Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Gardening as War

Sorry about the brief pause. I’ve been waging pre-emptive war in the garden. Trying to get a jump on all the weeds and thistles before that two week period in early spring when the garden goes nuts. A couple of years ago I failed to wage my pre-emptive strike and I ended up with six-foot thistles that I had to take down with an axe. And I swear I can actually see the blackberry plants growing, they seem to add inches over night. It’s war I tells ya, war! So at the moment I’m out in the garden a few hours every day weeding, pruning, cutting and generally smiting. My current list of most loathed weeds is as follows; cleavers, wandering weed, dandelions (especially the saucer-shaped holes in the lawn they leave when you dig them up) and goddamned hate-you, hate-you, wouldn’t-want-to-date-you agapanthus, with their horrible Medusa-head worm-like roots and their nasty habit of choking every other plant in the garden to death.
If I speak with the fervour of a convert when it comes to gardening, it’s because I am a recent convert. It’s like some switch was flicked in my brain when I turned forty and I suddenly looked at the garden in a new light. All I could see were weed-choked beds and bushes and trees in desperate need of pruning. How could I have not noticed that the camellia ‘bush’ now had big straight branches reaching up almost four metres in the air? Or that the hedges were completely overshadowing the pool and the front garden? Tackling more than eight years of neglect in the garden has been a huge task, but I’ve quite enjoyed it. On some level, I think my Dutch and Prussian genes have applauded all my attempts to create Order out of Chaos.
 I think they may also like the unacknowledged violence of gardening. Sure, ‘gardening’ sounds like a nice, safe, gentle domestic pursuit and conjures up images of ladies with big hats cutting flowers for the house, but there’s more to it than that. Once I’d started on my gardening adventure I soon realised that a lot of the time I was a like a school teacher trying to keep a roomful of unruly teenage boys (is there any other kind?) from strangling each other. ‘Stop it! Sit down all of you! OI! Agapanthus, I’ve told you twice already, LEAVE THAT TREE ALONE! And Blackberry, get your hands off that poor azalea or it’s back in the naughty corner for you.’ Actually, sometimes it’s more like being the referee in a cage fight than a teacher.
It took me a while to realise the inherently violent nature of gardening. My first attempts at pruning were quite timid and gentle. I didn’t want to cut too much off and hurt the plant. Little did I realise that plants are masochists who have been conditioned to rebound after being attacked by goats and other animals. The more you hurt them, the more they seem to respond. This was graphically illustrated for me a few years back when a neighbour’s car ended up in our living room, (long story, some other time). On its path of destruction the car went over the top of an azalea bush and ripped it to shreds. Once I trimmed all the broken bits off, there wasn’t much left and I thought it was a goner. Instead, next spring it grew more and had twice the flowers of the other plants in the bed. So now when I prune, I try to channel my inner goat and really go for it.
To counter balance some of the violence, I’ve also developed somewhat of a rapport with local birds. We don’t use pesticides or chemicals in our garden and the birds seem to have figured out that our garden is safe to browse. Even our cats don’t scare them because frankly, our cats are pussies. They may look longingly at the blackbirds but the parrots and kookaburras terrify them. The blackbirds used to wait for a while after I’d weeded a patch of garden before moving in to catch worms. Now they hop along beside me as I go. They seemed to have spread the word to the other birds as well, so now I get king parrots landing on the back porch demanding to be fed. No matter how many times I patiently explain to them that I do not feed wild birds, they don’t seem to believe me. Especially when a local kookaburra has evidence to the contrary.
It happened like this: one morning I walked out on to the back porch, ready for a little gardening. A kookaburra was on the back porch looking at me expectantly. As I headed down the garden, he followed me. As I set to cutting all the dead leaves from a tree fern, he sat on a tree branch near and watched me. At one point I thought I saw sudden movement on the trunk of the tree fern, thought it was a bug of some kind and turned away to dump some fronds on my rubbish pile. While my back was turned, the kookaburra swooped in next to me and grabbed something from the tree fern. He came within three feet of me as he did it. When I looked up at him, perched on the tree branch again, I realised that he’d caught a frog. Felt bad for the frog but good that I’d helped a kookaburra hunt.
So that’s gardening for you. More death, hunting, sex and violence than it’s given credit for, in addition to the more familiar themes of peace, tranquillity and inter-species friendship. I tell you, sometimes when I walk out into the garden I don’t know whether I’m going to be channelling a goat, St Francis of Assisi or the Marquis de Sade.

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