Rick and Jane Smyth's communal gardens

Susan Parsons
Rick Smyth in his vegetable patch in Narrabundah.
Rick Smyth in his vegetable patch in Narrabundah. Photo: Matt Bedford

A frivolous planting of ornamental and edible kale provides a fun welcome at the front door of Rick and Jane Smyth in Narrabundah. The couple moved there in late 2005 having lost their family home of 30 years in Chapman during the bushfires.

Having a large native garden in Chapman, the Smyths needed garden space at their townhouse and only decided to move there when the architect for the project, now their neighbour, Fred Kasparek, agreed to Jane's stipulation that they could only live in a medium density complex if there was a communal vegetable garden.

Rick Smyth and one other family do most of the gardening and watering in warmer months.  The produce is shared more widely. Smyth has rocket, silver beet, spinach, lettuces and tomatoes powering away in raised beds enriched with cow manure and mulched with pea straw. 

Jane Smyth at the lemon tree.
Jane Smyth at the lemon tree. Photo: Matt Bedford

Because there was a north-facing, bland, beige Colorbond fence, in front of it they planted a Meyer lemon tree. The tree has had masses of fruit this year and recipients of gift lemons made lemon butter from it. Sue Allanson, the co-gardener, freezes the lemon juice and zest and makes cakes. Two kiwi fruit vines, supported by the fence, have also provided a crop.

Relics salvaged from Chapman have become rustic sculptures in the communal garden and include a rake and fork and other pieces of metal set into a pattern in concrete. Individual roses given in memory of Jane Smyth's mother have been planted by her grandchildren in the vegie 'compound' and both Rick and Jane remember citrus trees in the family gardens of their Sydney childhoods.

Jane and Rick Smyth's garden in Narrabundah.
Jane and Rick Smyth's garden in Narrabundah. Photo: Matt Bedford

Rick Smyth is a retired dentist who is now making jewellery and bronze sculptures and Jane Smyth is completing a Master of Philosophy, her thesis being 'Visual Arts Education in the years before school'. For them, it is important to enjoy the outside when inside the house. Their creativity has seen a large mirror being placed on an exterior wall to reflect a Pierre de Ronsard rose into the kitchen space.  A series of framed screen prints by Canberra artist David Sequeira acts as a reflective base in afternoon light, for a view of the front courtyard.

The charming back courtyard has, at an oblique angle, a large pond full of goldfish with water recycled between large rocks and the surface dappled with water lilies.  A large pot of basil near the kitchen door entices one to the table for afternoon tea.  

Using his own lemons, Rick Smyth made Philip Johnson's moist lemon and olive oil cake from Patrice Newell's book Tree to Table Cooking with Australian Olive Oil (Lantern. 2008).  Johnson is the imaginative chef from E'cco Bistro in Brisbane and Newell has spent more than 20 years on a biodynamic farm in the upper Hunter Valley, producing olive oil and growing garlic.  The garlic can be delivered from farm to your home from November this year, order online.


Philip Johnson's lemon and olive oil cake

3 egg yolks
550g castor sugar
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups milk
grated rind of 2 lemons
juice of 3 lemons
300g self-raising flour
½ tsp bicarb soda
pinch sea salt
5 egg whites
icing sugar, for dusting (optional)

Preheat oven to 170C. Grease a 26cm springform cake tin and line with baking paper. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale. Whisk in olive oil, milk, lemon rind and lemon juice mixing well to combine. Sift together flour, bicarb soda and salt. In a clean bowl, whisk egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold dry ingredients into egg yolk and sugar mixture, then fold in beaten egg whites. Pour cake mixture into prepared tin. Cook for 1¼ hours or until a skewer comes out clean when inserted in the centre of the cake.  Dust cake with icing sugar, if using.  Smyth served the cake with natural yoghurt and fresh strawberries.

 Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.