This gardener didn’t set out to be organic but he was certainly set on being organised
“You know exactly where to find each vegetable. It’s like going to a shopping centre and you know exactly which aisle to go down. I’ve worked hard and planned it exactly how it should be …”
Many of the best gardeners start early. Mark Hoffmann was three years old when he sowed his first pea in his father’s big vegetable garden in the historic Geelong suburb of Belmont.
Originally from Silesia — then in German Prussia, now part of Poland — the Hoffmann family has grown deep roots in Australia over the past one-and-a-half centuries. They came to Victoria via South Australia where the family once owned a winery.
Mark is Geelong born and bred. He grew up on his father Martin’s 760m2 block in Belmont, three doors away from Mark’s grandfather Heinrich, a Lutheran minister. Martin grew flowers for three churches and vegetables for the congregations. He also raised fattened animals, especially lambs and breeding ducks, and Mark remembers dashing around with Indian Runners that were as tall as he was.
“Dad knew how to butcher and hang birds,” Mark recalls. “My grandfather didn’t earn steady wages as a minister but he received church offerings, so we were dependent on our livestock reproducing and living off the land. The church would purchase our chickens and we’d have plenty of church cook-ups. “I let our chooks go one day and most of them disappeared!”
As a teenager, Mark pruned trees and picked fruit for Italian farmers in Silvan in the Dandenongs and also in Seymour. He went on to work at Geelong Hospital as an orderly, then as a paramedic, and has lived on his quarter-acre block in Belmont Heights for 23 years.
A small orchard
Mark and wife Sheena are organic gardeners more by accident than design, he reckons. “We always had a vegetable garden and we were never really aware of organic growing — we lived it without realising it, I guess.
“When I started in the ambulance service I earned $25K per annum and $7k went on expenses. We learned quickly how to live off the land and save money.”
Accidental or not, something sure seems to be working. In a combination of pots and raised beds, the Hoffmanns grow herbs, garlic, shallots and an exotic salad of fruits: lemons, apples, pears, plums, bananas, fig, tamarillos, papino, babaco, white sapote, passionfruit and three kinds of guava. They also grow hazelnut, monstera deliciosa, yacón tubers and azolla, an aquatic fern sometimes called duckweed.
Mark is particularly proud of his prolific garlic. He attributes his success to a talk he attended by garlic grower John Olliff at Geelong Organic Gardeners, of which Mark is a member. “I purchased a number of garlic bulbs from John,” he says.
Another big inspiration was the late botanist and horticulturalist George Jones of Geelong Botanic Gardens — a “garden brain”, according to Mark.
He adds, “I use my hands a lot and I grow seasonally and from seed.” His seeds are sourced locally from Ben Keon-Cohen of Birdland Seeds (featured in Good Organic Gardening #8.2 last year). “I can grow a whole lot of vegetables from a $15 packet of Ben’s seeds.”
Establishing the garden wasn’t all plain sailing, however. “We had a weed problem at the start,” says Mark, “and flooding was an issue. We had four floods in 20 years; water levels came higher than our property. It took three days to pump the water out. Now I don’t have any water issues.”
They also had to contend with asbestos, snails and a Heritage Overlay, which under Victoria planning regulations can be applied to any site that “may be significant for scientific, aesthetic, architectural or historical reasons or for any other special cultural value”. The whole of Belmont Heights Estate is subject to a heritage order.
Man with a plan
When a future Geelong Historical Society digs up Mark’s yard, it will discover the outline of a tidy, well-planned garden.
Having grown up among the chaos caused by 30 ducks, he says, “I’ve built an orderly garden for my family to enjoy. Everyone can enjoy their space in the garden. I spent 17 years making it what it is today.
“You know exactly where to find each vegetable. It’s like going to a shopping centre and you know exactly which aisle to go down. I’ve worked hard and planned it exactly how it should be, with many water-saving ideas.”
Among the latter are 16,000L tanks to harvest water, a solar hot-water system and a greywater recycling device, a Gator Probe (designed by Australian Bruce Sheriff of Just Water Solutions), which distributes waste kitchen and laundry water to Mark’s fruit trees.
Other measures towards sustainability, he says, are to “reclaim timber from your fences and prune your trees”. He collects sticks and bark from nearby trees, mulches it and uses it as ground cover.
For fertiliser, Mark uses iron powder as well as hot compost, a concept he learned from US soil microbiologist, Dr Elaine Ingham. With a couple of others he came up with a backyard composter, a cubic-metre container with “30 layers of a mixture of straw, leaves, sawdust and household waste”.
The heat inside gets as high as 66°C: “I disposed of a dead bird in there. It was completely dissolved within three weeks; all that was left was hollow bones.”
As far as pest control goes, Mark stomps on snails, uses beer traps and occasionally deploys snail and slug pellets that are safe for pets and the planet.
“My cats Millie and Belle are white cabbage moth catchers,” he says. “They’re so good at it and they eat them straightaway. I guess they like the crunchy taste.”
Mark doesn’t bother with a worm farm, however: “There are plenty of worms in our compost bin [but] you can’t let it go rank or fungal. You have to do it properly, otherwise it’s dangerous. Worm farms are out for me; worms eat pure humus and they’re everywhere in my garden.”
Other visiting wildlife includes a welcome family of geckoes that eat snails and slugs. Mark places rocks to house them. There are also plenty of beetles in the trees that attract tiny spotted pardalotes. He adds, “Then there’s the brown goshawk that sits on a tree limb happily eating a pigeon.”
But it’s not all about “nature, red in tooth and claw”, as Tennyson put it. Mark Hoffmann’s achievement here, on an average-sized suburban block, is to “marry Australian bushland and vegetables”. In an orderly fashion, of course.
Mark’s top tips
- Monitor your mulch — don’t let it go rank.
- Cut trees back; they require a healthy trim.
- Allow wildlife to live freely in your garden.
- Store water; it costs you nothing.
- Grow from seed for stronger stock.
For more information and tips on gardening, visit https://www.completehome.com.au/outdoors-gardening