Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting Jackie French's garden in the Araluen Valley, approximately an hour and a half south-east of Canberra. It was like a visit to the garden of Eden. In our own garden we currently delight in the first few strawberries that are starting to ripen. In Jackie French's place, the trees are laden with oranges, lemons, limes, avocados, medlars and a whole lot of other fruit I have never seen before and have no names for. The climate is very similar to ours, what makes the difference are her gardening methods.
Jackie French's 1992 book "The Wilderness Garden" was the first Australian gardening book I bought when we started out on our previous suburban block almost ten years ago. In her book, she seemed to throw all the conventional wisdom overboard and called for messy, natural gardens that would look after themselves. At the time I tried some of the ideas with varying success. It just sounded all too good to be true.
Over recent months I raided our local library and borrowed every Jackie French gardening book I could get my hands on. Grow tropical fruit in our climate of frosty winters and hot, dry summers? Have a garden that only takes a couple of hours each week of looking after? Grow fruit and vegetables all year round? How on earth do you do that? It still sounded all rather fanciful until I saw her actual place.
The first impression when you walk onto Jackie's property is a sense of peacefulness. Following a dirt track through beautiful silvery green Australian bushland, the home garden opens onto a green oasis. "Open" is maybe the wrong word, as there are only some smaller areas with open grass. There is plenty of welcome shade around under the large deciduous trees that dominate the entrance area in front of the house. Not that you can really see the house - it is hidden behind rambling roses, trees, bushes, a flowering and fruiting wilderness which extends far beyond and halfway up the hill behind the house.
In her books, Jackie French comes across as a quintessential no-nonsense Australian, friendly, warm and down to earth. This impression was quickly confirmed by the real life Jackie who talks the way she writes (or rather, writes the way she talks!).
It is a highly productive garden in tune with nature. It is a garden that has no place for poisonous sprays or artificial fertilizers. Jackie spoke passionately about her belief in creating gardens that entitle all creatures to some of the garden's riches ("10 per cent for the birds, the rest for us!"). In return, the birds provide pest control services and beauty.
The astounding range of birds was clearly audible, and the odd dropping confirmed the presence of the more publicity-shy wombats and wallabies.
One key to her gardening success is growing trees in groves, a concept she has also explained in detail on her website. The other is to plant lots and plant thickly to reduce evaporation from our drought stricken gardens. But I think the ultimate key is simply her sheer love of the place and its human, animal and plant inhabitants, her generosity (we were all invited to take some fruit home to grow our own trees from their seeds!) and her infectious passion. This is the kind of garden that can feed us all without petrochemicals and genetic engineering. I believe this is the kind of garden for a better future.
When I got back home I went straight back into my garden. I can see a number of trees that are already established and which will make great starting points for some groves...