“The lettuces are too close together; I spilled the seeds. But come look at my carnations.”
This Nonna from Queanbeyan West comes out into her garden every morning to discover what has grown overnight. She has unfathomable amounts of lettuce, bunched in neat rows on one end and then all in a big mound where her steady hand slipped, the day she was furrowing the ground.
She can’t understand why her family won’t take bunches of the world’s most underwhelming foliage every time they visit. “These cost money at Woolworths, and they’re not even fresh,” she says. “I even wash it for them!”
Behind the sea of green, on a trellis against the wall, are beans of all shapes and sizes. Too few, and too curly in fruit, they are the perfect addition to a daily salad for one, or as a side to a single sausage or lamb chop at dinner time.
Adjacent are, naturally, the irises, a glorious purple standing tall over potatoes, rocket (“It’s not the same as lettuce”), rosemary, sage and thyme, onions of all sorts, and a dozen radishes at any given time.
Tomato plants dangle wearily from makeshift stakes and trellises, moonlighting an exhibition of every pair of stockings this thrifty Nonna has ever owned. The fruit are heavy and plump, grown from seed collected from every good tomato she has ever eaten. Cherry tomatoes grow plentifully, with hardly any effort, the Romas from her friend Johnny come through steadily every year, but for the duration of the summer months this Nonna has channelled her prayers to her mortgage lifters. These beefy red fruit are endgame, beautiful on a crusty bit of old bread, swimming in olive oil, white pepper and too much salt, and Nonna will tell that to anyone who’ll hear it.
In a garden bed across the yard with a different sun aspect, Nonna bends down almost in half (just as every 80+ year old Italian lady who lives alone and is a falls-risk does) to pick a strawberry, from a plant given to her by her granddaughter. Nonna is proud to have it known that she doesn’t go to gardening shops, instead swapping cuttings, seeds and fruit with her community of old ladies: even older Italian ladies, hospital auxiliary ladies, bowls ladies – all friends to her throughout the week.
This leads to the verandah, which is absolutely heaving with geraniums, carnations and roses, all grown from the aforementioned informal Queanbeyan cuttings exchange.
Nonna is passionate about her carnations. She has grown them in a plethora of pots, buckets, takeaway containers and even an old polystyrene coolbox. She tells of the currawongs, who peck off their heads, and the possums who eat their buds, but still she persists, knowing gratefully that animals in the garden are a blessing, and proudly that they are a sign of a good gardener. Her birdbath is always filled, and is host to rosellas and galahs cooling down and freshening up of a warm summer evening.
Along too, come the gang of teenaged magpies, who love a bit of cheese or fried egg but will never know the taste of good prosciutto. Two or three at a time stand at the door, tap on the glass and eat, while the rest of the group perches comfortably among pots of carnations along the bannister and stand guard.
Magpies among the carnations that paint this Nonna’s verandah with joy, keep her busy and able every morning, and that are the homegrown, earthy, makeshift cream of the crop that is Nonna’s labour of love: her garden.