I felt uncertain yesterday morning. Rain was predicted for the afternoon and I didn’t like the idea of being outside and wet. I wondered whether I should volunteer, as planned, in the Food Garden of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (RTBG). Should I make the effort to make my lunch, dress appropriately, fill my pack with the essentials, take two buses and then walk to the Gardens. Hell yes. Of course I should. The Bureau of Meteorology’s forecasts are a guide not an absolute. Perhaps the rain might not happen until late afternoon or even the evening.
I love working in the Gardens as frequent readers will know, so I decided to start earlier than normal in the belief that if the rain arrived I could leave earlier without feeling my contribution for the day had been puny. So into an overcast world I stepped from the house and made my way to the RTBG: only one volunteer had arrived before me.
First up I noticed the few oranges and grapefruits that had fallen from their trees. I picked them up to accompany those resting in the tool shed.
With a casual glance around the Food Garden it seemed not much had changed since last week. Any growing by the plants was all but invisible. I could not see new plants pushing through the soil nor tiny buds on bushes expanding. The weeds were at their smallest and finest. Nevertheless, those minuscule weeds had to go and I started work on the lettuce patch; this was the location for my first work in this Food Garden so it seemed right and proper to return there and keep the patch clear.
Then I wandered down to the shallot patch next to the garlic garden and began weeding. This can be a challenge because the blades of weedy grass and the blades of shallots can seem similar. I only accidentally pulled out one shallot plant– and reburied it; okay, replanted it.Over the way, a group was looking at the Brussels sprouts.
To the undiscerning eye these plants looked fine. Unfortunately they were blighted with aphids. When a sprout was cut from the stalk and sliced in half, the blackish marks of squashed cabbage aphids lined the leaf layers. I realised then that from time to time when I have purchased Brussels sprouts and seen that look, I had assumed it was dirt and washed them. We all laughed – more protein in the meal. Apparently Brussels sprouts are magnets for aphids and it is their greatest problem. I asked about the preferred methods for pest control. When you can see the aphids crawling on the outside, a firm stream of water will knock the aphids off the plant. On the internet I found using a soap wash made for plants is an alternative – not a soap you use for your dish-washing or clothes washing! Or use a horticultural oil.
When a few more volunteers arrived, Coordinator Adam organised a truck load of fine yellow gravel. Someone had to help barrow the loads to pathways, then spread and level the cover. Along with three others, I put my hand up for this job. This would be a different sort of physical work than standing pruning passionfruit vines as a couple of others were doing, or stretching into the contorted poses required for weeding patches. I realised the activity was likely to leave me with sore muscles today. The result is that my body knows it was worked yesterday but nothing is strained or aching. I guess I still like to test myself and see how the body holds up.
We rotated our efforts with long handled shovels filling wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow before wheeling them along to dump piles of gravel on pathways. In turn, these piles were spread across existing pathways to a depth of no more than 2 cm alternatively using the prongs and the straight back of metal garden rakes.
Then a new tool appeared. Adam showed me how to use the Top Soil Spreader (you can see a picture of this tool here) which he labelled a Leveller or a Smudger. This tool has a flexible head over half a metre in one direction and about a quarter of a metre in the other; it is attached to a long timber handle.I found this tool very difficult to manage and felt it was better suited to a taller person or one with greater core strength than I have. The tool required me to hold the top of the handle firmly with my right hand and then shift my left hand up and down as I moved the spreader backwards and forwards across the ground.The task was not to dig into the ground and rake the gravel rather to stay softly on the surface and lightly level uneven gravel. Here was my problem; I needed to hold the tool so it more or less glided over the fine gravel, but the weight of the tool’s head combined with the twisting and turning of my body was physically taxing. The job was to smudge the surface but the tool was too heavy for me to keep almost airborne and just licking the surface. Nevertheless I struggled on (my choice – no one pushed me to do it except myself) and completed some of the pathways.
It was at this time that a group of RTBG visitors decided to walk my way. They stopped. Looking tentative, they asked, ‘can we walk on this?’ I took a deep breath. ‘Sure’, I responded with a smile. ‘The path needs pounding to settle it. Go ahead.’ And walk they did. I confess I didn’t have the mental energy or enthusiasm to redo that section; later another volunteer worked on it before watering in and ‘setting’ the gravel. I returned to raking the new gravel across other pathways.
We had heard kookaburras in the trees earlier in the morning. Nevertheless I was surprised when one swooped down and up from a completed pathway. I wondered if the path somehow looked like fresh food. A little later one plump fellow landed in a garden bed only a few feet from me. I stopped work and watched. This kookaburra was joined by a second.They looked at the path in front of me and did nothing until another person came into ear and eyeshot and disturbed their reveries. Off they both flew. Marvellous to see our native birds up close and not in fear.
The job of re-gravelling the pathways took us to lunch time. By then the sun was shining hotly and we all felt delighted to have come to work in the Gardens. There was even a feeling that the weather gods deliberately give us beautiful days each Thursday.
After lunch a couple worked the wheelbarrows moving compost, another relocated and turned compost in the Garden bins, but mostly we weeded. I discovered a luscious patch in the corner of one garden bed; a profusion of lacy aromatic coriander plants, various decorative lettuces, a fleshy plant with golden daisy like flowers, interwoven long strands of healthy weed grass, and a couple of other pretty weeds. I was reminded of the childhood game of ‘pick up sticks’. I had to lightly grab a weed leaf, finger it down to its roots, lift then part the coriander stalks away, determine whether more grass strands were enveloping other coriander plants, find the root collection and then dislodge the bundle from the soil. And it was important to pick the right ‘stick’. Occasionally I failed in that game and out from the mire came a beautifully rooted coriander plant. Over more than an hour I persisted, in the warm sun, happy as… At the end I felt great satisfaction. Yes it is the little things which give pleasure after achievement.
When I packed up at the end of the day, Adam suggested I take as many oranges and grapefruits as I would like from the tool shed and make marmalade or otherwise do something with them. Hmmm – perhaps a pot for Adam would be a great way to thank him for sharing his knowledge and experience. So I bagged a collection and brought them home with the anticipation of making jam. Tomorrow’s blog post will describe the successes and failures of my attempt.
I left the RTBG with a spring in my step from a day of warm congeniality with other volunteers, and with the warmth of the sun on my back. As my bus travelled across the Tasman Bridge over the Derwent River, I realised I would need sugar. I sat arguing with myself – get off the bus at Eastlands shopping centre for Woollies and buy it on the way home versus go home, shower and clean up and then pop down to the supermarket for the sugar. The first idea, the most sensible idea, won. Back at home, just showered and in fresh clothes I noticed spots of rain on my windows. I looked across to the city; Mt Wellington and the city were shrouded in a dense coat of grey rain.
The weather gods had looked after me for another happily memorable day at the RTBG.