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SocietyDecember 28, 2023

Their house, my garden: My war with the landlords

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Summer reissue: In the first instalment of a new column about gardening while renting, a planter box is vetoed, the rent is raised, and the value of dirt is brought into question.

First published on September 23, 2023.

Last summer, we barely got one tomato and three beans out of the garden. Everything, weather-wise, went wrong, but mostly we believe it is because our vege garden has been relegated to the margins. By that I mean the rock-lined retaining wall around our front lawn which has been dug to be about a metre below ground-level, so that the basement of the house could be made into a semi-subterranean one bedroom flat, the hole in which I live with my partner. The rest of the house is split into four other flats, which are accessed not via the front lawn like ours, but the original front door a story above, the side, and the back. The whole complex is owned by a couple, or “mum and dad landlords”. 

Around the edges of the front lawn, our vegetables were trying to catch some sun in the shade of little trees which the landlord planted as a sort of fence. The pumpkin tried to make a run for it, climbing up through the big magnolia tree and onto the neighbours fence. Unfortunately even up there the little pumpkins rotted, and one night we caught a drunk man peeing into the parsley from the footpath.

And so, in the depths of winter and $10 cauliflowers at the supermarket, we began to dream of a garden bed where the sun shines, on the other side of the front lawn, closer to the house. It would have to be a planter box, because we knew the landlords didn’t want us to dig into the ground. Obviously, we were not going to buy the box, because that goes against the gardening philosophy of doing it yourself, and obviously we would not be buying the wood because that is almost as expensive as buying a pre-made box. 

Instead we had a picturesque weekend of driving around the backs of shops where the rubbish bins are and quickly loaded up on pallets. For a week the pallets lay in wait by the side of the house for their new lease on life. Then one Saturday last month, B decided he was strong enough to break them apart and reassemble the parts into an unexpectedly large box. It was his first major building project and he was quite chuffed with it. When I pointed out the gaps, I was told not to worry about such trivial aesthetic matters. 

A roughly made planter box
All our hopes and dreams

The dirt

The dirt you can buy in bags is not that good. It might be beautiful and soft and brown, but it’s dead. You want the soil in your garden to be full of little lives you can’t see like microbes and fungi, like the stuff in your compost bin. This is what we told ourselves when we compared the size of the box to the size of the $8 bags of dirt.

But who has a compost bin as big as a giant planter box? Not us, and half of ours still looks a little too much like last night’s dinner. How then to fill up this garden dream? The answer is easy and free – pretty much any other organic matter you can find lying around. This involves scrambling underneath the shrubs in your local park with a sack and filling it up with the leaf litter, raiding the pile of unwanted wood chips where a tree fall over in a storm, shredding up egg cartons and other un-coated cardboards, and foraging your neighbourhood for fallen branches, twigs and small logs. This is all socially acceptable behaviour. If you think about it, seedling roots are going to take months to reach even halfway down the bed, so the stuff you pad the bottom with has time to break down. We layered up all our finds in the planter box, and gave it a hose-down, because wet is good.

The barriers

I was on lunch break, about to take the first bite of a beautiful sandwich, when someone called out “hello, are you home” from the lawn. Our landlord appeared in the window, extremely flustered. Unbeknownst to us, there were viewings for flat three in five minutes and the planter box, surrounded by bits and pieces of its parts and ingredients, was unsightly and unacceptable. She was also concerned about its impact on the grass, which is sometimes cut on Saturday mornings by a grey-haired man who doesn’t say hello, doesn’t have the attachment to catch the clippings, and doesn’t move washing out of the way. The sandwich had to wait as we were instructed to quickly hide the monstrosity around the side of the house.

“We will talk about this later,” she said forebodingly and then went to meet prospective new tenants. 

In the evening, her husband called. The planter box had to go, the landlords said, on account of the front garden being a shared area even though only our flat opens onto it and it would be extremely weird if someone else spent time there, right by our bedroom windows. Also because it was a bane to the grass. We didn’t say very much, being good listeners willing to allow them to air their grievances. On Sunday, we had a look at the planter box with fresh eyes. Perhaps it was a little too unruly, and a little too big, but did it really have to go altogether? Was it really bothering the upstairs neighbour who likes to throw her old bread down onto the lawn?

In his second major building project, B took apart the planter box and reassembled it into a smaller, neater little brother. We sidled it up to the house, so it would sit on the stone path rather than the grass. Perfect. For a week the box sat happily there, and an onion top from the compost sprouted. 

Neat and petite

When we were at Pak’nSave the next Saturday, I received a text.

“We do need to talk. I thought the garden bed was removed but it is still there. Sorry, but this is not what we agreed, and I cannot agree to what is there. Please do remove it.”

We called them from the car. B got it started by listing all the ways the new box was different and better than the old box, and also that all the exterior paint on the house is flaking off so what are they being so precious about? I said nothing because I hate being in trouble. Then they repeated all the things they said the previous week and that we had to get rid of the box asap.

When we got home, we stood by the box and looked lovingly down on it. “I don’t want to get rid of it,” said B. “It’s already growing things.” He pointed to the onion. We dragged the box around to the side of the house. 

The following Sunday afternoon, we received a very brief email. “Please find attached a letter related to Flat1”. There was one damning line, in bold, in the attached letter. “Please be advised that your rent will increase by $35 per week.” The cited reasons for the increase: “interest rates, government costs, council rates, maintenance, gardens, insurance, water, electricity etc.” 

We pay for our own electricity. It’s a little hard to believe that interest rates are relevant, as the house was last purchased in 1990 for $350,000, and my educated estimate of its yearly rental income is $130,000 (assuming each flat is rented at $500 per week). Perhaps the Roundup that is sprayed on the driveway when the landlord is bored has gone up in price due to taxes against products linked to cancer? And what exactly are “government costs”? We decided to question the increase.

“Thanks for the update. Out of curiosity, will this rent increase be dependent on the election result, given National’s recent tax policy announcement?”

The answer was no.

a huge pile of green waste
The green waste pile which is gracing the back lawn to this day

I was hanging up my washing the following Sunday when a sweaty, muddy, barefooted man appeared from behind the garage. It was the landlord. He had been pulling weeds from the overgrown back corner of the back lawn. There, under a tangle of noxious weeds, he unveiled rock-lined garden beds that edge the property. He decided we, and flat 4, who have a collection of flexi-bins growing herbs next to the garage, could use them. “There’s been a lot of interest from tenants in gardening,’” he said, “maybe it’s the cost of living crisis.”

Upon being bestowed a section of the un-earthed beds, B and I transferred the soil in our planter box, bucket by bucket, into its plucked surface. He then took to the box with a hammer, dismembering it into planks which will sit by the side of the house until further notice.

Rest in peace
The remains of the planter box. RIP

Top tip of the week: The free way is the best way.

Tasks for the week: Secure your garden bed, and find your soil.

Keep going!