Visiting Jackie French

I wasn’t your usual teenager. While my peers were reading Dolly and the more adventurous, Cosmopolitan, I was reading The Australian Women’s Weekly. I loved learning about grown-up lives, and imagining the life I would have one day, when I transcended the gloomy adolescent years.

One of the most memorable stories I read was about a woman who moved to a property outside of Canberra in her early twenties, built her own house and developed a natural reserve that not only protected local wildlife, but grew an abundance of fruit and vegetables.

That was inspirational enough, but as I read on, I learned that this woman started sending away stories, and soon became a professional writer. She wrote children’s books, books for young adults, non-fiction historical books, gardening books, gardening columns and more. My teenage self imagined how this woman managed to fit everything in. How can you be a mother, gardening expert, an author, a farmer and nature conservationist?

Last week, the pieces of the puzzle began to fall together when I met Jackie French in real life.

Jackie French is literally a household name. I challenge any of you to think of an Australian who doesn’t know who she is. If you garden, you’ll know her. If you like wombats, you’ll know her. If you have children, you’ll certainly know her, or at least would have been read her books when you were a child.

Jackie is the 2014-2015 Australian Children’s Laureate. This means for two years, Jackie will tour nationally and internationally promoting and advocating children’s literature in schools and libraries. She’s the perfect choice, because Jackie is the best-selling author of over 140 books including Diary of A Wombat and Hitler’s Daughter. She is warm and passionate, and is an incredible speaker. Her address at this years Children’s Book Council of Australia National Conference made me laugh and literally moved me to tears.

Her career is impressive, but her personal story and lifestyle is truly inspirational.

Jackie bought a property in Araluen, south of Braidwood, NSW in her early 20s. She had studied agriculture in Brisbane, and headed south looking for property. She had a immediate affinity with Araluen, which was incredible because unaware to Jackie at the time, both sides of her family over a number of generations came from this tiny (yet impressive) valley.

JackieFrench_araluenvalley The property was overgrown with blackberry bush, and with a machete and few other tools, Jackie and her then husband began clearing to make room for a shed, which doubled as a dwelling. Jackie had a son, at which time her marriage ended. Child on back, Jackie continued to develop the land, removing weeds and introduced pests, and planting fruit trees.

Jackie French

Jackie French

Jackie French Jackie was a single mother with a property. She had no money to speak of, and a car to register. A friend suggested she send away her writing. Within three weeks, she had a book contract for what was described by the editor at HarperCollins as the messiest, worst spelt manuscript they’d ever received. She also secured a weekly column with the Canberra Times and in a farmer’s magazine.

Jackie French Last Monday, Jackie welcomed a bunch of CBCA conference delegates to her property. She showed us many of the hundreds of fruit species she grows. She talked about permaculture, and how specific plants had been planted for birds, so other fruit would be left for humans.

Jackie French She introduced us to Noam Chomsky, the herald of the garden, who observes the conversations and interactions of the local wildlife.

Noam Chompsky

Jackie French

JackieFrench07 She talked about her wombats, and other inspirations for her books.



JackieFrench10 She showed us the wombat hole under her house, and told us about the resident wombats who regularly visit. Occasionally, they wander into the house and make themselves comfortable.




JackieFrench14 She invited us to pick fruit from the trees. (These tamarillos were incredible.)




tree dahlias

tree dahlias

JackieFrench19 As she talked, Jackie’s knowledge of and respect for the land grew apparent. Her property is self-sufficient, yes, but it also encourages and invites wildlife to flourish. She has vast knowledge of the property’s indigenous history. She knows and respects the stories of the land. She knows its secrets.



JackieFrench22 Behind almost all great women is a supportive and loving partner. We met Bryan, Jackie’s husband. Bryan is an engineer, who built this waterwheel, which pumps water and makes energy for the property. Between the waterwheel and the impressive solar-power heating system, the house is 100% carbon neutral. Jackie bought one of the first solar panels sold in Australia, and has expanded her collection over the years.


JackieFrench25 We wandered around her garden and her property, grateful for the opportunity to see this beautiful, peaceful and rich life. Every delegate I spoke to shone with admiration for Jackie and everything she had done here. We felt privileged.

Jackie’s warmth and generosity was exemplified by the lunch she made for the thirty or more guests.


JackieFrench29 As we were walking back to the mini bus, Tom, our driver remarked that the visit had been “life-changing”. I thought about what he said, and Jackie’s own words rung in my mind.

Don’t ask children what they want to do when they grow up. Ask children how they would like to live their life. That’s the important question.

