Diary of a Wombat Turns 20 (and I still feel 32)
It is impossible that it’s 20 years since Diary of a Wombat was published. It’s even more impossible that it was written about 36 years ago. It took me about three years to create a style that sounds as if a wombat spoke English, about two years for Lisa at HarperCollins to find the artist who could create a brown wombat in a black night, one who had exactly the expression of Mothball, and another year for us all to work on it.
The whole book is impossible – back then ‘anthropomorphic’ books with speaking animals were deemed unpublishable. No one beyond Australia knew what a wombat was, and who would read a book where the main character mostly slept and scratched?
But it worked. This year the Royal Australian Mint is creating an anniversary Diary of a Wombat coin. It does seem a bit incongruous seeing Mothball’s face grinning on one side, and Queen Elizabeth on the other.
It’s been translated into about thirty languages, sold in I don’t know how many countries, been on the New York Times bestseller list and collected awards from all around the world.
All from one stroppy wombat who kept attacking my gumboots.
I think she would feel it was no less than she deserved. And yes, I miss her still, though her granddaughter Wild Whiskers, still lives in the burrow under the staircase.
I’ve been sent Diary stories from all around the world, too, including one from a food programme for underprivileged kids in the USA. They went on strike at lunch time and demanded ‘wombat treats’ (carrot slices), instead of their usual cake dessert.
My favourite Diary story though is from France, a letter from a man who had seen the book while browsing a bookstore. The owner came up to him, and said ‘That is my favourite book! You must buy it.’ He told her he’d by it if she came to dinner with him.
So she did. Every night for three months they read the book together by the fire, and she called him her ‘Big French Wombat.’ Finally he laughed and said that it was a good thing it was an imaginary animal – he couldn’t live up to it. ‘No no!’ she said, ‘it is a real animal, and it lives in the author’s garden.’
So he wrote to me. ‘Please write in this book If you marry this man he will love you to the end of time.’
And I did. He placed the engagement ring in the book and when she opened it she saw it and accepted him and I received Christmas cards for several years…
It is, in fact, a deeper book than it appears, about two species who will never understand each other, but learn to co-exist, and even love each other. I so profoundly hope that in another twenty years, or forty, or sixty it will still be read … and there will still be wombats living underneath this house.
The latest tenant
Other Book News
Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom, the second book in the The Girls Who Changed The World series is out Book three is being edited. It’s dedicated to all the young people who are already changing the world, and who will keep doing it.
Pandemic won the Chinese ‘Book of the Year’ award at the Shanghai Book Festival; Night Ride into Danger and Christmas Always Comes were Notable books in the CBCA awards; and Night Ride into Danger, The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle and the adult titles Legends of the Lost Lilies and No Hearts of Gold have been long listed for the Sister in Crime Davitt Awards.
There is a Diary of a Wombat ‘prequel’ coming out this December; A new book for adults ready for its cover and coming out in March; another in the Disaster series with Bruce Whatley, about locust plagues but really about understanding country so that plagues like that don’t happen, and the artwork is beautiful and extraordinary and the new wombat book’s artwork it totally gloriously Bruce Whatley hilarious, and possibly the funniest ever.
And I am just about to begin the next novel for adults, a story I have wanted to tell for forty years.
The August Garden
This is the early planting time, the exciting time, when the ground is warming up and the deep winter shadows are fading. This is the time you plant a packet of lettuce seed and get a glut three months later. It’s when you start lusting after giant tomato seedlings in the nurseries.
Ignore them. They’re probably a variety you don’t want anyway, they’ll have been force grown and won’t do much in your cold soil for months, by which time your home grown seedlings will have spurted up and overtaken them.
Never plant too early. You don’t gain anything by it. Even if your early crops stagger through frost and chilly soil, those planted later will probably outgrow them. (Of course it’s one thing for me to say this but I bet this year, like every other year, I’ll be planting peas a month too early, and cucumber seed that rots in the cold ground and the pumpkins will stare at me with freezing feet as I tuck mulch around them and hope they survive).
