Dirt is Good: Notes on Gardening in Australia

I have always gardened without wearing gloves. I have been doing without them for almost fifty years. This might be because my childhood was spent in a large garden on the North Downs, a ridge of chalk hills that runs across Kent to the white cliffs of Dover. The most dangerous thing to be seen as my mother gardened with enthusiasm was a grass snake – or occasionally what we laughingly called an adder. This snake bears no relation to the appropriately named ‘death adder’, a version found in Australia which has relatively large fangs and enough toxic venom to kill 60 per cent of those it managed to bite (until the anti-venom was developed). Even the Kentish soil, with its chalky substrate, seemed pretty clean.

The first garden I could call my own was in South Fremantle in the 1970s. I had never bothered to learn much about soil, let alone compost, and had no idea that it might help to know something about both. I now appreciate that my Australian-born grandmother showed preternatural foresight by joining the British Soil Association when it was formed in 1946 (not because she ever had a garden but because she believed in the need for a charity that ‘digs deeper to transform the way we eat, farm and care for our natural world’). However, along with her vegetarianism and passionate belief that only women – working together – could secure world peace, she seemed a bit of a crank in the 1950s when I was a child. How mistaken I was.

You didn’t need gloves in Fremantle. As I planted up my garden with roses, and other reminders of home, nothing stuck to my hands when I pressed the ‘soil’ around the new bushes and perennials – because there was almost nothing to bind the grains of sand together. People come to gardening in different ways and for different reasons. Some want to understand why and how plants grow, while others are aiming to create feelings or moods (often remembered from childhood) and then they tend to plant inappropriate things if they move continents, let alone hemispheres. I am of this second kind, leading to many plant deaths, but I learned to give away anything that looked in danger of failing to thrive.

Even after I moved to Melbourne in the 1980s I saw no need for gloves. Here for many years I survived perfectly well without making compost, and while dirt got under my fingernails, a scrubbing brush did the trick if I needed clean hands for a meeting. Students in the serried ranks of vast lecture theatres were never going to get close enough to notice. Years later my daughter was involved in OMO’s clever campaign to encourage parents to let their kids play in the dirt, exploiting new health advice that keeping children clean is bad for them. Suddenly my failure to spend adequate time teaching my children to wash their hands regularly looked like good parenting. ‘Dirt is good’ is what I really thought all along.

I am always uncomfortable when people want to turn gardening into a morality tale, or suggest that it is ‘good for you’.

Belinda Probert

The glove challenge came when I decided to take on a very large garden in the Otways, determined finally, in my 60s, to get to grips with this continent. Weeding vast areas of clay on rainy days made my skin shrivel up after I came inside. A horticulturally trained neighbour of few words suggested gloves as he went past me on my knees one grey day. But I had always thought of gardening gloves as loose leathery things that were sometimes needed because of the danger of being slashed to death by the thorns on a rugosa rose or a dog rose, or because of the need to pull thistles or gorse out of the paddocks. It did occur to me that such gloves could be handy if I were to be pruning away in a bushy shrub and accidentally put my hand on a tiger snake or a copperhead, of which there were a good number around in summer. But those gloves were so clunky you couldn’t possibly garden properly in them and I could never find them when the thistles did in fact need pulling up. I decided to shout and stamp as I approached anywhere snakes might be lurking – which only required me to remember to do this.

The gardening experience that sent me to Bunnings (not for the first time of course) – where I discovered that everyone else knew about wonderful lightweight hand-hugging gardening gloves – was delivered by an ant. Don Watson declares that ants ‘have almost as much claim to iconic status in Australia as the kangaroo or kelpie…If you are not allergic to its venom, the bite of a bull ant or jack-jumper is a defining bush experience; if you are allergic, it may kill you.’ I suspect most people meet a bull ant at some point and somehow know to steer clear, as even jumping up and down on them and grinding them under foot does not seem to deter them, only making them really really angry. But I knew nothing about the charmingly named little jack-jumper until one bit me when I was picking up cuttings by the mulcher. The pain and shock stopped me in my tracks.

A neighbour subsequently pointed out all the little holes in the ground in front of my shed, so that I would recognise the tell-tale signs of their presence. But, despite the agony, it is hard to remember to take them seriously. I found I didn’t really like wearing even light, slim- fitting gloves, so they went back in the drawer. And, of course, I got bitten again, and I learned to run inside and wash the poison off before applying something numbing to the spot. They were hard to avoid if, like me, you like to garden without gloves.

The gloves stayed in the drawer even when I discovered that a scratch from a rose bush can causes cellulitis. I learned this fact (as well as the fact that cellulitis is not to be confused with cellulite which is just something undesirably dimpled that appears on women’s thighs and buttocks) after a leech, lying in wait to latch onto my leg as I brushed past the Japanese anemones at the front of the house, took a pint of my blood and turned my leg dangerously purple. Who knew that a rose bush might also do this to you?

I realise that at bottom I just like dirt when it takes the form of soil and, more recently, compost. Finally, I have learned to make fabulous compost that is brown, sweet smelling and crumbly rather than wet and stinky or dry and twiggy.

I am writing this as public debate rages over the decision by Collingwood Children’s Farm to close the community gardens started by Greek and Turkish migrants in the 1980s. This is because ‘external consultants’ say they pose a danger to the public and are not ‘accessible’ for visitors to the Farm. Apparently someone might fall on a star picket (what a great invention), or get bitten by a snake, and there are bits of tin and wire are being used, so they are to be bull-dozed. Who knows the truth of the situation but the bit of me that despises gardening in gloves rose up in support of the community gardeners who have lost the place where they work in the dirt. These old style ‘allotments’ don’t exist to entertain visitors or provide safe viewing platforms, but to offer a patch of earth for local people to turn into soil for growing food. Not everywhere needs to be a site for people to be tourists or spectators.

I am always uncomfortable when people want to turn gardening into a morality tale, or suggest that it is ‘good for you’. Is it really any more sensible to say this than to say that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’, as Christian preachers and politicians proclaimed to the masses in 18th and 19th century Britain? I don’t want to go too far with the ‘dirt is good for you line’ as, in truth, I think it is largely self-serving. I don’t like cleaning much – not the car, or my floors or even the kitchen table. It suits me to like dirt. And you don’t have to like dirt to like gardening. Gardening is, above all, interesting – and it can speak to many different kinds of interests. Some people learn remarkable skills in propagation and things like grafting or topiary; some can grow an indoor plant up and over their hallway; some develop remarkable capacities in the art of garden design. You can save money by growing your own food; you can add extra ‘rooms’ to your house; you can give other people pleasure and so the list goes on.

Gardening in Australia can also help a nation of immigrants learn something important about the deeply unfamiliar nature of this continent and its long human history. With luck it makes you think about where you are and not just where you came from.

Belinda Probert is the author of Imaginative Possession: Learning to live in the Antipodes, Upswell Publishing. RRP $26.99.