With summer in full flight and Christmas just around the corner, the gardener’s guilt is also reaching its zenith. By Margaret Simons.

Life as a wayward gardener

A bay tree (not the author’s).
A bay tree (not the author’s).
Credit: Daniel Tycholiz / Alamy

Gardening, like life, is full of occasions for guilt. In the chancy business of growing things there is always a list of tasks that should have been performed but have either not been done or have been botched.

Summer is the guiltiest season, suffused with anxiety and self-criticism, because it is warmer and, this year, wetter as well. That means everything grows extra fast and tasks left undone leave a trail of wilt, pest attack and missed opportunity.

T.  S. Eliot wrote that April – to him the beginning of spring – was the cruellest month because it awakened pain:

… breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

He preferred winter:

“Covering Earth in forgetful snow”.

But I think the cruellest months in the Australian garden are December and January. The garden is so needy. A little neglect in a hot week and it dies. Keeping it alive requires watering every evening at dusk, mosquitoes around the ankles, our backs to the house and all the things inside the house that also demand our attention.

And just as the garden is at its most active, fulfilling the great plans I brewed in spring, I am too busy preparing for the celebration of the summer solstice. Then I will be drawn away on holidays – feeling almost obliged to be at leisure, despite all there is to be done. Meanwhile the garden is going to ruin at record speed.

Here is my current guilt list.

I should have staked the tomatoes I am growing in my front yard – the metre-wide strip of soil between the house and the street. I did do it, in fact, but I should have done it better.

Two weeks ago one of the Saturday night yobbos sailed up the road from the deceptively named Quiet Man Hotel and pulled a stake out of the ground and used it as a javelin, launching it up the hill and into the gutter. The ease with which he pulled it out suggests I did not drive it in well enough, and I kind of knew that. I hammered and hammered and hit a rock and told myself it would do.

Nor did I rush to replace this stake. I was going to, but other things got in the way. So now I have a Grosse Lisse tomato standing on its own. Only the coolness of the season has saved me because it has yet to set its heavy, stem-breaking fruit.

Nor have I kept up with the growth of the more or less securely staked tomatoes. I should, at least a week ago, have pinched out some laterals from the junctions between main stalk and branch and tied the new growth to the stakes. I haven’t done it. I look at it every morning on my way back from walking the dog. But something stops me. So much else to do.

By tomorrow they may have flopped and snapped and all the work I put in – growing them from seed in my homemade potting mix – will have been for naught and I will end up buying mature plants from Bunnings like everyone else.

Then I should have sprayed the kale with the viral caterpillar spray, which is certified organic but is wonderfully effective against the fat green marauders. Death is, after all, the ultimate organic act. The leaves of the kale are covered in the tiny green threads of baby caterpillars. If I don’t spray them today or tomorrow, they will be giants and the leaves will be full of holes and the junctions of the stalks full of neon green caterpillar shit.

I can’t find the bottle of spray. I have set out to look for it three times since waking this morning and something always distracts me. Washing to do. Bags to pack. Turkey to order. All the while, the caterpillars are growing. It is like one of those dreams in which you are desperately trying to do something, to go somewhere, and somehow are never able to move.

I should have done something about the fact my basil plants in the pot by the front door are sulking and have developed dull brown spots on some leaves. This is usually a sign their roots are too wet, which would not be surprising after all the rain. I should have tipped up the pot and checked the drainage. Instead, I am behaving as though the problem will fix itself, and perhaps it will. Or perhaps I will have to buy pesto in jars this season.

I should have pruned the bay tree, too, and made neat posies of fragrant leaves as Christmas presents. Instead, moments before leaving for the season’s social occasions, I hack away at it ad hoc and carry the result to my hosts.

Their eyes widen as they open the door. Some put the branch in water. Some hang it upside down to dry. Some put it on the kitchen counter and, I am sure, in the bin as soon as I have gone. I imagine the conversations between husband and wife over the washing up. “She brought a branch to dinner! Do you think she’s okay?”

I should have planted another round of lettuce seed some weeks ago, just as it says in the gardening books and programs, to have a new lot of seedlings ready to prick out just as the current crop is about to bolt to seed.

I didn’t. I have lots of salad greens that are harvesting right now, but that may not last another fortnight. I still hope to be able to ostentatiously pick a green Christmas salad from my garden. It’s great when it works.

Radicchio, rocket, three different kinds of lettuce and a cucumber grow a few steps away from my door. But one hot day between now and Christmas dinner and I will be buying those tasteless bags of twin baby cos from Coles.

Then of course I should have weeded more. Always, I should weed. Or if I was not going to weed, I should have mulched – pulling out the box of old newspapers and laying them in sheets on the ground, then covering them with straw or sugar cane mulch or fallen leaves. I have not mulched, because of all the rain. Nor have I weeded.

I think the garden may rise up and get me while I sleep. It will come in through the windows and up through the floorboards, and all my plans and the illusion that I am in control will be exposed as vanity, arrogance and deception.

When I get to this state, I suddenly realise that none of it matters. Or rather, that I am the only one who cares.

This is a self-made burden, a self-made delight. I garden because I like it.

Branches of unwanted bay leaves aside, none of my friends – or my enemies – spend time thinking about the state of my garden. Its successes and failures live only in my consciousness – and perhaps, marginally, in the awareness of the people who pass by in the street and throw it a glance.

Perhaps this realisation – that none of it matters, that nobody cares – will absolve me. Perhaps the guilt of the season will simply dissolve.

I am going out in the garden now, although the sun has nearly set. I will find that caterpillar spray and disperse some death, thus saving at least one green leafy thing for Christmas Day.

I will tip up the pot with the basil, insert my index finger in the base and drain some muck. I will find that javelin-stake and drive it back in, and dig out the old pantyhose and use them to tie up the tomatoes.

And I will take the time to appreciate something I noticed this morning but did not allow myself to enjoy. The beans are spiralling their way up the trellis that divides my garden from the neighbour’s. They have found their purchase without assistance from me. I don’t even remember planting the seed. I have no responsibility for those beans. Hence, no guilt. But I will eat them anyway.

Here’s to the season. Happy solstice.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 18, 2021 as "Sitting by and docking the bay".

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