yards.

There is a saying, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it’. I put a case for garden science in the backyard - opportunities for everyone, of any age, to study the natural world, to experiment with what can grow, and personally test some of the advice that goes around and can be accepted too easily.

Australian back yards are under threat, with much else of the old Great Australian Dream. Growing population results in denser housing. Let us make the most of what we have while we have them.

First, the cases for children’s freedom. Back yards provide cities with fresh air to breathe. They are a chance for children to grow up free and healthy when city streets are regarded as too dangerous for play. Children should not be kept indoors to keep them safe, or only outdoors for organized competitive sports. Competitive sports out of school are still organizing them. A square of earth in a back yard can let them do what they like outdoors, to run around, experiment, dig, race toys, plant, build houses with branches, play with pets and find little creatures.

Local children used to come round to our children’s freedom square to lay out imaginary countries and run our ducks in the rivers they excavated. In return our children might watch their telly if there was anything special. When we lived in the only freestanding house in an inner-urban street, up to forty children would come round out of school to race around the veranda or play out the last film they saw – Re-enacting Treasure Island they did dig up some junk jewellery - treasure! - buried bottles – poison! and bones – skeletons!

They would practise scrums or a circus, dress up, or run a front lawn fete selling dubiously sourced goods. When it got out of hand, the two most delinquent boys spent a morning at an old typewriter to set rules for everyone. They came up with ‘You must be clean in thought, word and deed.’

In an outer suburb, my sister Jenny wove garments dyed green and gold and brown from the native plants in her garden, and from wool spun on her spinning jenny. My father’s small backyard was a model railway. Dozens of children came on Puffing Billy days to have rides behind his live steam model engines around the yard. Now I have it as an experimental back garden.

Make no ideological distinctions between exotics and natives. The criterion is whatever can survive. Gaudy lorikeets feed on the silver birch catkins, and roses blossom when the bottle-brush doesn’t. This year an olive tree planted on the anniversary of 9/11 has its first surviving pip – a symbol of hope.

The ultimate aim is a self-sustainable garden, which most Australian gardens must surely become – taking in nothing from the outside except seeds and tools, and sending no rubbish out to the bins, to be a cost on the council rates. Shadowed by big heritage gums, self-sustainability is more difficult than it should be. The poor Australian earth is not like European. After the first two years of lush crops, trace elements appear exhausted. The vegetables became bonsai – bean plants 30 centimetres high heroically carrying beans 29 centimetres long.

We trial all strategies - composts, mulch, a water-tank, cycles of fallow, home-made roof-water diverter, and a worm farm for kitchen scraps made with a plastic can from a building-site – simply cut out its bottom, and stand it on the ground with a garden sieve underneath and another sieve on top to keep out vermin. Just five worms will multiply. Crops buck up when humans revert to the age-old practice when they too were part of the food-chain, and divert their liquid contribution to sewage to the compost instead of wasted down the toilet. Self-sown plants grow from the compost or the wind, and are given their chance until I find out what they are. If plants have decided to grow in my garden, then they must be tough enough to stay. Self-sown passionfruit, pumpkins, new types of tomatoes, unidentified flowers. Each year self-seeding plants recur – poppies everywhere, parsley and silver beet. Potatoes grow from peelings. Compare seedlings raised in soil and in bins. I tried to make plants grow faster under a glass cover, but one warm day cooked them instead. I have cooked eggs and toast on a tin tray in the yard, and water for washing-up will heat in buckets. Simple solar.

The continually falling leaves from the big gumtrees are used to strew rustic paths – to avoid mud, dust or worse, concrete. I experiment with training plants to survive with minimum water, given only when they start to wilt. I line pits with plastic to protect vegetables from the water-hungry trees. I was given three bags of wool-clippings and experiment with woolly ground-cover to protect plants in the hot summer and keep them warm in winter. The magpies love it.

I try to protect young seedlings from night-predators with plastic cake-covers and tops of plastic bottles. This seems extreme – other people hunt snails with torches at certain times of the moon. On very hot summer days, it looks odd to cover the most precious plants with cardboard boxes, but it saves their lives, and it gives me exercise. This year I want to experiment with roll-back shade-cloth on movable frames. Told that Vegemite can produce alcohol, I am experimenting with fermenting weeds to see if that will destroy their seeds. This would be a great invention, because otherwise weeds with seeds must go out in the council’s rubbish bin.

You can get a double-spread poster that lists of dozens of garden bugs and diseases, with a chemical fix for each one So many, your shed could need a HazChem warning. Bio-tech can make gardening costly. The ideal alternative is healthy plants that grow so fast that no pest has a chance. But I have a sentimental weakness for poor brave strugglers. So I experiment. Aphis and many crawlies don’t like recycled soapy water. Mould doesn’t like milk. An infestation of scale that looks like cotton fluff fell off when sprayed with a cheap kitchen cleaner. Possums don’t like smelly manure hung up in a net-bag in a lemon tree.

Green rubbish bins might not be needed at all if two inventions succeeded – if fermenting or other weed-seed-and-root destruction worked, and if someone could invent out how to turn twigs and prunings into chips with geared pedal-power or a big turning wheel. It’s not conservation to have to use electricity for a power chipper. An alternative might be a small heavy roller – which seems unobtainable. My experiment has not yet worked trying to modify a old hand-mower to do the squashing and crunching of prunings.

We have an old Chinese cast-iron garden stove with a lifetime guarantee - it burns dry prunings and I bake potatoes and foil-wrapped meat in their ashes. Then, while the ashes are hot, I sterilise soil to make weed-free seed-raising mix. Then I use the potash for the garden. There is an English kettle which runs on twigs, but it costs too much imported.

All this healthy outdoor fun produces constant flowers to give away, and something fresh to eat every day, and every day the surprise of a small disaster or a lucky chance.

Did you know that birds and possums don’t like loganberries? And though it is not economical to reap only eight pea pods from one sowing, they taste heavenly sweet and raw. I let some wild garlic survive, in case the economy gets desperate, although unless you are pretty hungry the flavour is too bland even in soup.

Work-outs in a gym may be more healthy than pottering outdoors in the yard doing experiments - but isn’t it less interesting? The successes, failures and surprises of the zoology and weather and botanical wonders can be as exciting as extreme sports. Last year some sown broccoli included a new taste thrill, green-and-white cauli-broccs. I have accidentally grown short-stemmed tulips with flowers like low red water-lilies. Every winter, pots are filled with experiments and ‘what is this’.

No need to stick to a entirely scientific attitude. I have a theory that this life-style works for me, and I do no experiments to see if this is empirically correct. An even better theory is that plants like being looked at and they grow better when you just sit in the garden enjoying them. They don’t even need music played. That is another theory that I do not intend to have disproved.

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