Gardening Together As A Family: People, Plants, Place, Community.

Jerry 1973 oil shock/ auntie olive
Restoring Auntie Olive’s food garden during the 1973 oil shock. Berkshire.

In recent years, families who garden together have become the most prominent visitors to my annual Open Day. It’s delightful seeing these gardening families, because that was how I started life: in an English family that gardened and holidayed together.  Planning, harvesting, saving seed, cooking, bottling, gathering materials for gardening were activities we did together.

I should start with an apology. My 2020 Open Day, which was to be held during the Mother’s Day weekend, is postponed due to current circumstances.

In recent years, families who garden together have become the most prominent visitors to my annual Open Day. It’s delightful seeing these gardening families exploring my subtropical garden, because that was how I started life: in an English family that gardened and holidayed together.  Planning, harvesting, saving seed, cooking, bottling, gathering materials for gardening were activities we did together.

The principles and skills I learned from my family of gardeners are lifelong. You never forget how to prepare a seed bed. Even in Brisbane, where there are no sweet chestnuts to gather, you still remember to forage. You just adapt to the local species.

You never know what’s around the corner.

Gardening as a family served us particularly well during Britain’s 1970’s energy crisis. Most Australians have no idea of the war that led to this crisis or its repercussions, which lasted for years.

At that time, I was a teenage gardener (pictured) in charge of the family food garden in London. The energy crisis was brought about by war in the Middle East. A brief oil embargo triggered a domino effect: fuel rationing, rolling power cuts, a surge in inflation, record mortgage defaults, school closures, queues for food, doctors and for the dole.

I spent school holidays helping elderly relatives – my other grandmother and her sisters had large gardens in the countryside. While Dad replaced Nan’s coal fire with a gas heater – the North Sea gas fields had started operating – I weeded and planted crops in the garden.

I’d never re-glazed or re-soiled a glasshouse before, but it worked and I sowed tomatoes and cucumbers with dwarf French beans in between for my Auntie before returning home for (a rather erratic) school term.

With television dependant on electricity, BBC radio news was essential, you could hear when and where the blackouts would occur, or whether it was your turn to queue for your petrol ration. Motorway speeds were cut overnight from 110km to 100km to save fuel. It’s interesting how fast seemingly impossible barriers dissolve overnight in a crisis.

The price of bread, milk and sugar rose so frequently that local grocers wrote prices on a chalkboard rather than on each item. We were lucky to avoid the necessity of food vouchers and Australians should not be surprised if they are introduced.

Knowing when and where the blackouts would occur, we could decide if Nan and Grandad – who lived a few suburbs away – would host us for a hot meal, or if they would join us. If we didn’t have electricity, we had (rationed) candles or (rationed) kerosine for lamps and for heaters to stop winter frost from freezing our water pipes.

Our family was known at the local stables because we regularly gathered steaming horse manure for composting. As summer turned to autumn, farmers could no longer afford farm labourers to pick crops. So ‘pick your own’ signs appeared on roadsides and we’d spend a day harvesting strawberry, peas, runner bean, have them weighed and we’d pay at the gate. A different take on modern theme parks.

Of course there was home grown food. I tried my best to make us self-sufficient in basics. But you can’t control the weather. Carrots had a bad winter (slugs) then peas had a bad summer (mildew), but what we lacked, grandad filled the gaps. Or vice versa – we had more fruit but he had more veg. There will always be winners and losers in a garden. By growing a wide range of crops you guarantee food on the table whatever the weather.

Allotments were so valuable in those uncertain times. They pulled the community together in a common purpose. Grandad had one and his beetroot was savaged by caterpillars and grasshoppers. He taught me an organic remedy that also made his beetroots taste delicious.

My family also taught me how to use weeds as a resource, another lifelong skill – see below*.

poultry manure
Poultry manure: the most complete organic fertiliser.

