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More or less space?

When more is less

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The more the land, the more ambitious Simon Webster’s gardening vision became. 

I’ve been thinking about my first vegie patch. I’d just become a dad, and we were living in a house in inner Sydney that covered 90 square metres – including the backyard. “Why is your house like a hallway?” said one of our young nephews, visiting. “Where’s the rest of it?”

“We’re part of the small house movement,” I said, not knowing that one day there would actually be such a thing. We were ahead of our time, albeit involuntarily. Down the side of our small house was a small patch of dirt, about one metre by two. And for some reason I decided to grow vegetables in it: probably the result of some primeval urge to provide for the family. There weren’t many woolly mammoths to hunt in the Inner West, so I made do with growing leafy greens instead.

The light wasn’t the best. God knows what industrial pollutants were in the soil. And every cat in the neighbourhood used it like a portaloo. But it was productive.

I grew some whopping silverbeet. You know, the big stuff, like proper farmers grow. And I grew spring onions. Parsley. Radishes. My memory’s a bit hazy (possibly due to the industrial pollutants) but I have a feeling there were some carrots in there too. Straight ones. Imagine!

I was hooked. Before I knew it I was buying Organic Gardener and getting excited by words like ‘heirloom’, ‘humus’ and ‘Cundall’.

Then we moved to a bigger place in the same neighbourhood: 300 square metres. I was giddy with excitement. I put in a mandala garden (as you do), complete with tyre pond. And I planted an urban food forest, complete with chickens.

The fruit trees didn’t exactly thrive in the shade of bigger, long-established, never-to-be-felled trees. And the silverbeet never quite lived up to the stuff from the previous house. But I remember cherry tomatoes, and herbs, and eggs, and eggplant, and okra. Lots of okra (don’t ask me why). If only I had more land, I used to say. Imagine the possibilities.

Then we moved to the country. Onto seven acres. And on all that seven acres, what did the previous residents have? One raised vegie bed, and an old mandarin tree.

I set about putting things right. One bed became six. Plus another six beds outside the kitchen, plus herbs in pots, and fruit trees, everywhere. Plus a dam, and a swale, and a food forest on the swale, and chickens and ducks and alpacas. Peak gardening arrived when I was trying to manage a couple of hundred square metres of certified organic garlic too. After all, the land was there: why not use it?

But more did not produce more. In fact, it produced less. The more stretched I became – by gardening and life – the thinner the pickings.

And so began the retreat. Out went the garlic; the food forest succumbed to nature; ducks died and weren’t replaced; the chicken population shrank; and the 12 beds are about to become six, or fewer.

Maybe, just maybe, if I really focus on a small area, I’ll be able to reproduce that first bunch of silverbeet. Those first carrots. If only I had less land. Imagine the possibilities.