Life in the garden is about the balance of seasonal temperatures, light and shade, kindness and cruelty – and sometimes it’s about the spaces in-between. By Margaret Simons.

The liminal garden

Tomatoes ripening on the vine.
Tomatoes ripening on the vine.
Credit: Excitations / Alamy

I live in a semidetached house. The front two rooms share a wall with my neighbour’s home. Then, at the back, the buildings bifurcate around a narrow passage that serves as a light well for the kitchen and living room windows. This space houses our water heaters, the furnaces for our central heating systems and, in my case, gardening clutter – stacks of plastic plant pots, bags of potting soil and garden stakes.

Most people would build a fence down the middle to delineate their properties, but my neighbour and I agreed many years ago that it was better to leave it open, allowing more light and easier access. The result is a liminal space, both hers and mine. It is rarely visited, mostly neglected, yet utilitarian. In such places, possibilities bloom.

Or so I would like to think. I am always trying to find a way to grow more food in my tiny inner-suburban space. As a result, I often fantasise about how this narrow passageway could be put to better use.

I have imagined keeping chooks down there. There would be space for at least a couple of bantams, and they would be able to peck away in the shade, as though on a forest floor, well protected from foxes. My neighbour will not agree.

At the dead end – where our houses are attached – no direct sunlight penetrates. It is like the depths of a rainforest. My neighbour, now more than 80 years old, planted a tree fern here when she was a young woman and today it survives, although we never water it. Its fronds reach past the windows and brush the gutters.

Take one big step, and you are in another microclimate, with a fraction more light. Here, there is the ubiquitous plant of the light-challenged garden, the clivia lily. For most of the year it’s boring, but right now it is an assault of pillar-box red blooms and seed pods.

Another step, and you are into my fantasy land – a square metre or so of soil that ignites my dreams because of its unfulfilled possibilities. It gets sunlight – not much but perhaps enough.

Now, spring has sprung, and as the light increases and the soil warms, I discover which plants have self-seeded in the light well from the pots on my verandah. There is a silverbeet plant with lush leaves – the better to catch the limited light. There is parsley, spindly but plentiful. These are the reliable volunteers of spring.

But last weekend, on a rare trip to the light well to fetch potting mix, I discovered a huge tomato plant supine among the weeds. It was too big to belong to the current season. Rather, it must have got started last year and survived the winter.

Tomatoes are usually regarded as annual plants, needing to be planted afresh each year. In fact, they are naturally perennials. So are capsicums and eggplants. Normally, keeping these warm-weather plants alive through a Melbourne winter is more hassle than it is worth. They are vulnerable to viruses and fungus, and turn up their toes in the cold.

Here was a survivor. I picked it up as though it were an infant, untangling its tendrils from the weeds. I fetched my tomato ties and fixed it to my neighbour’s downpipe as a makeshift stake. The soil in the light well has never been fertilised or enriched, but I mulched this survivor with the best, most fetid contents of the worm farm. I am watching it every day.

Normally, this is a time when gardeners are involved in one of the great judgement calls of the year. When to plant your tomato seedlings into the garden bed?

I don’t really follow AFL, nor horseracing. Yet I know when the finals are on, and the date of the Melbourne Cup, because the schedule punctuates annual tomato decisions.

Gardening lore would have it that there is no point in planting them out until the night-time temperature is reliably above 10 degrees, and the soil at 16 degrees. The plants won’t grow or set fruit until those benchmarks are reached.

Some swear by planting them out on Melbourne Cup Day – the first week in November. Others claim that with appropriate care, you can do it as early as grand final time – the last weekend of September. Bunnings seems to favour the earlier date. They have had advanced tomato seedlings prominently for sale since mid-August.

But one cannot yield this key annual decision entirely to the sporting or garden centre powers that be. It is a matter of judgement and wisdom and skill.

This year, for example, the AFL final is a week later than last year. And September has been unseasonably warm. I have seen gardeners all over my suburb plopping those Bunnings plants into the soil. Then last week we had a cold snap and a warning of frost.

So, what to do? Grand final day or Melbourne Cup, or some point in between?

The tomato seeds I sowed in egg cartons in early August and kept on the windowsill have now been pricked out into larger pots. They are on the back verandah during the day, brought in like children at night.

Otherwise, I have been cruel to them, as is recommended in the gardening books. The theory is that if you make them think they are going to die when young, they kickstart their life cycle. If you treat them mean, they fruit earlier. Only once they flower are you meant to ladle on the manure and the water.

This, too, is a matter of careful judgement and observation. How cruel can you be without killing them? First thing each day, I brush my hand over their feathery tops and try to judge whether they are merely leaning into the early morning sun or on the point of keeling over. If the latter, I give them a dribble of water – no more. Once a week I sprinkle them with a pinch of potash, but I deny them the rich and stinky liquid fertiliser, made from dead fish, with which I coddle the lettuce.

So much judgement, and measured meanness.

And then I discovered the light well tomato. It should not exist.

I think I have discovered how it came to be. Last year, I installed a new heat pump hot water system – part of a transition from gas. Periodically, the compressor blows air directly at my neighbour’s downpipe. It is in this spot, this manufactured artificial climate embracing less than a metre of space, that the tomato has survived the winter.

Yesterday I noticed it is sprouting the concentrations of leaves and growth that signal it is preparing to flower. If it does, I may be picking tomatoes come Melbourne Cup, and also planting them out.

When you take the plunge and plant out your tomatoes, do it deep. Dig the hole far enough down to take the root ball and most of the stem. That way, roots will form along the buried portions of the stem, making a healthier plant.

Or, on the other hand, you could just relax, throw it in the soil and let it be.

Life is what happens in the in-between spaces, the ones that you never think to plan.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "The liminal garden".

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