Coming across Vicki Still among the rows of vegetables at Magnet Mart in Phillip is not a surprise as she is a landscape designer, but her reason for buying Tuscan blend lettuce, eggplants, bikini snow peas, tomato seedlings and black jack zucchini is as a birthday gift for a friend whose garden she is about to dig over.
Vicki's mother originally sparked her interest in gardening in Adelaide but she was working as a teacher, including some years with special needs pupils, when a chat with a friend 20 years ago about what she loved to do led her to study horticulture at CIT Weston.
When Vicki sold her business, Easycare Landscapes, last year she had 23 staff doing landscape design, construction and maintenance. Now she works from home in her new business called Elemental Landscapes doing garden consultations and maintenance, and she loves it.
Her garden in Lyons is beautifully designed with an appealing informality. Although the block is not large it appears so due to paved pathways leading at angles from a back deck which is used for al fresco meals. There is a very large mulberry tree which is hard pruned but still provides masses of fruit, much of it for the birds and a tall hedge of feijoa shrubs that produced sufficient fruit in autumn to make feijoa paste and feijoa and apple jam.
Vicki Still with one of her chickens. Photo: Jamila Toderas
An attractive metal gate leads to the kitchen garden. Beds are filled with loose leaf lettuces, spinach, rows of cabbages and silver beet. All were grown from Yates seeds as were flat leaf and curly leaf parsley which are being harvested now. The highlight of a separate section are huge artichoke plants, their big buds with the "choke" in their prized heart ready for the kitchen. Autumn-planted snap peas and snow peas bordering the artichokes are cropping now.
October plantings have included seeds of pumpkin, eggplant, zucchini, basil and oxheart and black krim tomatoes. There is also a bed of desiree and kipfler potatoes.
Three chooks cluck in their roost beside a garden shed which is filled with jars of chutney, jam and preserves all made by Vicki from homegrown crops. She uses a Vacola preserving unit to preserve excess fruit and vegetables and gives fresh produce to friends and neighbours. The hens are friendly ISA Browns that provide three eggs a day. When Vicki moved to Lyons five years ago she added compost to every garden bed. It was made from leaves, weeds, food scraps the chooks won't eat and chicken manure plus soil/manure from the chook shed. Once a year she mulches with lucerne bought from Roy Priest in Pialligo and that is the only addition to the beds.
Vicki says she tries to be as sustainable as possible and keeps the garden as a "closed loop", that is, she tries not to buy anything but recycles everything from the garden and does not add artificial fertilisers. She has installed water tanks but hardly waters the garden except for the fruit and vegies.
An artichoke head from Vicki Still's garden. Photo: Jamila Toderas
A small orchard contains two fig trees, a peacherine, an apricot and three plum trees that were all bought from Willow Park Nursery in Pialligo. There are summer and autumn fruiting raspberries from which she harvested 250ml-400ml of fruit a day for two months last season. There is a bed of strawberries, three deciduous and one evergreen blueberry shrubs and a sultana and white muscat grapevine.
If Vicki had a cow and a coffee plant, she would hardly have to buy any edibles. She eats lots of salads and omelettes and, for a recent dinner shared with friends, she made an easy dessert from Five of the Best by Valli Little. The version of Eton Mess used all Vicki's own produce, raspberries, strawberries, eggs for the meringue and Greek yoghurt that she makes using an Easiyo starter kit with a domed yoghurt maker, one litre plastic jar and a sachet of natural yoghurt powder. Once the first batch of yoghurt is produced, some is saved for future yoghurt which is easily made in a day.
Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.