Small but mighty: an experimental garden

Small but mighty: an experimental garden


In this small, experimental garden in Sydney’s inner west, half the fun of gardening is trying something new every year

A few weeks ago an old gardening friend phoned me, asking at one point, “What are you growing this year?” She’s someone who really knows our garden, because we’re always fooling around with new plants, especially new veggie varieties, in our small, green patch in Sydney’s inner west.

We’ve been here 22 years now and our story is a happy one of constant change. During the first 10 years, the lawn shrank and shrank as the garden beds grew ever wider. Then one day the lawn finally disappeared altogether — replaced by a pathway down the centre of the yard, with little tippy-toe paths off to the side here and there to let us access the small beds. That was the “big renovation”, but since then we’ve been happily growing all sorts of things, just for the fun of gardening.

The gardeners

I should introduce ourselves. I’m Jamie, a journalist and keen amateur gardener who has learned a bit about gardening during 14 enjoyable years as a subeditor and writer on Burke’s Backyard magazine. My wife, Pamela Horsnell, is an artist and illustrator whose work has appeared in many gardening magazines and books. We have both worked from home for many years, so we’re lucky that our garden is very much part of our daily lives.
I do most of the gardening yakka, but we make decisions together and Pam’s eagle eye always spots trouble brewing before I do. We both see our garden as a little ecosystem. We welcome every little natural visitor, from the birds and bees through to the spiders, lizards and all the other interesting little critters that pass through (except our neighbour’s cat). Watching nature in action is a big part of what makes gardening so endlessly fascinating for both of us.

Glorious food

We’re both keen cooks and growing food plants interests me just as much as cooking them does. As our garden is quite small, just 9m long and 7m wide, we can’t grow enough to feed ourselves fully and the more sprawling, space-invading crops, like watermelons and pumpkins, just aren’t feasible. However, most meals we cook have some homegrown content included, frequently via salads and herbs, plus fruits and veggies when they’re ready to eat. At least our little backyard patch faces north, so we get good sunshine year-round, and that’s the main thing every kitchen garden needs.

Herbs are the one constant here: we always have parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, tarragon, chervil, mint, spring onions and chives at hand, plus we grow basil, dill and coriander when the season is right for them.
Several fruit trees have been here for years, including an espaliered Tahitian lime, a ‘Eureka’ lemon, an olive tree (not sure which variety, as we inherited it from the lovely Greek family who owned the house before us), plus a potted ‘Turkish Brown’ fig and a Thai kaffir lime. We didn’t plant our very productive and healthy strawberry patch — it came up by itself out of some compost I spread around — and I have never seen such vigorous strawberry plants. But I did plant our passionfruit vine and it’s a wild beast that needs constant taming!

It’s the veggies that are the itinerant drifters here. In midwinter it’s quieter, but this year there were small crops of English spinach, Florence fennel, lettuce, mesclun salad greens and radish on the go. Salad greens grow all year, but last year we had winter crops of parsnips, carrots, beetroot and Asian greens such as bok choy. The year before, we grew spuds, mini-cauliflowers, womboks and broccoli in winter; the year before that, broad beans, silverbeet and turnips.

Summer is always tomato time and we usually also plant zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers and chillies, plus anything else that seems like it could be fun. By growing so many veggies from seed we’ve enjoyed browsing through seed catalogues and saying, “Oh, that’s an interesting variety; let’s give that one a bash this year.”

We don’t have enough space to do formal, planned-out crop rotation with multiple veggie beds, so instead we change what we grow, choosing something from a different veggie family each season. We grow everything in our veggie patch organically, so we concentrate on feeding the soil with compost, manure and mulch, plus give crops regular organic liquid feeds. I’m not sure if Pam or the neighbours agree with me on this, but I love the smell of a garden a few hours after you’ve spread around the chicken poo. We don’t use pesticides at all but do use organic sprays, such as eco-oil, to control leafminer and aphids on citrus, and Dipel to control veggie-munching caterpillars.

Good looks

We plant a lot of annual flowers during the year to boost the flower show and encourage bees to help pollinate fruiting crops, but the mainstays of the flower garden are our frangipani tree, a Tibouchina ‘Jules’, some Italian lavender bushes, a NSW Christmas bush, our growing collection of cymbidium and native orchids, plus a Grevillea ‘Peaches and Cream’.

As with the veggies, this flower list has changed over the years. Right now I can’t wait to see the delicately pretty ‘Love-in-a-Mist’ flowering in spring, and they’ll be just a few feet away from the dazzling orange-coloured spring blooms of the South African bulbs, Scadoxus, a wonderful gift from a gardening friend. Pam has a soft spot for Iceland poppies, so most years I do a little patch of them from seed in autumn, just for her, and the flower show lasts all through winter into mid-spring.

Our succulent collection grew because we always bought a few succulents on our various driving holidays to visit friends interstate. For many years they all lived happily in a gaggle of pots bunched together in the one spot, but last year we created a special garden bed for them (adding bags and bags of washed coarse sand to lighten the soil a bit) and they look great and are much happier living in the ground. We both love our succulents: they’re hardy and, yes, a bit weird at times, but they’re colourful, their flowers are a highlight and some actually seem to have a personality.

If you want to see more of Jamie and Pam’s garden, visit Jamie’s Garden Amateur blog at

Written by Jamie McIlwraith

Originally in Backyard Volume 15 Issue 1