Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Up and down the garden path



The 18th century architect William Kent once said that ‘a garden is a world unto itself, it had better make room for the darker shades of feeling as well as the sunny ones.’ This quote eloquently sums up my struggle with gardening my entire adult life – the emotional struggle. I couldn’t see past the ‘darker shades’, so much so that I stayed well away from getting my hands dirty lest nothing grew or worse, died.

I always loved flowers and appreciated beautiful gardens, I just never felt capable of growing my own. My mother is a gardener and over the years has grown gardens from scratch and tended established ones. The only time I remember her feeling stressed about gardening was when looking after her aunt’s orchids. She lived in fear for the four weeks her aunt was on holiday that she would do something that would inadvertently kill them.

It was how I felt about any sort of plant.

After getting married I realised I had found a man who loved gardening as much as my mother. I quickly took on the role of executive gardener; ‘Let’s grow a wisteria over the pergola’; ‘gardenias would look good near the back door and will make the house smell lovely’, ‘I really want hydrangeas along the back fence’, ‘what about lavender in the window boxes?’

And my wishes were granted. He was happy to be led and I was happy to let him do the digging, planting, watering, fertilising, composting. He would read the gardening pages in the weekend papers with the same enthusiasm I would read the book reviews. Sharing a cup of tea in the garden would involve me sitting on the deck while he walked around checking for aphids, black spot, stink bugs and other undesirables.

‘Why can’t you just sit down and enjoy the garden?’ I would ask.

‘But I do,’ he insisted, ‘I just enjoy working in it rather than admiring it from afar.’

A gardener’s work is never done, is it? Once you get rid of one lot of stink bugs, another lot fly in. Once you think you’ve solved the nutrient deficiency with the gardenias, the leaves turn yellow again. How is that enjoyable?

After Lily was born, mum would suggest ‘getting out in the garden’ while my daughter slept.

‘I always sit in the garden and have a cup of tea’, I told her.

‘No, I mean, why not water the garden? It’s a great stress reliever,’ she evangelised. ‘I couldn’t wait to get out in the garden and water it when you girls were little. It’s like meditating.’

No, I thought, it’s like another chore to add to the list of loading the washing machine and hanging clothes on the line.

But then something happened. As my children grew and the house became noisier, the garden and the gentle sound of the water trickling from the hose offered calm; even more so with a glass of wine in hand at dusk while Stuart took over the dinner battle inside.

And then on our trip to England, we spent time in Cotswold villages surrounded by cottages hundreds of years old. There were espaliered pear trees growing around front doors. And roses. Climbing, rambling roses everywhere. The gardening bug suddenly bit me hard.



‘I want to grow a climbing rose in our front courtyard’, I told Stuart during the flight home.

‘Okay’, he said slowly, unsure of why this thought had hit me somewhere over Russia in the middle of the night.

‘Roses can be hard to grow,’ he warned. I knew that already. He had been trying to grow a banksia rose for years but all it seemed to do successfully was grow some sort of mould.

I got home and started researching varieties of roses on the internet. How many could there be? Hundreds it turns out. Accepting my lack of even basic garden knowledge, I took mum and ventured to a nursery specialising in roses an hour’s drive away.

Cornering one of the gardeners as he watered the pots and pots of roses, I asked his advice.

‘You’ll need the Climbing Pinkie,’ he said pointing to a column with roses cascading all over it.



‘Is that what it will look like?’ I replied, awed at the sight of so many roses.

‘Yes, just water them every day, make sure the pots drain well, feed them with rose food every six weeks and after two or three years that’s what it should look like.’

For the first time I wanted to be the one responsible for making a plant grow.

‘Could you just tell me again how to look after them?’ I said while searching through my handbag for a scrap of paper and pen.

‘Just water every day and feed them six weekly.’

‘That’s it? Every six weeks, all year long? How do I know when I’ve given them enough water? How much soil did you say the pots would need again? Is there anything else I should know?’ I asked while writing down every word he said.

The gardener and my mother exchanged glances.

‘This is her first rose,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ came the reply. ‘You know, everyone thinks it’s really hard to grow roses but it’s not.’

As we spent the afternoon planting I mentioned that I could never lose the bit of paper I’d written the gardener’s advice on.

‘It’s funny,’ began mum, ‘but in old gardens that have been neglected you often find that a rambling rose is the only plant to have survived.’



A couple of weeks later, I walked past my old Italian neighbour working in his tiny front garden. The narrow patch of soil between the brick fence and pebbledash is home to three or four abundant roses, all in flower at the moment.

‘Morning, how are you’, he smiled as he does every day.

‘Morning,’ I replied. ‘Your roses are lovely.’

‘Ah yes, beautiful.’

‘How do you look after them?’ I asked. ‘Do you feed them?’

‘I do nothing but this,’ he said wobbling his watering can at me and laughing.

He shook his head with a look that seemed to say, ‘you young people worry too much’.

Maybe he’s right. Today my rose is growing, before my eyes. The kids and I water it each morning and count the buds appearing. I started counting caterpillars last weekend and even that didn’t stress me too much, because like with life, you take the good with the bad. For all the beautiful flowers that will bloom, there will be just as many bugs and caterpillars.



As the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote ‘You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.’

Yes, I think I finally am.

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