John and Jenny Shaw have been living on this property in Woodend for 50 years, around half the time there’s been a house on it. The residence dates back to the first World War, and some of the flora has been there even longer.
There are three oak trees dating back a century, and a stately mannagum that John estimates is 300-400 years old. These ancient trees are complemented by new plants and flowers that John and Jenny have added over the years: camellias, ash trees, productive veggie beds, 30 rhododendrons, peach, apricot, apple trees and hazelnuts that refuse to bloom. Sometimes people gift them specimens, which the pair incorporate into the existing space.
It’s an intuitive garden – serviced by a large composting system – that has evolved with the whims of its owners.
In the ‘70s, the pair ran the house as an event-space for private functions, putting the Federation-era wine cellar to use and serving retro menus from their own kitchen. The house was filled with people and conversation – it was a place for gathering and meeting new neighbours, who dined amongst the Shaw’s family life.
‘Growing up in this place has had an impact on the kids,’ says John of his sons. One was married in the yard and another is Ben Shaw, permaculture expert on the Victorian surf coast.
This culture of sharing has even impacted the evolution of the garden. There is no real fence at the rear, meaning the Shaw’s garden spills into the neighbour’s land – an arrangement that suits them both perfectly. He describes the sprawling vista from his window as 100 metres of ‘combined garden’ that stretches out to the neighbouring house.
‘We don’t have a conventional two metre wooden fence, which gives me an extra 30-40 metres of the other people’s garden,’ says John. ‘And likewise with them, they have the benefit of our garden. It gives a sense of space.’
This notion of non-proprietal gardening underpins another key part of John’s plot: the verge garden.
A verge garden is a shared productive garden cultivated on a lawn or nature strip, from which passers-by can collect fruits, vegetables and herbs as they please. The verge garden is protected by an unspoken contract between neighbours: trust that no one will pilfer or destroy it. This public part of the garden planted and maintained by John and hedged by hay bales is potentially his favourite piece of land, stretching up to 30m long beside the road outside his house.
‘The more that people could do that the better,’ says John of the community space. ‘If it’s treated with respect, it does something for people’s sense of equanimity or safety, that they’re living in an area where someone can do something like that and it will be respected. It’s a rather nebulous idea. It has a benefit that is not quantifiable.’