Plot going to pot

Herbs, vegetables, fruit trees, succulents and ornamental plants are all grown in pots by Ta (pictured) and Alex Fearnside. Gardening

Ta and Alex Fearnside have lots of gardens. They’re growing a small one in their living room, a little one on their roof, a more abundant one on their balcony and a couple in the common areas outside their front door. They have a worm farm in their garage and a public park next door.

It hasn’t always been like this. Ta spent much of her childhood living in a sprawling private estate outside Osaka in Japan with a whole forest as part of the family’s backyard. Alex grew up in Canberra on the classic quarter-acre with room for cricket in the back garden. But they have both also spent time in smaller situations where every space (indoor and out) counted. And ultimately that is how they wanted to keep it.

The couple acquired their Brunswick townhouse three years ago – for its northern light, outdoor spaces, access to the park and general urban amenity. Ta, a nurse who is the gardener of the pair, has gradually set about planting every available spot, while Alex, who runs the Yarra Energy Foundation, is in the midst of constructing an Australian-plant-filled rain garden for their ground-floor courtyard.

The couple, who have had a foster child living with them for some of the time, grow their own herbs and vegetables, swap produce with neighbours and often barbecue and eat in the park.

Ta has pineapple sage growing inside next to her dining room table, as well as begonias, a kentia palm, Monstera deliciosa and succulents. On the balcony outside, the biggest expanse of herbs and vegetables is in a massive insulated plastic planter, one of two that a friend (the woman behind Edible Islands planters) gave the Fearnsides to trial.

The other is on the roof where Ta has an olive tree as well as polystyrene boxes that she plants with edibles and moves about to suit the season. Moving to the area outside the front door, there is an orange tree and an assortment of succulents and other hardy specimens, while in the communal area are more olives, as well as a lemon, lime and apples (all in pots.)

Ta says that in the home she likes to ”make it simple, minimise stuff, minimise clutter” but plants are the exception. She wants to plant more. She talks to them, harvests them and plies them with diluted worm-juice.

They have got her talking with the neighbours in this block of townhouses, too. The residents here regularly discuss their gardens, tackling the communal areas together and swapping produce, gardening tools and information.

Community is very much the Fearnsides’ priority. About five years ago, inspired by the co-housing models pioneered in Denmark in the 1970s that have since taken off elsewhere, they founded Urban Coup. It is a ”community” of households seeking to buy land in the inner urban area and develop it into a mixture of both private and common areas, including shared garden spaces. Should the plan come off, it would be a more exaggerated, purpose-built version of what they have now.

They like the fact that Ta grows rhubarb but gives it to her neighbour to cook, that they can jump from their roof deck to their neighbour’s and swap cuttings with those living around them. They also like that the grass, elms and plane trees in the park on their doorstep are maintained by the local council instead of them.

”There’s a real generosity here,” Ta says. ”And all the plants make me feel healthy.”

Plant care

– The Fearnsides’ garden is entirely in pots and therefore requires frequent watering and feeding. Mulch is a must. Ta uses both worm juice and worm castings – generated from food scraps in the worm farm in the garage – as a fertiliser. The worm juice – a watery liquid stemming from the breakdown of organic wastes – is diluted with water (at a ratio of 1:10) and applied to the soil as a liquid. This can be done weekly in the growing season. The nutrient-rich worm castings hold moisture and can be spread over the soil or dug in, particularly when planting seedlings.

– Pots need to be carefully matched with the size of the plant, with plants repotted as they get larger. The kentia palm (Howea forsteriana) is a slow-grower and will cope in the same pot for several seasons but will do best if some of the soil is replaced every one or two years. Like all indoor plants it will also benefit from the odd outing outdoors – nowhere too bright and somewhere where the rain will wash the dust from the leaves.

– Orange trees, like all citrus, can adapt well to pots but will always be smaller and yield less fruit than their in-ground counterparts. As well as regular feeding, dig them out of the pot and replace the soil every few years, at which point they can either be moved to a bigger pot or have their roots trimmed and remain in the original.

Megan Backhouse is pursuing a masters in urban horticulture.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.


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