When I started, it was with a hopeful sense of purpose.
We had a blank slate – a broad stretch of greenish grass that tended toward the patchy, weedy and sparse during the hot summers that baked the ground hard. A handful of scattered gum trees; some looming dangerously over the eaves, and others standing sentry by the mailbox. A rolling slope, falling away into a dated volcanic rock and cement retaining wall and a gravel driveway. A lonely little water tap under a grey-green canopy of leaves.
In a fit of imagination, I plotted a little path through the gum trees near the house, making a border from fallen tree bark and collecting all the lawn rakings into piles of natural mulch within their boundaries. Suddenly the stand of trees looked more like a grove, and seemed renewed in their purpose. An arborist took the most threatening of limbs from falling on top of the house and the rakings built up over time.
Nothing much happened for a while, and our unremarkable space on a suburban hillside could have stayed as it was for several more years, but my grandmother died.
Of course, it wasn’t her fault; she was 95, had breast cancer and dementia, and passed away as she had lived – quietly and gracefully. She was very much more than that single sentence and her legacy includes some of what follows, but right now her story will wait for another time. The point is, she left us all a little bit of money – not a great deal of it, just enough to make a little something happen. So our garden is what happened.
I asked a landscape designer for advice on how to proceed, and she rightly turned my questions back on me. What did I see happening here? How did I want to change this space? What did I want to grow? She took the pencil and drew what I knew I wanted but couldn’t articulate. My quaint beginnings of a path that had started under the trees, now wandered and stretched, in HB pencil, along the height of the slope, then down and around, and up again, and finally tapered into two sets of stairs – one large and welcoming at the driveway, the other tiny and secret and used only by those who know about it.
With both access and egress accounted for in our space, we now also had defined areas for mounding and mulching and planting. We had a garden seat, and a grand entrance, and the mailbox was to be relocated and its former home given over to plants. The landscape designer got in touch with her man with a bobcat, and I accessed my grandmother’s funds. We broke ground and began our garden.
All the while, in the background, I was choosing the plants I wanted to grow. It was never in question that the plants would be Australian, preferably local, definitely indigenous. The gum trees demanded that much respect, and the hard clay soil sealed the deal, ensuring no other plants would be able to survive (much less thrive). Sensing that I would not always be able to tend to the garden, the plants also had to be able to survive some neglect. A native garden it would be.
There is a misconception that Australian plants are ugly, tough, incapable of being pretty. While it is true that some will scratch you, sting you and otherwise protect themselves from interference, they are also varied, and subtle, and clever, and very beautiful. And they very definitely have flowers.
I chose carefully – I selected for colour, for growth habit, for season, for growing conditions, because I liked them, because they did a job, because they filled a gap and because my grandmother would have liked them. And when the bobcat digging was done and the soil mounded up, compost mixed in, and mulch trucked over, the planting began. And then we waited while our garden grew.
There were failures and there were successes. There were big mistakes and small; there are always gaps I can never seem to fill, and there are gaps that should never have been filled, like the piece of sky the phone company’s cable must traverse in order to reach our rooftop. We continue to wage a war with the shrub that is just too enthusiastic about its life and refuses to stay pruned.
We have been both patient and ruthless. Painstaking and neglectful. And admittedly, my grandmother would probably be somewhat disappointed that I now largely ignore the space entirely. I came. I saw. I conquered. My garden is a fact, not a work in progress, and when I look at it, it is both with pride and apathy. I did that. But I don’t really care.
As I have grown older, I have perfected my instinct for imperfection. Cultivated an eye for those things that are out of place. Things that used to give me pleasure are now scanned and immediately found wanting. It is a very bad habit.
Sadly, when I look at my garden, I see the gaps, the plants that are dying, the things that haven’t turned out as I planned, and I feel weary. I feel frustrated. I feel I cannot make inroads here. And the garden is not the only place.
My default setting now is to find the imperfection; the flaw, the failing. This is how I approach myself, every day. I see my deficiencies. The places I have failed to grow. The talents that I had that may be waning. The places where I could and should be better. And it makes me tired. That hopeful sense of purpose I had as a young gardener has been replaced by something hardened and cynical, the result of continuing so many years down a garden path that turned out to include some decently stony ground.
When I step out my front door today, a sunny autumn day, I see some of the flowers that I have planted. A star-shaped crowea, startling and mauve; a delicate thryptomene, frosting a slender stem; a salmon pink correa bell, nodding to itself; and a golden grevillea, glowing in the sunshine. I wonder about myself, my critical default setting, and echoing that landscape designer from long ago I ask myself: What do I see happening here? How do I want to change this space? What do I want to grow?