I have reached the point I always reach when trying to write. I have my plot, I have my characters, the family are all asleep and I’m feeling good. There’s a problem, though. I haven’t even finished the first chapter, and all I want to do is go outside and do some gardening.
I’m sure that when you hear the word “gardening”, the picture that immediately springs to mind is of a cheerful little old lady in a large sunhat, lovingly tending her rosebushes with a dinky little pair of clippers while she waits for her tea to cool down. That’s not how we do it. For me, proper gardening should break your heart and leave you crippled, at least for a day or two.
You see, I learnt my love of gardening from my father and, while in all other areas of his life he may be one of the sanest, most rational, sensible people I know, when it comes to his garden he is not all there.
He seems to have set out to make everything as difficult as possible. He has chosen to do this by creating an indigenous (to South Africa) garden in one of the coldest places in the country. We have an incredible variety of indigenous plants, but only a tiny fraction of them will survive proper frost. My father has never let this slow him down. Everywhere we went as kids, he would find an indigenous nursery (even a trip to the Kruger Park would be based around buying plants), bringing back the rarest and most beautiful specimens he could find. He would plant them out in spring and then nurture them through their first summer, checking on their progress with a torch every night after work. And then, in winter he would watch them die.
Once in a blue moon, one would make it through unscathed. More often, plants would be frosted down to the ground, to spring up from square one again in the spring. And die back again the next winter. But then something odd began to happen. As more and more plants made it through, they acted as shelter for all the new additions. The end result is a truly beautiful garden, filled with rare and unusual plants that thrive under his watchful eye.
Clearly this would not do! The magic was gone. It was all too easy. And so he set himself a real challenge. He has a place in the lowveld, unfenced and in a big 5 reserve. This, clearly, is the right sort of place to garden. Picture the scene: the end of a lowveld winter during a dry year. As far as the eye can see, everything is the same, dried out, tawny colour, and as dry and brittle as tinder. The animals themselves seem washed out and listless, waiting desperately for the rains. But in the midst of it all stands a tiny green oasis. My father’s garden, lovingly watered and nurtured, stands out like a beacon in the dry, dry bush.
It gets hammered. Porcupines ring-bark the trees and eat the bulbs. Kudus strip every shred of green from the shrubs. Elephants rip out whole trees, years of growth being discarded in seconds. This year, a flood tore out trees he had watched grow for decades. And every year, come spring, he starts again.
And so, when my time came, I managed to find a garden even colder than his.
I, too, am only growing indigenous plants. Every year, half of them get frosted down to the ground. So that I can start again. I have learnt from my father that this battle will eventually be won, though, so I have taken steps to ensure that things stay interesting. I can’t afford a place in the bush, but my wife has spiced things up by getting us a bloodhound. Porcupine damage can be replicated by burying a little bone-meal with our new plants (who knew bloodhounds were such good diggers?), while putting up frost blankets encourages her to rip whole trees out of the ground, elephant style. Throw in our other dog, who digs after lizards and beetles, and our children, who are simply children, and the desired level of animal damage is easily achieved. In case all this fails to keep things interesting, we have decided not to follow my father’s example of watering all day every day, giving the plants a chance to die of drought as well. This should keep things interesting for years.
I have one advantage in the extreme gardening department that my father never had. The middle part of the garden is made up of beautiful, deep, rich soil. The top part, however, is encased in an inches-deep layer of high quality concrete. To plant a tiny little tree can literally take a whole weekend with a pick and a crowbar.
The situation is reversed at the bottom of the garden, where the previous owners seem to have buried an entire second house under a thin layer of rich looking soil. To plant something here involves getting down on your knees and scrabbling though drifts of concrete and old paving with your bare hands, tearing them to shreds in the process.
Slowly but surely, though, it is all coming together. If we look out from the house now we cannot even believe that a few short years ago, this was all just bare dirt. Someday, it’s all going to be ready- a shady little patch of forest leading onto a sculpted, terraced lawn surrounded by beds of verdant green. And then we’re going to have to move so we can start again!
Luckily, it’s bloody miserable outside today, so I think I’ll pop on the kettle, brew up some coffee, then come back to the keyboard and brutally kill a ten-year-old boy. It’s vital to the plot, and I don’t want to get mud all over my slippers.