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Book Review

Backyard - Lesley Head and Pat Muir

Reviewed by Brian Walters

Book cover

Subtitled 'Nature and Culture in Urban Australia', Backyard is not your typical lifestyle publication. You won't find advice on growing veges, nor will you find plans for your all singing, all dancing barbecue. You won't even find the perfect barbecue recipe from a celebrity chef....

Rather, this is a report of a University of Wollongong study into people's relationship with their urban environment. And, if you think that sounds like a recipe for a boring read, you'd be mistaken....

Yes, the book does have that 'University Study' feel to it but this is not just a book of interest to academics. In the 190 pages we meet a diverse range of home owners and their backyards. 265 of them, in fact, mainly in Sydney and Wollongong but a sampling from Alice Springs as well.

We meet the passionate gardeners, the non-gardeners, the native enthusiasts, the native haters, the lawn lovers and the lawn loathers. We visit backyards for entertaining, backyards for children, backyards for productivity - backyards for just about any purpose you can imagine.

First comes a bit of history - how backyards and their uses have changed over time. The title of this chapter is "The sewer pipe and other moments in backyard history", so that should suggest strongly that this is not an ordinary academic tome. Having grown up in an area where the outdoor dunny and the 4am night soil man were the norm, I found this chapter dredging up memories I thought (or hoped) had been long forgotten....

Then comes the mandatory chapter on the scope of the study - the participants, the locations, the range of backyards and their uses from the 'leafy north shore' to the newer estates at Kellyville and Shell Cove, and the ways in which the lifestyle marketing industry affects the uses to which backyards are put.

After that we get to the parts of the book that will interest the average reader. Here we meet the backyards and their owners, and a diverse bunch they are too, although they fall into four broad groups:

  • Committed native gardeners - the purists.
  • General native gardeners - the pragmatists.
  • Non-native gardeners - earth people, flower lovers and native haters.
  • Non-gardeners - indoor people, entertainers and stylists.

Readers of Australian Plants online will, of course, find most empathy with in the views of the 'committed native gardeners' and may well wonder what planet the 'native haters' are from (the usual complaint from this group about natives being 'straggly', makes one wonder if they've ever seen a rose bush... but I'm showing bias here!). The non-native gardeners made up 51% of the sample studied so, like it or not, they are the majority and as the authors point out, this group, together with those who perhaps grow a few token natives, are the main focus of gardening magazines and lifestyle programs.

Chapters five and six look in more detail at specific examples and delve into the reasons why backyard styles have been developed to cater for the needs of the owners. Here we learn how people 'engage' with their surroundings. Owners talk about 'my place' and we get to understand how much 'my place' means to some of them. The words of 85 year old Fred are especially poignant and probably echo the thoughts of many who migrated to Australia after WW2.

"I never imagined we could have a place like this, never in my wildest dreams and when we bought this block of land, I mean it was heaven, and that's what we came to Australia for and that's why thousands of migrants came out here"

The migrant experience is also a key factor in the section of the book that looks at gardens for productivity - like the Italian garden recalled by a former neighbour.

"there wasn't a square inch of the ground that wasn't under production. There wasn't a blade of grass in the backyard and the only trees that he had in the garden were fruit."

Then there are the 'landscapes of memory' - how elements of the backyard are important because they remind the owners of significant past events - like Lillian who looks at a 40 year-old rose bush that is as old as her son and recalls that she was pregnant when she planted it.

Chapter seven gets into the areas of water and power conservation - perhaps the most practical part of the book for those looking for inspiration (I liked the discussion about the 'bucket in the shower' - I thought I was the only one who did that). Wastage of resources, however, is shown as a potential point of neighbourly conflict, as Bonnie complains about the activities of neighbours up the road:

"I get really angry.....they've got a wonderful flower garden and grass, and ours is brown because we're trying to do the right thing and they are just blatantly wasting."

Chapter eight talks about 'boundaries and belonging' and touches on other causes of potential social conflict between neighbours. Not surprisingly, two contentious issues are trees and cats as neither respect boundaries. The 'mess' created by eucalypts is a constant complaint from the 'native haters' - but, honestly, how can you have a garden without at least one gum tree? It's almost as bad as not eating Vegemite on toast for breakfast....

There's much more to explore in this publication but can the average home owner learn anything practical from all of this? Yes, of course! Just reading about what other people use their yards for is instructive - it helps us to plan what to do (or not do!) in our own urban spaces. The photos and illustrations, including a number of backyard plans, provide a source of many ideas that can be adapted to our own situations. But that's not the main purpose of the book. It's about social interaction in an urban environment and, if you are at all interested in that, it's a valuable read.


Lesley Head and Pat Muir
University of Wollongong Press, 2007.
RRP $69.95
Hardcover, 192 pages, colour and black and white photos and illustrations

The book is distributed nationally by Australian Book Group and is available at major book sellers.

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