Helen McKerralRelocation?

In 2010, and after twenty six years together, I finally had to admit the painful truth. We’d started from scratch – a new house surrounded by bare clay, building rubble, and not much else… and yes, I’d had fun. But now there was nowhere left for our relationship to go, nothing more to do. My garden was full.

Gardens are like Doctor Who’s Tardis – always room for one more plant, and of course I could always squeeze in a few dwarf cyclamen or correas. But for vegies and fruit trees, the sunny areas were almost gone. You can see how I’ve squashed deciduous fruit trees amongst the ornamentals, dwarf varieties in small spaces, and citrus in pots along the northern wall of the house. I grew a dozen tomato plants last season in two of the last remaining patches of “full” sun (5 hours in midsummer). Because the deep clay soil, improved over decades, is so fertile, I managed to get a reasonable crop despite root competition and shading. But it was a battle.

Then neighbours on the northerly uphill side planted about a million photinias along the fence. Inspired, neighbours on the southern side planted ‘James Stirling’ pittosporums, and all grew like Topsy. Our suburban-sized block runs WNWESE and is 45m deep but just 16m wide with a southwesterly aspect, so shade would soon be inescapable. Time to relocate.

My partner and I began searching for a small acreage in nearby suburbs in the high rainfall areas of the Adelaide Hills. But the options in our price range seemed to be either huge houses on unimproved blocks, or hovels on great land. One place looked promising, but when I pushed a spade into the soil it was shallow, grey, hungry-looking sand. Worse, a depressing pattern began to emerge. Many of the properties were being reluctantly sold by owners in their seventies. They’d bought the place twenty years earlier and now that they had finally begun to shape the property in the way they wanted, the size had ironically become too much for them to manage. In the bedroom of one house I spotted a walking stick tucked beside a wardrobe. In the laundry of another, a walking frame. My partner and I were about to hit our fifties. Hmm.

No point buying a great place if it was so expensive that we’d have to defer retirement plans, or if it impacted our lifestyle so we couldn’t enjoy our new home, afford to do the necessary improvements, or spend time in the garden! Besides, we were both perfectly happy with our modest house, and loved living where we did. What to do?

One of our neighbours’ blocks was four times the size of ours. I could see little but a jungle of blackberries, with triffid-like canes arching over our 1.8m back fence. Clearly, this land was not being used. The blackberries were scarily lush and healthy – good soil, perhaps! It wasn’t perfect, but then what site is? Trees would still cause some shade and root competition, we would still be vulnerable to shading from the uphill neighbour, the aspect wasn’t ideal and winter vegies would be restricted to a modest area. Still, there was a great deal that I could do, many, many things, and the cost would be a fraction of moving house. Would the owner consider selling the bottom slice of their property to us? We could double the size of our block to about 1350sqm and, with the exception of a woodshed, chicken coop and rainwater tank, every square centimetre of the additional 650sqm could be developed into garden.

We approached the owner. It took some convincing that we genuinely did want the area only for garden, but after I invited her over to see my bursting-at-the-seams property, and showed her some of my published gardening articles, she realised I was genuine. I walked across the few areas without head-high blackberries (about one third was accessible), stuck a spade in here and there – all good. “It’s very stony,” the owner advised me doubtfully, and I was surprised, because I had no stones on my land. But no matter, I’d deal with them, and surely there couldn’t be that many? Ho ho!

In any case, we agreed on a price, shook hands on the deal in November 2010, and in August 2011, after a tortuous round of council, bank, conveyancer and government paperwork, the land finally became ours. We were staying put after all, hopefully for at least another quarter of a century… and I would be starting from scratch all over again! I couldn’t wait to begin!

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

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