Australia’s Quarter Acre, The Story of the Ordinary Suburban Garden
By Peter Timms
The Miegunyah Press, Carlton, 231 pp.,

In twelve chapters, Peter Timms examines the layouts for suburban plots and then strolls around lawns, produce, ornamentals, natives and weeds. His book opens well enough with a first-person account of reworking the garden in his new Hobart home. Later, there are snippets of insight, for example, the paradox of conservativism and Modernity in the Mondrian-look of a well-trimmed lawn. Timms’s conversational tone soon collapses into chit-chat, the prose becoming overgrown with qualifiers and modifiers, its argumentativeness grafted onto prejudices. The want of knowledge about Australia’s quarter acre is bordered with quotations about Britain which do not form even a backdrop.

Timms’s nagging voice does nothing to distract from his slight acquaintance with the evidence. For instance, he chastises one gardening magazine for urging its Victorian readers to plant wattles to celebrate their State’s centenary in 1934. He calls this suggestion “odd”, given that “pink heath is the state’s floral emblem.” What is odder is that the editor at what parades itself as a prestigious press did not pick up the anachronism. Victoria did not name its emblem until October 1958.

Towards the start, Timms mistakenly attributes an interest among historians for the lives of “those who failed to make history” to Marxists. Fascination with the quotidian has longer and wider sources. Of concern to some of us who think of ourselves as Marxists is that scholarly populism has come at the expense of an analysis of power. The class struggle that Marx and Engels identified with history has been displaced by glimpses from the bottom up.

How might a Marxist analysis of the quarter-acre block proceed? The following instances of the economic and the ideological, both local and imperial, peg out an allotment for historical materialism.

Any account of capitalism must start from the reality that wage-slaves lack the resources to sustain life, except their capacity to work. Hence, without a ready market for marijuana, the house and garden is not enough land on which to raise enough produce to be self-sufficient, or to trade for enough money to buy in the other use values needed for life. That limitation does not prevent the domestic mode of production from supplementing the money wage. “Bizarre” was how Justice Higgins described the offer of the Builders Labourers Federation in 1913 to trade a drop in wages for a 44-hour week: “The secretary for the Adelaide branch says that the men would often make up for the loss of wages by giving more time to the cultivation of vegetables for the table in their little plots of ground.”

Paying off a mortgage does not a capitalist make. Yet, use of even small parcels of land let a few workers compete with their masters. In the June 1907 issue of the Journal of Horticulture, a commercial gardener in Victoria worried that wages for his labourers were so low that they were under-cutting his prices: “all class of gardeners have a miniature general nursery at the back of their cottage ready to supply those who will buy at a cheaper rate than the legitimate nurserymen.” (Emphasis in original.) A Wages Board was needed to protect profits.

The layout of the suburban garden testified to this division by economic class. The path to the tradesman’s entrance of a villa must never cross-by its front door. The power of gates and fences to defend social distinction was in full swing decades before the oxymoronic Gated Community.

The fascist architects and trade publishers George and Florence Taylor were typical of the moralising bourgeoisie in their championing of home ownership as a bastion against Jazz and Bolshevism. Advice to gardeners revealed other psycho-social underpinnings of political commitment to order. In 1925, Berger Paints instructed citizens on how to make their houses fit in with the environment, which did not mean nature but the other dwellings in the street. That avoidance of any “clashing of colours” upheld the cream-and-green Australia policy. Two years later, Australian Homes warned against putting garden beds beside a pathway because the soil spoilt the color of the paving “which should be as tidy as if it was a lounge room.” Crazy paving and “inchoate” flower beds disturbed “the vital effect of repose”.

When the wife of the police sergeant at Woy Woy wrote to congratulate R. G. Menzies in 1953 she confided that, being ill-favoured by nature herself, she could not make his contribution to the public good. Instead, she had created front gardens that people walked blocks out of their way to enjoy, thereby adding her mite to the maintenance of law and order.

Flowers were also fastened with the crimson tread of Imperial kinship. After Menzies’ 1949 electoral victory, a mother wrote of her hope to visit Harrowgate to thank in person the ladies who were tendering the garden around the graves of her two airmen sons. Latterly, global flower power has marginalised firms such as Yates. Billions of dollars worth of blooms are farmed by pharmaceuticals (pharming) before being jetted around the world. The authors of The Game of the Rose (1995) estimated that to give a bunch of imported flowers is to present a beloved with half-a-litre of oil.

See also: Marxism