My hands were deep in the sandy, loamy soil of our new garden when the dog poked his head over the fence. His goofy black-and-white muzzle, wide grin and lolling tongue were not what I had expected from a garden angel, but who was I to judge?
Archie is a beautiful, good-natured collie. My city-bred heart tightened when I first heard he was an outdoor dog. Out in all that weather! Poor thing. But a few years with this patch of earth near the sea has given me a new perspective.
I’m at the end of a stint of dealing with the bountiful produce of a small plum tree. I’ve made plum jelly and jam, dried plums, stewed plums (frozen in batches to become winter breakfast fruit) and spicy sauce – a delicious substitute for tomato sauce, with less sugar and far more flavour.
And Archie is the only reason I can. He’s quietly on patrol on the other side of the fence all night, so the possums stay away, and most of the day, so the marauding birds do too. The fruit, or most of it, stays on the tree.
My fascination with gardening goes back to my first experiments as a kid in Geelong, in a scruffy patch of earth behind the flat where we lived. But my love of edible produce was born in a tiny inner-city garden. We moved into a house with a fig, an orange and a lemon tree, and then kept going. My partner used to be a forester, and he urged us to add more and more. It became its own minuscule biosphere. In those first few years, fruit was plentiful and I filled my pantry with bottles of produce.
But slowly, the gardens around me lost their trees as homes were extended and renovated. In time, only a couple of places were left with anything more than a paved courtyard. I cried when I heard the chainsaw take out the last big tree nearby.
The result: for every bird, possum, rat and bat in the vicinity, we became the oasis.
Every unnetted apple, apricot and peach was a target. I saw a big flock of lorikeets destroy one year’s apple crop – months before it ripened – in under an hour. They’d take a couple of pecks of a piece of fruit, declare it not sweet enough, and then move on to the next. They didn’t give up until they’d sampled every piece of fruit, just in case.
Netting the tree brought anxious or angry notes from passers-by condemning the nets as a wildlife safety hazard and annoyed that we seemed unwilling to share with the local fauna.
The risk to wildlife is a genuine concern, and I’m glad we were made aware. In late 2021, the Victorian government outlawed the more-open netting – above five millimetres square at full stretch – which is a good move. It was the first such law in the country, with ACT introducing similar limits this year and other states taking steps in the same direction.
The damage to the bats when they get caught in the more-open nets is awful. Wildlife Victoria has reported they have often received several calls a day about bats hurt in a net tangle.
We tried other options, such as fixing closely netted individual bags on some of the fruit. But people made them a game, ripping them and the fruit they protected off the tree and dumping the bags down the street. Dozens of them, day after day. I doubt those were ideological acts.
Attempting to grow grapes was futile. The birds, possums and rats found the vine – both its leaves and fruit – irresistible. I once saw all three in the vine at the same time, back when it occasionally produced the tiny beginnings of fruit. There have been years the lemon tree was stripped to the bones of its branches and barely survived. Luckily, it’s a tough old thing.
The apricot tree was the biggest prize. As it was for us too. Straight off the tree, warm from the sun and dripping juice, a home-grown apricot is sensational in a way store-bought never is. The rats ate right through the netting – even when double bagged – to get to the fruit. The brushtail possums simply ripped the netting apart, sometimes right under our noses.
The one tree that survived all of it with robust grandeur was the fig – decades old and a relic of the Italian family that owned the house in the mid-1900s. It was so colossally laden that we happily shared with the bats that flew in at dusk, the chattering rosellas, the possums and everyone else. And we still had more fruit than we could manage ourselves. I once bartered a huge bagful for someone’s old ice cream maker, discovering that blush-coloured, seedy fig ice cream is peerless.
Now we’ve traded heavy city clay for slightly salty sandy loam. It’s better soil than I expected. The previous owners left us with a wholly non-native garden, including a host of young established fruit trees – lemon, mandarin, orange, plum, peach, apricot, apple, lime and avocado (so far unfruited). To that we’ve added pomegranates, cape gooseberry and rhubarb – all donations from friends.
The main thing we’ve added is natives. Banksia, wattles, eucalypts, native frangipani, grevilleas and more. We are starting to see wattlebirds come in for the nectar.
The native frangipani is just starting to find its feet. It’s the offspring of one we planted in the inner city right by the fig, and it became enormous. The bats loved it. It was big and open so they could land in the lower branches, then hang upside down and gently climb into the fig tree for the prized fruit. During the day, the birds roosted in it, in between harvesting the whole upper layer.
The biggest surprise of this seaside garden – apart from the fact that any of this stuff grows at all – is that we get to harvest the apricot, plum and apple trees. The birds still get some but there’s plenty left.
I picked the last of the plums in late summer and began the busy work of processing – filling the dehydrator with several trays and sharing the hot air with the last lot of cape gooseberries. Some of the plums went into the freezer pitted and raw – they’ll emerge in good shape for a fruit tart or cake in winter. Another portion became plum sauce, with a bit of warm spice, and I gave enough to a friend for her to bottle some of her own. The plum jam and jelly found its way into my pantry, and to a few more friends.
Being able to go into the garden and pick any fruit – to eat it just as it’s meant to be eaten, fully ripe off the tree, not packed still green and left to ripen on the shelf – is an astonishing pleasure. You can never forget you are in nature’s control – the fruit is ready when it’s ready. Some seasons will be good and some bad. Rain at the wrong time can wreck the blossom; it can be too cold, too dry, too wet or too hot.
The fruit will ripen when it does, not when you want it to. It can happen all at once, in one big burst, or gently, over weeks. Your convenience is not part of the equation. It’s one of the perfect things about preserving – the way it requires you to pay attention to what’s happening in your garden. When the time comes, it’s a flurry in the kitchen, and then it’s a gorgeous, colourful bounty to be savoured all year long.
I’ll be grateful in the depths of winter, when there’s no fresh fruit for breakfast except some that’s travelled thousands of kilometres to the supermarket, or that’s been in deep storage for months. And when I bake something fruity at an unseasonable time, to be able to use flavourful dried or frozen fruit without additives or preservatives.
And every day I’m grateful to our garden angel. We also have a dog, but he’s a city boy. While staying out all night would make him happy, it wouldn’t please our neighbours. No one loves a barking dog.
Archie’s nightly presence seems to be enough, no barking required. And in the morning, the fruit is still on the tree, free to ripen in its own time. And that’s some kind of garden magic.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2023 as "The sweetest fruit".
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