Land put to work, superbly

Sophie Thomson in her garden in the Adelaide hills. PHOTOS: GILLIAN VINE
Sophie Thomson in her garden in the Adelaide hills. PHOTOS: GILLIAN VINE
Gillian Vine gets some hot garden tips in South Australia.

"As gardeners, we’re very lucky. We’re ageless."

Purple plums in the orchard.
Purple plums in the orchard.
Those wise words are from South Australian writer and broadcaster Sophie Thomson.

It’s amazing what she fits in. She and her husband, Richard, have five teenagers at home and Sophie’s hectic schedule includes not only her TV, radio and newspaper work but also involvement in public garden schemes. The latter includes promoting verge replanting in urban South Australia and organising community gardens in parts of Kangaroo Island that were destroyed by bush fires.

No wonder she says: "I don’t have TV. I don’t have time.”

Sophie grew up in the Adelaide Hills, helping in the family nursery, which laid the foundations for her future.

After years away, she returned to South Australia where she bought and renovated an old church, The Chapel, at Ashton. The family outgrew the house, so they moved to Sophie’s Patch, an 1847 stone cottage with 1ha of land.

Unlike Ashton, which gets 1500mm of rain, the Mt Barker area manages 660mm "in a good year” and Sophie’s Patch is on an exposed, windy hillside, which sucks out more moisture.

An appropriate frame for the pumpkins becomes a shady arbour as the plants grow.
An appropriate frame for the pumpkins becomes a shady arbour as the plants grow.
Add temperatures of up to 43degC in summer and down to minus 7degC in winter, with frosts from mid-April until November, creating what she calls a "very harsh” environment. Central Otago gardeners would identify with that.

Gourds, pumpkins and tomatoes love Sophie Thomson’s Adelaide Hills patch.
Gourds, pumpkins and tomatoes love Sophie Thomson’s Adelaide Hills patch.
Yet, despite those issues — and saline bore water — Sophie has created an enviable garden.

Growing is compressed into seven months and planting is concentrated on fruit and vegetables that do well. Grapes, bagged to keep the birds off, grow on arches, while the main orchard of 100 trees has citrus, apples, peaches, plums and pears, and Sophie is experimenting with white sapote (Casimiroa edulis).

One thing that hasn’t worked here has been mulberries: "I never get fruit as it gets frosted.”

As well as growing what works, two other ways to ensure productivity are by growing vegetables up trellises to shelter smaller plants and by "wicking”, a self-watering system that works from below.

As Sophie explained on one of her Gardening Australia TV shows: "They're basically containers with water reservoirs at the base, like a giant self-watering pot. Moisture is drawn up through the soil [and] allows moisture to be more evenly distributed through the soil, creating better growing conditions for the plants.”

Looking towards the 1847 stone house from the back garden.
Looking towards the 1847 stone house from the back garden.
With zero humidity and massive evaporation in summer, the wicking system has obvious advantages at Sophie’s Patch and is one that is being trialled by some New Zealand gardeners. Central Otago gardeners may find it worth investigating.

Growing up to protect lower-growing vegetables is Malabar spinach, a fleshy-leaved climber that is not a true spinach but can be used like one, while the pumpkin frame becomes a shady arbour as the plants grow. Movable shade cloth is also used as protection.

An eye-catcher is Tromboncino, the climbing zucchini sold here as Rampicante.

Sophie says "they are fabulous".

When I visited in February, the kitchen table was piled with recently harvested tomatoes and pumpkins in various sizes and colours.

A Tromboncino zucchini needs a tall frame for the long fruit.
A Tromboncino zucchini needs a tall frame for the long fruit.
"I reckon my tomatoes taste better because of the salt,” Sophie says.

There are some ornamental plants, too. The drive is lined with natives, chosen because they need no watering; hardy belladonnas give a splash of pink in late summer; Australian saltbush makes a useful groundcover; while milkweed and swan plants attract monarch butterflies, which don’t compete with native butterflies.

It sounds idyllic but not everything has worked. Chestnuts have failed repeatedly and, Sophie says, "cucumbers don’t like me”.

Her philosophy is one for all gardeners: "You grow what works.”

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