Vege feast: Some of Jennifer Yeats' of Yarralumla harvest including tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and beetroot grown in the communal vegetable garden at her unit development.
Vege feast: Some of Jennifer Yeats' of Yarralumla harvest including tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and beetroot grown in the communal vegetable garden at her unit development. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Seven years ago Brett and Jennifer Yeats moved to one of 11 townhouses in Yarralumla designed in 1982 by architect Harry Seidler.  Allan and Pamela O'Neil moved in to the complex five years ago from their home in Weetangera.

In 100 Canberra Houses (2013), by Tim Reeves and Alan Roberts, the authors describe the plan of this group of modernist split-level residences as fan shaped, emanating from a central landscaped garden that gives access to private courtyard entrances. 

Behind the buildings are two simple ovate leaf shapes that provide daylight to garages beneath and a swimming pool enclosed by curved walls. From there, a shady path leads down to a long narrow area beside the back fence.

Sharing: Neighbours Jennifer Yeats and Allan O'Neil harvest vegetables from a communal vegetable garden growing in a thin strip of land at their unit development in Yarralumla.
Sharing: Neighbours Jennifer Yeats and Allan O'Neil harvest vegetables from a communal vegetable garden growing in a thin strip of land at their unit development in Yarralumla. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

It was here, six years ago, that residents started a community vegetable garden. It has been so successful that they have extended the area twice. Brett Yeats, Allan O'Neil and David Hawes constructed constructed more raised beds, filled with compost from the Curtin garden of Yeats' mother, Betty.  The initial construction was funded from body corporate monies, however now residents who want to partake of the produce put in a small annual contribution to the cost of seeds and seedlings.

The two main gardeners are Jennifer Yeats and Allan O'Neil and they are currently growing sweet mama capsicums, lettuce combo, dill, silver beet and perpetual spinach. A variety of ripe tomatoes are now cropping including black Russian, Grosse lisse, beefsteak, Burke's backyard and sweetbite. 

During our visit O'Neil was picking cucumbers, Jalapeno chillies and dwarf green beans that he planted in a large block in a single bed. He is also raising two beds of Thai basil as his household enjoys Thai food. In their private courtyard he is growing more lettuce, zucchini, chillies and rhubarb and believes growing your own is a primeval need. 

There are blue-tongue lizards in the garden and they are so relaxed about living there that O'Neil accidentally trod on one when stepping into a garden bed.  

There is drip irrigation to the raised beds and, recently, the group bought 11 cubic metres of mulch that they spread in 3.5 hours using four wheelbarrows and four "spreaders" who were all aged over 60. There is a communal compost bin beside which a vigorous tomato plant has self-sown and a eureka lemon tree that began life in someone's courtyard and has been moved three times to a spot where it now produces massive crops.

Many people from the townhouses forage lettuce leaves and herbs, including Vietnamese mint, thyme and basil from a separate terraced bed near the community clothes lines and, when there are excess crops, Jenny Yeats often picks them and leaves a basket full near the letterboxes for people to gather when they collect their mail.  

Late cropping scarlet-orange flowered runner beans, which originated with residents who brought the cold climate seed from Tasmania, are supported by thin bamboo stakes as are many other vegetables in the garden.  

On my suggestion, corks are being added to the tops of the bamboo so the gardeners' eyes are protected when harvesting vegetables, inspecting the progress of crops, or checking for insect pests. After wining and dining, ask your hosts if they have any spare corks. It is surprising, even with screw caps on wine bottles, how many people save corks. Take care when making holes in the corks to secure them to the top of the bamboo stakes - champagne corks are the easiest and best.  

As Jennifer Yeats pulled a large beetroot from the soil, she said she has no urge to go to a dress shop but just let her loose in a plant nursery.  For her kitchen, she cut a large shiny aubergine to go with garlic, zucchini, tomatoes, onions and capsicum in a favourite summer dish, the perfect ratatouille.

Jennifer says the key thing is to fry the onion then garlic in olive oil in a large, heavy-based ovenproof pan, adding the ingredients gradually and cooking each one for a few minutes, then putting it in the oven where two hours is ok, four hours is better and six hours' cooking is best.  She substitutes fresh, homegrown tomatoes for tinned chopped tomatoes. 

The recipe comes from former Canberran Matthew Evans on SBS TV and you will enjoy following his demonstration and details on:  sbs.com.au/food/recipes/perfect-ratatouille

Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.