Every Sunday morning at 7.00am sharp ‘the shed’ – which always smelled of bonemeal – would open its store so members could buy cut price seed potatoes, tools and fertiliser. I learned that, despite fancy advertising and packaging, that poultry manure has the broadest range of nutrients of any so-called complete fertiliser. And it is still true today.  Add seaweed, and between the two products you’ve got the A – Z of nutrients and minerals covered.

The Good Life, a four season British comedy series (1975 – 1978), pretty much echoed certain adjustments to the challenges of modern living and struggling towards self-sufficiency. We didn’t live next door to characters like Jeremy and Margot Leadbeater, but we did live next door to Sir Isaac and Lady Violet Heywood. Our neighbours were much easier to get on with. I cured their almond tree of peach leaf curl disease, Violet gave my sister a cookbook, and we all had almonds to share 🙂

I’ve just ordered seed to sow in late autumn: beetroot, turnip and chervil. These temperate crops don’t reliably set seed in the subtropics. I know we shouldn’t waste paper, but I do miss the excitement of unwrapping my new season seed catalogues. It was like Christmas only twice a year. Nan brought her catalogues over and, after the dishes were done and put away, we would sit at the dinner table and make lists of what to buy as we planned ahead for the next season.

Seed Savers Manual
Seed Savers Manual, updated in 2019. Order on line.

The only real changes to the way I garden since my teenage years are that I know from experience what performs best, when and where to grow them in my garden. Instead of heavily relying on a seed catalogue, I store seed in my fridge. Each season I check which seed can be sown, make a list on paper and use a sketch to work out where each will go.

I try to make sure that most are grown from home saved seed. Saving seed from your crops each year gradually adapts them to local soils and conditions,  you’re not starting from scratch as you are each time you buy a packet of commercial seed which may or may not have been grown from plants in a similar climate zone to your own. To a degree, I have eliminated the randomness of success due to the provenance of commercial packet seed.

As our climate continues to change, saving your own seed from home grown crops is one way home gardeners can keep up with global heating: I create success by growing and steadily developing locally adapted cultivars.

If this last step interests you, while we have more time on our hands to garden, now might be a good time to buy your copy of The Seed Savers’ Manual: how to grow, save seed and improve the vitality of over 100 different kinds of food plant. Order on line.

Happy gardening!

Jerry Coleby-Williams
Director, Seed Savers’ Network Inc.

* Gardening Australia, Series 20 | Episode 24

But first to the thorny world of weeds. In Queensland, Jerry’s got some interesting insights into plants that can be the bane of gardeners’ lives.


JERRY COLEBY-WILLIAMS: “Ever since there’s been gardeners, there’s been weeds. In the bush, they compete with native plants, affecting regeneration. In our gardens, they compete with the plants we want to grow – for light, nutrients, water and space. But that begs the question – what is a weed? Well basically a weed could be any plant that we don’t want to grow. It’s a plant that grows out of place.

Now the standard view about weeds is that they’re hard work. And they are. And I believe that weeds should be kept firmly in their place. But if you can get to know them by species, you can get something back out of them. For example, this is Green Amaranth, Amaranthus viridis. It’s edible. It’s a summer weed and you’ll find it growing all around Australia. Most Amaranths have flower spikes very similar to this one. The flowers are really insignificant and many Amaranths are edible as a spinach substitute. Just down here I’ve got some Purslane. Now this is another summer weed, widespread across Australia. It grows as a flat, ground-hugging plant during summer. Indigenous Australians used to use the seed to make a nice sort of patty, you can eat the leaves and stems in salads after steaming them.

Auntie Flo and Olive, Land Army WW1
My Aunties Flo (LHS) and Olive (RHS) in the British Land Army WW1.

Now, during the First World War, my great aunts, Aunt Flo and Aunt Olive, they worked in the Land Army. In Britain, food was scarce and so they cultivated wild food plants. And one of them is growing right here between my feet. This is Swinecress. One day when I was a kid, I weeded my Aunty Olive’s vegetable garden. I thought I’d done here a favour and she scolded me because Swinecress was something she used to grow as a watercress alternative during the First World War. It’s a winter weed and it looks rather like bindii, but without the prickles and it tastes really nice and peppery and I still grow it today.

