The local bargain grocery store is selling big sacks of salt at less than a dollar a kilo. That’s handy, because it is summer and the weeds are growing faster than the things I plant, challenging my resolve not to use Roundup or other herbicides.
I had been out in the laneway that divides my tiny light-challenged backyard from the neighbouring McDonald’s car park, trying to pull out the dandelions and nightshade that push up between the cracks.
Then I saw the cheap salt and remembered an old trick. It is just about the only thing regarding gardening that my mother managed to teach me.
When I was a sullen teenager I regarded my mother’s gardening enthusiasm as an embarrassment. She even picked up cow poo once, on a country walk, and saved it for the roses. Given that this particular walk was taken with my peers, I could imagine no deeper humiliation. Only now, nearing my 60s, can I admire her eccentric common sense.
But for some reason, I remembered this trick. She told me that weeds in the footpath can be eliminated with a good sprinkling of salt, washed in with vinegar. So last weekend I was in the back lane, salting and vinegaring the bluestone cobbles as though they were chips. Meanwhile the warble of the McDonald’s drive-through accompanied me: “Would you like fries with that? ... Would you like Coke with that?”
One week later and all the weeds are dead, with no damage done to the vegetables I am sneakily trying to grow in the bit of dirt on one side of the laneway. I do this – a bit of green trespass – despite the laneway being both council property and regularly used as a urinal and a refuge for those wanting to shoot up.
I have found syringes between my lettuces. Last summer I came across an apparently homeless man sleeping on cardboard near my tomato vines. When he didn’t respond to stimuli, I called the ambulance. They took him away and the paramedics accepted a gift of lane-grown beans. I warned that they should wash them well.
I was travelling for much of November. While I was away the garden got battered by hot, dry winds. I returned to find many dead pot plants, the annoyingly robust succulents blown over and the blueberry bushes flopping around under the weight of the bird netting, which had come free from its moorings.
My front garden – a strip about one metre wide between house and pavement – was a particular source of shame. The cabbage whites had polished off the broccoli, leaving pale greasy sticks. The potted orange tree had dropped all its nascent fruit from water stress, and for some reason the basil plants had poked their heads above the soil, then grown no further.
The general depressing effect was increased when, while I was away, a plumbing emergency meant the front yard had to be used for access to the old brick sewer that runs to the street. All my careful newspaper and sugarcane mulch was torn aside, leaving the yard looking like a rubbish tip.
So in the past few days I have got to work to create order in the urban chaos. First, I moved a lime tree in a pot from backyard to front yard, wheeling it around, via the McDonald’s, on an old fridge trolley. The lime tree has been working so hard to find the light that it has grown spindly and wan. Now it will get the full blast of the summer sun.
Then I planted out what Bunnings likes to call potted colour – pansies and marigolds in full bloom.
I watered the purple king beans that had, thankfully, managed to survive neglect and are now crawling up the fence that divides me from my neighbour. I harvested the rhubarb plant that had borne the plumber’s assault, losing only a couple of ruby sticks in the process. Finally I relaid the newspaper, not reading all the stories of death and mayhem and climate emergency, and covered it with sugarcane mulch bolstered with sweepings of dried leaves from the street.
My front yard now looks pretty and kempt. Next weekend, I will tackle the backyard and my balcony, which is mostly a collection of plants in pots. Thanks to the summer heat, those that survived my absence are now too big for their boots. I need to repot almost everything.
I reuse as much potting mix as possible. I pull out the dead plants and get stuck in with a trowel, aerating the potting mix as much as possible before adding compost and fertiliser.
This necessitates a festival of muck, in which I upend my compost heap to get at the good stuff. I make sure no guests are expected. I wear clothes I am prepared to throw away immediately afterwards. I steel myself against the possibility I will find rats.
But once the compost is out, it’s all fun – like a giant mud pie. I find long-lost vegetable peelers and knives, and refind the leg from the Barbie doll that my daughter, now an adult, lost nearly a decade ago. I find that leg every time I dig up the compost heap, and I always put it back. There is some perverse feminist part of me that likes the thought of a Barbie leg in the compost.
With a shovel I break up the lumps of compost. I add old potting mix, a sprinkle of sand for good drainage and some pelletised organic fertiliser – mostly made from chook poo, judging by the smell. Then I get in with a spade and start mixing.
Double, double toil and trouble. After an hour of this stuff, I am not fit for human company, but I am happy. It’s strange the conversations one has with oneself when gardening, when filthy, when not fit to be seen by others.
I think about what I last watched on Netflix, or the book I am reading, and I find myself making up stories – extending the plotlines, conversing with the characters.
Or I make up stories about myself, and all the fine things I might do, or the things I should have said that time, or the things I might forgive myself for. Or I think about that homeless man among the lettuces and wonder where he is now. Or I talk to my mother, although she has been dead for more than 10 years.
I enter a strange, quiet place. I imagine, if I were religious in any easy sense, I might regard the conversations I have in the garden as being a dialogue with God. After all, that fascinating Old Testament character Job was resting on the dungheap when he accepted that the workings of God were beyond his fathoming, and he could only submit to misfortune, rather than fight it.
I am luckier than Job. After making my mud pies, filling my pots, planting out a new season’s crop of food and flowers, and returning the Barbie leg and the half-rotted food to the compost bin, I will run a super-hot bath and rest, cup of tea by my side and book in hand, until the grime is loosened and dissolved.
Meanwhile, the plants will sneak their roots down into the muck made from my household scraps and, I hope, begin to grow. Practical resurrection, right in my backyard. That’s summer for you.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 7, 2019 as "Summer glovin’". Subscribe here.