Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

History revisited - vegetable gardens a fading necessity

In January 1885, Albert Wright purchased Kangaroo Hills, now Wongwibinda. It had been done in a rush.

They had been living at Nulalbin outside Rockhampton. The year before eldest son Bertie had died after a lingering illness. The death came as a shock, and Albert and wife May decided that they must find a home in a more temperate climate.

They left Nulalbin in December for Bickham, a Wright family home in the Hunter Valley.. In early January Albert went north, buying Kangaroo Hill on the spot. At end January, the whole family shifted to the new property.

One of Albert’s first acts was to plant a large vegetable garden near the new house being built for his family. This was a common pattern on the properties around Armidale, for the kitchen garden and associated fruit trees were critical to the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. It was a day’s ride to Armidale, so you could hardly buy there on a daily basis.

In town, people had more choices. Even so, most people had vegetable gardens, while much of the fruit and vegetables they might buy were grown locally. The Chinese market gardener was once a common feature in most Northern towns.

This reliance on locally produced produce created a pattern of seasonal gluts and shortages. When produce was plentiful, people bottled, preserved or prepared for storage in cool, dry, dark places. Later, when fresh produce was scarce, they ate.

Some of the tastes were wonderful. Some of us would kill today for a jar of Aunt Kay’s tomato relish!

That old world has largely gone, killed by supermarkets and modern transportation. In a time poor two income world, what’s the point of growing and producing your own when you can go to the supermarket and buy the quantity you want when you want?

The spring of 1885 was a very good one on Kangaroo Hill. Albert planted onions, cabbages, lettuces, pumpkins, beans and fruit trees. Then came that evil we all know so well, a sudden frost.

“It seems useless”, Albert wrote, “to try to grow anything in such a climate.” Nevertheless, he persevered.

Many years after Albert’s time, I read a book on New England gardens. The thing that struck me was the gardener’s ability to create micro-climates through location, wind-breaks and walls. We also learned when to plant things to best effect.

What did we eat with our vegetables? I have already spoken of beef and lamb or mutton. But then, the most luxurious meat was, arguably, roast chook.

Many people had their own hens, mainly for eggs, partly for meat. Those chooks were killed for special occasions. Others brought their chooks from local farms.

Today when chicken is the cheapest of meats, it’s hard to imagine a world in which chook was a luxury, when every part was eaten later. So the world changes.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 11 February 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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