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Tales of Jonai Gardens Past and Present

Before we were farmers, we were gardeners. Our suburban backyards have been farm-like for 20 years – a fact frequently noted by friends at our regular solstice and equinox gatherings.

Our first garden was out the back of a rental brick venereal on busy Shannon Avenue in Geelong in 1992. We were 21 years old. Although we were only there for six months, I mattocked out of the lawn some six rows, each around six metres long, while Stuart constructed a greenhouse with the same-size footprint from scavenged metal framework and old plastic. This is where I learned that broccoli and coriander bolt in summer, zucchinis keep growing beyond edibility if you don't pick them while they're small, and spinach is a generous gift that keeps on giving. We even planted gum trees out front in hopes of screening the house a bit from the traffic – rather ambitious for short-term tenants! We still drive past every few years just to see how those trees have grown... last we checked they were over 8 metres high.

Nine months in a log cabin on the South Umpqua River in Oregon in '94 saw us establish a four by five metre plot where strawberries reigned supreme.

So keen were we to learn more and contribute to organic food production that we spent a fortnight on an organic ginger farm on the Big Island of Hawaii WWOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). We learned how to harvest papayas with a long stick of bamboo with a rubber stopper on the end, and coconuts with an even longer stick with a blade. Farmer Andy taught us not to waste precious energy in the heat shaking dirt off the weeds as we pulled them easily from the hyper-fertile soil, and before we left told me if I wasn't already married to Stuart, he would have proposed. ;-)

A few years later we arrived with six-month old Oscar to a tiny little rental on the lower west side of Santa Cruz, California, where we would spend two years. The front yard was razed earth and the back was concrete to a five-car garage. I hired a till, had a truckload of mushroom compost delivered, and established the most productive garden we've ever had on one side of the front path, and a postage stamp of lawn & cottage flower border for Oscar and his new sister to play in when she arrived a year later. I rang up a local tennis club and secured two of their old nets to use as fencing to keep the toddlers in and the dogs out, and that intense little garden was the wonderland where Oscar learned that mummy wasn't kidding when she said don't eat the Serrano chilies. We sat on the miniscule front porch and watched as gophers pulled whole corn stalks deep into their tunnels, and returned from a long weekend to discover that all 20 or so of our madly abundant tomato crop had been infected with late blight from the relentless summer fog, and were putrefying on the stalks.

Back in Melbourne, in the back garden that separated the house we rented from Stuart's parents from their house, we laboriously re-shaped the beds with gentle curves and circles of bluestone designed in conjunction with a round chook tractor, and I hand pounded hundreds of bricks into a spiral patio under the date palm where we could dine and gaze across the herb spiral at our bounty.

And then two more rentals started to kill our spirit, and Stuart planted haphazardly while I charged off on work missions and left the garden behind. So tired of sculpting spaces of such aromatic and aesthetic pleasure only to leave them behind in the hands of landlords who quickly returned them to lawn, I'd lost my gardening mojo. Stuart, though a chaotic planter, remained ever committed and still managed to keep us in some tomatoes and leafy greens and what seemed like acres of Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish, and we've never been without pots and pots of basil in summer, and mint, rosemary and lemon verbena are the first things we establish in every new garden somewhere close to the kitchen door.

And then we arrived at Jonai Farms. And it's ours. And it's 69 acres of fertile alluvial soils teeming with worms. I got my mojo back with a vengeance.

We'd always intended to let the pigs turn the soil – long devotees of the principles of permaculture, we'd relied on chooks in our gardens for weeding and fertilising for these many years. Now we would have bigger tractors who can do more than scratch, they can dig! One of the reasons we chose the Large Black pigs was for their rooting power – they are renowned for being one of the best foraging breeds, so we figured they'll work perfectly in a paddock rotation system where we plant fodder crops after they've turned the soil to eat when they return to that paddock. But first, dig us a vegie garden, please!

And dig they did, creating us a patch 15 x 30 metres where we could plant to our hearts' desire. Taking the lazy path, we laid newspaper and cardboard over all of it, had 8 cubic metres of mushroom compost delivered and laid it out in rows (with the help of a few lovely visitors such as Zoe & Owy and Clare & Warren), finally laying old woollen carpet and underlay that Stuart's been scavenging on every trip to Melbourne or Ballarat down the paths.

About a month ago it was ready for planting, and in went the rhubarb we'd managed to keep alive in a pot even through four months of sitting up here while we drove across America. I'll take you on a little photo tour now...

We also decided to put in our herb garden just outside the back door and under what will be our bedroom window when the container conversion is finished – as Des said, it's our 'sensory garden'. :-)

And a grape vine to climb up and hang above our new bedroom window...

As Joel Salatin says as he offers his blessings:

May all your carrots grow long and straight, may the foxes be struck blind by your chickens, may your customers love cooking your food in their kitchens, may the rains be gentle on your pastures, may your fields grow with soil, may your earthworms dance with celebration, may the wind be always at your back, your children rise up and call you blessed, and may we all leave a better world than we found…