Surprises in the Garden

by Alissa

You might have noticed that I don’t like surprises. They don’t usually work out in my favour, or at least I remember the bad ones more than the good. Australia is full of surprises–things that aren’t what they initially seem, things that sound familiar and then aren’t. Last week a Pacific island that has figured on maps for over a decade was even found not to exist. Things that I used to take for granted–the taste of bananas, that cars will stop for pedestrians, that I could be proficient at seemingly basic tasks like driving or changing the nail-breaking 50 lb spring-loaded toilet paper roll–are not what they used to be.

I’m working on accepting this frequent state of surprise, particularly in the garden. Some good things are happening back there, and I want to dwell on them as they arise in case, like most of the sunflowers shoots, something eats through them in the night.

Look! Tiny green fruit! The tomatoes are looking good today.

One of two surviving (from 10) Bell peppers (aka capsicum) is starting to leaf out. These came from seeds we saved from a grocery store pepper. Half a packet of parsley seeds are germinating right there, too. Thanks, Octavia!

I turned my back on the garden for a couple of days for reasons I’ll explain below, and all of this came up in the lettuce (aka weed) patch. A local friend has confirmed it as oxalis, which she was surprised to see going as a house plant for $14 a pot in Iowa last year. It looks like clover but sprouts from a tiny bulb and is incredibly difficult to get rid of. Reports are mixed on its edibility/potential toxicity. Tiny chard sprouts are up! Three of approximately thirty lettuce seeds are up.

The cucumbers are thriving. The melon in the middle, not so much yet. Butternut squash (aka pumpkin) survives. Two of three replants are up and going.

Pink blooming shrub has been drawing lots of incredibly noisy lorikeets in the daytime, and fruit bats at night. They bats have a wingspan of about a meter and we hear them chattering like squirrels after dark, flapping and swooping as they come and go. I’m trying to appreciate the pretty pink blossoms, but the constant bird noise is wearying.

“What is that, Mommy?” A week or so ago, O and I were harvesting leaf mulch from the far side of the yard when she pointed out something in the trees. Couch cushions. A blanket. A bag of something. I was stunned to explain that it looks like someone has been camping in the yard. The structure behind the site is a free-standing garage about 30 feet from the back door of the house, which is divided into three rental units.

I looked at it long just enough to confirm that nobody was actually home, then we finished our watering and came inside, where I started to process the fact that Someone Has Been Camping in the Yard. Someone who could have been hanging out there for the past month unnoticed while I half-supervised my toddler and gardened. Someone who might be in the middle of a mental health/substance abuse/life drama ordeal in what used to be my secluded little haven, really far from the house. Even farther from the road. The night before I had walked down to the garden to water, all alone in the dark, chiding myself for being nervous. Nothing but a few mosquitos out there.

I tried to keep my cool in front of O, but on the inside I freaked out for several days a while. It took me about two minutes to overcome most of my reasons for not wanting a large dog and a large fence. Three minutes later, I became concerned for the welfare of the person using the yard. Was this someone who needed help? What could or should we do for them? Had I driven them off by starting to use the space myself?

What would you do, dear readers, with an uninvited resident?

I placed a brief call to Ace, who placed a call to the property management. The person he spoke with was nonchalant. Michael Bluth explaining hop-ons nonchalant. “Oh, you’ve got a camper. There’s not much we can do about it unless you catch them in the act.” Camping without permission is illegal, but apparently this is a common problem.

I didn’t go out back the next day. Or the next day. On the third day, I had Ace come down and play with O while I watered. I looked into the bushes a dozen times until it no longer seemed surprising that there was a bed back there. I watched the driveway that runs from the road down the side of the house to the little garage at odd times of the day. Whoever had been there clearly did not want to be seen. I made some extra noise before going out to hang laundry or water plants and always glanced back through the shrubs to be sure I didn’t have company. The leaves are starting to cover the stuff over and it clearly hasn’t been disturbed lately.

I happened to meet a social worker on the weekend who answered a few questions for me about homelessness in Newcastle and put my mind somewhat at ease on some counts. Homelessness is more of a choice here than it is in other places. Social welfare is generous. If people want housing, it is available–which leaves the fringe as options for my back yard person: a runaway kid or someone newly in crisis, or someone too disturbed or indifferent to participate in public housing.

I recognize that homelessness is a fact of urban life, I just didn’t expect to find evidence of it so very close to home. Newcastle has an easy climate for outdoor living. Bar Beach is a great neighbourhood. Easy access to the city, easy access to the hot showers at the beach, nice quiet spot… We like it here. Who wouldn’t like it?

As the days go on with no activity (including no effort to clean up by the property management), I’m no longer thinking that there is a person back there so much as some bedding that someone abandoned. Our part in the story seems simpler, if the space has outlived its usefulness.

I have a newfound gratitude for the yappy little neighbour dogs.

Somehow I will make peace with the lorikeets.

I’m making room in the garden now for other unexpected life forms–a few volunteer squash vines and tomato plants that have appeared in the lettuce beds. As we weeded, we tasted scraps of leaf from the chard, the parsley, the lettuce and the mustard greens, and my girl was so pleased to eat even tiny bites of something we are growing ourselves. Maybe the oxalis will be good to eat, too.