Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Sydney Morning Herald and the (Horti)Cultural Cringe

Today, the Herald, our local broadsheet, published what passes for its weekly gardening page. As the concept of growing backyard vegetables is having a renaissance, we had an article by Mari Gibson on starting her vegie patch. Mari Gibson claims not to be an expert, which is fine, except that there's another novice writing about his vegie patch on the Eco pages. And still no regular gardening columnist.

Mari's article isn't available online, but it details how she started a small vegie patch by doing some pulling-out, then having a buy-up of seedlings at the nearest garden centre and plonking them in with some mulch. Then she invited Jackie French to tell her what she'd done wrong.

For those who haven't read her books yet, Jackie is a writer of gardening books as well as books for children. Her emphasis is on organic gardening, and she writes with wit, knowledge and the enthusiasm, nay obsessiveness, that we gardeners know so well in ourselves.

There is only one problem. Jackie French has been gardening for years in the Araluen Valley, where the Southern Highlands begin to turn into the Australian Alps. Three hundred kilometres south of Sydney, and a completely different climate. If Jackie ever gardened in Sydney, it was a long time ago. There were a number of errors in the article as a result.

Apparently, autumn is a bad time to start a garden bed -- except that in Sydney, it's not. The heavy work of uprooting plants and carrying compost about can be done in less discomfort than summer, and our weeds aren't growing as fast. Our winters are almost frost-free, so autumn is a good time to plant perennials -- they can develop their root systems through the cooler weather before being blasted by our summer heat. Our springs are short in the extreme.

Jackie said that Mari should have left her plantings till spring, when they will grow faster. Not true (except for the chillies). The vegetables she chose were all cool-weather crops which Sydney-siders always grow in winter -- some would languish or bolt in our summers.
The only real mistake in plant choice that Mari made was in buying a couple of chillies. They really are a warm-weather crop. If she is lucky and the bushes are in a sheltered position, the chillies may over-winter, but it's not something I'd count on, especially with new plants.

Mari's garden is described as a "tiny urban patch"; almost certainly in our inner city. Jackie's comments about plants needing to be frost-resistant must be based on her own garden rather than Sydney conditions. We simply don't get heavy enough frosts to worry about, particularly in small, sheltered inner-city gardens.

Jackie encourages Mari to put in six to ten varieties of dwarf apples for continuous cropping. It's true that some parts of Sydney were under apple orchards, and that the famous Granny Smith appeared here -- but even now those parts are not in the inner city. Um, can we find six to ten varieties of low-chill dwarf apples anyway? And how do we keep our rampant fruit fly away from them without spraying?

The Herald seems to have a sort of horticultural cringe going when it comes to Sydney-based gardening experts. Their previous Resident Expert (on weekends, and what did happen to that column?) was Cheryl Maddocks -- another fantastic garden writer, but she lives in the Blue Mountains, and it was obvious in her plant choices. The gardening blog on the Herald website is actually pulled across from The Age, which is based in Melbourne.

Yet gardening is fundamentally a local endeavour. Your geology, climate, terrain and biota all matter when you garden, and lead to a deeper appreciation of your own immediate surroundings. When will the Herald find an expert that actually lives in the Sydney basin, who can properly support four million potential and actual gardeners?


Anonymous said...

That's a really good point about gardening being a local endeavor. For all that I'm not a gardener, I love listening to the gardening show on local radio on Fridays. The area covered is massive, but whenever the guy is asked a question about specific plants or when to plant, he always askes "where are you?".

But I've had two plants for about a month now, and haven't killed either of them yet!

Anonymous said...

Did you write into the paper with Sydney specific corrections? (geez - Even we in colder climes plant perennials in the fall!) Sounds like that paper needs a real local gardener to write - as opposed to a local writer to garden...

Chookie said...

YOu bet I wrote in to complain, Kris! Four million gardeners deserve better!

WHat are your two plants, Kin?

rose said...

Cheryl Maddocks can be found on Saturdays in Spectrum, Sydney Morning Herald. I find her writing very appropriate to Sydney. She is always a good read.

Anonymous said...

Well written article.