Sprouting Autumn

When we moved to this house, the only hints of life in the red dirt yard were a few ant nests. No plants grew and no birds visited. I started my garden in the recent summer. I bought a plastic watering can from the local shop. It is blue and squarish and can hold almost 9 litres of water. Several times a day, my watering can and I went to and fro between the tap and my seedlings. I was grateful for the can and the tap, often thinking of the bigger journey so many in the world have to take to retrieve the day’s water. There are some Aboriginal communities in remote Australia where people travel daily to get water, sometimes with many people sharing a tap. Some Western Australian communities have recently had their water supply cut off by a government that says their towns should not exist. The government says the town is not viable, then cuts off the water and electricity to make their prophecy true. So I am thankful for the water and the peace in our town. There is enough water, not only enough to wash, but also to grow fresh green things.

I got good exercise watering the garden with my can, but after six weeks or so I was more than ready for the innovation of a hose. We went to the nearest town, Alice Springs — a three-day round trip if you travel by road — to go to the hardware store. It was pretty exciting. I bought hoses, hose fittings, more seeds, a file to sharpen the sickle I use to cut the bushy grass. Unfortunately, when I got home I found that the hose fitting I had didn’t fit the tap. I went online and ordered more hose fittings — solid brass ones. One of my colleagues was travelling to Alice and agreed to pick them up for me. It was one of those giant hardware barns and he was determined in poking around and asking till he found my little package.

But even those well-travelled and expensive brass fittings didn’t fit. My colleague told me that the taps in the houses around here were different sizes. The taps in the yards are not even outdoor taps. They are bathroom, kitchen and laundry taps — whatever was around and all different sizes. So I kept going with the watering can.

I complained to my Dad on the phone about it. “Isn’t Claudia good at that sort of thing?” he asked. I swallowed my pride and asked Claudia for help. She was able to connect a hose to a tap the same day.

Having a hose was simply marvelous. The splash of it was a great match for the intense summer heat. I learned to not overwhelm the little plants with too much gushing water. I did miss the fetching and carrying a bit. Of course, there were enough weeds sprouting to keep me moving and bending.

But not long after we connected the hose there came a flooding rain that drenched the earth deeply. I went out in the rain and dug little trenches to direct the rushing water to the plants. That weekend we were heading to Alice again for work meetings and shopping. I thought the earth might be damp enough for us to be away for two days. At the hardware store, I bought a sprinkling hose and a switch with a timer.

When we returned on the Sunday though, there’d been a great dying. A hot wind had baked the seedlings. Only basil and some beets survived, and much of them had been eaten by grasshoppers, who exploded onto the scene after the flooding rains. It was a low point in my gardening career.

As if that was not bad enough, the new hose and the timer did not rise to my expectations. It took me two days to fully understand that the timer was not automatic, and had to be turned on and off twice a day. So it was no good for holidays.

But autumn was coming. I could smell it. That’s when new life comes to the desert. I looked through my seed packets and carefully tucked seeds into the damp dirt.

It was around this time that a dear friend left town. As a parting gift, she gave me her pomegranate tree and lime tree. I’d been dreaming of a pomegranate tree and was well-read about limes. I knew they’d be a good match for our place. I still dream of olive and fig trees. “How many years are you planning to stay here?” asks Claudia.

As the young plants grew, a bigger variety of insects visited. Claudia encountered a thorny devil in the yard. The thorny devil is the only lizard she loves. They can drink up a puddle through their feet. They walk with both feet on one side advancing hesitantly together, like little hieroglyphic robots. They also know how to slowly change colour to match their surroundings.  

Thorny Devil in the yard (c) Claudia Jocher 2016

Thorny Devil in the yard (c) Claudia Jocher 2016

Our recent trip to Hawai’i meant that the garden would be on its own for 2 weeks. I had a desert garden on an automatic timer once in a previous house. The watering system broke while we were away, flooding the garden. A neighbour turned it off but everything, bar a resilient little orange tree, died in the ensuing drought. I was afraid of losing my little patch of garden again. As the trip approached, I was feeling a bit desperate. People in this town work long days and my house is out of the way. Could I ask a neighbour to come twice a day? Could I pay a kid to come? But the day before we left, one of our friends responded to a Facebook message and brought me an automatic timer. She had used a spanner to dislodge it. I was happily relieved. Another friend graciously agreed to water the little lime tree and keep an eye on the garden.

I came home to strong plants and sprouted seedlings. My friend had put in a couple of pieces of rosemary and even had a pot of mint growing. She tells me they make a good yoghurt dip with basil. Miss Pom has more leaves despite the coming autumn and so does Master Lime. We also have wispy chives and spindly sweet-peas. The garlic is looking robust. Another plant is a curcubit — not sure if it might be cucumbers or zucchini — and the rock-melon plant is thriving.

The plumbing in our house is old and rattling. Claudia calls the automatic timer "the shake-the-house-machine” after it woke her a couple of times at 6am. So I turn the watering on manually each morning and night when we’re home. It gives me time to commune with the baby sprouts, pull out a few weeds. The more I do it, the more connected I feel with my family, where almost all the men (and some of the women) are gardeners. At sunset after work, my father would potter around in the yard. I think of him when I fill my blue watering can and visit my garden in the evening. I remember also as a little child following my Nana around as she walked around her vegetable patch in her casual home dress. We would speculate on what each growing shoot might turn out to be. Today I continue the family tradition of forgetting what was planted where.

Now that autumn has come, a pair of magpies have moved in to a nearby eucalypt. They warble their soothing music as I ready myself for work each morning. There is another black and white bird here too, the stocky, sharp-beaked butcher bird (which we fear may have butchered the thorny devil). It has the most beautiful song in the Australian bush, I think. My pomegranate and lime harvest may be a long time away but being approved by the local birds feels like an important milestone. We are growing in the right direction.