A Fig at the Gate – Kate Llewellyn

Kate Llewellyn is a poet and diarist who is best-known for her poetry & her memoirs of creating gardens in various parts of Australia. The Waterlily is probably her most famous book, about living in the Blue Mountains. I realised when A Fig at the Gate was published that I still had her previous book, Playing with Water, on the tbr shelves. I’ve pulled it off now though & look forward to reading it soon.

Llewellyn is now in her seventies & has moved back to Adelaide, South Australia, where she grew up. Her siblings are near by as well as friends she’s known from her nursing days. She knows this climate well, & prepares to create a new garden in her house by the sea. The book is a diary, written from 2009-2012, moving through the seasons. Adelaide has experienced even hotter, dryer weather than Melbourne over the last few years so I could relate to her struggles with the climate & the failure of plants to thrive in the hot summers. I love this description of the beginning of autumn,

The first cold day and welcome, too, a feeling of zest and a sting in the air with rain in the night. The tank is half full. I knock, knock with my knuckles on the corrugated iron rings of the tank to hear where the water level makes a dull sound. … A flock of starlings flies up from the newly mown lawn. A willie wagtail hops around in its cheerful way and a Murray magpie flutters down and then up. when pruning the apricot tree a while ago, I found a small bird’s nest high up in the tree. I left the branch in case the bird uses the nest again. A sparrow flew into a dense olive tree in the front garden and, thinking it may be nesting there, I have been out to search but, apart from a small crop of green olives, the tree is empty. A flash of green and a lorikeet flew out. Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Apart from the planning & enthusiastic planting of the garden, Llewellyn visits friends & family, tries to make friends with neighbours, starts a garden on the roadside opposite her house, lies on her bed watching the trees through her window. She is very frugal & always on the lookout for some free seedlings or a way to reuse an object that would otherwise be thrown out. She rescues some old pink bricks from a demolished house (carrying them in a green wheelie bin) to create borders around the garden beds &, walking past a house with a load of soil on offer for free, soon has a friend there to help carry away as much as possible in buckets & wheelbarrows.

The garden causes just as much pain & frustration as pleasure. Seeds are sown & fail to come up. A crop of tomatoes at the side of the house, where nothing has probably ever been planted, give so much fruit that it can’t all be eaten. Nothing ever grows there so well again so was it just that it was virgin soil? I loved the story of the blood orange tree. Nurtured, fed, mulched, watered, the tree gave no fruit at all. Listening to a gardening show on the radio, Llewellyn hears that blood oranges should be left alone & if neglected, will thrive. Which hers does as soon as she pulls away the mulch & ignores it.

The other major saga is that of the chickens & later, ducks. Llewellyn grew up with chooks & her brother rears them for a living so she is keen to have her own small flock. She begins with six white pullets & all is well until she introduces six red chickens. She calls the result the War of the Roses. She learns from her mistakes about feeding them & caring for them when ill. She even sets up an intensive care unit in her shower for the hens when they’re sick, bathing them & anointing their bare red skin with calamine lotion. The story of the chickens becomes as suspenseful as a soap opera. I find I’m racing on to the next entry to see what has happened to the latest patient. Rearing ducks is more successful as the pair she buys soon have nine ducklings, most of which have to be sold as pets as there’s not enough room for them.

There are many beautiful quiet moments in this book where Kate Llewellyn meditates on the pleasures & pains of getting older. The aches & pains of her body & a bout of depression are the downside but the advantages, from being able to lie in bed late watching the trees to being eligible for Council help with maintenance around the house, are also celebrated. I enjoyed reading about Kate Llewellyn’s garden, her chooks, her clever contrivances, her successes & failures, everything that goes to make up this one woman’s life.

7 thoughts on “A Fig at the Gate – Kate Llewellyn

  1. I have heard of JM but haven't read her books. I read a reference to her somewhere & have this book in my wishlist at Open Library. Too many books & not enough time! I would like to read it though, sounds like my kind of book.


  2. Kate was a customer of ours prior to her move back to Adelaide, she is as charming and observant as her writing. I'll find a page reference for you Lyn where she mentions Tony.

    I have enjoyed all her writing.


  3. How exciting, a little brush with fame! I really enjoyed The Waterlily although I read it many years ago. Is Tony mentioned in this new book or her last one, Playing with Water?


  4. Thanks for your review… I am half way through this book. It was a delight to come across it in the bookshop as I didnt realise she had written another. I have read all her 'garden' books as well as a couple of her travel diaries and have the rest of these to read in the future. Her memoir about her life is also wonderful – The Dressmakers Daughter… A truly delightful writer who I could read again and again… glad I have found another fan!


  5. I've read several of her books & enjoyed them all. I especially remember the travel diaries & The Waterlily. Like you, I have a couple on the tbr shelves, including the memoir.


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