The winter garden
At the end of his excoriating satiric novella Candide, Voltaire concluded that in response to a broken world, we should cultivate our gardens.
Being Voltaire, of course, he was working with metaphors, suggesting we should take care of those things within our power and the simple and humble life might be the best. He thought we should surround ourselves with family and friends, and then make the best of our talents.
But he also knew what he was talking about on a literal level. He had a good garden, and several gardeners and workmen to go with it. He grew artichokes and lavender, thyme and strawberries. He saw a garden as a means to domestic happiness – as well as a metaphor for action in the world.
So, I am choosing to take him literally. How do we care for our gardens when we are in winter, the season of death and dormant hope, the bottom of the arc of the year?
There is some comfort in the winter months. For a time-poor gardener like me, spring can be hopeful, but also frightening. In spring, everything is urgent – in a race to grow, flower and reproduce. In summer, my garden is out of control, straining towards reproduction and plenty. The vine sags over the door, the weeds grow faster than the flowers, the birds are in the berries.
But in winter there is time for redemption and dreaming. I can cultivate and prune. Try to correct past mistakes by wielding secateurs and spade. I can reassess, repot and reimagine.
Here in inner-suburban Melbourne, I try to pretend my tiny backyard is three times its size. I am always adding a pot, or experimenting with growing things on my roof, trying to overcome both lack of room and lack of daylight – not to mention a lack of skill.
I am a gardening enthusiast, not an expert. If Voltaire was correct in saying we should pursue our talents, then quite possibly I should not garden.
But without gardening, I might go mad.
At the moment, there is little colour in my garden. Bare soil and dead leaves are relieved only by the sweet little mandarins on the light-deprived tree and the stubborn cyclamen plant under the bay tree, which is pushing out pink blooms shaped like butterflies – even though the gardening books say it should have gone dormant by now. “It isn’t dead. It’s just sleeping,” soothes my favourite gardening book. Apparently, my cyclamen is an insomniac.
When the weather turned cold, I began by concentrating on my indoor pot plants. When I left a job two-and-a-half years ago, my colleagues gave me a small Monstera deliciosa plant, neat and shiny in a fluted pot, as a farewell gift.
It grew, sending out pale green sheaths that unfolded into great, fan-like leaves. Then it grew some more.
I cut bits off and replanted them, giving out the new plants to friends and family.
It grew more, and more, outgrowing each pot, its leaves bifurcated and domineering. It has become like a pet, moving to meet the light. I turn it around every now and again just to teach it a lesson, but when I next look it has twisted everything towards the sun.
Of course, I talk to it. How could I not? It binge-watches television with me in the evenings. Long aerial roots, like witches’ fingers, trail out of the pot and sneak towards the screen. For some time now, I have wrestled with whether to prune, junk or repot it. If I choose the last of these, the plant will soon brush the ceiling.
But big pots cost money. So I repurposed a plastic tub for my monstera in autumn, but it doesn’t suit. I think the problem is drainage. The tips of its divided leaves have turned brown. The monstera is angry, and I must act.
One day soon I will cover the floor with a groundsheet, wrestle the beast out of its current home and sink it into a new container, then sit back and watch it take over. It’s an unreasonable thing, an out-of-control pot plant. Until this most recent sulk, my monstera has been in rude good health, but some people say they are difficult. So, for what it is worth, filtered light is best. In nature, they grow propped up against trees in the rainforest, sheltered by the canopy. And that means a fair bit of water in big sploshes every few days – just like in a tropical rainforest.
But even pot plants with personality cannot be the complete answer to Voltaire’s injunction. What do you plant at a time like this?
The general rule in the vegetable garden is that anything you plant now will bolt to flower as soon as the weather warms. For that reason, plant vegetables from which we eat the flowers. That means brassicas – the worthy cabbage, the trendy kale, the underrated brussels sprout.
If you live in the colder areas of Australia, it is already too late to plant seed. Get advanced seedlings and space them out. If you are in a frost-prone area, you can still do this, but perhaps cover them with the bottom of an old soft drink bottle on the coldest nights. Celery and cabbage, on the other hand, once well established, are sweeter for a good frosting.
In good time for spring, prepare yourself for a battle with the cabbage white butterfly, as it will come out at the first hint of warmth. Almost before you have registered its presence, the cabbage white will have laid its tiny ovoid eggs on the underside of brassica leaves.
Even before you notice them, the eggs will hatch into caterpillars, at first thinner than a hair, eating micro-holes in the leaves. In the blink of an eye they are obese watery beasts that have stripped most of the foliage and shat through the rest.
You can tackle them mechanically – brushing the eggs off the leaves and squeezing the caterpillars to death, leaving green residue under your nails. But relax your regimen for even a day and the crop is done for.
Some gardeners recommend sprinkling eggshells around, with the theory being the butterflies mistake them for other butterflies, conclude the area is already overpopulated and move on. You can also buy fake butterflies from Bunnings that operate on the same principle. I have tried both these methods; they don’t work.
Instead, I buy a little box of Dipel caterpillar killer, which, as the packet says, is approved for organic gardening. It is based on a bacterium that infects the caterpillar’s digestive system. Once a caterpillar eats treated foliage, it stops eating. Reader, it works but, of course, the very hungry caterpillar does die. No getting away from it. There is nothing Buddhist about Dipel.
What else am I doing to obey Voltaire? This weekend, I will prune the thickened wood that hides the larvae of gall wasps in the citrus trees. These wasps are everywhere – in the aforementioned cheerful mandarin tree, in the sulky old lemon, and in the lime tree I should never have bought because I have not enough room or light to allow it to thrive. It is reaching for the sky, its leaves on impossibly long branches, in an attempt to find some light, but it has yet to yield a single fruit.
Wood thickened by gall wasp should be removed before August. Otherwise, at the first hint of spring, the wasps will emerge as adults and be off. If you notice holes in the wood, it is already too late. Citrus gall wasps don’t travel very far and usually only reinfest the tree they emerged from. This means if you prune off all galls quickly, you can keep things under control. Or you can hope for the predator wasps that lay their eggs in the gall so their larvae can feed on the gall wasp juveniles – if hoping for that is something you can live with. Oh yes, we can cultivate our gardens.
Don’t waste time with those sticky traps you can buy from Bunnings. They don’t work. They will catch the pretty butterflies and the friendly ladybirds, but not a single gall wasp.
In a few weeks it will be time to prepare for spring. I will gather leftover pots and fill them with potting mix and plant the seeds of sunflowers, pumpkins and tomatoes, ready for the upswing of the year.
I will sit in my recliner, my monstera looking over my shoulder as I read through seed catalogues, and order far too many packets of capsuled life.
I will plan and junk plans and plan again. Because, of course, we know that spring will come. And then we will worry about the weeds.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 29, 2019 as "Plant of attack". Subscribe here.