Design notes…

Garden by the beach

I wrote this story while my partner and I were living for a time in the van park at Seven Mile Beach, about 30 kilometres east of Hobart, Tasmania. We were close to the end of our nine month road trip.

Tomatoes ripen and scartlet runner beans are in flower as gardener Annette waters the Seven Mile Beach Cabin Park’s fruit and vegetable garden. Flowers interplanted through the garden attract benificial insects and bees.

The extensive home garden in Buladelah was impressive. The orderly raised beds and stonefruit plantings in the Dodges Ferry home garden were productive and tidy. Those were among the gardens we encountered over the past nine months of our road trip.

Good as they were, the small vege and fruit garden at Seven Mile Beach Cabin Park, close to the beach, is unique. From setting out on our road trip at the start of last winter, it is the only edible garden we have seen in a van park.

Beyond the corn, espaliered fruit trees grow along the fence.

Beach, proximity and community

We’ve come and gone from this place because of its proximity to the beach and the city, and because of its low cost. Unlike free camps where we stay, it has hot showers and washing machines, features you come to appreciate after months living out of a van.

There is something else we discovered at the van park. That is a sense of community among those living here for longer periods of time. Transient tourists come and go, but the longer-term residents—like the woman with her three young children living in a small caravan, the older man and his teenage daughter living in their four-person tent, the couple — he studies, she works nearby — in their car camping tent, the family with a young child in their camper-trailer who are living on the road and intend to keep doing that, and Annette in her caravan are the core around whom the transients swirl as an ever-changing flow.

Potatoes and herbs encroach on a raised vegetable bed. Behind stands an apple tree and a netted, fruiting apricot to the side.

The garden

Annette is the van park’s gardener. Blonde, middle-aged and friendly, she goes about her work quietly and is always ready to share a conversation. She is looking to buy a house somewhere around here but seems in no hurry, apparently content in her caravan over by the pine forest. We often encounter her, hose in hand, watering the veges and fruit. Could her having once worked for Diggers Seeds have something to do with that?

People staying at the van park are free to pick from the garden. Sometimes, we walk into the camp kitchen to find a big bunch of silverbeet. Help yourself. A few weeks ago Annette left a large bowl of freshly-picked apricots. They didn’t last long. Now, the apples on the trees espaliered along the fence are starting to ripen.

Apricots picked from the garden didn’t last long. Nor did the bundles of silverbeet Annette brought into the camp kitchen for use by all.

Transient visitors don’t know they can pick. Some of the French backpackers, here on a working visa harvesting this season’s berry fruit, helped themselves to the garden’s produce a little too enthusiastically.

From where I sit in the camp kitchen I look out to see the garden over against the fence. Corn raises its grainy heads in one of the rectangular beds. Tomatoes climb trellises. Kale, silverbeet and other leafy greens thrive. Beans climb a trellis along a shorter length of fence. A small apricot tree stands to one end, next to an apple tree. More apple trees are espaliered along the longer paling fence, their branches reaching out either side. A small garden, for sure, but productive.

Adjacent to the picnic tables and close to the barbecue, two large timber cable spools have been repurposed as tables. Covering them are pots of culinary herbs. Sage, parsley, chives, mint, savory, rosemary, chilli and others I don’t recognise form a layer of edible green.

Pumpkin vine sprawls across a previously vacant space, engulfing all before it.

This is the work of a woman who uses organic growing technique in a garden designed to provide easy access to what grows in it. Being compact and of basic, simple design, it is manageable. There is much to recommend simple rather than complicated design.

The planted variety and the scale of the garden makes it a practical template for home gardens in small spaces. Home gardens, that is, which are manageable by people who work for a living and have limited time for garden maintenance. Or, perhaps, by older people who cannot manage a large garden.

The idea of a food garden in a van park is a good model for replication. A caravan and annex in a van park counts as affordable housing in these times of unaffordable house prices and rents. Residents usually buy their food at the nearest supermarket, however were van site managers to allow permanent and long-term residents to garden an unused space, they could supplement their food purchases with fresh veges and fruit and share the gardening work. Doing that has the potential to create a sense of belonging, cooperation and community as well as being an opportunity to learn about growing food.

My travel partner, Fiona Campbell, harvests leafy greens in the van park’s vegetable garden.

A woman content in her values

Annette seems content with her life here and with her gardening. She epitomises the Stoic values of contentment, a positive attitude to life, of self-confidence and of being a good person in what she does.

As I sit here I notice the bright orange flowers of nasturtian and the white of alyssium along the edge of the garden beds. I look, and think how sad that this, and Annette and all those to whom the van park is home for a time, will be gone by May. The van park closes at the end of April to make way for a housing development.

Update: Not long after writing this article, Annette bought a house nearby.

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Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.