Tina van Raay and Rob Blowes welcomed visitors to their garden in Campbell during October for Open Gardens Australia. A friend and I went there on a hot Saturday afternoon and sat beside a pond enlivened with goldfish and water burbling over rocks. The pond had been dug for the couple's garden wedding in 2000.
A formal central pathway lined with box hedges led to a niche and we chatted to people relaxing with tea and coffee in a seating alcove of mosaics under a mature shade-giving London plane tree. Tina van Raay is a mosaic and stained glass artist. The paneled walkways and a fairy garden display her talents. Beside another pond next to the house was the weeping shrub Acacia cognata "Green Mist", that most appealed to my companion.
For any kitchen gardener, however, it was Rob Blowes' impressive vegetable garden that was magnetic. Blowes has lived in Campbell for 25 years but constructed the vegie garden only six years ago. A desire for fresh vegetables uncontaminated by pesticides was the impetus for growing his own but earlier attempts had been foiled with too much produce going to the birds and possums.
The block in Campbell is framed by towering eucalypts and a reserve beyond the back gate so rabbits and foxes were also a problem. Blowes built a garden enclosure from anodised metal tubing with chicken mesh. There are also 15 raised vegetable beds constructed from a composite of recycled wood and plastic from Cosset Industries which is easy to nail and drill, can bend and does not degrade in the sun. It took a couple of years of weekends for Blowes to build it all.
The enclosure allows for irrigation (misting) from the top even though the whole patch is irrigated via a dripper connected to a computerised system. The couple has a 70,000 litre water tank under the garage that collects all water from the roof.
Rob Blowes' composting system is immaculate perfection. He has three adjoining timber structures with front slats for easy removal that he designed and constructed. Clippings from garden shrubs, grass, leaves – in fact, everything that comes off the property – is mixed with cow manure and refuse from an on-site chicken coop. It only takes a few weeks for the finished compost to be ready for use in the hot months.
During our visit we saw corn and tomatoes being raised from seed in a cold frame with the sloping glass tops of the structure removed for air flow. The couple grow some of their produce from seeds when they have time and the other vegetables are purchased as seedlings from Rodneys Nursery in Pialligo. Already planted in their vegie beds or about to go in are potatoes, capsicum, zucchini, onions, garlic, snow peas, beans, beetroot, pumpkin, rhubarb and lettuces. The vegetables are providing a generous harvest and the salad vegetables are used nearly every day in their kitchen.
Blueberries, raspberries and strawberries have their own beds and there are apple trees as well. The raspberries are a favourite fruit served fresh with cream.
The couple shares the cooking but Tina van Raay has an annual cooking spree making tomato soup and sauces from their abundant tomato crop. By blending the tomatoes with the basil and coriander, lentils, noodles, fried bacon bits and chicken stock, van Raay makes enough soup for the summer and then freezes more for use the rest of the year.
As a grandmother five times over, she also makes "Oma's soup", originally named for her mother who had a never-ending supply of vegie soup for visitors. As one of ten children, van Raay says, "you can imagine how often to soup got stretched!" Her father had an acre of vegie garden and orchard in Kew, Melbourne, part of a 25-acre property called Genazzano, so all the family knows how to live off a vegie patch.
The proceeds from Tina van Raay and Rob Blowes' open garden will be going to the Canberra Refugee Support Group. The garden will be open again on 21-22 February 2015.
Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.