Oaks Estate family flourish as kitchen gardeners

Susan Parsons
Pondering: Several varieties of frogs live in Fiona MacGregor's pond  in Oaks Estate.
Pondering: Several varieties of frogs live in Fiona MacGregor's pond in Oaks Estate. Photo: Graham Tidy

Peter O'Dea and Fiona MacGregor moved to Oaks Estate six years ago from the house in Narrabundah where they had lived for 30 years and developed a vegetable garden on the nature strip which prompted some "interesting correspondence" but it remained.

Their eldest daughter, Jessica O'Dea, has lived in Oaks Estate for 11 years and Peter and Fiona were able to buy the house adjoining hers. Their new land was full of couch grass and weeds with a dilapidated shed.  Oaks Estate has sandy soil so they added compost and cow manure to raised garden beds.  Large pieces of slate and old boards were used to divide the beds and to walk on,  and a wood-chip path surrounds the kitchen garden. A recycled wire-mesh fence has been used as a trellis for peas and beans and a magnificent white clematis

The hen house, designed by Peter, adjoins the vegetable garden. It is made from heavy wire-netting and the frame is constructed out of irrigation pipe arched over metal stakes set in a concrete slab. There is an inner and outer chook yard; the inner being where the hens are locked  at night as foxes are plentiful in the area, as are brown and black snakes. The couple has started growing greens, particularly kale, for the  hens as it is hard to get waste greens at the supermarket or market.

Russian borage: Gorws  in Fiona MacGregor's vegetable garden in Oaks Estate.
Russian borage: Gorws in Fiona MacGregor's vegetable garden in Oaks Estate. Photo: Graham Tidy

They keep five "little red hens" and a wyandotte and during my visit on a recent Sunday, the hens were making themselves heard  after a brown goshawk scared them. Fiona says the chooks are great layers and the family is rarely without eggs.  Jessica's two daughters love to bake cakes and excess eggs are used to make quiche.

Peter has just harvested about 50 garlic bulbs, both purple and elephant garlic. The garlic is grown from seed stock that originally came from Braidwood. It is stored in a shed with a small, neat gabion wall.

The greenhouse is the product of lateral thinking. The frame is made from a covered carport sold as a cheap car covering. They obtained the old frame at a garage sale and erected it next to the vegetable patch. The covering is a core flute material.  From Melbourne, it cost  $4.80 a linear metre,  and is two metres wide.  It is easy to use and is reputed to last a long time. The greenhouse enables the couple  to have a head-start to the growing season as the frosts are heavy in Oaks Estate.

Drying: Garlic is spread on a gabion wall.
Drying: Garlic is spread on a gabion wall. Photo: Graham Tidy

Their tomatoes are doing well, tommy toe, grosse lisse and cherry varieties. Some are from the Bus Depot Markets, some from Pialligo and heritage tomatoes raised from seed from Diggers Club.

Fiona believes in planting ornamentals among the vegetables to attract bees.  She has Russian borage and the lighter-blue variety; three large lavender plants are in pots in the vegetable garden and delphiniums grow at the back of the beds.

Native bees also like her many varieties of salvia.  Jessica has a large and productive feijoa tree and they give away many kilos of the fruit in season, most to the Islander community in Queanbeyan who love them. They also grow rhubarb, peach, nectarine and orange trees and raspberries.

Hoe down: Peter O'Dea weeds his vegetable garden in Oaks Estate.
Hoe down: Peter O'Dea weeds his vegetable garden in Oaks Estate. Photo: Graham Tidy

The herb garden, filled with thyme, basil, parsley and rosemary, is used daily as the family cooks a lot of Italian food. Jessica's specialty is spinach and ricotta-stuffed pasta with fresh herbs. Stir-fries are a great way of using the vegetables and everyone loves the snow peas.

The front garden is filled with native plants, ginkgo trees in pots line the way to the imaginative and extended back garden which has shady and sunny nooks. During a recent open day, to raise funds for International Red Cross, friends of the couple and visitors were mingling and lingering beside a billabong surrounded by native water plants.

Fiona says the frog pond is home to eastern banjo frogs, eastern common froglets and brown tree frogs and the water was stocked with silver perch fingerlings from the Riverina.  A tawny frogmouth visits the garden every August.

This is a vibrant and diverse garden in an old settlement with a particular rural feel.

Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.