Life in the Perth Hills

Matthew LunnCountryman
Matthew Lunn at home in Mt Helena.
Camera IconMatthew Lunn at home in Mt Helena. Credit: Countryman

The Perth Hills is one of my favourite places to be. Maybe it's the national parks on our doorstep or the fact that we catch more rain than the city and have frost in winter.

Whatever it is, whenever I travel up the Great Eastern highway past the Bilgoman public swimming pool, my blood pressure drops and I feel I am home.

A Hills lifestyle is not for many people. Once you get over the fear of having to commute at least an hour to Perth, hearing the odd plane passing over on its way to the east and that Target is not around the corner, you have to face up to the fact you are living in a fire-prone area.

PICTURE GALLERY: Home grown in Mt Helena |

On January 12, many will recall the devastating fire that swept from Parkerville to Stoneville.

About 50 houses were destroyed and more than 200 were affected.

Surely that would be enough for most to say it's time to pack their bags and head back down the hill?

Thankfully, one of the great joys of living among the trees is the wonderful community spirit and ongoing support that embraces this part of Perth.

In 2012, I became patron of the Mundaring Garden Club and soon enjoyed a close-knit community spirit with members attending far and wide from the Hills area to be a part of one of the friendliest gardening clubs I know.

Freshly picked fruit and homemade cakes are often found, with a kind note, at our front door in appreciation for the voluntary work I do in supporting the club.

We moved to Mt Helena in July, 2011. With a vacant block - apart from a few old car bodies and burnt-out mattresses - team Lunn set about converting the outdoor living space into useable and, importantly, productive land.

An old chook house was renovated first and hens were quickly installed to ensure a plentiful supply of eggs. Isa Brown, Wyandotte, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red and Australorp hens soon settled into their new home.

Landscaping came next with a series of limestone walls and flights of steps to create a fruit and vegetable garden, as well as a home for a propagation/shade house. More than 30 varieties of fruit have been planted, ranging from citrus to the chocolate pudding tree, Black Sapote.

To assist with pollination, a healthy hive is home to about 10,000 bees, which during the day visit the welcoming flowers of the passionfruit "Sunshine Special" and bright yellow zucchini flowers.

Under a 30-year-old apricot and an English mulberry is the new duck house, home to four nutty Khaki Campbells.

They are our pride and joy, quacking vigorously when fresh greenery is tossed into their pen. They go berserk when an old bath tub is filled with tank water for them to clean and splash in.

Slugs and snails commit suicide venturing into their home.

The soil is heavy, clay the predominant make-up, so in winter root crops seem to flourish.

Beetroot grows to the size of soccer balls and members of the brassica family seem to colour up well as the cool winter weather strikes. We still have no luck with brussel sprouts, however.

Water, a concern of every keen gardener, comes from two sources.

Ornamental plants are watered on a strict mains supply of the allowed two days a week via a Netafim drip irrigation system, whereas the fruit and vegetable zones survive in the summer using water harvested from the roof and collected in two large 22,500-litre rainwater tanks. Inspiration for our plot has come in many forms.

Horticulture has been my life.

As a young child, I was dragged around English gardens and garden centres by my parents. I also spent three very precious years training at the Royal Horticultural Society Garden Wisley, in the UK.

On arriving in Perth, I took up the role of grounds curator at Curtin University, followed by several years at University of WA.

Most of all, my 15-year stint on Curtin Radio's gardening show has taught me to garden in our Mediterranean climate and in varying soils, from cracked gravel to beach sand.

Callers from the coast battle poor soils and those central to Perth tackle small space, while those in the Hills need a jack hammer to garden. However, everyone has a sick lemon tree.

My family's passion for the outdoors is about to take another route - a move to Gidgegannup.

For some time, we have craved more space. Somewhere to breathe the air more freely, grow plants that have the freedom to reach maturity and, of course, a family life supported by self-sufficiency.

You could call it "River Cottage", the Gidgegannup way.

On hearing we were on the move, my good friend, ABC Radio gardening presenter and Gidgegannup resident Steve Woods asked the standard question for Gidgegannup.

"Matt, what's the soil like and how much water have you got," he said.

Our new home does not boast of dams filled with water, nor the fertile soil that everyone dreams of. Instead, a large tank sits beside the house to support internal home needs and a bore sits unassumingly in a paddock.

A quick tap of the hard-baked ground tells us the news is not going to get better, and soon my fears were confirmed when my shovel bounced a metre into the air. Steve was right.

"It's dry and rocky in Gidge, Matt," he said.

My horticultural skills are going to be tested but having landscaped for almost 30 years, this is an opportunity not to be missed.

Growing plants is about working with nature and not against it.

Gidgegannup has its own rules and I am keen to learn them.

I would like to finally wish you all a wonderful Gidgegannup Small Farm Field Day. I hope that you can learn about the benefits of home-grown living and take home a little bit of the magic of the Hills.

Matthew Lunn will be at the Gidgegannup Small Farm Field Day on Sunday, May 25. He hosts "Let's Talk Gardening" Saturdays, 8am to 10am, on Curtin FM 100.1.

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