Back to basics

This gardening couple use all the basic techniques they learned in their early years to produce vibrant flowers and healthy fruit and veg — and there’s plenty to share.

One tree in particular had caught my attention; in all my years travelling around Victorian gardens I had never seen a pomelo tree. This one produces thousands of flowers every year, cropping 200–300 fruit — enough to supply the whole neighbourhood when you consider the size of it.

While I was there I was fed like a king, all the produce used in the dishes coming straight from the garden. We had dolmades, roast capsicum, olives, vegie pâté, vegie preserves and more. And then for dessert Poppy served pomelo rind drenched in syrup.

Elias Doumanis spent the best years of his life growing up on one of the most beautiful parts of Greece, the island of Kos, blanketed with whitewashed homes and olive groves, which meet the turquoise Aegean Sea, these days lined with dozens of bars and nightclubs to cater for the ever-growing tourist trade.

Born in 1930, Elias has many fond memories of his Greek hometown before the life-changing decision to move to Australia in 1955. Two years later, the woman who would become his wife, Poppy, arrived here and met up with Elias in Adelaide, where they got married and started their journey together in the land of hopes and dreams.

That wasn’t their first meeting, though. It was their school back in Kos that had first brought them together. I can confidently say the last thing a young Greek boy wanted to do back then was go to school, but Elias was different. He already had his eye on the love of his life. As it happened, Poppy’s father was his teacher, so Elias made sure he impressed him with his outstanding work and achievements, ultimately winning the father’s blessing for Poppy’s hand in marriage.

Elias’s own father, one of six, was a builder who spent most of his leisure time and even some of his working hours maintaining his own vineyard boasting more than 4000 plants, complemented by an olive grove and six acres of vegetable gardens. He grew every vegetable you could imagine — enough to feed the whole town, in fact.

During those years, the only fertiliser was animal manure. “Before the war there were no synthetic fertilisers around,” says Elias, “and during the war while we were under Italian occupation some fertilisers were being provided to a few growers, but the vegetables they grew were only for the Italians. We never received any of those synthetic fertilisers to use in our gardens. But we always had big, beautiful fruit and vegetables, with watermelons, pumpkins and tomatoes as far as the eye could see — and they were so tasty, too.”

Elias’s first job in Adelaide was picking grapes for wineries but too many sentimental memories of his father’s vineyard caused him to move on to work in a cheese factory for a couple of years before changing again to employment on the railroads. “The cheese we produced was never as good as the cheese we made in Greece; no goats here in Australia,” he says.

In 1962, Elias and Poppy moved to Kingsgrove in NSW and built their first home for them and their children Nick, Victoria and Maria, now grown up. When I first arrived at their Kingsgrove home, even before I could walk into the property, I was speechless at the sight of the olive and lemon tree plantation along the nature strip, not to mention the six or so citrus trees in the front garden. I had big expectations of the backyard. One tree in particular had caught my attention; in all my years travelling around Victorian gardens I had never seen a pomelo tree.

Pomelo is considered the king of citrus, which is quite fitting given that the fruit are about the size of rockmelons. I stood for a moment to take in the sight of it, trying to think of a tree that might produce larger fruit. I couldn’t recall any tree that even came close. This one produces thousands of flowers every year, cropping 200–300 fruit — enough to supply the whole neighbourhood when you consider the size of it.

As I walked down the driveway towards the rear garden, I was greeted by wonderfully vibrant camellia blooms underplanted with clivia covering the length of the boundary fence. On close inspection the camellias were still showing signs of last year’s extreme heat damage, many leaves still carrying the sunburn marks that could not have been prevented by even the best gardener.

I guessed then that Elias is the productive gardener while Poppy’s obsession is with flowers, which is a wonderful combination. It provides a balance between ornamental and productive plants, within a loving relationship, though it was obvious to me that Elias was in charge of the main gardening areas, including the nature strip, while Poppy’s plants were in beds along narrow passageways and in pots around the perimeter of the house.

In the backyard itself, I’m pleased to say the Hills Hoist was still in place and there was even a small patch of lawn, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see that replaced by more vegie garden in the future. I asked Elias about the planting on the nature strip.

“Because I ran out of room,” he explained. “You need to have space for a vegie garden and too many trees will take away my sunlight if I was to plant them all in the backyard, so I plant more trees in the front garden, but I still need more space.”

Let’s go through the list of trees growing in this typical suburban residential block: a couple mandarine trees that stand about four metres tall and are loaded with fruit, as well as orange, apple, pear, apricot, fig and I even remember seeing a tree with lemon, orange and mandarine all grafted onto it together.

But the most amazingly sculptural plant would have to have be the bay tree. Elias’s handiwork on it would give Edward Scissorhands a run for his money. He grew it from a seed he brought in his sock from Greece. As it grew, he shaped it to form an arch over the entry to the rear veranda with the top of the tree, which stood at least six metres tall, in the form of the crucifixion. It’s definitely a sight that brings on a moment of silence, I can tell you.

As for the rest of the garden, it was a product of your traditional back-to-basics gardening approach that Elias practised, using upright concrete mesh along the boundaries to grow cucumbers and beans, underplanted with a variety of lettuces and other greens.

With a chicken run in one corner and water tanks in the other, everything seemed to be in order — except for one frustrating problem that worsens as the weather warms up in NSW. That is the dreaded fruit fly, which goes unnoticed until such time as the fruit is so badly infected it has become useless even for juicing.

Fruit fly doesn’t put Elias off his game, though. Rather, it gives him a challenge to find better solutions for combating the problem. He has experimented with a few homemade recipes and some makeshift traps and is seeing a little more success with each season.

So what does a person like Elias do with so much produce?
“We share it with the family, of course,” he says in a tone that suggests it’s a dumb question. “The kids come over almost every day to pick up some fresh fruit and vegetables and their mother even prepares some food for them to take home for their families. I do all the growing and Poppy does all the cooking — and she makes the best jams and preserves with the pomelo fruit.”

I must say that while I was there I was fed like a king, all the produce used in the dishes coming straight from the garden. We had dolmades, roast capsicum, olives, vegie pâté, vegie preserves and more. And then for dessert Poppy served pomelo rind drenched in syrup — it was to die for!

“So you liked what you ate? You know that to be able to grow food like this you must prepare the soil properly,” Elias says proudly.

Of course, he’s absolutely right; you get back what you put in. Little effort in the garden produces little results, but put in a bit more work and time and your backyard will reward you with bountiful produce to enjoy and share, just like Elias and Poppy’s.

Elias’s tips

  • Dig the soil at least one to two months before you plant. Put down some dolomite and sheep manure and then let it rest. I even swap seeds with my friends so I don’t have the same seeds every year, just in case my seeds become diseased. So far I’ve been very lucky with my produce, though.
  •  When I grow my vegetables I use Seasol every two weeks for the first couple of months, then I give them some manure from my chickens. I leave only two stems to grow on my tomatoes and keep the rest of the plant’s shoots pruned so it can breathe better.
  • Share your produce with others and they will share theirs with you.
  • If you want to be happy for a short time, get drunk. If you want to be happy for the whole of your life, get married.
     

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