Random Thoughts: On gardening. By Jean Bedford
Peter Corris is taking a break to heal a break and we hope he will be back at his keyboard soon. In the meantime, in lieu of Godfathers we will be publishing random thoughts from the NRB editors. Here is the first, from Jean.
When we moved to our unit in Earlwood 10 months ago, I had not done any real gardening for over five years. We had been renting a small terrace in Newtown, and it had a brick and concrete back courtyard with one narrow strip of earth along the side, already mostly occupied by three enormous palm trees and a weird spreading plant with tiny flowers that grew straight out of the leaves.
Fortunately I had lots of pot plants, and these were distributed around the place, making it look a bit less like an abandoned block in a slum. I watered them and gave them fertiliser and they thrived. I managed to grow herbs in a long narrow terracotta planter – parsley, rosemary, thyme – plus some chives and baby rocket. I had a cherry tomato in a tall pot and it fruited nicely. I put freesias anywhere there was a space and they flowered and smelled abundantly at the right time. So did the winter jasmine, in its own pot. But this wasn’t gardening as I knew it, and it was hard to be very interested.
Just about at moving time, last July, I injured my back – a torn muscle and a damaged disc. I had already asked if the clivias along the long back wall of our unit could be cleared out (the block has a garden maintenance gang). I can’t be doing with clivias – they make me think of institutions and neglected public gardens. I thought I might make a little garden where they’d been, but the back injury seemed to have put the kybosh on that.
However, with the aid of much ibuprofen, and with the physical help of my oldest grandson, I managed to plant that back strip. Camellias, azaleas, arum lilies, irises; a lemon; a nectarine; the winter jasmine, still in its pot, climbing up a trellis; daphne. And hundreds of violets (donated by a friend) as ground cover. Most of my favourite things.
But I ignored one of the basic tenets of gardening – wait a year to see what the seasons do. Time’s too short, I thought. So I made some expensive mistakes. The gardenias I planted outside the back door were a lovely dark green of leaf and became covered in dozens of buds. Gardenias all over Sydney flowered and flowered, and the buds on mine swelled and swelled and stayed green. Not. Enough. Sun. Well, bugger this for a joke, I thought and I dug them up and gave one to a neighbour who has a sunny patch outside her unit, and one to my oldest daughter. Three days after they were planted in their new locations they burst into fragrant pure white splendour. My youngest daughter said, ‘Well, perhaps they were going to flower in three days, anyway.’ But no – I know a deeply sulking gardenia when I see one.
I also planted many jonquils in that strip. They flowered profusely but, as the season changed and the sun swung round, I realised they wouldn’t thrive there, so, laboriously, I moved them to a sunnier position. They’re springing up now, and one has even flowered already. (The weather these days is very confusing to the garden.) Most of the irises have also had to be moved.
Having finally got that garden organised, I looked further afield. A seldom-used path divides our unit from the back fence, and along that fence is a wider area of garden, parts of which are in full sun for most of the time. Apart from some lovely old standardised camellias and a frangipani (peach-coloured as it turned out – I prefer the cream ones, but, hey), it was entirely planted with bromeliads, and a few agaves, which are all right in their place, but … (Talk about a mosquito nursery.) I pulled the bromeliads out myself – luckily they are very shallow-rooted – and hacked at the agaves until I was able to wrench them out, too. The obliging garden chaps took them all away for me. Under the frangipani, in the widest and sunniest spot, was an ugly conglomeration of succulents. They went the way of the others.
Peter has never been able to tell one flower from another, but he likes the ambience of a garden. These days it’s all a blur to him, so I’ve gone for heavily scented plants – he can enjoy the smells, at least – and lots of white that stands out from the background.
The fence garden is now planted with hellebore, white and red impatiens, japonica, hydrangeas, purple and yellow dwarf arum lilies, roses (Charles de Gaulle, Julia’s Rose, Black Velvet, a spreading white one and a deep purple and deeply fragrant one, the names of which I’ve forgotten), dark red cannas, many freesias, jonquils and irises, bergenia, clematis, begonias, bluebells, white-flowering ginger, a tree peony, a michelia, a night-scented jessamine, violets (several different varieties), shrimp plant, convolvulus (white and purple), white arum lilies, more jasmine, lavender and alyssum. I also have mint, thyme, basil, sage, marjoram, Vietnamese mint, chives, passionfruit and sweet peas doing well. (It’s a very long strip). Oh, I nearly forgot the geraniums and the vincas, not to mention the New Zealand rock lilies and the English primroses and lily-of-the valley that are new additions to the shady bits of the original patch. And there’s the lilac – another expensive mistake, I suspect, as the winters won’t be cold enough for it. I have planted new gardenias, in the sun, and they’re doing well. There’s a second daphne now by the back door.
I am down to four large pots: the original jasmine, still going strong; the planter, which now contains a wisteria, violets, lily-of-the-valley and a Chinese jade; a new pot with a cymbidium – a gift from friends – and a sort of large Greek amphora that was already here and is now full of what will be dark purple Louisiana water irises. There’s also a small hanging pot of silver-leaved dichondra.
I have three garden ornaments – all presents. One is a startlingly lifelike concrete cat that guards the cymbidium; one is a bronze chameleon that skulks beside a patch of hellebore, and there is a delicate wire dragonfly that my grandson made me for Christmas, hovering among the water irises in the amphora.
When I finally felt able to see a masseuse about my back, I was roundly scolded for gardening. ‘Too much bending! Too much lifting!’ (Pauline, or Mistress of Pain as I call her privately, is Chinese, beautiful and very, very stern.) I know she’s right, and that I’m delaying the healing of my injuries, but, as I’ve said to her, I don’t have to do any major digging or lifting now. It’s all in place. Except – a garden is an evolving organism. It’s never all in place.