Sometimes, to calm myself, I read Brenda Little’s Companion Planting in Australia, cover to cover. Originally published in 1984, it is an alphabetised guide to which plants like to be planted with which. The first entry is Allelopathy: ‘Allelopathy means growth inhibition as the consequence of the influence of one organism on another. You could look the word up and not find it in six dictionaries out of seven. The experiments necessary to turn it into an exact science have not yet been made, but gardening has been going on for a long time and people aren’t stupid. They notice things.’
I have recently moved into a house with a garden, which I’ve wanted to do for a long time. This one is exactly the kind of garden I like: it is productive, with several fruit trees and vegie patches, and much of the trellising and bed-making has been done with found and recycled materials—there are vines climbing up the wire skeletons of old mattresses, and garden beds lined with bits of old brick and rocks that I think have been collected from a nearby ruin. And it’s thoughtfully messy—it has no respect for rows, and a lot of respect for useful weeds. I have downloaded an app on my phone that identifies plants from the photos I take. The more work I do in the garden, the more surprises I unearth, and the more I learn about plants.
The more I also learn, I think, about the owner of the garden; we know that our landlords are a hetero couple, probably a decade or so older than my partner and me, but we’ve never met them. I have assumed, based on my own preferences and prejudices, that the garden has been the woman’s project. I talk to her in my head sometimes as I’m working. On bad days, I become very aware of the fact I’m paying her mortgage and pouring my labour into her garden, and I am resentful. ‘Why the fuck,’ I ask her, ‘are there so many burning nettles in this patch?’ I end up covered in little burns trying to make room for my beans and zucchinis. The acid in burning nettles is the same as that in ant bites; nettle stings have long been used as an antidote to tired hands, but I am not that hardcore of a witch gardener yet—I still use gloves. ‘Nettles are weeds,’ concedes Brenda Little. ‘The tidy gardener will make haste to get rid of them; but the nettle is a plant too rich in iron and nitrogen to be destroyed.’ I eventually defer to Little, the landlord, and the nettles; the latter push back on up through the dirt.
One of the trees in our yard is a well-established lemon tree. It’s heavy with fruit when we move in, and though you can’t see the tree from the street, the neighbours know it: people come around with offerings of homegrown zucchinis and small change, asking for a few lemons. One of these people is Janet, an older woman who shrieks when she sees the nectarine tree, and starts kissing its leaves. ‘I used to live here,’ she says by way of explanation, ‘and I planted this tree!’ We walk through the garden together and she tells me that when she rented the place, years ago now, the driveway used to be lawn; that she kept her chooks where there is now a little firewood shelter; and that she was the one who planted the aloe vera plants, now huge, that line the shed. By the time Janet leaves (munching, to my horror, on a very unripe nectarine), my attitude towards working in the garden has shifted. After finding out that it has been incrementally built up by the love and labour of renters, any bitterness evaporates; I become less stingy with my perennials, planting more of them directly into the soil rather than keeping them in pots.
After finding out that it has been incrementally built up by the love and labour of renters, any bitterness evaporates; I plant directly into the soil rather than in pots.
I’m currently reading Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods, which is a memoir about grief and fungi. Long, an anthropologist, lost her husband of thirty years to a sudden death in 2010; The Way Through The Woods (published in the original Norwegian in 2017, its English translation in 2019) documents Long’s subsequent discovery of the world of mushrooms, which she says saved her life: ‘for me there is no doubt that my discovery of the realm of fungi steadily nudged me out of the tunnel of grief’. Studying and foraging for mushrooms provides Long with a natural high as she discovers an entire world which, despite living so close to the Norwegian forests where so many species of mushrooms could be found, she’d never known existed. She writes:
As children, we have all known what it is to be fascinated by something: to be so lost in watching ants hard at work, for example, that you don’t hear the call for dinner. The mushroom adventure is every bit as spellbinding. You switch off from all the day-to-day trivia on a mushroom hunt. The hunter-gatherer instinct is kindled and you are instantly transported into a unique enchanted world.
Until I started gardening again as an adult, I had forgotten all the time I’d spent as a six- or seven-year old lost in worlds of sticks and leaves and soil and slugs. It comes back to me now, as I lose track of time extricating morning glory tendrils from my snow pea plants, or foraging for sow thistles to give to my chooks. What happened in the years between then and now? How did I forget?