Although I don’t know how I could possibly fit more into my already busy life, I would like to live my life exactly like Jackie. She inspired me when I was thirteen, but I completely fell in love with her when I met her in person, and visited her home. I know who I’ll be nominating for Australian of the Year.

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Linking with Essentially Jess for IBOT.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

How Does Your Garden Grow

“How does your garden grow?”

“Poorly….veeery poorly.”

In the wee hours of this morning, I ripped up my sorry excuse for a veggie patch, weed by weed. Out came the wilted tomato plants with the rotten fruit. Out came the hundreds of kale plants, eaten by hundreds of bugs. Out came the miniature potatoes, which may well have been mistaken for peas if it weren’t for their colour. Out came the scores of grass, which turns out I am much better at growing than vegetables.

I set out with the best of intentions. In an afternoon, I laid out three delightful Beatrix Potter-eseque brick circles, put down soil made from a delicate combination of nitrogen and carbon and the local red earth (famous, apparently, for its nutritional value), and planted a range of organic seedlings, sourced from the best organic seedling grower in the area – Seedlings Organic.

I watered my gardens most evenings. I looked lovingly at my plants. But, unfortunately, veggie gardens require more than love and a sprinkle of water.

I suppose they need fertilisation, more water, and possibly a vague knowledge about how to actually grow vegetables.

I had high hopes, but my quaint brick vegetable gardens disappointed me. Even the corn was a failure.

Even though I spend a lot of my time and mental energy designing my garden in my mind, and a lot of money on plants, I spend very little time and effort sustaining it all. Thankfully, I have a weakness for wild and wooly gardens, much like my late Grandma Joyce, who favoured an unkempt garden over a trimmed hedge. I am good at wild and wooly, and would have no luck at all maintaining a neat hedge.

I will keep my little brick circles – might chuck in some flower seeds, and let my daughter plant what she likes. Maybe I could grow a field of basil. I think, in our climate, that’s achievable. Then I could have a lifetime’s worth of pesto.

The point of it all is that my intentions of having and maintaining a beautiful garden are not matched by the actual time and effort I invest in it. I haven’t even once got around to typing into Google “growing vegetables”. Maybe I should do that.

My garden, much like most things in my life, is a bit random, spontaneous, overgrown, wild and wooly. But it has its charms.

How does your garden grow? Any tips for a failing gardener?

In case you don’t already know, I am hosting Sunshine Sundays here every Sunday from 7am. You can link up your post (old or new) to a weekly theme. This coming Sunday’s theme is “Summer”. Also catch me over at Facebook most days.

Linking with Essentially Jess for IBOT.

The Life of A Worm, and Children on Manus Island

It was a very atypical north coast day here today. A shocking and miserable 12 degrees Celsius. But dreary days remind me of Melbourne, the city which has my heart, so I don’t actually mind them.

The drizzle stopped, momentarily, and my daughter and I pulled on our wellies. I put Baby in the ergo on my back, and grabbed my hoe.


My fitness classes are beginning to pay off. Amazonian, was I, swinging a hoe, baby on the back (less dangerous than it sounds).

At the end of summer, I gave up on my veggie garden. It was a bed of weeds. But it’s silly, really, because Gregor works for an organic seedling company. And my favourite home days are spent in the garden. Now my paid writing work has paused, I have home days to spend with the girls, gardening. Decided to breathe life back into the veggie garden.


Also we had a lonely mandarin tree than needs the company of organic seedlings.

My daughter insists on digging the holes and planting the seedlings. Her tactics are a little ad hoc, so she needs guidance, but I love her enthusiasm.

And then she finds a worm, and the planting is over, as her attention is drawn elsewhere.


She wants to be the worm’s mummy. She cradles it in her hand. I tell her that she has to be very careful with it. The last worm ended up in two pieces.

She tells me she wants to feed the worm. I tell her he eats dirt.

“That’s gis-tusting,” she says.

“Well, you and the worm have different tastes. You like pancakes. He likes mud. He probably thinks pancakes are gis-tusting.”

“Pancakes aren’t gis-tusting.”

“Not to you, but to the worm they might be.”

And so forth.

She wants to take the worm to bed with her. I say that’s gis-tusting…the worm likes soil, and I don’t like muddy worms in bed with me.

“Why?” This wasn’t the first time this word was used.

“You sleep in a bed. The worm sleeps in the soil. That’s his home.”

At that moment, I thought of an email I received from Amnesty International, campaigning for the release of children from Manus Island detention.

