From a Melbourne backyard to community cultivation in Manila’s slums, the garden offers autonomy, human connection and a firmer footing in a turbulent world. By Margaret Simons.

The communal garden

A man wearing shorts and a vest, carrying what looks like a baton stands on a green hill filled with flowers. Beyond him is a rickety fence and a city skyline.
A Smokey Mountain garden with its view of Manila.
Credit: Dave Tacon

Last weekend I got stuck into the garden for the first time since mid-November. It is such a healing thing, to be messing about with the dirt and growing things. I never have the radio on when I am gardening, nor listen to podcasts. Rather, I listen to the internal voice – an aspect of myself, perhaps. If I were a different person, I might think to call it prayer. I was thinking and talking to myself about growing old.

Working in the little strip that divides my house from the street, I nearly tripped on the poly pipe watering system. My left knee is arthritic, and jarred as I twisted to maintain balance, grabbing at the gas meter to save myself from falling.

At what stage, I thought, would I reach the age at which rather than “falling over” I would be said to have “had a fall”?  There is no advice in gardening books on this issue. What is the defining characteristic? Is it the ability to get up by oneself?

Or is it something more profound – that at some stage in growing old, one becomes a subject rather than an object, a person talked about as a problem rather than being heard? A person defined by others rather than defined by one’s own agency?

I had a quick image of the future. Myself in this strip of land, on my knees among the vegetables or flat on my back like a beetle, and passers-by – or perhaps those heroic workers in the post office, who deal each day with all the pathologies and competencies of the suburb – coming to help me up and telling me what to do and thinking to themselves that I really should not garden.

But that is not now. I have agency. I have been doing things. The reason my garden is a mess is that I have been out in the world.


Back in November, knowing I was going to be travelling, I did very little to prepare for summer other than sprinkle fertiliser and dig in compost, and push creamy white bean seeds into the soil.

There would, after all, be nobody to eat from the lettuce box by the back door, nor anyone to water its contents, so I left things to go to seed. The summer flush would happen in my absence.

My travel was not for holidays. I was trawling through the Manila slums on a journalistic assignment. One steamy day I climbed what used to be Smokey Mountain – the former rubbish dump that once symbolised the worst kind of poverty in South-East Asia. It was named because of the constant miasma from burning rubbish. The poorest of the poor lived alongside it, and combed the dump for food leftovers and recyclables they could sell.

Now, Smokey Mountain has been “reclaimed”. But not really.

Rather, the rubbish has been covered with soil and a small community of people are living in ramshackle dwellings on the top. Up there, you get a view of the slums of Manila and the high-rises in the middle distance, but it feels as though you are on a farm or a collection of smallholdings. Given this little scrap of compromised dirt, people grow things.

True, scuff your heel in the dirt and you dig up rubbish. Talk to the people and you hear stories of how corpses were dumped here during the height of President Duterte’s war on drugs. But people keep chickens and, just like me in my little strip of garden in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, they grow beans and silverbeet. The plants romp all over the scraps of building material, themselves scrounged from rubbish, with which people build their homes.

And this growing of things represents a tenuous security – a tiny part of life in which they have agency.

One of the residents apologised to me for the state of her home. As a reflex, I responded, “Don’t worry about it. You should see my place.” Instantly I found myself breathless at my stupidity.

If she could see my place she would conclude, correctly, that I am very rich. On world terms, one of the 1 per cent – even though I worry about my superannuation and must work for years to come.

We live in palaces in Australia. Those of us who have homes. We have luxury of fussing over soil and air quality.

Before she came to Smokey Mountain, this woman was homeless on the streets of Manila. Now, she says, her life is “peaceful”.

Seeing her bean crop, I felt a stab of connection and of homesickness. I told her that I, too, had bean plants growing at my home.

It always takes me a few weeks to get over assignments like this. There are nightmares. The way I get over it is to garden. So last weekend I went at it with a passion. I drove stakes into the soil to support the bean crop, which thanks to the rain and the heat while I was away had gone crazy without being watered.

I got out the secateurs and pruned the bay tree, put mounds of the prunings out the front of my house and posted on the community Facebook group that they were free to all takers. I pulled out the remains of the rocket plants and scattered the seed over the soil before I composted them, in hope of a new crop.

I contemplated the volunteer pumpkin plants growing from the compost I spread in November. Should I pull them out or let them go crazy, knowing that by February they will have snaked over everything, hiding the trip hazards and the gas meter and possibly tumbling onto the footpath? But that they would also yield little creamy pumpkins, suitable for slicing and frying.

I pulled most out and let one be.

They are, after all, a persistent miracle – a food plant growing without my intervention, just because I have this little patch of earth in which it can happen.

The word “privilege” is used so often these days – sometimes by rote – that it risks becoming a cliché, distancing us from reality rather than confronting us with it. Yet what words can we use to signal and acknowledge the gulf between ourselves and others? And then, sometimes the connection. Always the connection, even if we can’t find it.

It was raining the day I visited Smokey Mountain. Climbing it was a slip-slidey affair up crooked steps built into the mud and rubbish. Coming down again included the near certainty that if I fell, I would cut myself on the sharp things sticking out of the soil.

The woman I was visiting bounded up and down these stairs. She does it every day. She is the same age as me. She looks older. She hasn’t had teeth for years.

But on the way down she steadied me by the elbow, so I did not fall.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 21, 2023 as "Home soil".

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