There are a few old fashioned tips for judging when it’s warm enough to plant hot weather crops. One old lore says to plant tomatoes when the soil is warm enough to sit on it with bare buttocks. (In suburban areas you could use the back of your wrist). Another old saying is to plant corn when the peach blossom falls. I do this every year, and it works — unless of course your peach blossom happens to be frosted off.
What to plant
This is the main crop planting time. You are not only planting now for Christmas, you are also planting for next winter. Things like silverbeet, celery, beetroot, carrots, parsnips and leeks can all be planted in one go to see you through the year. Other crops like pumpkins and watermelons are also one crop plantings — plant enough to pick and store.
Then there are the staggered croppers like beans, peas, corn, tomatoes and zucchini. I tend to plant a new succession when the first lot is just starting to flower. It works better than planting every two weeks, as, especially early in the season, early and late planted crops tend to catch up with each other and you end up with a glut.
There really is such a thing as a spring flush — a time when growth bolts away overnight. Crops planted then will outgrow any planted several weeks before but you need to know your area to time them.
Most gardens are getting sparse now, so it is worthwhile planting some fast growers to start spring eating. Try radish. If you don’t like the roots (like me) try cooking them, or eating the young tops like silverbeet or lettuce.
Bok choy can be eaten small and young, again in the same way you’d use spinach or lettuce. It’s a very fast grower but resists running to seed when it gets hot. Tampala, or Chinese spinach, is another fast grower. Use it as soon as you can bear to pick the leaves, although the plant will eventually grow to about a metre tall, when you just eat the leaf tips. Tampala is very tender and delicate — much more delicate than silver beet and it suits even conservative eaters.
Try baby carrots, like Amsterdam Forcing or French Round. Don’t thin them, just pull them as soon as they’re big enough. Try cos or frilly red lettuce. Just pull off individual leaves as soon as they are big enough without pulling up the lettuce, so the rest eventually hearts. You can do the same with Prizehead Red and simply harvest a bit whenever you have a salad. Rocket also gives quick salads but it’s a bit pungent and smoky for some tastes. Try soaking it in milk overnight before serving.
A few crops you might not have thought of include: salsify, red amaranth, vegetable spaghetti, round
zucchini (my favourite), ornamental corn, again readily available. Ornamental corn grows in a range of colours: some are dark red, some purple, some yellow and white, and some are several colours all at once. It can be eaten when very young and the top kernels not yet full. Later it toughens, and can used as a Christmas gift or ornament. Otherwise feed a surplus to the chooks, or grind it for a weird coloured but quite edible corn flour.
Any area that can grow capsicums can grow okra. It needs at least four frost free months. Grow it like tomatoes, pick the pods every day while they are tender and use it to thicken soups and stews.
Three instant gardens
The air is warming and you can hear the garden calling, ‘plant me, plant me, plant me.’ Resist. If the soil feels cold to you it will be too cold for seeds and seedlings. Satisfy your gardening urges by putting in new beds instead. None of these should take more than few minutes to make, but they’ll be ready for your seedlings when the soil warms up in another month, or two, or three.
A bed of leaves
Autumn leaves are between 2.5 per cent and 3 per cent nitrogen — good stuff. Rake them into the shape of a garden bed, edge them with sleepers or stones or just leave them be. Water it with a soluble fertiliser to help the leaves break down, or scatter on chook manure and water well. Wait at least a month for the
grass or weeds underneath to die, then part the leaves and plant your seedlings. Don’t dig the leaves in. Just let the worms pull them down into the soil naturally, and it’ll turn sweet and black and fertile. (Aren’t you sorry you tidied up the garden last month and took those lovely leaves off to the dump)?
