Green thumbs-up

A scene from the writer's garden. Photo: Richie Black.

Richie Black explains how life suddenly changed when he moved into an Inner West house with an elaborate and exotic garden.

Most of my adult life has been spent pretty void of greenery. There was the occasional indoor plant – typically hardy, rubbery entities, selected for their survival instincts.

But I was an absent parent. I would generally notice these poor things only when, unwatered, they wilted dramatically, like fainting southern belles. At this point, as self-absorbed as I was, I could take a cue.

Apart from that, vegetation was something that existed at a distance through a window. It was somebody else’s problem – typically the overlords of the strata committee.

But as far as being a green thumb, well, I was the sort that’d probably kill plastic plants.

This changed when I managed, in the last couple of years – by good fortune – to move into a house, in Sydney’s Inner West. It’s a tiny house – but, through some cosmic quirk, comes with a decent-sized yard both front and back.  

The previous occupant – a lady I’ll call Lorraine – had been an avid and enthusiastic gardener until age and illness had restricted her mobility.

“It’s high maintenance,” she warned me of the garden. I considered this advice nonchalantly – I was drinking a couple of glasses of wine with her at the time.

The garden – the backyard, in particular – was an ornately detailed, exotic melange of flowers, palms, fruit trees and cacti, packed tightly into the narrow, yet fairly elongated stretch of suburban space. The front was (and remains) dominated by a huge eucalyptus. In its shadow, everything from a jacaranda to a banana tree.

Example of the flora described passim. Photo: Richie Black.

It was beautiful, I thought, abstractly, the sort of still urban oasis a person might sit and contemplate from the vantage of a wicker chair. Think a lot about Proust. Or, at least, maybe have a dart and a beer.

Lorraine was down-sizing into a small flat – and asked me over before I moved in because she wanted to know what she could leave behind.

“I don’t want to take any of it with me,” she said, waving a ciggie at an assemblage of pots near the backdoor, resplendent with maidenhair, richly flowering cacti, luscious coleus and jade plants. “Do you want it?”

I said yes. To all of it. Although daunted, I found strength in thinking I could become its benefactor, a kind of cultural custodian. There was a certain nobility of purpose here (I’ve always had an imagination well-attuned to absurdity).

Some of the many potplants in said garden: Photo: Richie Black.

Perhaps the most prized possession, I discovered, in the garden was a Wollemi Pine.

On reflection it was strange (if not unlucky for the plant) that an example of the world’s oldest and rarest species – a precious example of ecology – was placed in the charge of an almost entirely inexperienced gardener.

Needless to say, I tended to it anxiously. In fact, I may have coddled it – I researched the species, contacted the nursery for advice and, naturally, personalised it (or rather, as I dubbed it, ‘Darren’). Frankly, it was the behaviour of a helicopter parent.

But the first summer, unfortunately, we were in drought. Water restrictions that Gladys (justifiably) applied meant that we could only water the garden using buckets – and only during certain times of the day. There were casualties – and I mourned them all. My guardianship was at stake.

Daunted but not defeated, I continued to throw buckets of water at the garden. Nevertheless, the vibrant green inevitably crispened and browned. Smaller plants poignantly expired on the hottest of days.

I had also got a dog, a bouncy greyhound who would regularly knock over the vulnerable pots in his enthusiasm and lay his turds at the foot of an unlucky Japanese maple.

Another verdant scene picture in the writer’s garden. Photo: Richie Black.

And yet, other plants continued to thrive – notably the monstrous bougainvillea which was overgrowing the back wall to such an extent that, during a storm, it ripped down the lattice work to which it had been clinging. Meanwhile, an entire crop of parsley sprung up out of nowhere at the edge of a garden bed.

I was beginning to learn of the vicissitudes of the gardener’s lot. But still, through it all Darren survived.

When winter came, it brought relief. Water restrictions eased. A calmness descended on the garden. I managed to tidy it up – taking charge as one would an unruly mob, hacking back the bougainvillea, clearing out the weeds, disposing (respectfully) of the long-dead dead and mortally wounded.

Perhaps, I thought, I was getting the hang of it.

But it was a (somewhat) false dawn. This year’s summer has been, unlike the last (as you know), extremely wet. Emboldened and refreshed, the bougainvillea surged, reaching up and over the back wall like a b-movie monster. The jacaranda stretched out over the neighbour’s house and shed its flowers in their gutters.

And of course, the mosquitos – in their element – appeared with all the dizzy enthusiasm of a septuagenarian at a Neil Diamond concert.

Ferns abound in the writer’s garden (writer posed on a branch out of shot). Photo: Richie Black.

Worse, a horde of stink bugs rolled into town, ensconcing themselves on the branches of the fruit trees. During the hottest of days they would climb down the trunks of these trees, covering them with a orange and brown congregation of insectoid vermin.

What happened to the eden? You’d have about as much luck finding serene contemplation sitting down in the middle of a fucking mangrove swamp.

Still, Darren remained coolly above the fray – even as the stink bugs absentmindedly found their way onto his branches.

It was time, I realised, to fight back. To sort out who was who in the natural pecking order. The fruit trees, which were struggling anyway in the thin soil, were entirely cut out with chainsaws – and, in so doing, the stink bugs were exiled. I drained the ponds to have the same effect on the mosquitos. I hired an arborist to judiciously prune the jacaranda.

Simplification being a priority, I started giving away the pot plants I didn’t like.

As I found a pathway through to the harmony I wanted, I realised that the joy of gardening (perhaps as with a lot of ‘nurturing’) was a game both of ruthlessness and generosity, of calm equanimity and open hostility.

And that in a suburban garden, in that infinitesimally tiny corner of the universe, beauty may be transitory – especially for those have no idea what they’re doing – but it’s also eminently replaceable. So screw it.

Apart from Darren, of course, who – as I look out the window from the main room – if not exactly standing straight and tall, is as resolute as he may have been in the prehistoric forests of yore.