14 September 2014

When life gives you neighbours…


Every time our minds wander to getting away from it all and moving to some isolated patch of bush, we think about all the good things we have where we are.  Wonderful neighbours is certainly on our list. Even though we are that family in our street… The house with artwork and fingerprints splashed all over the front windows… With Owlets roaring (sometimes nude), around the garden during the daytime. And a weedy, unkempt garden it often is, by most standards. We're that family who are always home and loud and choose to do things a little bit differently. Some of our neighbours choose not to engage and keep heads down as they run from the car to the sanctuary of home.  But the neighbours who do say hello and make time make our street a beautiful and supportive extended family, of sorts. A community.

Over the back fence is a piano teacher who has helped Owlets learn when they've shown interest. Happy for us to fling a ladder over the back fence, she gladly catches them on the other side for a half-hour lesson. And wonderfully, she's not been offended when they decide to give it up, or begin again. Recently her house guests asked to feed our chooks weeds from the garden as they work, having seen us do the same on our side. And so we discovered another beautiful connection for our permaculture design.

Next door on one side, we have a neighbour who has a beautiful, wild garden and she's happy for our Owlets to explore it. There's an amazing dolls house inside, the Owlets tell me. And more than once, we've been given a cup of sugar, a pile of newspapers or a handful of lavender, when we've needed it.

On the other side are neighbours who the Owlets have adopted as surrogate grandparents. Tiny likes to ring the doorbell and say "hi", if she hasn't seen them in a while. They knew our house better than we did when we first moved in and they're always a wealth of information about our street. They assure me that on the night Tiny was born, they heard nothing - although how that can be, I have no idea!

Next door, they are around most days, like us, and pottering in the garden, like us. Their garden is neat, well tended and abundant, with more than enough food for their meals and plenty to share. Often I've seen our neighbour popping in to houses in our street with apples or lemons for who ever is home. Sometimes it's us. Once it was a posie of violets to say she thought I was a great Mum. She had four kids of her own, you see... And there are plenty of times the Owlets have been handed a bowl of raspberries over the fence to gobble up gleefully on the way inside to tell me about it, red stained chin and all…

"Neighbourhood" by Phoebe Wahl. Available in our shop!
We have rather low fences in our neighbourhood, so we've had to become comfortable with company outdoors. Often a head will appear at the fence and we'll get to talking about how the broccoli's growing or why the lemon tree might not be thriving in that spot. Over the years, the next-door neighbours have witnessed our experiments with soil improvement and no-dig gardening and they've shown keen interest. Tut-tutting the weeds at this particularly lush time of year - I suspect they're being polite as we endeavour to get on with the business of growing food, despite the weeds. They're interested to witness the latest transformation as our permaculture design takes shape. And I think we're winning some clout as we seem to have luck with cauliflower.

We've been the glad recipients of a tiny rhubarb plant from next door, which is now huge and adorning our food forest. One of the enormous tomatoes passed over the fence was saved for the seed we have growing in seed trays in the lounge room… And we're more than glad to help out with the lemon glut when we collect the mail while they're away on holidays.

These neighbours embody the permaculture ethics of people care and fair share so well. I suspect that they see success the way I do; that true success is not just being able to feed your own family, but those around you too. And spreading a little joy along the way… I've been giving a little thought to how we can work to make this friendship a little more reciprocal. To be better neighbours and have enough to share (more than the odd cup of milk or stick of butter - although these are helpful too!). Enough useful stuff anyhow, and choosing a few things that are not in our neighbour's garden has been in the back of our minds while putting together our permaculture plan. To begin with, I think it might be a few eggs. They don't have chooks. And when some of the fruit trees grow up a bit, maybe some quinces or pears or cherries. I may just save some seed from the cauliflower and maybe our neighbour will finally have luck with that too, as we have. Hopefully there'll be enough to share with other neighbours too. Even the ones who don't have time for a chat.

This is how community building starts. Its how Owlets find mentors and friends of all ages. Its how we find support and our garden grows stronger. And it's how, when you think there's nothing much in the cupboard, you suddenly have the fixings for Lemon & Rhubarb cake…

Lemon & Rhubarb Cake

5 rhubarb stalks cut into 2cm pieces
1/3 cup rapadura/coconut sugar/raw sugar/maple syrup/alternative
125g soft butter
1 cup of rapadura/organic raw sugar/ honey/rice malt syrup. Add less if you like it less sweet.
zest and juice of 1 lemon
3 eggs
1 cup plain flour
1/3 cup SR flour
100ml yoghurt

Preheat the oven to 180ºC
Grease and line a 20-22cm springform cake pan

Toss the rhubarb with rapadura and set aside
Cream the butter & larger quantity of sugar/sugar alternative.
Add lemon zest and then the eggs, one at a time.
Stir through the lemon juice.
Fold the flours in gently, a little at a time, alternating with the yoghurt.
Fold in the rhubarb.

Spoon into the cake tin and bake for about 40 minutes, until browned on top.
Test the cake with a skewer. If the skewer comes out with some cake batter on it, cook for another 5 minutes and repeat.
Cool for 15 minutes before removing the tin.
Dust with icing sugar if you like - we don't think it needs it!

Adapted from Allan Campion and Michele Cranston's Rhubarb Lemon Cake in Every Day Cooking. 
Published by Hardie Grant Books in 2006.

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