Lessons From My Neglected Garden

Let me preface by saying this: I am not a gardener, not the way some people are gardeners. I envy those people, truly I do, and I admire their skill and unbelievable knowledge, and I love that they can look at a plant, look at soil, look at a garden, and know exactly what it is that needs to be done to love that soil/plant/garden. I used to love hearing Peter Cundall on ABC radio on Saturday mornings on the gardening show, but I think what I loved most was the soothing tones of his accent and the fact that he was still on the radio just as he’d been on the radio when I was a little kid and my dad used to do the gardening. And it soothes me that there are people in the world who know about gardening, and about how to love the soil/plants/gardens with problems, and that no problem is too big, not when you know how to deal with it.

I am not a gardener.

We live in a quaint little house with a sweet little cottage-style garden out the front with a brick-paved path and a picket fence. It has roses, and occasionally I do something, like prune them. When we moved in much of the rest of the garden was overgrown and woody with big daisy bushes that I didn’t know how to deal with. In my non-gardening ignorance I ripped them out and planted in that fine grey soil some plants I liked. They died. It took me a few weeks to notice that that fine grey soil didn’t absorb the water like it was meant to, didn’t soak in to the root system and nourish my plants; it was basically sand.

I am not a gardener, but I do know (maybe I absorbed something from years of background Peter Cundall) that only the hardiest of plants can grow in sand, and that plants need good soil, with nutrients. Now we were poor at this stage, both in time and in money, and our little cottage garden was neatly divided by the brick-paved path into the front half (next to the fence, where the rubbish plants were that I’d pulled out) and the back part, where the enormous roses grew, the soil was worst but there was enough established stuff there for it to look half-way decent and not full of weeds. I only had enough spare money on any given pay period to buy a small amount of gardening things (especially as I am not a gardener), so I focused on the front part. I bought compost, horse poo, pine bark, native plants, nice little trowels so my pre-schooler could help while my toddler napped. I had another baby. The brick-paved path became so overgrown with weeds that my husband mowed it one Sunday afternoon, and I got to him just in time before he mowed the one plant that had actually taken root and was growing in my slowly-ripening soil. I dreamed that one day the front part would be blossoming and lovely, with foliage and flowers and colour and life. I dreamed that one day the front part would be so well established that I could take all the lessons I learned and apply them to the back part, behind the path. It was a lofty dream: I am no gardener.

Something happened once in those years, some small thing that wasn’t significant at the time, and only became so much, much later. I ate a nectarine in the car and, when I finished, I threw the pip into the garden, in the no-man’s-land over behind the rose bushes at the back.

You’ve guessed what happened already, haven’t you? I didn’t. I’m not a gardener.

We parked our car there, on the concrete on the other side of the fence next to the roses. I noticed it vaguely while wrangling kids in and out of the car, dealing with seat belts and straps. Oh look, I’d think. A different sort of weed. Life got busy. Three kids. School. A job, suddenly. The following summer that little weed was getting so large that it was brushing on the car when I parked it, and getting annoying.

One of my neighbours, my wonderful friend Christie, IS a gardener, and one day in the early spring of 2012 she offered to come down and help me whip that front lawn into shape. I told her about my soil, about the things that had died, and she said not to worry, she had plants and cuttings and home-grown things galore to spare, and if these ones died we could plant new ones. For free. We made a date, and together we weeded and dug and wrangled and turned and sifted and pruned and planted, until my jungle resembled a garden again, and my heart was filled to bursting. Christie said to me “You’ve got a nectarine tree growing behind your roses, what do you want to do with that?” I looked. She was right. My “weed” had become a tree. It had never fruited, never blossomed even. It was in the way of the car, and looked a bit silly growing through a fence behind a rose bush. I told her to chop it down. She did. My garden had never looked more beautiful.

I went away for two weeks that spring, on a magical adventure that changed my life. And then, within three weeks of me getting back, my dad died. I barely noticed my garden for months. After a few months of rain and sun and grief and summer it had, unfortunately, sprouted abundant weedage again. I resigned myself to starting again. Later. When things calmed down.

Things didn’t calm down. 2013 jumped from crazy to crazy in a whirlwind of wonderful and new and, well…crazy. We went away, again. My sister-in-law came down to house-sit, and, wonderful wonderful avid gardener that she is, she tamed the beast again and killed the weeds and nurtured the things Christie had planted, and planted more, more, more, until our garden lived and teemed and thrived like I always dreamed it could. It was beautiful.

Stuff happened. Life is busy. Council directives meant we had to move our car park to a different place. This summer I looked up and thought “Hey, didn’t Christie and I prune those roses till they were virtually back to nothing? Now look at them!”

Look at that nectarine tree!

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And then…look at those nectarines!

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We picked them the other day. Thanks to Christie’s radical kill-the-thing pruning, and the fancy-pants tap timer that my sister-in-law put in, this tree that sprung from neglect in a forgotten corner of a non-gardener’s garden (still stuck back there behind the rose bush) produced some of the sweetest, juiciest most tender nectarines I’ve ever eaten. I can’t take any credit…all I ever did was neglect it and then order its demise. I’m no gardener, not at all. All I can say to my nectarine tree is “I’m sorry”, and “thank you”.

My nectarine tree story has more real-life applications than I can even begin to touch on, but I think the biggest takeaway for me is this (okay, apart from the nectarines). Just because I’ve felt neglected at times, or severely pruned at times, doesn’t mean life is ending. Harsh treatment and/or neglect can be the very thing that makes ME grow and be fruitful. In all honesty, if I’d set out to plant a fruit tree in my own steam I probably would have killed it. Don’t resent the tough-love seasons: they can be the very things that make you grow.

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Things my fake plant has taught me

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Know what this is? It’s my fake plant…looking a little worse-for-wear from a couple of winters exposed on my back deck (yes I’m so great at gardening I can even kill fake plants!).

But, do you see that little green bit at the bottom…do you know what that is?
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That little one at the bottom, that one that’s a different colour to the rest, that’s a REAL plant that is. A real plant is growing in my fake soil.

There are no words for this. “Resilience” comes to mind, but this picture is about more than that. Tenacity…except this is more than that, too. This little plant is stepping out and doing the impossible, right here on my back deck. The word “neglect” comes to mind, too…it’s only because I ignored it for so long that such a miracle happened; but at the same time that little plant stepped out and grew simply because nobody told it that it couldn’t. No limits. And the last one, most powerful reminder for me as a writer of stories: Fictional Dirt has the power to produce Factual Changes.

As I write this it occurs to me that there were a lot of areas of my life that were fake dirt when I was younger. At times there was a lot more neglect than there was nurture, but because there weren’t people around me telling me I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) do things, I did them anyway. Nobody ever told me they weren’t possible. And today I’m grateful for the fake dirt that I grew in.

How about you? Ever felt like you’ve been planted in fake dirt? It isn’t easy, but you CAN grow. Embrace the flipside of neglect…learn to love the no-limits. Believe in it. I believe in YOU!