Amost 10 years ago, my Mum made scrapbooks for my sister and I of our lives thus far.
Mum also included our family histories. Enclosed was a blurry, black and white photo of my maternal great grandmother, Florence, posing with my Nanna Myrtle and her three other children in her vegetable garden in Yalgoo. (Yes, it’s pronounced Yal-goo) The photo itself must be almost 90 years old.
Yalgoo prides itself as being “the place where the outback starts” which is a rather polite way of saying it is in the middle of nowhere. It’s about 500km north east of Perth in Western Australia.
A few years ago, we had Amercian relatives visit, (Joy married an Amercian aviator during WW2 and moved to the USA) and despite flying over 15,000 kilometres and two long-haul to get here, the 5 hour drive to visit Yalgoo was determined to be a distance too far!
My great grandparents settled in Yalgoo following a gold rush, and later my great grandfather patrolled the rabbit proof fence with his two camels, named Gypsy and Trot. I remember my Nanna telling me how much she hated camels, as apparently they are rather grumpy animals that like to spit.
But it is great grandma’s garden that fascinates me most. During the depression life was hard just about everywhere. She supported her family with her veggie patch by growing food to feed them and sell for income. Yalgoo is hot, dry, dusty, arid and isolated. It is a long way to go in the comfort of an air-conditioned car! It must have been a stressful place to live and grow.
Florence would have had to be extremely resourceful. Make do, get by, and suffer when the weather, pests or good health failed to oblige her. I also am intrigued at the idea that I have a “heirloom” garden in my family. It’s like a bond across time. Since learning about her, I think of Florence often when in my garden, as my own children run about, wondering what she planted and what she would make of my efforts today.
As far as I can determine, Florence was not a horticuluralist, or botanist. She wasn’t a permaculturalist or biodynamicist. But it was likely she was a sustainable, organic and observant gardener, because she simply couldn’t have afforded to do it any other way. She would have had to compost, collect manure for fertiliser and collect her own seeds. Every drop of water would have been precious.
Florence moved on from Yalgoo after her husband abandoned her and his family, never to be heard from again. According to family legend, he was found murdered in a hostel in Fremantle, the motive being the theft of a few gold nuggets he was known to carry.
Florence moved to suburban Perth, and my eldest aunts remember her modest house and large vegetable patch.
My Aunty Pam remembered “Granny didn’t have a lot. She was on a pension, 10 shillings a fortnight. So after she paid the rent and electricity, there wasn’t much left. We would eat food from the garden. Nasturtium leaf salads with beetroot, tomatoes, apple cucumbers, spinach, pumpkin and beans. I don’t remember eating any meat but I do remember going to the butcher with her.”
So in contrast, three generations later, there is me.
I have a stable home, a steady relationship, three robustly healthy kids, reliable water and WIFI that connects me to the world and endless information. It is something I wholley take for granted until I reflect on how Florence must have lived.
I don’t garden as if our lives depend on it. Thanks to the Green Revolution, my food production is almost entirely outsourced and supplied by an industrialised system.
But lately, I have been thinking that I do need to take my gardening more seriously. And by that I mean, set myself a goal to maximise the productivity of my home garden. Grow more.
I love the idea that one day, my own grandchildren could visit, and eat salads and vegetables from the garden and I would hope they would have edible gardens of their own. Equally, I wish I could have Florence around to share her garden wisdom and show her my home.
Does your family have an heirloom garden? Do you remember your grandparents gardens?
* I originally posted this article in January 2012, but have updated it with the photos and some extra content.