I was born into a family of green thumbs, mine the only pink.
My mother’s father, Thomas Hale Shaw, maintained a scrupulously kept apple orchard in the backyard of his suburban Canberra home. The car-less garage was employed as a storage facility for boxes of Wine Saps and Deliciouses neatly graded, from which he would extract samples for our expeditions. The curling peels spiraling to the earth from his pen knife as, gum- booted, he strode ahead of his three small grand-daughters, is a vision that remains with me still, as poignantly sweet as the memory of biting into crisp flesh speared on the knife’s tip.
With my sturdy pink thumbs I have tried, over the decades, to plant herbs. The only one that has ever survived, flourished, refused to perish, is the garlic chive. I have two overflowing pots of garlic chives which, on the several occasions each year I like to fold them through scrambled eggs, I joyously snip handfuls of. And that is all; the green gene somehow passed me by.
However. There may be hope – hope in the form of the pot of French tarragon thrust so kindly into my arms recently by a woman who did not seem terribly persuaded by my pink-thumb argument. Diane Hart is a horticulturist with 25 years’ experience in landscape design, gardening-for-pleasure and organic food production, and from her home in Mullumbimby she runs a Tuesday morning Gardening Group.
Her gorgeous terraced garden running down a gentle slope is all colour and movement, profuse with growth, full of salad ingredients and herbs, eggplant and rainbow chard, borage and ginger, leeks and potatoes, kale and kaffir lime, and more. Pinned to a kitchen window is a list of all she grows – there’s tamarillo too and lemonade, rose apple and cumquat, nasturtium and comfrey, a total of seventy food plants, things you can use, plants you can eat.
This is Diane’s passion, as is her desire to demonstrate that anyone (even I!) can create a garden on a suburban block. ‘Gardens,’ she tells me, ‘it’s fun and delicious – it’s not a bowl of chaff!’ This is a woman whose extraordinary enterprise has seen her set up kitchen gardens for Balinese hotels. She’s about to do the same thing on a Greek island she and her husband visited recently, to celebrate her 60th birthday. Apart from her extensive background, she claims to have learnt a lot from Jerry Coleby-Williams, whose ‘brains [she] picked up at his place in Brisbane. He said we’re growing all the wrong things, things unsuitable for this climate, things more suited to an English climate.’ From Jerry she learnt that we should instead be focusing on Asian vegetables – Thai eggplant, wingbeans, for example, most of those vegetables grown through winter and spring rather than summer.
‘I’m learning,’ she tells me, ‘but I’ve still got a lot to learn.’
In her Mullumbimby Garden Group they may discuss how to make compost teas, how to have success with vegetables in the sub-tropics, how to grow ornamentals. They may then whip up a green papaya salad with every single ingredient from her garden. It’s a practical, problem-solving approach to gardening and I wish I were
a lady of leisure so that I could join the Tuesday morning group too.
But I do have my French tarragon, whose crushed leaves remind me of black jellybeans, and which I am already planning to strew over a roasting, buttery chicken, and which my pink thumbs have pressed earnestly into the fairly arid soil in front of my cottage.
Diane Hart and her Mullumbimby Garden Group can be contacted on 6684 1956 or 0415 498 753.