June 24, 2021

Rita Pietrobon’s garden: From little things

The fruits of this colourful Payneham South garden are shared widely with friends, family and neighbours, which is fitting, given it was created with so many gifts from loved ones.

There’s no chance of leaving Rita Pietrobon’s garden with empty arms. There are cuttings on offer, fresh flowers and bags of plump fruit. The 87-year-old keeps little jars and containers of seeds foraged from her Payneham South garden, and hands them over generously.

As she wanders around the paths, she recalls each plant’s origin, which is all the more impressive given the sheer volume she has and just how long they’ve been in her possession.

When Rita moved into the home 49 years ago, she and her late husband Mario transformed the land into a productive garden full of fruit and vegetables. They would spend hours turning ripe tomatoes into bottled sauce.

Rita’s chickens keep any grass in the veggie patch at bay.

When Mario died 26 years ago, the garden became solely Rita’s domain and the vegetables made way for her true passion: flowers.

For the past two and a half decades, Rita has been collecting cuttings from friends, family and neighbours to help her garden bloom.

Rita smiles mischievously when she talks of the cuttings she’s taken from public spaces over the years. Several healthy rose bushes take pride of place; they grew from cuttings of plants that sit in a bed at the cemetery where Mario rests.

“There’s a big roundabout filled with roses at the cemetery at Enfield,” Rita says. “I took a cutting and it came up. Now I take cuttings from my roses every year, put them in pots and they come up too.”

Rita keeps a wide variety of plants in an area shaded by the vines.

There are others that come from cuttings of plants at Government House, where Mario used to work. The minor transgressions are well worth it though, with the plants taking root marvellously to create a patchwork of Rita’s finds.

It’s by no means a carefully planned and landscaped garden; more a cacophony of blooms creating charming splashes of colour everywhere you look.

As she talks about each plant, it’s a chance to reminisce back through the years – one cutting came from her late sister and the thriving plant is a reminder of her.

The origins of the edible garden haven’t completely disappeared. Heavy bunches of grapes hang from old vines that have travelled their way up trellises. They’re the only part of the garden not planted by Rita herself – Mario planted them decades ago and they’re still thriving.

Rita’s roses are her favourites among her many plants.

There are also fruit trees dotted around the property – oranges, mandarins, lemons, peaches, almonds, apples, pears and walnuts. A grand persimmon tree spreads out over the front lawn, grown from a seed given to Rita by her sister.

At the rear of the garden, an enclosed vegetable area boasts lettuce, spinach, garlic, radicchio and artichokes. Chickens roam freely, keeping weeds at bay.

A few years ago, Rita’s neighbour Alan came to ask if he could see her garden. Walking away inspired, he created his own garden and, once it was established, entered it into the Sustainable Garden Awards held by The City of Norwood Payneham & St Peters.

He ended up winning and, the next time the awards were held, he entered Rita’s garden and she also won.

Planted by Mario, heavy bunches of grapes hang among the colourful flowers.

Rita’s garden has been planted with the lowest possible water usage in mind – most plants are largely left to fend for themselves and those that are a bit higher maintenance are given the bare minimum to drink.

Towards the rear of the garden, charming hanging baskets overflow with greenery in a shaded spot, beneath them, a line of pots proudly displays an assortment of hollyhocks. It’s a lovely place to sit and enjoy the stunning display of colour but, Rita says, even at 87, she doesn’t often do this.

“I’m too busy – there’s all the cooking, and I’m always out here doing something. There’s always something to do,” she says.

Rita’s garden won this year’s Norwood Payneham & St Peters Sustainable Garden Award.

“I love to work outside in the fresh air.”

A talent for gardening has come naturally to Rita. Her family owned land in Italy and she helped out as much as possible before she moved overseas at 25, but she says her garden has come about more by luck than design.

It seems almost miraculous that so many of her cuttings have taken with such vigour, but it’s a simple equation for the gardener.

“I just wait until the right time to plant something, put it in and if it works, it works.”


This story first appeared in the May 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.

Subscribe Today! Subscribe to South Australia's biggest-selling magazine, showcasing the best of Adelaide and South Australia. $143 per year with free delivery to your door.