Those children.

Where was their home? I imagined their fear, being shipped across the world, hopeful, but scared. Crowded boats. Then all hope sent adrift, as their boat is sent towards an island, somewhere, and they are put in prison. Because they were looking for safety and protection.

The worm is docile now, in my daughter’s muddy hands. His terror has zapped his life force. He is just lying there.

My daughter’s intentions, at least, were kind. At least she wanted to care for the worm. To be his mummy.

This was posted on Facebook by a friend for World Refugee Day:

"We may all have come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now" Martin Luther King Jnr

Imagine the horror. The unknown. The fear. And then the drawn-out heartbreak.

I can’t imagine.

But this image gives me some insight:

I can explain to my daughter  how a worm prefers soil to sleeping in her bed. But I can’t explain how a child no older than her experiences his life on Manus.

I can’t.

I admit, I am hopeless at keeping abreast of current affairs, and global politics. I am interested, but unengaged. I want to know more, but then I don’t, because the truth is too shocking.

I feel powerless.

Like that broken worm.

Amnesty International asked me to donate to their campaign to save children from the horror of being imprisoned. I can’t think of a better way to spend my money.

If you would like to donate too, click here.

This post started in the wet garden, and ended up here. I guess stranger things have happened.

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Linking with Blogs and PR for Talk to us Thursday

How to grow a child

How to grow a child.

Take one seed of love.
Place carefully into well nourished soil, in a sunny position.
Water in well with love, love, kindness and love.
Leave space for the plant to grow.
The roots are our support – our connections to others. Nourish the root system.
This is the tree from which love and beauty grow.
Gaze at its tender beauty, as it sends out new shoots and new leaves unfurl.
A flower blooms. Photograph it. Frame the photograph and hang it with care on your wall.
A flower falls. Lift its fragile petals and cup it in your hands, thanking it for being so beautiful, and kiss it goodbye.
A leaf falls. Another leaf falls. Keep your loved-one warm, wrapping them in blankets and cuddles.
Your tree, your love, now stands beautiful and strong, with flowers that bloom in spring and leaves that fall in autumn. Their happiness is your happiness and their grief is also yours.
Dwell in the sunshine, as you admire and enjoy what your seed of love has become.

{linking with IBOT and “In, on and around Mondays“}

{note: this is a very important post for me, as I think it sums up what I am trying to do as a parent, and who I am trying to be. It also underpins what I want my blog to represent. Please share it if you like it, and I would love to hear your thoughts below. Lots of love, Zanni}

These are my hands


These are my hands.
My nails are short from a lifetime habit of nail biting. My ballet teacher told me when I was eight that I had to stop, as it was a disgusting habit. Try as I might, no amount of Stop n Grow has successfully cured my compulsion, which gets worse when I write. It’s not really a nervous thing, just an unconscious thing…before I know it, despite my best intentions, my nails are short again.
These are my hands.
Muddy from working in the garden, and not wearing gloves. I never wear gloves. I usually wear nice clothes in the garden, not bothered to change before I get the urge to pull out weeds. This morning we planted coriander and snow pea seedlings. I replanted the strawberries and finally put a mandarin in the ground that has been waiting for weeks to be planted. Elka helped shovel in the compost, and insisted on planting some of the seedlings. We propped up the snow peas with branches that have fallen from the tree.
These are my hands.
I am wearing the engagement and wedding rings that belonged to my grandma. They are platinum with a diamond setting. They were my grandma’s most valuable possessions. She said she wanted me to have them when she died. She passed away nearly two years ago. I can’t believe it’s been that long.
This is my grandma’s garden. We bought her house after she died. She would have loved to have known Elka would grow up in her little cottage.
I also wear my own wedding ring, which my husband and I designed, and sent pictures of the design to his family in the Netherlands. They melted down family gold and somebody they knew used the gold to make our designs. This was a way my husband’s family could be involved in he ceremony.
Soon after my daughter was born, I was making bread and put my wedding band on top of the microwave. Later that day, I realised I wasn’t wearing it. I searched everywhere. Even my husband’s hawk eyes could not find it. A week or so later, I was sharing my grief about the lost ring with my dad. Off hand, I said that it may have fallen into the compost bin for all I knew. Gregor dug through banana peels and other rotting veggies, and sure enough found my ring buried in the compost.
These are my hands.
These are my daughter’s hands. She insisted on washing hers every ten minutes or so as they were ‘a little bit grubby’. We worked together, side by side in the garden. This was our morning.