How the Gardiners live up to their name with a great garden in Canberra

Susan Parsons
Bob Gardiner watering his garden with tank water.
Bob Gardiner watering his garden with tank water. Photo: Elesa Kurtz


In the Kitchen Garden giveaway (September 30) we asked readers what you are planting for spring and what recipe you will use for the harvest. We had many responses, and one of the standouts was Bob Gardiner, of Isabella Plains. I couldn't wait to meet him and was invited to the garden two days later.

Bob said he was raising seedlings of five varieties of pumpkins including gorgeous but taste-free Turk's turban and Australian butter (for pumpkin pie), two watermelons (blacktail mountain and white-fleshed cream of Saskatchewan), three rockmelons including the spectacular pineapple-flavoured Ananas, and six tomato plants, spread widely to cut down on interesting matings.

Bob Gardiner's mango chutney and fruit leathers.
Bob Gardiner's mango chutney and fruit leathers. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

His companion plantings include alyssum, parsnip and queen anne's lace, sunflowers to help camouflage the fruit trees and fenugreek from the spice rack for the dish aloo methi, a potato and fenugreek curry.

Bob and Roanna Gardiner moved to Isabella Plains from Kambah where they had started a food forest and, three months later, discovered they were in a Mr Fluffy house. So they took the pavers, solar panels, water tanks, all their plants and carefully made compost with them. The new neighbours, with their dry wit, think Bob has a power station (20 panels), a jungle (food forest), building site (espalier posts) and the Cotter catchment (13 kilolitres of tank water). As a bushie, particularly at Welshmans Reef in Victoria and in Albury, Bob has always been interested in water conservation.

People who influence him are Jackie French (Relax magazine gardening columnist and children's author) who says "plant lots"; his mate Jost Stellar, of Deakin (who is this writer's favourite home garden orchardist), and Dave and Rod, of One Eco, who have installed his water tanks, provided garden edging and taught him how to stack pavers.

Bob Gardiner with one of his Hy-Line browns.
Bob Gardiner with one of his Hy-Line browns. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

His young espaliered garden of fruit trees, includes Stella cherry, peach, apricot, apples, damsons for plum sauce, St Dominique Violette fig, nectarines and a just-planted Tahitian lime. He has a row of boysenberries, and there are guavas, feijoas, a loquat, medlar and a citrus alley as well as the drought and frost hardy exotics, Japanese raisin (Hovenia dulcis) and a Brazilian jelly palm (Butia capitata) which can be seen in Forest 59 at the National Arboretum Canberra.

Salads are always on the menu so four different open leaf lettuces and baby spinach are planted to be served with oxheart, zebra, black krim, tommy toe, Principe Borghese tomatoes and topped with flowers of borage, the prince of companion plants. He says oxheart and Amish paste tomatoes stacked with bocconcini and topped with basil is "another great way to parade the show pony".

To follow as dessert, a two-watermelon and three-rockmelon fruit salad is guaranteed to win greenie points with separated cream slapped over the top with a trowel. "It's a pity I don't own a cow these days," he said, "because the greatest food pleasure I ever had was sucking the scrapings on top of the milk through my teeth."


In Victoria, Bob kept a small flock of chooks with a Maremma to keep the foxes out. The only cooking of those chooks was to make stock as they were too tough even for a slow-cooked curry.

Now Bob and Roanna keep three contented Hy-Line brown chooks and he chats to them and practises "chookery".

His specialty is Indian cooking using the books of Charmaine Solomon and Attia Hosein. Some years ago he did a course on steamed food at Cooking Co-ordinates in Belconnen and that piqued his interest in Japanese food. His theory is there is a way to eat anything, except okra. He makes fruit leathers, "mooched" apricots for liqueurs, poached and dried fruit including apples and figs.

Just prior to our visit, Bob made mango chutney.

Mango and brandy chutney

2 tbsp olive oil
1.5 tbsp mustard seeds
3 large red onions, finely chopped
4cm piece ginger, cut into matchsticks
1.3 cups brandy or dry sherry
6 large mangoes, coarsely chopped
2.5 cups castor sugar
1.3 cups apple cider vinegar
1-2 tbsp chilli flakes

Heat oil and fry mustard seeds for two minutes until they start to pop. Add onion and ginger. Cook, stirring, for five minutes until soft. Add mango, brandy, sugar, vinegar and chilli flakes. Simmer for 1.5 hours (or as long as you like in slow cooker) until the chutney thickens. Divide into hot sterilised jars and seal.

Spring garden giveaway results:

The winners of DIY Garden Projects book and Yates garden products are: Mathew and Cassandra Fox, of Campbell; the runners-up are Leanne and Andrew Scott, of Duffy, Teresa Kennedy and the Kennedy clan, of Wanniassa, Anna Roberts, of Curtin, and Bob Gardiner, of Isabella Plains.

Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.