I thought I’d take up gardening when I got older. But perhaps I’m not old enough yet. I resist, watching my husband from the comfort of the window seat while he prunes, plants, mows and weeds.
Sometimes he’s poised perilously atop a ladder, a lopping implement in hand, and I know I should rush to hold him steady. He’d be happy for me to share the job of tending our small areas of greenery and beauty. But I’m not ready to dirty my hands.
Just about everyone I know loves gardening. And more have become gardeners as they’ve got older or retired. When an erudite friend of mine who’s a passionate reader turned 60, I intended to buy her a subscription to the New Yorker. Her husband said she’d much prefer Gardening Australia. He was right. More than 50 percent of Australians are growing fruit, veges or herbs in their backyard or on their window sills. And the rest who aren’t into food production are probably cultivating flowers, shrubs, ferns, and natives. So what’s wrong with me?
Like all psychological blockages, I think it goes back to childhood. Where I grew up, suburban Perth in the 1960s, everything was the reverse of what it is today. The houses were small and the yards immense. We ripped up the natives. When it came to gardens, the sensibility was English. Under the broiling sun, with water restrictions in place for half a year, my parents laboured to grow roses and pansies, carnations and petunias. In particular I recall the blue-purple beauty of the hydrangeas, hidden under hessian bags to stop them from burning up. “The most important thing to remember is not to let them dry out, or they will wilt,” is Burke’s Backyard advice on hydrangeas. On a recent trip to the misty Blue Mountains, I felt a bitter-sweet pang of nostalgia: the sight of fully-exposed hydrangeas in all their glory reminded me of my parents’ efforts to create a little Sissinghurst in semi-arid Perth.
The scars go deeper than wilting hydrangeas. It was Dad’s job to do the pruning, and that always brought on a furious row with Mum. The roses would be brutally cut to stumps as if Dad was sick of the whole English rose garden thing, and didn’t want them to survive. The lawn was hard enough – vast expanses filled with burrs, and always thirsty. In the backyard, the lawn defeated him, running only two-thirds of the way to a hedge beyond which weeds thrived and goannas roamed in a sandy wasteland.
One rose-pruning season when I was about ten, and as children were in those days, had been left with my brother alone at night while my parents played canasta with the neighbours, I decided to head out to find them. Probably I’d got scared. In the darkness, I ran through mountains of pruned rose branches, cutting my legs to pieces on the thorns. The card players cried out in horror at my bloody apparition. Is it any wonder I have work to do, as the psycho-therapists say, to overcome my gardening phobia?
Fleeing quarter-acre blocks, I landed in New York in my early 20s, and discovered I was perfectly suited to life in a concrete jungle. With an Aspidistra, the “indestructible house plant”, in the corner of the apartment, I began my long, untroubled exile from gardening. But forty years on, I’ve started to wonder what’s wrong with me, what am I missing? True to form, I’ve sat in my window seat in the warm spring sunshine to read about it. It might not be news to you but gardening, it turns out, confers not just physical benefits but untold spiritual and emotional benefits. It provides opportunities for introspection and reflection. Gardening has spawned its own school of therapy, known as “horticultural therapy”, devoted to improving the well-being of the troubled and the elderly. The state conference of the Horticultural Therapy Association of Victoria is coming up in November.
The American poet Stanley Kunitz, who lived past a century, has written movingly of his love for gardening: “The lifetime of a flowering plant can be so short, so abbreviated by the changing of the seasons, it seems a compressed parable of human existence.”
But sometimes I think an undeserved moral superiority is ascribed to gardeners, as if the act of watering or weeding makes them better people who care not just about their own patch of earth but the earth in general, and everyone on it. “The true gardener is always the constant gardener…. (who) cares for and nurtures nature, community, and future generations to come,” write US academics Scott D. Wright and Amy Maida Wadsworth in a florid paper called Gray and Green Revisited about gardening and the ageing experience. Surely not all gardeners are such paragons of virtue.
Recently my niece, visiting from London, gave me the gift of a bonsai plant. Can there be a more high-maintenance botanical specimen in existence? It’s more trouble than a baby. It prompted another thought about my reluctance to garden. All the busy years I spent stretched between the newspaper job, kids, partner, extended family and friends, I felt I had no room in my life to care for a single other living thing – not a dog, a cat, or an Agapanthus. Because this much is true, gardening is about caring constantly. I look at the bonsai uneasily. It’s a test – am I up it?
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