This is for the laziest gardener of all. Buy a sheet of weed mat (it’s made of black woven fibres). Lie it on the lawn or weeds. Jump up and down a few times until it’s flat if the weeds or grass are long. Put some stones round the edges so it doesn’t blow away. Cut a few holes, plant your seedlings, and feed well until the grass and weeds start to decompose under the weed mat. Don’t worry if the seedlings look yellow and stunted for a while. They’ll recover as the grass breaks down. Then they will grow even faster in the weed- mat mulch. At the end of the growing season pull up the weed mat, and plant onions or broad beans in the nice bare soil. Next spring just put the weed mat back again.
The fanatic digger’s garden
If you must dig your garden, cover it with clear plastic for at least three weeks before you plant. The warmth and moisture will encourage all the weed seeds to germinate. At the end of three weeks rake the soil gently to dislodge the weeds, then plant your seedlings in their safe ‘de-weeded’ garden bed.
Organised gardens will have peas and broad beans beginning to crop now.
Try picking the tops off the broad beans, lightly steaming or stir frying them and eating them — they’re good. It’s also a good way to get rid of aphids on new leaves. Keep a sharp eye on your broccoli. Keep picking it every day or it will shoot to seed and the stems will go hard. Once you have picked your cauliflowers don’t haul them out. Leave them, and like broccoli, they will also produce smaller heads around the scar of the large one.
Keep a close eye on silverbeet and celery now. They must last you till the new lot crops. Mulch them heavily while the soil is still cold to stop it warming up. This will delay them going to seed. Once they do start to seed nip it in the bud. Keep picking off the young seed heads (they’re good to eat when tender) and the plant will keep cropping till you’re finished with it.
If you want to stop your carrots going to seed mulch them heavily, so that just the tips are showing. Better still, dig them out, cut off the tops and store them somewhere cool, dark and dry for the next month or so.
Navel oranges, lemons, tangeloes, mandarins, kiwifruit, grapefruit, avocados, sub-tropical loquats, citrons, rhubarb and limes.
All the year rounders plus: early asparagus, Brussels sprouts, Chinese cabbage, corn salad, celeriac, kale, spinach, peas in warm areas, purslane, turnips, swedes, foliage turnips, witloof, early dandelion growth from last year’s roots (sweet now before they get bitter), snow peas in warm areas, mustard and early cut celery growth.
If the frosts are over in your area, plant citrus and other evergreens now, including a mass of natives, firstly because they’re beautiful, but also to attract predators to your garden. The adult form of many pest-eating predators feed on blossom, and the insects that hover around the flowers of your natives will help attract pest-eating birds as well.
Pests may include: woolly aphids, red spider or two spotted mite, peablister mite, powdery mildew, brown rot, curly leaf and rust.
Pests like soft sappy growth and this is a good time for it. If you are worried by pest outbreaks in spring try not to water spring crops, and don’t fertilise them till the spring flush is over — never give high nitrogen fertiliser. Try to cut down on soft early growth. Later, more even growth won’t be so pest attractive and by then there’ll be more predators around to deal with them.
Any efficient organic fertilising regime will help. Avoid high nitrogen fertilisers. Rely instead on the steady fertility from decaying organic matter in the soil — mulch, mulch and compost. Don’t use any fertiliser in late winter when there will be excess nitrogen free in spring. Scale and two spotted or red spider mite may be reduced with a strong overhead spray.
It is no myth that organically grown produce has a greater resistance to many pests. If you doubt this organise your own trials. Feed one lot of plants with urea and another, across the garden or orchard, with compost. Note the level of pest infestation on each.
This is the time to let last year’s crops flower, in- stead of hauling them all out. The adult form of many predators will be attracted by flowers. This is also the time to be planting flowers: native shrubs for winter flowering (most garden predators are natives too) and annuals for mid-summer heat.
Put out parasitised woolly aphids now. The small wasps will hatch and help control the pests in your garden. Try sticking bee pollen onto any plant that you suspect may be pest prone, to attract the predators to it.