At first glances, this overgrown vegie patch looks a mess. It’s going to be brought under cultivation, but even before that happens, there are some useful plants here and the first one is this – cobblers pegs also known as farmer’s friend. Now this weed produces seed which attach to fabric and pet hair and that’s how it spreads, so you need to control it before it starts to flower. When they’re young, these leaves can be cooked and used as a spinach substitute. Just here is milk thistle or sowthistle. This is a cosmopolitan weed and the seeds spread on the wind so you catch them before they actually set seed. But young leaves are very tasty. Maoris braise them with milk and that becomes dinner.

Over there is an overgrown Amaranth. Now the leaves are a little bit too coarse to enjoy at this stage, however the seed are full of protein and oil. That can be useful. But down here is another specimen of the same plant and at this stage it’s very edible and it’s got the nickname,  Chinese spinach.

Just along here is another Amaranth. This one is my favourite. This is Amaranthus cruentus and it’s really palatable. The grasshoppers have already taken some of it. Another common garden plant is this Solanum, Blackberry Nightshade, Solanum nigrum. Now this is something that you should control in your garden. The reason for that is that ladybirds, leaf-eating ladybirds, the ones you don’t want to attack your vegetables will over-winter on this. And if this grows, they’ll come into it and then they’ll use this as a base to invade your garden. So that’s got to go. However, the early settlers used to use these little black rip fruit to make a jam. Now that begs a question – If you don’t know what sort of Solanum it is, you can’t use it. A lot of these plants are toxic. This one is edible, but you’ve gotta know your plants.

Now a very common plant, and this is really a widespread problem in gardens is onion weed. You can eat these. They’re not as strong as garlic chives but you can use them in exactly the same way. Even the flowers are edible.

But some plants here are not good food and one of them is nut grass and it’s growing all the way through here. It’s one of the worlds’ worst weeds. Herbicides have very little effect on it. But even nut grass can serve a purpose and I’ll show you how.

Weeds like oxalis, onion grass and this nut grass should not go into the compost heap. They’ll survive. You can see the perennial nuts on this nut grass and that is the problem – we’ve got to destroy them. And the solution is right here. Put them into a bucket of water, soak them for a month or two and they’ll drown and they rot. And the result is a beautiful fertiliser. Strain it and it’s ready for use.

In this horse paddock is growing one of Australia’s worst weeds. It’s lantana – a weed of national significance. It covers millions of hectares of good farmland and bushland along the east coast of Australia. It’s gotta go. And in the process, you can save these fresh leaves. Half a kilo of these leaves, added to a litre of water, bring them to the boil, simmer for 15 minutes, let it cool and you’ve got a fantastic pesticide for caterpillars and aphids.

Now this organic gardener is not advocating growing pest plants. What I am suggesting is that by swatting up and understanding these interesting plants, we can gain some benefit from all that tedious weeding”.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Patty Munro says:

    Always interesting, Jerry, thanks. Loathe nutgrass! Patty

  2. cfwoodward2015 says:

    Hi Jerry, I just drove past the Wynnum Manly leagues club, Most of the trees have been chopped down, very sad as the bats & lorikeets loved it there. Legal I wonder? Cheers Colleen Woodward 😖

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. alwyncam says:

    Yes it’s wonderful to have the privilege of having a garden. Just today I gave someone some Mexican tree spinach cuttings I got from you on an open day.It is a largish bush here and wasn’t watered once through the drought. I let things go to seed and gather a few and just chuck the rest around. They are coming up now after the rain. We eat ‘weeds’ daily in salads and smoothies, stir-fries, etc, they are an established part of our diet and help provide a good range of nutrients for my vegan diet. The red amaranth is shoulder high. The sweet leaf is great too. The other wonderful gardening anyone can do is sprouts. Mainly I do a mix of lentils and sometimes the fast moving quinoa. Cheers, Alwyn / credentials can be used.

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