Good topsoil helped by careful composting has transformed a mid-north coast garden from a lone mango tree to a dense garden blooming with abundant fruit trees
Dan and I moved to the mid-north coast of NSW 14 years ago when we purchased an 810-square-metre block, home to an old fibro cottage and a magnificent mango tree. Over the years we have removed, planted, transplanted and replanted many trees and shrubs to create what is now a densely populated garden.
From the beginning we were blessed with good topsoil that has slowly been delivered to us from Big Brother Mountain, which sits directly behind us to the west. In summer he protects us from the westerly heat and winds (our block faces east-west). Over the years I have collected all my neighbours’ grass clippings, which would have been thrown into the bush, and redirected them to our garden as mulch. This, in turn, has built a couple of inches of new topsoil — and one can never have enough organic matter to add to the soil. I simply leave it in a pile to heat up and compost down to kill off any weed seed, then spread it.
To make our garden beds, we always chose the easy option of the “no dig” method, basically sprinkling the soil with animal manures and adding lime or dolomite to sweeten it (we live coastally so the soil tends to be acidic). We then cover the area with half a dozen layers of newspaper, give it a good soak, then place straw on top.
Usually, when doing this, a breeze arrives and makes the laying of the newspaper difficult, so it’s always handy to have the hose ready to dampen it down. We leave it for a good month before planting out to make sure all the grass below has died off properly. Digging the edge at the beginning of the process always helps with maintenance afterwards. In doing it this way, we need no herbicides and have minimal hard work.
Our garden is not dissimilar to a permaculture garden or ones that existed in many backyards a generation or two ago: a combination of fruit and flowering trees and shrubs (native and exotic), vegetables, herbs and many hardy, old-fashioned perennials, which give it an overall feel of a cottage garden. We were very fortunate that our huge old mango was planted on our southern boundary — it provides us with wonderful shade and doesn’t hinder our winter sun. It also provides an area to grow shade-loving plants.
We deliberately planted deciduous trees on our northern boundary to get the benefit of the winter sun and help screen us from the neighbours. The plants we chose here were a couple of Japanese raisin trees (Hovenia dulcis) which grew extremely quickly from seed. They produce a most unusual fruit which is actually the swollen peduncle, or stem. The taste is a mixture between a pear and a raisin. Further along the boundary is a black shahtoot tree (a type of mulberry) grafted on a dwarf root stock, which means it only grows to a comfortable three metres. The fruit from this is a longer drupe than the conventional mulberry and is non-staining and sweet when only half mature. The only problem we have is getting any of the fruit since the pheasant coucal has found it and has now brought his wife along to join in the feast. It’s the age-old thing: you have to share. It doesn’t seem to be 50-50, though.
Next is a Fuji (Fuyu) persimmon, a newer, non-astringent fruit type you can eat before it fully ripens and it doesn’t make your tongue furry as old varieties did. It is a very pretty tree with a lovely habit, shape and wonderful autumn colour. An edible fig takes the next space. I grew it from a hardwood cutting taken in winter from a well-performing fig growing in a friend’s garden. These strike really easily from cuttings.
The pomegranate is another good old favourite with a wonderful spreading habit, vibrant orange flower and exquisite ruby-coloured fruit. It provides shade for the chooks from the direct summer sun. Citrus trees grow extremely well in our neck of the woods. We inherited a lovely old Joppa orange which is excellent for juicing. We have fresh orange juice from June to November and wonderful-eating Valencia oranges earlier in the season.
An elderly mandarin takes pride of place in the chook yard, giving the birds excellent shade in the heat of the summer. Our Tahitian lime is abundant with fruit most of the year and once a year I make lime pickle, which never goes astray when we have curries. Last of all we have a Meyer lemon, a really juicy variety and not a very large tree. One problem with our citrus trees is the orange citrus bug, which loves the soft new growth. A way to combat this problem is to spray each tree in August when the citrus beetle is in its juvenile stage. Do this with soapy water, though make sure it really is soap (like Sunlight) and not detergent. The bronze orange bug (which we call the citrus bug or stink bug) is very hard to see at this stage but it’s there. It’s usually the smell of the citrus bug that makes you aware of them a couple of months later. So remember, get onto it early in August and you should have less of a problem.
We also have a jaboticaba (Myrciaria cauliflora), another lovely small sub-tropical fruit tree and a bit of a curiosity to a lot of people, as the fruit is borne on the trunk of the tree. When ready in the spring, the fruit is a shiny black berry slightly larger than a grape. You need to break the skin with your teeth to suck the contents out. It has a white flesh with a seed inside. There’s usually a fight with the satin bower birds over this one.
Vines are an important part of our garden as they give us privacy from our neighbours while taking up minimal space. Grapes are excellent; being deciduous, they allow winter sun and provide summer shade, are extremely fast growing and easily grown from hardwood cuttings taken in the winter. Another fast-growing vine is passionfruit, a great fruiter in this area. Both grapes and passionfruit work well on a trellis or pergola, giving height in the garden when you’re starting off and also screening particular areas.
We have recently planted a new patch of bananas, a much smaller-growing variety than our last lot. The old bananas had quite a remarkable history, having marched over a period of 50 years from our dear old neighbours’ place across into ours — a fair distance. Sadly, their demise came just before Cyclone Yasi hit; afterwards bananas hit $13 a kilo. We had dug them out to make room for something else. In hindsight, bad timing.
Our mango tree is the heart of our garden, its canopy stretching over a large part of our yard. Over the years we have skirted its lower branches to lift it and allow sun beneath. This gives it a look of grandeur when you stand below it and look up.
Luckily for us, it’s a Bowen variety which means it bears good-sized fruit that isn’t stringy and is very palatable. Unfortunately, though, we are on the edge of the temperate and subtropical zones so we don’t get mangoes every year — only when we have had a dry spring, as we had last year. Hallelujah! Now we just have to share them with the possum as he or she has a particular liking for them.
We’ve discovered the best time to pick our mango crop is when the flying fox come through and start to feast — that tells us the sugar content is right. They are still hard and green at this stage, which is good as the fruit fly isn’t able to sting them. We then put them away in a dark room to ripen, turning them daily. Once we’ve supplied the neighbourhood with mangoes, we cut the rest up and put them in the freezer so they last us a good part of the year.
So there’s a brief glimpse — and we still haven’t talked about the asparagus and other vegies, the herbs, the native beehive and the chooks, all of which make our lovely garden a never-ending source of enjoyment and fulfilment. But that’s another story.
Written by Jen Stitt
Photography by Jen Stitt & Dan Guthrie
Originally in Backyard Magazine Volume 15 Issue 5