There’s a song by Haley Heynderickx that I like a lot. It’s called ‘Oom Sha La La’, and it opens with Heynderickx singing almost sleepily, ‘the milk is sour / I’ve barely been to college and I’ve been doubtful / of all that I have dreamed of / the brink of my existence essentially’s a comedy’, and gradually builds towards the singer frantically screaming ‘I need to start a garden!’ What I like so much about ‘Oom Sha La La’ is how it captures the slow rise of panic that comes of being stuck inside your own head (‘I’m tired of my mind getting heavy with mould’), and the release that comes after that panic has crescendoed, helped you identify a need, and led you—as it does in the song’s music video—into a tomato garden with some free ranging ducks.
I had forgotten all the time I’d spent as a six- or seven-year old lost in worlds of sticks and leaves and soil and slugs. What happened in the years between then and now? How did I forget?
After the nettles, and after I almost pull out handfuls of what my aunt later tells me are poppies (they were brown and closed, and I’d thought they were some kind of dead weed), I decide I need to have more respect for previous gardeners’ decision-making. I will only pull plants out when I am as certain as possible about what they are, how they likely came to be there, and why someone may have chosen to plant them on purpose. In some cases this involves quite a lot of research, and I start to think of my gardening as a kind of apprenticeship. Initially my mentors are the ghosts of gardeners past, any books and websites I can find on the subject, and the garden itself. But this list soon expands to include most people who come to visit. My mum identifies a pomegranate tree, and differentiates between the peach and nectarine trees well before any fruit has appeared. My aunt Kate and friend Merinda both identify a feijoa, which I’d never heard of, and my partner’s mum Di gives me the go-ahead to rip out a patch of morning glory that I ‘d been hesitant to touch.
Before planting seedlings into the vegie patches at the new house, I put my hands into the soil and rummage around in it. I am looking for clues as to what has been planted here before, what kind of condition the soil is in, so I can be somewhat strategic about which seedlings I plant where. I am very much a novice gardener, and I have no pH meter or soil thermometer—finding things like wood ash, worms, or eggshells in the soil can be helpful, and so can looking at soil colour and feeling for moisture. But mostly I just hold some soil in my hand, crumble it through my fingers.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in her book Touching Feeling (2003), writes of texture’s relationship to time:
To perceive texture is never only to ask or know What is it like? nor even just How does it impinge on me? Textural perception always explores two other questions as well: How did it get that way? and What could I do with it?’
Marilynne Robinson writes that ‘presence in absence’ is the basis of community; that ‘community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know, or whom we know very slightly’.
It’s day whatever of lockdown—I don’t know, I’ve lost count. My partner and my son have been staying in touch with people over video chat, and while I’m very glad that people can stay connected in this way, I have developed a strong aversion to talking to people through screens. I feel closer to a lot of the people I miss, and even to people I barely know, when I’m working in the garden on my own than when I’m talking to them on Zoom.
I feel closer to a lot of the people I miss, and even to people I barely know, when I’m working in the garden on my own.
The figs are ripening, which makes me think of my mum, who loves figs; the grape vines and the maple leaves are turning red, which reminds me of my aunt, who told me this garden would be breathtaking in autumn; when I find a milk thistle I think of my son’s grandmother Jenny, who taught me that chickens love milk thistles, and I wonder how she and her family are going up in New South Wales. My zucchinis, between which I have dutifully interwoven marigolds and orange nasturtiums, make me think of gardeners everywhere—of people who ‘notice things’—and of Brenda Little, whose last entry in Companion Planting is ‘Zucchini: What could look nicer than the bold colours of the nasturtium against the deep green of zucchini leaves? Apart from helping to create a pleasant picture, the nasturtiums will be protecting the zucchini against aphids.’
Describing her first field trip into the Norwegian forest as a novice mushroomer, Long Litt Woon writes:
A walk through the woods is a very different experience when undertaken armed with new knowledge, however limited it may be. Suddenly I was seeing mushrooms everywhere, fungi that I simply would have walked past before, blending as they did into the landscape.
While in lockdown, my son is learning how to read. He’d been finding it quite laborious until the other day, when something clicked for him: he started to read more quickly, recognising whole words instead of just letters. I recognised the look on his face: I still feel that way whenever I successfully grow a new type of plant for the first time, or when I realise what I thought were dead weeds are actually sleeping poppies. You learn something new and the world opens up, starts talking to you in a language you couldn’t previously hear.