I often pause to chat with Elizabeth to and from school drop offs. Living a few strides from the school gates, where she has been for the last 25 years, her street frontage was swarmed by the daily rush of parents and kids. It was her front yard, and her nature, that always made me want to pause.
Elizabeth - or “Queen Elizabeth” as she says to help through her accent - is the effervescent Yiayia; the kind of Greek grandma that any non-Greek would imagine as their own in another life. The day I came door knocking to see if we could look in her garden, she sat me down, faced me with her soft, bright eyes and with a smile encouraged me to talk. I was so thrown by her warmth, I almost asked what was for dinner and if I could grab the leftovers on my way out.
Gardening alone is kind of like telling yourself a joke. Sharing it, however, is for mutual enjoyment and Elizabeth has always been generous to any curiosity shown to hers. Most days her front verandah hums with AM radio. It’s the first invitation to pause, but one of many why her garden is a stopping point.
In summer, when the raspberry canes that climb the large native tree out front begin to pop, the younger, more oblivious kids will devour the bushes for a post school sugar fix (while parents strategically tune their attention elsewhere). To the more trained eye, alpine strawberries can be found along the lower fence edge, more discreetly covered in their foliage. Then there’s the tomatoes and pumpkins trained along the fence, the pepino tree that holds passage just beyond a fully-grown 42 year old adult arm reach, and the Jerusalem artichokes, climbing rocket, perennial basil and numerous other treasures crammed into the small footprint.
Elizabeth’s entire front yard is little more than 20m2, and south facing, so it’s a surprise to see what thrives here. But she has a natural and resourceful approach to gardening that seems to get the best out of her space.
She collects green waste from her neighbours, that have larger blocks and more readily produce it, and incorporates it with her kitchen scraps to produce a rich compost to build her soil. Set out in the open, and regularly turned to aerate it and deter rodents, I nevertheless have seen it provide for the local neighbourhood rat. Such is Elizabeth’s sharing nature.
On closer inspection of her garden you realise that all of Elizabeth’s plants are grown in pots - all recycled or salvaged - and that her compost is an essential ingredient to help replenish them. While she plants annuals, such as tomatoes and pumpkins in the warm season, most of her garden is full of perennials, or annuals dressed up as perennials. One example is the wild rocket plant, that holds its place in the garden all year round, and whose stems have been bouquet-ed up to find extra light. I've never seen rocket grown in this style, but like the rest of her garden, it just works.
Elizabeth’s front-yard is an example for any naysayer thinking that without copious space and plenty of direct light you cannot have a productive garden. It is well adapted, resourceful in its use of space and materials, and more than anything, productive.
Before leaving Elizabeth’s, we learnt a few things about her life. She has been in Australia for nearly 60 years, coming alone as a teenager - something I wanted to ask about (but with dinner thoughts, forgot to) - and has 4 children and 8 grandchildren of her own, along with 300+ kids that have been adopted from the local primary school. She has lived in a chorus of Melbourne suburbs; Richmond, Abbotsford, Moonee Ponds, Thornbury and, now, Northcote.
I always knew that she was generous, sharing any spoils for the garden (although occasionally netting the raspberries to tame the kids), and so was the case when we visited. By the time I left I had no less than 9 perennial basil cuttings to take home and give to my “kids, girlfriends, friends, doesn’t matter, TAKE!”.
Ah Elizabeth, better than any queen.