Plot Your Organic Summer
If you are what you eat, then organic gardener Shelley Pryor is the picture of glowing good health. She shows Jennifer Pinkerton around the abundant garden she tends at Queensland health retreat Gwinganna and shares tips for creating your own organic Eden.
A cloud of yellow butterflies flits past my face as the scent of lemon balm breezes by my nose. If this isn’t heaven, it’s not far from it.
“It’s amazing in this garden. You feel instantly relaxed,” says Shelley Pryor, picking a Mexican sour gherkin from a nearby plant. She eats the tiny fruit whole and, grinning from beneath her broad-brimmed hat, says, “I hate being indoors.”
Pryor is the resident organic gardener at Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat in the Tallebudgera Valley in Queensland. After starting here as a sous-chef in 2006, she swapped the kitchen for the garden three years ago—and has never been happier.
The property has four gardens, which supply about 90% of all the seasonal herbs and greens, as well as many of the vegetables, used in the retreat’s kitchen. Pryor also looks after a flock of silkie-bantam chickens, which includes roosters Prince Harry and Prince William. It’s unlike any other job Pryor has had before; each day in the garden excites and delights her.
“I often lose myself in thought for five minutes just watching the insects. It’s beautiful out here— it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or sunny. I love observing whatever’s going on in the garden.”
At 43, Pryor could easily pass for a woman a decade younger. She’s a youthful testament to being raised organic. And I’m sure her definition of a ‘filler’ would have something to do with soil—not injectables.
She and her three siblings grew up in East Gippsland, Victoria, climbing fruit trees and fishing for yabbies. If an adventure ever ended in tears, they’d treat their scrapes and bruises with medicinal herbs. “We hardly ever went to the doctor,” says Pryor. “Our first- aid kit was right outside the back door. We’d get some yarrow from the garden if we needed to stop bleeding or some aloe vera to press against sunburnt skin.”
They enjoyed eating and to eat foods as close to their natural state as possible. In Pryor’s case, this advice came to define her lifestyle, her career and her approach to nourishment and wellbeing. She loathes having to buy fruit or vegetables: “I’d rather just go without,” she says.
Ill health is rare for Pryor, but if a lurgy does strike, garden scissors still trump pharmacy shelves. “The other weekend, I walked into a door and banged my cheekbone,” she recounts. “I packed some comfrey onto one half of the site, and the next day, there wasn’t even a mark—the plant absorbed the inflammation and even stopped the bruising.” The other side of her cheek? “Black as black!”
Continuing our walk past bushes of Thai basil and rose-scented geranium, Pryor can’t help but spill the beans on each plant’s healing powers or flavour.
Pryor’s family property was self-sustaining, with all produce grown and prepared on site. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but my mum’s food tasted incredible. She put herbs in everything, and her pantry was so colourful—it was filled with bottled fruit of every kind.” Pryor’s mum, Lynne, gave garden chemicals a wide berth. She taught her kids to grow food
I hate to admit it, but I’ve never heard of many of the plants we brush past here: Buddha’s hand? Herb Robert? Gotu kola? But that doesn’t stop my mind sparking with ideas on how I could convert the sad patch of dirt attached to my Sydney townhouse into a garden cornucopia thriving with Vietnamese mint, mini papaya trees and visiting bees. I realise that supermarket shopping has me in a three-herb prepackaged vice, and I want out.
“Getting started with organic gardening begins with putting your soil in rehab,” Pryor says. “It’s great to start small. If you like Mediterranean food, plant rosemary, thyme and basil. Then learn how to cook with them. As your confidence builds, your passion will, too.”
PREVENTION, September 2011