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Adventures in Gardening, Jack Spackman

In to the deep midwinter with a backyard banana or two

Dad always said those freezing Grenfell winters convinced him early on that the best place to live was within sight of a banana tree. So it was pretty special to finally put in two banana plants – they’re not really trees – in sight of the back deck.

After two years as the overwhelmed owner of a traditional Aussie backyard here in Ipswich – west but not too far west of Brisbane in the south east corner of sunny Queensland – the results of my modest plantings to date have boosted the confidence of Your Gardening Girl Reporter and given me ideas…

My failures have been quietly composted and my successes have helped me to look at the garden in a new way. Previously I could only see what was there. Now when I look at the ground I see clumps of crotons set against the backdrop of the Bird of Paradise or masses of flowering ground covers tumbling down the sunny bank between the grevilleas. A pineapple patch filled with plants, the bananas joined by a line of fruiting trees stretching down the fence line… the visions arise on a sunny morning as I survey the grounds over a mug of inspirational coffee.

The great thing about turning garden visions into reality is that you can take as long as you like. You can splash out and create it in one expansive moment with a bulk purchase at your local garden centre or you can take the more meandering path favoured by Your Girl Reporter.

The fruits of Eugenia uniflora are pretty and tasty – and irresistible to native wildlife, which makes them a blight on the landscape.

Trees and shrubs

That line of fruiting trees is already underway with the lime (looking good) and the lemon (erm, not so much) trees we planted when we first arrived. In true neophyte fashion, we just jammed them in a couple of spare spots with zero thought for the future. It was only with the arrival of the bananas further along the fence line that we started to see that we’d accidentally created the beginning of Fruit Alley.

We inherited two lovely shrubs which frame the entrance to that section of the garden but we didn’t know what they were until they started fruiting. Turns out they are Brazilian cherries – a mixed blessing in a Queensland garden.

Yes, they fruit – as the name suggests – but Eugenia uniflora was never intended for these climes. The fruits are easily dispersed beyond the garden fence by birds and small mammals, to wreak havoc in native bushland, putting it in the Top 200 of environmental weeds in Queensland.

At some point they will have to be replaced with something a little more environmentally responsible but there are other priorities. Apart from the Brazilian cherries and our own modest contributions, Fruit Alley is currently a wilderness marked by old sprouting tree stumps. We’re gradually reclaiming it, and now we know what to do with it there’s an added incentive.

Sally’s Gardening Tip: Queensland gardeners need to source bananas from a Quality Banana Approved Nursery, known as a QBAN. That’s a biosecurity measure aimed at protecting the state’s banana industry.

Salad bowl 

The Google Gardening Almanac advises that a month before Easter we should have prepared our veggie beds with lime and then manure for garlic and winter greens.

Oops, too late! We whacked our winter veggies straight in at the beginning of April after turning over the soil with a generous helping of compost and sheep manure.

Reader, I find myself coming over all Pete Cundall when it comes to sheep shit. It’s lovely stuff, and I’m unable to resist crumbling it through my fingers. Unlike His Gardening Greatness, I keep my gloves on. But it’s early yet. Give Your Gardening Girl Reporter a little time.

Who is Pete Cundall? If you have to ask, you’d better take a moment and check him out here.

Mr B lined the bed by the back stairs with some old donated breeze blocks to secure the soil against deluge – a good move it turned out, because just days later they had to withstand the wake of that bad girl Tropical Cyclone Debbie, whose tail whipped us all the way down here in Ipswich.

She was a big, slow mover – worst kind – and we copped a bucketload, which caused a few channels to open up through our sloping beds but with no casualties. And the breeze blocks held!

Flooding in my Lady Garden thanks to an encounter with that bad girl Debbie. No jokes, gentlemen, please.

The herbs and flowers we planted in the holes of the blocks all survived too and are among my favourite additions. We have also added a seat, with planters on either side. I immediately filled the sunny end with strawberry plants, with more herbs in the other.

My lovely assistant, the current Mr B, planted carrots, broad beans, brussels sprouts, zucchini and broccolini. And peas, which hopefully will grow up the trellises against the back stairs.

Note: Plants of all persuasion have thus far steadfastly refused to thrive in my garden if they are intended to swarm over trellises.

So far, they live.

Lady Garden. Yes. It’s a Thing. 

The serenity of the Lady Garden was disturbed when the rain brought in by ex-TC Debbie formed a waterfall which cascaded all over it and threatened to breach the adjoining Baxter Bedroom.

We sandbagged the door, just in case, but the drainage system coped, if at times agonisingly slowly.

Remarkably, so did the plants. I moved the orchids to safety but left everything else to the worst that Debbie could hurl and they all survived unscathed. Every Lady Garden benefits from a regular trim and tidy up, particularly after a rough encounter, and the post-Debbie clean-up was an opportunity to make some improvements.

I’d been torn between creating an unbroken curtain of greenery or going with something a little more structured, and had finally decided on the latter. The wall of the Lady Garden is made of old sleepers and there were some spares stored at the side of the house.

My father Jack Spackman in his Oakland, California garden posing with a fine example of his unique aesthetic.

These are now propped up on some paving bricks to make three sturdy long stands at different levels, complemented with a few hanging baskets and containers.

The effect has been to transform a line of pots into a purposeful arrangement of shade and texture.

I inherited my preference for repurposing existing materials in the garden from my father, who would grow lilies in old pineapple tins and transform old bits of metal and ply into fantastical features.

His aesthetic was occasionally difficult to appreciate, but always unique. Every time I find a new use for a bit of rubbish around the garden I think of him.

And over the coming months, as we settle in to what passes here for a deep midwinter, I’ll be thinking him on chilly mornings when I look out from my kitchen window at a couple of banana trees.

© Sally Baxter 2017

Further Reading:

Peter Cundall tells war veterans: Dig your troubles away – Peter Cundall is not just a gardening hero. He’s an all-round hero of the old-fashioned variety and this interview with Kristina Olsson for The Australian in 2015 is well worth another read.

Everything you need to know about growing backyard bananas in Queensland, courtesy of the good folk at Blue Sky Backyard Bananas 

Some alternatives to the Brazilian cherry from Grow Me Instead

An occasional series in which Your Girl Reporter documents her struggle to learn the Art of Gardening, after doing the grown-up thing and buying a house on a quarter-acre block – an Australian dream I never sought but am happy to throw myself in to at this late stage of the game. Read more of my Adventures in Gardening here

And you can read more about my father Jack Spackman here

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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

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